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Four who dared to dream, L.A.-style

Special to The Times

If their stories weren’t true, they’d be dismissed as just a few more hackneyed Hollywood scripts.

Paul Feig came to L.A. hoping to be discovered. Alex Turner knew it was time to put up or shut up. Jordan Roberts and Jacob Aaron Estes toiled for years as script doctors, rewrite men and advertising copywriters -- but never gave up their dream.

Today, all four L.A. transplants are filmmakers on the verge -- each has a new feature film that is putting him on the map. That they’ve gotten this far is something that continues to leave these up-and-coming directors shaking their heads.

“Los Angeles is a wonderful place to live when you’re working, but if you’re not, it can be very frustrating,” said Turner, who makes his debut later this year with “Dead Birds,” a horror film set during the Civil War. “You think about everyone that’s out here trying to make it, versus the number of people that actually make it as an actor or a director -- probably 1%.”

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Such relentless pressure is just a fact for L.A.-based filmmakers struggling to break into the industry -- no surprise there. But how do you produce something creative and original in an environment notorious for kowtowing to the bottom line? Rebel and chart your own course, success be damned? Or go along to get along, peddling whatever the studios seem to be buying?

The box-office gods haven’t yet had their final say. But these four filmmakers all responded in markedly different fashion to living life in the considerable shadow cast by the industry -- and all came out on the other side. As they know only too well, not everyone can say that.

For Feig, negotiating L.A. as a writer-director calls for evasion tactics.

“The commerciality of the city stifles me, so I try to stay away from it,” said Feig, whose drama about a boy who escapes an Eastern European prison camp, “I Am David,” will be released by Lions Gate Films in December. “There’s a circuit of restaurants and places I like to hang out that aren’t cool. But ironically, I live right next to Warner Bros. studios.”

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To hear it from Estes -- whose suspenseful teen drama, “Mean Creek,” opened in August -- Los Angeles has borne the brunt of his darker creative impulses.

“I wrote a screenplay that I love passionately but that will never be made,” he said. “It’s about characters who decide to burn down L.A. because the city is so ... ugly.”

Los Angeles proved to be a buoy of sorts for Roberts, a renowned although mostly uncredited script doctor and rewrite man. His highly personal debut as a writer-director, “Around the Bend,” which stars Christopher Walken, hits theaters Oct. 8. Roberts learned that the sprawling city affords the local talent a chance to shine, even if it takes a while.

“My project was listless for eight years,” Roberts said. “It took that long to get it to a place where my script wasn’t smug or quirky or emotionally inauthentic. But when I did, it was amazing how quickly we were able to sell the screenplay and go into production.”

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Meanwhile, Turner, who was already an accomplished New York commercial and video director, turned to Hollywood for inspiration when he decided to ramp up his feature film career last fall.

“The film scene in New York is very different from here,” he says. “I became very frustrated with the work I was getting, and I was losing touch with why I had wanted to become a director.”

For better or worse, the vagaries of living in a town dominated by Hollywood have influenced each of these directors in singular ways:

Jacob Aaron Estes

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The Chicago native penned “Mean Creek” as a morality tale about six teenagers (among them, Rory Culkin and Scott Mechlowicz) who plan the perfect payback for the school bully -- a rowboat ride that will end in his humiliation -- and then realize that they’ve gone too far.

The affecting, real-to-life script went on to win both a prestigious Humanitas Award and a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But at seemingly every turn it looked like the project would never get made, particularly in the wake of several high-profile school shootings, like the one at Columbine High. It was optioned, then dropped, again and again, by several directors who were ultimately put off by its raw depiction of kid-on-kid cruelty.

Until this point in his career, the former ad copywriter had been adapting and rewriting screenplays for other directors ever since graduating from the American Film Institute. Finally, Estes decided to direct the project himself.

“There was no way to make it a smashing commercial home run,” the 31-year-old said. “It’s an adult situation for teenagers -- not exactly the kind of film the studios are dying to spend their money on. So it was either, ‘I am going to figure out a way to make this movie or it’s never going to be made.’ ”

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The film landed a $500,000 budget largely through the efforts of one of Estes’ former professors at AFI. But then, to the Silver Lake resident’s disappointment, the movie was saddled with an R rating for profanity, placing it out of bounds for much of its intended young audience. That said, Paramount Classics is firmly behind the movie. In the coming weeks, it will reach 35 more markets.

“I made $6,000 last year -- what I’m working on next is balancing my debt,” he says, laughing softly. “I’ve never felt the reason to be in film is to make money. It’s a form of commerce, but it’s also a form of art.”

Estes shot his film in Oregon for obvious reasons. “The script takes place on a creek. There’s no creek in Los Angeles.”

But Los Angeles served nonetheless as an influence: “I think the fact that it’s so dirty and ugly -- it makes you want to fight against that.”

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Paul Feig

On paper at least, Feig doesn’t seem the likeliest candidate to direct “I Am David,” a lyrical drama about a 12-year-old boy who escapes from a post-World War II gulag and journeys, alone, to Scandinavia, where he must deliver a mysterious letter.

Feig, a former stand-up comedian and creator of the seminal high school nerd sitcom, “Freaks and Geeks,” had never done period drama -- let alone feature-length drama. And nothing on the writer-director’s resume suggested experience with foreign locales.

“The producers originally wanted to make a modern update of a classic,” a la the hit “Clueless,” he said, “grab Dickens or Conrad and make it into a fun high school thing. And they wanted me because of what I’d done with ‘Freaks and Geeks.’ ”

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The Michigan native and USC Film School graduate held firm: “I said I wanted to do a visual movie about a person seeing the person for the first time.” After protracted negotiations, Feig was prepared to walk away when Walden Media offered him the adaptation of Anne Holm’s historical memoir, “North to Freedom.”

Armed with a $7-million budget, Feig landed Jim Caviezel for a small but seminal role just weeks before the actor went on to a higher calling. “One day over lunch, Jim leans over to me and says, ‘Paul, I just got cast as Jesus in the Mel Gibson movie,’ ” the director says. “I could have choked!”

“I Am David” is due in theaters in December.

Feig, 42, laughed recently as he recalled his decision to move out West. “The summer after my freshman year of college [at Wayne State in Michigan], I came to Hollywood to try to become an actor -- instead I became a tour guide at Universal Studios. I thought I would be ‘discovered.’ But that’s where I learned about film school.”

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Today, the Burbank resident feeds his creativity off the energy of L.A. “I hate to write in one place, so I’m always going around with my laptop. Here, I find places to camp out and be around so many different kinds of human energy. If I write downtown, that’s one energy. At LACMA, it’s another. Go down to Santa Monica and it’s such a different physical, geographical, intellectual space.”

Feig said he can now contribute to that energy as well.

“I’m fussy,” he explained. “Because of the financial security I got from the show [“Freaks and Geeks”], I don’t have to jump at the first thing. So with every project, I try to ask myself, ‘Is this going to bring the general mood of society down?’ My goal has always been to make movies that feel good without being so maudlin they put you off.”

Jordan Roberts

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As the Oct. 8 release of his directorial debut, “Around the Bend,” draws closer, Roberts has been lying awake at night, wondering about the Hip Quotient.

“I didn’t make a ‘hip’ film,” the writer-director says resignedly. “And there’s some risk in telling a story that is so un-hip to a culture so addicted to hipness -- especially so within the independent film community.”

What Roberts made instead -- an intergenerational road-dramedy focused around broad themes of abandonment and reconciliation -- is, in every sense of the cliched term, “a personal film.”

After eight years and various working drafts, it took the death of Roberts’ estranged father, a man he describes as an ex-junkie former criminal, to get the project off the ground.

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“I credit him with making this movie,” the filmmaker says.

In the emotional aftermath, Roberts retooled his screenplay, not coincidentally about an ex-junkie convict who shows up unexpectedly at the house shared by his ailing father, estranged son and grandson to deliver a final kiss-off. But when the elderly man dies, his will stipulates that the remaining trio must travel from L.A. into the New Mexico desert to scatter his ashes -- a trip that tests tenuous family bonds and reveals startling truths about their shared past.

From there, Michael Caine signed on as the patriarch and Walken committed to role of the middle-aged prodigal father, securing the backing of Warner Independent Pictures -- and a $5-million budget. The film and Walken went on to win prizes at the Montreal Film Festival earlier this month.

“There are three things I wanted to avoid,” says Roberts, who kept a receptacle filled with his father’s ashes on set during filming. “I wanted to dodge the sentimentality, darkness and smugness you see in most indie films. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make a film about acceptance.”

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Roberts is reluctant to give his age -- “Let’s just say I’m in my 40s. It’s an ageist business.” After graduating high school he attended one year at UC Santa Cruz. Instead, he’s learned on the job: “The Sundance Film Lab [with “Around the Bend”] is the closest I’ve been to film school.”

Born in Chicago, Roberts moved to L.A. as a young boy, living in “Van Nuys, then Beverly Hills, then Tarzana.” He later moved to New York, but still struggled to find his place. “Living in New York for 15 years kind of kicked my butt,” he said. “Somebody recommended that I write screenplays -- and that I do so in Los Angeles. I also came back here to raise a family and fell in love with it.”

He soon found himself in good company, and in demand as a script doctor and rewrite man. “I joined this club of men and women in this town who make a good living making unproduced work -- I’ve probably written 15 scripts for hire in the last eight years, and none have gotten made.”

Today, Roberts lives in Venice, which he describes “as a distant cousin to L.A. in some ways. It allows me to feel very far away from the production and economic demands of ‘Hollywood,’ but I can still get on the freeway and wind up in Burbank.”

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“I love L.A.,” he added, “but where we live is a plastic culture.”

And that’s exactly why he chose to partially set “Around the Bend” in Los Angeles: “Plot-wise, I wanted to start in a place that didn’t feel particularly introspective -- psychically and physically -- and then move to the New Mexico desert, a more spiritual place, for the characters’ transformation.”

Alex Turner

To hear Turner tell it, the offer to make his first feature was far too good to refuse.

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The native New Yorker, who had a thriving career directing movie videos and commercials, moved to Los Angeles last fall because “this is where the work is, this is where the [movie] business is. You have to be here to take advantage of that.”

Soon, producers who had seen his work were calling, and “so we went into the usual dance -- ‘We’ve got to find something to do together. " Turner didn’t take it all that seriously. Then, a script arrived. “Moody, atmospheric, good scares. And it wasn’t your typical art-house movie.”

But the career-making opportunity meant shelving a more personal project Turner had intended to direct for his debut, a dark sexual thriller.

In the end, practicality prevailed. “In today’s marketplace, there’s an incredible amount of pressure to be successful with your first film,” Turner said. “You get one, maybe two shots to make your mark and not much opportunity to grow. Twenty years from now, I want to look back on a large body of work.”

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Set during the Civil War, his richly imagined, genuinely suspenseful supernatural horror movie, “Dead Birds,” tells the story of a band of Confederate soldiers (including Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit and Isaiah Washington) who hole up in an abandoned plantation house after robbing a bank. Terrifying apparitions exacerbate the greed and internal rivalries that have already put strain on the group, and the soldiers begin to be picked off, one by one.

Premiering earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival, “Dead Birds” triggered negotiations with major distributors, although as of this week, the film hadn’t yet been picked up.

Turner, 34, shot “Dead Birds” in Alabama, where he was able to rent the town-sized set originally constructed for Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” “for a song.”

The Hollywood Hills resident said he has no regrets about setting aside his own project. He only has to look around to realize how lucky he is to have a film in the works, and a critically acclaimed one at that.

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“Of course you want to tell personal stories,” he said. “But I could foresee years of trying to get my personal stuff made. It’s hard getting any movie made. You have to be realistic.”

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Jacob Aaron Estes

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Credits: “Mean Creek,” an unsettling coming-of-age drama released last month, was hailed as an assured feature debut and earned him praise for his deft handling of complex character development. Also a short, “Summoning.”

Favorite L.A. location? Hollywood Forever Cemetery: “I was thinking about getting stuck in Hollywood forever. When you’re in L.A., you’re wondering, ‘Am I going to be here for the rest of my life? Is that going to be my life?’ Hollywood Forever epitomizes that.”

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Paul Feig

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Credits: “I Am David,” a life-affirming tale of hope about a boy who escapes a post-World War II prison labor camp, slated for a December release. Feig’s film has garnered several audience and jury awards at U.S. film festivals. And a low-budget indie, “Life Sold Separately.” Created, wrote and directed TV’s “Freaks and Geeks.”

Favorite L.A. location? The Original Pantry Cafe: “My problem with L.A. is almost every building around you is younger than you are. The Pantry has been there forever and it’s gone totally unchanged. I find it inspiring because it hearkens back to a time when you talked to people face to face and didn’t call them on your cellphone or use a BlackBerry.”

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Alex Turner

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Credits: “Dead Birds,” starring Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit and Isaiah Washington, was well received last month at the Toronto Film Festival and has been billed as a “thinking person’s” horror movie. Due later this year. Also two short films, “Chuck” and “Disposal,” and “about 100 television commercials.”

Favorite L.A. location? La Brea Tar Pits: “L.A. is kind of a monster. It’s such a huge, sprawling city. I always go by the tar pits and wonder if it could work as some sort of metaphor for a filmmaker trying to move forward in the industry. Will you get stuck in the tar and not be able to get out?”

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Jordan Roberts

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Credits: “Around the Bend,” a father-son-grandson road trip starring Christopher Walken and Michael Caine that will be released next week. Early praise has focused on Roberts’ sensitive touch with relationships between three generations of men.

Favorite L.A. location? The City Spa: “Filled with overweight Russians and Hasidic Jews, it feels like another world -- an old Russian bathhouse on La Brea and Pico. A shvitz is what it is. It’s a place I went while I wrote this movie that’s about men.”


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