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SXSW '07 Interview: 'Frownland' Director Ronald Bronstein

by Eric D. Snider

The "Frownland" pitch: "The miserable existence of a door-to-door coupon salesman who eats popcorn & eggs off the folded-out door of his kitchen oven."

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
A brown tomato lobbed with spazmo aim at the spotless surface of the silver screen.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you're a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
First feature, first trip.

When you were a little kid and people asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what was your answer?
I had no constructive goals at all. I watched the Little Rascals and read Mad Magazine religiously and I remember begging my mom one time to throw a cherry pie at my face. She made one with whipped cream and we did it in a safe, controlled environment.

Not including your backyard and your Dad's Handycam, how did you get your real "start" in filmmaking?
Oddly, I'd say the real start came when all the work I had made in film school got burned up in an apartment fire. Those films were a sort of humiliating albatross.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it's on "the festival circuit"?
I'd say. I've been clinging to hull of a sinking barge for the last year trying to keep my self-esteem from hitting abject bankruptcy. It's sort of tough to maintain enthusiasm for one's own ideas when working in a vacuum.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
No question. Gonzo. I've always had a gross tendency to align myself with self-styled weirdos and outsider types.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Not so much really. I expect the audience is going to wish I had, though.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
Well, I was complaining one night to an old girlfriend about how I was totally broke and the next thing you know she lied to her employers and recommended me for a job that I was totally unqualified for. Within a week I was shipped off to Sweden to work as a copywriter, where I stayed for exactly as long as it took to amass what I figured would be a suitable shooting budget for "Frownland." Got back, started shooting, and the money was gone within three months. Spent the next two years saving and spending, rehearsing and shooting, and then another editing the footage on a junky old 16mm flatbed. Sent a rough cut off to SXSW before it was finished and here I am, scrambling like a headless chicken to make the blow-up in time for the premiere.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
In general, looking at the final product. I can sort of see the limitations of my own juvenile, almost-outworn misanthropy. It's weird how one can get so attached to their own bad trip.

Tell us something personal about yourself that you think your film reflects -- your personality, your beliefs, your philosophy, your tastes, etc.
I suppose I've always had a kind of impish impulse to kick over rocks and check out what's writhing underneath.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
Well, first and foremost would be those earlier, meaner Mike Leigh movies: "Bleak Moments," "Home Sweet Home," "Nuts in May," "Kiss of Death -- extremely grim portraits of the crummy limited lots people draw in life, all laced with this super acidic gallows humor. Cassavetes. Altman. Alan Clarke. Monte Hellman. Frederick Wiseman (psssssst ... Wiseman fans, email me if you want to make trades). Basically, that small cache of filmmakers who've prioritized nuance and small behavioral gestures over heavy plotting and bloated concepts.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
Good grief. I really have no idea.

Name an actor in your film that's absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Well, Dore Mann is just a spastic powerhouse of talent. He was driven to basically expend every drop of his creative self for the sake of his role ... to the point that we really haven't had all that much to say to each other since the production wound down. Anyway, I'll go with Mary Wall in terms of "big-time" potential, though. She's so resourceful and serious and willing to go down all sorts of crazy backroads to arrive at the choices she makes. I was so taken by her that I basically cajoled her into marrying me.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be doing for a living? Or, if filmmaking isn't paying the bills full-time yet, what's your day job?
I work as a freelance projectionist, inspecting and screening old prints at various museums around NYC.

Who's an actor you'd kill a small dog to work with? (Don't worry; nobody would know.)
To be honest, I'm much more interested in exploring new faces.

Have you "made it" yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say "Yes, wow. I have totally made it!"
Being able to get the next project off the ground without having to pay for all of it myself by working seven days a week.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Well, given the paucity of theater space and the conservative disposition of most theatrical distributors, it's the critics these days that seem to provide the only far-reaching mouthpiece for the promotion of untrendy or even flatly uncommercial work. The near-unanimous support that Andrew Bujalski has received from the press in the past year [for "Mutual Appreciation"] is a great example.

You're told that your next movie must have one "product placement" on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Well, I guess I'll use this as an opportunity to shamelessly plug the newly published Serge Daney book, translated with excruciating care by my old friend and "Frownland" cast member Paul Grant.

You're contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that's absolutely integral to the film or you're getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
A trick question! Either I'm a shameless careerist milksop or a bull-headed kamikaze. At any rate, it's a moot point since I tend to focus on preternaturally shy and physically awkward character types who hate their own bodies and who nobody wants to see naked anyway.

What's your take on the whole "a film by DIRECTOR" issue? Do you feel it's tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film -- or do you think it's cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
Well, it's hard to resist the romanticism of the 'auteur' and like most people who care about movies I tend to categorize films by director. Still, in the case of my own work, I like to give a lot of space to the cast and crew for communal revision. The kind of fascistic hyper micro-managed approach associated with a genius like Kubrick just doesn't appeal to me at all.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
Lie?

* * *

Ronald Bronstein's "Frownland" will have its world premiere at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival. For more information, visit here And check out the official Frownland website right here. And check out BSide.com for even more info!


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2096
originally posted: 02/22/07 12:51:38
last updated: 03/07/07 09:27:10
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