Backseat Brings Director Back to Features

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It's not often a director takes a two decade break between films. But Celsius Films' Bruce van Dusen has returned to feature territory with last week's theatrical release of the independent comedy, Backseat. His last film, 1984's Cold Feet, which van Dusen both wrote and directed, debuted at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival alongside the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, The Brother From Another Planet by John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise.

So why the long pause between movies? Van Dusen says it just wasn't the right time. "My commercial work was really going along well," he says. "I was starting a family and I just wasn't sure if I wanted to trade out at that point. So I decided right there not to be in the movie business." From then on the director took a Spots Only approach to his work.

Fast forward to 2001 and van Dusen is directing a young actor named Josh Alexander in a financial services spot. The two strike up a friendship and about six months after the commercial shoot, Alexander approached the director with a script and asked if he would read it and perhaps consider directing it. He did and he did.

Backseat, edited by the always formidable Gavin Cutler, follows two guys in their late 20s who find themselves in the familiar vortex of prolonged adolescence. To escape their various career and romantic problems they decide to take a road trip to Montreal to meet Donald Sutherland. Hijinks ensue. But what perhaps sets the film apart from others of a similar bent, say Old School, is its aim to portray these men as more than cartoonish variations on the Overgrown Doofus model. The film won the audience award at the 2005 Austin Film Festival and appeared at the Atlanta and Frankfurt film festivals, among others.

We spoke to van Dusen about the film and his return to feature work.

What attracted you to this film?
I liked the idea that these two characters were 30ish guys who were struggling with some issues and trying to deal with them in a slightly more mature way than simply doing shots and watching television. Josh (Alexander) is a smart guy and I think there are a large number of young men out there that, while they may do things that can be funny and interesting, they're also devoting a lot of time to their relationships and figuring out how to be happier, more interesting people. So I guess I was glad to see these guys had some depth to them. Certainly, some of this storyline is funny and the characters are funny, but I thought it was an interesting opportunity to weave comedy and drama together and it would work because this road trip situation was so odd. I've seen plenty of scripts where the goal is to just go and make something funny, which is fine, but it's just not as interesting to me.
It was an interesting process because, compared to everyone I was working with on the film -- Josh and the producers – I was Methuselah. So I had a very different take on these life experiences they were going through and dealing with in the film.

Being older than the film's characters, what do you make of the whole "coming of age late" scenario?
My perspective was always that (the young guys) would attach a little more hysteria to the events that seemed like life or death moments, when in fact everything was going to be fine, this stuff had happened to other people before and if they just put one foot in front of the other, it would all work out.
At that period, you're not only trying to figure out your professional and romantic life but you're starting to look in the mirror and see if this whole life you've planned out for yourself is actually going that way or not. And in these character's lives, every time they looked in the mirror, it wasn't going in the right direction.

How was your transition from doing spots to a narrative feature?
I tried to make a transition that was completely abrupt and uncomfortable for me. For my first movie, I took my commercial crew and that was fine but I don't think I looked at the project from as many angles as I may have if I was a fish out of water. So this time, I didn't want to know anyone because I thought it would force me to do a better job. I wouldn't know if this guy's getting a divorce or this guy's dog is sick, I'm just going to work. And it ended up being very liberating. Your awareness of what you do is heightened when you take a new job and you're thrown in with a lot of new people. Our instinct is often to surround ourselves with familiar people who know how we work. I realized I think that had made me a bit lazy. So by working with this unknown crew, I thought it would really make me stay on my toes. I also wanted to make it stylistically a bit different, shooting everything handheld. I just wanted it to seem raw and a bit found. I shoot handheld a lot in commercials but it's not such a pronounced effect because the scenes are shorter.

Given this approach, what were your biggest directorial challenges?
Movies go for a long time. A big commercial might shoot for four or five days, but when it's a film and you're working for weeks, you need to adjust your stamina. There was also a bit of adapting to the idea that things were not going to go exactly as planned. Commercials work on such short and compressed schedules, we're granted little to no room for error. But on a movie, there is a lot more stuff that will change, even as its happening, whether it's locations or whatever. But once you relax and come to terms with that, you start to roll with it and things can go well from there. So, you can struggle if you choose but I think because I went into this as a sort of sabbatical and I knew how spoiled my life shooting commercials is, it made this such a nicer creative process.

Any plans to do another film?
I'm slated to direct another independent film this summer that's an intense drama, so I'm looking forward to that.

For more information, visit the film's official website.
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