Archive | August, 2013

Lexi Ulmer: Writing and singing from the heart

26 Aug

Songwriter Lexi Ulmer could be the next big thing in female pop music.

Songwriter Lexi Ulmer could be the next big thing in female pop music

If you watched the MTV Music Awards on Aug. 25, or have turned on a radio in the past couple of years, you know there’s an ever-growing popular trend in contemporary music—female singer/songwriters telling it like it is to their former boyfriends in ways totally relatable to scores of other young women. Taylor Swift and Colbie Caillat have made millions of fans, and millions of dollars, doing just that.

Add another name to the list—that of 18-year-old Californian Lexi Ulmer. Like Taylor and Colbie, she sings on her self-titled debut EP about love found and lost, dreams hoped for but never realized, bonds broken. She hasn’t made a fortune doing it—at least not yet. But again, don’t be surprised if she someday joins that list as well—and shows up to collect an MTV Moonman or two of her own.

And ironically, she says she’s never been in love.

“I’ve always been fascinated with it (being in love), though,” she said during a telephone interview from Southern California, where she was busy packing before heading off to her first year of college. “I’ve written songs since I was about 10, but it all truly began when I was a freshman in high school and had a crush on a senior football star. I started writing songs about trivial things…like his girlfriend. It progressed from there.”
Lexi Album
Her CD features seven songs she penned prior to recording the album last fall. Her opening song, titled appropriately “I’ll Start With This,” sets the tone for a great musical romp through many emotions. “Get Over It” sends a message to an ex to move on, “Think of Me” warns a former beau that he’ll be sorry he let her go, and “The Day I Met You” seems to serve as a launch site for someone meeting that person they fall instantly in love with. The comparisons of her music with that of Swift and Caillat are both flattering and accurate.
Recording the album was a dream come true for Lexi.

“It was the most amazing experience putting it together,” she said. “I got to work in a studio over three months with some fantastic musicians and a great producer.” She sells the CD on iTunes as well as her website (, where fans can connect to everything going on in her life.

But music isn’t her only focus. She starts classes this fall at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she’s planning to major in public relations with an emphasis in music marketing. She is a young woman very much in control of her life, and her future.

“I loved Flagstaff from the first moment I visited it,” she recalled. “I’m from Lake Arrowhead, and the entire NAU campus is bigger than the town I live in! Plus, it’s in the mountains and surrounded by trees—just like here.”

Writing and singing “are the most amazing forms of therapy in the world,” she said. “That’s exactly how I deal with my emotions. I started writing songs to fit the story of how I am feeling at that moment.” She spends much of her time online, contacting record labels and looking for representation, as well as scheduling performances at small venues or corporate events. Her goal is to get that first recording contract and take the next big step professionally. She knows things take time, and she seems to have the patience necessary to endure.

Oh, and as for that “never been in love thing,” guys—beware. She’s in no hurry for that, either.

“I meet people and become easily infatuated, but never long term,” she said. “I’m too independent—don’t want to have to compromise anything.”

That would seem a pretty good formula for success, something very likely close-at-hand for Lexi Ulmer.

–Tom Haraldsen

‘Austenland’ cast, crew discuss bringing the romantic comedy to theaters

23 Aug

The first time Stephanie Meyer read the novel “Austenland,” she said it was “adorable. The best tribute to obsessed Austen freaks (like me) that I’ve ever read.” That was in 2007, when author Shannon Hale’s novel was first published by Bloomsbury. Little did either of them know that four years later, they’d be collaborating on a screenplay, along with writer/director Jerusha Hess, to bring that novel to film.

Actress Keri Russell and writer/director Jerusha Hess at the "Austenland" premiere during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Actress Keri Russell and writer/director Jerusha Hess at the “Austenland” premiere during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival

“Austenland” opens today in a nationwide limited release. It delighted audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, and enjoyed a true Hollywood-style premiere in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. For Meyer, best known as the author of the “Twilight” series, being a co-producer of the film was a delight—almost as much as reading her good friend Hale’s book for the first time.

We caught up with these three ladies, and the talented cast of “’Austenland,” at the Festival, in a closed bar that served, as many closed Park City businesses do during Sundance, as a press venue. It was the second time that Hess has been part of a SFF premiere. Along with her husband, Jared, they premiered the hit “Napoleon Dynamite” at Sundance in 2004.

“This time was much different,” Hess said of her directorial debut. “There was a lot less pressure than before with ‘Napoleon.’ It’s still very professional, but less stressful for all of us.”

She was introduced to Hale’s book through a friend, “and I read it that very night. Shannon and Stephanie were friends, and then I became involved and we worked on the screenplay for about a year.”

“Austenland” is the story of Jane Hayes, played wonderfully by actress Keri Russell, a single New York woman who has an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darby from the BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” She soon learns of an opportunity to visit a getaway-destination themed on the Jane Austen classic—a sort of Fantasy Island for women wishing to live out their dreams of meeting the proud and proper gentlemen of Austen’s story.

“Jane’s (Hayes) obsession with Mr. Darby is over-the-top,” Russell told me. “Her bedroom décor is all about Mr. Darby and Jane Austen. She really thinks that visiting the resort will somehow propel her fantasy into reality.”

The "Austenland" cast at Sundance

The “Austenland” cast at Sundance

What she soon discovers after arriving at the England countryside resort is that other Austen-crazed women have similar dreams. The resort’s owner, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (magnificent Jane Seymour), quickly puts Russell’s character in her place, telling her she had not booked the “deluxe” package and thus housing her in a less-than-luxurious room. From there, the fun begins, as Russell meets fellow guests with the “given” titles Miss Elizabeth Charming (scene-stealing actress Jennifer Coolidge) and Lady Amelia Heartwright (funny and neurotic British actress Georgia King). Soon, they are introduced to the gallant men of Austenland—actors JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis and Ricky Whittle. All of the cast members were present at Sundance for the press interviews, though Coolidge missed the film’s premiere due to her role on CBS’ “Two Broke Girls.”

Jerusha Hess and actress Jane Seymour

Jerusha Hess and actress Jane Seymour

“Working with these ladies was delightful,” Seymour told me. “I know that Jerusha was directing for the first time, but this seemed like one of the most relaxed and professional sets I’ve ever been part of.”

“I had a ball doing this,” Coolidge said during our interview. “I loved the way my character evolved as we went along. One of the best experiences I’ve had as an actress—working with these guys.”

“I think they were all surprised that three chicks could put this together,” Hess said in a Q & A after the film’s premiere at Eccles Theatre in Park City. “And not just three chicks—but three Mormon chicks.”

She said the film was shot at a time when Russell was “quite pregnant” with her daughter Willa. In fact, she was eight months pregnant when the film wrapped.

“When she was riding her horse in the film, we had to make sure to have someone ride right alongside of her, to protect her,” Hess said. “Some careful editing to be sure!”

“This was such a marvelous collaborative experience for us,” Feild said. “Everything about the production was top notch—from the costumes to the art direction.” And Whittle added that “being here at Sundance with the film just makes this experience even sweeter. Although I wish it was a bit warmer outside!”

Ironically, Hess was in Ogden a couple of nights after the film’s SFF premiere when she got the word that Sony Worldwide had bought the rights (Sony Pictures Classic is releasing it).

“During our Q & A, some kid came up and told me he’d read on Twitter that the film had been acquired,” she said. “Everyone in the cast and crew began texting each other—we were all thrilled.”

Jared Hess makes a cameo appearance in the film himself, but this was Jerusha’s film from start to finish. Though she’s currently taking a break to stay home with the couple’s children while Jared is directing a film with Jim Carrey and Owen Wilson, “I’m not done as a director! I loved working with the actors, the costumes and makeup and the artists. This came about organically in a way for all of us, but it’s definitely in my blood now. I might never let Jared direct again!”

“Austenland” is rated PG-13 and will likely be opened to a wider audience after its initial premiere week. That’s typical of how Sony releases independent films it acquires at Sundance and other film festivals. If you like comedy, romance, and Jane Austen, you’ll love “Austenland.”

–Tom Haraldsen

Director David Rodriguez’s “Last I Heard” to open HollyShorts Film Festival

13 Aug

Director David Rodriguez. Photo by Diana Ragland

Director David Rodriguez. Photo by Diana Ragland

It’s a real tribute to a director/screenwriter when he finds his feature-length film invited to open a festival dedicated to short films. That honor has been bestowed on talented filmmaker David Rodriguez, whose dramedy “Last I Heard” will be the opening night presentation at the 9th annual HollyShorts Film Festival on Thursday night (August 15). The eight-day festival will include more than 300 short films in competition, with the opening night presentation solely Rodriguez’s.

“Last I Heard” follows a Mafia capo (Paul Sorvino) after his release from federal prison for health reasons, where he served 20 years. As he reconnects with his daughter (Renee Props) and tries to develop a relationship with his neighbor (Michael Rapaport), he realizes life has changed markedly in his Queens neighborhood during the time he was in the joint. Chazz Palminteri, Andrea Nittoli and Lev Gorn round out the all-star cast.

“It’s nice to be the first feature film to open HollyShorts,” Rodriguez said during a telephone interview for ON and BEYOND from Los Angeles. “It’s certainly an honor to open any festival, let alone a festival here in town. There’s such a wide variety of films to choose from.” Festival co-founder and director Daniel Sol said in a release that, “We couldn’t be happier to have such a talented filmmaker and superb cast be the first feature to open HollyShorts.” And Theo Dumont, also co-founder and director of the festival, added that Rodriguez’ film “is a prime example of how HollyShorts stands apart. We strive to create fun and imaginative platforms for our filmmakers to network and advance their careers.”

Director David Rodriguez, center, with actors Chazz Palminteri and Paul Sorvino on the set of "Last I Heard." Photo by Kelsey Bennett

Director David Rodriguez, center, with actors Chazz Palminteri and Paul Sorvino on the set of “Last I Heard.” Photo by Kelsey Bennett

Though he grew up in the Bronx, Rodriguez did not spend much time in inner New York City. His parents moved to Long Island, and eventually enrolled him in the New York Military Academy. There, he met a long-time friend who did live in Queens, and thus, “I spent a lot of time in that neighborhood, getting to know a lot of guys like Paul’s character. Everybody says you should write what you know—or what you’re most compelled by. What I felt I should do to really break out as a filmmaker was to write and direct something in that arena that I indisputably knew. I know this world and these characters better than most people. I’m also a great listener, as writers should be.”

He had no trouble assembling his talented cast for the 18-day shoot, one with limited rehearsals and limited budgets. As he has done with his other films such as “Push” and “The Blue Wall,” Rodriguez strived for “a human story, not a blockbuster. The business has catered to a very small fraction of what moviegoers want to see, in my opinion. They want those human connections.”

It’s a frustration for many filmmakers—striving for real storytelling in an industry where many of those scripts aren’t green lit by financiers. He hopes to see that change, and to be part of it. Independent films like “Last I Heard,” which Rodriguez is looking for a distributor to help open it wide, are the best way to accomplish that goal of pure storytelling without relying on lots of explosions and CG.

“It still boils down to the script, on how good it is,” he said. “I’d like to see us get back to the roots of filmmaking, like what it was in the 70s and 80s. I hope the studios start to become more indie-friendly. They need to understand the dynamics of making an independent film—how everyone gets in the trenches and rolls up their sleeves. At the end of the day, this is our job as directors. It’s not a royal title where you sit there and people just bring you things. Actors work their butts off to memorize their lines and get their parts right. We need to do the same as directors, like a general contractor who’s also a carpenter when needs be.”

He’s particularly pleased with “Last I Heard,” and the amazing performances by his cast and the work of his crew.

“It was a very collaborative environment,” he said. “There was so much emotion and so much work and focus, and very little room for error. At the end of the day, we were able to produce something we are all proud of. I think that will resonate with our audiences when they see the film.”

That starts Thursday night, and hopefully, soon in a theater near you.
–Tom Haraldsen