Thursday, October 05, 2006

Filmmaker Focus: Todd Berger

Todd Berger, writer/director, HOLIDAYS WITH HEATHER

Todd Berger hails from the bayous of New Orleans, La., and studied Radio-Televison-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. He has been working as a screenwriter and actor in Los Angeles for the last few years, a city that he has fallen in love with. He doesn't like cheating on Austin with another city like this, but the heart wants what it wants.

How did the initial idea for this story come about? How did it develop?
Well, I've always liked the idea of messing with the chronological order of a story, because in our own minds when we think back upon events or experiences, we don't necessarily remember them in the proper sequence. It's a device that has of course been used time and time before, but usually in dramas about bank heists gone wrong or car crashes that change the lives of moody strangers, so I thought it would be fun to do it in a simple comedy about a boy meeting a girl. On top of that, setting a movie on a holiday but not having it be about that holiday always adds a more magical feeling (just think about Die Hard), so setting this short on EVERY holiday was a good way to give the story a little extra oomph.

You're a UT alum, and your film Occam's Razor: The Great Dialogues of Mindy screened at the 2001 festival. How have you changed as a filmmaker from that short to this one?
I think as a short filmmaker I've definitely become more "experimental." I've realized that short films are really the last true independent filmmaking opportunities out there, because you don't have to answer to anyone and you can do whatever the hell you want. Occam's Razor was basically a straightforward short version of what could easily be a feature film. When we got to talking about shooting Holidays with Heather, the idea of shooting twelve long takes for the twelve holidays sounded like an appealing experiment just to see if it would work. Experimenting with a feature is dangerous, because if it doesn't work the viewing experience can be quite unbearable for 120 minutes -- but if a short if it doesn't work, then you've only wasted ten minutes of people's time.

Can you tell us about the casting?
I now live in Los Angeles, and people might not realize that Austinites, UT grads or not, have formed a mafia out here. Whether or not you knew each other in Austin, you gravitate toward one another out here on the West Coast because you share the common experience of having eaten a Freebirds Monster Burrito and swum at Barton Springs. We even use the "hook 'em" hand signal as our gang sign. So in accordance with the mafia code, you tend to help each other out and send work each other's way. A large portion of the people on the Holidays with Heather shoot – actors, the camera crew, the production designer, etc. -- were all people who have lived in Austin at some point or another.

What are some scenes or moods in other films that have made an impression on you?
I'm a big fan of opening sequences that have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie except for setting the tone. I think the first ten minutes to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom may be the greatest ten minutes in cinematic history. I say, “So long, Lao Che!” all the time when leaving a room.

Has the finished product caused you to see what you wrote in a different way?
For sure. I think the big difference between reading a script and watching a film is that when you read something on paper and get lost or confused, you can always flip back a few pages to remind yourself of what happened. There's no rewinding a film (not until it gets to DVD at least), so you have to make damn sure people don't get too lost in one viewing. Watching the first cut of Holidays with Heather with my editor, we realized how much more confusing the film could be on screen than on paper – so we made changes accordingly.

Some Austinites might remember you from the UT/KVR-TV sketch comedy show "Campus Loop." Are you aware that bus route no longer exists?
I am aware of this, and we were so flattered that UT decommissioned the line in honor of our show going off the air. I heard it's because too many students were crying upon setting foot on the bus and the drivers couldn't take it anymore. On a serious note, I always like to give a shout-out to KVR-TV because that place gave me more experience, opportunity, and friendships than actual school did. I think a lot of RTF students are film snobs who ignore the place because it's "TV," but they don't realize that as a freshman you can walk over, take a couple three-hour classes, and be able to check out equipment and start your own show.

The narrative short HOLIDAYS WITH HEATHER screens as part of Shorts Program 2 at 7:40 pm on Friday, Oct. 20, and at 9:15 pm on Sunday, Oct. 22. Film passes to the Austin Film Festival are just $35 for admission to all screenings (space permitting).

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