Within the first few minutes of “Callback: The Unmaking of Bloodstain,” this quote appears on an issue of Variety that displays the opening credits, while profiling the catastrophic making of the fictional independent film “Bloodstain”: “Critics were shocked and amazed to learn that “Callback” was actually the first film to be directed by the talented Mr. Wolfson.”
Well, co-writer/director Eric M. Wolfson is right. I am. And “talented” seems like the right word, though Wolfson undersells himself. It’s too small a word in meaning to describe just how ingenious he really is, especially with how packed and continually interesting these 97 minutes are. It feels like Wolfson has been at work on this comedy for quite a long time with his co-writer Michael DeGood, as it seems impossible in such a short time to shape a film that creatively doubles back to scenes recently played, to show a different angle that introduces a new character.
But I’m getting a little too far ahead, even though I’m bursting right now to just let out all at once everything I love about “Callback,” without the benefit of commas or periods, just to be sure that everything noteworthy is mentioned, since there is a lot. However, I’ve let out a breath now, because every little bit of what Wolfson has created here deserves careful notice.
The epic mass of frustration, frayed nerves, stress and rotten feelings known as “Bloodstain” begins to form in our minds with interviews featuring all involved, first with director Marci McFadden (Kate Orsini), who has obviously been through a lot to even want to make this film in the shadow of Hollywood, hoping that fame comes. She could be considered an egomaniacal bitch, if one wishes, but consider a later scene where she tries to fend off someone she believes to be an attacker, shouting, “I will not be a victim!” This is not a Hollywood made of wax paper-thin caricatures.
Cleverly, Wolfson does not make this out to be the glamorous Hollywood we see on TV, which the cable channel “E!” hypes daily. He demonstrates this by an apt shot involving Tony Shamus (Jeffrey Parise, who, based on this astonishing performance, should see his doorstep cracked from the weight of tons of scripts on it), recently pushed out into the world from the institution that has been his home. He’s schizophrenic, he hears voices, and so Hollywood sounds like a natural destination. In that shot, as Tony drives past Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, Wolfson doesn’t make the lights brighter, nor cranks the music louder to announce that Tony’s In Hollywood.
This is not that Hollywood. This is the real Hollywood, where small apartments are occupied by people hoping that their screenplays are produced, their auditions transformed into leading roles, their power rising in a land where one should question what is real, every hour. Wolfson wisely keeps the entire film on that level, especially in that one shot, where we get the feeling that this is hard, frustrating, dirty work where everyone seeks fame, but not all achieve it.
Tony first spends his days taking a prescribed amount of pills to keep the voices at bay and watching TV all the time. Then, at a karaoke bar, he meets Jill (Jennifer Hall), who’s working for McFadden, and believes that he should have a role in “Bloodstain.” At the time of the audition, Tony negotiates with a Jack Nicholson-style voice in his head about allowing it to take him over as long as he’s “let back in.” An agreement is struck and just as remarkable as Verbal Kint’s sudden change at the end of “The Usual Suspects,” Tony shakes all over and there’s the new man, with a smoother-looking face, straight from the Jack Nicholson/Al Pacino School of Acting, circa “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Scarface.”
Equally deserving of high praise is Hall, Johnny Moreno Peter Downs, an actor too obsessed with method, and Michael DeGood as career mugger Carl. I can easily imagine these three living in the real Hollywood, but in the case of Hall and Moreno, they do far more than that. Hall is possessed by certain facets of Gilda Radner in her performance, as a girl who obviously isn’t from Southern California, most likely having traveled clear across the country to get to Los Angeles, who probably has taken a lot of pain at home and along the way, and just to survive, just to do what she does—serving in the shadow of Marcia McFadden—she doesn’t object to whatever she’s been through. It shows when Tony, as the Nicholson-type actor, pushes her away and while she looks hurt, she’s still with him later. For us, she’s the kind of girl that makes one a little uneasy at first, but we understand her quirks and go with them because some of us might relate.
Through Moreno, Raul Julia has returned to our world, not just in the partial look Moreno has of the dearly missed actor, but also the same skilled acting ability. He plays the kind of actor you’d expect in non-industry Hollywood, one that needs to find a job before he’s evicted from his apartment, and he does, working badly for a phone sex line. One call leads to a conversation with Andrew (Brian Michael), who’s vastly unimpressed by his lack of phone sex skills, but believes he should audition for “Bloodstain.” Connections in this town are made in unusual ways.
As the perpetually untalented Carl, DeGood adds another benefit of being part of “Callback.” He’s surrounded by the gorgeous Burnadean Jones as his girlfriend Beth, who forces him to mug people in order to make money (she tells him straight out that she refuses to get a job), and Darrin Reed as his uncle Duffy, who funded the production of “Bloodstain,” and doesn’t take long in getting him a role in the film, even though it’s small and he dies in the second scene, which riles Beth, who believes he should have had a bigger role. Reed is entertaining to watch, as Duffy acts as you might expect with being the money man (he drives his car right into the middle of a shot and parks), and he also looks like a thicker Vin Diesel. Just superimpose your thought-up image of Diesel onto him and you’ll see it.
Though these actors are so airtight together, the script is the boss. Wolfson, the actors and the rest of the crew know it and so do we, particularly in two scenes. One of them is where Peter finds himself auditioning for a pizza commercial with Tony, and inadvertently wrecks the small set-up, exasperating the woman in charge enough that she screams at both of them to get out. The scene presents itself as the kind of laugh that takes time to build, one absurd moment on top of another. Every time there is an opportunity to laugh in “Callback,” it’s not because of something that’s pointed out as funny and then the scene moves on. Each of the comedic bits presented are embedded deeply in the script, always artful in the approach.
The second scene is why I cheer the existence of “Callback.” McFadden, Peter, Tony and Carl are on a soundstage shooting a scene where Peter is slapped enough times to lose count and he loses it, exclaiming to McFadden that he can’t take it anymore. He believes that she’s driving him beyond his limit because of when he took her wallet from the top of her car outside a convenience store, then decided to return it, but when he was putting the wallet back, she caught him and it looked to her like he was taking it. Soon, tempers explode and up to this time, Wolfson has continually switched from a 2.35:1 widescreen shot which represents the scene being filmed (the black bars prominent), to a 1.85:1 widescreen shot (less of the black bars) showing the behind-the-scenes dealings. During the argument which leads to guns being drawn, he keeps the action in that 2.35:1 widescreen shot, ratchets up the music little by little, keeping it under the scene, and the tension is so palpable, that I can say with confidence: I’ve never felt this from the scenes of any movies I’ve watched over the past year and possibly the year before. Wolfson’s got an innate ability to create forceful suspense, which he should tap into again if the opportunity arises with whatever he plans to make next. We’ve seen these personalities for the past hour and a half, we know what they want, what they can do, but it’s impossible to know right then what’s going to happen. That is a rare quality indeed.
If you’ve looked into independent film, but never took it seriously for whatever reason, or might not have been impressed with what you’ve found, re-energize your interest with “Callback” if it finds its way to a theater close to you. When the day comes for it to arrive on DVD (and I’ve a strong feeling it will), go for it. Seek it out. This comedy is so loaded with smarts that you may be as surprised as I have been, just as satisfied, and hopeful that Wolfson will be noticed more widely, most importantly to whomever has more funds available for him. His brilliance demands it.