Film/Tape World


Loitering On The Set, Living The Dream
by Michael Fox

As Tolstoy might have said if he was born in the 20th century, all happy movie sets are happy in the exactly the same way. It's the next-to-last day of shooting on Matthew Leutwyler's second film, This Space Between Us, yet there's nary a sign of chafed nerves, simmering hostilities or coiled frustration. In a cramped room in the Waterfront District offices of the editorial company Pomegranit, made up as a set, actors Gary Marshall (playing a crusty L.A. producer) and Jeremy Sisto (as a Gen-X filmmaker) and a handful of crew people calmly shoot the film's opening scene.

After one take of the master shot ends awkwardly in the doorway, DP Dave Scardina points out that it won't match a subsequent shot. Leutwyler doesn't seem overly concerned and Marshall, brandishing a cigar and clad navy suit, blue shirt and bad-taste tie, quips in a gravelly voice, "The director Michael Ritchie said, 'Matching is for sissies.'" Everybody laughs, and the script supervisor chips in, "Ingmar Bergman said the same thing to Dick Cavett."

Once upon a time, a low-budget independent film exemplified the principals of guerrilla warfare. A 1998 independent film has a $6 million budget, a block's worth of trailers and a publicist. Indeed, when I arrive at Battery and Green this sunny Saturday morning the director is getting a quick trim in the makeup trailer from the onset stylist.

The 31 year-old Leutwyler, a Marin native that studied film for a year at the San Francisco Art Institute before moving to Los Angeles, leads me to another trailer for a chat. During his seven years in Southland, he picked up credits as a cinematographer, editor and music video director before shooting his first feature, Road Kill, the old fashioned way:15 shooting days and $180,000.

Still in post, Road Kill generated interest from distributers and investors. So Leutwyler seized the moment. He's revamping the score for Road Kill, holding up his end as a partner in the San Francisco Multimedia company Graphical Planet and wrapping his semiautobiographical second feature. Although he's just shown me clips from Road Kill - a road movie/black comedy/offbeat romance about a documentary filmmaker accompanying a hit woman on her last job - and a composer hovers outside the trailer ready to talk about that film's music, Leutwyler is focused on This Space Between Us.

"There is so much more at stake for me than for a guy with a $50 or $60 million film," Leutwyler says. "He'll get another job, no matter what. The risks are much bigger for me."

Maybe so, but he exudes casual confidence, not Type A anxiety. Nonetheless, he confides, "I feel like I'm way behind. I wanted to be where I am right now when I was 23 or 24. I'm in accelerated mode right now in terms of learning. I feel by next fall I could explode with something great."

The "Smash Bridges" effect.
The only complaint that Leutwyler has - aside from how the boom economy has changed San Francisco for the worse in the seven years he was away - is the fallout from a locally shot television series. "The whole 'Nash Bridges' thing has screwed it." he says, explaining that several restaurants and individuals have had sour experiences with the Don Johnson production, now known in some circles as "Smash Bridges." Leutwylers request to use a private house, for example was met with, "We know you guys will trash our place and leave." He had no problem, however, obtaining the use of the Paradise Lounge, the Cypress Club and Elysium as locations.

Leutwyler corralled a bevy of TV-friendly faces such as Poppy Montgomery and Alex Kingston to play quirky S.F. singles in This Space Between Us. Montgomery let to Marshall; she had a part in The Other Sister, a Diane Keaton vehicle that Marshall shot in the Bay Area in January. Now the veteran feature comedy writer and director ("Happy Days," Pretty Women) is shooting his scene earning the standard day rate of $466.00.

These days, every indie film aims for publicity during the shoot, trawling for clips to throw in a press kit for prospective distributers and festival programmers. Right about now, Leutwylers probably regretting the effort: He's silently tapping me on the shoulder in the middle of the next take, gesturing at me to pull my legs out of the frame. He's gracious enough to wave off the faux pas, saying he only needed the second half of the take (and not the part I ruined).

I silently offer a wish that my bad-luck indie filmmaker streak ends with Leutylers. This Space Between Us marks the fourth time I have visited the set of a locally shot independent film for a Film/Tape World article. None of my previous three movies ever saw the light of a projection lamp, with the possible exception of a solitary screening in a distant film festival. I have a hunch, however, that Road Kill and This Space Between Us will surface in local theaters in 1999.

Two weeks later, Variety reports that Garry Marshall has agreed to direct a re-pairing of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in a romantic comedy entitled Runaway Bride. The next day, Marshall's autobiography, Wake Me When It's Funny, written with his daughter, arrives at the Film/Tape World offices. The inscription reads "To Mike, The best in your career and 'Happy Days' in your life! Garry Marshall."

Marshall, the sitcom writer par excellence, and Leutwyler, the low-key novice with aspirations of becoming the next John Sayles, are worlds apart in some ways. One thing they share is an innate decency. Perhaps that's the essential ingredient for cheerful, productive sets.

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