Laptop friendly: Director Alejandro Adams welcomes personal computer-viewing of his films; here, actor/producer Michael Umansky poses with fellow cast members Ilona Rubashevsky (left) and Zarina Sarsenova on the set of 'Babnik.' (Photo by Sam Lopez)

Making 'Howl' and 'Babnik'

Michael Fox October 14, 2008

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman would tell you the most nerve-wracking part of the filmmaking process takes place far from the set or the preview room, well out of range of agents and cameras and audiences and critics. That would be the daunting task of lining up the financing.

"Every stage is hair-raising," Friedman says with a wry chuckle. "But this is the particular roller-coaster we’re on at the moment."

The Oscar-winning duo is moving down the road with Howl, an unflinching drama that revisits Allen Ginsberg’s seminal mid-‘50s poem and subsequent obscenity trial. "Howl," of course, is the epic take-no-prisoners verse that begins, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." Ginsberg first performed it in San Francisco, it’s worth remembering.

"It’s going to be very liberating for people," Friedman declares. "It’s very transgressive—[the poem] is still transgressive. It speaks to what’s on people’s minds today: the world’s falling apart. A central theme of the poem is the depersonalizing militarization of the culture. It could have been written today."

In crafting the screenplay, Friedman and Epstein drew on transcripts of the trial—which forms the film’s narrative spine—and various interviews Ginsberg did over the years. They then proceeded on two separate fronts, casting the film while they developed the animation that accompanies the poem.

James Franco has signed on to play the young Ginsberg, backed by commitments from a slew of splendid actors including Alan Alda, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn and Paul Rudd. "It’s a project that people are coming on board because they believe in it and want it to get made," Epstein says. "That’s how it will happen. That’s how all our films happen."

The filmmakers have been working for some time with local animator Eric Drooker and WildBrain animation director John Hays. Epstein, taking a pragmatic view, notes, "We’ve been able to keep that part of the project going even without financing." But Friedman goes several steps further, particularly when the film’s appeal to the all-important 20-something demographic is broached. "I think this is a perfect project for new-generation people and new-generation media," he asserts. "I can see Internet life to this. I’ve been pitching it as the must-see stoner movie of the year because it’s going to be so visually dazzling and trippy."

Thematically, Epstein and Friedman see contemporary resonances with Ginsberg’s battle with the justice system. "The trial is about what’s permissible to be said," Friedman explains. "Here’s an artist in court and all they can talk about is the equivalent of Janet Jackson’s nipple distracting people from the real issue."

will be shot largely in New York, since that’s where most of the cast is based. Cameras are slated to roll shortly after the first of the year, assuming the money comes in.

With the volatile market whipsawing paper assets, Epstein has been telling prospective investors, "This is a good time to invest in film. Once it gets made, it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s going to exist."

Alejandro Adams can do artsy AND exploitative

Midway through shooting his third digital feature, the Russian-language sex-trafficking thriller Babnik, San Jose writer-director Alejandro Adams sounds like a relaxed, regular guy on the phone. In cold print, however, he just might come across as a provocateur, instead of a stay-at-home dad with two wee children.

"Around the Bay [which premiered at Cinequest ’08 to exceptional reviews] was unfortunately dismissed by some as self-consciously arty," Adams recounts. "Canary [now beginning to hit the festival circuit] was seen by some as a step in an even artier direction. Babnik is taking a step toward a more exploitation picture but it’s a double bluff. To say outright that it’s a ‘B’ exploitation film is fair, but as a writer, to toss away character nuance isn’t possible."

The Florida native spent his 20s living in Tokyo and all over the U.S., cranking out more short stories than he could count plus four unpublished novels, before settling in the South Bay in 2002. "As a writer," he says, "I have no shortage of ideas. When it comes to these no-budget films where you’re asking everyone to work for free and you’re putting your own resources in, feasibility is the #1 factor on whether you can do it."

Which brings us back to Babnik, a film Adams is helming in a language he doesn’t know. He wrote the script, which lead actor-producer Michael Umansky translates it into Russian for the cast (and then back into English for the subtitles). But nobody but Adams knows the ending.

"I’m not interested in making an issues film, in this case. "I’m just interested in making a thriller. As for what constitutes evil, one of the main characters supports his sister but he’s continually abusive, so my question is: Does he ‘mistreat’ women more than the other characters in the film whose lifestyle, within our cultural paradigm, is to mistreat women?"

While most filmmakers who shoot digital video try to mask or explain away its limitations—OK, its hideous, cheap look—Adams doesn’t flinch. "It’s a little self-aggrandizing and simultaneously self-effacing to say I wanted Around the Bay to be the ugliest thing and the most beautiful thing ever shot on DV," he says. "The technology has not been associated with anything we would call aesthetically pleasant. But the grungy image is not anathema to me."

Adams takes a breath, then hurries on. "Eric Rohmer said this, so I can line up behind someone, he said he made films for individuals, he resented any group reaction. In a way, these films are only made for today in the way films are consumed now. I totally advocate watching any of my films on a laptop. I edited them on a laptop, in a cafe. I think these films don’t play as well on the big screen, not because of the technology or because they’re handheld, but because of the way I’m trying to affect the viewer."

That’s a jab in the ribs for those of us with a soft spot for single-screen theaters, or any theaters. But Adams reminds us of the earliest days of moving images.

"We’ve come full-circle," he maintains. "The kinetoscope was a means for an individual to watch cinema. You’d stick your head in it and watch by yourself. Now you watch by yourself on a laptop or phone. The whole idea of primitive—our tools now are re-primitivized."

For more about Adams and fast-growing oeuvre, check out his web site (

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