First things first. Yes, there is a movie at Sundance called "L.A. Times." No, it does not have anything to do with this here media organization of the Los Angeles Times. (Trust me, when the festival's program announcement came out, there were some very quizzical looks around the newsroom, as if people were afraid they had been in a documentary and/or reality show without knowing it.)
Rather, "L.A. Times" is a look, at once both breezy and insightful, into the personal and professional intersections of a small group of people in the creative enclaves of Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz. The first feature film directed by Michelle Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay and plays the lead role, "L.A. Times" launches her as a multi-faceted talent to watch.
The film has its world premiere on Friday night at Sundance as part of the discovery-oriented Next section. In the film, Morgan plays Annette, who impulsively breaks up with her boyfriend, Elliott (Jorma Tacone), and finds herself feeling adrift. At the same time, Annette's friend Baker (Dree Hemingway) has problems of her own as she juggles an affair with married man (Tate Donovan) and an increasingly complicated relationship with a cousin (indie stalwart Kentucker Audley, revealing himself as an unexpectedly credible romantic leading man). The supporting cast includes Margarita Levieva, Adam Shapiro, Angela Trimbur. Robert Schwartzman and Nora Zehetner.
The movie is littered with wry observations and dialogue heightened just enough to have a witty sparkle but still seem credible. In conversation, Morgan comes across as unguarded and a bit freewheeling — "Am I allowed to share grievances in this interview?" she asked early on during a recent conversation in a Hollywood coffee shop — while still just a few degrees different from her character in the movie.
"Nothing in the movie is particularly autobiographical," she added, "I mean, is the character me? Every character that you write as a writer is a little bit of you. I think that if you're going to make a movie and you're going to star in it, you should poke fun at yourself, and I tried to do that."
A Los Angeles native, after attending Cal State Northridge Morgan was planning on becoming a screenwriter when she fell into acting, mostly for television. Then she had to work her way back into screenwriting and eventually wrote, directed and acted in a short film, "K.I.T.," which played Sundance in 2013.
"I feel like my journey is a little bit weird," Morgan said. "I feel like a lot of people make a short or they make an indie so that they can get an agent and start getting work and I feel like I'm working backwards."
Morgan recalled that when trying to make it as an actress she would often rewrite the dialogue she was given for auditions and the casting people would ask if they could use her revisions. She launched herself into a writing career, working on numerous studio projects and television pilots. She wrote the 2008 Anton Yelchin-Eva Amurri film "Middle of Nowhere," and followed it in 2013 with "Girl Most Likely" starring Kristen Wiig.
Even though she appeared in the "K.I.T." short and now "L.A. Times," and Morgan acknowledges writer-director-performers such as Woody Allen, Albert Brooks and Lena Dunham as influences, she sees herself shifting toward a purely behind-the-camera creative path.
"I didn't do this to be an actress. I don't know if I want to act even at all anymore," she said. "I did this as a bit of rebellion for all the years I was segregated from everything. As a writer you're just not allowed to make any decisions, and so this was kind of a control freak being like 'I'm going to do this the way I want to do this.'"
"L.A. Times" is also something of a romantic manifesto, a purposeful antidote to the fantasy relationships that once fueled Hollywood's rom-com boom. Morgan is herself in a long-term relationship with her boyfriend, screenwriter Jared Stern (also a producer on the movie), but finds that the way movies portray romantic couplings is rarely in line with her own feelings on the experience.
"I'm not all about romantic true love, one soulmate," she continued. "I think it's OK to love a couple of different people secretly in your heart and to also love the person that you're with and choosing a partner to live with or to marry, a lot goes into that. It's not Cinderella.
"I don't relate to people that act like they're really really happy in their relationship," Morgan said. "I trust people that go, 'You know what, I haven't had sex in three months, I … hate him sometimes. But we're in it for the long haul.' Or we're not in it for the long haul. I don't necessarily think that a break up disparages what somebody had. And so that's how I feel about relationships."
Portraits of contemporary Los Angeles, in particular the neighborhoods surveyed by "L.A. Times," have become something of a recent Sundance staple. Morgan's take on this particular slice of the city stands out as both cynical and hopeful, a realist romance that is a little bit flaky and a little bit grounded. Much like life for many in the city itself.
But there is one thing that throws off, just for a moment, the seemingly unflappable Morgan. When asked her age, she paused, using the question to reflect on where she finds herself in her career and as a filmmaker making her debut at Sundance.
"I don't really want to talk about it," Morgan said. "I'm in my 30s. I have no issues with being in my 30s, but you always want everyone to think this just happened. And of course it didn't.
"Although actually now that I think about it," she quickly course-corrected, "I don't want anyone to think this just happened. Because it didn't. It took a long time for this to happen. And I wouldn't change that."
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