Human Beings are Miracles: an Interview with Gary Lundgren
20 Aug, 2010 - Kendall Ruth
The independent film world has its share of tectonic shifts, and out of that upheaval come films like Calvin Marshall – a film that keeps the bar high in its visual, audio, and character-driven storytelling.
Writer/Director Gary Lundgren’s film is a story of blind optimism, misguided intentions, redeemed failure, and human complexity. Oh, and it’s about baseball. The title character, Calvin, played by Alex Frost, makes another go at the local junior college baseball team, coached by a defeated pro-baller, Coach Little, played by Steve Zahn (in one of his best roles to date), who has a soft spot for the passionate, yet failing, Calvin. Calvin also chases Tori Jensen, (Michelle Lombardo) the gorgeous volleyball star, who so outshines her teammates that they don’t even have names, and who is as out of Calvin’s reach as his dream of becoming a legitimate ball-player.
Intrigued by the film’s movement through the festival circuit and its search for a larger audience, I wanted to hear not only how Gary came to make Calvin, but also what he’s learned in the process.
Calvin Marshall is a “dramedy” disguised as a baseball movie. Did you always have this in mind?
Yeah, this really never was a “baseball” film in my mind. It was always more of a coming-of-age story. Even the first draft was subtle and bittersweet. Character driven. We always joked that we were making an art film masquerading as a sports film. My favorite stories and films generally have more realistic characters that are more complicated and possess both good and bad qualities.
I suppose Calvin could’ve been pursing anything, really. But I like the connotations of a protagonist pursuing something connected to the American dream. Baseball has such a rich history in this country. But you’re right — this could’ve easily been about an aspiring screen actor finally facing the reality of having to walk away from Hollywood.
There is more of a redemption theme than a “happy-ending” sense to Calvin. How did you come to this ending?
It would’ve been difficult to spin a believable happy ending with the theme we were pursuing. I was most excited about wrestling with the idea of giving up something you desire most in life. And then, of course, the looming possibility of growing into a bitter person because of it.
Coach Little is really just a good guy who can’t let go of his bitterness after seeing his dream die. And the bitterness is palpable and killing him slowly.
The “happy” ending for me was seeing Calvin get back on his feet and get moving again. Just to see Calvin begin to recover his great personality and his drive for something new is still inspiring to me. I think overcoming disappointment and bouncing back is the most underrated achievement in life.
The film is beautifully lit and each scene is distinct in its cinematography. How much thought went into this aspect of making the film? Did you have an image and feel you were shooting for or was it more a collaborative effort?
I love shooting 35mm because it’s a richer look, yet with a softer image. If you shoot on HD, it automatically dates a movie because it’s so clean and contemporary looking. And we used Cooke S4 lenses, which are known for being even softer.
We wanted this movie to look timeless with an Anytown, Anywhere feel — so this idea drove all our design and photographic decisions. Basically, our goal was always to have a stylized- looking film but without sacrificing organic performances and potential surprises.
How has your film-making changed from your shorts Wow and Flutter and People Die to the full length Calvin Marshall?
I’m always drawn to character and tone first – that’s the easy part for me. The hardest part about film-making in general, though, is telling a compelling story that an audience will want to follow and invest in emotionally.
One thing I learned on Calvin was that the mechanics of shooting the film, even with more money and a famous cast, are exactly the same as the smaller films I’ve made over the years. That was a big surprise to me. I guess I thought it would be a much different experience, so you go into it expecting it to be easier or more fun or just different…but then you find yourself in the same trenches, doing essentially the exact same job. And you still have to make the same 10,000 decisions in just a few weeks.
Music plays an important role in your films, choreographing the scenes throughout Calvin Marshall. How do you see music as part of the storytelling?
Music is critical to the entire process for me. While I’m writing a script, I gradually fill up a playlist with hundreds of songs. And then, while rewriting I trim the playlist back down to a few hours of music. Usually a few songs will make it into the script.
Sound and music are half of the art of filmmaking. The project I’m writing now (BAD VINTAGE) will probably be 95% original score in the end, but I still have a mostly instrumental playlist building that’s informing the tone/mood of the story. Our goal is that it will be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the sound design ends and the score begins. They will be developed together even as we’re preparing to shoot.
How do you see filmmaking as an art form? What is particular to the medium of film that attracts you?
And visual storytelling is my favorite. All the tools filmmakers have at their fingertips to tell their stories [are] very attractive. Cinematography, sound design, music, characterizations, dialogue, subtext . . . the best filmmakers use each tool effectively, and I love the challenge of trying to do this. It’s not easy, but it’s so much fun.
I think human beings are miracles and not some sort of cosmic accident. Every person out there is a miracle and their hopes/dreams/aspirations matter in the universe. The fact Calvin wants to play baseball and can’t is heart-wrenching to me. I hope that people will be emotionally moved by the characters and stories I’m involved with and that in some small way they will make people’s lives a little bit fuller.
I also hope that my films will have a long shelf life and are re-watchable. We all know and love those films that are more consumable and we only watch once. But I hope to make the kind of movies that are hard to turn off because the characters in them feel like old friends and we want to see, once again, how their conflicts and lives turn out.
You’ve been on a long road of hard work to promote the film and now Calvin is opening in New York. Is this a landmark for the film? What would you like to see happen during this time in NYC?
We’re very lucky for the theatrical runs we’ve had and it’s very cool to finish in New York and Portland. Any national press we get and a NY release kind of validates the movie in people’s eyes. Perception is still important.
I still feel like movies should be experienced in communities at the local movie theater. I hope that doesn’t go away for indies, but it might.
Calvin Marshall opens at the Quad in New York City on August 20th, and at the Living Room Theaters in Portland, Oregon on August 27th for a full week after which, you can find it on Netflix, iTunes, DVD/Blu-ray, and Video on Demand starting in September.