Friday, October 23, 2009

Filmmakers' Perspective on ANAMORPH

Although they lived just six blocks from each other outside of Philadelphia—and watched movies at the Bryn Mawr Theater—it wasn’t until they both enrolled in an 8mm film production workshop at the University of Southern California that writer/director Henry S. Miller met co-writer Tom Phelan. On Wednesday, October 21, they returned to their old stomping grounds for a screening of Anamorph, their first feature film collaboration, at Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Keep reading for highlights from the post-film Q&A with Henry and Tom.

Locally-raised filmmakers Henry S. Miller and Tom Phelan
pose with their mothers at BMFI's screening of

Willem Dafoe stars in Anamorph as Stan, a guilt-ridden New York City detective. When a new serial killer starts to emulate the notorious “Uncle Eddie”, who Stan caught and killed five years before, Stan is enlisted again to help on the case. The serial killer seems to design the crime scenes for Stan, leaving him hidden clues through the positioning of the victims’ bodies, which are all displayed using Renaissance artistic devices. Each crime scene becomes a gruesome lesson in scale and perspective, incorporating a camera obscura, a viewing grid, a pantograph, and anamorphosis, a style of painting that manipulates the laws of perspective to create two competing images on a single canvas. As Stan races against time to piece together the clues in order to prevent the next murder, he realizes that catching the killer might be his own undoing. Scott Speedman (Underworld, TV's Felicity) and Clea Duvall co-star in this R-rated suspense thriller, released by IFCFilms.

Filmmaker Q&A Highlights:

Q: How did you get involved in film?
Henry S. Miller: After college I was helping out at Tuff Gong in Jamaica, Bob Marley’s record label,  in Jamaica and they needed someone to help on a music video for a day. I knew then that that's what I wanted to do.
Tom Phelan: I wrote a paper on Werner Herzog's Nosferatu for a Vampire Film and Literature course [at UPenn], and the professor, Nina Auerbach, recommended that I study film. Before that I'd been set to study Renaissance literature; I hadn't even known there was such a thing as Critical Studies [in Film] before then. It's great that I met Henry in L.A. and teamed up with him, because he is one of the few people I trust in the film industry. We were lucky enough to be able to work together long distance while I was in L.A. and he was in New York, before I moved back to the East Coast.

Q: How did you come up with Anamorph? What does the film mean to you?
We started out wanting to write a noir film, but it mutated when we added the crime scenes. We started to think about anamorphosis and how that works in the art world, how the viewer's perspective changes the meaning of what you're seeing. Stan has one narrative of his life, but someone else, the killer, has a completely different take on him. The serial killer is a sort of cipher; he triggers Stan's shift in perspective, forcing him to see himself through someone else's eyes.
HM: We were looking to do a genre movie for our first film together because we thought we could sell it better. The most successful Hitchcock thrillers are based on concepts that work on multiple levels—thematically, visually, psychologically—and that's what we wanted to do too. In our film, the protagonist has basically "framed" what he did in the past, until the serial killer comes along and breaks that frame.

Q: How did you get Willem Dafoe involved in the film?
HM: It took a while. When we wrote the script we had Willem in mind as the ultimate Stan, but with your first film, you don't usually get your first choice actor. A New York casting director, Billy Hopkins, who does films with a lot of people, saw my previous film at the Tribeca Film Festival and told me "with your next film, I'd love to read the script," and we got him involved in Anamorph. He sent the script to Willem, but we didn't realize he was on his honeymoon, so it took three months to hear back. But it was actually something totally different that got him. When our producer went to board a plane, she was on board with Willem. They talked about the script, and he believes in cosmic energy, so he thought that, after meeting her like that, he should at least read the script. But when Tom and I went to meet with him for the first time, it poured rain outside, and that was a bad omen. The meeting didn't go well; he said he wasn't sure he wanted to work with first-time directors on a project as ambitious as Anamorph with a limited budget, which makes sense. However, he was willing to consider it and we started meeting at his house about the script. But even with months of meetings, he still didn't commit to doing the film. Finally, after about three months of working together, he just said yes.

Q: Stan's an interesting character--an alcoholic, OCD detective with a past and a passion for antique chairs. How'd you come up with him?
TP: Most of the character's flaws come from his extreme alienation. He could have helped Sandy [his friend, played by Clea Duvall], but by excluding himself from her life, he repeats a past mistake.   
HS: The OCD mixed with alcoholism is interesting because one is about being in control and the other is not. Willem wanted to show both by keeping it neat, using discrete little bottles.

TP: OCD is about repeating and compartmentalizing and little rituals to control yourself and the world around you, but you can never control enough. Stan tries to control himself, but can't compartmentalize his past, so he falls harder when it comes back to haunt him.
HS: The chairs [that he collects] are a double metaphor. For Stan they are about containing his memories, and the killer uses them to hint at the Pope's throne [inspired by Francis Bacon's distorted paintings of the Pope, featured in the film].

Q: Who composed the great musical score?

HM: Well, the first composer had a breakdown, so we had to bring in a new team, a German [Reinhold Heil] and Australian [Johnny Klimek], who did the music for Run Lola Run, which had this great techno-driven musical pulse. They believe in the old film style that movies should have musical themes, so they came up with six repeating themes for Anamorph. One of the things we kept in mind was how the score in Taxi Driver uses a percussive beat to drive the film, because it's a mood piece, there's not much story; we kind of used the beat the same way.

Q: The crime scenes often had only one or two detectives at them, not like what we are used to seeing in procedural shows. Why?
In New York they only have one central crime lab, in Queens, and I did some research there. TV shows like NCIS already get the techniques they use to solve crimes pretty right. We'd already decided that we wanted to make a French policier set in New York, so we weren't trying to outdo the details of procedurals.  

TP: We were more focused on trying to create an atmosphere and mood.
HM: If you ever get a chance to go the crime lab, they keep all of the crime evidence--the gun that killed John Lennon, the Son of Sam stuff--all on display. I never thought objects held evil before I went there.

Q: Where'd you get the idea for some of the artistic references, like Francis Bacon's obsession with the Pope?
HM: The first time I saw Bacon's paintings of the Pope, I was visiting my uncle in Italy, and there was a museum with Bacon's Pope right around the corner from his apartment. It was terrifying. Later a professor in college had the same picture in his office! So that stuck with me. Then after school I worked as a security guard at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York], so I was basically surrounded by paintings for two years.

Q: What were some of the things that you had to cut?
HM: We had to cut two scenes before shooting because we were low-budget. Then afterwards we had to cut some scenes--of Stan alone in the museum that showed his alienation--because of pacing. This was the first film I worked on that had enough footage that there was actually the possibility of taking the film in different direction, so it was a tough adjustment; you lose a lot that you care about. The editor though was a classmate of ours, Geraud Brisson, a very competent Frenchman from Lyon who brought a lot to the film--he's been the first assistant to a lot of award-winning editors, paying his dues.

Q: What's next for you?
HM: We're casting two scripts now. One is The Beautiful Cigar Girl, a speculative mystery based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe co-written with Tom Phelan, Stephen Jeffreys (The Libertine), and Steven Katz (Shadow of the Vampire). We also have a project being workshoped right now [at the LAByrinth Theater] called Masoch that will probably be made into a film, about masochism's namesake and his muse... so that's a family film. [Laughs]. I also have begun a partnership with Massimo Carlotto, an acclaimed Italian crime author writing in the Mediterranean Noir movement, which is really exciting.
TP: I co-wrote the Poe project with Henry and am currently working on a script called Byzantium, a science fiction thriller that deals with personality uploading.

Henry S. Miller previously directed I Remember You Now..., a short starring Blondie’s Debbie Harry (who also has a cameo in Anamorph), and wrote and directed the feature comedy Late Watch, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2004. Anamorph, Henry S. Miller’s second feature film, premiered at Camerimage in Europe. A graduate of The Shipley School, Henry has an MFA from the University of Southern California in Film Production.

Before settling in Manhattan, co-writer Tom Phelan studied English Renaissance Drama at the University of Pennsylvania and Film Theory at the University of Southern California. An alumnus of Malvern Preparatory School and Waldron Mercy Academy, Phelan grew up in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Thanks for a wonderful evening, Henry and Tom. We hope to have you back for your next feature film!

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