For a rookie director, it’s only Armageddon

Special to The Times

“Whenever you’re doing scenes that are that emotional, it’s a little bit like getting on a horse without a saddle: You just kind of hold on and hope. When they’re that heightened, and you’re imagining things that are that horrible that you don’t have a lot of relation to in your own life, you don’t really know what might come out.”

Actress Mary McCormack, still suffused in the glow of new motherhood (her second daughter was born in May), contrasts the bright surroundings of the courtyard at the Chateau Marmont with a darker memory: the world view espoused in first-time director Chris Gorak’s “Right at Your Door,” the low-fi “thinking man’s thriller” and existential disaster film she inhabits with Rory Cochrane, which opens Friday. (All three have gathered here midday, although Cochrane must leave early to film a final episode of “CSI: Miami,” the series he asked to be let out of in 2004.)

Two years after the end of production, both actors seem balanced on the precarious lip of, if not quite stardom, at least a heightened awareness. And yet even here on Sunset Boulevard, with Dominick Dunne dining alone at a table and the infamous bungalows barely visible through a scrim of foliage, that special breed of Los Angeles apocalypse looms at the periphery, both terrestrial and divine.

“Right at Your Door” is one of those deceptively simple situational dramas that in lesser hands could collapse into melodrama or that at 20 times the budget would have a fraction of the effect. As written and directed by Gorak, it sets about the quotidian task of documenting young love in the hills of Echo Park -- McCormack late for her job downtown, Cochrane the unemployed musician making her an espresso or agreeing to pick up her dry-cleaning. This happy world is brutally pitched into irrelevance when three simultaneous terrorist devices close downtown, Beverly Hills and LAX and release airborne toxins into the surrounding neighborhoods. With escape routes choked, every stranger now a threat and an over-amped constabulary struggling with martial law, while the radio pumps out increasingly hysterical misinformation, Cochrane must deal with a city devoid of community. It gets interesting when McCormack turns up, ostensibly now infected, and he is forced to weigh love against survival.


“I started thinking what is the true skirmish line in the war,” says Gorak, an art director on such visually provocative features as “Fight Club” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and the production designer whom Catherine Hardwicke turned to when she directed “The Lords of Dogtown.” “And so I dropped some bombs on L.A. to figure it out. That’s the backdrop of the film, but it’s really about two people. I call it a punk rock love story. . . . The word terrorism is not even mentioned in the film.”

During downtime on “The Clearing” in 2004, Gorak pitched the producers (Thousand Words’ Palmer West and Jonah Smith) an idea for a short film featuring just the scene where McCormack turns up on the couple’s porch. They called his bet and ordered a feature.

“Contained and thrilling were their marching orders,” Gorak says.

Luckily, both actors in this two-handed drama are undervalued in the marketplace, and both scrambled to make up for lost time. Cochrane is still best known as Slater, the stoner in “Dazed and Confused” almost 15 years ago and easily the best thing in a film that prided itself on casting the leading lights of the next generation. Meanwhile, much of his best work since has appeared in films that never had a proper release: “Dogtown,” “Sunset Strip” and particularly “The Prime Gig.”

“I don’t really think of myself as a stock option,” Cochrane says. “I just want to have the opportunity to do work that challenges me. It was a very grueling schedule, six-day weeks, a tight budget, and it was mentally draining. And you’ve seen it. It’s not an uplifting film -- I don’t think people are going to run out of the theater cheering. But they might take away something to think about.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything even a tenth as grueling,” says McCormack, who played Howard Stern’s wife in “Private Parts,” was featured in Steven Soderbergh’s “Full Frontal” and his short-lived HBO series “K Street,” and has had recurring guest roles on “West Wing” and “ER.” “I would come home and just walk directly to the shower. My husband would bring me a glass of wine in the shower, because I was so beat up. It’s like I had been crying all day.”

A modest hit at Sundance in 2006, the film then spent the next 18 months in commercial limbo -- not for a lack of offers but rather because the distributor who bought it, Roadside Attractions, best known for “Super Size Me” and “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” was in the process of being acquired by Lionsgate.

“We waited for two years for lawyers to push back and forth a 50-page document,” Gorak says.

But like Hilary Brougher’s “Stephanie Daley,” another hit at Sundance 2006 that was torn from the day’s headlines and finally released this year, “Right at Your Door” transcends its origins in current events to secretly traffic in the tropes of a horror film: The high school student who suffocates her newborn baby in the former could just as easily be dispatching the alien growing inside her; the lovers here separated by epidemiology invoke the scene in a zombie movie when a loved one returns, infected but not yet manifesting symptoms.

Yet by turning trenchant actors loose on loaded material and systematically leaning on the pressure points, both films manage to incidentally accomplish the stuff of highest drama -- maximum conflict dredged from the darkest strains of human emotion, where choices have consequences, where the stakes are not devalued through cliché or foreordained through convention, and in a way that anymore seems to exist only in films at the very bottom of the budgetary food chain.

“Producers call it mindless chitchat,” Gorak says. “Move on.

“There were all these technical hurdles that Mary and Rory had to navigate, plus just bringing that level of emotion. For a first-time director, it was a real treat to work with actors who could handle all that.”