|Sundance Pre-Production: BELOW THE BELT Director Robert M. Young
by Chris Parry
"Get a job with Halliburton, you said. It's a steady payckeck, you said..."
THE 'BELOW THE BELT' PITCH: Dobbitt (Robert Knott) is called away from his wife for an indeterminate but lengthy stint at the grungiest of third-world factories – an increasingly dangerous plant that produces toxins as it belches out its mysterious “Units” to meet the company’s quotas. Following a seemingly endless days’ journey to his new home, Dobbitt meets his new colleague and roommate-from-hell Hanrahan (Xander Berkeley). While Dobbitt tries his hardest to please, Hanrahan is a caustic and bitter man who immediately questions the new arrival’s motives. The two report to Merkin (Tom Bower), a petty and paranoid manager who ruthlessly pits his two subordinates against each other. In their own ways, the three “tango” for power within the company and in their dealings with each other, forming and breaking and reforming alliances along the way.
“Harold Pinter meets the Marx Brothers in animated comedy.”
Q. Will this be your first time at Sundance? If not, what else have you been to Park City with?
I was a resource director at the very first Sundance lab where the principals who made the film THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ came together. Sundance was the first guiding force behind the making of the film (which I co-wrote and directed).
I was at the film festival with the feature documentary CHILDREN OF FATE which won the GRAND JURY PRIZE for best documentary feature. It was a film created out of an earlier film made by my associate, Mike Roemer, and myself, and a film made 28 years later by my son Andy Young and his wife Susan Todd. They filmed, directed and edited the final film. And Andy and I, father and son, won the Best Cinematography award and received it from Robert Redford. That was one of the highlights of my life and it happened at Sundance. Another highlight was when Andy and Susan won the Filmmakers trophy at Sundance and earlier in the day Susan gave birth to my grandson, Walker. Andy announced his birth in his acceptance speech. So, Sundance has played an important part in my life and I'm looking forward to this next chapter.
My last feature film CAUGHT was the Centerpiece Feature Film at Sundance about five or six years ago.
Q. When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
I want to make movies and rescue Fay Wray from King Kong or better still I want to be King Kong and run away with Fay Wray. This is all true. When I was 8 years old I saw King Kong and it had a tremendous impact on me. Later in life I worked for Meriam C. Cooper the man who made it. He treated me like a son and I loved him. He was a remarkable man.
Q. How did you get started in filmmaking?
I got my first job from legendary producer Adolph Zuckor, then in his eighties and president of Paramount pictures. He interviewed me in his office. He offered me a cigar and when I refused, nodded that I was doing the right thing. He hired me. It was to film his estate in Nanuet, New York. I got $75. I was 15 years old.
Q. How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
A big rush of excitement, a big high. We are working around the clock to finish in time and will be seeing the film for the first time along with the audience. That'll be a trip. I'm also excited about my family being a part of the film. My son, Andy was the camera operator and my sons, Nick and Zack along with their colleague Milen Kirov did the music score and the sound design. They will be playing live at the parties that we will be throwing. Their band's name is AI (artificial intelligence) and they are fantastic. So, I'm looking forward to being there with my family and my wife and her seeing the work that her children did. Also my brother, Irwin Young, of Du Art Film Labs, who has been such a big supporter of independent filmmakers. I am anxious for him to see our next generation in action and that our family can be proud to still be carrying on the tradition of independent filmmaking.
Q. When you were shooting the film, did you have Sundance in mind?
No. I was just thinking about how to make the film with no thoughts of the future.
Q. How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
The script of the play was sent to me by its producer who wanted to know what I thought. I thought it was brilliant. It was a three-character play performed on an almost bare stage, but implicit in the script were big ideas that I thought could be illuminated in a movie. I spent a lot of time with the writer, Richard Dresser discussing what we might do to make his play into a film. The producer who sent me the script dropped out. He lost faith when he realized the film couldn't be made for almost no money by just shooting the script. Joel Ehrilch, a friend who had never produced a movie in his life, but who always wanted to, stepped into the breach and became a partner in the process. He put up his own money to finance a trip to Puerto Rico where we thought we could find great locations and money. We found the great locations but not the money. Joel also found an English company, J&M who loved the script and wanted to back us if we got the right "name" actors. I've been through this Catch 22 situation before and never could put the "right names" in the right parts for the right money. Then J&M went bankrupt.
Back to Go. We looked at photos of other locations in the US, but nothing looked as good as Puerto Rico. I was discouraged and went off to make an Imax movie in China and figured BELOW THE BELT might not happen for a while. When I got back from China, Joel and I went to see a production of Pinter's THE CARETAKER. It is a three character play, and two of the actors were good friends with whom I had worked. When we saw the play, Joel and I thought, as we watched their performance that we had found the cast for our film. They were playing very different roles, but they were great, they were friends, and they were cheap. We decided to go with them if they liked the script. They loved the script, but they had serious time restrictions. If we wanted to use them we had to move right away. So, that's what we did.
Meanwhile, Joel got this idea about starting his own distribution company NEW DEAL PICTURES and thought BELOW THE BELT would be a good lead off film, if we could get it made. He found a studio in Denver that was willing to invest their space and he found a "mad scientist type" who claimed he could create our world with his powerful computer. I visited Denver and met with Joel and the scientist and was very skeptical. Nothing I saw of his work persuaded me that it could be done to look anything like what we had in the real locations in Puerto Rico. Anyway, after a while - why am I so dumb? - it struck me that what seemed like an enormous problem - getting photo realism - was a problem that didn't have to be addressed but should be avoided. This was a chance to create a world truly expressive of the ideas that resonate in the story. And then we were clear about what we were doing.
And as we worked I could see that we were making an ANIMATED movie. That is, it followed the implicit logic of the way things are done in animated films. It lead to understanding the style of the effects and musical score. While we were figuring all of this out, and it came slowly, it was not easy. Hilary Rosenfeld, our production designer had just a few weeks preparation before we started shooting and had to design the sets and costumes under extraordinary pressure. But she came through in brilliant fashion. Her assembly line machine is a work of found junk art put together with great imagination.
It has to be emphasized that we were all moving into new territory, Rick Dresser, Joel Ehrlich, Hilary Rosenfeld, Mike Barrow the cinematographer, myself, and then the computer artists led by Chris Healer. What we achieved could not have happened without a willingness on everyone's part to trust the process and be willing to let go of conventional thinking. That for me was the most exciting part of the whole process - the feeling that we were moving into unknown territory, that we didn't know exactly what we were doing, how it was going to turn out.
One of the essential factors was working with people who we trusted and were great. That certainly describes Mike Barrow our cinematographer. He is a great lighting filmmaker and is the kind of person who can come into any situation and keep calm while getting everything right. For our operating cameraman we had my son Andy Young who has a tremendous empathy with the hand held camera - which we used a lot. Andy also had a lot of insight into the world of digital photography.
Q. What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
I keep learning the same lesson over and over again. That is to trust the process, to trust your instincts, to never be afraid of any idea, to be willing to take chances. And to do these things, you have to be with people who care about one another. I'm not talking about a wishy-washy feely kind of thing, but of people who love and respect one another. I could have easily been crushed by Rick Dresser, the writer, because I respect his work so much, but he was never protective about his writing and always encouraged me to try whatever I thought. And Joel, our producer, who never let worries about money influence me, but was always willing to listen and make suggestions that were supportive. No one on our team was ever reductive. When you have a group like that, and actors like Tom, Xander, and Bobby, you can do anything. Then when we got into the post and the computer graphics we had another huge challenge.
How could we create this "expressive world" that we talked about without making it concrete. And this we did with the brilliant efforts of Chris Healer and a very talented group of computer artists who he assembled. Joel calculated that it would take us twelve years to finish the film unless we set up our own computer rendering farm and so he spent the money and bought the machines and Chris figured out a unique program that would make it all work. I had ideas and I thought they were good, but they were ideas and it took the creative talents of Chris and his amazing team of guys to make a reality out of ideas. And they did this with great artistry.
Q. When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
No, I never watch other movies in relation to my own. I probably would do better if I did, but maybe I'm too insecure. I don't want to do anything that might be derivative from another movie, but want my inspiration to come from life. Of course, life includes art as well as culture and I know I've been influenced by other films. But I never look at other films to decide what I am going to do.
Q. Two parter – which actor would you cut off an arm to work with, and which relatively unknown actor on your own film do you want the world to start recognizing sooner rather than later?
I always wanted to work with Bobby Duval and almost did, but it didn't happen. There are lots of great actors I would enjoy working with. I almost got to work with Richard Pryor, but again it didn't happen. That could have been a blast. But I consider myself very lucky having worked with many actors who I think are great. And they are not all big names.
I must say that there are so many very talented people who are just as good as some of the big names, but they just don't get the chances. I hope that Xander, Tom, and Bobby get the recognition that they deserve. And I was disappointed that Tom Hulce and Ray Liotta in DOMINICK AND EUGENE didn't get the credit that they deserved, and that Eddie Olmos, Maria Conchita Alonzo, Arie Verveen and Steve Schub didn't get the recognition that they deserved in CAUGHT.
Q. The festival circuit: what could be improved, and what couldn’t be?
I haven't thought about festivals enough to have an insight that would be meaningful.
Q. Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say yes’?
I've never thought about my filmmaking as a career. It has always been about my life. So, though I'm sometimes envious of others and wish that I could do more, I can't complain. It's the making of the film - the process of doing it that gives me the most satisfaction - and I can honestly say that there are a number of films that I have made - of course, with the help of colleagues - but I have some films that I've made that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't made them happen. So, that's something that I'm pleased with.
Q. A film is made by many people, as well as the director, but often films will open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
I feel modest about my credit because I know that it always takes a lot of people to make a film. At the same time, I think that I stay with the film throughout its entire course, living with it, dreaming it, sharing it with the others, encouraging it to grow into what it could become. In that sense, I'm a part of the whole thing - not in some sort of ego serving way - but part of its chemistry, its sensibilities. I try to honor my colleagues and especially the writer, where it all began. But the process of creating a film is a process of letting go of preconceptions in order to be able to listen and hear and see more clearly what is the true nature of your story. It starts with the writers sensibility and then is joined in a remarkable process by other people who if they can all care and respect and listen for the "truth" then they might find something at the core that will grow into the film they wanted to make but couldn't quite see until it all happened and they did it.
Q. If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you remake?
If I loved the film, I wouldn't want to do it over.
Through a fantastic blend of comic acting and innovative computer generated imagery (CGI), award-winning filmmaker Robert M. Young (”Dominick and Eugene,” “Caught”) has created BELOW THE BELT, a post-industrial, pre-apocalyptic, existential COMEDY based on Richard Dresser’s off-Broadway play of the same name. New York magazine critic John Simon called its inspiration, “Harold Pinter meets the Marx Brothers.” It will be screened as part of the this year's Sundance Frontier series.
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originally posted: 01/09/04 00:07:56
last updated: 01/30/04 22:04:36