There’s a growing consensus among filmmakers that television, not film, offers the more hospitable climate for innovative work. While this might be true, here’s the anomaly: The very innovators who brought about this change still go back to movies to create their “personal” projects.
David Chase, who turned TV around with “The Sopranos,” shot his own personal story in his 2012 movie “Not Fade Away,” which pulled a fast fade earning less than $650,000 domestically. And now Matthew Weiner, who is prepping his seventh and final season of “Mad Men,” is unveiling his first significant feature directing effort, “You Are Here,” at the Toronto fest next week. His new film is a far cry from his first feature, a low-budget black-and-white pic in which he also starred, which was never released.
And while Weiner commands an imperial presence in TV land, he arrives at Toronto as a humble near-first time director, aspiring for some good reviews and, more importantly, for a distributor.
It’s been a demanding journey. An intense and witty 48-year-old, Weiner wrote his film script 10 years ago and has been trying to assemble cast and funding ever since. In his role as neophyte film director, Weiner received brusque turndowns from some of the very agents who had been courting him for TV. “Phone calls were not returned,” he says. “To get an answer from one star, I had to sit in an agent’s office and tell his assistants I would not go away until I received an audience.”
Weiner shot “You Are Here” in 33 days and acknowledges that it was akin to combat duty. The film focuses on a TV weather man who inherits a farm and re-invents his life. Its cast features Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler and Laura Ramsey. “This is not like TV where you return to your familiar cast every week,” he reflects. “You have to win the respect of your stars. It’s a daily game.”
As for his story, Weiner says: “I set out to make a film about personal themes on a disciplined budget. I did not want to chase the marketplace.”
The locations in North Carolina and changing weather conditions also posed ongoing challenges, as did the tight schedule. “You cannot afford the luxury of meandering,” he points out. Yet every camera angle posed its own aesthetic challenges, far more than in TV. “I went to see ‘The Master’ and sat there marveling at some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s shots,” says Weiner. “How did he do that? Would I ever have the time to even try?”
Ultimately Weiner found U.S. backing from a producer named Gary Gilbert. Foreign sales were buttressed by his name and by his star cast.
Having completed his first film, would he tackle another movie directing job? Weiner is non-committal on that issue. He has a lot on the line. His TV work has showered him with accolades — nine primetime Emmys and three Golden Globes. Time magazine named him one of the nation’s most influential people and the Atlantic named him one of its 21 “brave thinkers.”
But “brave thinking” in TV is less risky. Having worked on “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” Weiner has mastered that fast-evolving medium. He also understands that, despite the new mythology of cable TV, there are ever-expanding bureaucracies of development execs to cope with and complex deal structures to navigate.
His reception at Toronto will have a major impact on his thinking, to be sure. There will be hands to shake and cocktail parties to endure. The distribution deals, if and when they come, will entail esoteric formulas of split rights and complex marketing strategies.
Weiner says he’s ready for it. “I guess I am a junkie for new experience,” he admits. “And experience is risk.”
And Matt Weiner clearly is ready for risk.