Archive for February, 2012

Q&A with Rich Sommer

Monday, February 27th, 2012


Interview by Greg Carlson

Actor Rich Sommer is best known for playing Harry Crane on “Mad Men,” but his extensive performing credits include appearances on “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “CSI,” “Law & Order,” “Without a Trace,” “Ugly Betty,” “Nikita,” and “Burn Notice.” He made his feature film debut in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

This week Sommer returns to Fargo-Moorhead, where he graduated from Concordia College, as a special guest of the Fargo Film Festival. Along with Matt Walsh, Sommer will be headlining “Celebrity,” the closing night event of the film festival on Saturday, March 10.

 GC: I read in another interview that you made haunted houses as a kid. What was your best ever Halloween costume?

Rich Sommer: My mom usually made our costumes. They were pretty great. I think the family favorite is when I was a magician, and my brother was a rabbit popping out of a hat. She also made a Kermit costume that was a hit. She is crafty. Now she makes costumes for our kids. It’s a nice nostalgia buzz.


GC: Did you perform as a kid?

RS: Kind of. I was Johnny Tremain in the Newberry Elementary School production of “Johnny Tremain” when I was six. Otherwise, just school and church plays. I didn’t take any of it too seriously.


GC: What movie do you know by heart?

RS: “Dumb & Dumber.”


GC: Your ardent followers know you love board games. Which is your favorite?

RS: Die Macher, which no one reading this has ever heard of.


GC: Did you read comic books growing up?

RS: A little bit, but not with any consistency. There was an issue of Batman where he runs into this vampire girl and her parents are dead and it was terrifying.


GC: Your Fargo-Moorhead fans would love to hear an interesting anecdote or memory from your time at Concordia.

RS: There are too many to mention. Walks to Mick’s Office from campus, performing in a tiny room at Noah’s Coffee with my improv group, that tiny Statue of Liberty across the bridge. It’s all rolling around in there.


GC: You met your wife in Cleveland in graduate school. How were you introduced to one another? Was it love at first sight?

RS: We were two of an eight-member class. I thought she was a knockout, but we didn’t hit it off right away. It wasn’t until about halfway through our time in Cleveland that we even acknowledged any interest in one another.


GC: The actor’s life means maintaining some wild hours. What are some of the things you do to balance career with being a father and husband?

RS: The nice thing is that mine is not a nine-to-five job. I usually work two or so days a week at “Mad Men,” and am around the rest of the time. When I’m traveling, it’s harder. Lots of FaceTime and phone calls. I miss them a lot.


GC: Can you tell us a little bit about Matt Walsh and Celebrity? What can we expect to see on stage Saturday night at the Fargo Film Festival?

RS: Matt Walsh is one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv group and school with theaters in New York and Los Angeles. He is one of my idols, basically. He asked me a while ago if I would host a new stage show he had come up with called “Celebrity.” It’s a stage version of a popular party game. What can you expect Saturday? We have no idea. We are doing an approximation of our show, which is already an approximation of a real show. So expect a couple guys grasping for straws. And it might even be funny.


GC: What will you be doing for the March 25 premiere of the fifth season of “Mad Men”?

RS: I’ll be with my wife’s family in Minnesota. I can’t wait.

The Power of Two at the Fargo Film Festival

Monday, February 20th, 2012


Interview by Greg Carlson

“The Power of Two,” the honorable mention recipient in the documentary feature category of the 2012 Fargo Film Festival, will be screened on Wednesday, March 7 at 10:30 a.m. (followed by a lunch panel) and again at 7 p.m. (followed by a Q&A). Twins Ana and Isa Stenzel, along with producer Andrew Byrnes and director Marc Smolowitz, will be in Fargo for the events. Greg Carlson talked to the team about their experiences making the film.


GC: The original “The Power of Two” book project was an undertaking by itself. At what point did the idea for a feature length documentary really germinate and move from thought into action?

Andrew Byrnes: Marc came up with the idea to make a documentary inspired by Isa and Ana’s memoir shortly before the twins were set to tour Japan in fall 2009 to support the publication of the Japanese version of their book. I knew Marc as an Academy Award-nominated documentarian through mutual philanthropic work in San Francisco. I approached him to inquire whether he knew of anyone in Japan who could film a few of Ana and Isa’s speeches during their 26 day, 10 city tour.

They had been rehearsing night and day to deliver in Japanese 19 speeches about cystic fibrosis and organ transplantation, which is rare and controversial in Japan. Marc was intrigued and asked to read their memoir.  He quickly contacted us and said that he wanted to be the one to film the twins in Japan, and that not only would the story make a powerful documentary but could be the center of a global call to action around organ donation and cystic fibrosis awareness. Less than three months later we were in Japan for the first shoot of the film!

Marc Smolowitz: I fell in love with Ana and Isa as writers and as characters when I read their co-authored memoir. I see Ana and Isa as both ordinary and extraordinary women, which reminds us that we often see such humbling and familiar contrasts in our own lives. They are entirely approachable yet somehow also bigger than life. Ultimately, it is their twin bond that resonates on-screen with immense power – the kind that transcends boundaries of culture, race and nation.

I look forward to sharing Ana and Isa’s stories of survival with the world. I am quite sure that audiences will embrace them with the same openness and excitement that they themselves bring to every day. For me, it truly has been a highlight of my life and career to make this film. I have learned so much about what it means to be an advocate for something bigger than myself.


GC: The production spent significant time on the road to collect all the necessary footage. How many miles did you log? How did you balance the demands of the shoot with personal and professional lives?

Andrew: We logged lots of miles!  We shot over 240 hours of footage in 27 cities in three countries.  In terms of “balance” (quotes intentional), the project really became my baby, consuming lots of my waking hours outside of work.  Because we were not just making a film but also building an offline and online community around the film and related causes, our task was particularly large.  Thankfully we had a great team who understood the mission and worked really hard to accomplish our goals of completing the film and making a difference.

Isa Stenzel-Byrnes: I remained free from a paid job to make time for film shoots and production efforts. That being said, I certainly slacked off on some other projects as the film dominated our 2010! Most of 2009 focused on the Japan tour and learning Japanese. Although Ana and I are “subjects” and Marc was the filmmaker, Ana and I remained very involved with efforts to coordinate community film shoots, raise funds, and recruit reputable interview subjects. So, the time demands were intense and it truly was a team effort.

Ana Stenzel: I don’t have an exact number of miles that we logged except to estimate that it was in the thousands, and we surely built up our frequent flier miles! Balancing our personal and professional lives was not easy. I am fortunate to have a very understanding boss and arranged for most of my travel on weekends. My husband has been very supportive as I leave him frequently and spend more time on the computer than with him. In between film shoots, I was able to still take care of my health (a top priority) and spend time with family and friends. Fortunately, our lives post-transplant have afforded us great amounts of energy so that we can pack in a lot in 24 hours.

Marc: The collaboration with Ana, Isa and Andrew was a remarkable experience, and everyone worked incredibly hard over the course of the 22 months it took to make the movie. The post-production phase was particularly intense, with myself, two editors, a music producer and music editor working with many others upward of 100 hours per week to get the film finished. As a filmmaker, I was so fortunate to have so many people at the top of their game on my creative team.

We were all heavily invested in making a successful film that would have a powerful impact on audiences. Everyone felt a strong connection to Ana and Isa’s story, and the other stories featured in the movie. Everyone who worked on the film pushed themselves to deliver their best work. I was incredibly proud of the productive way in which we all worked together. Long hours, for the love of the craft. Truly an inspiration for everyone involved.


GC: As you sorted through footage and assembled what would become the final version, what was the hardest scene to cut out?

Marc: There were many scenes that were built that I loved that did not make it into the movie, and I hope they will find their way into DVD extras down the road. There is one scene that did not make it into the movie that was one of the first scenes we edited, and it was literally in the timeline in different places until about 36-48 hours before picture lock. It featured the twins at San Francisco Great Strides, an annual fundraising walk to raise money for CF.

The scene featured an additional story line about a friend of Ana and Isa named Charlie Stockley, who had CF and died waiting for a transplant. As we edited the movie, it became clear that this scene was more like a mini-documentary of its own that took viewers out of the movie. As much as I loved this scene, for the good of the movie, I made a very difficult to remove it. It was one of the toughest decisions I had to make while in post-production. I did not make it lightly, but in the end, I know I made the right decision. I think every filmmaker has a scene like this that he or she has to choose to get rid of in the context of a feature length film.


GC: Whether viewing alone or with an audience, which moment in the film provides you with the greatest thrill or sense of accomplishment?

Isa: My favorite scene in the movie is the opening, with the swimming at the National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games. It epitomizes the gift of transplant and the theme of the film: pure freedom, normalcy and health offered by transplantation. It also has nothing to do with sickness or my patient identity.

Andrew: As a producer, I am all about production value and giving something extraordinary and unexpected to the audience.  So I love the particularly cinematic moments, especially the scene of the twins blowing bubbles on a bridge in Virginia to honor their organ donors. Also, I adore the soundtrack, which our music supervisor Nicole Dionne so brilliantly weaved throughout the story.  Every time I see the film I’m still blown away by the music.

Ana: I am most humbled when I see my donor family in the film. They are incredibly gracious people who literally saved my life – without them, none of this would be possible. I am so proud of their courage of being public with their story despite their emotional pain. I am proud to know such quality human beings, who gave to others unconditionally at the moment of personal tragedy and despair.

Personally, I am most proud when the film opens with the inscription stating the film is inspired by a memoir written by Anabel & Isabel Stenzel. We wrote the book ourselves, with little input from others so there is true ownership there. Without the book, the film would not have happened. We continue to receive positive feedback from readers, many of whom are touched by CF and find hope and guidance in our writing. Touching people’s lives and easing the burden of CF for others in our own small way is the most gratifying part of this journey.

Marc: There is a scene in Japan where the twins are on a boat ride in Japan, reflecting on the relationship they have with their donors and how organ transplantation transcends boundaries of race. The scene comes out of a beautiful shot of balloons being released into the sky at the Green Ribbon Running Festival in Tokyo, and then it literally soars onward, taking the viewer on a kind of cinematic journey that allows time for reflection, introspection and rest.

For me, I wanted to pepper the film with these sorts of entirely cinematic movements, not something you often encounter in a documentary. In a film with many characters, many interviews, many intense screens, and many emotional moments, it was so important to allow audiences the time to literally BREATHE and appreciate their own breath. The entire film is edited like this, but this specific boat ride scene is for me when that approach works as a powerful coming together of theatricality and documentary.


GC: Can you describe the most memorable or surprising viewer response to the movie?

Isa: In Portland, a young woman with CF approached me, in tears and unable to collect herself. She finally shared how Ana and I were her “heroes” because she needed to believe things would be okay for her, and she needed to know there were others like her, struggling with the same disease.

Ana: Through the power of outreach and the media, people from all walks of our lives have somehow heard of the film and come to see it. At our Washington DC premiere, a woman approached us, stating she was our babysitter when we were 5 years old. Clearly we didn’t remember her, but she read about a film about twins with CF in the paper and remembered us. That was a small, small world!

Another wonderful response I received from the film was from two separate people with cystic fibrosis who saw the film and were so moved by it. They both stated that they started to take better care of themselves and be more compliant with their medical regimen because of the film. To know that our story motivated our comrades to fight this challenging disease was truly gratifying.

Marc: For me, it was very powerful to show the film in Tokyo at the Tokyo International Film Festival and have it so well received by Japanese audiences. At one of the Tokyo festival screenings, 3 people from the Japan section of the film were also in the audience – Mrs. Nakazawa, a mother/advocate who lost her baby while trying to go to the USA for him to receive a transplant; Mr. Tanaka, a donor father who lost his daughter and said yes to donation; and Taro Kono, a Japanese politician who led the charge to change the transplant law in Japan.

Having all three of them there was very powerful for me, and the fact that they all loved the movie and cheered for its success was the strongest validation I could ever ask for. It was so important for me to make a film that the Japanese could receive well, and in the case of these three people – who opted in to be interviewed and share their stories – delivering on their trust was paramount for me. That night in Tokyo, it all came together beautifully in every way.

Q&A with Allison Schulnik

Monday, February 13th, 2012


Interview by Greg Carlson

Multi-faceted artist Allison Schulnik has earned a reputation as a phenomenon in several disciplines, from music to painting to filmmaking. Her latest short “Mound” was recently named the honorable mention in animation for the 2012 Fargo Film Festival. A stunning piece of stop-motion that uses clay, fabric, and other materials to breathe life into a group of morphing figures, “Mound” is perfectly choreographed to Scott Walker’s unforgettable “It’s Raining Today.”

GC: If I understand the history correctly, the beginning of your relationship with Grizzly Bear occurred when you first contacted the band about using “Granny Diner” for your film “Hobo Clown.” Had you known them before or did you just hold your breath and take a chance?

AS: That’s righto.  I did not know them, I wanted to use the song for “Hobo Clown” and wrote their label.  They said yes.  Then the following year, they asked me to do a piece for the song “Ready, Able.”  Thus came “Forest.”


GC: Your passion for the arts extends beyond animation to include painting, sculpture, music, and dance. I get exhausted just thinking about it. Are a workaholic? Are you in a race against time?

AS: Righto again.  I am a workaholic.  A lifer.  Definitely in the race.  Really making stuff is just a way to stay sane (relatively).


GC: The Hobo Clown, who embodies this dialectic of hope/despair and laughter/tears has evolved into one of your signature subjects. Did you spend time attending the circus as a child? Were you afraid of clowns?

AS: Most of my paintings are portraits of myself, friends and loved ones, and even people I see on the street and don’t know at all.   I love the circus.  I love musical theater, dance and performance.  I love the performer, and I love clowns.  I was never really afraid of clowns, I don’t think. Of course, many people are I hear. Coulrophobia.  I can understand how a clown could be seen as sinister.  It seems like people are more scared of clowns today than in the past.

Maybe the whole idea of hiding your face really scares people because there is some kind of dishonesty in it; you cannot be read.  However, really I see the clown’s makeup as his truest expression.  I like the escapism of it all, the fantasy of it.  Not having to be yourself.  People want you to stay in reality, not to present something that is unreal.  Maybe that’s why some children love clowns, because they celebrate fantasy.  There are so many different kinds of clowns.  There is just something really appealing to me about the character of the Hobo Clown, something very honest and beautifully tragic.


GC: You have described working to loud music of varied genres from metal to show tunes, and whenever you mention Streisand, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” materializes in my head. Do you have a favorite Streisand recording? Do you ever sing along?

AS: One of my favorites from Babs for sure.  Also a big fan of the heart-wrenching “Papa Can You Hear Me,”  the sultry duet “Guilty” with Barry Gibb, and of course the completely perfect song that is “Send in the Clowns.”  It’s really too hard to choose just one. I could go on forever.  Unfortunately for my studio neighbors, I do sing along.


GC: What was the most valuable thing about attending CalArts and studying with Jules Engel? The man’s career is almost beyond comprehension.

AS: Every moment at CalArts was rewarding.  I loved the Experimental Animation program I was in.  What an amazing program it was with Jules heading it. Every Monday morning, he’d open your brain and feed you only the tastiest in avant-garde animated masterpieces for 3 hours, while exclaiming in his questionably thick Austrian accent, “What a Gem” and “Did you see those Lakers over the weekend?”  I cannot even imagine the program without him.  I also can’t imagine the Character Animation program – where I spent half my time – without the brilliant Corny Cole and Mike Mitchell, who also passed recently.  They were my three greatest teachers, and definitely the best thing about CalArts.


GC: I know you like “King Kong.” Can you identify a transcendent moment or two in O’Brien’s animation? I can’t tell you how many times I have replayed Kong testing the hinge of his dead adversary’s jaw or trying to comprehend the impact of the biplane machine guns.

AS: Good parts indeed.  You have to love Kong’s first reveal, and I hate to be typical but I do love the entire sequence of the Empire State Building climb.  How can you not?


GC: What was the first piece of art that you sold? How did that make you feel?

AS: I can’t remember.  I was hustling my work on the beach, and to neighbors and family friends when I was like 14.  I think it must’ve been one of these pastels I was doing.  I would go around and do pastels of alleys.  Not sure why alleys, maybe because you could be alone in them and people wouldn’t bother you, or they have more trash and irregularities which make them more interesting.  It made me feel good to sell them.


GC: I think I have watched “Mound” a hundred times and every time I see it I never want it to end. Have you considered making longer-form animations?

AS: Yes, definitely.  Every film I make starts out as a feature, and then it ends up becoming a short.  “Mound” might be the first section of a feature in many parts.  Or not.


Monday, February 6th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

We are less than two months into the new year and “Chronicle” isn’t even the first movie to feature the gimmick suggesting that its entire story was compiled from found material shot by characters on personal camcorders and supplemented by news footage and security tapes. That dubious distinction belongs to “The Devil Inside,” a failed rehash of every cliché of the exorcism genre that feels plagiarized from first frame to last. In “Chronicle,” director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis, working from a story they co-wrote, angle for the superhero/science fiction action thriller instead, and their movie operates like a mashup of the “X-Men” series and “Cloverfield.”

Although the ideological origins of the phony documentary technique date back at least as far as “Cannibal Holocaust” in 1980, the contemporary popularity of the “recovered footage” genre/style owes nearly everything to “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, which collected more than a quarter of a billon dollars on a final budget of less than one million. No matter how well constructed (and who supposedly edits these things into tidy feature-length entertainments anyway?), the home movie approach carries with it the constant threat of irritation and annoyance at the deliberately jittery handheld compositions and the artifice of the confessional and direct camera address.

Bullied Seattle teen Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) religiously archives the events of his life with his prized video camera, from the regular abuse of his alcoholic father to the painful decline of his cancer-stricken mother. Along with his better-adjusted cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the popular quarterback Steve (Michael B. Jordan), Andrew attends a late night party where the trio acquires supernatural abilities after coming into contact with a crystalline substance deep inside a mysterious hole in the ground. Learning to control their telekinetic powers, the boys triangulate into id (Andrew’s unchecked wish fulfillment), ego (Steve’s calm and more measured skill development) and superego (Matt’s moral centeredness and sense of conscience).

While “Chronicle” fails to overcome its superficial philosophizing – Nietzsche’s name is perhaps deliberately unspoken even though several other thinkers are referenced – the impressive deployment of visual effects juices the action with a handful of genuinely stimulating scenes. As the young men teach themselves to fly, the ever-present camera journeys skyward with them, presenting a bird’s eye view of freedom in the clouds as good as anything in films with much bigger budgets. Most of the depictions of mind over matter succeed precisely because they seem exactly like the sort of stunts teenagers with newfound gifts would attempt.

Most disappointingly, “Chronicle” adheres strictly to a male point of view, miserably failing the Bechdel Test even though one promising female character played by Ashley Hinshaw shares Andrew’s penchant for near non-stop personal video recording. Initially, Hinshaw’s Casey appears to be headed toward a position as a voice of reason, but the script rapidly pigeonholes her as a passive love interest for Matt, and she essentially fades from prominent view. By the last act, Andrew’s supervillain act backs “Chronicle” into a familiar corner, and the story has nowhere to go but down.