INTERVIEW: Jon Shear's "Urbania" Legend
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/9.21.00) -- "Truth is not stasis; it tends to rile things, and I like being riled," says Jon Shear, the writer-director of "Urbania." At Sundance 2000, "Urbania" was one of three movies out to rile audiences that indieWIRE profiled in a feature called "Dramatic Contenders on the Cutting Edge." The film, dark and dream-like, sensuous and complex, is not your typical 20-something indie drama, but the highly subjective chronicle of one man's downward spiral (played by Dan Futterman) in a New York City haunted by urban myths, from the rain-soaked dog in the microwave to the late night kidney stealing.
Shear, a.k.a. Jon Matthews, began his career in the entertainment world as an actor. He's appeared in "Heathers," "And the Band Played On," and "Independence Day" as well as numerous plays in New York where his dark visions originated as a child growing up across from the George Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. "Urbania" is his first trip behind the camera and it's quite the audacious one. Shot in only 18 days on Super-16 (and later blown up to 35 mm with Kodak's CINESITE), the film was adapted from a play and then re-worked by Shear into perhaps the most visual stage-to-screen work since last year's "Titus." UNAPIX films acquired "Urbania" over the summer, but when cash-flows problems arose with the fledgling distributor, Lions Gate Films stepped in and released the film on schedule last weekend.
Prior to all the travails of Sundance and indie distribution, indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman spoke to Shear about the nature of his art: theatrical background, form and content, and playing with viewer identification.
indieWIRE: How did you come to take on this project?
Jon Shear: I was Charlie in the play when it was in LA. It was done at the Mark Taper Forum at a new play festival. We did it. But nobody picked it up. . . . When I hit 30, I decided that it was my job not to become bitter. And so when this happened with the play, I just thought, let me produce this. I decided that if I complained about a role more than three times I needed to do it myself. I felt like a number of the things that I had been in were not well produced. So we did it here and it was very low profile. I felt this was a very good training wheels project for me. There are a lot of plays now that are more influenced by film than by other plays. And I was intrigued by this idea of plays that had a cinematic bent, and then adapting one to film that had a theatrical bent. And that's the idea. And so I optioned the material and spent the next year and half writing the screenplay.
iW: You never directed a film before. How did you prepare?
Shear: I was fortunate that I worked with really good directors; that was my training. As an actor, I was often in the right place at the right time. I got to work with really brilliant people, theatrically, with Liz Swados on "Runaways" at the Public Theater. And I was there for two years. Joe Papp came backstage one day and said nobody's walked out. And we went, "Yeah!" And he said, "No, if at least two people don't walk out on every given show, you haven't done your job." So what I took that to mean was that you should -- not consciously and manipulatively push buttons -- but just play in difficult areas, to go into the areas that people are scared to go into, because they're too true. I worked with Jerry Zacks, on a John Guare play and I learned a lot from them. And I did the original production of "Angels in America." And that taught me about how you create or don't create morale in a group of people. That was a very, very bad situation. You had a writer and a director at war with each other and the actors were sort of the kids in the middle.
On film, I learned from Michael Lehmann ("Heathers") and Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") the importance of morale. These men knew how to create a feeling on set that allowed people to work at their best. But when "Independence Day" opened, two days later, I fired everybody that represented me and went on a forced acting Sabbatical out of some sort of perversity, but also out of principle. I was really proud of the work that I had done as an actor, primarily on stage, where I really got to be the engine. I tended to be the writer's voice. And "Independence Day" showed me the future. I had been in a Pulitzer Prize winning play and . . . suddenly I was being told by my agent that I could get in on'A' films and I found that a little insulting. "Titantic" was coming up. And it was: do you want to spend 6 months running around with a British accent? The answer was no. I didn't care whether I got a house. I'm good at delayed gratification, but I'm not good at delayed dignity.
iW: So as someone with a theater background, was the change to film shocking?
Shear: It's mortifying. But I learned that there is so much in the casting. And I knew that from being an actor. I love it when an actor and character are at a very interesting point where the character's main valiance and the actor's main valiance are not the same thing. So one of the things I wanted to do was cast people who were a little bit of a surprise as those characters. This movie especially operated on that level. The movie is very dramatic, very visually often disorienting, but certainly a trip. One of the things that I feel strongly about, as an actor and as a person, is I think health is in balance, and letting out all the voices inside you. I would see Danny give performances, and Matt Keeslar and Alan and everybody in there, who I had seen in a lot of things, and say, I know there's something else.
iW: The way visuals work in theater is different from the way they work in film. How did you approach that, because the film is uniquely visual?
Shear: I never thought of myself as a visual person. I can only draw stick figures. I'll tell you, it came from an acting exercise. We did a lot of dream work. And we did something where we cast our dream and staged it and walking through that exercise was the beginning of my sensibility for this movie.
And the other thing was the following: there's a similarity between stage and film to me, in terms of the stage that I like. The Wooster Group, the Performing Garage -- I love things that are what they are about. Form is dictated by the content and the other way around. That's very much the way my brain is bent. I tend to like productions that play with space. Most productions we see are very horizontal, and the productions that I tend to connect to play with depths of space. So that prepared me.
With form meeting content, I also wanted the movie to be akin to my experience of when people tell me urban folk tales, that they can't possibly be true and yet, there's something about the sincerity of the teller, the passion of the teller, and the tapping into the zeitgeist of the tale. I wanted the movie and the experience of watching the movie to do the same thing. So there would be elements visually and plot-wise that don't really fit, and yet, you buy it as this man's reality. And your reality of what it's like to live in a city.
iW: It's certainly a subjective telling. . .
Shear: It's a personal movie. I knew how Charlie saw the world, and we needed to see him and see his world through those eyes. You are plunged into this man's world and you don't even have the bearings of who he is. In most movies, the filmmaker performs a "meet-cute" between the audience and the lead character -- you do short hand on who the character is and you size them up: Jack Nicholson washing his hands 18 times over the credits of "As Good As She Gets." One of the things that goes wrong with all these people in my movie is they each size each other up, but they make mistakes. I wanted to play with archetypes -- that's what folk tales are about.