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SXSW '05 Interview: 'Straight Line' Director Sean Ackerman

by Scott Weinberg

The "STRAIGHT LINE" Pitch: Three stories intertwined: the day a mother dies, the week her son falls in love, and the month he journeys to get his love back. Using three different film formats, it's an intensely visual patchwork that spans lifetimes and travels across five countries yet remains intimate in focus. Embracing the vast beauty of the world, STRAIGHT LINE is a movie about how lucky we are to be alive.

"An epic journey into the intimate."

Will this be your first time at SXSW? Any other film festival experience?
Straight Line is my first feature and SXSW was the first festival we submitted it to, so SXSW will be my first festival ever.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
I think that was the year I saw Point Break. I wanted to be an FBI agent for a while after that.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
I was more or less a jock until I was 17. Then I literally went insane for about a year. I spent that year locked in a room with my girlfriend watching movies. I fell in love with my girlfriend and I fell in love with movies too. Before I knew it I was applying to NYU film school.

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
I've been a little bit happier. I mean, I devoted two years of my life to this movie. I did it outside the Hollywood system. Hell, I did it outside of any system. It was a lot of hard work. Getting into to a festival as wonderful as SXSW sort of validated some of that work.

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or film festivals in general) in mind?
Yes. That's exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking SXSW, Tribeca, Toronto. For me this movie is a calling card. I wanted to make a good movie that I could stand by as proof that I'm a great director. That's all. My plan has always been to make this a festival film, and use the festival circuit to help me establish myself as a talented filmmaker.

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
I like science. I was reading a physics book one day and then the idea just jumped up into my head. The movie has got nothing to with physics. Don't know where the hell the idea came from. It just hit me and I thought it was the best idea I'd ever had. I loved it because it was a dynamic story with intense visuals which I could shoot for a low cost. I also felt it was a movie nobody else could or would make. That's mostly because nobody else is stupid enough to drive from Montana to Panama in an old Buick and make a movie along the way. Luckily, I am that stupid. The whole shoot was insane though. We shot in five countries over eighteen months on three different film formats and did it all for the price of an SUV. It was just a lot of passion and dedication by everyone involved. We all worked for free. We all just wanted to make a great little movie.

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
I can make a better movie for $34,000 than most directors can make for ten times that much. Does that sound cocky? Sorry.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
No. I don't really like to watch other films to prepare for my own work. I find it distracting. As a first time director, it's been important for me to learn to listen to myself. That's the only way to truly develop your own aesthetic.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?
I don't think I would want to do a remake. I think remakes are interesting when it comes to spectacle films because modern technology and special effects can re-imagine the spectacle. Something like Clash of the Titans would be a good remake. However, I'm more interested in character-driven films so what am I going to do, remake The Graduate? No way. Unlike special effects, good character development is timeless. The only way I'd really be interested in doing a remake is if I could subvert the intent of the original in some way.

Two parter – name an actor you'd KILL to work with, and then name an actor in your own film that you really think is destined for great things.
There are a lot of actors I'd love to work with. If you're talking Hollywood, Clint Eastwood comes to mind. As far as a less traditional performer goes, I love Crispin Glover. Basically any actor who is irreplaceable attracts me. There aren't too many of those. There are a lot of interchangeable pretty boys and pretty girls, but not too many geniuses.

Within my own film, I'd say Shannon Shultz could be destined for great work if she wants to be. This was the first time she'd ever acted and she did a wonderful job. She's got so much potential, so much natural charisma, and such a unique quality. I don't know if she really wants to act though. She's already pretty successful in life doing other work.

The festival circuit: what could be improved? What's been your favorite part of the ride?
I just started the ride so I really don't know. However, I will say that I love SXSW for how well it embraces first-time directors.

Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say ‘yes’?
No, I haven't "made it" yet. When you get paid to make great art then you have made it. I made Straight Line for free and even financed part of it myself. I think it shows I can make great work. I'm just hoping somebody pays me to make the next movie.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
I did not use that credit although I did direct, write, produce, edit, and act. Thing is, even doing all that, I didn't nearly do everything. I believe filmmaking to be collaboration. We all know directors do a lot of work. You don't have to go and say "a film by". That's like slapping your crew. I don't want to do that. My crew is a bunch of geniuses. I'm not about to slap a genius, much less a whole bunch of them.


Straight Line, starring Sean Ackerman, Shannon Shultz, Monika Franzen, Sam Baker, will premiere at the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more information - and be sure to check out the official Straight Line website!

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originally posted: 02/17/05 10:00:41
last updated: 02/17/05 10:55:31
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