By John Wildman | September 2, 2010

Driving from L.A. to Utopia Texas (yes, a real place) to do some on-set unit public relations for the film SEVEN DAYS IN UTOPIA, I got pulled over at about three in the morning for some night time speeding (you have to drive slower at night here because it’s really dark and scary… I guess). I’m asked to step outside of the car with my license and insurance and the cop asks me where I’m headed. “Utopia,” I say. He thinks about that and asks, “What does that word mean?” I wasn’t expecting that one. “Utopia? It’s, you know, like the ultimate, the perfect society.” He nods as he scrutinizes me. “You have any drugs in the car?”

After he grills me on every type of drug I could possibly have in the car (“Marijuana?” “No.” “Cocaine?” “No.” “Pills?’ “No. No drugs.”), he lets me go with a warning. And I sort of feel like I’ve now earned the right to go to a place called Utopia. The film is based on Dr. David Cook’s book about a young man (Lucas Black) raised to be a golfer supreme by his dad Tiger and Earl Woods-style who has an epic meltdown just as he’s on the cusp of realizing his potential. As he runs away from it all, circumstances deliver him to the idyllic burg and at the doorstep of a sage man of golfing and faith played by Robert Duvall.

I was on-set at the beginning of the shoot and now I’m doing the bookends thing at the end of the shoot. But this is my first time actually in Utopia. And it’s a love fest between town and crew, production and people. Dr. Cook says, “Utopia is so far from Hollywood – that to bring the two together is a story in and of itself.”

The main reason I am here is to supervise the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) interviews with the cast and crew and manage any press visits as things wrap up. It’s standard issue stuff and thanks to a cast peppered with noted great-to-work-with pros like Duvall, Kathy Baker and Melissa Leo – I expect it to be pretty fun and relatively low impact.

Immediately, I get my personal film geek moment by getting a front row seat to watch Duvall rehearse and shoot a scene. It’s for a Spring Dance Social scene with Duvall suggesting to Black’s character that the young golfer stay awhile and see if the old man can work his golf-Yoda magic on him. It’s fun watching Duvall work with every bit of the ease and effortless grace that anyone would imagine this particular Oscar winner to bring to the picture – literally. No harsh reality intruding here. This is Utopia after all.

Then, Deborah Ann Woll (the “True Blood” innocent turned vampire – here back to innocent-mode) enters the scene and she and Lucas improvise a “walk-and-talk” down by the riverside when they were supposed to just sit down on some hay bales. The first A.D. calls out “rehearsal for marks” and watching the action, the head electrician radios to his crew to be prepared for all hell to break loose since they may have to re-light and re-do everything.

And then… No, they decide to stay at the hay bales. Whew. That saved some work… Rehearsal ends and the lighting crew jumps into action affixing light instruments onto tree branches, rolling in some huge-a*s instruments that will deliver a glow of off-screen fireworks on the actors’ faces as the scene progresses. Meanwhile, the second A.D teaches tonight’s crew of extras how to pantomime being at a party – talking without speaking out loud, dancing without music playing – the usual, that is if you’re trying to convey having a good-ole time in a perfectly silent vacuum.

Movie sets are always a small world. I go to see Kathy Baker to explain the plans for the EPK interviews and make sure that she is fine with taping hers tonight. Before I do that, I run into Brian Geraghty who we had at AFI FEST last year thanks to his role in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s great feature debut EASIER WITH PRACTICE. Thanks to that and THE HURT LOCKER, he’s in one of those rare moments where solid critically acclaimed work is being strung together one after the other. So he’s found himself in Utopia in a couple of ways. Back to Kathy Baker. I find her relaxing in her trailer. I introduce myself and as I do so, I remind her that years (and I mean YEARS) ago, I had served as her PR red carpet escort for one of the first SAG Awards during the “Picket Fences” days. She smiles at the reminder and says that’s a nice memory.

“Utopia is like Shangri La. It’s this dear little town and you think it’ll disappear when you go away,” says Baker. She continues, “People are so nice here. They introduce themselves to you, shake your hand. They’ll get things for you if you need them – like a pen. You don’t get that in L.A.” And while I haven’t had a pen-less crisis I needed help from the locals on, I did have one of the extras stop me and (almost as if she was put up to it by Baker), introduce herself and shake my hand. She asks if the production was making me wear a dress shirt and tie because I was acting in the film or something. “No, I’m the PR guy and I kind of just dress this way because, uhmm… that’s what I do” I responded a little sheepishly as she looks at me with some sympathy. It was that look that says, “I clearly don’t understand what you’re doing there, but you seem nice enough,” kind of thing.

The EPK crew is asked to move their set up for the third time in roughly an hour and a half thanks to the change in direction for the cameras shooting the coverage of the Spring Dance Social scene. They suggest moving down next to the river. Mr. EPK camera guy has some misgivings about that due to lighting issues and the potential for water moccasins. I think that’s a legitimate concern as you’re trying to get cast members to focus on doing their EPK interviews. Water moccasins. They could be distracting, I believe. And maybe not-so-Utopia?

Later, a bull penned up by the rodeo pen across the other side of the lot and field serving as the location begins singing a loud and sustained honking song until the actors and director finally have to give it up and stop filming until he finishes.  I’m almost certain it isn’t a union bull either.

The next day, the bull makes his on camera appearance, we wrap up the EPK pursuits before heading back out of town to other non-Utopia type places. And, I manage to get some bonus time with Matt Russell, the writer/director and Robert Duvall too. Here are the interviews:

Matt Russell (Writer/Director)

You worked pretty closely with Dr. David Cook on the script as well as directing the film. After having spent that amount of time working on it, what were the hurdles you knew you would have to clear to make the film of this book really work?
Matthew: I think just the bigness of it. We’re shooting this in 25 days. So it’s all about having a couple of locations and no big stunts or gags. We’ve got rodeos and horses and scenes with hundreds of extras though. In the creative aspect when I was trying to get a DP (Director of Photography) and Production designer on board, that was the one thing that everyone was concerned with – it’s a 50-day movie and we’re doing it in 25.

From a story aspect, definitely the golf thing – the authenticity of it is huge. I’m a huge sports fan. With sports movies there are a lot of them that just lose you because you’ve got a guy sawing his truck in two but he’s okay to play right after or a guy loses an eyeball during a football game and they just sweep it aside and keep playing.

For me a good reference film is JERRY MAGUIRE. If we could have this be the JERRY MAGUIRE of golf movies that would be great, because they did it right. While it’s a sports story and a football story there is a lot more going on with it.

So, yeah, the hurdle is how big we want it to look and to feel AND it’s called “utopia”, so the locations have to look like a multi-million dollar film even though we don’t have that. So, if we can nail the authenticity of A) the small town and then B) the golfing.

This is a heartfelt script, with a fine cast assembled for it, but let’s talk about the challenges visually. What were your ambitions as far as that was concerned?
Matthew: As far as the spectrum of the film was concerned, we wanted the first part of the film, when Lucas’ character is struggling to not necessarily look gritty but a standard feature film look that reflects everyday life. Then after he arrives in Utopia, we wanted that to be more visually stunning. Very subtle but to make Utopia this absolutely beautiful place.

The other aspect was the golf stuff. We wanted the Golf Channel to shoot that stuff so we could mix the media and add to the authenticity. Of course, we haven’t edited yet so we’ll see if that is still the direction we want to go, but you have their cameras and then ours to go from a personal moment to seeing the big event aspect of it.

I had an opportunity to watch how you worked with Robert Duvall. Can you describe what was going on in your head during those first moments directing him in the first scene on the film?
Matthew:  You know, with actors, it doesn’t matter if it’s their first time doing it out of Middle School or something or if they are the legendary Robert Duvall. Every single person approaches it differently and you have to tailor it to their needs. You don’t go up to someone and ask, “Should I approach you this way or that?” You just have to feel it out. There’s no right or wrong way, it’s just kind of how it is.

Obviously, with Robert, was really tentative. We had a lot of phone conversations. I just tried to talk to him a lot and those around him to make the process as comfortable as I could. And he’s been great. At the end of the first take, he looked at me, like asking me if I was happy with it, and that’s not something that a lot of actors do. He’s a very director’s oriented actor. You hear the term, “An actor’s director,” and he’s the reverse. I was surprised at how much he deferred to me. He instantly boxed up all of his trust and said, “Here you go,” and it made it just a really collaborative effort.

He’s just fantastic. He doesn’t need me or anyone else to give a great performance. But he gave me the opportunity to come in and make a great picture by his side.

Robert Duvall

After having been around the world on countless locations and sets, what is it about Utopia that has made this town a special place to shoot?
Duvall: Utopia is kind of like the name. There’s something special about it. But you’d have to find out for yourself because it’s special to each person. There are so many small towns in Texas that are great. Each one has its own country band and barbeque. I’d like to come back here. Usually, when it’s over, that’s it.

Watching you work with Lucas Black, the two of you have a great camaraderie, a second nature with how you communicate and work together. Does that come from simply doing multiple films (SLING BLADE, GET LOW) together or is there something else there?
Duvall: I don’t know him that well, because this is you know, a temporary set up. That’s that aspect of filmmaking: you’re together for 6 or 8 weeks and then it’s over. But sometimes you just have a rapport. He’s a good kid. Very bright. I defended him once from some foreign director. This guy got in his face. He’s from Alabama and you talk a certain way, so I guess you’re supposed to be a hick or something like that.

I talked to guy in New York that a car service one time. And that guy said when he was in the Army down here in the Deep South; he would constantly outscore the New Yorkers on the aptitude tests in the military. You cannot dismiss people just because they are from the interior of the United States. Very often it’s where the richest things come from.

I was talking to Matt, and he described you as a “Director’s Actor”, turning that phrase around from the “Actor’s Director.” Does that come from having put on the director’s hat yourself or has your process remained pretty much the same throughout your career?
Duvall: No that comes from what Matt is. There are directors that would say the opposite. We get into it. But he is open to what ideas you have and what you want to do. Some directors will come in and arbitrarily say things. Especially Old Hollywood directors who would be like dictators.

No, he sees what you want to do and then if you want to add to that or talk about it and he does, like Coppola or any of the good guys. He’s very good that way.

Some directors are more arbitrary so it’s not always so peaceful. But if it’s totally peaceful sometimes that cannot be good either. Sometimes you need conflict. Not on this film, but sometimes stuff can come out of the conflict.

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