Monday, April 23, 2012

Report from the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival

Memorial Day's true theatrical debut last Saturday was memorable on many levels, a few of which I'll recount here.

First, there was the comment made by a friend of mine as we headed from the venerable Nicollet Island Inn over to St. Anthony Main, where all MSPIFF films are shown: "Is that line for your movie?" I looked over to see the entire tunnel leading to the theater (which resembles a sort of ground-level skyway) filled with people. Yes, this was a home crowd, but it was still an amazing sight. (Apparently, Memorial Day was the first of 200 MSPIFF features to sell out.)

Given the "friends and family" aspect, the crowd began the production a bit rowdier than most, as each crew member's respective faction clapped and whooped when that person's name appeared in the opening credits. But then a silence descended for the rest of the film. I've been to half a dozen screenings now, and this is always a nervous moment. Are people quiet because they're engaged or not engaged in the material? Our military audiences have tended to be more emotive during the film. Other audiences have been more subdued until the end. You just never know.

When it was over, I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing what sounded like a sincere and authentic burst of sustained applause. One never knows in these situations if people are just being nice, but I know you can't completely fake enthusiasm (or tears, for that matter, and I did hear some sniffles along the way).

Afterwards, director Sam Fischer invited every cast and crew member present to join him for an audience Q&A. I was asked if I have a military background, which opened the door for me to tell one of my favorite stories: While filming in the Kasota limestone quarry, a former Special Forces soldier (now a top-level Army public affairs executive) told me how much he enjoyed the script and asked me if I had any military background ... to which I smiled and responded, "Sir, I'm holding a latte." (Actually, it was an iced espresso with Half and Half, but oh well.)

The most original question we've ever received came from a teenager who asked one of the actors, "So how did it feel to die on camera?" That led to a rather interesting discussion of the use of prosthetic body parts in film ... and gave me quite an education on that front.

Upon looking on for any new reviews inspired by the showing, I spotted this:

"My husband, a Vietnam Vet, cried during the movie. He is still silent about those days, but the movie affected him deeply. I recommend [Memorial Day] highly for its ability to draw you in and keep you. You meet and bond with the characters and see the conflict in their lives about generations of wars, and at the end you are still thinking about how war affects those you know and love."

Many thanks to that viewer, and I hope this movie might one day open the door for her husband to open that proverbial footlocker. That's what this is all about. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why "Memorial Day" Is Worth Your Time: Reason #5

After the most recent screening of "Memorial Day," a reporter asked me a question that threw me for a loop: "Why did you decide to give [James Cromwell's character] memory issues?" The reason that rose to the surface was this: While I was writing the screenplay, I was also conducting an oral history project with my then-94-year-old grandmother, who had dementia.

The condition wasn't too severe at the time. In fact, she was still living independently in the house in Roseville, Minnesota, that I had been visiting since I was a kid. She was in remarkable physical shape, and in her lucid moments, she was sharp as a proverbial tack. But those moments were fleeting, and I soon realized that the process of trying to mine memories from someone who is losing them as you speak is both profound and ironic. I wished I'd started sooner.

Early in the process, I realized that my grandmother's memory loss wasn't random; it was hierarchical, like a distillation process. She couldn't remember what she'd had for breakfast, but she could tell you the moments from childhood and young adulthood that mattered most, like giving birth to my mother and her twin sister when the doctors told her that she was going to have "a big boy" (a story that came up in almost every session, both because it was important and because she didn't remember telling it to me already).

Even if her stories were short on detail, I could see the pictures as my grandmother spoke. I could see her mother giving food to homeless wanderers who would knock on their front door during the Great Depression. I could see her ice skating in Cherokee Park, where it was routine for flirtatious boys to skate up from behind and slyly take girls by the arm. I could feel the "wait until your father gets home" aura of tense family dinners. I could see her walking to school over the High Bridge in St. Paul, a rigorous routine that today would cure childhood obesity. I could see my grandpa courting her by buying a used car and stitching old suit jackets over the seats. And finally, there was the story that came up so often, I decided I had to put it in the film: the moment my grandmother's Catholic faith was tested by a priest who told her to "keep walking" to her proper parish when she tried to give Confession at a church that was much closer to home.

My grandmother passed away almost a year ago, and she never got to see the movie. The artifacts of her life are now spread throughout the family, like so many footlocker souvenirs (I now re-possess a Waterford Crystal candy dish that I bought her when I lived in Ireland as a college student). I realize that she taught me much without even trying, like how to live a good life and how to be grateful for it. But mostly, she taught me that stories are the one thing that lives forever. If you tell them.