WELCOME TO FROWNLAND
Filmmaker Ronald Bronstein’s bio says he has spent the last five years, several floors below New York City’s streets in dingy projection booths, deprived of sunlight and fresh air, watching over 600 movies a year. “Frownland” is his first time making a movie. The project started out as Bronstein wanting to make a comedy without using a single joke. The result is a raw return to the indie movie making glory days of the 1970’s about a miserable character named Keith, who not only rubs everyone around him the wrong way, but also gets under the skin of the film’s viewers. “Frownland” will screen CineVegas June 13 and 14 and is in the festival’s film competition. PollyStaffle.com conducted the following quickie Q&A via email with writer and director Ronald Bronstein prior to the event to find out more about this gem of a motion picture.
Dore Mann lost in a world of frowns.
CCF: I’ve read that “Frownland” is “a comedy about a door-to-door coupon salesman who eats popcorn & eggs off the folded-out door of his kitchen oven.” While I’m completely sold on that description and can’t wait to see your movie, why don’t you tell me a little bit more about this weird little picture?
RB: Well, I have no great programmatic hook to offer here. I suppose it’s a movie that, like me, can’t quite tell whether it loves or hates people, and instead careens back and forth between the two in a queasy, confused kind of way. Wait that sounds horrible. Basically, it’s a portrait of a near-pathologically inarticulate young man that traces his groping flailing struggles to cling to the dregs of his crummy social life. Ugh. That sounds horrible too.
CCF: (LOL) From what I understand, the characters that live in “Frownland” would make those in a Todd Solondz film seem happy-go lucky. Is the aim to evoke uncomfortable laughs or you trying to depress us?
RB: Well, Solondz seems to have eked out a living trapping flies in airtight jars and slowly pulling their legs and wings off. Blech. Personally, I find entertainment like that, derived purely at the expense of someone’s dignity, to be sort of disreputable. I mean, the lead in “Frownland” is massively flawed and maybe a little bit horrible, but I wouldn’t equate my own addled mixture of fascination and repulsion with cruelty. He’s very hard to sympathize with, sure, but the real aim of the film is to see whether or not you can find some way to do so. As for laughs, well, the movie is funny in the same way an intensely uncomfortable situation can wind up making you laugh out loud at exactly the wrong moment. It’s the kind of laugh that’s instantly followed by gross self-consciousness.
CCF: Sounds really cool… You shot this entirely on 16mm and that was completely an artistic decision, what led you to do this project that way?
RB: Well, given the migration everyone’s making over to video, I feel like I’m very consciously clinging to the sinking hull of the 16mm model, watching the barge go down and doing absolutely nothing to free myself from it. (LOL) But, yeah, with this project I wanted to attach myself to a very particular kind of underground sensibility and I needed to shoot on film to do so. There’s a kind of pure intimacy built into the crude, rough-hewn quality of raw 16mm that I wanted to exploit.
CCF: “Independent” has become such a misused word for movies in recent years. There are so many big studios that release these “art house” films under the guise of being independent. In many ways can’t “Frownland” be seen as you giving that type of cinema the bird?
RB: Well, I don’t know. That kind of obnoxiousness can be a pretty crummy muse. I mean I really made the film in a kind of vacuum, blindly ignoring industry trends and drawing my inspiration simply from the things that most excited me. Which in my case was the more confrontational art-house cinema of the 60’s and 70’s. It’s only now that I’m really acknowledging just how much the industry has changed and how unattractive this kind of cinema has become to distributors. So I guess I’m more disheartened than infuriated. It’s like your grandfather tossing you a football and you run out for the pass, but by the time you actually catch it and turn around looking for his approbation, well, he’s gone. He’s had a massive coronary and he’s already been taken to the hospital.
CCF: How many years in the making has it been?
RB: Good grief. That’s a humiliating question. Let’s just say I stopped counting at three.
CCF: (LOL) I don’t see it as humiliating at all. Someone that works on a project for years to bring it to life shows they have the determination and will power to see their vision through. When the end result is really good, it says a lot about the people behind the project. Now if it ends up sucking, then I suppose you should be embarrassed. (LOL) What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in completing it?
RB: Probably my own flagging self-esteem. I see the basic trajectory of any project as a wretched descent from arrogance to self-doubt.
Dore Mann as Keith, the troll from under the bridge.
CCF: Where the hell did you get your lead Dore Mann from?
RB: I met Dore at a family funeral and within a couple of minutes I knew I wanted to build a project around him.
CCF: Is he much like Keith in real life?
RB: It’s funny but that’s the first question people seem to ask after seeing the movie. I think he embodies the role with such crude intensity that it’s just assumed that he must be Keith. In truth, it’s more complicated. I like to build characters and scripts using someone’s raw personality as a starting point, and this process involves extracting and magnifying the behavioral traits that most fit the themes of the project at hand and stripping away others that don’t. So while only Dore could play Keith, he’s quite different and much more dynamic when not constrained by the role.
CCF: Lastly, from what I understand, “Frownland” is the kind of movie that makes some viewers want to throw things at the screen and bash their heads against the seats in front of them. Are these the kind of reactions you hope your audience has?
RB: I don’t know. I mean I really like to duke it out at the movies and hope that others do too.
CCF: (LOL) The whole theme CineVegas likes to play with is this festival is the world’s most dangerous. Most of the films they screen do not necessarily fit under that banner, but yours clearly does and I can’t wait to see it.
RB: Thanks man. Hope to meet you face to face in Vegas.
CCF, June 2007