Sunday, March 18, 2007
Movie review and director interview: Music Within
Starring Office Space's Ron Livingston, film makes an inspirational choice for premiere on Thursday.
Music Within, director Steven Sawalich's heartfelt biopic about the breakthrough accomplishments and personal struggles of Americans with Disabilities Act advocate Richard Pimentel, is an upbeat and uplifting choice for the premiere event of the AFI Dallas International Film Festival.
The facts behind the story are that Pimentel (who is presently a Senior Partner at Milt Wright & Associates, Inc.) served active duty in Vietnam and was wounded when an artillery round exploded in the bunker where he and his fellow soldiers were celebrating a just-completed successful field mission. Pimentel lost his hearing as a result of the explosion - or, more precisely, his hearing was damaged to the point that all he could hear was a constant ringing in his ears (tinnitus) and only the lower registers of ordinary speech.
The film, starring Ron Livingston (of Office Space and Band of Brothers fame), chronicles Pimentel's early life, starting at the point where he's pronounced dead at birth and continuing to his relationship with his emotionally-crippled (and crippling) mother, played by Rebecca De Mornay. She abandons him to foster parents and then, years later, demands his return - a reflection of her disturbed and unstable mental condition.
Through a remarkable capacity for adaptation and perseverance, Pimentel eventually learns to read lips so well that most people never suspect his deafness. He lands a high-paying corporate job, settles down with a beautiful, loving woman (Melissa George, as Christine) and seems to have his future comfortably charted out - but that doesn't take into account his friendships with other disabled Vietnam veterans.
During his college years, he meets and befriends a cerebral-palsied individual named Art Honeyman (played in the film with preternatural verisimilitude, candor and - refreshingly - humor by Michael Sheen); through a simple act of kindness, the two men forge a connection that ends up changing and enriching both their lives, and tangentially the lives of thousands of disabled Americans.
Mr. Livingston, who plays self-deprecating self confidence like it's something he invented, is an inspired casting selection for the role of Richard Pimentel; Ms. George captivates as a free-love hippie-ish college girl with an accepting spirit who comes to understand what it means to hook up with a man on a mission.
Period popular music accompanies the film's action; songs are cleverly chosen to put selected shadings (primarily sly ironic humor) on occurrences in the life of Mr. Pimentel. This provides for the additional depth one would hope to find in a film selected as centerpiece for the festival's inaugural evening.
- NEW TWIST TO OLD CHIP-ON-SHOULDER ROUTINE: "I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck; I've been pissed off ever since." - Richard Pimentel
- RIMSHOT, PLEASE: "How the Hell can a dwarf be a file clerk?" - prospective employer to the dwarf's agent, Richard Pimentel.
- "She specializes in L - Z." - Pimentel to prospective employer.
- BIRDS OF A FEATHER, ONCE REMOVED: "Fuckin' peacenicks. I'd hate 'em a lot more if I didn't agree with 'em." - wounded Vietnam vet Mike Stolz (Yul Vazquez), in regard to the noisy war protesters outside his college classroom.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR STEVEN SAWALICH:
John Meyer: Who was the initial driving force behind the film? Was it you, or one of the writers or producers?
Steven Sawalich: I have been a friend of Richard Pimentel for about eight years. I met him during one of his speaking engagements. I was listening to him give a speech and the story that he tells is his life story incorporating it with disability in the workplace. I was sitting there and he has this amazing ability to take the audience on this roller coaster ride of emotions where one minute everyone is laughing hysterically and then the next moment everyone is crying. It was a brilliant balance of humor and emotion. After the speech, I went up to him and said we should make this into a movie and he told me “Why would you want to do that?” I said, “the same reason you talk about it. It is an amazing story.” After that a few years went by and I kept thinking about his life. We eventually re-connected a few years later. During that time, I met my producing partner on the film, Brett Donowho. I told him of the story and we met with Richard and learned more. We hired two writers to begin the initial draft and two years later made the film.
JM: A quick reading of the credits reveals several examples of apparent nepotism in the casting (smile): Ron's brother John Livingston; a gal named Trevi Sawalich (relation?); and then of course you snuck in a little role for yourself there as a "Soldier." Were you one of the guys in the tent before the explosion?
SS: Ha. I don’t think a little nepotism can hurt! John Livingston is actually Ron’s brother; that wasn’t really why he was cast. We were struggling to find an actor for this role and Ron mentioned his brother. We were sent John’s tape and he was/is a fantastic actor that fit the part perfect. He was just what I was looking for. Trevi Sawalich is actually my wife. When the role was written I thought she could play it tremendously. And the scene actually gets one of the biggest laughs in the film. As for myself, I originally started out in acting and then later transitioned into directing.
Believe it or not, I actually cut my part out of the film! The scene I was in didn’t actually end up working to my liking so it is sitting on the cutting room floor.
JM: And how'd Clint Howard wind up in the role of the disagreeable college applications clerk? (Man, he really plays snotty well, doesn't he?)
SS: We actually went through the normal channels on Clint. During one of our brainstorming sessions his name was brought up and I didn’t think we would have a chance at him doing it but thought he would be perfect. We sent his agent the script and Clint read it in a day. Everyone really came aboard this project because it was such a wonderful story.
JM: The great period music is a key element of the feel and mood of the movie; sometimes the song lyrics actually seem to be making a statement about the events. Who was involved in selecting the songs?
SS: When we first starting developing the script I knew the music was going to be a key role. For me, it really brings you into the time period. Before we started shooting I had a list of songs that I wanted to use. Other times I would hear a song on the radio and think that would be perfect for this scene. My editor and I would sit in there and just plug songs in and see what would work. That was the easy part! The hardest part was getting them cleared for such a small independent film! That is where my music supervisor came in. She had a great relationship with the record companies and was key in getting the rights. I also have connections with a few of the artists on the soundtrack and they were generous enough to lend their music to the film.
JM: The sound effects used to simulate hearing loss and tinnitus are very effective - how were these effects achieved?
SS: I was able to obtain a copy of Richard Pimentel’s actual audiogram that shows you his hearing loss by frequency. We were able to put that into the mixing board with the tinnitus and give the audience a taste of Richard’s actual hearing loss. We had to tone down the tinnitus a bit for the audience because it was unbearable to listen to for a given amount of time. That is the sad part because Richard lives with that every day.
[ED. NOTE: the hearing loss effects are employed only briefly in the film - just in case you were wondering how much Excedrin to pack along to the screening.]
JM: One of the most moving performances is that of Michael Sheen as Art, who's a wheelchair-bound victim of cerebral palsy. Can you tell me how many actors you screen-tested for that role, and what it was about Michael's take on the character that landed him the part? Also, was there any thought given to having the role of Art played by an actual disabled person?
SS: I auditioned actors with cerebral palsy for role. I also auditioned actors who did not have CP. We were predisposed to cast an actor with cerebral palsy if he could meet the criteria that we set. While I found actors who had cerebral palsy who had good acting ability, Michael Sheen was the only one we found who could accurately portray Art’s movements and speech, and at the same time, bring the essence of the real Art Honeyman to the screen. For Michael, Art’s cerebral palsy is such a small part of who he is and that is what made it so brilliant.
JM: Is there anything you find particularly timely about telling this story to the American audience of today?
SS: There are many themes that are addressed in the telling of the story of Richard Pimentel. Some of these themes are timeless. They speak of and to every generation. One of them, the theme of creating something positive from the experience of personal adversity, is universal. However there is one important theme in the telling of this story that I think speaks specifically to us today.
It is the experience that Vietnam veterans in general and especially disabled Vietnam veterans faced when they returned. They came home to an America that was struggling to deal with a controversial and frustrating war. Both those Americans who supported the war and those who were against it tended to confuse their feelings about the war with their feelings about the soldiers who fought in it. Many of the veterans who were strong enough to live a year in Vietnam were too fragile to survive the next year at home. This film shows one disabled veteran's efforts to survive his own homecoming by helping and teaching other veterans to survive theirs.
Today, we have a new generation of service men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have high percentages of post traumatic stress, record numbers of traumatic brain injuries and significant numbers of leg and arm amputations. The service men and women who are returning home today are going to need all the help that we can give them. If this film in any way reminds us of what things need to be done and if Richard's story inspires us to do them, then this film does speak to today's audiences and it is timely in the truest sense of the word.
JM: Were you surprised that your film was selected for the AFI Dallas International Film Festival's opening night gala event?
SS: I am incredibly excited to know that my film will be the first film shown in this inaugural event! It is an honor for me to be among all the wonderful films that were selected and to set the bar for the rest of the festival. AFI is a name that is synonymous with quality and I hold great admiration for everything that they do. I look forward to being a part of this year and hopefully many more to come.
JM: Why do you think it (Music Within) was selected?
SS: I would like to think it is a film that AFI can stand behind and will be proud to have open their festival. It is a film that appeals to a broad audience with a great balance of humor and emotion that has a message that everyone can relate to.
JM: What color tux will you be wearing at the screening, and who will be on your arm? Have you considered cowboy boots for footwear?
SS: Ha! I don’t know about the tux or boots. I am just trying to get through all the preparation for the festival and hopefully the attire will fall into place! My lovely wife will be on my arm that evening… she is much prettier to look at than I will be!
[ED. NOTE: too true!]
JM: Have you visited Dallas before? And what do you think about AFI inaugurating a festival event here in Big D? (Does this country really need another film festival?)
SS: I actually grew up in Dallas part of my life. I moved there when I was twelve from Illinois so it is extra special to have my film shown here. I think it is wonderful AFI has brought a festival to Dallas. Film festivals are becoming a necessary tool for filmmakers to show their work. They are a chance for the audience to see quality films that may not be seen anywhere else. It is a chance to discover new and emerging talent that will make their mark as filmmakers.
JM: Was Richard Pimentel consulted in the course of the production, and has he seen the film?
SS: Richard has been involved since day one. He was consulted throughout the writing of the screenplay and he even visited set during filming. It was important for me to make a film that he is proud of and to depict his life the best possible way. He was the best resource I had during the making of this film. The day he visited set it helped reassure the crew that they weren’t just making a film, but they were telling someone’s life story.
Richard has seen the movie quite a few times now. He has come to our screenings at other film festivals and he will be here in Dallas as well. It is great for him to see people’s reactions to his life as well as the audience seeing the true person that helped change the way of life for so many. I think Richard is very proud of the way the film turned out. He is still amazed that so many people find his life interesting, which I think tells about his character.
JM: In your view, what is the importance of the sub-story involving Richard's imperiled personal relationship with his wife, Carolyn? (Is it meant to convey that our decisions have consequences, even the ones we make with the best intentions?)
SS: It is actually Christine, not Carolyn. The IMDB has it listed wrong. [ED. NOTE: IMDB has since corrected the credit listing.] For me it was important to show Richard’s self destruction with his personal life. He abandoned Christine much like his mother abandoned him when he was younger. Richard set a path to prove to himself and his mother that he was good enough to live. For Richard, Christine was another accomplishment in his quest for self-righteousness.
JM: Were there any scenes omitted from the film in the final cut that you'd like to see make it onto the eventual DVD release?
SS: I had final cut of the film so I don’t know that there are any scenes that I would put back in the film. There are a lot of scenes that we cut for one reason or another that were great scenes, but just didn’t fit into the overall arc of the story. I think those scenes will be on the special features of the DVD… all except my scene! I don’t know that anyone will be seeing that acting performance ever again!
JM: What's next for Steven Sawalich as a director?
SS: I am constantly reading scripts for my next project, but I haven’t settled on one. There is also a script that I have co-written, but we are still polishing it. Whatever it may be it is going to be something that I can stand behind and be proud to call my own.
See more stories in:
- New on DVD: Walk Hard, There Will Be Blood, The Water Horse and Music Within
- AFI Dallas announces 2008 award winners
- Three AFI Dallas recommended films opening in regular release this weekend
- Movie review: Loaded, including interview with filmmaker/actor Erick Gosse, actor Joel Bryant and producer Brandon Jones