Movie shows a personal focus

Filmmaker Jonathan Slade set out to make a memorable small-budget feature, and he thinks he succeeded.

July 26, 1998|By JAMES M. CORAN | JAMES M. CORAN,SUN STAFF

Filmmaker Jonathan Slade has spent all his resources and 2 1/2 years of his life making a 100-minute feature that may be shown in a public theater only once.

And that was yesterday - at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore.

But the 32-year-old Slade, an award-winning writer and producer of children's shows for Maryland Public Television who teaches film at Western Maryland College, is not discouraged.

"Forest for the Trees" - his story of how infidelity affects friends making a five-day bicycling trip along the C&O Canal continues to pay personal dividends, even if the financial ones are lacking.

The Cockeysville resident is unlikely to recoup any of the $26,000 he spent to make the film - an amount that "wouldn't buy bagels for ["Titanic" director] Jim Cameron for a day," he said.

Yet he can hardly wait to get started on a new one.

"The most-important thing is dealing with people and establishing rapport with people," he says. "Money is not the answer to all the problems as far as film is concerned."

But it sometimes looks that way. "When they run into problems [with a film in Hollywood], they try to solve it with money -more characters and more explosions," Slade says.

Slade wanted to do something different.

"I love film," he says. "I even love a good violent film. But why does every film have to have a gun in it? I wanted to do a movie that didn't have dead bodies or pop culture. I wanted real people dealing with real relationship problems."

He believes he succeeded.

"A lot of $200 million movies evaporate the day after you see them," he says, but '"Forest for the Trees" is a film that will linger. "It's a film you will think about three or four days later."

Reviewer Michelle Glenow, writing in the City Paper, hints that Slade may have come close to that goal, calling the film "a sincere and occasionally insightful exploration of love, friendship and (in)fidelity."

From the time Slade was a child, he has always wanted to tell stories, he says, having learned the art from his family while growing up on a farm in Westminster.

"We would sit around the table, seeing who could top whose story," he says. "They were always from real life, but with a bit of typical Slade embellishment."

By the time he was in third -grade, Slade was publishing his, stories, in a ditto-machine newspaper he shared with classmates. He began working with home movies in fifth grade, and with television at Western Maryland College, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa communications graduate in 1988.

His interests led him to the school of cinema-television at the University of Southern Cahfornia in Los Angeles, where he earned a master of fine arts degree in 1991.

"I was amazed that a farm boy from Carroll County could be accepted" from among the thousands of applicants seeking admission to the prestigious graduate school, he says.

While in Los Angeles, Slade worked in television as a production-assistant on "Doogie Howser, M.D." and as a writing trainee on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

But he was smitten by film.

You're always trying to grow and meet the next challange," he says. "I tried newspapers, then television kids' shows. Film is a natural progression. You tell the natural story on a little bit bigger canvas."

It is something he has wanted to do for along time.

"I had written a number of scripts and was trying to get financing," he says. I didn't want to be 30 and not have started a film.

He began work on "Forest for the trees" five days before his 30th birthday with a volunteer crew and cast, using his credit cards to finance the project.

Slade's film students at Western Maryland helped on the crew, Bob Sapora, professor of English and communications at Western Maryland, was director of photography, and Gordon Masters, a colleague at Maryland Public Television, handled the audio. Baltimore singer-songwriter Lisa Cerbone wrote the music.

It took only 28 days to shoot the film but those days were spread over 1 1/2 years "to accommodate everybody's schedule", and to allow Slade to pay off enough of his credit card bill to be able to charge more film. Another year was spent In post-production work.

The fact that cast and crew "worked long, challenging shots at no pay" was very satisfying, Slade says, "but the cool thing was the problem times along the way when I would start to lose faith, I think"

"It was amazing. When I was low, they never lost faith. They had the energy to prop us up and get us going again."

And problem times did come. The film was nearly lost when one of the volunteer stars moved to San Francisco. Slade began furiously rewriting the script. Ultimately, he called her and asked if he could fly her back for a week. She agreed, and they "shot three days straight and manged to finish the movie."

The making of the film was a continual series of "catastrophe, catastrophe, catastrophe -- miracle!" Slade says. "Everybody who worked on the film put their hearts and souls into it a hundred times more than I could ever have wished for them to do. That's what ultimately makes it a surprisingly good film."

And it is what has Slade so eager to make a new one.

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