Carrie Preston and company drink to the truth in ‘Vino Veritas’

28 Jan

If you had the chance to really find out ALL of your spouse or partner’s secret thoughts or actions, would you do it? That’s the dilemma facing Emmy-award winning actress Carrie Preston and three others who spend an unusual Halloween night together in “Vino Veritas.” Director Sarah Knight’s exploration of the inhibitions and frustrations of these two couples in this new release is now available on VOD and iTunes.

Actress Carrie Preston stars in "Vino Veritas," a wonderful new film recently released on VOD and iTunes.

Actress Carrie Preston stars in “Vino Veritas,” a wonderful new film recently released on VOD and iTunes.

Preston plays Claire, the sheltered and under-achieving wife of her physician husband Ridley (Bernard White) who finds one of her few delights in life at the community’s annual Halloween costume party. When Claire and Bernard arrive at the home of friends Lauren and Phil (actors Heather Raffo and Brian Hutchison), she is fully attired in her Queen Elizabeth I dress. But the couples never make it to the party, instead deciding to sample a Peruvian wine brewed from the skins of blue dart tree frogs. If ever there was a time when the term “truth serum” applies to alcohol, it was cinematically evident on this film.

“The story was originally from a play done at the Purple Rose Theater in Michigan,” Preston told me during an interview from her home in New York. “It’s the theater Jeff Daniels started, and a wonderful regional theater. Sarah’s mother saw it first and just loved it, and kept encouraging Sarah to take a look at it and consider it as a film.”

Knight, whose previous work was mostly on documentaries, worked with David MacGregor, the screenwriter and playwright of the story, to develop her narrative feature debut.

“We filmed right here in my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska,” she said during our interview. “We got a lot of great things by doing that, including being well fed because my parents did the cooking and handled craft services. That made the heat and long hours (the film was made in July in a home without air conditioning, and in just 12 days of shooting) a bit more palatable. And the cast was great, real troopers. Carrie’s dress weighed 30 pounds and she had to wear it throughout the film.”
Carrie Preston--1

For Preston, best known for her roles in The Good Wife (for which she won the Emmy) and True Blood, she found the role of Claire to be “a great acting exercise, playing a person who has this shell that she wears when she’s out in the world. In the course of the film, that shell gets broken, and you get to see all the wishes and the vulnerable and the funny and exciting contents within her. The real self comes out. It was fun and ultimately a poignant journey with this character, and I was able to get on board with that.”

Raffo is best known as the writer and solo performer of the Off Broadway hit, 9 Parts of Desire, which details the lives of nine Iraqi women. Her character, Lauren, was the one Knight was most drawn towards.

“Much like me, she is an incredibly forthright person who expects those around her to follow suit,” Knight said in the film’s press notes. “This is a story in which, thanks to the effects of a tribal concoction, the characters are stripped of the carefully composed social masks they have diligently fashioned for themselves. The superficial veneer of what passes for civilization is peeled away, layer by layer, to reveal not just personal quirks and secrets, but the primal core that drives so much of our behavior as human beings. Whether the subject is children, faith, sex, death, or the drives and desires that are hardwired into our DNA, this is, finally, a film about what it means to be human.”

As the blue dart tree frog wine takes effect, secrets are revealed, though to lighten the mood a bit, Lauren asks each character to tell what their last meal on Earth would be. So I posed that question to Preston and Knight.

“A Thanksgiving dinner,” Preston said, “Southern style. Turkey, squash casserole, green beans with salt pork and biscuits. That delicious comfort food that congers up all my memories of Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday.”

For Knight, the final feast would simply be “fried chicken livers, which is a Nebraska delicacy. I’m here with the parents now and I’ve been eating a lot of them recently.”

The next obvious question was this: Put into a situation like these four characters in “Vino Veritas,” would either of them risk opening up their souls by drinking the wine?

“I don’t know—maybe,” replied Preston, who is married to actor Michael Emerson (Person of Interest). “We’re both pretty comfortable with each other, and we’ve been together for almost 20 years. But I also think that one thing that’s great about long term relationships is that there’s still mystery. There’s still things about Michael that I don’t know and I love and relish finding those things out as we talk. Part of me wouldn’t want to mess that up—to get it all at once.”

“I don’t have much of a filter anyway,” Knight said with a laugh. “I don’t think there’d be much difference—me being on truth serum. I’m always interested in what people think, but I don’t necessarily want to know what they think about me. That’d be my only hesitation.”

“I’m very proud of this film,” Preston said. “I think it’s such an interesting study of marriage and relationships and telling the truth.”

“I’ve had the chance to tour with the film a bit at festivals,” Knight said. “I do think it resonates, but every audience is so different. There are certain lines that get laughs, and others that get a silent reaction. It’s sort of a Rorschach test for the audiences, to see what they get and what they don’t. There’s a lot to relate to there, and I hope it inspires conversations between couples and friends.”

By Tom Haraldsen

Lindsay Lohan returning to screen with ‘Inconceivable’

23 Jan

For fans of actress Lindsay Lohan, just about anything you read over the past few years would have seemed almost inconceivable, given the beginning of her career for the talented young movie star. But she hopes those headline-making days off the screen are behind her. Now, the term inconceivable is about to become something much more positive.

A happy and healthy-looking Lindsay Lohan came to Sundance to announce her next project, the psychological thriller "Inconceivable".

A happy and healthy-looking Lindsay Lohan came to Sundance to announce her next project, the psychological thriller “Inconceivable”.

Lohan, looking happier and healthier than in recent months, made her first-ever appearance at the Sundance Film Festival this week, announcing that she will star in, and serve as a co-producer, of the new film “Inconceivable,” a psychological thriller to be produced by Randall Emmett for his Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films. It will be distributed by Grindstone/Lionsgate Films.

Lindsay 2Lohan will portray Katie, a young woman on a journey to reclaim something she’s lost. The similarity to her own personal story wasn’t lost on Lohan, who sourced the script.

“I related to the character in a lot of ways,” she said with a smile. “It’s about finding something that’s utterly important to her. I approached Randall because of his incredible resume of work (including “End of Watch,” “Rambo” and “2 Guns”). I was anxious to get this going, and basically asked him, ‘Are you in or are you out?’”

“Lindsay is one of the best young actresses in her generation,” Emmett said, flanking her at the press conference in the Social Film Loft at Sundance. “She found the script and loved it. We’re anxious to get started on casting and finding locations.”

The film will begin shooting in mid-March, in either New Orleans or Atlanta. Lohan flew in from London to make the announcement at the Sundance Film Festival, a big stage for filmmakers from around the world, not to mention entertainment writers.

Lindsay Lohan and producer Randall Emmett

Lindsay Lohan and producer Randall Emmett

“This is very therapeutic for me, throwing myself into every facet of this production,” she said. “I like being involved in something this big.”

She’s hooked her star to an impressive wagon. Emmett/Furla Films has produced 70 movies over the past 15 years, generating $500 million in box office sales. Its latest film, “Lone Survivor,” has topped the ticket sales charts the past two weeks. The company recently wrapped production on “The Prince & Captive” to be released later this year.

“We’ll be announcing more casting news in the next few weeks,” Emmett said. “We’re very excited to be working with Lindsay and producing ‘Inconceivable.’”

–Story and photos by Tom Haraldsen

Foreigner: Still rockin’ audiences worldwide

29 Oct

The longevity of Foreigner is not a surprise to rock and roll enthusiasts, who’ve embraced the band and its music since the group came together in 1976. And now their latest CD, “Feels Like the First Time,” offers amazing versions of their biggest hits, plus a DVD of a performance. The group is currently finishing a long tour, and we caught up with the band for an interview for On and Beyond and Entertainment Journal.

Foreigner’s debut album produced #1 hits ‘Feels Like the First Time,” “Cold As Ice” and “Long, Long Way Home.” Their album “Double Vision” followed, and during the zenith of the ‘80s sound, three more Foreigner albums topped the charts.

Still rockin': Foreigner remains a hot concert ticket throughout the world.

Still rockin’: Foreigner remains a hot concert ticket throughout the world.

Though the group broke up briefly in 2002, founder Mick Jones responded to an outpouring of public support and encouragement and reloaded a new powerhouse lineup of musicians, and Foreigner was back. Now, 37 years after the group’s first performances, its latest tour is once again propelling them to the top of the charts, taking them across the U.S. as well as to South America, Mexico and Europe. They will return to England to start a new tour of the UK next April.

Multi-talented musician Tom Gimbel, who plays rhythm guitar, keyboards, sax and flute for Foreigner, spoke about the group’s long-lasting and ever-increasing popularity.

“It’s a real testament to the quality of the songs,” he said. “Mick is a master of songwriting. Woven into his material is a real heartfelt, soulful sentiment. I’ve seen Mick write a song and actually be in tears. He puts his heart into it and I think that sincerity shows up over time.”

Jones was elected last February to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition to penning many of Foreigners’ hits, he wrote “Bad Love” for Eric Clapton and “Dreamer” with Ozzy Osbourne, and has produced records for the likes of Billy Joel and Van Halen. He’s been nominated for both Grammy and Golden Globe awards, and won the prestigious British Ivor Novello Songwriter Award for “The Flame Still Burns” from the movie “Still Crazy.”

Gimbel, who joined Foreigner after performing with Aerosmith for years, learned that Jones was looking for someone “who played guitar and sax and sing. I wanted to man that rhythm guitar, so I jumped at the chance to join the band.”

In 2012, they experienced another surge in popularity when three of their songs were featured on the “Rock of Ages” soundtrack, “more songs than from any other band,” Gimbel said. Hollywood took note, and several tracks were included in the films “Magic Mike” and “Pitch Perfect.” Those send Foreigner music downloads up 400 percent, with their catalog outselling The Eagles, Def Leppard, Tom Petty and The Who that year.

“I think people still have a lot of hunger for this type of music,” Gimbel said. “It’s kind of a throwback in a way—no spinning, no deejays—what we call traditional rock. All ages show up to watch us, and I can’t believe how young some of the kids are who are rocking out. It’s nice to see some who enjoy their parents’ music.”

His favorite Foreigner tune? “’Urgent.’ I always get an extra charge out of that one, playing the sax in a brutal, almost full tilt pace—going from 0 to 1,000 miles an hour. It’s a challenge, but it’s an adrenaline rush for all of us, and it really kick starts the show.”

Though many of today’s up-and-coming musical artists are geared to go solo, Gimbel believes “kids still love to form rock bands in their garages. It’s more fun to be in a band, and there’s a lot of great ones out there that we haven’t heard of. But we will.”

Like his Foreigner bandmates, Gimbel is right where he always wanted to be—enjoying a career in music that keeps on giving not only to their fans, but to group’s members as well.

“If you have a little luck, develop some talent and work hard, good things will happen,” he said. “These are great years for us.”

And for fans of Foreigner as well.

-Tom Haraldsen

Judy Norton: Living and loving the evolution of TV

3 Oct

Back in 1971, when “The Waltons” premiered on CBS, no one realized the popularity and longevity that the series would enjoy. For nine seasons, it dominated the ratings, winning numerous Emmy, Golden Globe and People’s Choice Awards. It also broke new ground in network television—proof that a show about family, and family values, could succeed even as the world’s values began changing.

Actress Judy Norton had no idea how impactful her role as Mary Ellen Walton on the show would be. By time she was 6, the Los Angeles native was already working in television on programs like “Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Tammy Grimes Show” and “Felony Squad.” But it was as the eldest Walton daughter that her career really took hold.
Judy Norton
Fast forward to 2013, and Norton is breaking ground again with a new role, and a new type of TV offering. She plays Judge Sophia Wyndom on “Bluff,” a series launched this year on ConvergTV and the Venture Channel, accessible on the popular Roku Box (www.roku.com) system. It’s a new forum for TV—not only in its content but in the way it’s offered to viewers. And it’s a sign of the continuing evolution of entertainment in this age of technology.

“‘Bluff’ is produced completely by an indie company,” she said during an interview from her Southern California home. “It’s great that we’re part of an evolution in the film industry, where you can make a film or TV series without a big budget or superstar names. As producers, we’re no longer held back—equipment is easier to use and so much less expensive, and digital technology gives us more capability to craft the shows the way we want them.”

“Bluff,” a suspense-laden, character-driven police drama that tackles social issues like alcoholism, drug abuse, parenting after a divorce and child trafficking, was created by Canadian actress Jewelle Colwell, who stars as Detective Summer Brown. She pitched the idea to Norton through a mutual friend.

“Jewelle and I really hit it off immediately,” Norton recalls. “I loved what she was doing. She had a web series for one season, and took the core of the story and turned it into this TV series. It was kind of a natural progression for her, and for all of us as we produced the first six episodes.” Norton has also penned and directed some of those episodes, and the collaborative team is working on securing financing to produce six more.

When “The Waltons” was airing, there was far less competition in the TV market.

“We had three networks, and thus the opportunity to have extremely high ratings,” Norton said. “It was good for us, and even today, more than 40 years from when the series started, it still resonates. People still see and hear of the show. It’s a lot tougher for shows today to get anywhere near that kind of recognition.”
Judy on Bluff
Still, as this year’s Emmy Awards proved again, non-network shows such as “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland,” and “House of Cards” on Netflix, are increasingly popular and in demand. The playing field has been leveled greatly for independent filmmakers and producers.

Norton has continued to perform for more than three decades since “The Waltons,” with many other TV appearances (including three Walton reunion shows) and on stage. She sings, dances and is an exceptional athlete. Her website (judynorton.com) showcases her great variety of talents. She lived and worked in Canada for several years (and returned to work on “Bluff,” which is filmed in Alberta), and has written the screenplay for a film titled “Finding Harmony” that will be released next year. Just last week, she began filming a new web series called “Disorganized Zone.” She’s as busy as ever, and she’s passionate about what “Bluff” has, and will continue, to accomplish.

“It’s a demographic that we have not fully served,” she says. “‘Bluff’ is really about the people who put on a public front, and use that to kind of bluff through their lives. What’s behind those facades is what we dive into, the demons and skeletons in their closets. It’s a much more mature show than the typical series, which makes it challenging to write. You can’t really express those types of emotions in actors with dialogue alone. But we all love that challenge.”

And she’s quick to point out that one of the secrets behind the series’ success is the investment, literally and figuratively, of the whole team.

“I really love the collaborative aspect of working with friends in this industry,” she says. “We have a fan page on Facebook that we constantly keep updated for our viewers, and get their comments and feedback. As new platforms open and develop, we keep our fans posted. It’s what makes this industry so exciting for me personally, and for so many of my fellow actors, writers, producers and directors. You have to get creative on all of this. Only a handful can do it for fame and fortune; but doing what you want to do, and doing it well, is its own reward.”

–Tom Haraldsen

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 (lexiulmer.com), 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

Gildart Jackson: Helping find out ‘Whodunnit?’ on ABC’s summer hit

18 Jul

Actor Gildart Jackson as Giles, the butler, on ABC's hit show "Whodunnit?"

Actor Gildart Jackson as Giles, the butler, on ABC’s hit show “Whodunnit?”


Gildart 2 as GilesEveryone loves a murder mystery–the chance to see the clues, evaluate the suspects and find the culprit. When you can do it in front of millions of television viewers, well, that’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Actor Gildart Jackson realized that the minute he was first approached to host ABC’s new summertime hit, “Whodunnit?” The reality series, which airs on Sunday nights, is like a combination of the board game “Clue,” the TV series “Survivor,” and has a crime scene investigative element in it as well. Not surprisingly, it was developed by Anthony Zuiker, who also created the “CSI” series for CBS.

Jackson plays Giles, the butler who hosts a group of (originally) 13 contestants who are placed together in a stately mansion, where one of them is killed off each week by someone within their circle. During each episode, the contestants use authentic CSI-type technology to try to find the culprit, discussing the evidence amongst themselves and forming alliances. After all, this is a reality show competition. The contestant who does the worst is the murder victim at the end of that week’s show, setting up the investigation for the next episode. Contestants (now down to 9 after four aired episodes) are competing for a $250,000 prize if they’re the last innocent person standing—or in this case, living.

“Our contestants are similar to those on other reality shows,” Jackson said in an interview for On and Beyond. “They come from all walks of life. We have a bounty hunter, a crime investigator, a couple of lawyers…really, a mixed group with different experiences they bring to the show. It was important to the producers that they have professionals as contestants—people interested in solving crimes. And it’s been great—lots of energy and really one big, happy family. Except for the murder part, of course,” he added with a smile in his voice.

Jackson was hooked on the role the minute he heard about it from a long-time friend in ABC’s casting office.
“Sandi Logan has cast me in several shows before,” Jackson said. “When she read the script, she told me she turned to Anthony and said, ‘I know exactly who you need to play Giles.’ I’m very grateful to her!”

He had worked with Logan on shows such as “Judging Amy,” “Vegas” and “Boomtown.” He may best be known for his work as Gideon on “Charmed,” Jackson Palmer on “Providence” and as Simon Prentiss on “General Hospital.” And he loves being Giles.

“I’ve never played a butler before, but being British, it fit me pretty well,” he said. “It was great fun—kind of like being the Angel of Death each week because I was there hosting these investigators when one of their peers is murdered. Rest assured, it was all staged—no one was actually hurt.”

Even though much of the show is scripted, the unexpected can still occur. Emotions are real when one of the contestants is killed off—bonds were formed early amongst the contestants. Everyone, including “Giles” himself, was kept guessing at who was next to go, and of course, ultimately, whodunnit.

“The way we made the show, it was like being on stage,” he said. “I had to get my lines out properly to set things up, and I asked to be kept completely in the dark just like our contestants. I was totally in character from the minute I got to the set until the moment I left. I was Giles every second of the work day. I didn’t know who the killer was until the last day we taped, and I was flabbergasted. The killer was remarkably good at seeming to be innocent.”

The show, which is doing well ratings-wise in its time slot each week and is building an audience following, will air a total of nine episodes this summer, until the killer is revealed. Along with the entire cast and crew, Jackson remains tight-lipped about the identity of the murderer. Even his wife, actress/singer Melora Hardin, and their two daughters can’t pry the information from him.

“We wrapped in May, but Melora and the girls are going to have to wait just like everyone else to find out the identity of the killer,” he said. “This has been a great joy ride for me—really, continual fun and adventure. I’m hoping the series catches on and they’ll keep doing new seasons. I’m all for ‘Whodunnit: Hawaii’ or ‘Whodunnit: Paris.’ I think my family would love to come along for those seasons as well.”

Anyone else out there besides me wanna be a contestant for season 2 in Maui?
–Tom Haraldsen

The Kings of Summer: A fun romp of teenage independence

26 Jun

Actors Alison Brie, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullallly.

Actors Alison Brie, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullallly.

Actors Moises Arias, Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso.

Actors Moises Arias, Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso.

Erin Moriarty

Erin Moriarty

On a chilly Saturday afternoon at this year’s Sundance Film Festival last January, I had just one question for most of the cast and crew of the indie film “The Kings of Summer” that is now in limited release. Did any of them, when they were teenagers, ever really consider running away from home?
Of course, all of the lead actors in the film are still teenagers themselves, which made screenwriter Chris Galletta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts film almost autobiographical for them.
“I guess the short answer would be, yes. Who hasn’t?” chimed in actor Moises Arias, who along with actors Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso decides to flee to the wilderness, planning to build a makeshift house and live off the land as masters of their own destinies. That’s the premise behind this very clever coming-of-age film, which premiered under the title “Toy’s House” at Sundance.
“I think there’s a time in every young boy’s life, probably every teen’s life, when they think they could go it on their own,” Galletta said. “It’s a right of passage for most of us, but that’s not the cliché I was looking for when I wrote the screenplay. This truly is a tale of many a summer—young boys setting out on their own to see what the world holds for them. And these three actors were great at portraying exactly what I was trying to convey.”
Along with actress Erin Moriarty, starring of late in ABC’s “Red Widow” and who plays the romantic interest of two of the boys, all of whom are either 18 or 19 years old, Galletta’s story comes to life in a touching and powerful way.
“For me, I think the idea of being independent, being on our own, is something most every boy thinks about,” said Robinson, who plays Joe Toy, the ring leader of this trio of young men. He’s challenged by his widow father (the wonderful Nick Offerman) and older sister (actress Alison Brie), and feels like the grass could certainly be greener in another pasture. In this case, that pasture lies deep within a forest near his home where, after recruiting friend Patrick (Basso) and the eccentric and scene-stealing Biaggio (Arias, who you can see in the highly-anticipated “Ender’s Game” this fall), they build a house using mostly discarded materials. In their hideaway, they survive, they strive, and they begin to realize that leaving home doesn’t mean not missing it.
“My character has a little bit more perspective on our father, and where he’s coming from,” Brie said. “Jordan says she’s the only true sane character in the film, which is a change for me to play.” Brie is, of course, perhaps best known for her role as zany, love-struck Annie on NBC’s “Community.” “This film really was interesting to shoot, because the tone of the movie shifts a lot. The stuff with the boys is very dramatic, and at times whimsical and fun. Our scenes deal with a lot of comedy, but the underlying thing is that your brother’s run away, your son is missing, so it was interesting to balance those tones—letting comedy exist but playing the reality.”
Brie said she never had the desire to run away, “but I do remember when I was like 10 or 11 playing a running away game in my room. It wasn’t because I didn’t like my parents. I would just kind of put on this record in my room and then sneak out the window, and sneak around to the front of the house and the game would end. It was kind of exciting to climb out that window.”
Moriarty said working with the three young actors was “just great. Nick caught right on to everybody’s sarcastic, funny tone that we were working with, just like Moises and Gabriel. We had a lot of fun.” Brie adds that working with Offerman, and his real-life wife Megan Mullally, “was a dream come true. I didn’t have any scenes with Megan (who portray’s Basso’s mother), but to watch her and Nick between scenes was a hoot. There was a great feeling of family on the set.”
“The Kings of Summer” is now playing in independent film theaters nationwide, and getting very positive reviews. With a combination of experienced and up-and-coming cast members, it’s a fun summertime escape from reality, which, for most of us, is something we probably all need at times.

–Tom Haraldsen, photos by Chalese Dalton for On and Beyond

Karen Rontowski: Bringing laughter to audiences across the nation

15 May

Karen Rontowski performing in Salt Lake City this weekend.

Karen Rontowski performing in Salt Lake City this weekend.

It didn’t take Karen Rontowski long to realize that she would never be happy in an office job—sitting at a desk day after day and not doing what she loves best—making people laugh. Fortunately for the thousands of audiences she has entertained as a comedian for 24 years, she opted for standup.
For those of you living here in Utah—good news! Rontowski returns to Salt Lake City this weekend for five shows at Wiseguys Comedy Club at Trolley Square. She performs on May 16 at 7:30 p.m., and both May 17 and 18 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. (tickets at wiseguyscomedy.com). Her upbeat, optimistic and clean sense of humor has made her a Utah favorite for years.
“I earned my diploma in graphic arts specialization, but I knew I had no interest in that at all,” she said during a telephone conversation from her home in southern California. “In fact, I took a summer internship to earn some extra credits because I couldn’t wait to get out of college.”
She says comics “are almost always born that way. I listened to a lot of albums growing up—comics like Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart and Steve Martin. When I was about 10, I actually performed at a church talent night, telling old jokes. Once I heard people laughing, I think I was hooked.”
She worked for a time at a hotel in Las Vegas, where a bellman took her to an Open Mic night at a comedy club. It’s where amateur comedians get to perform in front of live audiences. “I got up on stage that night, and I wasn’t very good,” she recalled. “But everyone around me was so nice, and I loved being around comedy.”
Her skills and writing improved quickly, and she discovered that being a comic “gave me license to be a little flaky, which I am. I mean, I’m a vegan, I have a house full of crystal, and I read Tarot cards. So comedy was like my day job that supported me and allowed me to be involved in all of these other things.”
Rontowski has worked in Utah for several years, and she’s quick to praise Wiseguys owner Keith Stubbs for his support of her career.
“I came to Wiseguys one time to work, I thought, as an opening act. But Keith said, ‘No, you’re a headliner.’” And she’s been headlining here, and everywhere else, since.
Though she’s appeared on Comedy Central and Comics Unleashed, is a regular on the Bob and Tom radio show, and has opened for the likes of Bob Hope, Ray Charles and even The Monkees, she may best be known for her appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” in September of 2011. Her four-plus minute monologue had the audience rolling, and even Letterman himself came over to thank her personally after the performance. You can watch her performance on her website, at karenrontowski.com.
The last year has been a busy one for her—209 days on the road across the country. “I’m going to cut back on that going forward. Even though I love to perform, I miss spending more time at home,” she said. And she loves Utah audiences, who relate to her clean humor and her tales of dealing with family.
“People want to laugh,” she said. “They want to have a good time. Comedy clubs help free them from stress.” As to her decision not to use blue humor in her routines, she added, “I just don’t think like that—it doesn’t occur to me to write jokes like that. And it’s always paid off. I feel being clean makes audiences comfortable. There’s a lot of emphasis on blue humor on Comedy Central, for example, and that’s fine. But I know that if a comedian can do blue humor, they can also do clean humor.”
One thing audiences do learn from Karen’s routines is that she’s a ghost hunter, a fan of the paranormal and a paranormal investigator. Often when she’s on the road performing, she’ll visit local haunts—literally.
“Sometimes a ghost will just do the same thing over and over in life,” she said. “That’s why I want to move into a house that is haunted by a maid.”
Yup, that’s funny. And that’s Karen Rontowski—here, in town, on stage, this weekend. Don’t miss her.
–Tom Haraldsen