Chris Messina and Lucy Punch in THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN distributed by Tribeca Film. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film.
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The Giant Mechanical Man (2012)
Opened: 04/27/2012 Limited
|Village East||04/27/2012 - 05/03/2012||7 days|
Trailer: Click for trailer
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Rated: PG-13 for for some sexual content and brief strong language.
THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN is a charming comedic love story between Janice (Jenna Fischer), a woman in her 30's who has yet to learn how to navigate adulthood, and Tim (Chris Messina), a devoted artist who finds that his unique talents as a silver-painted street performer don't exactly pay the bills. Evicted from her apartment and forced to move in with her overbearing sister (Malin Akerman), Janice is on the receiving end of well-intentioned but misguided pressure to date an egotistical self-help guru (Topher Grace). Everyone seems to know what's best for Janice, but Tim helps her find her own voice and realize that it only takes one person to make you feel important. As a symbol of the urge to break free from a life defined for us, THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN brings forward an optimism and feeling of belonging that can only come from falling in love.
The initial seeds for THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN were planted years ago when I was living in Chicago. The city was dotted with tiny storefront theaters and galleries, each filled with artists peddling their own particular brand of theater, from absurdist to minimalist to post-modern. Occasionally these avant-garde performances spilled out onto the street, and one could stumble upon a sad tramp wandering down the sidewalk, performing in a production of Waiting for Godot, followed by a small audience. When I started to get to know these artists, I realized that they took their performances very seriously. And yet, as much as they tried to communicate their particular vision to the world, few people seemed to notice. I remember thinking about an artist's resolve, and what drives them to keep at the struggle, day in and day out, year after year. "What if only one person understands your art?" This was the question I posed when I began writing the script. And in doing so, the most important character for me to create was this "one person." I wanted someone who on the surface seemed ordinary and forgettable, the kind of person you pass on the street and wouldn't notice, but upon closer inspection is every bit as vibrant and complicated as the rest of us. She is the other half of the story, someone who needs to receive the artist's message as much as the artist needs to send it, and her journey is where the true emotion of the story lies. From here, the film evolved into a love story. The movie was originally conceived to be set in Chicago. I had always imagined seeing the characters walking down State Street and working at the Lincoln Park Zoo. But when reality set in, our modest budget meant we couldn't afford to shoot in Chicago. So we decided to shoot in the only city we could afford: Detroit. This meant retooling the script and making the city unspecific, simply an American city. With an incredible cast and crew, we made the film in nineteen days in the middle of a cold and dreary December. And although the story is not set in Detroit, I was surprised to find how well the city leant itself to the film. It's a grayish city with spirit, much like the mechanical man.
-- Lee Kirk Director
About the Film
When writer/director Lee Kirk lived in Chicago, he kept noticing street performers--eventually he became curious about their lives and the metaphor behind a man bronzed in silver who doesn't move, except for when money is dropped in hat for him. After moving to Los Angeles and struggling to find work as an actor, Kirk began a career as a screenwriter. Looking to produce and star in a project that she could develop from the ground up, Jenna Fischer began meeting with several writers to take story ideas, passing on all of them until Kirk pitched her THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN. "He said he'd always been curious about the people who stand out on the street and perform as a mechanical man," said Fischer. "He was interested in people who were clearly born with a skill that was maybe not commercial, but that they still felt compelled to do."
"When Jenna got interested in the idea, I started exploring who the other character was--who was this woman that was responding to the street performer," said Kirk. "And then I became interested in exploring how we define ourselves. It seems like so much self identity is defined by what we do--what our jobs are--and so I wanted to ask if there are other ways for this woman to realize herself."
Intrigued by the story, Fischer hired Kirk to write the screenplay. Over the next year, a real life story developed which, in a way, mirrored the romance on the page. "Jenna and I began working together and seeing a lot of each other to talk about the film," said Kirk. "But pretty soon we were just planning meetings as an excuse to see each other. We were meeting to talk about our film over things like dinner or the movies."
"This film is how our real-life relationship got started," said Fischer. "It's been a part of our lives for a long time and it's really special to us. It has been four years since our first meeting. We joke that it was easier to fall in love, get married and have a baby, than it was to get an independent film made in Hollywood."
True to Fischer's words, the making of the film did not happen overnight, or without its share of turns and challenges. The film seemed close to fruition a couple of times, but they soon found that the economy combined with changes in the business of the industry had films set at being made for either $20 million or for nothing. "It was right at the heart of 2008, the worst time to try and get funding for a movie," said Kirk. "The movie kept getting built up, then falling apart."
Around this time, Chris Messina read the script. "Chris was an integral part of this film coming together. He came to us and expressed a real passion for the project, and we started talking about how to get this film made for less money," said Kirk. At the same time, Topher Grace read the script and responded to the role of the motivational speaker. "He said he'd always wanted to play a motivational speaker, which we instantly thought was a funny choice," Fischer says. "We went out to dinner and he did some imitations of motivational speakers he'd seen on TV and was so funny, that we knew it was a brilliant decision to give him the role of Doug Duncan." Casting was rounded out with Malin Akerman playing 'Jill' and Rich Sommer playing her husband 'Brian'.
"At this point of casting and getting financing, I'm thinking I should try to direct it, and we should try to get it made for less money. Being a first time director, I knew nobody would let me make it for seven or eight million, but I was pretty sure I had a shot if we made it for under a million," said Kirk. "And so very quickly after we made that decision, we rallied people together and got the movie off the ground, and eventually made the film for around $900K."
Even though they had reduced the budget significantly, the challenge to secure timely financing almost derailed the film. They had a small window in December where the cast was all available and, as of November 1, still hadn't closed the financing. So they took a leap of faith and financed pre-production out of their own money. "That was a little scary, but Lee knew he had to get started in Detroit if we were going to start shooting December first," says Fischer. "So we crossed our fingers and paid for the first two weeks of pre-production with our credit cards, with the hope that when financing was secured, we would be paid back. I went online and booked plane tickets for Lee, our DP, First A.D. and Line Producer. I put them up at a hotel in Detroit, rented a car and held my breath. Luckily, it worked out."
The film stayed on track, and was shot in the middle of winter. "That couldn't have been a bigger gift to the film because it added to the story," said Fischer. "You realize how desperate these two people are for work when they wind up working outdoors at a zoo in the dead of winter. So it lent itself to being a very realistic job option for people who couldn't find work otherwise."
THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN was filmed in Detroit over 19 days. "I had written the film to be set in Chicago because I knew Chicago from having gone to school there, but we just couldn't afford to shoot in Chicago," said Kirk. "My goal was to shoot a city to look like Chicago or New York. There's such beautiful architecture in Detroit--I wanted it to look like an older city and Detroit lent itself to that."
But rather than identify the city, Kirk kept the location vague. "I liked keeping it as just an American city, because it added a fairy tale aspect to it--once upon a time, we were in this city--and because it's not defined, it adds a little bit of question as to where this could have taken place."
Both Kirk and Fischer were grateful by how wonderful the people of Detroit were while they were shooting. "Everyone was so supportive. The folks at the Zoo gave us access to the most beautiful locations and helped us work the animals into the different shots. Everywhere we went people were friendly." Fischer recalls a day when she, Malin, Topher and Rich went into a tiny record store and the person behind the counter was shocked to see them all. "This gal was so confused as the four of us walked in the door one by one," said Fischer. "I was the last to walk in and I watched her glance up after each one of us came in and every time her eyes got so big. She couldn't figure out why we were all there in the same place at the same time. It must have been very surreal. And then she helped me pick out some kick ass records!"
With several films recently shot in Detroit, Kirk felt he had a great local crew supporting production of the film. "The crews really run deep," said Kirk. "They were really talented and tireless." Fischer continues, "The people there were great, had a lot of heart." Because it was a small production, people got really close and it became like kind of a summer camp experience."
The cast also bonded while living at the same hotel, waking up every morning for breakfast and then going up to a room to get their hair and makeup done. "Our hotel room was basically our trailer and then we had a hotel room for hair and makeup and wardrobe," said Fischer. "The hotel was a little isolated, so the hotel bar was really the only place to hang out."
Producer Molly Hassell was brought on to serve as lead producer on the project. "To make a film with our budget we needed Molly's expertise, and it was her idea to shoot in Detroit," said Kirk. "She had filmed in the city and knew so many contacts there--she just knew how to navigate through it all the way to post production. She was instrumental in the making of the film and we were very fortunate to have her on board."
"This was my first time producing," said Fischer. "Molly was very patient with me, let me ask lots of questions, and basically guided me through the whole process. I learned that there is so much that goes into making a film before the actor steps on set that I didn't know before. The truth is, I probably slowed her down! But she was awesome. I owe her a lot."
Fischer continues, "We also had another producer, Michael Nardelli who was instrumental in bringing together our financing. He had some great Detroit contacts as well. We were a great team. I have this awesome photo of us from the set where we posed in our most common form of producing: I'm pretending to be stressed about budget, Michael is watching the monitor, and Molly is laughing at both of us while typing on her Blackberry."
This also being Kirk's first film, there were a lot of things he was learning along the way with the help of cinematographer Doug Emmett. "Doug was recommended by Chris Messina, they had done a couple of films together, and we met six weeks before shooting," said Kirk. "We worked really well together. I was lucky to have him. He's a huge talent." The budget was small so the two had to share a hotel room for the start of pre-production. "Doug slept on the pull out couch in my room for the first week. When Jenna got there, we got him his own room." Fischer adds, "We got so lucky with Doug. He and Lee were so prepared when shooting began. And they had to be. We only had 19 days to shoot the movie. I still can't believe everything those two were able to do in only 19 days!"
For the film, Kirk wanted the score to elicit a melancholy but also at times be uplifting and expansive. "I had a vision of a guitar based indie rock type of score, and I was hoping to get great bands like Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky and Pinback in the film. Luckily they were kind enough to allow us to use their songs for next to nothing, which went with the spirit of the film," said Kirk. "It's really exciting to have all of these great bands contributing their songs, and adding a nice textured layer to the film." Kirk adds, "And then Rich Ragsdale rounded out the music with a truly great score." The music was an especially exciting element for Fischer. "It was my job to contact all of the bands and, well, basically beg them for their songs. But now I email with like Great Northern and Dios Malos and Pompeii. It's pretty freaking cool."
Though the film is thought provoking and affecting with the struggles people face as they come to terms with how their lives have turned out, Fischer describes the film as a love story. "It's not the typical love story though because you kind of know from the beginning that these two characters are perfect for one another. It's not a movie about will they fall in love. It's a movie about how they fall in love," says Fischer. "They're trying hard to overcome their own fears, anxieties and insecurities about falling in love. And I think that's so much more realistic because, sadly, that's usually what keeps us from love in life."
In a film that Kirk describes as, "two lost people finding themselves in a city"--THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN gives the hope that life can, when you least expect it, bring you to the one person that can help you feel like you belong.
Q&A with Writer/Director Lee Kirk and Producer Jenna Fischer
Jenna, talk about working with Lee as a director
Jenna: He was so amazing to work with. Lee's gift is recognizing and drawing out other people's talents and that's what a good director does. He makes you feel so proud of the work that you've done and I watched him work that way with the entire cast and crew. He had their trust, and loyalty. He also was able to handle the stress and demands of all of the different elements of moviemaking so well, and kept such a great atmosphere on set.
How do you both see the character of Janice? Describe her
Lee: To me, Janice is like a tourist. It's like she just landed in the city and doesn't really have a job that she clings to, doesn't really have a lot of friends, she's just sort of drifting through and trying to find something to hold on to. Those around her are worried, because they feel she should be on a certain track by now. It's the "go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids" path that, if you're somehow not on, people think there's something wrong with you. So her family is worried, and I think she's a little worried too, and trying to seek her place in the world. She feels lost, like she doesn't speak the language, which is perhaps why she spends her time watching silent movies. She needs to learn to speak up for herself, to ask for what she wants.
Jenna: There's nothing wrong with Janice, except for what everybody thinks is wrong with Janice. But she starts thinking there is something wrong with her because society is telling her that she has to be something, or do something--but the truth is she's a good person, she's a good friend and sister. She's simple, and I'd say she's ordinary--but that's a compliment. I think there's a saying I heard that goes something like, "We strive to be extraordinary because we fear we are less than average. To embrace the ordinary is to find true peace."
Tell us a bit about the character of Tim Tucker, who is also the Mechanical Man, and what Chris Messina brought to it
Jenna: Tim Tucker is a starving artist. A street performer who paints himself silver and even though he's only making a few bucks, stands outside waiting to do his art for anyone who takes notice. Chris is amazing. He brought something special to the role, because he was brooding and manly and made Tim feel like a real person. He's also one of those relentless actors who never stops working, never wants to stop exploring. He goes above and beyond and is incredibly giving. On set one day I was having a hard time with this monologue, and it was freezing cold. We offered to have someone stand in, in a jacket for him, but he stayed standing off camera, without a coat on in silver paint because he felt it would help me deliver my monologue better. And it did. I also remember he had this idea for a scene, of walking through these Christmas lights all sort of strung about the trees, because he thought it would look great. We had about two more hours of shooting something else, and told him it was a great idea, but that we understood he'd probably not want to wait around. But he did. He sat in a van for two hours so that he could walk through this park because he felt it would be a great scene and was so inspired to make it happen. I loved working with him. Working with Chris reminded me of my early days doing theater. He's very artistic and hardworking. Oh, and then there is the day that he had off when he joined the crew and worked as a camera assistant all day. It was amazing. It was a show of support with the crew that was so inspiring. I probably would have taken a hot bath and several naps and told people to leave me alone if I had a day off. But not Chris, he joined the crew for the entire day!
Lee: Chris is always seeking the truth, whatever role he's playing. He loves to create and be a part of the process. He puts his entire self into his work. While shooting, he was always curious about how the day went, he'd always come to me wanting to watch the dailies, and would have endless ideas. Chris was just really excited about the film, and it would not have been made without his passion.
As for his character Tim, he's a starving artist, and a bit of a dreamer, perhaps he walks to the beat of a slightly different drum. But this doesn't stop him from being a good man with integrity and heart. He's a guy who has a peculiar and specific talent, which I think he feels he must somehow share with the world. He's a struggling guy who is trying to figure where he fits in, while not sacrificing his personal creative identity. Unfortunately, society is not in a desperate need of a mechanical man. But I believe the world needs people like him, individuals who have a particular vision and imagination. And he's searching for that person who understands and appreciates him and his art, which ultimately turns out to be Janice.
Janice's sister, Jill--she seems to have her life all figured out and is trying to help Janice's life to mirror her own. Talk about her character and her husband, Brian
Lee: Malin Akerman plays Jill, and her character is pretty much the antagonist in the film, in that Janice has to learn to stand up to her and speak her mind. We were so lucky to have Malin join the film; she's a terrific talent and had a great attitude, and she's really funny. She usually gave me exactly what I needed on the first take, but on the times when I needed to give her a bit of direction, she would immediately deliver, seemlessly. Not to mention she's beautiful, which was one of the important traits of Jill. Because while she relentlessly gives life advice to Janice, the truth is, Jill doesn't have much life experience. The fact is, because of her beauty, life has been simple for her. But her heart is in the right place. Rich Sommer, I've been a friend of his for a while, and he gives a superb performance. I had just finished the script when I met him, and I knew he had to play the role. He perfectly captures the really honest guy who means well, and who's just trying to help out his sister-in-law. He just fit that role so well. Both of those characters, Jill and Brian--they are good people who mean well. They want to help Janice out, but they don't know how to.
Jenna: Everyone assumes Jill is older than Janice, because of how she has her life together, and is always in control. Jill lives like an adult, while Janice still kind of lives like a college student. Malin could deliver some pretty biting stuff but still with a smile and she really made it feel like they were real sisters. That's how sisters talk to each other. I love it that the first time they speak to each other they're just both annoyed with one another. With just the tone of their voice you know this is a sister on the other end of the phone, not a friend. There's history. Malin and Rich Sommer, who plays her husband, had a great comedic chemistry that was really important for the film.
Part of Jill and Brian's efforts to help Janice, is setting her up with motivational speaker, Doug Duncan, played by Topher Grace. Talk about his character
Jenna: I love Topher. We bonded many years ago after I did a guest spot on "That 70s Show." I've literally been dying to work with him again ever since. He doesn't know it but I've tried to weasel my way in to a number of his other movies. I finally had to produce one of my own to get to work with him! Topher really brought a tragedy and humanity to what is basically the broader comic relief of the film. He's so funny, but it's not over the top, and I feel like a lot of actors would have had a hard time showing that kind of restraint. Doug isn't a bad guy, he's treating Janice nicely, but he's just super self-absorbed and annoying and it just makes it more depressing because she doesn't have a lot of options. He kind of breaks your heart at the same time he's making you laugh. Janice is sort of a project to him, like he's the expert and she's the novice. That's the type of woman he goes for because he likes that dynamic and I think he's also a bit scared of having a real intimate loving relationship with an equal. So he picks this person that he thinks is a little bit needy of him.
Lee: Topher really knew this character, and only brought more highlights to this guy. The sweaters he wears, those are all Topher's sweaters that he thought would look great for the character. His mom would give him a sweater every year for Christmas and he kept them all, and brought them all up to Detroit for the movie. It was hilarious. Topher was just so great, so funny, and he looked forward to that big scene at the convention, where he does his speech. He had a blast with that. Topher is a very detailed actor, he crafts his performance meticulously, and his timing is perfect. He's very funny in the film.
Lee, you mentioned that there were metaphors in the film, especially with the zoo. Could you explain that?
Lee: As I got into the script and developed the Janice character, I started to realize the metaphor that the mechanical man provides. That of the lifeless man, the statue, who only moves when he is given money. And yet even when he moves, it's very methodical and without much freedom. I think that's how Janice sees her life, and that's why the mechanical man resonates in her. Her existence feels empty and lifeless, and when she sees this strange sight, an eight foot tall silver man dressed in a sort of business suit, it's striking. She's moved by the sight. And then with the zoo, the image of these animals caged up and sitting there--these beautiful animals sitting in cages, staring out at life. I think Tim and Janice might feel the same way about their lives, and even their jobs in the zoo, they're sort of in the same type of cage. Without being too heavy-handed, I was hoping these metaphors might resonate with the viewer on some level.
What do you feel helped you make this film a possibility?
Lee: The talent that we were able to attract, from the actors to the producers, cinematographer and the amazing crew in Detroit. I have to say it's everyone's great attitude in making the film. There were a lot of constraints on us, but it forced us to come together and be creative. Everyone rose to the occasion. To have everyone be so enthusiastic and supportive everyday meant so much to me. I'm very grateful for the experience.