By: Andy Hunsaker on December 11,2009
Once a week, we’ll pick out one of Fancast’s many full-length free feature films to spotlight. Sure, you’ll check out the big stuff like Body of Evidence, Dead Man Walking and The Elephant Man, but the smaller movies need shout-outs, too.
The movie of the week is A Modern Affair, which stars Lisa Eichhorn as Grace Rhodes, a successful businesswoman who has made it to her 40s without ever managing to achieve her personal goals of love and a family. When she decides her biological clock is ticking too loudly, she eventually decides to visit a sperm bank in order to have a child. However, as her pregnancy goes on, she becomes insatiably curious about the donor, and her investigation leads her to photographer Peter Kessler (Stanley Tucci, also starring in this year’s Oscar contender The Lovely Bones), who is conflicted by his committment issues and his resulting loneliness. When the two actually meet, things start to happen, and Grace has to wrestle with whether or not to tell the truth. Watch A Modern Affair, and then check out our Q&A with director Vern Oakley below.
Q&A with A Modern Affair Director Vern Oakley
Q. What would you say to someone sitting down to watch this film for the first time, knowing nothing about it?
Vern Oakley: Enjoy the story, let me know what you think. We would love your comments on the web. It’s a non traditional love story, that really is about the risks of the heart that we all have to take to connect with someone. Our hero, Grace is looking for love, but what she decides instead is to have a baby. As a brand consultant she is caught up in image and hasn’t bothered to explore beneath the surface. This was Stanley Tucci’s first starring role and I still think one of his best. His character Peter, is a photographer who like to do nature shots, as “people mess up the shot.” This is a story of two guarded people discovering love and intimacy in the most unusual of circumstances.
Q. What was the inspiration for writing the story for this film? Is it autobiographical at all?
Oakley: Two things, I got married and my daughter was born. So I was thinking about both things, what romantic love meant and what loving my daughter meant. And I was marveling at how I had wound up in this wonderful situation. I realized that it had to do with opening my heart up to the risks of truly committing to one person. At the same time a good friend was researching sperm banks for a potential thriller, which didn’t work out, but I thought the sperm bank idea was a brilliant way to get two people together in the most odd and unconnected fashion. Thematically it is autobiographical, but I have never been a sperm donor.
Q. How did the project come together? Was it difficult to get this film off the ground and into production? What were the major challenges?
Oakley: I was toying with these themes and the sperm bank concept and had committed to myself to make a feature in the next 12 months. As soon as that happened, I was introduced to a brilliant playwright, Paul Zimmerman, that was making the switch to feature writing. We started collaborating on the story and the script was finished in less than 6 months. The most difficult part was truly allowing myself to believe I could make this film in a year. We wrote the part with Stanley in mind, not thinking that we would get him, and then it turned out that a friend knew him. Stanley and I met, hit it off, he loved the script and we started production 90 days later. Money of course was an issue, we did the whole film in an 18 day shoot, 35mm for under $500,000. Our main “promised” investor dropped out a week before shooting. I realized we had a great story, we had an amazing cast and a dedicated crew and we need to shoot right away before some part of the package left. I just believed somehow the money would follow. Two days after losing our main investor, my company, Tribe Pictures got a corporate film job that needed to be completed in 6 days. It was a huge job for a Fortune 50 company and we plowed all the profits from that project into “A Modern Affair”. We started production 10 days after the other film finished. We had to stop and raise money in the middle of production to continue, but within 11 months of starting with this little idea we had the movie in the can.
Q. How was the casting process? Any surprises in the cast you finally got together?
Oakley: I came from a theater background having directed Off-Broadway and studied acting at the Actor’s Studio with Arthur Penn and Ellen Burstyn, so performance was critical to me, since the script is both funny and very dramatic. So I was delighted when Bernie Telsey agreed to cast the movie. He and his team were absolutely amazing and had cast the majority of Broadway productions and at that time and just a few movies. The quality of the actors who auditioned were sensational. We actually wound up with 5 Tony winners in the cast. The big surprise was to reconnect with Caroline Aaron, who I had been together with in an acting class in Washington DC. We hadn’t seen each other in years, but when she stepped through the door, I knew she would be perfect for Elaine, Lisa’s best friend.
Q. How different is the final project from the original script?
Oakley: In the original script we had a parallel structure, you meet her, we meet him and back and forth. In the movie we realized that the main character of Grace came off a little more brittle and it took awhile to warm up to her and get into her story. This actually improved the movie since it also helped to keep Stanley’s character as a mystery a bit longer. The ending remained the same. Some had suggest a Hollywood ending, but what we did was more real and I believe ultimately more satisfying.
Q. Are there any particular scenes you like the best, or that you’d like audiences to really take note of?
Oakley: One of my two favorite scenes is the first time Lisa and Caroline meets Stanley at his gallery. They know who he is, Lisa is pregnant with his baby, Caroline is pushing them to meet, there so much subtext, humor and drama and its a 7 pages all shot in a small photo gallery. Very challenging but I feel it works. The other one was when Lindsay (Mary Jo Salerno) comes to tell Stanley that their affair is over. You could hear a pin drop when we were shooting, every member of the crew was crying and trying not to ruin the take. This scene really packs an emotional wallop and many fans have told me it is the best scene in the movie.
Q. How about any scenes that were particularly challenging to shoot?
Oakley: The most challenging scene to shoot was the scene where Lisa tells Stanley that she is pregnant with his baby. We were running late that day and a huge rainstorm hit us and almost shut us down. We wound up shooting part of the scene in the midst of a the thunderstorm and then rescheduling the interior to another day. We actually shot the interior of Stanley’s cabin, in NYC. You’d never know.
Q. What would you say is the overall message you’d like people to take away from the film?
Oakley: Love is risky business, but the alternative of isolating and protecting yourself is a much, much greater risk.