Wednesday, October 19, 2005

James Vculek on "Two Harbors"

James Vculek is the director of Two Harbors, an unusual and thoughtful picture about friendship, commerce, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Vculek will be in attendance at the Austin Film Festival to show Two Harbors this weekend.

Large portions of Two Harbors take place in an antique mall. Is that your natural habitat?

I'm not really an antiques person, although I don't mind spending time browsing through expensive junk. I do have a friend, also a filmmaker, who for a long time dabbled in antique dealing, so I was exposed to that world. And even though the basic idea for Two Harbors was knocking around in my mind for many years, the screenplay fell together very quickly when I suddenly imagined Vic (the main character) as a dealer in sci-fi collectibles. It just all made sense all of a sudden.

Two Harbors - James Vculek
James Vculek (left), Michael Tezla (actor, middle) and Philip Geller (executive producer) on the set of Vculek's new film, "The Quietest Sound" - photo by Jana Kramer.

There's a memorable demonstration of supply and demand in the film -- have you learned some hard lessons at the hands of the collectibles market?

The "Spock" scene was completely imaginary. I wrote it after the screenplay was finished, specifically for the actor in the scene - Ari Hoptman (who I had directed the year before in a musical I had written) because I knew he would be hilarious. I personally have never haggled over any purchase in my life. Maybe because I think it would turn out like that scene in the film.

What's the most precious action figure you own?

Well, again, as a follow-up to question #1, I don't really collect that stuff. But I do have the charred Princess Leia doll that appears in the film (and on our posters). In monetary terms, it probably has more value than all those other packaged toys I bought (on discount). Even the Spock action figure, which really is not worth 70 dollars. The "action" figures I value most are the 250 cloth dolls sitting in a hefty trash bag in my dining room. My mother made all of them.

Do you believe in aliens?

I think the film demonstrates pretty clearly my belief, or lack thereof, in extraterrestrials. The film was made as an antidote to all those treacly, Spielbergian quasi-religious sci-fi films where a kindly, wise alien comes to earth to solve the messy problems of messed-up earthlings. I like to think of Two Harbors as secular humanist sci-fi.

Two Harbors

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

Black and white was an easy choice. Most of my favorite films are in black and white, and when I imagine films, they're in black and white. And the mood of Two Harbors in particular seemed to lend itself to black and white. Plus I wanted an easy way to de-emphasize the video-y quality of the . . . video. Which worked to a certain degree.

Would you characterize Two Harbors as a film that outperformed its budget?

I think you're getting at how cheap the film looks, aren't you? I don't really mind that response anymore. It was cheap, and you can hide that fact only so far. Do I wish I'd had a bigger budget? Sure. Do I wish I'd shot it on Super16 or 35mm? Sure. But instead of talking to you about the film, and showing it at festivals like Austin, I'd still be out there trying to raise money. And like haggling over action figures, that's just not something I do. But seriously, it's gratifying when viewers of the film are able to see past the slightly crummy surface and respond to the characters, and the story, and the dialogue. That what films are about, I like to think.

What's your favorite story about the involvement of local residents in production?

After shooting the film in Minnesota, I wouldn't want to make a film any other place. We would walk into a potential location - drugstore, antiques mall, surplus store, whatever - tell them what we wanted to do, and they practically handed us the keys. No permits, no fees, nothing. Just cooperation and enthusiasm. For example, Axman Surplus opens at noon on Sundays, so the owner told us to come in at 8:00am on a Sunday, and we had the whole morning to shoot. For free. Antiques Minnesota was the same - closed Tuesdays, so the owner came in on three Tuesdays and let us shoot all day. It's the only way to make a film.

Two Harbors

Tell me about your two lead actors.

The true story Two Harbors is based on concerned a man in his 30's and a woman in her late forties, so that's how I wrote it originally. Then I saw Catherine Johnson, who is in her twenties, in a play in Minneapolis. I went home literally that night and re-wrote the part of "Cassie" for her. Fortunately, even though we had never met, she agreed to read the screenplay, and then agreed to do the role. Alex Cole (who will be at Friday's screening in Austin) is a Minneapolis-based actor and comic who was suggested for the role by my executive producer, Phil Geller. I had never met Alex, but Phil's instincts turned out to be exactly right. Alex is brilliant in the role.

What's next?

Since finishing Two Harbors I wrote and directed another feature film, The Quietest Sound. I wrote it specifically for Catherine Johnson and she's phenomenal in it. It's about a mother whose young daughter disappears. She's brought in for questioning and two detectives videotape the interrogation. That's it - Catherine in one take for 75 minutes. And then there's a twist, and then another twist. And finally, there's a twist. I also wrote a two act comedy for Catherine, Alex and Ari that was performed at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in August.

Two Harbors premieres at the Austin Film Festival on Friday, October 21st at 10:15 p.m. An encore screening will be held on Sunday, October 23 at 7:00 p.m. Both screenings will be held at the Hideout Theater.


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