Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival
By Grant Rosenberg

First posted: 5/11/01

There wasn’t much press coverage of the 3rd annual Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival (presented April 25-29 by the University of Illinois' College of Communications in Champaign). Each of the fourteen films played to a packed house of more than 1500 seats, filmmakers and actors from around the world were in attendance, and yet ironically enough, the festival itself wasby contemporary media coverage standardsoverlooked.

Still, each year more and more people attend, avid filmgoers who respect Roger Ebert’s film criticism enough to come out here and see the films that he thinks are worth watching (many of which he’s never reviewed, as they haven’t been theatrically released). The swelling attendance is not lost on Ebert, who seemed shocked by the attendance each time he stepped up to introduce a film. He smiled looking out at us, happy to see us all playing hooky with him.

Unlike traditional fests such as Cannes this one is simply about seeing and discussing movies. No dealmaking, no hype or PR blitz. Just movies all day and discussions with members of the cast or crew afterwards.

The first film was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which can hardly be considered "overlooked." But as Ebert stated in his remarks opening the festival, it is the format of the film that has been overlooked, and it was being presented here, along with a new soundtrack, in a 70mm print. His statement was met with vibrant cheers and applause, to which Ebert responded, "That’s why I love this audience. It takes a very sophisticated audience to applaud a format."

The movie itself was overwhelming. Having seen it twice before, once on home video and once by video projection, I knew what was coming but still wasn’t prepared for it. The viewer takes pleasure in the images, the uncorrupted vistas of the Dawn of Man sequences, the space ballet of the space ships docking and the comfortable camera movement during the Jupiter Mission. Add to this the rich sound of unforgettable music, and you have 1,540 people who are now ruined for good, never to be satisfied watching films on that small box at home.

I found myself making even more connections than before, visual themes that run throughout the film. How could I not have noticed that HAL’s yellowish pupil inside an iris of red is one of the early images of the movie in the form of the blazing sunset in the desert?

Afterwards, Ebert came out onto the stage, along with Keir Dullea, who played Dave Bowman in the film, and Jan Harlan, Stanley Kubrick’s producer and brother-in-law. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, co-screenwriter and author of the novel, joined us by telephone from Sri Lanka.

While sidestepping any specific "explanations" of the film’s meaning, all four men highlighted how it appeals to one’s emotions. We may not be able to articulate what it all means–the stargate, the dinner in the stately, antiseptic, post-modern Versailles Palace, the starchild
but we understand it at a gut level. And that’s why it stays with us. As Ebert said to his guests and the audience about the first time he saw it, "I couldn’t paraphrase exactly what it meant, but I intuitively knew what the art was."

Perhaps surprisingly, the discussion had great humor; Dullea did an amusing impression of the Cockney-accented assistant director who did the line readings for HAL while they were shooting. Harlan joked that when people ask him what Kubrick’s fears were, he always gives them the same glib answer: A bunch of strangers in a room asking him to explain the meaning of 2001.

The films that followed the opening night varied in their quality, but none was not worth contending with. Some highlights:

  • The Joy of Stanley Kubrick, A Life in Pictures, a long documentary about this enigmatic man.

  • Girl on the Bridge, a French film about a knife thrower and his assistants, that honors old Hollywood in its old way.
  • The discussion with the real-life subjects of the boxing (and so much more than that) documentary On the Ropes.
  • The 1922 silent film Nosferatu, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.
  • Spotting Mark Borschardt, the subject of the documentary American Movie, kicking back and enjoying himself at the screenings as any cinephile would.
  • The line of children onstage, each politely asking King of Masks director Wu Tianming a question about his delicate, loving film.
  • The quiet befuddlement felt by the cranky audience after midnight, when the lights came up after the confounding Robert Altman film, 3 Women.

My own favorite was Jesus’ Son, chosen as #3 of Gadfly’s top ten films of 2000. It is a delightful film, deserved of accolades for how it finds a tone of absurd decrepitude and tragic, sublime magical realism. It was well received by the audience here, where it was followed by a discussion with star Billy Crudup, director Alison MacLean and producer/screenwriter David Urrutia. In addition to their discussion with Ebert, I sat down with Urrutia, discussing in detail the process of getting the film made.

"It was a celebration of good films," Ebert told me when I asked his thoughts after the festival’s conclusion. " A sort of community developed in the theater, with people standing around debating films between screenings, exchanging e-mail addresses, etc. People want to see good films. They hunger for them."

See for a complete list of the films and guests.

"Places to Kind of Gasp At"
Grant Rosenberg talks to David Urrutia, screenwriter/producer of Jesus’ Son, about adapting an intimidating writer’s prose for the screen, Holly Hunter’s backstage serendipity, playing a Mennonite and trying to convince Neil Young to be generous with his music.

How did the production of the film come about?

Well, Evenstar Films is the production company that produced it. Evenstar is myself and my business partner, Elizabeth Cuthrell. We formed the company in early 1996 and went about looking for projects—read a lot of books, drew stuff from our past. This book, [Denis Johnson’s] Jesus’ Son, Elizabeth had given me back in 1992. She’d been familiar with the short stories [that comprise the book], as they’d been published in individual magazines. When the book was finally published, she gave it to me. I read it and loved it, and four years later we started the company… actually, she first recommended Angels, which is Johnson’s first novel. We tracked down his agent and learned that it wasn’t available. Then she suggested Jesus’ Son. It had just become available, having been under option for awhile, and that option had expired. That person was unable to buy the rights, so others bid on it. We called right at that time and threw our hat into the ring. About three months later, we ended up with it.

This is a book that is revered by many writers and readers of modern fiction. How do you begin to approach an adaptation of a text like this?

That was one of the things that I was a little afraid of because I wasn’t clear how it could be a film, at first. So we had a lot of discussion about it. The thing that we landed on was that we were interested in the short story structure. And that if we were going to adapt it into a film, we did not want to flatten it out. We wanted to preserve the episodic nature in some way and thought that it could be done if we found devices and links within the stories to make it a little bit more of a cohesive whole—without sacrificing the fractured narrative. Once we figured that out, we got really excited about the project and started competing for the option. Did I answer your question? I’m not so sure (laughs).

Well, more or less (laughs). You did bring up some of the things I wanted to talk about: the character of Michelle (played by Samantha Morton) is obviously much more prominent in the film. This is what you were talking about in regard to the cohesiveness.

Yeah. She was one of the ways that we were able to tie the stories together. And we decided on Michelle because of her prominence in the story "Dirty Wedding," which was an important turning point in Fuckhead’s life. In early adaptations, we had some of the other women…he was never married [like he is in the book] in our adaptation. All the early stuff where he had a wife and a child—we decided early on we weren’t going to deal with that. The only other woman that really survives is the Holly Hunter character, who we call Mira and is actually a combination of the two women he hooks up with at the Beverly Home—the dwarf and the woman with cerebral palsy.

I thought it was encephalitis.

Encephalitis, thank you… well, she had encephalitis, and that’s what gave her multiple sclerosis; he thinks it is.

But then she doesn’t need the crutches at the dance at the end…

(Smiles) Exactly.

On a side note, I noticed that the font used for the credits in the film—and the book before it—are the same as the credits for Dr. Strangelove.

You’re kidding.

You’ve just answered my question. So it wasn’t intentional by the book’s publisher? A deliberate connection?

For us, we just loved the handwriting. So the woman who did the film’s title design took it off the book. She hand wrote every end credit. It was pretty big. Even the Union logos and stuff are completely hand-drawn. It was cool.

Some of the chronology of the film differs from that of the book. Is what we see onscreen now always the same chronology as it was in the script, or were decisions made in post-production?

What you see in the film is what we wrote. It’s exactly what we wrote, with one exception—the "Emergency" episode. In the film, midway through, you flash back to Fuckhead and Michelle’s first time in his apartment. That was done in the editing room. That originally took place in the section we call "Holiday," which was originally called "Work" [in the book]. But we divided "Work" in two. That was also done in the editing room. In the script, we called the whole episode "Work." We knew in the script stage that the story "Emergency" was a little problematic because we lose Michelle for the length. And we wrote various scenes of Michelle in there, that we made up, that didn’t appear in the book at all. And none of them worked. So we ultimately cut all of those and didn’t shoot them. But in the editing room, we found a way to bring Michelle back. But everything else in the film is ultimately edited the way we wrote it.

Including the voice-over?

Yes. Some of the voice-over we wrote after the film was shot, but most of it beforehand. We wrote or changed some things once the film was more in a form we saw it was going to go, filled in some things we thought we would need. But most was written before. In fact, there was a lot more written. Billy [Crudup, who plays Fuckhead] recorded a lot more than we ultimately used.

Verbatim from the book?

A lot of it is, but not all of it. Where we could, we used it because it’s so great. We had Billy who could take this sometimes very poetic language and just sort of colloquialize it, make it sound like he’s making it up as he goes. And we even did that within scenes. Lines of dialogue. We took narrative, not dialogue, from Denis’ book and put it into dialogue, and Billy made it sound like it was coming out of him. It was great.

How did the cast come together?

It was a mix of things. With Billy, he went to NYU with Elizabeth Cuthrell. So she thought of him for the role. At the time, Billy was not as well known as he is now. Sleepers had come out, which he has a small role in, and he had shot Without Limits and Inventing the Abbotts, but they hadn’t been released. So people didn’t really know him. She thought he would be great so I went and saw those films, as well as an off-Broadway production of Three Sisters. So we wrote it with him in mind. Samantha Morton we had seen in Under the Skin, a small British film. And she was just incredible, but we didn’t know if she could do an American accent or even who she was. But she really inspired a lot of the role as we were writing, because we saw that film as we were writing the script. And then when it came down to shooting, our casting director is Woody Allen’s casting director, and she said, "There’s this Samantha Morton in town" [to shoot the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown], and it was just serendipitous. She got ahold of the script and loved it. So that worked out well.

Dennis Hopper did not know the book, but he liked the part and wanted to work with Billy. And it was a short amount of time—he came in for one day. Denis Leary was a little bit of the same thing. We sent the script to his manager, who turned it down because it was too small. But our cinematographer had shot Monument Ave., a film, with Denis and said, "Well, look. I know Denis, and he probably doesn’t know that Billy [who had a small part in Monument Ave.] is doing it," so he got it to him. And Denis said of course, he’d do it.

Holly Hunter was doing a play in New York and saw the script backstage. An actor who had come in to read for the film had left it lying around or something. She knew Denis Johnson previously, because she had done a reading of some scenes of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man straight from the book a number of years before. But she knew the book Jesus’ Son and was intrigued that it was now a screenplay. She took it home, and out of the blue—we were in pre-production, a couple of weeks away from shooting—we got a call from her agent who asked if the part of Mira had been cast because Holly wanted to play it. It was cast, however. Actually Elizabeth was going to play it. Since Mira was our creation, Elizabeth had written that role for herself. She and I have acting backgrounds, and we improvised all those scenes and wrote them down. And she was all set to play it. Holly Hunter was really the one person (laughs) who Elizabeth would have stepped aside for. Because she was just too perfect for the role, and of course her name would help the film.

And you brought your brilliance to the Mennonite husband.

That was actually the casting director’s idea.

A friend of mine watched the film the other day and thought that the Mennonite woman was blind. Not just that she couldn’t see outside the window because of the lighting. Do you hear that a lot?

Sometimes. Actually, this is one of the hazards of independent filmmaking, working on a budget. We had the reverse shot written in the script, what she sees looking out the window. But we only had one night at this location, this house in Philadelphia before we went to Arizona. We just ran out of time. But ultimately, it’s whatever people think. Some think she does see him, that she knows he’s out there and she’s hiding him from her husband. Because when her husband comes into the room, she turns her back and seems to be blocking his view. We like the ambiguity. Is she blind, does she see him? For me, it’s like the book. She can’t see him.

I saw that section as a play on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where he learns a form of humanity while spying on a family outside their home.


Last night, after the screening of Robert Altman’s film 3 Women, Alison [MacLean, director of Jesus’ Son] spoke about how directors are loath to discuss what their films mean. To try to funnel it down to one statement of what a film is about is ridiculous. It cheats the complexities of a film.

I would add to Alison’s remarks that answers to those kinds of questions, especially answers that come from the writer or director, tend to stop the audience from thinking any further. And how good is that?

How did Alison come to the project?

Once we decided how we wanted to approach the script, we went around looking for a director who would get behind that idea. We weren’t interested in just turning it over to a director who was just going to go off and do her own thing. We really felt possessive of this project, more and more as time went on. We looked at a lot of different films and reels of directors and thought Alison would be a good match. Over the course of writing it, she would read various drafts along the way. This was another intention of ours. We didn’t want to come up with a finished script and hand it over to the director. We wanted someone who was familiar with the process at the earliest stage possible, so that by the time of shooting there would be a consensus of what would be done.

I remember reading Pauline Kael’s review of Last Tango in Paris and her comments about how the film uses Brando and his reputation so fully, as an actor and a man and all the baggage he brings from past characters, etc. It seems clear to me that the Dennis Hopper scene in Jesus’ Son is employing the same ideas, using his past in films like Easy Rider and Apocalypse Now and others. Presenting him now as an amalgam of those men now, decades later. This is made even more the case by having Fuckhead doing a mock interview with him, asking about his casualty of a life.

Oh, yeah. Hopper was perfect. It seemed right to have an actor with that much baggage behind him that fit into the film. It lent the film an authenticity in a way. The dialogue sounds right coming out of his mouth. It’s an understated performance, much more like the man is himself. It’s him, more than any other character.

What are you working on now?

Actually we are writing a script based on Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. We’re turning into the Denis Johnson factory because we’re going to produce, off-Broadway, a play he’s written, the second of a trilogy. To work on his material is such a joy. We started working on Jesus’ Son in 1996, and really it took up the majority of my workday all the way through last December. We were very fortunate in that Lion’s Gate Films involved us in every aspect of distribution. I thought that once we sold it our job would be over, but that was not the case at all; the work just continued everyday. To be involved with something that long, you really have to love the material. And as Elizabeth says, Denis asks the right type of questions. To live in those questions that his material asks of you is a nice place to be. A place we like. I hope to do more of his stuff.

What has Denis thought of the film? How involved was he?

We only talked to his agent, never dealt with him. He called us up about six months into our writing of the script and said (a laid back, spacey voice), "Yeah, hey, this is Denis, and you know, I was wondering if you guys were ever going to call me." We were terrified because we held him in such high esteem. What were we going to say to him? He asked if he could read the script, and we said, "No, what if you hate it?" We knew we had two years to raise the money and buy the rights. So even if he read it and hated it within those two years, legally, it wouldn’t matter. We could go ahead and make the film we wanted to make. But after a year, we decided that we had a draft that we felt comfortable enough to take a chance with. His response was just incredible. He was coming to New York for a book reading, and we decided to meet. One of the first questions he asked was if we had been doing research on him, talking to people. Because apparently some of the things we made up, particularly about Michelle, had happened. "Those things happened to girls I knew" and "I did that and that," and so on. He was shocked. So it was a good feeling, that we had really tapped into the world he created and extended it.

One of his big influences was with the music for the film. He made great suggestions. Never pushed anything, but encouraged us to experiment. And we felt a responsibility to preserve, if not as much of the story as possible, at least the integrity and feel of what was going on. So he sent us tapes, compilations of stuff he said he was listening to while he wrote it or stuff that he remembers from the period or songs that would be in Fuckhead’s mind. It was just amazing stuff. A lot of which is in the film. And some of the songs are in the stories themselves, like "Misty Blue." But a lot of the music came from Denis’ tapes. We had a great music supervisor [Randall Poster] who chose great places to put them and was inspired by the tapes and came up with other stuff like it.

A lot of the songs in the film are more contemporary, like Joe Henry and Wilco, for example. How did Joe Henry get involved? I know he composed the main theme for the film.

The music supervisor suggested Joe. I think he knew him or had worked with him before and thought it would be a good match.

It works.

Yeah. When I heard the opening theme… it was perfect. And the Wilco stuff is great, too. Much of it came after the first version of the film that we took to Venice, Telluride and Toronto. But we didn’t have all the clearances for the music, only festival clearances. At the time there were four Neil Young songs, four period songs. At first Neil didn’t want us to use any music at all. He was totally against it. He heard the film had drugs in it, he’s a huge anti-drugs guy, and said no. And we went back to him and he said, "$100,000 a song." Well, we couldn't do that and started looking for other material. And that’s how "She’s a Jar" came in. The only Neil Young song we were able to keep was "Cowgirl in the Sand." It was in the book. Ultimately what happened was Dennis Hopper called Neil and said, "You got it wrong. I’m in the film. It’s a film about recovery and redemption. It’s an anti-drug movie." Neil said okay, and we made a contribution to the Bridge School.

How many times have you seen the film?

Hundreds. I love seeing it every single time. I never get sick of it, primarily because I like seeing it with different audiences. But also it’s the performances. I always find something new in Billy’s performance.

Once you started writing, how much did you refer to the book?

The book was at our side all the time. Many who write adaptations read it once and throw it away, but we weren’t like that at all. It was a constant reference for us. I read the book hundreds of times, and I still pick it up and read a story every now and then. We each took chapters to adapt, and we would read each other’s stuff in the script and say, "Where did you get that, that’s not in the book." And yes it was. I constantly find words, sentences or images that I swear I’ve never read before. With this book in particular, I would read something that would blow my mind and be thinking about where it takes me while my eyes keep reading, so there is a lot of stuff I would miss. And then you go back and find these little gems, places to kind of gasp at.