Monday, March 4, 2013

The $650 Film: Advance Interview with DOSTOYEVSKY MAN's Larry Loebell

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI

Can a feature film be successfully shot on an iPhone? Larry Loebell—award-winning director, writer, dramaturg, and professor—proved that it can, and how. His new drama, Dostoyevsky Man, is a locally made gem that features stage favorite Seth Reichgott as an out-of-work Russian Literature professor who turns to kidnapping in a bid to reclaim his job. The film, inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella Underground Man and adapted from Larry’s own play, was named a “top pick” by the Philadelphia Inquirer after premiering in the 2012 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival.

Larry Loebell's Dostoyevsky Man stars Seth Reichgott as an out-of-work Russian Literature professor who takes extreme measures to get his job back.
Larry was kind enough to answer some questions via email in advance of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s screening of the film. Keep reading to find out more about his inspiration, casting the lead, shooting on an iPhone, and how teaching has impacted his work.
The film script is adapted from your own play, The Dostoyevsky Man. What made you decide to revisit the story and turn it into a film?

Dostoyevsky Man was first written as a short screenplay when I was in graduate school getting my MFA in film. I actually shot a version of that script, though it was very rough. Over the intervening years, I have revisited the piece several times. In its first incarnation as a play it required seven actors. But it never quite felt right to me in that form, and I think the whole time I knew it was essentially a told story—a long monologue. For me, the story and themes have stayed relevant, perhaps even more so now than when I first wrote the piece, because of the social disruption caused by the economic downturn over the last few years. So there were artistic and philosophical reasons that I returned to it. But there was also a practical reason. It is the one play of mine that had not been produced. I thought it was a worthy project, and I was not ready to declare it an orphan. Thinking of it as a monologue and rethinking of it as a story for camera occurred at the same time. I knew that I could make it with a very small budget (which was all I had) if I made it as a one person movie with myself as the one person crew. And I thought aesthetically it would work as a story told to a smart phone camera, as if the main character was making his own video.

How did you decide to cast Seth Reichgott in the lead role?

I have spent the last fifteen years working in the theater and I met Seth some years ago when I dramaturged a play he was starring in. We hit it off, and I have seen a lot of his stage work since then. When I started thinking about producing this, there was really no one else I wanted in the role. I thought he brought the right mix of literary passion, anger, and humanity to the part. I knew he would be a great collaborator, and I think the results bear me out.

The film is shot on an iPhone. How did you determine that this was the technology you wanted to use?

In some ways the decision to use the iPhone was simple. It seemed to me to be aesthetically correct to shoot this project on an iPhone since that was the [story] set up. It’s a one person piece about a man telling his story into his own smart phone, so there was a certain practical logic. The question was whether the outcome would be watchable. I spent some time doing tests with my own phone, and also consulting with some tech-savvy friends, and I became convinced that I could achieve what I wanted using the phone as the primary camera and sound recording device—assuming I was careful about it. My initial assumption was that Dostoyevsky Man would never be projected. I knew I wanted it to be part of the Philly Fringe Festival but I thought that perhaps its public showings would be in a room with multiple small screens. I assumed that after its initial showing I would create a Vimeo channel for internet distribution. Also, I have a certain affection for the Golden Age of Television “Teleplays” and in many ways the writing of this piece seemed to me to parallel that style more than “film” style, and so small screen seemed more likely to me than large. But as we began to look at the footage, it became clear that it could be projected, and we ended up projecting it on rather large screens during the Fringe.

But there were also other factors in my original intention. I wanted to create an example for my students that spoke to how these democratized tools could be used to create finished work. My film students often feel limited by their lack of funds, and lack of access to top quality equipment, particularly. I wanted to use the tools I had at hand. And I also didn’t want to put a lot of money at risk. I already had the phone. I created a budget to do the rest. Our hard costs were under $650, which we made back at our premiere showings.

You teach film and video production as well as writing for the stage and screen at several local universities. How did your own experiences in academia influence the way that you approached the story?

I love college teaching and have been doing it part or full time since 1974. I have had my share of both positive and negative experiences in academia. I don’t think it is possible to spend as much time on college campuses as I have (or in any job, probably) and not experience both the best and worst of it. I have watched fine people exit places for reasons that were not unlike the ones I present in Dostoyevsky Man, and I have seen people who are simply time markers and place holders stay in academic positions long after they should have been gone. But overall, my own experiences have been very positive. I love the classroom and I find my students and my colleagues energizing, engaging, and inspiring. What more can one ask from one’s workplace? And I owe much of my skill as a writer and director to my own teachers whose lessons still echo in my imagination after all these years.
You can ask Larry your own questions at Wednesday’s screening of the film, after which he and lead actor Seth Reichgott will be interviewed by radio host Phillip Silverstone.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

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