Here's how one little 'Tadpole' of a film grew up

Director Gary Winick carefully shaped this compact tale of a boy's crush on his stepmother


July 28, 2002|By Michael Sragow | By Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Movies developed from the inside out can reawaken memories as private and intimate as those usually jogged by poetry or fiction. That happened when I was watching Tadpole.

Gary Winick's movie stars Aaron Stanford as Oscar Grubman, a 15-year-old preppie who has fallen in love with his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). The movie begins with him on a train, returning home for Thanksgiving break; this oh-so-literary boy buries his nose in his favorite author, Voltaire, dismisses everything his best friend Charlie (Robert Iler) says and ignores a pretty classmate named Miranda (Kate Mara).

It brought me back to a train ride I took as a college kid from Boston to New York before Thanksgiving. I was alone on the aisle, engrossed in a new Updike novel, oblivious to the older gentleman at the window seat, when his stop came in Connecticut and he turned to me on the way out. "Have a good weekend, and be kind to people," he told me, gently but pointedly.

Maybe I had scowled when I lost my page as he got up. I was used to being self-absorbed -- or being absorbed in literature in an adolescent way difficult to separate from self-absorption. And in that sense I might have been like Oscar Grubman. He's essentially decent, but he exists too much in his own head.

Because Tadpole has been promoted as a sex farce, my association might seem an odd one to take from it. Blame the marketers, not the moviemakers. During a dual interview with the star and the director before a Maryland Film Festival screening early in June, Stanford -- who is actually 25 -- rightly complained, "They're trying to make Oscar look like a 15-year-old American gigolo, and that's not what he is at all."

To Stanford, "the last thing Oscar is, is a horny teen. He's an old soul: as one of the lines in the script puts it, he's a 40-year-old man living in a 15-year-old's body. He longs for something with majesty to it; that's what he hopes to find in his idea of being in love with Eve. And it's much more the idea of her than her as a real person that affects him."

In form, Tadpole is a romantic comedy. But in essence it's a portrait of a teen-ager intent on transcending the culturally savvy yet complacent habits that his academic father Stanley (John Ritter) and heart researcher stepmom Eve have fallen into semi-happily, like an overstuffed mattress.

This perceptive movie demonstrates how rich a small-scale subject can become when the director picks the right tools to explore it and chooses the correct inflections for the storyline.

Developing the story

Winick's impulse to do Tadpole, his sixth film as a director (he's also worked as a producer and an editor), emerged more from a yen to get on his feet as a filmmaker again than to pull off a preppie comedy-drama. (His previous piece of direction, Sam the Man, received only festival showings in 2000.) But as he worked out the details of script, cast and production, Tadpole became personal.

When Winick and his screenwriters, Niels Muller and Heather McGowan, laid down the tracks for a digital-video movie, the director had few parameters beyond his desire to shoot a novella-size comedy set in New York and told primarily from a single point of view. The three of them took the seed of an idea, about a preppie exploring his crush on his stepmom during Thanksgiving weekend, and kept trying out themes and variations until they had enough to tell a story. The writers came up with the scripted references to Voltaire: an author who suits both the smartness of the central character and the witty compactness of the tale, which, like Voltaire's own fiction, has the contours of a barbed moral fable.

In 1999, Winick co-founded Independent Digital Entertainment, aka InDigEnt, a company dedicated to digital-video movies (its best-known previous film is probably Richard Linklater's Tape, with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman). He characterizes InDigEnt as an American relation of Denmark's Dogme95 movement (Mifune, Italian for Beginners), and is grateful to the Danes' renewed emphasis on the integrity of characters and locations. Winick cautions that, unless you have Lucasfilm-caliber equipment, sweeping mythic storylines don't lend themselves to digital video. Sharply etched personalities in real settings do. But he isn't as puritanical as the Dogme95 group. InDigEnt directors can use such decadent dramatic aids as music and props.

Digital video (or DV) movies can draw big stars like Weaver because the process is so quick. With a 12-person crew setting up locations without bulky lighting, a full script can be done in two or three weeks. Each crew member gets $100 a day, each cast member $249. The Independent Film Channel finances the productions, and everyone who works on them shares in the profits.

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