The Seattle International Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend, capping 25 days that brought more than 400 features, shorts, and documentaries from over 80 countries.
The final weekend also meant it was time to hand out the hardware for the top films.
Among the features receiving honors was “Middle Man,” which won the New American Cinema Competition. The part-dark comedy, part-thriller stars Jim O’Heir — best known for his role as Jerry Gergich on “Parks and Recreation,” — as a wannabe comedian without the penchant for telling jokes, who picks up a mysterious hitchhiker (Andrew J. West) and gets caught up in a desert-town killing spree.
But as the death toll rises, so does his comedic prospects.
Before the film’s world premiere at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Friday night, actors O’Heir, West, and Anne Dudek, and writer/director Ned Crowley sat down with the Queen Anne & Magnolia News to discuss the production, and their hopes for the production moving forward.
Here’s what Crowley had to say about his first full feature.
Q: Where did you come up with the idea for this?
Ned Crowley: I had written the film a while back for Jim. Jim and I go back 30 years, and we did sketch comedy together in Chicago, and then he moved to LA, and I stayed in Chicago, and I had a writing partner that moved with him, and they’ve both done very well. I turned to writing screenplays on the side, and I’d always had this idea about Jim always plays kind of the character. It’s easy for directors to cast him, it’s like here’s a likable guy, he’s big, he’s a funny guy, blah blah blah, he plays Jerry, and I know him as a really good actor, so the idea was like, “Well, what if I create a role for him that’s just completely counter to what people expect and let him do things that I know he’s capable of doing that he hadn’t?” And also just the notion of the film was more the sort of 15 minutes of fame that everybody’s willing to do whatever they can. I’m like a below the radar guy, but I’m horrified at what people will do just to be famous, and so that’s kind of it, even this really sincere, nice, likable guy with the extremes he will go to and sort of the price of all that. That was the genesis really, but it really was more of a nugget of, could I give Jim something so counter to what he gets cast in that it would be really compelling for him and for me and for everybody else.
Q: You wrote the lead role with Jim in mind, how did you go about getting the rest of the cast, and people like Anne and Andrew
Crowley: I’d never thought we’d get those guys, or the caliber of that, and Jim was sort of like, “No no, you’d be surprised, if you have a really good script and you put it out there, of who will show up.” Andrew was just somebody who came out of, we were talking with the casting guy, and we couldn’t find the right guy. These guys would come in and they’re just the evil character guys would come in and everything, and I’m like, no, it has to be like, this guy’s got to be charming, you have to like this guy, he could be good-looking, this and that, and I’m like, the guy who plays that Gareth character on The Walking Dead, and we all sort of went, yeah, that guy would be great. and we went after Andrew, and Andrew read it, and I feel like if you can get that script into somebody’s hand and they’ll actually take the time to give it a little bit of a read, and then we had him, and he came and talked. And Annie was the same way, I think her producer sort of looked at the script or her manager and said, “I think I have something you might be interested,” and Annie, she doesn’t need to do this, because she works and is great, but again, for her, she gets casts very much in a, one of her famous characters was on House and was nicknamed “the cutthroat bitch,” and I’m like, so she’s counter to that, she’s very sweet and just plays that side of it, so she read it too and was really compelled and liked where it went at the end. So we were very fortunate, and you’re saying, how do you get these guys, and a lot of it’s a little bit of luck. I was thinking, well we’re going to cast friends and aunts and uncles because that’s all that we can get, and fortunately our casting guy was able to get scripts in the right hands and get to those people. Even Tracey Walter, who’s been in a hundred films over the years, who plays the priest, I went and just had coffee with him, he was the only guy who didn’t insist on auditioning. Everybody else said, “Well, I love the film, but I want to audition, I want to make sure it’s right for you.” Andy and Anne and all of those guys. Josh McDermitt, same thing. I was like, we’ll just give it to him, and he was like, “No, I want to come in and do it for you.” Tracy, we just had coffee, and I was like, “Alright, this is the guy.”
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you across the production process?
Crowley: I think money was always a challenge. We knew we weren’t going to have a lot of it, and we knew we were going to have to ask for a lot of favors, which we did, and that’s frustrating because I come from the commercial world, and I’ve been on sets for 30 years and had a lot of money to do it. We shot this film for less than I get to shoot a commercial for one day. We just didn’t have the money, and that was always the challenge, of really having high expectations for the film, the look, and the people, and the actors, and just saying you have these limitations, and even the crew, we had a lot of people who had a lot of experience come in, and then we also had this level of people, this skeleton of people who didn’t have experience, but really wanted to do the film, and so it was that marrying of people who had lots of experience and expectations but you have other guys who were like working with interns sometimes, they don’t know what to do. That was a challenge on every level, but I enjoyed it. It’s sort of like, I think part of our goal was can you make a movie with very, very little money, and it’s looks like you spent. We spend a couple hundred thousands of dollars, and I think it looks like we spent millions of dollars on the film and everything, but a lot of favors were called in.
Q: Is that freeing though, to have that budget limitation and still put out the product you did?
Crowley: Yes. This is going to sound odd, but one of the things I liked the most was when a problem would come up, and you just had to figure out how to do it. It’s like, well we can’t do this, we don’t have the money to do X and Y, and I’m like, hmm, what if we shot in back of that building instead, and that doubled for this and that, and you just problem solve. It is liberating, we didn’t have anybody telling us what to do, so we made all the decisions on that. I didn’t have any problem with not having the money as long as you get the mental resources to keep going at it. We always figured something out.
Q: Is there any take away that you want audiences to get from seeing this?
Crowley: First of all, I’m thankful you got to the end of the movie, because you know where it sort of turns, some people shut it off and go, oh, total cop out. We put a lot of thought into subtext of this and tried to keep different stories going, and I would love nothing more than what you just said, if people came out and said it took me a couple minutes to process, or we chatted about it for a little bit, or it actually made me think more than some other things. If somebody will do that, great. What’s funny is some people will say, “I thought this happened. I thought Lenny’s character snapped when he was in the first act in the coffee shop,” and I said, “Wow, I never would have thought of that,” but I would never tell them that’s not what happens, but I’m like cool, great. So yeah, I think we tried to leave a little ambiguity in there, not to frustrate people but to allow somebody to say even if they didn’t like the movie, they might think about it. That would be great.
Q: How does it feel to reach the point of the world premiere?
Crowley: I’m probably supposed to tell you terrifying. It is a little bit terrifying, but it’s in a way a relief. Our entire goal from setting out, I’d love to say our goal was to make this thing and make millions of dollars and this and that, I would love it to find an audience, I would love it to get out on a platform of some sort. But we set this out, our original goal was, if we can produce something that looks like we spent a ton of money for not a lot, all the people are still talking to each other at the end of this, and I said, if we can get to one great premiere and have a beer afterwards and say we did that, that’s looked pretty good, that’s the goal. So I’m really excited about being able to be here in Seattle, Seattle’s been so welcoming, it’s been really great. I’m also nervous, because we’ve got a packed house, people are coming in and I don’t, we did some test things, we were smart about that, and had some people walk out, which is just like okay, cool, but we’ll see. And I think these kind of houses are pretty friendly, but there’s a point, and you know, you’ve seen the movie, where people start laughing, and it starts to slide into this other film and they stop, or they really get it and they start laughing at the dark stuff, which is cool. I’m really excited. I feel really, frankly, blessed to be here, and fortunate. I can’t believe we got it out of sheer will and tenacity that got this thing done, and we’re pretty happy with it. I’m not embarrassed, I won’t have to sit in the fetal position in the corner and watch it, so I’m excited about that.
Q: You have 30 seconds, someone’s walking down the street and you pull them aside. What’s your elevator pitch for them and this movie?
Crowley: I’d say, do you like comedies? And they say yes. And I say, do you like thrillers? And they say yes. And I say, do you want to see something you haven’t quite seen before? Yes? Come to see this thing. It’s a hard elevator pitch, I always think less is more, if you can just say, it’s a bout a guy who’s really got a dream to be a comedian, but he’s not funny and he gets tangled up in some really bad stuff. But yeah, I guess it would be like, people have said, I loved it, and other people said it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s not bad.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add about the film?
Crowley: No, other than I’m hoping that we find the right place for it. I think the most interesting thing somebody said to me, is they said, ‘You know what, I don’t see this as a movie, I think you should pitch it as a series,’ and it came out of what Fargo’s been doing now, which is wonderful, in just teasing apart that story and that town, and I was like, ‘Wow, it would be great if somebody gave us that opportunity, because that’s the hardest thing, to create this little town and this cast of characters, and not be able to do anything else with it. I hope people come to see it, and like you said, if you take away a couple of minutes of digestion at the end, to try and figure it out, I’d be happy.
"Middle Man" screens Friday, June 17 at 9:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown, as part of the Best of SIFF 2016 lineup.