"Starting Out in the Evening" With Andrew Wagner

indieWIRE December 17, 2007

[SF360.org and indieWIRE editors’ note: This interview appeared originally in indieWIRE on Jan. 29, 2007. This is the last of indieWIRE’s Park City interviews with over forty competition filmmakers from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions. The film plays in the Bay Area this week.]

Andrew Wagner returns to the Sundance Film Festival this year with his latest feature, “Starting Out in the Evening.” The film follows a 70-year-old novelist as he tries to complete the book he’s been working on for the last ten years. Along the way, he meets an assertive, nosy graduate student who wants to scour his life for her thesis. Through this, he also must deal with his almost-40 daughter, who is determined to have a child. According to Sundance, the film is ‘a quietly intense, superbly realized drama about erudite New Yorkers who tug on each other’s vulnerabilities as they strive to actualize individual promise at three different stages of life.’ ‘Starting Out in the Evening’ is screening in the Dramatic Competition category. Andrew Wagner also directed “The Talent Given Us,” which screened at Sundance in 2005.

indieWIRE: Please introduce yourself. What are some of your former jobs? Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Andrew Wagner: I’m 43. For over a year now, I have been working full-time on ‘Starting Out In The Evening.’ I have my wife Chelsea to thank for making it possible for me to completely immerse myself in the production process from start to finish. (Counting the two years it took to write the screenplay with my co-writer, Fred Parnes, my daily wage on ‘Starting Out In The Evening’ was just under six dollars a day). Chelsea is a screenwriter who works as an executive assistant by day — and thanks to her salary the debt we’ve accrued over the past three-plus years and the two independent films I’ve made has leveled off to somewhere between staggering and mind-numbing.

In the four years prior to making ‘Starting Out In The Evening,’ I taught in the South Central district of the Los Angeles public school system — the first two as a sub ($156/day) at a variety of schools and the last two as a long-term sub (same $156/day) at Middle College High School where I taught Literature and Film. During this same period I made ‘The Talent Given Us,’ which played in the American Spectrum section at Sundance in 2005. And toward the end of the editing process and all through the festival and distribution journey of ‘The Talent Given Us Fred’ and I were working on the many drafts of ‘Starting Out In The Evening.’

In the not-so-few years after I earned my Masters in Directing at the AFI and before making ‘The Talent Given Us,’ I apparently viewed the question of money as one that did not require a firm answer. In my youthful idealism I tended toward the belief that if I was true in my work I could sustain on the purity of my intention. The result was thousands of pages of screenwriting untouched by the pressures of commercialization and an equally uncommercial quality of life. I was in fact paid for my writing during these years but commonly a minor sum as I traded quantity of compensation for creative leadership and a guarantee to direct everything I wrote. I also directed several shorts during this time and experienced every independent filmmaker’s rite of passage — the first feature that suddenly falls apart only days before shooting. These years were characterized by an all-or-nothing philosophy — with the ‘all’ representing my desire to make independent films and the ‘nothing’ meaning I did not cultivate a Plan B — directing commercials or videos, for example — to help ease the financial strain as I pursued my narrative writing/directing career.

The upside of this single-mindedness was a much-longed for deepening of my relationship to my work; the downside was a lack of balance in my day-to-day life. In my reluctance to give up my writing time, ironically, I ended up with less and less of it — to scrape by I delivered pizza (with my double-major in Creative Writing and Psychology from Brown University and my Masters from the AFI, I believe I was the most impressively credentialed pizza delivery man in town), served food at the intensely trendy Les Deux Cafe (I would hand out VHS copies of my films to befuddled industry execs as I set down their lobster salads), and umpired little league baseball and refereed basketball and flag football (this I did in an edgier part of the city and the cops had to come down and park in the outfield after one coach threatened to shoot me for calling out one of his eight-year-old runners in an attempted steal of third base). It was an austere existence — mode of transportation: bicycle; home: studio apartment/no kitchen; next meal: not guaranteed — but I suppose I did not recognize it as unreasonable until I introduced my future wife to my daily level of discomfort. To her credit Chelsea would not assimilate. Weeks later I got my teaching credential.

I was born and raised in New York City. I went to Collegiate High School which I mention because it was there my teachers and coaches instilled in me an enduring respect for giving my best effort and seeking quality in my work. Though I confess the purity of my formal education created some confusion for me when I stepped into the real world where culture must cooperate with business. A young filmmaker can commit a lot of energy to a superior posture about the state of things — but my own experience has taught me that fashionable cynicism can cover the fear of what the real challenge is: doing good work. With over 20 years on this winding path, I’ve come to adhere to a simple guiding principle — do the work. The work becomes like water that starts underground — it collects and becomes a force that eventually breaks to the surface. If the work is there, the support will be there for it. There are too many interesting films being made each year to believe otherwise.

[I currently live in] Los Angeles. January 3rd marked my 20th year in L.A. I admit that when I first moved out here at 23 I would not have guessed that I would be living in a one-bedroom apartment 20 years later — but sharing the experience with my wife and our dog Roo makes it a spacious one. Chelsea and I believe in our choices and we decided years ago not to suffer the limits of our immediate situation — I knew from my first 10 years out here how easy it is to spend one’s days looking ahead and miss what’s happening in the moment. We live near Canter’s Deli — which is open 24 hours; this is relevant because Fred and I wrote much of ‘Starting Out In The Evening’ in the early morning hours there.

iW: What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?

Wagner: Without choosing it consciously, for many years in high school and college I was hovering around becoming a filmmaker. I wrote several screenplays during that time and was a fiction writing major — though the idea of actually becoming a filmmaker was still a foreign one for most creative seekers when I was an undergrad in the early 80’s. The graduate film school explosion — brought on in many ways by the first inspired films by Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, and Spike Lee — was just about to happen. But even at Brown, a school devoted to the Liberal Arts, I was the only one in my class to go to graduate film school.

My first assumption about my career was that I would be a novelist. But coincident with my pull toward a creative life was my grieving for the end of my athletic career. I played three sports throughout high school and the first two years of college, and as I started to let that aspect of my life go, I greatly mourned the absence of an endeavor that required a total mind-body engagement in the moment and held the chance for spontaneous expression. And then, in my senior year at Brown, I made my first film. And from the moment I began that profoundly forgettable film, I have not, for even a minute, looked back.

In what I suppose was a symbol of the long journey to come, I drove from Brown to Vassar College to borrow a friend’s 8mm camera (the gas alone from Providence to Poughkeepsie and back cost more than the camera). Only upon returning to school did the thought formalize that I had no idea how to make a film — so I simply began. I just started shooting. I enlisted my friends to act in a script I had written and because my conception of editing at that early stage was to use every frame after ‘action’ and before ‘cut,’ my 20 page short became a rather sluggish one-hour epic. Though in truth I couldn’t hear a single ‘action’ or ‘cut’ — because I recorded the entire film with the sound deactivated. Correspondingly, the truthfulness of the film suffered because my lead actor had committed so many hours to the shooting, he was in danger of flunking out and couldn’t pull away from studying for his final exams — and so I had to loop his every line. But I was in. I loved the multiplicity of languages a director had to learn to speak in. I loved how the totality of our being was called into the doing. And I loved the opportunity for discovery in the living moment.

At that time, more than being a student of film, I was overcome with a passion for the creativity involved in making films. That’s when I set out to learn the language and craft of filmmaking — and become a filmmaker.

iW: Did you go to film school? What are some of your influences?

Wagner: I went to NYU — the Tisch Graduate School for Film. My first-year teacher at NYU was Roberta Hodes and she made an indelible impression. Roberta had been a script supervisor for Elia Kazan and Martin Scorsese and she had an acute understanding of the meaning embedded in the film image. And she demanded that we open our minds and look within the matrix of image-making. For me her teaching was a true awakening — the coded language of film opened up for me and suddenly I saw in [Bernardo] Bertolucci’s ‘[The] Conformist’ a universe of implication in the framing of every shot. I saw the film one freezing night in 1985 at the old Thalia on 96th Street and afterward I was so exhilarated I simply took off running.

I had a similar experience watching Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ for the first time. It was several years later and I was preparing to shoot my thesis film at the AFI. I had left NYU in the middle of my second year to pursue a professional writing opportunity in Los Angeles. Then, in 1989, I became a Directing Fellow at the AFI. I felt I still had much to learn and wanted, above all else, to learn how to fail. I wanted to be bold about my education and wanted to make the mistakes that come with trying to grow one’s voice. Our narrative teacher in the intensive first year there was Dezso Magyar, and as a disciple of a rigorously artistic eastern European approach to filmmaking, Dezso encouraged us, above all else, to be artists. I hadn’t been in Hollywood long but apparently long enough to appreciate that ‘art’ was a word that had moved underground. The permission Dezso gave us was of vital importance — and in studying the films of Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Jodorowsky, I became aware of the capacity of a film artist to engage the gray matter of existence and open its shadow region, the space between words and the conscious application of meaning, to comprehension.

The first time I saw ‘Andrei Rublev’ I was left speechless by the agreement of patience, formal beauty, and behavioral integrity. It was an encounter with a sublime marriage between exquisite lyricism and tender observation. ‘L’Avventura’ moved me in a similar way and ‘Santa Sangre’ just blew open my mind. True, I was preparing to make a very traditional narrative film about a playground basketball player in South Central Los Angeles, but discovering these films was a potent nutrient for the hungry soul. I could go on about the myriad of influences I’ve found in American cinema, and the brief body of work I’ve put together to date clearly has its roots in classical American storytelling, but I remain ever awed by the transcendent works of the European masters.

iW: How did the initial idea for ‘Starting Out in the Evening’ come about?

Maybe five years ago Chelsea and I were out one evening walking Roo in the neighborhood. We bumped into my good friend Fred Parnes — he had a book in his hand. It was ‘Starting Out In The Evening.’ Fred explained that he had grown up in New Jersey with Brian Morton, the author of the PEN/Faulkner nominated novel, and that he had optioned the book from Brian with the intent of making it into a film. I told him I loved the title and we discussed the book — it was about a small universe of characters tugging on each other’s vulnerabilities on the Upper West Side. Then we said goodbye and moved off in opposite directions. As we walked away and for no justifiable reason, I turned to Chelsea and said, ‘I have no idea why but I have this strong intuition that I’m going to make that book into a film one day.’ It made no sense. I was certainly rooting for Fred to get it made. But for a brief instant I had a glimpse of the equation that weighs the pull of the cosmos and the impediments of film finance — and somehow it left me with a deep impression that I would make a film of a novel I had not read a single sentence of. Still, it was a casual occurrence and I forgot about it — until a few years later.

I had just completed a rough cut of my first feature, ‘The Talent Given Us’, and shown it to Gary Winick, a friend since my early days in L.A. and the founder with John Sloss of InDigEnt — a company designed to shoot feature films digitally so that quality-driven, character-rich films could be made affordably (and preferably in New York). Gary generously offered me the opportunity to make a film with his company — did I have any material about a small universe of characters who play out their story in New York City? I called Fred in Paris. Earlier in the year I had read a draft he had written and so I had a deeper appreciation of the story. Fred had hit a wall in his efforts to raise money for ‘Starting Out In The Evening’ and he had also met his beautiful wife, the extraordinary French actress, Isabelle Candelier, at a film festival in Florida and their whirlwind romance had produced their first child, Rafael. Fred called the phone call kismet — with all the dynamic change in his life, he was happy at the prospect of seeing his friend’s book made into a film by me; we agreed to meet upon his return to L.A. in a few weeks and begin our collaboration on the screenplay. Then I went out and bought Brian’s poignant and beautifully observed novel. Three years ago from January 8th was the first day Fred and I met to begin the adaptation.

iW: Please describe your film. What was your approach to making ‘Starting Out In The Evening?’

Wagner: In ‘Starting Out In The Evening’ Frank Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a novelist of faded repute with one remaining goal in life — to finish the novel whose completion has eluded him for ten years. His main contact to the world is through his daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), with whom he has settled into an amiable relationship, though he must hide his disappointment that at 39 she remains befuddled by life, still looking for love and a father for a longed-for child. Schiller’s otherwise solitary writer’s life is shaken when Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) enters his orbit. A graduate student blazing a path toward the stage of her aspirations, Heather is writing her thesis on Leonard’s out-of-print novels and their involvement reawakens his longing for artistic recognition and romantic love. The sum of this experience threatens his writing, his health, and his relationship to his daughter. But in living out in the open, in the evening of his life Schiller puts into practice the core theme of his novels — life is not designed for our comfort but for our struggle, for in struggle there is growth.

Any success we hoped to have in penetrating this theme was reliant upon the supple and authentic transformation of the characters and this condition called for a grade of truthfulness from Frank, Lili, Lauren and Adrian that could not be anticipated; a nakedness of being that could be true only once, in the moment of doing. For me this meant I had to attend to each scene with a beginner’s mind — I had to divest of my preconceptions of the story so I would not miss the nuance in the egoless simplicity of their performances. I was working with world-class actors and wanted to be smart enough to discover the film through them. I left my storyboards and even my certainty at home — I was determined to direct the film in the present moment and stay open in the unknown.

iW: What were some of the challenges you faced in making the movie?

Wagner: Shooting 100 pages in 18 days. Creative integrity and time are oppositional hungers — we decided the best way to nourish the first was to focus on what we could achieve rather than on what we couldn’t. We had a camera, characters on a page, and fiercely talented actors to inhabit them — we could tell a story about human beings and the intimacy they share.

iW: What do you hope to get out of the festival?

Wagner: What do I hope to get out of the festival: There’s a scene in the screenplay of ‘Starting Out In The Evening’ in which Schiller breaks down for Heather the essential theme of his writing life — he talks about wrestling through the years with his longing for artistic recognition and the pull toward fame and fortune; in the end, though, it’s the work itself that keeps him going. The process is its own reward. We actually cut this scene from the final film because we felt the aggregate story embodied this idea, but the discussion at the center of it is relevant for every writer who faces the empty page each day and every filmmaker who steps before the slings and arrows that come with the process and every artist who confronts the solitude and unknown of their craft. We are promised nothing — so why do we do it? Why do we keep going?

The challenge, as I experience it, is to work within the tight crawl space between my expectations and desires and the non-attachment that gives size to the belief I share with Leonard Schiller — the process is its own reward. When I’m working I attend carefully to my desire so I can work free of its influence — because it has the power to transfer purely creative choices to the agenda of an ego concerned more with worldly success than the truth of the story being told. In the writing, in the shooting, and in the editing, I try to keep it very simple — one scene, one shot, one edit at a time — and to serve only one thing: the innermost truth of the story. Ultimately, it’s the story that has to do the work — it’s the story that has to scrap it out in a crowded cultural universe for the privilege of moving and transforming people.

My core hope for ‘Starting Out In The Evening’ was for its realization to allow the film to speak for itself. An independent film could have no better opportunity to speak for itself than on a screen at the Sundance Film Festival. My collaborators and I feel overwhelmed with good fortune. Now the film has to do the work. There’s a kind of unbearable aliveness that comes with not knowing what will happen. I’ve been so busy completing the film — I saw the premiere version of it for the first time a few days ago and the festival starts tomorrow — I haven’t had the time to focus on my expectations. A few times each day I’m hit with a wave of excitement — then I let it go because no amount of wishing will alter the larger reality that the premiere is a let-it-be experience. What will be will be. Of course I hope people at the festival respond enthusiastically to the film. And of course I hope a distributor embraces it and brings it with affection to a much larger theatrical audience. But it’s not wanting for wanting’s sake. I believe in the film. I believe in its qualities and that a wide audience could find meaning in a story of three generations of characters pressing against the complexities of their time of life. And I believe this audience would be deeply moved by the uncommon bravery of the actors — Frank, Lili, Lauren, and Adrian give performances of genuine surrender and arresting honesty. Really, it is these performances we are coming to give away. It is these performances we believe hold up a mirror to our lives that is worth looking into.

iW: Describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.

Wagner: Actually, I was in the Pacific Palisades. I had just parked my truck outside the YMCA where I was going to renew my swimming membership — the drive out there is worth it for the great outdoor pool carved into the hillside of Temescal Canyon. I believe it was the day before Thanksgiving and the tension of not knowing the fate of the film had become so fantastic, I was going to swim until it was merely spectacular.

It’s worth noting that I had a hunch I might be receiving a call from Sundance but only because of the most excruciating occurrence. Because ‘The Talent Given Us’ had played at Sundance in 2005, I still had the Sundance main office number inputted in my cell. The day before I had been out for breakfast, attempting to enjoy my last free moment before the final crush of post-production, when my phone rang. The Sundance main office number appeared on my cell. I fumbled the phone and in my effort to juke the crowded two-tops and take the call outside, I did not answer the call until after the second ring. I heard a bolt of static and then nothing. Outside, on the street now, I waited for a voice. No voice came forward. It was amazing how long I was willing to listen to the emptiness until I realized I should hang up and prepare for the first failed connection to succeed on a second try. The call did not come — until the next day. It was Caroline Libresco, the uniquely wonderful festival programmer I had come to know in 2005. She told me the brilliant news and we laughed about the aborted call from the previous day — apparently she had been swept away in mid-dial and did not have a free moment for another 24 hours. I hung up and stood there on a breezy vacant block in the Palisades. Only now am I reminded of the moment I walked out of the Thalia over 20 years ago after seeing ‘The Conformist’ — my heart racing, I ran with it. My dreams were before me, felt with an articulation that had no precedent in my young adult life. The 20-plus years since have been grinding ones — and for many of them the dream felt so far away I could hardly breathe. After Caroline’s call, it felt closer. My heart was racing in a way I could not remember. I could almost listen to it. I practiced breathing. I called my wife and thanked her for her unwavering support during these lean years. Then I crossed the street and renewed my swimming membership and went for a long swim.

iW: What is your definition of independent film?

Wagner: An independent film is an act of necessity. It has to be made and because the odds against its getting made are typically so extreme, only the deepest need, wish, and effort bring it to life. An independent film is motivated by a single concern — the story it’s telling and this concern extends only to the component parts of this story — what the characters do, say, don’t say, and how they come to learn to do what they previously could not — and how they are expressed filmically.