EDITORS NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Derick Martini's "Lymelife" is the story of Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), a teenage boy growing up in late-1970s Long Island. He fends off bullies at high school, has a problematic crush on his neighbor/best friend Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts), and is challenged by the rocky marriage of his parents (Jill Hennessy and Alec Baldwin) - all against the backdrop of a Lyme disease outbreak. The film has been charming festival audiences from the Toronto International Film Festival (where it won the FIPRESCI critic's prize) to the Sundance Film Festival, to countless others. indieWIRE talked to Martini about the film, which opens today in limited release through Screen Media Films.
Please introduce yourself...
Hello, Derick Martini here...writer/director of the feature film "Lymelife". I recently turned 33, was born in New York City and work in the industry primarily as a writer up until "Lymelife", which is my directorial debut and a film that I am very proud of. After dropping out of film school in NY, I wrote and directed a couple of off broadway plays which gave me great pleasure but left me in hock. So I made the journey about ten years ago to LA in order to make a film. My brother Steven and I quickly pulled together a shootable script, ordered a whole bunch of credit cards and produced, funded, wrote and acted in a feature film titled "Smiling Fish And Goat On Fire" which we shot in 12 days for fifty thousand dollars.
As luck would have it, and believe me, there was A LOT of luck involved, the film was invited to play at the Toronto Film Festival where it went on to win the Discovery Award, get picked up for theatrical distribution and catch the eye of Martin Scorsese and also Michele Satter at The Sundance Institute. Immediately after "Smiling Fish" was released in 99, I finished writing the first draft of "Lymelife". I wrote it primarily because "Smiling Fish" drove me crazy creatively. Although it received some critical acclaim and some mild success, I still felt that I had blown an opportunity because the script was written for the wrong reasons -- never write a script just because you want to make a film. If you are going to write something for free or for yourself, write something personal that means the world to you. Otherwise no matter how successful or unsuccessful it becomes, you will always feel (or at least I can say this for myself) that you could have done better. So once the script for "Lymelife" was ready, Scorsese read it and offered to Executive produce it and Michelle Satter and Lynn Auerbach invited my brother and I to develop the film at the filmmaker's lab. And I credit the making of "Smiling Fish" and my time at the lab as my most profound learning curve. Although, let's face it, there really is no end to this learning curve and if you think there is, you're in the wrong profession.
Back to the point: in between "Smiling Fish" and the lab, I became a viable "writer for hire". I bit on the offers, worked to fill my pockets with studio money, always with my eye towards directing "Lymelife". Within seven years or so, I felt comfortable enough to commit a year of my life making "Lymelife" on a 1.5 million dollar budget, take no fees and put all the money on the screen, including some of my own.
And as for my other interests -- I have none other than writing, directing and obsessively watching films on a nightly basis, old and new. However, my fiancee is now pregnant with a girl, so that will change.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making "Lymelife"...
My approach to making "Lymelife" was to push the envelope in every way possible. I saw no reason to set out to make a film that simply works and I saw no reason to make a film that you could easily tune in to network television and see. I was determined to squeeze every bit of juice out of the grapefruit. And because of the nature of the subject matter -- a suburban drama which we've all seen before -- it was a difficult task. I had seen and brushed up on every suburban and family drama ever made and discovered that the most important element to defining this sort of film is performance. Everything hinges on the truthfulness of the actors performances.
So I decided to over prepare and do my shot design, which was inspired by "The 400 Blows" and "To Kill A Mockingbird" (mainly because they are both adult films told from an innocent perspective and so is mine) before we started prep. This approach allowed me to maximize my time with my actors in rehearsal and on set. When you are overly prepared, you don't waste the day figuring out how to fix the stupid things that inevitably go wrong, you spend the time with your actors figuring out how to make the words on the page better.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
My development process was the Sundance Institute's boot camp. You can't beat that kind of training. Ironically enough, I had written a film that was produced, "Smiling Fish" before entering the lab. So I just assumed, at 24, that I knew how to write. However, after leaving the lab I realized that I had no fucking clue how to really write! At least post-lab I now had a clue and was made aware that honing this tool set is a journey that really never ends. Striving for perfection is extremely important -- there's just no other way to do it. And art is subjective, so is global perfection actually attainable? The answer is: who knows? But satisfying yourself (your own worst critic) first and then hopefully satisfying your audience as well is the real challenge.
When shooting a film in 22 days and on a small budget, time and money are always your biggest enemy. Again, if you are over prepared, there is no excuse for not making your day.
And the challenges I faced with securing distribution were quite frankly the most intense, nerve wracking moments of my life. When we screened for the very first time at the Toronto Film Festival, I was numb with fear and dread. The theatre was large, packed with buyers and I knew the next 94 minutes of my life was going to forever determine the fate of "Lymelife". And it was a roller coaster of emotions, reel by reel. The speech before hand was rushed (I could hardly think, no less speak). Once we rolled the film, I couldn't even look at the screen -- all I cared about was the audience reaction. Moment by agonizing moment the opening credits rolled and the first few scenes played out. I started to hear some chuckles and took note that the audience seemed engaged by the end of reel 1. But I was still unsure until reel 2. That's when, about 12 minutes into the film, I knew the story and performances were satisfying the audience and they were responding.
As the 94 minutes ticked away, it only got better, so by the time the picture cut to black, I was pretty confident we would be okay despite the current marketplace. But then getting the right distributor became the challenge. Finding that company who was most passionate about the film, were willing to go the extra mile to help make it a success wasn't as easy to discern. When fancy companies want your film, you have to look at their slate, see how many films they're releasing, try and feel out how your film fits into their distribution rotation and try to ensure that your film will be a priority. Hard to do when you have, as they all love to say, "a small film". So I decided to take a chance on a smaller distro company that has less films coming out, and whose employees were most passionate about Lymelife's chances at reaching the widest audience possible. I'll see in April if I made the right choice.
What are some of your favorite films?
Favorite films? Where do I begin? My taste is eclectic. In no particular order: "The 400 Blows", "A Fist Full Of Dollars", "The Good the Bad And the Ugly", "The Empire Strikes Back", "Mean Streets", "Once Upon A Time In The West", "Goodfellas", "Harold And Maude", "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", "Ordinary People" and on and on it goes. I think favorite is a tough label. It's more like "which films can you watch over and over again and be completely entranced every time?"
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Success as a filmmaker to me means that you've satisfied both yourself and your audience. You can't expect that EVERYONE is gong to respond to your work -- it's just not possible. Although I do believe that ALL filmmakers want EVERY single person that sees their picture to love it -- that includes me. But it's just not possible. You can't please everyone and although we innately want to, you have to be prepared to deal with the fact that there will be people that "don't get it" or see every flaw that you prayed you were the only one who noticed, or take some lumps from critics. But if you did everything in your power to make the best possible film that you could make, my attitude is to take pride in my work despite criticism. Not that it doesn't hurt, it does. But it shouldn't overshadow what you've accomplished artistically.
My goals as a filmmaker is to keep learning. To keep telling stories and to continue striving for that elusive thing we call perfection. Even though I stated above that artistic perfection could be somewhat of a fool's errand, if I don't try to reach for it, I'll never know if it truly exists.
What are your future projects?
The film I'm directing over the summer is a screen adaptation of Arthur Miller's "A View From The Bridge" starring Anthony La Paglia, who won a Tony playing the lead Eddie Carbone on Broadway. The pieces are all falling into place cast-wise and I am very excited about the opportunity to bring Miller's wonderful story to the screen while remaining truthful to his original vision. After that, there's a script I wrote called "The Day Trader" that is being produced by Imagine Entertainment, which I hope falls into place as well.