At this point, John C. Walsh is used to being foreigner on his home turf.
“[My wife] Mary jokes that I was born in the wrong country,” says Walsh, who has spent much of his filmmaking career under the radar. “She was saying basically if I was making films in England, my drier, low-key sensibility would be much more successful. The most-on target reviews that we got for ‘Ed’s Next Move’ were from English newspapers and journals.”
The way Walsh’s first film came together may have predestined such a fate since the lighthearted comedy about a Wisconsin rice geneticist findng his footing in the Big Apple originated from the feeling of being alienated from his hometown of New York after working in Seattle for a spell. Yet “Ed’s Next Move” was also deprived of the opportunity to build an audience in America since its initial release, which in itself was compromised to some degree by its distributor Orion Pictures’ ongoing bankruptcy, because it was never released on DVD where it could’ve capitalized on a wave of positive word-of-mouth out of Sundance from the likes of Roger Ebert and the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan.
Thankfully, with a hand from Sundance Artist Services and Cinedigm who have rescued 14 other acclaimed films from such limbo by giving them digital distribution starting this week, “Ed’s Next Move” will finally be available once more and is ripe for rediscovery. The film is both a time capsule of life in the East Village during the early ’90s where the availability of such luxuries as Wagyu beef were at odds with its bohemian community and timeless in its sweetly romantic outlook towards its lead character who’s slightly in over his head in both his professional and personal life after moving to the big city.
But with some distance, “Ed’s Next Move” has also established itself as an early showcase for some remarkable talent, from its two stars Matt Ross and Callie Thorne, who catapulted from their first feature leading roles in “Ed’s” to have enduring careers in innovative indie films and TV shows to follow, an impressive supporting cast including the likes of Aunjanue Ellis and “House” star Peter Jacobson, and even served as the debut production of Joshua Astrachan, who was later responsible in part for Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and this year’s “Short Term 12.” For Walsh, the film also launched something far more unexpected – a marriage to fellow filmmaker Mary Harron, whom he met at the Sundance Film Festival where both her film “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “Ed’s Next Move” premiered in 1996.
On the occasion of the film’s digital debut, I spoke to Walsh about pulling together his first film which teems with the energy of an ensemble that’s just starting out, the casting of many now-familiar faces including Will Arnett and what it was like to get his own life in order so shortly after making a film about a guy figuring it all out, as well as reaching out to Ross via e-mail for his thoughts on what became a career-changing film for the actor.
Have you watched the film recently?
John Walsh: If I was in an audience somewhere and it was shown with a group and then you can experience the laughter and the response to the film that’s enjoyable to me, but me sitting down watching the film is always a process of looking at all of my flaws and my decisions as a director while admiring the wonderful work of the actors, so the bottom line is no, I haven’t I really looked at it. But it’s funny because we have two teenage daughters and they have never seen the film. Now, they’re like, “Dad, we can see your movie now. We’re going to see it on Netflix Instant.” Obviously, they haven’t seen Mary’s movies because they all have people being hacked up or taking their clothes off.
The story about a fish out of water in New York would seem to be autobiographical, but I understand you’re a New Yorker through and through.
John Walsh: A lot of people just think this was my experience and I was never a rice geneticist or scientist of any kind. My dad’s from Manhattan and my mother’s from Brooklyn. It was the experience of returning from working on [Nancy Savoca’s 1991 film] “Dogfight.” I was in Seattle for about four months on that, then when I came back to New York, it just really struck me how different it is from much of the country, particularly [coming from] a really friendly place like Seattle. Everybody’s really wary and cautious, and it’s difficult to get to know people and hard to gain trust, and it’s more frenetic. I thought, there are so many things that are absurd about life in New York that I’d like to treat in the context of comedy, so I’ll take this vehicle of a fish out of water and create this character of Eddie Bronsky.
Was it interesting to think in terms of that outsider perspective?
John Walsh: In some ways, my nature is to be in my life and also to watch myself in my life. I have the tendency, as does my wife in the way we think about things, to always stand back and look at how absurd our lives are. We’re constantly laughing at things that other people take for granted as just part and parcel of the manners and mores of wherever they are. For me, it was a combination of not only talking about things that I thought were kind of odd about life in New York, but where you could also treat the classic issues of romantic comic problems in the context of the mores of the modern New York of that time and how difficult it is establish credibility with women that you’ve never met before — and get them to listen to you, talk to you, be willing to have a drink with you, or whatever. As many people, I’ve been through many difficulty dates and gleaned a certain amount of comic material from that, so it was a combination of commenting on New York and modern love in a sense, but then really influenced by really older classic films from Preston Sturges through “Pillow Talk” through “The Bob Newhart Show.”
The cast is ridiculously loaded with up-and-comers. Before asking about your leads, let me ask about the supporting cast, which includes Liz Tuccillo [who went on to write for “Sex and the City” and the book “He’s Just Not That Into You”] and Peter Jacobson, who became a regular on “House.”
John Walsh: I had been put in touch with a great casting director, Susan Shopmaker, who had her contacts, and I was lucky enough to catch them on their way up. It’s interesting, we originally did a little trailer for the film to raise money and in it, Peter played the roommate. He was very funny. Actually, Josh Hamilton was Ed. Jane Adams [played the Callie Thorne role], but for different reasons, I didn’t cast them [in the final film]. Jane was actually more like an Ed personality, more quirky, and I love Josh, but I thought to look for another actor for the film.
Peter Jacobson was the roommate in the trailer and I thought he was hilarious, but when we were doing the film, this other guy came in through Susan named Kevin Carroll. Kevin was on Broadway at the time in this big role fresh out of NYU drama department and he came in to audition for the roommate. I said, “I didn’t see the roommate as being black.” Susan said, “Just see him.” He came in and just blew us out of the water because his take on the smooth girlgetter was so different and oddly vulnerable that I just loved him instantly. Peter found out and was like, “Hey man, don’t you have anything for me?” I was like, “I have this tiny part [of a coffee shop manager] . You’d be funny, really hilarious,” but felt bad offering it to him because it was smaller. [It] speaks so highly of Peter, that he was like, “Hey man, I love the script. I’ll do it.” In my next film “Pipe Dream,” Peter had a better part as the agent.
How did Matt Ross come onboard?
John Walsh: We were looking for production assistants and I got in touch with Nick Tanis, a professor of mine from NYU where I went in the ’80s in the undergrad program, and I said, “Nick, I need some PAs on this movie. There’s no pay. Do you have any students that want to work for a four-week shoot for experience?” And they have a core class at NYU where they teach filmmaking to people who aren’t matriculating in the undergraduate program, so they have this core course work. You might a designer [or] a novelist and you want to learn about filmmaking. There was one guy who came in who was a Juilliard trained actor, Matt Ross.
Matt Ross: At that time, I was going to NYU and was focused on writing films to direct. John and I were introduced by [Nick], who had also been John’s teacher as well and I came in and asked John if I could be his assistant. I thought that assisting a director from pre-production through post would be an ideal way to see the whole process. It was a low-budget film and if memory serves, John wasn’t sure he needed an assistant, but when he heard that I had studied acting, he asked if I’d be the reader for the auditions. So I read with all the actors and eventually, I was asked to read for the lead, in the call backs with the the actresses who were up for the part that was eventually played by Callie Thorne.
John Walsh: We had a number of women come in an we had a number of people auditioning for Ed. At the end of the day, I said, “Great, thanks Matt” and he left the room and my associate producer Josh Astrachan, who was also smart about casting turned to me and said, “Matt’s really good. I think we should give him an audition.” He was saying what I was already thinking.
Matt Ross: When I was offered the part, I certainly wasn’t thinking about acting in “Ed’s Next Move” at all. I really wanted to shadow John and assist him. But I took a couple of days, thought about it, and realized that it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. It was a chance to play a lead in a film and aside from all I’d learn from doing that, I would also be in every scene and be on a set everyday and get to see the whole process.
How was Callie Thorne cast?
John Walsh: I had a brilliant producer on this, Sally Roy, who’s now an exec producer for Bill Moyers’ show, and [she had] been in the theater program at NYU before moving into films. She had a friend there, Michael Mastro, who’s a very successful New York theater actor. She called Michael and said “I’m looking for actors,” and Michael said, “There’s this woman, she’s great. I know her through Naked Angels,” a little theater group in New York. “Her name’s Callie Thorne.” We said, “Great, great. Send her in.” Callie came in to audition. She played the scene against Matt and light years more charming and funny than anyone else. We immediately cast her.
Eagle-eyed viewers will also notice Will Arnett in a very small part.
John Walsh: It’s funny because I had no idea who Will was. We had already cast. Had he come in for Ed before we had cast, he could’ve gotten the part of Ed potentially, although Matt was more right for that part. But Susan Shopmaker, said, “Hey, there’s this really funny guy. I’ve seen him do some stuff” and Will came in. By coincidence, Will was Callie Thorne’s ex-boyfriend. I think they met in Boston and Callie’s like, “You cast my ex-boyfriend to do this little part.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” He aced it. His one line you barely see him because the party’s so dark. I felt [at the time], oh gosh, I should’ve gotten more out of Will. Then when I saw “Arrested Development.” He’s a comic genius.
It has the energy of those indie productions of the 1990s while having that old-fashioned Hollywood feel. How did you go about getting it made?
John Walsh: I had had some nibbles of interest from this financier and that person and private money, and all of that fell through before I could get backers. At a certain point, [after working] on Nancy Savoca’s “Dogfight” and also “True Love,” which were made in scrappy way, Sally Roy and I said we’re just going to pull money together and started accumulating credit cards to make the film. There was no budget. No one was paid. All of the money went into hard costs and feeding people. We used leftover film from the movie “Smoke.” We bought 70,000 feet of their film, or their short ends.
I would figure those would be used for [“Smoke”‘s companion piece] “Blue in the Face.”
John Walsh: It was a combination of both of those shoots. Most people if they have any money at all don’t want to work on short ends, but we shot half the film is shot on short ends. Some of it was never opened at all.
Matt Ross: I don’t remember the short ends limiting the amount of takes we were able to do, though they may very well have. What I do remember, however, is that there would not be enough film in the camera to finish the take. Which would only normally happen if the take lasted something like 10-12 minutes — it’s been so long since I’ve been on a set shooting film that I actually can’t remember what a 35mm mag holds. You could literally hear it when it happened. You’d be talking or whatever, and then, “Brrrrrrreeeeeee.” The film would sputter through and you knew that was it. It was aggravating, especially if everyone was sort of cookin’, but really not that big of a deal. Plus, I think John and the D.P. tried to protect us as much as they could by letting us know how much film we had before we’d shoot.
One of my favorite elements in the film actually is the music. How did the original songs come in?
John Walsh: Basically, a friend of mine was in this band called Ed’s Redeeming Qualities and I just thought they were hilarious. I’d see them perform at the Mercury Lounge in New York and found myself playing their music fairly frequently during the first draft of the script. It’s interesting because the very first draft of the script [had] a very different [female] lead and she wasn’t in a band. Then I decided to create a character who was a musician and I put her in that band, who was willing to participate in the film itself and contribute the song.
I actually wanted to call the movie Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, which I thought was a much better title than “Ed’s Next Move,” but they just didn’t want us to take their title from their album and in respect for them, I chose another title. There was something about the tone of their music that was wry, offbeat, and slightly bent, but also deeply romantic ultimately. I’m attracted to that and I wanted to get some of that into the script, and also by putting her in the band it automatically fills in a lot about who that woman is. [With] music, you don’t have to have a lot of dialogue explaining [who she is] because her choice to be in that band and the music is they produce says something key about this girl. But it’s kind of anachronistic music.
When I was writing the script, somebody [asked], What’s the music like?Is it like Liz Phair?” Which is Roger Ebert wrote when he saw it.” It’s nothing like Liz Phair. I said, “No, it’s like if Hoagy Carmichael and Raymond Carver got together and wrote a song.” They laughed. I thought, “That’s good. I’m going to use that in the script,” and so that’s how she refers to the music in the script.
Then after we made the movie, I was $80,000 in debt on credit cards. We had raised another $100,000 in private investments from friends and family and went to Sundance and this was like make or break. So we were thrilled to sell the film because that’s when we got really nice notices from Kenneth Turan at the LA Times and Len Klady at Variety, then basically Orion then made a deal with us and subsequently, we had a music supervisor [Doug Bernheim] said, “Hey, I think we can get us a soundtrack album deal.” They went to this company Milan, who did a number of soundtracks, [and they said] we’ll give you $7,000 to put it together, which is what it cost to remaster and we’ll put it out there. The nice thing was they didn’t ask to have any control over what music was in it or what the order of songs was. I basically chose which songs went in and wrote up some liner notes and it was fun because it was like the same way the movie was made.
Speaking of Sundance, that’s where you met your wife, which is fascinating to me because here you’ve made this movie just about a guy getting figuring his life out and getting it together and I imagine that’s what might’ve happened to you in a way.
John Walsh: It’s interesting and you’re right. There were these echoes between our lives and the film. If you look at [Thorne’s character] Lee and Eddie in the film, they seem to be from very different worlds. He seems innocent and straight ahead and she seems at least a little darker and maybe edgier and more sophisticated, so they don’t seem like a natural couple. Nobody would introduce these two saying, “Hey you guys are going to really hit it off” and yet these two people are taking steps away from where they’ve been in relationships towards something different and with someone they’re not sure about but have a very good feeling something good could happen with.
What happened was Mary and I was at the point that we were in our lives, she had made this very edgy, dark successful film in “I Shot Andy Warhol” and I had made a light romantic comedy that could much more easily play in middle America. People wouldn’t necessarily have put Mary and I together on any panel, and yet when we met we were very attracted to each other. We had a lot in common. We laughed at all the same things. We agree about 99% on casting and the actors we like. Ultimately, the things that are most important to us in life are the same and so despite whatever superficial differences about films and style of films we make, we have an extraordinary bond that we have developed even more over the years as a married couple and as parents.
Matt, do you have a favorite memory from shooting?
Matt Ross: It was a special time for me. I adored John and Callie and was learning so much. But there is one thing that happened that is worth mentioning. John would invariably ask me to do less. I wasn’t overacting, at least I don’t think I was, but he’d frequently ask me to just do less. I remember, finally, I said to him, “John. Any less and I’m doing nothing.” He smiled and said, “Exactly.”
At the time, I thought he was wrong, that it would end up being flat or tepid. But I did what was asked. He wrote it. He was directing it. It was his film and I was there to serve his vision. I’m a firm believer in that. But later, after a little more experience, I realized that he was absolutely correct. If you have the thought, if you’re truly in the moment, the camera will read it and it will be filled.