Get people pissed off. Take risks. Improvise. Steal stuff. Get the story on film. Diffuse your creation. Has he mentioned steal stuff? Because you have to steal a lot of stuff to make a movie.
This is what director and cinematographer Jonathan Smith ’04 replies when asked if there is anything he would like highlighted in an article about his latest creation, “Tri-State,” a feature film which premiered this past Sunday at the York Square Theater. He and writer and producer Gregory Yolen ’05 are hoping that “Tri-State” will inspire introspection and grip its viewers, but they also hope to encourage people to make more films — they sought to make “Tri-State” as professional a film as they could create, and they would like more student filmmakers to strive for the same. This is where the stealing comes in.
“Tri-State” is the story of Lionel Demery, son of a wealthy car dealer and father of a collection of short stories about his own life — some are true and some are not; most are somewhere in between. Demery, played by Peter Cellini ’04, has crafted his stories into a well-polished one-man performance: “Tri-State” is the story of what it means for him to be both storyteller and character, of the tension created by being both the boy with the embarrassing story and the man who lives to embellish it and tweak it so that it’s worth telling.
Demery leaves home to work the morning shift at the local movie theater and lead a life independent of his father. His supporting cast in the movie consists of the eager-to-please trainee who has just begun to work at the theater (Andrew Roach ’04), Demery’s tightly wound manager (Jessie Wiener ’05), Demery’s date for the evening (Julie Lake ’05), and the older stepbrother Demery can’t escape (Fran Kranz ’05). They all double as the audience from whom he seeks respect and the forces that tug at his carefully worded plots, more often than not in directions which he cannot control.
The film was shot around New Haven and in other locales around Connecticut. Most of the major roles are played by Yale students, but the Yale campus is very much absent from the movie. Yolen, a New Haven native, wrote the script with other locations in mind and purposefully excluded Yale from the film — he and Smith wanted to strip the film of the typical student movie plot centered around a campus and campus life, and so Yolen focused the action in a non-descript location. In an effort to further break away from the “Yale bubble,” Yolen and Smith issued a casting call and cast both New Haven children and adults in the film.
“We didn’t want to make a movie about college,” Yolen said. “By casting New Haven actors, we broadened the perspective of the film. It was great meeting and getting to work with the locals.”
The two filmmakers collaborated with two of their local cast members in particular: though the original score for the film was written by Julia Meinwald ’05, the film opens with a hip-hop song written by Kamaal Bittle and Justin Mills, two New Haven natives. In a collaboration a la F. Scott Fitzgerald and Francis Cugat, Bittle and Mills read the script and wrote a song whose backbone was the film’s plotline; this was one of three songs they contributed to the film.
Though Smith and Yolen seamlessly worked these newer additions to the creative process into the film, the script and the idea for the movie have much more history: Yolen met Smith when they both interned in L.A. for a summer; Yolen then worked on a short film that Smith wrote and directed last year, and the idea to make a movie together was born. Yolen spent most of the summer writing the script — he not only had many of the locations in mind from the beginning of the process but in fact he wrote two of the film’s characters (Lionel and his stepbrother) specifically for the actors who then played them. He originally wrote Charlie (the trainee whom Lionel befriends at the Forest movie theater) for himself, but soon realized that Roach would be far better suited for the role. Yolen took the fall semester out to focus completely on the film; Smith, who did not take the semester off, admits that it was nonetheless a focal point of his life last semester, and that finding the time for both academics and the movie was difficult.
“We wanted to create the most professional product possible,” said Smith. “It took up most of our time — the music, the filming, finding places to shoot and improvising on location. It was great, but it was hell on earth.”
The film’s focus is both on creating a product that is as a whole professional and cohesive and on highlighting detail. Smith purposefully inserted small visual details in the film that serve to mark the thread of themes that run through the film, and Yolen wrote both incredibly loud characters and sedate characters like Charlie, whose face more hints at emotion than expresses it.
“A lot of acting — can be very overdone,” Roach, who played Charlie, said. Roach is a member of Just Add Water, whose wild improvisation antics differ immensely from the lack of motion of his character in the film. “I had [to focus] on not moving too much, on being quiet, on the smaller details.”
“Tri-State” will be screened on campus from today through Tuesday. The film will play at 8 p.m. in room 119 every day except Monday, when it will play in room 208.
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