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JOSEPH PIERSON: Director of EvenHand
by Matt Mulcahey

After seeing EvenHand, a meticulously detailed, perfectly performed Texas beat cop character study, some West Coast movie execs were impressed enough to request a meeting with the film’s director.
But, to their surprise, Joseph Pierson walked through the door without a ten-gallon hat, chaps or a belt buckle the size of a small child.

“I showed up at the meeting and we chatted for a minute and they said ‘You were not what we were expecting, we thought you were sort of a good old boy and here your this New York City guy,” Pierson said.

Born in the Big Apple, Pierson majored in Studio Art at Middlebury College, but received his film education courtesy of a legendary New York City talent.

“It was one of those cases of being in the right place at the right time. Woody Allen was scouting locations on A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and he ended up filming on property owned by one of my uncles in the city,” Pierson said. “I was just out of school, wondering what I was going to do and it seemed like fun. That really was my film education, my film school.”

Though Pierson’s duties as a production assistant on Midsummer were menial, his responsibilities progressed as he worked on the production staff of Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984).

“I started out fetching lunch for everybody, and I ended up working with the actors, getting them to make-up and hair. On Zelig my job became wrangling the extras. It was a great way to learn the business, watching Woody Allen direct and Gordon Willis light,” Pierson said. “I learned that it’s possible to do the job without a lot of yelling and screaming. Allen was a very low-key guy. If you wandered onto the set you’d never know he was the director.”

More production work followed, including the camp classic The Last Dragon (1985) and serving as location manager on Five Corners (1987) and Broken Vows (1986).

In 1987 Pierson, along with partner Joe Glascoe, founded the New York-based production company Cypress Films, and the pair went on to produce the Christian Slater film Julian Po (1997) and co-direct Cherry (1999).

Initially, EvenHand was intended to be another joint directing effort.

“Around the time of starting on pre-production for EvenHand, Joe was in the middle of writing a screenplay and early drafts had gotten some attention in LA. It made more sense for him to pursue that and try to have something happen with his writing. It was a better use of our resources to not be doing the same thing at the same time,” Pierson said. “I was of course terrified to do the film alone. I handled the visual effects of the other films, so I worked with the DP and the production designer for the look of the film. I found a lot of locations, I never worked with the actors.”

Pierson’s first actor-related task was the casting process, which yielded Bill Dawes as the idealistic Officer Rob Francis and Bill Sage as his new partner, the cynical and rebellious Ted Morning.

“I’d seen Bill Sage in High Art and I’d seen him in American Psycho. None of those roles in any of those films bore any resemblance to the character in Evenhand. My casting director found him and brought him in and he did the opening scene and one other and as soon as he did them I know he was the guy because that first scene sets the tone between the hardass and the undercurrent that he actually cares.”

While the new partners’ approaches to the job clash as the film examines a year in their lives, the film’s dual tones of levity and tragedy similarly battle before finding a way to co-exist.

“I don’t think I was aware of how funny this movie was until I started editing it. I like that it was funny, as long as it didn’t undermine the ending,” Pierson said.

Much of EvenHand's realism comes from the two months Pierson spent in San Antonio during pre-production and writer Mike Jones'time with the SAPD while writing the script, but the actors also did their share to ensure authenticity.

“They (Dawes and Sage) spent three or four days at the police academy. They got some of the essentials, some of the basic training: How you talk to people, how you cuff people and things like that. Then they spent time doing ride-alongs,” Pierson said.

Some of the actor’s experiences on these ride-alongs, such as a running conversation between the two leads about a quest for a Dale Earnhardt collectors car, made their way into the movie.

While EvenHand serves as a contradiction to the distorted view of police work that Hollywood movies normally present, Pierson avoided re-visiting other genre movies before the shoot.

“The films I watched before I made Evenhand were films that I thought might give me the tone I wanted. I watched a lot films from the late 60s/early 70s: The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy. The style of those movies, the unobtrusiveness, is what I was after,” Pierson said. “One film that I didn’t want to watch was Training Day. I didn’t want EvenHand to be a reaction against Training Day, or have people say this is just a low-budget version of Training Day. We also didn’t want to make it like a cops episode, making it really gritty and handheld, though we did end up using a lot of handheld just because we couldn’t afford a dolly.”

EvenHand is currently making the festival rounds, already playing at South by Southwest with stops at the Nashville Independent Film Festival (April 28-May 4), the USA Film Festival in Dallas (April 24-May 1), the TriBeca Film Festival (May 3-May 11) and the Atlanta Film Festival (6/6-6/14) on the horizon.

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originally posted: 04/05/03 05:31:52
last updated: 01/03/04 16:43:13
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