The truth about fiction

FILM

`Rocket Science' follows filmmaker's acclaimed documentary

Film Column

August 26, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Shifting from a documentary about a spelling bee to a deadpan comedy centering on a chronic stutterer would seem to require a whole new set of directing muscles, but Jeffrey Blitz insists the change from cinematic fact to fiction isn't as drastic as it might sound.

"You have more control over a documentary than most people think you do, and you have less control over a fiction film than most people think you do," says Blitz, who's been in Baltimore since July 21 filming Rocket Science, his first film since debuting three years ago with the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound.

"When you're making a documentary, your choice of shot, your choice of lens, your choice of subject ... it's not like that stuff just starts to pass by your camera, and your camera happens to be on. You're making very deliberate choices. When the audience sees them, no one is thinking about those choices, because people want to believe that it is as real as if there were no cameras around."

A matter of tone

Not, he hastens to reassure, that such decisions affect a film's veracity. It's more, he suggests, a matter of tone. "As a documentary filmmaker, I can sit there with a camera, and I can ... let a scene play out, and just by where I put the camera and what the lens is, it can be a tragedy, and if I put the camera somewhere else and I change the lens size, it can be really funny."

And funny, he hopes, will prove the operative adjective in Rocket Science, which Blitz and producer Effie Brown (Real Women Have Curves) are shooting for HBO Films. Baltimore was chosen for the shoot because Maryland's child-labor laws are far less restrictive than those in New Jersey, where the film is set (the film is cast almost entirely with teens and pre-teens).

But filming here proved a happy chance for Blitz to reconnect with friends he made while studying at Johns Hopkins (he graduated in 1991).

"I got to come back and see a lot of my friends from college," he notes, "so it was a nice way to bring some pleasure into the work."

Rocket Science should also give him the chance to apply the filmmaking skills he honed on Spellbound - skills he believes can be applied to any film, whether the story being told is real or imagined.

"I never saw a documentary as a stepping stone to fiction," he says. "I know some people do, just because there's more money and supposed glory in fiction films. I just like to think of myself as a visual storyteller, and whether that means that it's being done in a mode of non-fiction or fiction, or even some kind of a hybrid to it, seems far less important to me than that the stories that I'm telling be really interesting, worthwhile stories."

His own childhood

Although he was first approached about writing and directing a feature-film version of Spellbound, the new movie eventually morphed into a comedy based on his own childhood experiences overcoming a chronic stutter by practicing public speaking.

"I was talking about my experiences with one of the executives at HBO, and she said, `The script that you're writing, you should set aside. That story you just told me is the movie,'" Blitz says.

He agreed, with one essential proviso. He wanted to make a comedy, heavy on laughs and short on any value one might regard as socially redeeming.

"They needed to know up front that I would make it as far from an after-school special as I possibly could, that I would bring my own sense of humor to it, my own sense of style to it," Blitz says during a break from filming in North Baltimore's Homeland community. "If they were looking for a feel-good story for kids, then I was the wrong guy for it. From the beginning, I knew that I would only be satisfied if it could play as deadpan comedy."

Blitz's intent is clear from the afternoon's shoot, involving a boy sporting a bra over his T-shirt. Clearly, anyone who comes to this film expecting the same sort of adolescent drama that fueled Spellbound is in for a shock.

Not that another Spellbound would be a bad thing. With its built-in sense of drama, the film made unlikely heroes of a bunch of over-achieving brainiacs, as audiences sweated over whether a young Indian kid would be able to spell Darjeeling. It also had audiences throughout the country matching their own spelling abilities with some pretty darn smart 12-year-olds.

"It was hilarious," Blitz recalls with a laugh, "to see an adult shamed by a 12-year-old."

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