Magnolia director's debut a festival hit

Nothing brings perspective like getting lost.

Imagine that home is half a world away. You're immersed in a culture so completely foreign that simple tasks like boarding a train, asking directions or going to the bathroom fill you with gut-wrenching anxiety. You desperately wish you could click your heels together and be whisked back to what's familiar, comforting and predictable.

But what if you had nothing left to go back to? What if the reason for your displacement was a profound change at home that made the familiar even more hostile then the foreign? What do you do?

According to local filmmaker John Jeffcoat, sometimes all you can do is laugh.

And fall in love.

With his new romantic comedy, Outsourced, which recently met with rave reviews by sold-out audiences at the Toronto Film Festival, Jeffcoat explores a hot-button issue with a delicate, humane touch.

The film, starring Josh Hamilton (Alive, House of Yes) and Ayesha Dharker (The Terrorist, Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones), follows Todd, an employee at a Seattle-based novelty company whose entire division is outsourced to a call center in India. Sent to Mumbai to train his replacement and to serve as an accent-and-American-culture coach to the call-center employees, his culture shock is augmented by anxiety over the distinct possibility of unemployment when he returns to the United States.

As he struggles with the difficulties of his task, Todd slowly comes to appreciate Indian culture with the help of the call-center employees, in particular a beautiful woman named Asha.

While Outsourced is a timely exploration of a pertinent topic, for Jeffcoat it is also the culmination of years of creative struggle. During his junior year of college, he took a break from studying film to spend a semester in Nepal as part of a cultural immersion program. He got his first real taste of culture shock while living for five months in a remote area with a family in a mud hut with no running water and no electricity. When he returned home, he felt that he was seeing his own country for the first time.

"I've wanted to make a culture shock-culture clash-movie ever since," he says, "but I never really had the right story to tell until now."

Jeffcoat has been active in the Seattle film industry since he moved here in 1994. He was a charter member of the Northwest Film Forum and currently sits on the organization's board of directors. He's worked as a location sound mixer, an editor, a director of photography, writer, producer and director.

While working on corporate videos for Microsoft and Boeing, he also received grants from The Seattle Arts Commission to fund his own documentary projects, such as Bingo: The Documentary and Coffee, a short for the Seattle Film Festival. He was in the midst of making a documentary about the Indian film industry called Bollywood and Me when he became inspired to start work on Outsourced.

An avid public radio listener, Jeffcoat says he was struck by the vast amount of news coverage dedicated to the increase in overseas outsourcing by American companies. Seeing the narrative potential in the business practice-particularly in American workers having to train their own replacements overseas-he brought the idea of using outsourcing as a basis for a culture-clash story to his friend George Wing.

Wing, the screenwriter of the Adam Sandler vehicle 50 First Dates, liked the idea of co-writing the script but was concerned by the possibility, considering the pertinent topical nature of the story, that other filmmakers might have beaten them to the punch.

After some research, Jeffcoat and Wing found that no similar films had yet been made. They threw themselves into the writing process. Jeffcoat spent countless hours writing in the coffee shops within walking distance of his home in Magnolia.

"I wanted to tell the story of an American dealing with India," Jeffcoat says, "but it's also the story of Indians dealing with the influx of American jobs, American culture. There's a profound change going on in that country right now, an emerging middle class that never existed before."

Young people working in call centers in Indian outsourcing hubs such as Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore have suddenly found themselves in the position of being able to support their families as well as having disposable income. Because of the nature of their jobs, they're also being trained to understand American and European culture.

While traveling in India to research Bollywood and Me, Jeffcoat observed the myriad subtle ways in which young Indians are appropriating perspectives and mannerisms from American pop culture, taking the TV show Friends and American Pie as indicators of what the "real" America is like.

In effect, the morals and ideals of an entire urban, Indian generation are changing.

"[Wing and] I took this concept and ran with it," he says. "We hope that this film will appeal to a generation of Indians that really haven't had their story told yet-this new culture that's emerging out of this call-center industry that's taking over India."

Jeffcoat also deals with the ways the outsourcing boom is affecting the approach that American companies take to sending jobs overseas. Even though the American dollar goes a long way in India, real-estate prices in cities such as Mumbai are going through the roof. That, in combination with the commercial overcrowding resulting from the meteoric increase in the number of urban call centers, has forced many American companies to look for cheaper facilities in more remote areas of the country. The call center where Todd finds himself is a dilapidated shack in a rural area outside of Mumbai.

"It's a bit of an extreme case," admits Jeffcoat, "but it's indicative of the direction American outsourcing is taking. The company Todd works for is really cheap, because I wanted to stay away from the high-tech side of things. It was so much more interesting and fun to have the company deal in physical objects-kitschy, patriotic Americana-stuff that you couldn't explain to people in other cultures."

While shopping the script around to various producers in L.A., Jeffcoat and Wing found many companies interested in the script itself, but not in Jeffcoat as a first-time feature director. Outsourced eventually found a home at Shadowcatcher Entertainment, the Seattle film studio that released Smoke Signals. Not only were Shadowcatcher producers David Skinner and Tom Gorai willing to fund production of the film; they were in full support of Jeffcoat's creative vision and willing to take a chance by allowing him to direct. Jeff relished the chance to work with actors from the Indian film industry, as well as Uma DaCunha, a respected Indian casting director who worked on the Oscar-nominated epic Lagaan.

"Acting in Indian film and television is so different, so broad," Jeffcoat says. "India has the biggest film industry in the world, and it functions very differently from what most Americans are used to. It was exciting to see these Indian actors, particularly Ayesha, getting into the script, loving their characters and experimenting with subtlety and nuance."

To enhance the theme of East-meets-West, the soundtrack features traditional Panjabi music as well as the techno/hip-hop/Bhangra style of Bombay Rockers and a collaboration between Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (which appeared previously in the film Dead Man Walking).

"We were concerned at first with how the romance between Todd and Asha would work in a believable way, how controversial it would be for Indian audiences," Jeffcoat says. "When we did our local script reading, we had a number of Indians in the audience. Some of them said this could never happen. Others said, 'Gimme a break; it happens all the time.' So there's definitely an interesting concept at work here: How real is this new culture that's developing in India? It's been exciting to play with this and to see how people react to it."

Seattle audiences might not have long to wait if they want to see Outsourced. Jeffcoat is currently in negotiations with distributors and a theatrical release will in all likelihood take place in the near future.

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Sean Molnar is a freelance writer and deejay living in Seattle; he can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]