Friday, June 3, 2011

"Monkfish," "A Man Among Giants," "I Thought You Finally Completely Lost It," and "American Psych Ward" by Rod Webber


A Man Among Giants:

I Thought You Finally Completely Lost It:

American Psych Ward:

  • Rod will be posting here soon about three other features he's made, including his latest release, My America, which The Boston Globe called "a shocking drama on the subject of racism"
  • Though doesn't, as a rule, do interviews, this is an edited transcription of a conversation with Rod, who has difficulty typing at the moment, since his hand was broken in a car-meets-bike accident (he was on the bike)

New England-based filmmaker Rod Webber describes how one indie feature led to another... and the personal manifesto that has guided his more-recent work:
After doing a couple of short-feature documentaries, I started writing Monkfish around 2001.

I had always wanted to make a film, a written one, not just a documentary. I'd spent most of my 20s working on music, feeling I wouldn't yet have anything valuable to say as a filmmaker. Finally, I felt ready to make a switchover.

I wanted to make a funny movie. I was a fan of slapstick 80s comedies, and at the same time a big fan of Jim Jarmusch films and things of the weird, like Fellini's 8 ½. And I always liked movies about bungling robbers. I envisioned Monkfish as a mishmash of those... with Danny DeVito in it.

I wanted to make a heist movie. If the nemesis was a DeVito-type person, that made for an odd physical conflict.

I started passing the script around for a director to attach to it, and that director ended up being Dave Lewis. He's a Boston guy, he liked the script, and he was able to put up the financing.

The more we did script revisions, the story changes made me uncomfortable. Ultimately, I said "Listen, man, I'd be happy to write you a new script."

There was a short scene in Monkfish, a 5-minute gag that Dave wanted to expand to become the focus of the movie. It had virtually nothing to do with my script. He went off and wrote a feature-length film called Mob Yoga, the first act of which became his conceptual short film, Spaghetti and Matzo Balls.

I didn't see myself being the director of Monkfish, but that cartoon lightbulb appears over your head—it's that moment when you say "If I want to put this out in the world, I have to direct it." It was really just a matter of "No, it's not me. I have to take responsibility for it, I have to be the director." If you care about the art, you've got to do it yourself.

For the role I'd written with Danny DeVito in mind, we cast Doug "Tiny the Terrible" Tunstall. Tiny is an out-there character, with dozens of different stage names. He's a professional wildman, a court jester. Despite the fact he's 4'7", he's built like Hulk Hogan. He's a force of nature who needs to be seen to be believed, which is where two of my subsequent documentaries come in.

By some people's definition, they might say Tiny is mentally unstable. I spent a good year of my life getting him out of a mental hospital. He started running for mayor of Pawtucket, RI, derailing Monkfish for a time.

Eventually, we finished Monkfish, though I don't consider the cut we've (privately) screened to be the final version. I have a new version sitting on a shelf, which I hope to get out there.

Production of Monkfish was on and off, people in and out of the production, different hair between 2004 and 2006, and new stuff shot in 2007. I had to leave the final edit aside, when I made a decision to focus on A Man Among Giants, a documentary about Tiny's 2006 run for mayor. It was an easy choice, no worrying about continuity errors in a doc.

Dave Lewis plays a major on-screen role in the documentary, because he bankrolled Tiny's campaign.

I shot my next film, I Thought You Finally Completely Lost It (otherwise known as Diversion), in 2007. It's an improvisational film, shot in 3 days.

I came up with a manifesto (see below) to avoid all the things that had happened in Monkfish. After the many years of working with Monkfish, dealing with mentally unstable people, I developed a very quick shooting technique. I'd be driving to Rhode Island from Boston, and then Tiny would have to get boozed up, or smoke a ton of pot, or go chase after hookers, and I couldn't do anything about it. When all was said and done, I'd have maybe an hour to shoot before I had to get him back so he could go see his kids. And this is no way to shoot a movie.

I thought about what if we honed these quick-shooting techniques and applied them to a film without all the crazy people involved, and shoot a feature in three days.

I called up my ex-girlfriend, Irina Peligrad, and said "I have a concept for a movie, this is what it is, are you down?" And she said yes.

By 2009, I'd saved up a good amount of money to do a full promotional campaign for a couple of my completed films. But I got a call from Tiny on April Fools Day—which at first I thought was a joke, but hearing the echo, I realized he was in jail. I went and bailed him out.

A couple of days later, Tiny was supposed to be at the Boston premiere of A Man Among Giants. The Rhode Island state police broke down his door and brought him to a prison mental hospital. Apparently, he'd been shooting his mouth off in court.

I spent the next several months trying to get him out, and I made a documentary about that, American Psych Ward.

There's a place in Rhode Island where they throw their political unwanteds and other troublemakers, called Eleanor Slater Hospital, which was run by a psychologist named Brandon Krupp. He was one of the good guys, but he realized it was a corrupt institution. He stepped down as the head (shortly before Tiny was locked up), making a big public statement, saying it was basically a modern-day gulag, where they would throw people away to let them rot. This did, indeed, seem to be an accurate statement. Google it—you can find plenty of details.

Tiny had made himself such a political nuisance, they were sick of dealing him, and they locked him away.

I will grant them that Tiny is a bit of a crazy guy, but I'm not saying that in a scientific, clinical sort of way. He's not going to harm himself, he's just a nutty court jester. He's banging on the mayor's office every two minutes. He's on disability, and he has nothing better to do with his time.

He ended up getting 17% of the vote, he's such a charismatic individual. The actual mayor was afraid he might succeed, and thus the political gulag, which is ridiculous.

I pretty much exhausted the marketing budget I'd built for the previous films on lawyer fees and making American Psych Ward itself. But I did save enough money to help get as much press as possible, and to use that as a tool to get him out.

I rented out the Somerville Theatre for five days straight, and there was so much demand we decided to do a sixth day.

There was coverage in The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald,, in hopes to spread the news to Rhode Island.

On the day of the fourth screening, they let him out. No explanation, just "goodbye."

Rod Webber's filmmaking manifesto:

Spend a day filming people interacting with each other and observing their actions. Create a concept based upon something someone says or does.

Principle shooting to take place in three days

3. COST:
Spend no more than $3000

Actors must be unaware of story. The director must guide the actors through their journey by playing one of the roles.

5. CREW:
No communication between cast and crew except on breaks. Conversation limited must not be related to the story at hand.

No re-takes of dialogue during principal shooting. Co-opt real life people. Multiple takes for establishing shots permitted.

No outside lighting gear, or extravagant equipment.

To avoid jump-cuts, camera-person must be in motion or turn at least 15 degrees every minute

When entering a new location, “actors” must naturalistically turn on light/ turn off any pre-recorded music or media.

Once principal photography is completed, pick-up shots are permitted, but may not exceed the time it took for principal photography. No time limit on post-production.

Wildcard rule:
Once per day, any crew member may instruct any actor to do ONE thing.

Instruction will be by text message. When you receive the text message, try not to make a big deal of it. DO NOT reply to the crew member, under any circumstances. Just carry out the instruction to the best of your ability.

The wild card rule is intended to steer the course of the story places we were not expecting.

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