EXCLUSIVE: For all intents and purposes, the Tribeca Film Festival wrapped last week with the announcement of winners in various categories. Of course there was no live Tribeca this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the festival went ahead as virtually as it could by creating an Extranet where some of the accepted films could be screened online for press and buyers, among others. That option is still open through next week for those movies that want to participate, but the fact is the higher-profile titles did not want to put in jeopardy a true distribution deal by giving away their film, sans traditional festival premiere, and risking a much bigger deal than just getting seen in this unprecedented way, similar to the experiment SXSW forged with Amazon for their interested filmmakers mourning the loss of a key fest berth.
As I wrote on what would have been the opening night of Tribeca a couple of weeks ago, high-profile documentaries like Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President and the Sean Penn Haiti docu Citizen Penn passed up on the chance, as did the narrative release Stardust, about the early career of David Bowie, which instead opted to create a sort of communal virtual world premiere for select press and filmmakers, where the cast and director introduced the film much like they might have had a premiere happened in a New York theatre for Tribeca. Those films are still out to buyers, as are others that hoped to be propelled into theaters, or perhaps streaming deals, out of the fest Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal began as a way to help New York recover after 9/11.
Now I have seen two more films meant for Tribeca this year, both looking for distribution deals, and the news in terms of quality is very good. In fact, one of them, Television Event, is another documentary being sold by Submarine, which is handling the Penn and Carter docus. For me, this one topped everything — an absolutely riveting, highly entertaining and important story of the unlikely subject matter of the making of the 1983 ABC TV movie, The Day After. That was the controversial event film for the broadcast network that depicted an all-out nuclear war and the aftermath on a small town in Kansas. The docu from writer/director Jeff Daniels (not the actor), is not only a remarkable, often oddly funny, look at the broadcast network machinations at the time, plus the making of a major TV project, but also a game-changing show business event that directly affected then-President Ronald Reagan and his whole attitude towards the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. It was so revolutionary that sponsors bailed and those that stayed got bargain basement deals that turned out to be a bonanza when it became a ratings juggernaut. Because of the ad bailout a planned two-night miniseries was reduced to a three-hour single night, and that was followed directly by a unique special 90-minute news show called Viewpoint on the film in which Ted Koppel interviewed a live panel of experts including Henry Kissinger and William F. Buckley. With a built-in audience of an estimated 85 million it became one of the most watched news programs of all time, certainly outside of coverage of something like the Kennedy assassination. It is a wild ride to be sure, and Daniels has had it in his head one way or another since he was a very young kid.
“Well, you know, I was 5 when the film came out, and whether I wanted to or not, my whole family in Flushing, Queens, they, about 40 of them, my immediate and extended family all piled into my grandparents’ basement in Flushing, Queens, to watch The Day After, and you know luckily they had the sense to put me to bed before that iconic bombing sequence, before my childhood was completely ruined, but I think they were too late,” he told me in a recent call from Australia where he moved 20 years ago.
“They were too late because the blanket press that this film received, I couldn’t avoid it. I saw it on billboards by the bus station when I was going to school. I’d see it on TV commercials, that iconic image of the mushroom cloud and you know the man running away from it. I just, you couldn’t avoid it. I think it was my first encounter with the kind of fallibility of adults to make these horrific mistakes that could affect us all, it made an impact on me… I was that kind of classic Reagan baby, full of atomic angst during the ’80s, and so it stuck with me, and I think as a filmmaker, later in life, when I read about The Day After again, I think it was the 30th Anniversary of it, and I read a little blurb about how a Hollywood director was put on to make a television movie in the ’80s, I just thought what a great fish out of water story, where you have a creative with these political intentions to try and take down a president and a television network that is really concerned with ratings at any cost, like how is this going to come together? Like, this must be a juicy story. So, I just, yeah. I thought, great, let me try and find the director and see if I can’t get an interview with him and see how it goes. It would all take me on the best ride.”
So with some seed money he got from Screen Australia, he ventured to L.A. and met and interviewed director Nicholas Meyer, who then was coming off the success of the big screen hit, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and told his amazing story about taking on the film, after four other feature film helmers turned it down, for the sole reason of trying to influence the next Presidential election in order to defeat Reagan for a second term. Reagan was known to be hawkish at the time over the prospects of just how bad a nuclear war would actually be. Meyer decided to answer that with The Day After, but the making of it would be a hellish experience as well.
Daniels interviews ABC executives at the time like Stu Samuels, and got access to a very in-depth TV Academy Archives chat with then ABC President Brandon Stoddard (he died in 2014) which had extensive material on the making of this film that Stoddard thought would be important to do and willed into being. The film’s producer is also interviewed as well as the writer and a young actress playing one of the kids in the key family profiled, Meyer is the glue though through all the ups and downs of getting nuclear war on the airwaves, a simple TV show that might have contributed to the end of the Cold War. Daniels’ movie goes way beyond an easily consumed night of TV, but one for which there is proof of an impact this fiction (fortunately) had on the prospect of world peace and nuclear disarmament agreements. “To try and depict nuclear war in a way that is factually accurate and emotionally impactful to a primetime audience, family viewing, on a family-friendly network that was about to be bought by Disney, I mean, I just, I couldn’t believe it. I had to hear the story myself from everyone behind that film, the creatives, the television executives. I needed to get that full story. How did they pull this off?” he asked while adding the reasons he believes the making of this nearly 40-year-old TV movie has great resonance for today.
“I just thought that there’s something that they were able to pull off here that we can learn from. What is the formula that resulted from the making of this film that allowed them to create a subject, a vast, complex global issue, and try and compartmentalize it in a way that was simple and relatable on an emotional level? You know I felt like that, it gave me a sense of urgency to try and figure out that formula so that we’re able to maybe learn from this, so that we’re able to engage audiences emotionally with these complex issues and start having meaningful conversations with each other, regardless of what we think about that subject. This movie really brought America together to think about the issue on a personal level so that they had some sense of urgency to start talking with each other regardless of what they thought about the issue and that it gave the emotional understanding of that issue credibility. You know we were allowed to be emotional about these complex issues. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s an important part of having that difficult conversation about these issues that do affect us personally.”
With such a serious subject Daniels managed to inject a Dr. Strangelove sense of humor to it all which he balances masterfully with the dire subject matter at hand. The dissection behind the scenes of what was happening, and all the roadblocks thrown at this project from ABC’s Century City offices all the way to the White House makes for must see viewing now. This one is just waiting for a smart distributor.
Another good catch is quite different, a narrative film called The Violent Heart from 21 Laps, the production company behind Netflix’s massive hit Stranger Things, as well as movies like the Oscar nominated Arrival. The story revolves around a 24-year-old young man (Jovan Adepo) still haunted by the unsolved murder of his sister that he witnessed in murky fashion when he was just 9. He falls for a high school senior (Grace Van Patten) leading to a Romeo and Juliet type romance, families standing in the way. From there that is just the beginning as long held secrets come to the surface and all hell breaks loose. Mary J. Blige and Lukas Haas are among the parental figures. This one takes some wild plotting swings, the kind of melodramatic turns we haven’t seen a whole lot of since the 50’s when heightened emotional detours were all the rage in wide screen cinema. When writer/director Kerem Sanga first thought of the idea he rejected it as too risky for audiences today, as he explains in his Directors Message for the planned Tribeca premiere, but then a James Dean classic set him on a different path.
“I was in a revival house theater watching Rebel Without a Cause. I had seen it as a child but forgotten everything about it — including, somehow, that it was in color. And boy, was it in color. Everything about it felt larger than life. The archetypes may have been recognizable, but the performances, the story, the emotions, they were all just so… big. And it was that bigness that inspired me — not just as a filmmaker, but as a person. In some ineffable way, it moved me to examine my own circumstance and to wonder what kind of life I was leading. Leaving the theater, I started to realize that a lot of the films I’d loved growing up also worked in this big emotional space: Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, and more recently, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies These were films that blew right past Greek tragedy and didn’t look back. They didn’t shy away from melodrama — they embraced it, sometimes unabashedly. I have to acknowledge my debt to this kind of ‘Big Cinema.’ Without these kinds of films, I would have never thought The Violent Heart was possible. The narrative engine of my film may be a romance, but ultimately, it’s a story about violence. It’s about the way it reverberates through time, how past misdeeds can come back to hurt us in ways that feel totally out of our control. Every character in the story has to confront violence in their own way, and while they can’t choose their circumstances or how they feel, they can choose what they do. I hope people watching this film will get a little bit of that ‘Big Cinema’ feeling that I love so much, and furthermore, that it might inspire them to be more deliberate and thoughtful about the way they see violence in their own lives.”
If that is the goal, then mission accomplished. And it is another reason why festivals, virtual or otherwise, can be so important in bringing forward adventurous movies and inspired ideas like this one, and Television Event, that come from the minds of filmmakers with a voice uniquely their own. With a pandemic that not only has dramatically affected festival programming, but possibly how and what and where movies get distribution in the future I think these are two more from the Tribeca that might have been that are worth checking out.