Welcome. You’re invited to have a virtual drink with my friends. Each week I’ll serve up a brief interview with a Hollywood insider. I’ll talk with writers, directors, producers, studio and network executives, and other industry professionals about how they keep their glasses half-full in a town that can be draining. I chose each because he or she always has an awesome attitude and is just a good person – someone you’d love to have a drink with. You’ll find there are plenty of talented, lovely people working in entertainment. (And to all of my friends, if I haven’t interviewed you yet, I’m coming!)
Today, I’m thrilled to introduce you to a fascinating young writer-director, Elia Petridis.
“I’m constantly enchanted by the paradoxical business we’re in,” Elia said. And I’m constantly enchanted by this talented writer-director. Elia’s first feature, “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez” starring Academy-Award winner Ernest Borgnine, premieres this Friday at the Newport Beach Film Festival. After starring in this indie film, Mr. Borgnine must have remained fond of Elia. The legendary actor, who was 94 at the time, officiated Elia’s wedding last summer to Maranatha Hay, a three-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker.
I met Elia as the writer of a kick-ass adrenaline thriller called “Amber.” The premise: A man drives down the highway and sees an Amber alert (child endangerment) sign displaying the make and model of his car – and his own license plate number. He hears an ominous pounding from the trunk and opens it to discover a bound and duct-taped teenage girl inside. He has no idea how she got there. Go!
A few months later, Elia showed me a charming music video he’d just directed for Jesca Hoop’s song “City Bird.” He had never used miniatures before – and that was the point.
“Miniatures scared the crap out of me,” Elia said. “But sometimes you go at something with a beginner’s mind, and sometimes you end up with a good result.”
Elia said he challenges himself to keep trying new and different forms of expression. “Coming at things with no preconceived notions, without any nasty habits, without the feeling ‘I’ve done this a hundred times before,’ keeps me positive. It keeps me inspired.”
Elia took a major leap of faith with “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez.” He describes it as a Spaghetti Western set in a retirement home. The film stars Ernest Borgnine as Rex Page, a man who is bitter about never becoming famous, having lived a life without meaning.
“Every time I pitched this project, people’s eyes would light up. And I said, ‘Okay, this is the one. This is my first feature to direct,’” Elia said.
He speaks fondly, breathlessly about the project. “I got great producers,” he said. “We went to hell and back and got Ernie to do it. We got great people to come on board. And we made the film that everybody put their heart and their soul and their marrow into. And we got this great composer, who studied under Morricone. He did this fantastic 60s-esque score. The film was an absolute monument to collaboration.”
If you’ve ever directed a passion project, you know that mounting the production generates its own drama. Obstacles arise. Naysayers pepper you with casually contempt-filled comments. Or worse, people who you thought would have your back don’t respond at all. Like most first-time directors, even the optimistic Elia faced dark moments.
“The irony is, as positive as I am, I can get equally negative. It’s always a matter of how to pull yourself out. There’s always an element of pulling yourself out of the cavern and coming back to the positive,” he said. “People were saying, ‘You went off into the indie world and made a family film. Have you ever heard of an indie family film, really? It’s an oxymoron. Why did you do that?
“The people who are making family films are Universal – and it’s ‘The Lorax.’ You’re gonna put Ernest Borgnine against ‘The Lorax’!” he said. He smiled as he recounted the painful second-guessing, and I can’t help but think of Pixar’s “Up”. Who would’ve thought an animated film featuring a character over the age of 60 – hell, over the age of 16 – would rock the world? It earned $731,342,744, got nominated for five Oscars, won two of them, and became one of the most beloved movies of our time? Elia might just be onto something. However, his doubters remained relentless.
“It got on my nerves,” he said. “It started to make me resent the picture, to think, ‘What have I done?’ And then I thought, ‘Hang on a minute.’ Not only is that doubt not fair to me, it’s not fair to everyone who came on board and made this film with me. As a leader, it was a completely irresponsible attitude. I had to push the doubters aside and fall in love with the film all over again. And be like, ‘I love you. You’re like one of my kids. I burst you from my soul. And I will never abandon you. No matter how the reviews come in. People are going to love you. People are gonna hate you, but I’m always gonna love you.’”
He described fighting back from self-doubt. “The fact that the industry put me at odds with my work really pissed me off,” he said. “I’m really glad I was able to ascend and thank the people who are around me and love me. I was able to ascend beyond that. They almost got me.”
Every artist has moments when doubters or haters creep in, when they almost get you. It’s the persistence of ascending the mountain of doubt over and over again that forges the artist. Approaching the confluence of art and commerce makes this business one of the most difficult in the world. “It’s really difficult to do what we do,” Elia said. “The paradox of film is there are jobs like director of photography, production sound, all these people who do these incredibly difficult things. They do things that are mentally and technically much more challenging than a lot of other jobs, but they’re still struggling to make ends meet. They still struggle to have society perceive their work as a legitimate calling. That really boggles my mind.”
Elia displays such a fierce loyalty and respect for his fellow artisans. It’s not mind-boggling why his cast and crew struggled through the summer months to create this genre-blending indie film. They were enchanted by Elia’s effervescent enthusiasm for filmmaking. Now “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez” has its chance to charm audiences. The film will be screened twice at the Newport Beach Film Festival – Friday, April 27, 2012, at 6 p.m. (I’ll be there!) and Thursday, May 3, 2012, at 5:15 p.m.
So, how do you ascend your mountain of doubt? Please feel free to share your take in the comments.