5 Questions for Andrew Wagner, Writer/Director of “The Talent Given Us”
by Eugene Hernandez
After debuting at CineVegas one year ago, Andrew Wagner‘s “The Talent Given Us,” starring his own family, stirred critics and audiences alike. The film won the top award in Vegas, and six months later went on to secure a coveted spot at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Unable to score a suitable theatrical distribution deal, Wagner took matters into his own hand and the film will open at Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center today (Friday), followed by a release in Los Angeles in the coming weeks.
Wagner, a graduate of Brown University, later studied film in graduate school at NYU, before moving to Los Angeles and working as a screenwriter and then studying as a directing fellow at AFI.
Roger Ebert praised “The Talent Given Us” as “one of the most original, daring, intriguing, and honest films of the year,” while 2004 CineVegas juror Wendy Mitchell, writing about the film for indieWIRE last year, said that the movie “could qualify as the bravest movie I have ever seen.” It was later named to indieWIRE’s list of the best fims of 2004 without distribution.
On the eve of the film’s release in New York, indieWIRE emailed five questions to Wagner. Those questions, and his answers, follow below.
For more information on the movie, please visit www.thetalentgivenus.com.
iindieWIRE: Can you tell us how you came to cast your own family in the film? Was that the plan all along, and where did the idea for the story come from?
Andrew Wagner: The idea to cast my family came to me in the middle of the night. Literally. Younger versions of my mother and father had served as models for the protagonists when I wrote the initial draft of “Talent” years earlier, but in no way did I enter into the making of it with the thought of casting them. And then, late one night soon after I began preparing for the film, I awoke suddenly, terribly distressed. “What’s wrong?” my wife asked. “Mom and Dad have to play the lead roles,” I said. “They have to play themselves.”
Their very real faces and quirks kept pressing into my mind’s eye whenever I imagined the film. Of course I rejected this inspiration for months. But it wouldn’t die and so I surrendered to it. Being an independent filmmaker is nothing if not a condition of believing in something no one else can see but you. I just had this powerful intuition that my mother and father would bring with them a level of idiosyncrasy and surprise that was worth believing in. Casting them was not about personal catharsis for me. It was a story-telling decision. I simply felt that they would prove to be the most compelling choice of actors to tell a story about the need to wake up to the question of meaning in one’s life and the necessity to grow at all costs at any age. And so I immediately rewrote the script for two retired Upper West-Siders in their early 70’s.
The idea for the story came to me in 1991. At the time I was editing my thesis film at the American Film Institute, and in the time- honored tradition of graduate students trying to complete their thesis films, I was broke and living on the floor of a friend’s guest house. This no-electricity, no-hot-water arrangement was my eighth new address within the year, and it dawned on me that my parents had lost track of my whereabouts. That’s when the idea came to me for a story about a woman like my mother who wakes up to the absence of meaning in her life when she realizes she has lost touch with her son.
In the story, my mother’s crisis is brought on when she runs into two of my high school teachers on Broadway and has to lie about my well- being because she hasn’t talked to me in months; the increasing regret and agitation she feels about this cover-up culminates in the story’s first turning-point — she’s going to Los Angeles to repair things with me. Because she’s afraid of flying, Dad has to drive, and for spice, my two unmarried thirty-something sisters get roped into the odyssey.
iW: How did your family feel about the movie after seeing it? Did their reactions surprise you in any way?
AW: Being non-actors, I think my mother and father were surprised to see that the very alien process of filmmaking did in fact amount to a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, it wasn’t until they saw the film cut together that they began to understand how profound their contributions were over those 37 grueling days of shooting. This is when my mother really took in that she had been an artist in the truest sense and that she had borrowed bravely from the personal to create something universal. It’s not something my father put into words, but I could see that he was genuinely moved to see his quirks and afflictions so nakedly portrayed in service of a story that hinges in part on his small but authentic movement to break through his emotional density. Given how unyielding he could be at times while we were shooting, I was happy (and a bit surprised) to see him find some gratification in his achievement.
iW: After the film debuted at CineVegas last year and won the top jury award, it then screened at Dances with Films, but you resisted playing it anywhere else in the hopes that you’d get into Sundance, and you did. Can you share some insights on your overall festival strategy for the movie and how you decided to debut it at CineVegas.
AW: To be honest, I didn’t have a festival strategy when I began. That’s because I didn’t know there was such a thing as a festival strategy. As laughable as it sounds, I genuinely thought you could be in any and every festival without compromising your eligibilty. I wasn’t aware of the significance of a film’s premiere status.
We applied to Sundance ’04 with a rough cut and didn’t get in. Thankfully, Trevor Groth, the Senior Programmer, saw some quality in “Talent” and invited the completed film to have its World Premiere at CineVegas. I was thrilled. At that point, it was still a film made with a two-man crew that Terri Breed, my editor, and I, had been cutting for the last nine months in my living room. We went to CineVegas without an ounce of expectation. Winning the Grand Jury Prize was a wonderful surprise. A week later we won the Audience Award at Dances With Films. My aim from the start was to make a film with everyone I know for everyone I don’t know — for the real theater-going audience. Now we were starting to receive some confirmation that there might in fact be an audience for “Talent.” It was at this point that I began to learn about the importance of a film’s festival premiere status.
Quite unknowingly I had made things difficult for “Talent” at the more established festivals. That said, I would do very little differently. CineVegas is an amazing festival — Trevor and Mike Plante program extraordinary films, they run the fest brilliantly, and the fest has uniquely committed directors in Robin and Danny Greenspun. Everything began for us at CineVegas. We received enthusiastic reviews from Scott Foundas of Variety and Wendy Mitchell for indieWIRE. In a sense, it was at CineVegas that we became a real film in the eyes of the industry.
Had I known more about the process at the time, what I would do differently now is hold off on that second festival if it’s a boutique fest like Dances With Films. This is not a slight on Dances which is a wonderful fest — I could be talking about any festival that isn’t Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, and so on if you hope to get into one of the fests widely considered to be in the Pantheon. Fortunately for “Talent,” John Cooper, the Director of Programming at Sundance, and a number of Sundance programmers and staff came to CineVegas in support of Trevor and Mike, and they had a chance to see my film in its finished form.
That was June of ’04 and at that point I took on my sales reps, Steven Raphael and Andrew Hurwitz. We decided to go for Sundance ’05. This was a powerfully difficult wait as we turned down over five festivals in the hope of getting into the American Spectrum section. We received the good word right before Thanksgiving.
But from everything I’ve learned about the festival world, it seems to be a truism that your first festival appearance can be defining. That is where buzz starts and you become a film to watch or where you can be defined as an also-ran. Things really went my way at CineVegas but I probably would have felt a little less free-spirited at the fest had I been aware of the significance of the moment.
iW: Obviously, its a tough time for indie films, without stars, to find U.S. theatrical distribution. Can you talk a bit about your distribution plans for the movie and how they came about?
AW: It’s an intensely tough time for indie films that are not star-driven to find distribution. Sundance was a phenomenal experience. “Talent” was received with great appreciation by both audiences and critics. And yet, it didn’t sell there. And it didn’t sell afterward. Distributors claimed to like or even love “Talent” but among the specialty divisions — i.e. the acquisitions companies designed to take on a film like “Talent” — caution ruled. I spoke personally to one executive who said he thought “Talent” could be a “freak” (a positive exception) in the marketplace, but he didn’t want to pay for the perceived risk.
So this left “Talent” with an offer for a cable/DVD deal but shut out of theaters. I was trying to find a level of acceptance with this development, but I couldn’t. I’m sure I was motivated in part by my nostalgia for the theater experience, but included in that feeling is a deep respect for the relationship between film and film-goer. It occurs in a theater like nowhere else and I wanted “Talent” to share in this tradition. In the industry I believe this motive is called “vanity” but in my eyes it’s a facet of being a filmmaker.
I had this strong feeling that the story was not over. That there would be a next chapter. I just didn’t know the how or the when. I knew I had to do something but I didn’t know what it was. So I asked myself a simple question. Where would I want my film to play if it had been bought? The Angelika Film Center in New York and the Laemmle Sunset 5 in LA. This was roughly two months ago and I was in New York to begin casting discussions for my next film. I went downtown and walked up to the box-office at the Angelika and asked who I had to talk to to show my film there. It’s a long story, but in the short version without the bumps, I got a DVD to the right person and a few weeks later I had an opening date — June 17. The condition was I had to act like a distributor. And that’s what I’m doing.
On the strength of our Angelika release, David Shultz of Vitagraph in LA, watched the film and he is booking us in numerous arthouses around the country, beginning with the Laemmle Sunset 5 in LA on July 1.
iW: Finally, what else are you working on, have you had time to plan, write and/or develop a new movie?
I’m casting my next film now. It’s an adaptation I wrote with Fred Parnes of Brian Morton‘s Pen/Faulkner nominated novel, “Starting Out In The Evening.” I’m making it for InDigEnt.