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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Bondage' Director Eric Allen Bell

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Bondage' Pitch: The story of an OC youth who escapes his abusive family life only to find himself trapped inside the California Juvenile Corrections system and later a mental hospital.

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.
Yes. I have been to some film festivals with my short film Missing Sock. I also co-wrote a documentary short called TANKUP.US which showed at a few fests. Both of these films were produced by Dane Allan Smith who’s short The Freak won an award in 2003 at the Sundance Film Festival and is now being made into a full length feature film by Peter Guber.
I am by no means a veteran to this process, however my least favorite part of the ride thus far is watching projectionists show a film without sound for the first few minutes or too quietly throughout. It’s never happened to me but I always feel badly for the filmmakers who have made the journey only to have their work be treated carelessly.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
Funny you should ask that, because this question is exactly how Bondage starts out. I don’t of course want to give it away, but it wasn’t a filmmaker.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I was trying very hard to write a novel and quite literally starving. Occasionally I would get a telemarketing job and take the bus there until I couldn’t stand it anymore. It seemed like the world was designed to prevent anyone from becoming an artist. Then a famous comedian and a screenwriter hired me to punch up some dialogue for them in a few screenplays. I found that this form was a better fit for me than writing straight prose and people kept telling me that I was good at it. I was also paid enough money to buy a car and not have to get a job for a while, which helped me to get the point. As soon as I made a decision to pursue screenwriting I was hired to write several screenplays, including adapting a novel by a best selling author for an Oscar winning producer with a studio attached. I loved what I was doing and, although it was very up and down, I knew I was pursuing something I was passionate about.

Finally I directed my first short called Missing Sock which, out of something like 5,000 submissions, FilmThreat chose it as number 6 on it’s “Top 10 Shorts of 2004” list. I am still surprised by this since I shot that movie having no idea what I was doing, everyone worked for free, we had no money and an old news camera from the 80’s. But the movie somehow worked and was well received.

Then I met a generous and eccentric kazillionaire who bankrolled my first feature, Bondage, which will be making its world premiere at SXSW this year. I was fortunate enough to get as my lead who I think is the most talented young actor around today, Michael Angarano. He is the reason this movie works so well. As his sort of bipolar mother we cast Illeana Douglas who I’ve always loved and was just brilliant. Griffin Dunne also came aboard to play a psychiatrist with A.D.D. and I think it’s the funniest thing I’ve seen him do since After Hours. There are also a few other surprises which I won’t give away, but the cast is excellent and we really caught lightning in a bottle.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Yes, it’s finally started to feel real. The sense of unreality is starting to lift and I’m beginning to feel like there is a movie that actually exists and it all began with my sitting down and typing “FADE IN:” I also feel extremely lucky and fortunate to have this great opportunity. I’m proud of the work that my cast and crew and producers did and feel very indebted to them all.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Well, I know it’s not that easy being green.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Of course! It’s a thought I try to dismiss, but that’s impossible. I hope the movie resonates with as many people as possible, provokes some thought and emotion and gets people asking some questions that I feel need to be asked.

I’d also like to be able to make more movies.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
My girlfriend at the time had bought this book off of Amazon called “Toxic Parents” at my suggestion. She came home for lunch from work one day and asked me if I had actually read the book. I said I had skimmed it, but it was really hardcore. She and I read the table of contents and what people had to say about it on the back. This was some really heavy stuff, life was hard enough already, and we decided the best place for the book was on the shelf.

When she came home from work less than 5 hours later I had written the first 42 pages of Bondage. By the time I went to sleep I had written the first 50 pages. Over the next 5 days I had completed a rough draft. I had no idea I was going to begin a script that day and I had never written anywhere near that fast before. It was as if I were hit by a lightning bolt, the words just flowed as if they were coming from somewhere else.

From there I sent the rough draft, without reading it first to the Exec VP of Fox, Fred Chandler, whom I had written a script for earlier. He thought it was my best work but that I could do even better. He gave me about a half page of notes which seemed simple enough, but they weren’t. What he had given me was the toughest assignment of my writing career. The execution of these notes required some major soul searching into places I really did not want to go. The result, many months later was Bondage.

Through a bizarre serious of events, I ended up meeting this Wall Street genius who had similar experiences to mine growing up. We sat up all night and told our stories to each other. I told him how quickly that first draft just poured out of me. The next day we had lunch and he said he wanted to bankroll the film, with me as the director. His exact words to me were, “I want you to know that I am not just investing in a film here, I am investing in you and in your passion.” He also felt that this was a story that needed to be told. I will always be grateful to him for his belief in me and confidence in my vision.

Paul Canterna, a manager that I know sent the script out to Braxton Pope who, with his partner Andrew Weiner, had first look deal over at Lion’s Gate. We decided to work together and immediately launched into pre-production, getting meetings with every top agency who loved the script but hated the budget (what is 10% of scale? I don’t think it’s enough to buy a Porsche). Agents in Hollywood, with some notable exceptions, are generally not the friend of independent film. We made a few offers that actors never even found out about – which in the end I think was fate as we ended up with an amazing lineup and some great performances. My casting director Aaron Griffith really went to bat for us and pulled off what seemed to me the impossible. For a first time director, these guys really got the bases loaded for me and all I had to do was to hit a home run.

At the time of this interview, SXSW 2006 has not happened yet. Regardless of how the movie is received, I really feel good about it. I feel as if a few of us got together to tap into some essential truth and we nailed it. Whether critics love it or hate it, whether we end up in the multiplexes or on the dvd shelf is not how I will measure this film. We all put our hearts and souls into this thing and created something that hasn’t been done before. If we fail, we will fail greatly.

I’m not sure what success is – perhaps some imaginary finish line off in the future. I just know that Bondage is something that everyone involved in can feel proud of.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
People will believe in you if you believe in your vision.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
My point of view on the world has always been… strange. When I went to see movies like Blue Velvet or Taxi Driver or After Hours I realized that I was not alone. Other people were making observations that the more mainstream people were not talking about. And, there were people out there like me who were relating to these movies.

Then I saw American Beauty and studied it like crazy. When Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under came out, I watched every episode over and over. I thought about how he was able to show life, how it appears on the surface and also the inner life, the private secret life of all of his characters. This impressed me, but what I continue to be in awe of is his ability to sort of lift the veil – to occasionally give the audience glimpses of that unseen Divine force, the mystery which animates the universe and is at the core of who we all are.

I feel like this is the direction that story telling, on the big screen, is going and I hope to catch that wave and ride it for as long as I can.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Vice President Cheney.

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?
No way am I giving up what I have my eye on. Sorry. But I do feel that there are some good novels out there that would translate well onto the big screen.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Michael Angarano. He is clearly headed into the leagues with people like Sean Penn and Nicholas Cage. He has been working since he was 6 and is now 18 years old and an absolute creative genius. He is believable, passionate, intense, is very captivating to watch, has what they call “the light touch” and that intangible other “thing” that makes a great actor great.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
Pushing a shopping cart up the street barefoot and talking to the voices in my head.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
If I kill the small dog, do I get to work with him? Probably Gene Hackman.

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!”
I hope I never think I’ve “made it”. I want to keep striving to do better and reach farther. Everyone I’ve met who thinks they’ve made it has gone on to become a boring hack. The real talented people I’ve been fortunate to meet all seem to know that creativity is “grace” which the dictionary refers to as “an undeserved gift”. I hope I always remember that this is a gift and not something of my own doing.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Well, it seems like lately they are very often wrong or at least out of step with what the public is responding to. However, they do have the power to get people talking about a certain film. And, some of them are really right on. They really get film and they get what’s happening.

In the sixties what was happening culturally was rock n’ roll. Now it is shaping up to be film. And, although largely dominated by the mediocre greed machine of the old guard, every year a handful of truly brilliant movies come out. I don’t know of another art form where this is happening on such a large scale. Critics do play an essential part in getting the word out. They always have and I don’t see that changing any time soon. (Although, some of current huge critics might end up having to take night courses to get their real estate licenses if they don’t start to tune into something other than the mesmerizing sound of their own voice).

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
HBO. They are a huge corporation that still manages to be daring, have an edge and a conscience. I think that should be rewarded.

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?
In 1969 Jerry Hellman was confronted with the exact same problem as a producer. This was after his film was rejected in script form over 25 times before even getting made. His picture later won the Oscar that year for Best Picture, even though even though the MPAA, wouldn’t rate the movie at all (which makes it rated X). The movie was called Midnight Cowboy.

So, placed in the same position he was in, I think I’d track him down and ask for his advice. Then I’d go to bat with my producers and do my best to convince them to see things from a different point of view. If that didn’t work, I would send live Ferrets to their homes as gifts – hungry live ferrets, yes.

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?
I think that if the director has also authored the screenplay then it makes sense. What I hate seeing is when someone else created the blueprint, the screenwriter, and the director gives himself a credit which implies that he/she is essentially the author. Screenwriters (without whom there would be nothing) really get the shaft in this business.

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?
By making a good film.


Bondage, starring Michael Angarano, Illeana Douglas, Griffin Dunne, Mae Whitman, and Eric Lange, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Bondage website.

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originally posted: 02/17/06 10:25:51
last updated: 02/23/06 10:43:44
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