Talent aplenty in directors debut film
ASPEN In The Talent Given Us, the debut film by Andrew Wagner, the lead actors approached their roles with the mind-set that they knew nothing about how to bring their characters to life. Thats because the stars were Allen and Judy Wagner, who earned the roles not because of previous acting experience neither had any but because they were the parents of the director.Andrew Wagner had worked on the script for The Talent Given Us, a 2004 comedy about a retired couple seeking to reconnect with their son, for 12 years. Over that time, he could never shake the notion that the real-life twosome who most resembled his fictional couple were his own parents. And when it came time to cast the film, no one seemed better able to handle the roles than Allen and Judy Wagner.I could only think about the idiosyncrasies of my parents, Wagner said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. Their idiosyncrasies were so imbedded in my mind.A more reasonable mind attempted to intervene. When Wagner, in the middle of the night, turned to his wife, Chelsea, and informed her of his casting brainstorm, she set him straight. She said, well spend the $30,000 on a movie. But were not putting your parents, these nonactors, in the movie, recalled Wagner. The two decided to shelve the idea. Time, however, would not dissuade Andrew from the conviction that the people who had inspired the characters were in the best position to portray them. When The Talent Given Us was shot, not only were Allen and Judy Wagner in the starring roles, but Emily and Maggie Wagner Andrews sisters, both of whom were professional actors filled out the cast.Andrews instincts were validated. It took unusual steps: At one point, Wagner went directly to the Angelika Film Center, a landmark arthouse cinema in Greenwich Village, to get his film shown there. The Talent Given Us ran for seven weeks in New York, and went on to be screened at Sundance, and at the CineVegas festival, where it earned the Grand Jury Award.Given its humble origins, it had a surprising run, said Wagner, a native of New Yorks Upper West Side.Star powerThe star of Wagners latest film is coming from a similar place, one full of question marks. Thats not because of the actors lack of experience; Frank Langella, who stars in Wagners Starting Out in the Evening, has an extensive filmography, and an even longer list of stage credits. He earned this years Best Leading Actor Tony Award for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. But taking on the role of Leonard Schiller, an obscure and reclusive novelist, Langella began as a blank slate. Wagner was impressed not with the acting tools that Langella brought to the film so much as his determination to set aside what he already knew and create a character from scratch.Frank didnt enter this story through his talent, Wagner said. He told the story through his ability to feel at sea and uncomfortable. He inhabited [Leonard] through questions, rather than open his bag of tricks and relying on his mastery. The strength comes from his courage to work from the unknown.The result of that process is a quiet oftentimes silent performance that nevertheless dominates the screen. Langellas Leonard Schiller has withdrawn into a life with no friends or hobbies, only a tenuous relationship with his grown, single daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor). Leonard also has his writing, but little hope that anyone is interested in the latter-day work of a respected but hardly influential novelist.Into this faded existence comes a potential savior. Heather (Lauren Ambrose) is, like Leonard, a bright misfit, a graduate student determined to make Leonard the willing subject of her thesis project. The film examines the relationship between Heather and Leonard, a multilayered tug of war that raises questions of sexuality, age and boundaries. The on-again, off-again romance between Ariel and Casey (Adrian Lester) is juxtaposed against Leonards semi-affair, broadening the inquiry into ambiguous relationships. But while the storyline emphasizes couples, it is lonely Leonard who is the films most memorable component.His interior life is more profound than what he reveals to the naked eye, Wagner said. His transformation had to occur beneath the detection of the eye, with the most minimal of gestures. His breakthroughs would be experienced in a uniquely powerful way.Wagner said it was the opportunity of handling such a sub-surface performance that attracted a name like Langella to a virtually unknown director. Actors dont get used that often, said Wagner. In our film culture, quality actors dont get used up. Theyre not often challenged in their souls. But the best actors are in it for that.Langellas approach to playing Leonard dovetails well with what the character is going through. Leonard, too, dwells in the unknown. Having cracked his door to Heather, he is left uncertain how much farther to open the door, how much of the world he should let in. The internal battle is palpable in Leonards stuttering advances and retreats.Its about a man re-examining his idea of self, and re-examining his boundaries, Wagner said. Where do comfort and change intersect? For a full Filmfest schedule, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film. For a schedule of Wednesday’s screenings, see the movie listings in this Arts & Entertainment section.Stewart Oksenhorns e- mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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