Sunday, June 17, 2007

2007 HOLEHEAD: MAN FROM EARTHThe Evening Class Interview With Richard Schenkman

Michael Guillén: So Richard, how did you feel about your recent world premiere of Man From Earth at San Francisco's Holehead Film Festival?

Richard Schenkman: (Chuckles.) Well, gosh, I guess I've been in a little bit of denial about it being a "world premiere", just because—like any filmmaker—I have grander notions of what constitutes a world premiere. I guess I'd love to think of it more as a kind of sneak preview for some hardcore genre fans in the San Francisco area, if I could say that with all due respect to all parties involved. However, at this point, since I'm in the rare position of having sold the film before I've played any festivals at all, I can really just go to the festivals and enjoy them for what they are. I enjoyed [the Sunday night premiere] very much because clearly the audience was with the movie from start to finish; they really enjoyed it; they were laughing; they were engaged; they seemed to all stay for the Q&A after it was over. I couldn't have asked for a better response from the audience.

Guillén: It's a telling response, I think, of what is in store for this film as it achieves word of mouth and gains a larger, appreciative audience.

Schenkman: I hope so. From your mouth to God's ears, as they say.

Guillén: The film's been sold for dvd distribution to Anchor Bay, which is under the aegis of Starz Home Entertainment. Will there be an actual theatrical distribution? Or will it go directly to cable and dvd?

Schenkman: The short answer is, "I don't know." What I've been trying to determine is exactly when Starz figures they're going to put it out on dvd and then I want to work backwards from there to see if it makes sense to try to give the movie some kind of theatrical release. I don't expect that even in the best case scenario the movie would make any serious amount of money in a theatrical release; but, at the very least, I think the core audience would enjoy seeing it in a theater and enjoy sharing the experience of seeing it with other people and, of course, it would provide some additional publicity for the eventual dvd.

Guillén: I wish you luck with that. I can vouch for the fact that—having seen the film on screener first—I much enjoyed seeing it on screen. I appreciated that opportunity.

Schenkman: Well, thank you. And I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the audience's visceral response; that there was so much laughter and so much vocal interactivity. That made me think that a person who sits in a theater and watches it with an audience is really going to have a different experience than a person who sits alone and watches the dvd.

Guillén: Man From Earth is something of a chamber drama set in one confined location, which seems characteristic of Jerome Bixby's writing. It has the feel of a classic Twilight Zone episode, just like Bixby's "It's A Good Life" which is likewise primarily confined to the living room of a country home. When I used to watch those episodes as a child, oftentimes the premises were outlandish and unbelievable, the science was ridiculous, but somehow the ideas—the ethical conundrums elicited—were and continue to be relevant and engaging. Man From Earth remembers that science fiction doesn't need to be tethered to dazzling technological display to express challenging ideas; it exalts science fiction of the mind.

Schenkman: I was disappointed when we were shopping the film around to some of the different distributors—including one major cable channel who's well-known for playing a lot of science fiction material—and were told that it's not science fiction because there's no rocket ships or ray guns or aliens or anything like that. That's nonsense! Some of the greatest science fiction of the last 100 years—and I'm equally referring to books and short stories—is science fiction of the mind. It's a reality that's just a few degrees away from the reality that we live in and its skewed view of humanity. I'm thinking here obviously of Kurt Vonnegut as much as I'm thinking of Isaac Asimov and a variety of the other greats.

Guillén: Again, that quality—as you say—of being "just a few degrees away from the reality that we live in" is The Twilight Zone aesthetic that made those episodes stylistically accessible. What was so spooky about those episodes was that they seemed within the vicinity of possibility. Classic Twilight Zone episodes, classic Star Trek episodes, store memory's imagination. These are the stories that remain in our imagination; that helped our imaginations grow.

Schenkman: Absolutely. From a filmmaking standpoint, clearly the early Star Trek and a good number of the Twilight Zones had to be contained because they weren't spending a lot of money to make those shows. They didn't have a lot of time. They didn't have a lot of money. Basically they said, okay, the whole thing has to happen on the ship or the whole thing has to happen in this building and, of course, that limitation created a creative opportunity for the writers and the directors and the actors to make the thing live and breathe beyond the defined limited space. People have been saying that forever. The very thing that's a limitation on you from the production standpoint frees you creatively because you have to respond to that challenge. That was very much the case with this movie. It wasn't that I had to contain it, this was how it was written. It was written to take place in this one [location]; clearly, that was Bixby's intention from the start: to have it be contained; to have it be almost like a campfire tale told many many years ago; to have it be science fiction of the mind.

Guillén: I like that description—"a campfire tale told many years ago"—and I have to express my respect that you adhered to Bixby's intentions. As you were shopping this script around, some people expressed interest if they could vary the text through flashbacks and introduced elements; but, you held true to Bixby's script.

Schenkman: It was essential. As a writer, I would like to think that—if somebody likes something I've written—they are going to want to do it pretty much as I wrote it. Given the realities in Hollywood, that's mostly a fantasy I guess; but, I felt very strongly that we had this magical piece of writing here, this final testament from a truly important writer, and who was I to say, "Yeah, but we need to open it up a little bit"? "We need to have a chase scene. We need to have flashbacks." I didn't think it was right.

Guillén: Ultimately your respect and allegiance to Bixby's work earned you the directorship of this film, didn't it? The script was offered to other directors but you were the one who held true to Bixby's vision.

Schenkman: Yes, Emerson Bixby, Jerome's son, was left all of his father's materials when Jerome died. He felt that this was one of his father's most important and probably best unproduced scripts. He felt very strongly that—if he was going to let it be made—it was going to be made the way his father wrote it. I did not need to be convinced of that. That was basically my pitch to him, which was, "I love this script. I want to go make it." He said, "That's what I wanted to hear." So he gave me the script.

Guillén: I didn't realize until somewhat after the fact that the film's ensemble had such intimate connections with the Star Trek phenomenon. Many of your actors have appeared on Star Trek.

Schenkman: That's partially by design and partially coincidental. If you think about it—three years of the original series and then seven years of Deep Space 9 and then seven years of Voyager and seven years of Next Generation and three or four years of Enterprise—the fact is [chuckling] a lot of actors have worked on Star Trek. You can't throw a rock too far without hitting somebody who did something on Star Trek. Having said that, I did seek out actors who had a strong personal connection to—not necessarily Star Trek itself—but the science fiction genre. I knew that from just a marketing standpoint, my core audience was going to be the science fiction community and I thought, "Why not additionally appeal to them with actors we know they like?" It just so happens that Tony Todd and John Billingsley and Bill Katt are great actors and it was an honor to have them in my movie but it definitely didn't hurt—though it remains to be seen, I suppose—but I have always presumed that from a marketing standpoint, it was going to help me to cast these guys. It's funny though. The guy that I hired to play John Oldman [David Lee Smith], I didn't realize it until after I'd hired him [that] he had done a guest shot on a Star Trek episode as well.

My wife and I have always felt that—of all the Star Trek generations—Deep Space 9 is actually the best one. Granted, this is possibly a controversial opinion, but I stand by it. Of all the Deep Space 9 [episodes], arguably the best episode is "The Visitor", which is kind of a stand-alone episode. Mind you, Tony Todd has been on every iteration of Star Trek except the original series. So he's probably the Star Trek-iest of all of them. It's funny—I'm only making this connection right now—but "The Visitor" is almost like the kind of science fiction that Man From Earth is. Almost the whole thing takes place in his apartment. …It's this really sad, touching episode with very little in the way of effects or anything. Again, it's science fiction that plays out mainly in the emotions of the characters.

Guillén: You previewed clips of Man From Earth at the April 2007 Star Trek Convention in Los Angeles; how did the audiences react?

Schenkman: They seemed to react pretty well. I think they found it intriguing. If we could have shown the whole film to them—which I wanted to do—I think they would have really enjoyed it. …Just before our panel there was about a half an hour of trailers shown for upcoming genre pictures and the trailers—Transformers, Resident Evil—all have about two minutes of shit blown up and cars flipping through the air and stuff. It's very hard to follow a half an hour of that with this quiet, thoughtful little movie. Having said that, I got the feeling that they were very interested in it.

Guillén: For my money, the enthusiasm of your Roxie audience confirmed that audiences want to be engaged in a science fiction film and be challenged to think. It's not just spectacle they want. It's just as entertaining to be asked to think, not just watch. So many big budget horror and science fiction films these days don't even give you a moment to think about what you're seeing on the screen.

Schenkman: I've pretty much made basically nothing but independent films over the course of my feature career. The tricky thing with most of these movies is getting people to come and see them. What I have found with most of my movies is that—once people come and watch the thing—they really quite like it; but, the trick is always getting them in to come see something that is unusual.

Guillén: Among your ensemble, John Billingsley really stood out for me; his humor provided a welcome counterpoint to the general tone of the movie. I was impressed with a quote of his: "One of the things this movie is about is the difference between religion and morality, between what's codified and what is truly spiritual, and that's what attracted me to the project. I thought it had some very, very interesting things to say about the nature of organized religion and the nature of the religious impulse." Do you have any comments on that somewhat grand theme that Billingsley picked up on?

Schenkman: Generally speaking, I'm not as articulate as John Billingsley. He's an extraordinarily well-read intelligent man. I've read that quote too at some point and I thought, "That's a great quote." Again, without making an attempt to be as articulate as he is—because I'm not—first of all, I agree. I've always been intrigued and frankly dismayed [over] what is the conflict between morality and religious dogma. I will never forget having a discussion with a woman I'd actually been dating. Over the course of the time that I knew her, she became a born-again Christian. …Without giving away too much about my personal feelings, I am not a born-again Christian. I remember her saying to me, "How do you know the difference between right and wrong? How can you propose to have a strong code of ethics without having Christ in your heart? Without accepting The Bible as your guide?" I just thought, "Because there is such a thing as right or wrong. There are empirical differences that can be drawn. We don't need to be told what those differences are through the structure of religious dogma. We know this through our humanity. I loved the way Bixby's script addressed that conflict head-on in this dramatic and historical way.

Guillén: Is the film traveling on to other festivals?

Schenkman: For sure we're going to be at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in Providence, Rhode Island. And I'm trying like hell to get it into more festivals. I'm chewing my fingernails hoping to get into the Comicon in San Diego. Since there is certainly a good chance that the film won't get a theatrical release, the only way that I'll really have of sharing it with audiences is to play it at festivals.

Cross-published at Twitch.

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