Festival Discovery: Introducing Ryan Eslinger
by Eugene Hernandez
When "Madness and Genius," the first film from Ryan Eslinger, has its U.S. premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival later this week it will mark one of the more assured debuts from an American filmmaker in some time. The movie, which screened almost under the radar last month in the Toronto International Film Festival's Discovery section, is an accomplished freshman effort with a style and subject matter not typically seen in first-time narrative American movies.
The story of filmmaker Ryan Eslinger, who wrote, directed, edited, produced, and scored "Madness and Genius," is the sort of story that publicists and festival programmers love, but the type of tale that competitive young filmmakers tend to hate. The director, an earnest and amiable filmmaker who has been working on his first movie since the age of 13, is now just 22 years old. Fresh out of film school this summer when he applied for an internship with the Hamptons festival, Eslinger also dropped off a copy of his film and was later accepted to screen in the spotlight section of the event alongside such films as Francois Dupeyron's "Monsieur Ibrahim," Peter Webber's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," Jon Favreau's "Elf," and Campbell Scott's "Off The Map." Earlier this month organizers announced that Eslinger had been selected to receive the festival's Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize in Science and Technology, which includes a $25,000 cash award.
Rajendra Roy, programmer of the Hamptons International Film Festival -- which opens tonight (Wednesday) in New York -- noted that the Spotlight section is reserved for the event's more accomplished directors. "I am really confident that (Eslinger) will be able to hold his own," said Roy. "I think people will be shocked when they see who the director is."
"Madness and Genius" is the story of an aging, seemingly crazy college professor, played by Tom Noonan. The scientist, we later learn, is sitting on research that could cure cancer and other diseases. As the story unfolds, two students, one bright but suffering from a debilitating illness, the other an under-achiever with a photographic memory, come across the professor's research and confront him with it.
"I feel a nice sense of acceptance," Eslinger told indieWIRE, when asked this week about how he feels on the eve of his U.S. premiere. "I can now say with a straight face that I am a filmmaker."
Born in Illinois and raised in Missouri, Eslinger made the movie quietly but persistently. Like many first-timers, the director financed the film himself, yet told few people about it during his three years at New York University. He graduated in May of this year with a double major in film and psychology. Eslinger explained that he began saving money while in the fourth grade, even though at the time he didn't exactly know what he was saving for. During high school he raised money for his movie while working at places like Best Buy, Wells Fargo, and Wild Oats, but also had to rely on credit cards and loans to get the film made. Eslinger shot the movie in HD during the month of August 2002. He edited the film from December through May in his room at college and then submitted it to the Toronto International Film Festival.
Laughing about the fact that it has taken him nearly 10 years to bring this movie to the big screen, Eslinger said, "I hope that the better part of my life has not has been wasted."
"I went so far into debt (making this film)," explained Eslinger over lunch in Manhattan earlier this month. Prior to gaining acceptance into the Toronto and Hamptons film festivals, and winning the cash award that pays off his debts, Eslinger admitted that he had applied to work at a New Jersey Jiffy Lube.
The inspiration for "Madness and Genius" came during a science class in the mid-90s, while Eslinger was in the seventh grade. It was then that he first learned about a scientist from the 1920s named Royal Raymond Rife who created a "frequency machine" that Rife said could destroy viruses with sound waves, in the same way that a singing voice shatters a wine glass. Eslinger explained that some feel the pharmaceutical industry sought to cover up the discovery, fearing that it would end the need for medicine. "It is possible that the FDA can keep anything from the public by refusing to approve it," said Eslinger, "And this machine apparently has been 'pending investigation' for the last 70-80 years."
"After coming home from school in the seventh grade, I felt the need to tell people about the research in some form or another," explained Eslinger, "'20/20' was on TV, and I couldn't understand why they wouldn't be doing a piece on them instead of whatever other segments they were broadcasting. This seemed eminently more important."
The second son of a mathematician and an engineer, Eslinger began researching the topic further for a few years as he wrote drafts of "Madness and Genius." Finishing his first draft of this script when he was a freshman in high school, he wrote new versions each summer, ultimately re-writing and discarding some 35 versions of the script. He had decided to transport the movie to the present day, because he knew that he could not afford to make a period movie set in the 1920s. Eslinger saw David Von Ancken's short film "Bullet in the Brain" in 2000 and began writing a draft for actor Tom Noonan, even though he had not yet met the actor. He would later contact Noonan through his theater company and secure him to star in the film.
Since first learning of Royal Raymond Rife and as he has matured, Eslinger has found deeper aspects to his story. "Over the years," said Eslinger in a email message regarding Rife that he sent last week, "I have come to understand that the movie is not really about Rife's research in and of itself," concluded Eslinger. "What concerns me is the public's inability to question the information that is given to us, and our willingness to believe that big business always affords us the 'products' (i.e. chemotherapy) and services that are in our best interest, not simply the most profitable."
Perhaps the absence of top name talent and pre-festival buzz kept industry attendees from seeing "Madness and Genius" in Toronto. Yet the film did strike a chord with moviegoers and even polarized a few. During the second screening in Toronto, one audience member who seemed confused by the movie criticized it, while another seated next to her was utterly blown away, calling it the best movie that she had seen in a long time, perhaps ever. Variety reviewer Dennis Harvey commented on the maturity of the film adding that the movie is "an effort impressive enough to both serve as first-class industry calling card and transcend the pandering that term usually implies."
"(There is a) mature pacing, and the real sense that every single shot was thought about," explained Hamptons programmer Roy, who likened the film to Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" in its pacing. He noted that it is the "opposite of what most first time filmmakers are dealing with -- they can usually handle the narrative or the image but not both."
As for the future, Eslinger has finished a few drafts of a new project and he is focused on getting this film out there. "I just like hearing people's reaction," he explained. The filmmaker seems anxious for a trip on the fest circuit, with Bangkok a high priority, as well as a number of noteworthy January and February festivals to which he is applying. "While distribution would be great," Eslinger admitted, "A film goes out in a theater and then its gone in a week." So for now he remains focused on fests. "I am going to try to milk that for all its worth," laughed Eslinger during the chat this week.
"It's a hard thing to take it seriously, being a filmmaker," Eslinger said, as we concluded our conversation on Monday night. "It's just kind of a weird thing to take seriously and until now I didn't really have any conception that it would become anything that I could call a career."
[ For more information on the Hamptons International Film Festival, please visit: http://www.hamptonsfilmfest.org. ]