Film noir isn’t a style that one usually associates with personal filmmaking. But writer-director David Atkins — whose mother introduced him to the books of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler — gave the genre a twist in “Novocaine,” his feature debut.
Instead of the hapless gumshoe or the loose-cannon cop, Atkins fashioned his everyman protagonist into a mild-mannered dentist, a profession shared by his father and two brothers, and walked the tightrope between suspense thriller and dark, absurdist humor.
“But you’ve got to be careful with these two tones,” cautions Atkins, “because you can really create an uneven experience unless you balance them.”
That balance is what attracted the interest of Artisan, which is unveiling the film at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, and lead actor Steve Martin, who was looking to break free of the congenial funnyman roles for which he’s known. The A-list cast also includes Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern and Elias Koteas.
Atkins, 38, traces his good fortune back to Columbia University film school, where he hooked up with Emir Kusturica, who had just finished directing Palme d’Or-winning “The Time of the Gypsies” and was looking to film a modern-day adaptation of Dostoevski’s “Crime and Punishment.” When Atkins showed Kusterica a script he’d written, the Yugoslav filmmaker made it his next project, a 1993 curio titled “Arizona Dream.”
The experience gave Atkins the cachet to work in Hollywood as a paid screenwriter, penning projects for the likes of Oliver Stone and Luc Besson, but he grew weary of the development gridlock.
“The whole protocol of making a movie there frustrated me,” he says, “so I finally decided to make something that I was going to see through until the end.”
“Novocaine” was shot in 34 days on a budget of around $10 million but boasts the polish of a major studio release. The use of X-ray footage as an interstitial element lends the film an eerie, unpredictable feel.
“This is a crime story,” explains Atkins, “but also, on a metaphorical level, underneath the surface there is rot.”