EXCLUSIVE: This week was supposed to be a great and promising one for all the filmmakers who had seen their films accepted into SXSW, a great majority seeking distribution after premiering in front of the usually highly enthusiastic audiences that storm the Austin festival every March. That was before the fear of the coronavirus hit, and late last week SXSW was forced to cancel on orders from the city. That left a lot of ambitious plans in ruins, and only now are some of these films finding new ways to gain attention.
A couple of weeks ago I was shown one of them, director Rod Lurie’s powerful, exciting and ultimately inspiring Afghanistan war film The Outpost. When I saw him at the Paradigm agency screening, Lurie was full of hope for its premiere at SXSW (which was to happen this Friday). The film, which stars Scott Eastwood, Orlando Bloom and Caleb Landry Jones (in an extraordinary performance) clearly would have, in my opinion, found an enthusiastic reception and perhaps a springboard for a well-deserved theatrical release. Millennium is selling the film and also produced it.
On Tuesday, Lurie told me they are figuring it all out.
“This cancellation is such a son-of-a-bitch to so many people. In our particular case we’d targeted it and turned down other festivals to be there — we just loved the community down there, the Medal of Honor recipient Ty Carter lives there, as does Scott Eastwood,” Lurie said via email after I inquired about future plans for the movie. “We’ll find another place and idea to premiere The Outpost, and there’s no time for licking wounds, but this really hurts.” Of course as Lurie realizes sometimes real-life concerns have to take precedence, but it is such a shame for movies like this true story about remarkable heroism to have this kind of setback. It is not alone — there is a lot of disappointment out there.
Another film I got to see in advance of its world premiere was In & Of Itself, from veteran director and actor Frank Oz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bowfinger, Death at a Funeral). Just two days before the SXSW cancellation, I hopped on a joint call to interview Oz and Derek DelGaudio, the creator and subject of the film, an adaptation of his wildly successful Off Broadway one-man show that Oz directed. They were clearly excited to be taking it out for the first time to audiences at SXSW, but I have learned the fact that isn’t happening (it also was scheduled to screen Friday) is not stopping the forward motion of their plans to get this highly unusual and riveting film seen. Submarine is the sales agent and it is wasting no time, with plans to begin showing it to buyers today.
“Despite the unfortunate cancellation of SXSW which is totally unprecedented, this film is seeking distribution and we are proceeding with screening the film for buyers,” Submarine said in a statement, with no need to add that an expected friendly audience reception at SXSW unfortunately can’t be part of its pitch. In the spirit of soldiering on in these unknown waters for the industry, this interview that was scheduled to run today will still run today.
A filmed version of a stage show, shot in the small theater in which it had been performed, sounds pretty static on paper. That’s especially true of one like In & Of Itself, which relies heavily on audience interaction and the unexplained “tricks” of an illusionist. Having seen this film, as well as the original play when it was at the Geffen in Los Angeles a few years ago, I can tell you it is about as cinematic as any movie you have experienced, at least in its own way. The show was an Off Broadway phenomenon, playing 72 weeks at the Daryl Roth Theatre and extended four times, grossing $7 million over 560 performances.
DelGaudio doesn’t want to be described as a mere magician, nor should he be. His show also defies description but is a search for “identity.” In an interview conducted by my Deadline colleague Greg Evans in August 2018 as the show was closing, DelGaudio at the time professed to have little interest in a film version (even though it had been “documented,” as he said) or even a Netflix or cable special.
Evans also described it as best you can.
“What they’re seeing or saw is as difficult to convey in description as a good magic trick is to figure out. In & Of Itself is confessional and autobiographical… with DelGaudio performing astonishing illusions to raise questions about self-identity and public facades. Sleight of hand – card tricks, spiriting a ship into a bottle – slowly gives way to emotional encounters with audience members, each of whom upon entering the theater has picked one of a thousand small, self-identifying cards, “Skeptic,” or “Grandson” or “Resister” or “Republican.” The cards are handed to an usher, who hands them to DelGaudio, who uses them for an astonishing coup de theatre at the show’s end,” wrote Evans.
This is how the film is being described: “Storyteller and Conceptual Magician Derek DelGaudio thought he knew who he was, but then a stranger told him the truth. Filmed in an intimate theater in New York City, In & Of Itself chronicles Derek’s attempt to understand the illusory nature of identity and answer one deceptively simple question: Who am I?”
That is as good a way of explaining it as any, which is basically what DelGaudio told me he was trying to do onstage, and now for movie audiences.
“I didn’t think about it in terms of a show, I thought about it in terms of what I was trying to explore, which is this idea of identity and how we’re very limited in how we’re able to see one another and we have a hard time appreciating the things we can’t see in one another and I just was exploring that for myself as an idea and you know, it manifested onstage,” he said. “I think Frank and I were surprised at the emotional resonance and how deeply it affected people. I think that we underestimated how universal of a conflict that is within people and how rare it is that we feel seen in this world and in the manner in which we usually think of that, like I think that there are obviously lots of marginalized people in this world and that discussion is so in the forefront of society today. But really it’s a very human need to feel like we exist and we matter and everyone at some time or another feels as if they don’t and so I think that we were oriented for our own reasons but we were surprised to see how deeply it affected everyone across the board.”
They shot several shows using several different audience members for the same portions that DelGaudio performed night after night, and the reactions as presented and filmed really do end up telling a story about our shared humanity and, as DelGaudio says, the search for who we are. Among the many celebrities who experienced the show in its New York run was Stephen Colbert, who was so blown away by it he and his wife actually joined the film as executive producers.
For Oz it was important the movie didn’t come off as a stage show in the filming of what is a stage show.
“I felt strongly that it had to be a film and not just a recording of a theater piece, so I in the beginning wanted to add more filmic elements. But as we went along I found out I was wrong…,” he said. “It was a real discovery period of making it happen, and it turned that into something that’s neither a documentary nor a narrative story. It’s what I like about it, it’s kind of hard to explain, which is what I loved about our show that it’s hard to explain.”
DelGaudio said they shot about 60 shows total in terms of parts, and one larger capture in the traditional style, but all done guerilla-style. He had no idea what he would do with it eventually — maybe it would just be for him a keepsake to remind him of the good old days. “I felt it was just capturing and so it wasn’t done in a traditional way because it didn’t have the intention of this is going to Netflix or this is going to the box office,” he said. “It was just this needs to exist in the world so we just pushed forward with that.”
Oz was going for the emotional component of what the audience was feeling, and he certainly achieves it, particularly towards the end when DelGaudio approaches each audience member and compassionately, sometimes amusingly, predicts which card they chose when they came into the theater, the card that says “I Am A……” (by the way, when I saw the show, I picked “Film Buff” and he guessed it of course). “I had no interest whatsoever working on a magic show. I couldn’t care less about shooting a magic show because usually it’s a magic trick, blackout, applause, magic trick, black out, applause,” he said. “But when Derek came to me and I realized that he and I both wanted to break that, and he and I both were in the same kind of rebellious feel for it, and we both did not want to put the spotlight on tricks but rather using them to tell a larger story, then things started to come together.”
I still want to know how he pulled some of this all off, but I didn’t dare ask. Never ask a magician — sorry, a conceptual magician — how he does it. If the goal at the end of it was to bring everyone in the audience a little closer together and making a simple human connection, then this is a movie perfect in these divided times. And that is what Oz said they were ultimately trying to achieve.
“The reason they are touched is an accumulation of nonverbal communication so I knew that would work because of Derek’s authenticity onstage,” he said. “Certainly the heart and soul of what he thought about was identity. I knew it’d work but what we didn’t know was the intensity that it would. The sense of communion was extraordinary. I mean, people were holding other people’s hands, it was extraordinary.”