The tremendous cost of filmmaking makes it extremely difficult to break into the industry as a director or producer. Shaky investors and studios, with fortunes at stake, understandably want to minimize the risk by entrusting their projects to successful directors, producers and stars. Having an association with such industry heavyweights as Spielberg, Eastwood or Scorsese gives a project a certain pedigree recognized by the general public. Such directors command and receive substantial project control, huge salaries and often participation in profits as well.
Getting the right actors to appear in a film can also help assure success. Certain movie stars can “open” a film, meaning their presence practically guarantees box office success, at least initially. Of course, such talent doesn’t come cheap. Such stars often receive salaries in the tens of millions, or they participate on the “back end” by getting a portion of the box office receipts.
Paying popular actors is just part of the exploding cost of making a movie. Filming on location, building elaborate sets and of course special effects can quickly send a budget out of control. Even a relatively “small” film such as “The Secret Life of Bees” required a budget of $11 million. Special effects laden films such as this summer’s “The Dark Knight” reportedly cost nearly $200 million.
In light of these tremendous challenges, it was very interesting to speak to director Russ Emanuel, whose parents live in Huntington Beach. Emanuel recently directed his first two feature films. The first of these, “P.J.” just had its initial screening in Los Angeles, which I was fortunate enough to attend. I also had the opportunity to speak at length with Emanuel about his career and the film.
“P.J.” tells the story of a young man (Howard Nash) who, after witnessing a horrific automobile accident, retreats into himself. He barely speaks and won’t identify himself; as a result, he is committed to a hospital. The resident psychiatrist working the graveyard shift, Dr. Alan Shearson (John Heard), tries to communicate with the patient who eventually refers to himself as P.J.
Shearson is fighting his own demons and has retreated to the relative isolation of the graveyard shift in order to avoid confronting them. He becomes determined to produce a breakthrough with P.J. as his fed up supervisor, Stan (Robert Picardo), threatens to send the patient to a hopeless state mental facility if he is unable to do so. Eventually Shearson enlists the assistance of P.J.’s estranged girlfriend Shelly (Patricia Rae) and his own orderly Burt (Vincent Pastore).
According to Emanuel, the story appealed to him very much due to its universal message and the international applicability of the story. The film “embraces everybody,” which embodies Emanuel’s personal philosophy. Originally from San Francisco, Emanuel grew up in both the United State and Japan, where he attended high school. He graduated from USC where he studied international relations, Japanese and cinema/television. Accordingly, Emanuel is more or less a citizen of the world.
Reportedly, “P.J.” had a total budget of about $1 million, less than the cost of one minute of “The Dark Knight.” Emanuel describes the film as a labor of love for both him and his partner, “P.J.” star Howard Nash. The movie is based on a play by Mark McQuown originally presented in the 1980s. According to Emanuel, much of the film’s script follows the play very closely. However, in the screen adaptation, Nash and Emanuel added two characters, Burt the orderly, and his co-worker and budding romantic interest, Mariah (Lavinia Dowdell).
Most notably, an entire sequence taking place two weeks after the principal action was added by the filmmakers. This action takes place in the daytime as opposed to the preceding action, which is set entirely at night in the interior of the hospital. Emanuel notes the two weeks after sequence completes the character arc of all the roles. The final scenes also make it clear that P.J. entered the other characters’ lives to help them rather than the other way around, as it initially appears.
Considering the film’s budget and limited distribution, the presence of fairly prominent actors is somewhat surprising. According to Emanuel, John Heard is a friend of Howard Nash and fulfilled a promise to appear in the film if the filmmakers were able to arrange financing.
“The actor wants to act,” Emanuel says, which explains the presence of such recognizable faces as Pastore, Picardo and Glynnis O’Connor as Shearson’s estranged wife. Emanuel described the opportunity to work with such actors as a “thrill and an honor.”
The film’s limited budget required some shortcuts as well. Shot mostly in New York and New Jersey, the filmmakers had to work around O’Connor’s inability to travel to Los Angeles for some scenes. Emanuel also used creative camera angles to lend variety to some locations such as Shearson’s office.
Emanuel is grateful to his collaborators and financiers for allowing him to complete this project. He has worked very hard to promote the film, distributing more than 4,000 postcards and contacting various media outlets.
If the current limited release goes well, “P.J.” will be released to other venues as warranted. Once the theatrical releases have run their course, the film will be shopped around to television and cable outlets. The film is scheduled to be released on DVD on Feb. 10.
“P.J.” is a heartfelt and uplifting effort made all the more interesting due to Emanuel’s emergence as a budding filmmaker. I look forward to following his career and wish him future success.
VAN NOVACK is the assistant vice president of institutional research and assessment at Cal State Long Beach and lives in Huntington Beach with his wife, Elizabeth.