TORONTO 2001: Short Cuts: "Safety of Objects" and "Thirteen Conversations" Tell Ensemble Tales of Fate
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
"Everything has to change."
(indieWIRE/ 09.09.01) -- Though spoken by a Barbie-like doll in Rose Troche's latest film "Safety of Objects," they are telling words, nonetheless. Change, motion, fate, the irreversible -- these are some of the common themes shared by "Objects" and Jill Sprecher's new film "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," the two Special Presentation features at Toronto 2001 (without U.S. distribution) that had everyone from acquisition execs and audience members buzzing over the last two days.
Each directed by women filmmakers notable in the American independent film community, "Objects" and "Conversations" share ensemble casts and interlocking stories that are always in motion, with a swiftness and wit that will keep viewers on their toes. "Safety of Objects," a Toronto world premiere, is based on a book of short stories by A.M. Homes and follows four families -- the Golds, the Jennings, the Trains, and Christiansons -- on one block in an ambiguous North American suburb. The horrific (the kidnapping of a child), the tragic (a mother played by Glenn Close dealing with her comatose son) and the absurd (a hands-on-a-hardbody mall contest to see who can win an S.U.V.) all mingle and intersect in a sensitive -- at times melodramatic -- and ambitious script adapted by Troche ("Go Fish," "Bedrooms and Hallways").
More ambitious in its schematic structure and considerably more hard-edged, Sprecher's "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," which world premiered in Venice last week, holds four stories together more loosely: a math professor (John Turturro) bracing the effects of a mugging; a cocky attorney (Matthew McConaughey) committing a hit-and-run; an insurance company manager (a dead-on Alan Arkin) troubled by a renegade son and an ex-wife; and a young woman (Clea DuVall) convalescing after a car accident. Sprecher wrote the script with her sister Karen (the same collaboration behind the 1997 indie temp comedy "Clockwatchers").
If "The Safety of Objects" feels, at best, like Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" or at its worst, like Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," Sprecher's effort, more sparse and exacting, is in the lineage of Todd Solondz's "Happiness." (The best way to contrast the two: you cry in "Objects," you don't in "Conversations.")
Despite this difference, both films strive to achieve the same delicate dance of multiple narratives. According to Troche, the building of the film was an ongoing process. "There's the film you thought you were going to get and that's called the script," explains Troche. "And that's the film you set out to make. And even in the making of this movie, with the number of days and budget constraints we had, it started to change in that process."
When it came to editing the shot footage to conform to the script, Troche says, "It was like a game of Jinga: when you pull out something, it might make something fall against something else that might not work. And this mixing of scenes was the biggest challenge." Troche notes that the movie went from some 222 scenes to around 175 in the final version.
The merging of stories in "The Safety of Objects" perhaps could not have happened without the editing talents of Geraldine Peroni, a veteran of the ensemble movie under the tutelage of Robert Altman ("Dr. T. and the Woman," "Short Cuts," "The Player," among others). "Peroni taught me so much about being an editor," says Troche. "She's very pragmatic about how to put a movie together."
Likewise, Jill Sprecher's says she heavily relied on editor Stephen Mirrione, who worked on the sisters' first film, and has gone on to edit such complex stories as Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" and his upcoming "Ocean's 11." But Sprecher is quick to point out, "The finished film is very close to the written script. The biggest different was being able to get rid of a lot of the dialogue fortunately, because of the actor's performances who could convey so much with an expression or a gesture." Sprecher says that the intertitles that appear throughout the film -- taken from words spoken in the dialogue (e.g. "Fuck Guilt." or "Wisdom Comes Suddenly.") were also carefully placed in the original script, as well as the film's intriguing use of time.
"We came very prepared in the cutting room," continues Sprecher. "We knew we had a very limited amount of time; we did some experimenting in the cutting room, but we often fell back on the way it was."
Both films were the talk of the town on Friday night, with back-to-back parties after packed evening screenings. As two of the more eligible American independents to come out this year's fest so far, it will only be a matter of time before distributors snag them. At "The Safety of Objects" premiere, this reporter was sitting directly in back of Fine Line President Mark Ordesky, who ran out in mid-screening (to make an offer, perhaps?) and just a stone's throw from the balding pate of United Artists' new honcho, Bingham Ray. After the screening, producer's reps looked pleased, confident of an impending sale.
For "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," perhaps not the sentimental favorite of the two, but a refreshing, intelligent, and structurally acute departure from most movies made in the U.S., Sprecher is a bit worried. "My time frame for getting a distributor for this film is very limited," she laughs nervously. "There's a lot of different producers [15, in fact] and a lot of different ideas about what should happen with it. I think if it doesn't sell right away, I'll get a little worried about what they may decide needs to be done with it."