Monday, August 8, 2011

An interview with 'One Fall' director/star Marcus Dean Fuller

[ONE FALL opens at Chagrin Cinemas on Friday August 12th. The filmmaker and cast will be present for a Q & A session after the 7:00 pm showings on August 12th and 13th.]

Interview by Bob Ignizio

After more than a decade of acting, Ohio-born Marcus Dean Fuller decided to get into producing movies. Unfortunately, he and his wife and co-producer Julie S. Fuller weren't having much luck getting any of the projects they had been considering off the ground. That led Marcus to writing a screenplay of his own, and eventually to directing and starring in the resulting film, ONE FALL. The Cleveland Movie Blog recently had a chance to speak with Marcus about the film, and here's what was said.

CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: You've been acting since 1999. What made you decide to move into writing, directing and producing at this point in your career?
MARCUS DEAN FULLER: I think it's a natural progression. What got me into acting was the idea of being a storyteller and I think there's a natural evolution to how we choose to tell stories. For me, acting provided an emotional ability to tell a story. But I think as a writer and director, there's more of a sense of control about the story you're telling that I find infinitely fulfilling. But in the end, what makes a good actor or writer or director is all the same: the love of a good story, and the desire to share it.

CMB: Like the main character in ONE FALL, you were involved in a serious accident. Tell me a little about that, and how you turned it into a screenplay idea.
MDF: When I was 18 I fell off a cliff that was very high and broke my back in 7 places, and split my shoulder blade. I was really messed up. After 2 weeks in the hospital the doctors told me I would never walk again. 2 weeks after that, I walked out of the hospital. To this day I don't have any scars or any lingering problems. I was never able to really reconcile that, and ended up getting survivor's guilt, basically.

As the years go by, you start to see in retrospect how profound certain moments in your life are. It's not always as black and white as saying, “this was a miracle,” or “that destroyed my life.” I think in every moment there's tragedy and comedy, joy and pain, light and dark. It's a fullness you don't quite understand until you step away from it. I think after almost 20 years, when you have some distance, you start to see it for what it is. For me, my life has been kind of a dark comedy. When you put pen to paper and try to make sense out of it, you hope that it tells some kind of truth about yourself and the world you live in.

CMB: Did you always plan on playing the lead role when you were writing the film?
MDF: No, not at all. In this day and age star power rules, so it wasn't even on my radar to be able to play this character. I set out originally just to produce. My wife Julie and I own a production company, Compass entertainment. We were looking for a project and tried to get several other scripts off the ground but couldn't get them going. Finally my lawyer pushed me into writing the screenplay which became ONE FALL.

When we started the process of making the film, we had several name actors attached. One by one they fell away because of other projects or because of money. I was doing a stage play in New York at the time and my producer Dean Silvers saw me in it. He came to me and said, “you really need to star in this film.” I pushed back and said I thought we needed a star, but he convinced me that nobody could play the character like I could.

CMB: With you being in front of the camera so much, I would imagine you really have to be able to count on your director of photography, Alice Brooks. What did she bring to the movie?
MDF: She understood my vision. I was interviewing directors, and nobody could see the movie the way I saw it. That's the way I became attached as director. Nobody seemed to get it, they were all trying to fit it into one genre or another, or had a very specific look for it that didn't fit my vision. It became obvious I was going to have to direct it.

That being said, I'd never directed anything in my life. I can explain the way a shot is supposed to look, but how do I translate that to practical camera? That came down to a good DP. Alice was one of the first DPs we interviewed. She came in and told me how she saw the film, and it was exactly the way I saw it. She understood the way I wanted it to look, the way I wanted it to feel. The world visually that I was trying to create is this very soft, warm Rockwellian Ohio that doesn't really exist, but kind of exists. I use the term magical realism. It's our world with the volume turned up a bit.

CMB: The character you play is kind of an asshole for a lot of the movie. Do you worry that audiences might not be sympathetic to him?
MDF: Yes, and that was one of the biggest problems with the script. Nobody quite got that character on paper. He seemed very irredeemable; he was kind of a dick. We knew it was going to come down to the performance. The actor has to win you back. The character has to seem like a jerk up front, but as we strip off those layers, we realize that his silence isn't him being aloof or dark. It's because if he starts talking, he'll never stop crying. It's the motivation and the emotional connection underneath that character that's going to win you back. We see private moments with him where he's struggling, and quiet moments with Tab where there's humor, and see that there’s more to this man.

CMB: To a certain degree ONE FALL is a superhero movie, although James' powers are healing rather than the sort of thing that leads to battles with super villains. Still, there's a definite theme of “with great power comes great responsibility” running through the film ala Spider-Man. Was that an influence, and are you a comic book fan yourself?
MDF: The Chris Nolan BATMAN was definitely a prototype in a lot of ways. I love super heroes, but I have a real issue with a lot of super hero movies. I think in this day and age we confuse what being a hero really means. There's a line in the film that my grandfather actually said to me when I was younger: “The only difference between a hero and a coward is that both are afraid. Neither wants to do what needs to be done. But in the end the hero does it anyway.” Super powers help, but in the end it's about the choices we make that define us. The power of choice in those crucial moments is something that's universal.

CMB: Who are your influences as director?
MDF: I like the way Danny Boyle tells a story. He has a tendency to take what seems like a big genre film, and then very quickly he hooks you into a human drama or a character driven piece, and ends with kind of a splashy “triumph of the human spirit” ending. He's very good at that, and it's something I really respond to as a filmmaker. In my own film, it kind of starts as sort of a superhero-y thing, but then it falls into the lives of these characters, and the complications of being human.

Also Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro, along with Stephen King as a writer, influenced me because they understand the idea of magical realism. The idea that myth and legend are stories that explain the world at a bigger level than our day to day, and how that's important in our lives so we feel that we are “more than”.

CMB: How did you assemble the rest of your cast?
MDF: We auditioned everybody, because I needed to know that they could be directed. As a first time director that was important to me. I didn't want to let someone else's ego take charge of the piece. I needed to know that they were willing to work in an ensemble as an actor. I think ONE FALL is really an ensemble movie. I tried really hard to flesh out a lot of the characters as much as I could, to give everyone a beginning and middle and end, a purpose and reason to be there other than just some stereotype. The actors responded to that brilliantly. Once they saw my intention as a director, they were eager to sign on. I'm really grateful to have the cast that I had.

The other challenge that I had with casting was that I had a lot of wonderful actors come in who I couldn't cast. This is a very Ohio, Midwest piece, and that is part of the vision. It has to look and feel like these people were born and bred in a small Ohio town. That became a challenge to find people who could work together, who had that look, that feel, that cadence about them, and they could still play these roles.

CMB: Did you shoot in Ohio?
MDF: No. We shot in Bronxville, New York, right outside of Irvington. The joke was, “find me a place in New York that looks like Ohio.” We shot in New York because of the tax credits. We needed that to come in on budget.

I grew up in Ohio outside of Toledo, so there was never any question that the movie was going to take place in Ohio. ONE FALL represents my Rockwellian memories of the small town I grew up in. Everything seems very perfect and beautiful, the warm summers, the cool evenings. You can almost hear the grasshoppers in every scene. But as you get older and start peeling the onion, you realize that there are a lot of complicated lives on the other side of the white picket fence.

My wife, who is also from Ohio, understood that. So as my fellow producer, she was a fierce advocate because she understood this world intimately as well, and the kind of nuances we were trying to create and capture on film. Being an Ohio piece got Richard Smucker, her father, more interested in it as well because it becomes familiar. Small town Ohio becomes almost emblematic of every small town. You go to these small towns in Ohio, and that is Americana, and it's something everyone can relate to on some level.

CMB: Most of what people think of as independent films these days are really just smaller films produced by Hollywood studios under their independent labels, so to speak. Your movie is really and truly an independent production, and its rare to see such films make it into theaters. How hard was it getting financing for something totally outside the mainstream industry, and then getting it distributed? MDF: Almost impossible. First I just want to say that I love that you said that. Nobody understands that. Independent films have become small budget studio films that are full of stars. It's where stars kind of go to do pet projects.

When we set out to do this, I was desperate and determined to make a film that felt like a big budget film that chose to be small. We shot on film, and I was adamant about the lighting and the look. I was pretty uncompromising about a lot. We did it on less than a shoestring budget.

In the end you have to be smarter than your problems. We got hit with a tornado on the second day of shooting. It should have shut us down, but I refused to let it die. There's an old saying that you have to ride your horse until it's dead. I think we rode it and then dragged it a couple yards afterward.

Financing was hard. Nobody wants to invest money in a first time writer/director who's going to star in the project, who has no major names. Luckily my father-in-law approached me later on once we were already in the process of all this. He heard a reading of the script and said, “this is an important film. Nobody's making movies like this today. You have something really good here.” His point was don't let anyone else ruin it, keep control.

I'm really proud of what we were able to put out, and I feel uncompromised. I'm really grateful for that chance that only comes when you're outside the studio system. That said, without major stars or a high profile director, without money and budget, how does a movie like this get out into the system?

CMB: How many theaters is the movie opening it?
MDF: We don't know right now. Its going to be a nationwide release, so it'll go coast to coast. I don't know how many it will start with off hand, but as we hit our numbers in those theaters it will open in more. Somewhere between 10 and 20 at first. Then we start spreading and end up in Los Angeles and New York. We're working on the deals right now for VOD, DVD and foreign sales.

CMB: What are your plans for the future? More directing, more acting, maybe a little of both?
MDF: I have 5 scripts that I'm developing right now, all different genres, styles and looks. Almost all of them take place in or around Ohio. I would like to do it all again. I found the process really fulfilling. You go a little crazy when you're wearing all those hats, but once you've gone through that, I don't know if I could ever do it any other way again. It goes back to that storytelling thing I was saying, the desire to see that vision come to life. I would like to direct some pictures without acting in them. So I see myself as just director, some as director and actor, and some just acting in them. But I've written them all, which is ironic because I never set out to be a writer.

CMB: Now that Ohio has a film production tax credit, do you think you'd shoot here next time?
MDF: I would love to shoot in Ohio. If the tax credit holds, I'll shoot them all in Ohio. I have a lot of love for Ohio. The places I envision when I write actually exist, and I'd love to use that. It really depends on the tax credit.

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