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Family Time: Five-year-old Noah (Connor Maselli) proves hard to control in 'Around the Bay.'

'Around the Bay' With director Alejandro Adams

By Richard von Busack

ALEJANDRO ADAMS' Around the Bay, debuting at Cinequest, concerns a sundered family in the hills near San Jose. In this sensitive, understated film—praised even before release by The New York Times' Philip Lopate—a distracted businessman named Wyatt (Steve Voldseth) moves in his estranged daughter, Daisy (Katherine Cello), to keep tabs on his young son from a new relationship, Noah (Connor Maselli). In one sense, Adams' film comes out of nowhere; it's a big leap forward from a director who had only a couple of shorts under his belt. He had made the short films with his wife, Marya, a former film student who had the cameras and equipment. Adams calls these efforts "recreational activities. I didn't show much oomph in getting them out there." In another sense, he has been preparing for life as a filmmaker for years. We had a quick interview, after both having our cages rattled by a preview of Michael Haneke's effective but basically abominable home-invasion thriller Funny Games. The terrorized family in the film, targeted by Haneke as well as his tag team of psycho characters for their wealth, had the same cell phone and refrigerator that Adams has at home. This made the viewing experience more unpleasant for him. (I reassured Adams that I too would be on the list of those two killers: "My wife wants one of those stainless-steel refrigerators in the worst way.")

I knew the after-effects of the squeeze Haneke put on me was going to wear off, but the intellectual disdain I had for the Austrian filmmaker's ideas wasn't going anywhere for a long time. It's the intellectual reaction that persists, which is why I still admire the subtle build-up of the drama in Adams' debut.

Adams, a man of near 30 with cropped hair, commented, "What Around the Bay has in common with what we just saw, is a story a family caught in a compound, and they just don't leave. But having set up Wyatt as a villain—though villain is a strong word—we tried to introduce complexity. The main difference is that my characters are human beings, not ideological constructs. That's what I think what I'd tell Mr. Haneke if I met him: You know, you're an ideological construct, too."

One of the things I like about Around the Bay is that Wyatt is the kind of man who is the traditional target of an indie film: an abstracted, emotionally cold businessman. A suit, in short. "I don't have an axe to grind," Adams said, "And the kind of job I have is white-collar too."

I asked Adams about his early days as a film watcher. "I don't know what the first memories are. I was living in a town called Niceville, Fla., and my stepfather was a civil servant. He traveled around a lot to college towns, and he picked up textbooks on cinema. That's where I'd learn things, such as that Ozu breaks the 180-degree rule. I started using the textbooks to look up films. That's how I was led to Bertolucci's 1900, a pretty strange film for a 12-to-13-year-old, and discovered some of Bergman's more obvious stuff like The Seventh Seal. Not so much Antonioni, though, at that time. Watching these films were such profound experiences that it kind of drowned out what I might have seen at the movies when I was 6. I didn't have a camera or any technical background as a filmmaker. Mostly what interested me was film criticism."

Adams lived in more than a few places after college, including Tokyo: "Nothing interesting happened there, I was just teaching English." He also lived in New Mexico and Montana. Adams had ambitions as a writer, but only published one short story in a college literary magazine. Around the Bay is his adaptation of a later short story. The film was meant to be as much like the original story as possible. "Noah was more of an introverted kid in the original, who lashed out in different ways. That changed on the set, because of what Connor brought to the role."

Adams outlines his influences: "In the early 1960s, there was a literary reaction to Proust, Joyce and Kafka. Some French writers such as Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute were attempting the destruction of the psychological novel, a process Susan Sontag continued here in America. The idea was for works that were toneless, fact-based and without motivation. I was trying something like that in my story, and the one character I couldn't shake off was Wyatt. I have to say that, in Steve Voldseth, I had the luck to get an actor who embodied all I needed to embody. It was all on his shoulders."

The director/writer recruited his actors through Craigslist and SF Casting, and then shot Around the Bay between September and October 2006. I had gotten the mistaken impression that Adams built up his characters through extensive rehearsals. It's the way British director Mike Leigh works with his actors, having them veer away from a written script in favor of more intuitive method of characterization. In Leigh's case, the process can take six months. Adams has "a semantic disagreement" with the word 'rehearsal.'

"'Character meetings' is more like it," he explained. "We had them in advance of the shooting. It was something like what Coppola and Leigh do, but we didn't have as much time and leisure. Some of it was done through trading emails, and some of it was what the actors were feeling on the day of shooting."

The next step was the agonizing process of cutting a four-hour film down to size, with the help of his wife Marya's advice. "If you see the commentary on Days of Heaven, both Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are incensed at Terrence Malick for cutting all the motivation and complexity from their characters. It was Gere's first film, and he didn't understand why Malick wouldn't let him have his moments. I don't want to sound Machiavellian, but there was a method here on my part. I wanted to get the film out to the critics first before the actors have a chance to see it—it's a way of buffering them, preparing them for all the cutting that happened. I'd recommend this method to new filmmakers."

The word of mouth on Around the Bay has begun, and Adams has got some interest in his film from distributors, "just no bites yet." Meanwhile, he's begun the editing process on his second film, Canary. It's a dystopic fantasy set in a parallel version of our present. The title refers to the coal-miner's bird. Summing up his career so far, Adams said, "I did it the inverted way from the order in which you're supposed to do it. I did the hard-core domestic drama first, and the sci-fi calling-card film second."

AROUND THE BAY shows March 8 at 7:45pm at the San Jose Rep at Cinequest.

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