Saturday, November 6, 2010

A 'Herzogian' Sibling Saga

This afternoon's U.S. premiere at AFI Fest of Two Gates of Sleep, the first feature-length effort by writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin, has set the bar extremely high for the event's “Young Americans” sidebar. Even though there are scarcely 100 words of dialog in the whole thing, beginning with the invective “shit”, it is a minimalist masterpiece destined to challenge and entrance audiences once it finds a distributor.

“It had a lot of other incantations before it,” Griffin told today's Mann's Chinese audience. Much like the filmmaker himself, who started out in art school, became a painter but then, frustrated by his limitations on the canvas, segued to animation and eventually live action.

Griffin's tale of two brothers in the Bayou backwoods who journey even deeper into the unforgiving land to bury their mother was written before Hurricane Katrina. After the disaster hit in the fall of 2005, he was initially convinced that he could no longer pursue the project as originally intended, because the Louisiana-Mississippi border area he had chosen as a filming location had been semi-leveled.

(l to r) Stars David Call, Brady Corbet

“I was ready to move the film,” he confesses. “But then this remarkable thing happened. Eight, nine months after Katrina, there was new growth, and I felt like the setting was OK. The circular aspects of regeneration also tied in to the story.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Griffin says the largest inspiration for his boldly non-commercial first feature is the esoteric Paul Schrader tome Transcendental Style in Film. He describes the area where the film was shot as a “semi-dangerous place” and shared how, on the very first day of filming, another gigantic flood took out all of the production vehicles.

Sleep debuted in Cannes and has since played at the British Film Institute, Deauville and Tokyo. Griffin told FilmStew after the screening that he is willing to be patient to find a distributor for his feature. It took a year for him to previously connect with IFC on the short film front, and while distributor reps have spoken candidly about the challenges of theatrically releasing the film, festival audiences have so far have been full of appreciation.

Also a fan of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer

The filmmaker was set early on with Brady Corbet as one of his two stars, but the other - David Call - came in on the last day of New York casting. To evaluate the chemistry between the pair of would-be onscreen brothers, Griffin made use of an atypical casting aid: spades instead of sides.

“I had them play an insulting kind of card game,” he reveals. “And when Brady said a certain something to David, I knew, based on my relationship with my own brother, that they were my actors.”

In a tragic bit of art-imitates-life timing, Griffin's grandmother died on the very last day of Sleep shooting. She is one of three individuals to whom the film is dedicated in “Loving Memory,” along with some people the writer-director describes as art school mentors.

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