Snatching "Victor" from the jaws of defeat

My film opened on Sept. 11. My friend's movie, "Raising Victor Vargas," opened during the war with Iraq. We talk about timing -- and how to put politics in movies without becoming Michael Moore.

Published April 14, 2003 9:17PM (EDT)

I first met Peter Sollett in the picturesque mountains of Utah at the Sundance writing lab in the summer of 2001. We were among a handful of lucky young filmmakers flown to Utah to workshop our screenplays with established industry professionals.

At the time of the lab he was in early preproduction for his Lower East Side coming-of-age story "Raising Victor Vargas," back in New York, then called "Untitled 2001 Peter Sollett project." Unfortunately for a filmmaker trying to stay in touch with New York from a secluded mountain resort, Peter Sollett refused (and still refuses) to get a cellphone. He hates the things, a personality quirk that I found amusing. Several times a day he would ritualistically shuffle over to the one pay phone on the mountain to pile in quarters and stress out over how things were going back in New York. My first film, "Haiku Tunnel," would be opening in September of that year, the same time Peter was going to be shooting, and we spent the Utah evenings drinking Polygamy Porter (an actual Utah beer) and talking about what the future would hold.

The premiere of my film, a collaboration with my brother Josh, was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001. The night before, finally back in San Francisco (where I lived at the time) after an exhausting trip of traveling around to promote the film, I hugged Josh and said, "This is going to be a week we'll always remember." The next morning I remember thinking World War III had started, and frantically tried to reach my family in New York. We had cases of Niebaum/Coppola ine that were generously donated for the premiere, and I remember sitting in my little studio apartment with an open bottle, crazed, somewhere between hysterical laughing and crying, watching the news and speed-dialing my New York family -- all the while praying as so many did that the busy signal would end and my family would pick up the phone and tell me they were OK. Thankfully, although they were shaken, my family was fine.

On Sept. 13, "Haiku Tunnel" opened in San Francisco. Although it was theoretically sold out, there were only about 40 people (our closest friends) in a 500-seat theater. Afterward, we were there to do a scheduled Q&A with the "crowd," and somebody asked if there had been any time in the last 100 years that had been worse to have your film open. Everyone laughed. I answered that, given what had happened, I was grateful just to be alive and able to laugh with friends. That was the absolute truth of how I felt, but it wasn't a direct answer to the question. "Haiku Tunnel" is a comic satire about the life of temporary office workers, and I really can't think of any way the timing of the release could have been any worse.

Meanwhile, Peter was still shooting his film in Manhattan. They heard the first plane hit, and then halted everything and ran up to the roof of the Lower East Side building they were shooting in to watch as the horrible drama unfolded before their eyes. Filming was halted, with no date set to resume.

Cut to spring 2003, and the situation was roughly reversed. I relocated to New York and am now in pre-production for my second film. Peter's film, which he eventually finished, was set to open in New York on March 28, and the country teetered on the verge of war. Peter jokingly said, "we should start a support group for each other. This is ridiculous!"

In between promotions for "Vargas", Peter and I sat down over Brooklyn Lagers (back to familiar East Coast beers) in a bar in Manhattan and tried to make sense of our experiences.

KORNBLUTH: I want to talk a little bit about your film coming out during the war. But first, let's talk about Sept. 11. You were shooting your film then, right? What was that week like for you?

SOLLETT: We had five days left of shooting, so at that point we were in a rhythm. It was only a 25-day shoot, so we were pretty far along. We had gone through a walk-through with the cast of the scenes we were going to shoot, and [Tim Orr, the cinematographer] and I had chosen the shots and the angles, and I was walking to the holding area where the actors were when I saw a low-flying plane overhead. I didn't think anything of it at the time, just that the plane was too low. A minute or two later when I was in the holding area, I heard this bang, but I didn't connect it to the plane. There was a [production assistant] who was nearby, and I heard over his walkie-talkie that something had happened to the World Trade Centers, so we went up to the roof to see what was happening. We saw it, but at first we didn't know what we were looking at -- we were close and could see smoke coming from 8 floors of windows or so, but it could have been an electrical fire. We didn't know at first.

The soundman had a radio on his cart, and we all were listening. When we figured out what was going on, everyone was freaking out and trying to call their loved ones to make sure that they were OK. The producer, Robin O'Hara, did her usual great job during times of pressure or crisis. She made sure everybody had a task, everybody had to walk someone home and make sure that they were safe. The grip, electric crew went down to work on the bucket brigade at ground zero, and the caterer just threw open its doors and told people to take whatever they wanted. I walked some of the cast home 'cause there was no public transportation, and then later watched with everyone else on TV.

KORNBLUTH: What was the rest of the week like?

SOLLETT: I remember that the word was out that the theaters were throwing open the doors and showing movies to anyone who wanted to come for free. The movie was just on hold, the movie didn't seem to matter. I went and watched "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." It was fantastic, and really helped me escape from what was going on. I was determined to stay in Manhattan for some reason, but I ended up leaving by the 13th or 14th. The actual reason I ended up leaving was because it was really difficult to breathe. There was all this dust and particulate matter in the air, everyone was wearing these masks, and I was hacking constantly. You couldn't breathe in Manhattan.

OK, I have a question for you. What was it like for you having your film open then?

KORNBLUTH: All the people from Sony Classics were in Toronto for the Toronto Film Festival. I just couldn't reach them. The phones weren't working to their New York offices, and they weren't letting anybody cross the borders or travel from Canada. All I knew was that they were stuck in Canada. I wrote a frantic e-mail to them asking if we could delay the opening. A couple days later I got a message from one of those blackberry hand-held e-mail devices, with lots of spelling errors and commas where there's supposed to be apostrophes and all that stuff, that said "its out of our hands."

Since then, I've thought a lot about how long it takes to make a film and that the release is so compressed, you get a week or two to make it happen. If it doesn't stick, there's no second chance. There's just a small window of opportunity to perform.

SOLLETT: It's like sex. A great deal of build-up, and then you get there and its going to work out or its not.

KORNBLUTH: I guess if you only had sex once every two years. That's pressure, right? I mean, you'd want it to be good. Anyhow, stepping out of the big political picture for a second, I basically remember thinking a lot about how long it took to get there, and how quickly it was all happening.

SOLLETT: Do you think that what's happening over in Iraq will change your future filmmaking in any way?

KORNBLUTH: Well, yes. But it's complicated. I'm not sure that I'm capable of thinking about filmmaking in overtly political terms. When I think about politics directly in a personal way, I feel irrelevant.

SOLLETT: I know a filmmaker, Emily Young, who lives in London and got to meet Ken Loach once. She met him in the edit room when he was cutting "My Name is Joe," and she said to him, "Ken you've made so many films, you have so many technical abilities in your toolbox, I wonder if you'd ever apply them to a different kind of film." And he essentially said, "Life's too short." I guess I feel the same way. Not for doing something overtly political, but that life's too short for me to make a film that isn't in some way fundamentally ... humanist. That primarily deals in some way with the human condition. Now, there's a great deal of latitude within that as far as what to do that I think is humanist. Everything from "2001: A Space Odyssey" to Cassavetes fits as far as I'm concerned. I just don't think I could make a film about ... Oh, I don't know, mechanical spiders invading Jamaica.

KORNBLUTH: Well, OK, if you say so. I guess I'll hold you to that.

SOLLETT: Unless, of course, you really got into why the spiders were doing it ... . You were talking before about how long it takes to make a movie. I could not spend two years on a movie that didn't have the ability to comment on what we do to one another. And why. You were the one who said you think that's inherently political, though. That it's a political decision.

KORNBLUTH: I do think that's political.

SOLLETT: You were the one who said [before the interview] that you thought "Victor Vargas" was a political film, in its choice of subject matter.

KORNBLUTH: I do think "Victor Vargas" is a political film in that way. Actually, that answer is probably my rationalization for my inability to think in any overtly political way. I believe that you make a powerful political choice the minute you decide who speaks. Who has the podium, who's at the podium. By deciding who you're telling stories about, to my mind, is one of the most powerful political statements I can imagine making. I think "Raising Victor Vargas" is political in that it tells the story of Latino characters in a way that seems incredibly honest and real. That felt powerful.

That's not true for everyone, obviously. There's direct political activism, and direct political filmmakers like Ken Loach. But that's not how my mind works. I guess I think a lot about who has the podium.

SOLLETT: Why do you think there was such a problem for people at the Oscars when Michael Moore made his antiwar statement?

KORNBLUTH: I guess they don't want to hear it from filmmakers. The real question is if they don't have a problem with him making a political film, why would it be a problem if he makes a political statement when he has the podium.

SOLLETT: I don't get how they're different.

KORNBLUTH: I know, it's weird. I guess they'd be more comfortable with him making a film about it, vs. standing on stage and talking about it.

SOLLETT: Its amazing to me. The irony. Because he's making a political film, sure. But you were talking about choice of subject earlier, and with "Bowling for Columbine," he's not only making a film about the culture of fear in our country, but also the culture of silence that surrounds our national paranoia. It's that same mechanism with him, the same mechanism that made the movie is causing him to make that statement at the Oscars.

KORNBLUTH: Are you talking about the fact that nobody's calling him out for the film, but they are calling him out for making the statement at the Oscars?

SOLLETT: I'm just saying that now there's a culture of silence that you aren't supposed to question. You're supposed to listen to the TV, listen to the government, and everything will be OK. Let's capture some oil wells, liberate some people ... there'll be trickle down wealth for everyone and we'll all be happy. [Laughs.] I mean, people pouring the French wine down the sewers and all that, what did the French do that's so wrong? Can't they have a dissenting opinion? A point of view? I [didn't] think it's un-American to disagree with the government because the war's started and people's lives are at stake. To me, it's still valuable. I like that someone has a different point of view.

KORNBLUTH: Remember how before I turned the microphone on you were saying that you didn't know how political you were comfortable being?

SOLLETT: I might be able to make a political film one day. Not now, I don't think I'm there yet. But all the great ones of the '70s are built around scandal, you know? Like "All the President's Men," or corruption in "Serpico," or ... I suppose you need something like that. As a story, you need the underdog struggling against the establishment's repression of the truth to make it personal and human. It'd be tough to make a film about something vague like a culture of silence. I mean, what the hell is that? I think I could make a political film one day, though. I think you could, too.

KORNBLUTH: Maybe, I don't know. If I did, it'd be the toughest thing I can think of doing. I'd be battling a lot of personal baggage. I mean, I feel like a political person, but in some way I've definitely felt paralyzed politically my whole life. It's even difficult for me to describe, but I have this feeling when I think about politics that I'm marginalized ... irrelevant, like my voice doesn't matter. I'm sure I do it to myself. It's definitely heavy stuff for me. From a very young age, connecting in any directly political way seemed so far out of the realm of possibility for some reason that connecting to it artistically would be really hard.

SOLLETT: But I happen to know you're signing petitions and marching against the war.

KORNBLUTH: True. I mean, I feel that as a citizen in a democracy its part of my responsibility to engage, to have something to say about the laws and the people that govern me. That's different than filmmaking, though.

OK, I have a question for you. You've lived in New York your whole life, and with the reviews "Victor Vargas" has been getting, it's going to play in parts of the country you've never visited. What do you think about when you think of it playing in the middle of the country?

SOLLETT: First, I'll be happy if anybody anywhere sees it, then I'll worry about their reaction. I hope everyone 'll like it. In many ways I think that it's a universal story, but I guess if anything I think it becomes more political outside of New York, only because the portrayal of the Latino and black community that they've seen is all about gangstas and drugs and guns. All the "NYPD Blues" and whatever open up with a Latino or Black committing a crime, then the white people come and clean it up.

But I definitely hope they'll like it.

By Jacob Kornbluth

Jacob Kornbluth co-wrote and co-directed "Haiku Tunnel" with his brother Josh. Shooting for his second film, "The Best Thief in the World," is scheduled to begin the summer.

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