In Sean McGinly’s “The Great Buck Howard,” which opened over the weekend via Magnolia Releasing, Buck Howard had spent his days in the limelight. His mind-boggling feats as a mentalist extraordinaire – not to be confused with those of a mere magician – earned him a marquee act in Vegas and 61 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. In his own humble opinion, his talents go far beyond simple sleight of hand – he can read minds and hypnotize not just a single soul but an entire room of people! But nowadays, it’s clear to everyone but Buck that his act has lost its luster; he performs in faded community centers and hasn’t sold out a theater in years.
Yet, with a hearty handshake and a trademark “I love this town!” Buck Howard perseveres, confident in his own celebrity, convinced his comeback is imminent. He just needs a new road manager and personal assistant. As it turns out, recent law school drop-out and unemployed, would-be writer Troy Gable needs a job and a purpose. Working for the pompous, has-been mentalist fills the former requirement, but how it satisfies the latter is questionable, especially to his father, who still assumes Troy is in law school. Nonetheless, with the aid of a fiery publicist and a bold stroke of fate, Buck surprisingly lands back into the American consciousness, taking Troy along for the ride of his life. As the coveted spotlight again shines on the great Buck Howard, Buck becomes the unlikeliest of teachers as Troy learns a few tricks he couldn’t possibly have picked up in law school.
In his brief chat with iW via email, McGinly talks about the “relative ease” of the film’s cast and just how his life and “Buck Howard” intersect…
iW: What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
SM: I grew up just outside of Washington D.C., in Northern Virginia. It was a pretty conservative environment. I’d never met someone who made their living as an artist or a creative person.
When I got to college, at Villanova, just outside of Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to live near a fantastic video store where they grouped films by director. It was like an awakening; the realization that there was a voice or author behind movies. I became obsessed with seeing everything and very quickly, and with some day making a film myself, which at the time seemed like a pretty far flung dream.
It occurs to me as I write this, that the desire to write and direct films and everything that goes into that (thinking of ideas, finding the cast, the money, etc.) has pretty much defined my life since it all started in college.
iW: How did the idea for “The Great Buck Howard” come about?
SM: In my early days after first moving to Los Angeles, I was clueless and broke. I randomly took a job working for a once quite famous magician/mentalist called The Amazing Kreskin. The job lasted about 4 months but the experience always stuck with me. Years later I decided to write about it. So the first 10 mintues or so of “The Great Buck Howard” is straight from my life. After that it veers off into the fictional.
iW: Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
SM: I went into the film just wanting to tell a story that was entertaining and that maybe said a little something about art and life. I’m influenced by directors like Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet and Stephen Frears who seem concerned with telling compelling, sincere stories about real life. I don’t pretend that I’ve come close to achieving anything on their level but aspiring to that is what was on my mind as I made the film.
iW: How did the casting for the film come together?
SM: My agent sent the script to Colin Hanks, who liked it and came on board. Colin showed the script to Playtone, (Tom Hanks’ production company) and they agreed to produce it. Playtone really worked to find the money to get the film made and eventually Walden Pictures agreed to finance it. We made an offer to John Malkovich to play Buck Howard, and to my surprise, he responded pretty quickly that he wanted to do it. This may sound easy but this process took three or four years. I think having Colin and Playtone and John Malkovich behind the film made it much easier to attract such a great cast.
iW: What is your next project?
SM: My manager and I optioned this great book, “Karoo” by Steve Tesich. I’ve written the script and we’re in the process right now of trying to find the money and the cast to get it made.
iW: What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
SM: I was really inspired by some of the small “independent” films I saw in the ’90s when I was just starting out like “Fresh” and “Trees Lounge.” These films and others like them feel more literary and don’t depend on spectacle or concept the way the films I saw at the multiplex growing up did. They’re what made me want to make films. Today, when I see a film like “Reprise” or “Two Lovers.” I don’t think much has really changed. It’s about honesty and telling a real story in an interesting way.
iW: What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
SM: I would tell them that more than likely, it’s going to take a lot longer than you think it will, or than you would like it to, so be patient and don’t give up.
iW: Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
SM: I’ve made three films: “Two Days”, a tiny indie film starring Paul Rudd that played in a few festivals and which I’m very proud of even though it didn’t break out in a big way; “Brothers Lost,” a documentary film that played on the Cinemax Reel Life Series about men who lost their brothers on 9/11; and “The Great Buck Howard.” Whenever I’m having a bad day I think that I’ve managed to get these three films, which I’m very proud of, made and that props me up a little bit.