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Must See Indies: "The Night Listener," "The Puffy Chair" and "Half Nelson"

by Anthony Kaufman
August 4, 2006 2:26 AM
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What a good month for American indie cinema: Patrick Stettner's captivating second feature "The Night Listener" and the Duplass brothers' "The Puffy Chair" finally debut in New York City, while one of the strongest debuts in recent memory "Half Nelson," directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, opens next Friday. All three films reflect completely different styles and tendencies in U.S. independents, but they're all worth seeing, whether Fleck and Boden's raw, realist-humanist Brooklyn tale, Stettner's commanding character-driven thriller, or the deceptively off-the-cuff Cassavetean allure of Jay and Mark Duplass. (I must see Stettner's movie again, as all who saw it at Sundance should, because I think he has since changed the ending.)

I've had the good fortune of interviewing all of the above directors, and I can also say that they are some of the nicest filmmakers I've ever come across. They don't have the brash egos often associated with film directors; on the contrary, all of them are humble and agreeable, and it comes through in their films, each of them sensitive depictions of the human condition. These filmmakers care about people. And it's one of the greatest gifts for a writer-director.

Coincidentally, I had the privilege of interviewing Fleck, Boden and Stettner for Variety's 10 to Watch special issue last January. A number of choice bits from our conversation never found a place in that story, or elsewhere. So here is a little more with the filmmakers behind "The Night Listener" and "Half Nelson"…

One of the most challenging things about making "The NIght Listener," according to Stettner, was the schedule. "I had the same 26 days that I had on 'Business of Strangers,' we had to fit it into a certain kind of box that made it doable. I had a better crew, I knew what to do, I was much more prepared, and I was able to do more with my days."

"I eviscerate my scripts when I get into rehearsal, because the actors can do it," continues Stettner. "This is something I've really strongly learned in 'Business of Strangers,' trusting myself and taking away language. And if I see it in their eyes, then I know it's going to be there. Everyone got scared, because suddenly the script got shorter, literally, a week before shooting, I took out 10-15 pages. But you also get better performances."

On comparisons between his latest to Hitchcock, Stettner gets defensive. "I'm nervous about that. I can't run from it, but I feel like in the "Vertigo"/"Marnie" way, yes. But this isn't a straight thriller. This is the thing I hate when people reference Hitchcock is they only talk about the visual. He's incredibly succinct when it comes to character. I was working off people who have digested Hitchcock, not De Palma, but maybe Chabrol and Polanski."

"I didn't want this to be too genre, because it had to be subtle, because if it became too genre, then it would feel like I'm pushing people, but I wanted it to feel like you were with the character. I didn't want it to be about the artifacts of horror."

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"When I was young," says Fleck, "'Siskel and Ebert' was my favorite show. Being a movie critic was the first job I ever wanted to do. 'Do the Right Thing'– it probably shifted the whole movie critic to filmmaker thing. I grew up in Oakland, and I think I was 12 when I saw that. It was in the inner city of Oakland, I was one of the few white people in the theater, it was alive and exciting and everyone was talking to the screen: it was like theater, a combination of comedy, drama and social impact."

"Hal Ashby's films, at least three or four of them, floor me emotionally," continues Fleck. "I don't know if we were working off them consciously; his movies make you think and feel things. They have social or political spins, but it's really about those characters. They're all kind of fucked up, but you care for them so much."

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