The closing night film at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), director Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Grassroots is at its heart an uplifting story about something that isn’t usually too uplifting these days: Politics. As inspiring as the story of unlikely politician Grant Cogswell is, what makes it even more inspiring is the fact that it’s actually true. In advance of its festival premiere this Sunday at SIFF, Gyllenhaal took the time to chat with MovieMaker about his latest film and its own involvement in grassroots politics.
September 2001: I had just completed four years as an officer in the U.S. Army and was starting the grad film program at Columbia University in New York City. I had resigned my commission in June of ’01, and a week into my first semester at Columbia the 9/11 attacks came. I figured I’d have to put my desire to make movies on hold and head back into the Army. The call didn’t come, and I continued on in film school, watching many of my friends who stayed in receive orders to deploy to Afghanistan and then, in 2003, Iraq.
When you pitch a comedy about a Ku Klux Klansman around Hollywood you tend to get a lot of rejections. I quickly realized that if I wanted to get Cellmates made I would have to get down and dirty and produce it myself. As is the case with all independent filmmakers, once I decided to make the film on my own I faced another uphill battle: Bringing my vision to life with the limited financial resources I was going to have.
A mistake that many writer/directors, including myself, make is to write a script that cannot be completed on a low budget. Many big-scope scripts end up languishing in a drawer, waiting for that fabled big-time producer to step up and make the project a reality. Chances are, that’s not gonna happen. My co-writer and I knew that to get a movie made we had to write a script with only a handful of characters and even fewer locations. In other words: Doable.
On New Year’s Day of 2003, a neatly handwritten note arrived on the fax machine: “I have a story idea I wanted to run past you. I am sure you are familiar with the subject matter and would welcome your thoughts and suggestions.” The intriguing note came from Eric O’Keefe, a Texas journalist I had met while directing the television western Crossfire Trail. “What do you know about the 2002 Melbourne Cup?,” it read.
Small incidents, to paraphrase director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, can make large explosions. They can also make telling movies. In her first narrative film, Jacobsen explores a blip in the life of an adolescent girl and how a minuscule event can morph into something that leads to personal and social revelations. Based on the novel by Olaug Hilssen with a screenplay written by Jacobsen, Turn Me On, Dammit! is a sensitive and unapologetically blunt look at the convergence of sexuality and growing up. The film brings to light those many things we’ve been taught to ignore, yet have all thought about and experienced by default of having survived teenagehood.
When you hear the word “Amazon,” one of two things probably come to mind: Online retailer Amazon.com or (maybe) that river in South America. Well, here’s a third option: Amazon Studios, the online moviemaking arm of Amazon.com, which awards cash prizes to scripts, trailers and test movies submitted by members as a way to help up-and-coming moviemakers get discovered and complete their films.