Friday, January 11, 2008

The Beginning, and Then the End

Editor's note: "Family Trees" made its web debut here at See the picture below. Lars Trodson wrote and produced "Family Trees".

By Lars Trodson

The big lie, to me, was that you could finance the whole thing on your credit card. The truth of the matter is it was several credit cards, and if you don’t sell your movie you’re in debt for years.

But that was the excitement of the independent film movement in the mid-1990s. This was the era of “The Brothers McMullen” -- the Ed Burns film that was picked up and distributed by a major studio and grossed millions of dollars.

There was possibility in the air. If I remember correctly, and please forgive me because this was more than 10 years ago, there was an ad by a credit card company in movie trade journals that showed a picture of their card and called it “your movie studio.”


I left my job at The Portsmouth Herald, where director Ralph Morang also worked, and decided to pursue this unlikely dream. We subscribed to the Sylvester Stallone philosophy, who said, when he wrote and made “Rocky”, that if he knew the obstacles ahead he never would have pursued the project.

So we simply plowed ahead. We had no money, but plenty of ambition and, I hope, some talent. When Gregg Trzaskowski and Lisa Stathoplos came on board, we felt the movie might indeed have a chance. I loved those two, as well as the other actors who came on board. The actors, every one of them, to a person, were not only talented, but lovely people as well. I think our shoot was a happy one.

When we started filming, it was a clear blue autumn in New Hampshire , and the tone was right, and we felt free working in New Hampshire because we were not encumbered by permits or red tape. We just set up our dollies in the middle of Market Square in Portsmouth and Ralph and the great Ron Wyman, our cinematographer, started to set up their shots.

We had a budget, but no money in the bank. I got money from all over the place. Ralph’s mother’s boyfriend was a huge help, a big believer, and passionate enough to keep us going. I got money over the bar one night in a tavern in Portsmouth and the guy said, “Don’t tell my wife.” I called my brother, and my parents, and then there were all those credit cards.

We shot the movie on 16mm film, and there was a guy at Kodak, his name was Paul Good, who had, in an unbelievable bit of coincidence, met my brother at a party in Rhode Island . I can’t remember the exchange exactly, but they were talking at the party, and Paul Good was talking to my brother Brad, and Brad said that his brother was making an independent film in New Hampshire . Paul said, I’m working with the guy in New Hampshire , and his name is Lars, And then Brad said “that’s my brother” -- and after that Paul was a huge help in getting us the film stock we needed at a price we could afford. He was a great guy.

Ralph’s assessment on how he came about to direct the movie is as simple as he said it. We had talked about movies here and there, and he came by the house one day and said he wanted to direct it, and I said OK. That was it, and he did a magnificent job. We had one major fight, right on the last weekend, about his staging of the final scene. I think the end result there is a little bit of a compromise on both our parts. But I think you will see his staging and the handling of the actors and the way they read their lines is accomplished and quite lovely.

I’m proud of the script, and didn’t realize until much later on how many parts for women I had written -- good, strong parts for people past the age of ingénues. Of course, that does not mean these women are not attractive or sexy -- I think all of them are -- and it’s nice to see these characters fleshed out by so many accomplished actors.

Our little crew was exceptional, and we were all bit by the fever of making an independent film in New Hampshire , which had not been done in some time. There was Vickie Brown and Eric Gleske and Sue Morse and Kem Taylor and a whole slew of people who gave their time and energy and talent to make this happen.

We submitted a trailer to the Independent Film Market in New York City in 1997, and we were accepted as a work in progress. We got a fair amount of press, and then a bunch of us went down and lobbied for the film.

There was, as incredible as it may seem now, some buzz about the film. These things are strange; there is a surreal aspect to it. Someone who I did not know at the festival said that Penguin Books wanted to talk to me about a novelization of the screenplay, but as far as I know that was just a weird thing to say. It certainly never happened.

The IFM lasts a week, and about half way through it, fueled by bouts of ale at McSorley’s, I had had enough, and said as much to some other filmmaker. I said, I don’t think I’m ever going to make another movie; I hate it. And then after that, for the rest of the week, I had some strange kind of “Bonfire of the Vanities” celebrity because I became known as the guy who didn’t want to make movies. One filmmaker said they would die if they didn’t make films. On the last night of the festival, when I repeated my desire for anonymity, a filmmaker fairly yelled at me by saying: “You can take that whole thing too far!” I said I wasn’t pretending, I didn’t want to do this shtick. I didn’t write another screenplay, by the way, for 10 years.

As I said, there was some interest in the film. I made contacts, but every time I called that person at this or that studio, they seemed to have left their job. I was asked to resend the video -- these were cassettes back in those days -- but nothing ever happened. I would make calls to people I had met, and it was always, “We’re going to get this thing bought, buddy!” but I never heard back. And then time, and life, intervened.

I look back on the movie now and have an incredible sense of pride about it. It’s beautifully done, and I know the acting is uneven, and so is the production, but with what we had we did a great job. And, we finished it, which is a lot more than people do sometimes.

It took my wife and me several years to pay off our debt on this thing, and then the old enthusiasm came back, slowly, and movies still hold their allure for me. Mike Gillis and I are enamored of the David Lynch school of filmmaking, and we hope to make a series of small, surreal, lovely little films with a minimum crew on little or no money. That’s the plan, anyway.

It’s funny how times change. Back then, I had to go to Boston every week and write a check to DuArt to get our developed film -- which lingers now in boxes in my attic -- and now we can store an entire film on tiny little video cassettes.

The medium may have changed, but that does not mean the desire, or the possibilities, do not loom as large as they did when we started “Family Trees”, more than a decade ago.