Commentary: Cold War 'Affair' heats up onscreen

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"American Affair": Coming-of-age movies come in many shapes and sizes, so to speak, but one of the more interesting takes on the popular genre is "An American Affair."

"Affair" benefits from also being a political thriller set in Washington as the Cold War heats up and JFK faces the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis. Opening Friday in New York and Washington via Screen Media Films, it expands March 6 to L.A. and March 13 to Boston. It's a directorial debut for William Sten Olsson, a native of Sweden with an MFA in film production from USC, who started out by making short films.

Produced by Kevin Leydon and Olsson and written by Alex Metcalf, "Affair" was executive produced by the late John Daly. Starring are Gretchen Mol, Noah Wyle, James Rebhorn, Cameron Bright, Perry Reeves and Mark Pellegrino.

Bright plays Adam, the film's coming-of-age teenager, while Mol is Catherine, the beautiful half-undressed woman Adam spies through his bedroom window in the house across the street. Adam soon discovers that not only is Catherine an artist and a world-weary divorcee but she's also a "confidante" of JFK. That's enough to put her on the list to be admitted at a White House security gate.

Between her relationship with the president, her mysterious past and the Cold War paranoia at the time, Catherine's life is seriously in danger. For Adam it's all very exciting and although his relationship with Catherine doesn't get physical, their emotional connection is something his parents do their best to end.

After enjoying an early look at "Affair," I was happy to have the opportunity to talk to Olsson about how he got to direct his first feature. "It all started when I was introduced to John Daly, who is the executive producer on the film, and who has now sadly passed away," Olsson recalled. "I told him I was looking for a screenplay at the time and he very generously invited me to come to his production company, Film and Music Entertainment, and to look through their whole library of screenplays that had been submitted over the years."

Olsson spent months at Daly's offices, he continued, "reading through probably around a thousand screenplays and I found this little gem that had been submitted to them I think in 2001. Immediately after I had read it I Googled it and there was nothing on it so that encouraged me that it might still be available. And the after some more discussions with John and the writer (Alex Metcalf) and Kevin Leydon, who is my producing partner on the film, it all sort of came together."

What was it about the script that made him feel that he wanted to make this his feature directing debut? "What I really responded to and what I find so original in the film is the unique blend between the coming of age drama and the political thriller," Olsson replied. "That really spoke to me. And then on a personal level, I grew up in Sweden. It brought back a lot of memories of my own reactions as a kid when Olof Palmer, the Prime Minister of Sweden was assassinated (in Stockholm in 1986). So in a strange way I could relate to Adam's experiences and I think that's what triggered my personal interest in the story.

"Also, I'm always interested in how people struggle to find meaning in life in a constantly changing world and how on the surface incredibly different characters can find a kind of soul mate in each other and through that rise to the occasion and encourage each other to move on and try to find a new individual meaning in life. And then, of course, I found it very entertaining and it triggered my curiosity of that particular time in American history."

This was in 2006. "The screenplay had been lying around for five years in (Daly's) office and was probably lying around in a lot of production companies at that time," he said. "What happened after my discussions with John was that we approached the writer and it took some convincing since I was a first time director and we wanted to make a low budget adaptation. That combination took some clarification and we spent a lot of time talking. John was incredibly helpful in that he was supporting me and believed in me. Once the writer had made his decision to support the project and to let me direct it, he was incredibly helpful. And then we were able to bring in some private equity investors."

The first person attached to "Affair" besides its producer, director and screenwriter was casting director Johanna Ray, whose many credits include "Kill Bill" (Vol. 1 and 2) and "Mulholland Dr." "I met with her and she had read the screenplay and she loved (it) and really believed in what I was trying to do directing-wise," Olsson said. "I had shown her my short films and previous work. She opened up a lot of doors in terms of the casting of the film.

"On the production side (Olsson and Leydon) did a location trip to a few cities. We went to D.C. and Baltimore and we found out that D.C. was going to be way too expensive to film in. But the film commission in Baltimore was incredibly supportive. At the time there was a bigger budget film that was supposed to film (there) that fall that had been pulled. So basically the crew had nothing to work on (and) that played a lot in our favor."

In Baltimore Olsson also met Vincent Peranio, the veteran production designer he hired to work on the film: "He's done most of John Waters stuff ('Hairspray,' 'Female Trouble,' 'Pink Flamingos') and 'The Wire' and 'Homicide.' He and I immediately sort of got a connection. I immediately felt that he had to do the production design for the film. He showed me around. We started looking at pictures and applications. We also attached a line producer in D.C., Carol Flaisher, who had been a location manager for a lot of bigger budget Hollywood films that had been filming (there). We felt if someone was going to pull off that we were going to film outside the White House it was her. And finally she was able to make that happen, which was an absolute thrill."

Asked how difficult it is to film outside the White House, Olsson explained, "The regulations are (that) on Pennsylvania Avenue the sidewalk is White House property but Pennsylvania Avenue, the street, actually belongs to the city of D.C. So you can film on Pennsylvania Avenue, but not on the sidewalk. Of course, in the scene we have Gretchen walking on the sidewalk next to the fence."

What they did, he continued, was to have Mol walk "right on the street and then we went quite far back with a long lens camera so as to give the impression that she was right next to the fence where, in fact, she was probably 10 or 15 feet, at least, from it. That took a lot of scheduling. We were finally allowed to film on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. Bush had already left for Texas. It was quite an amazing feeling because the whole D.C. had emptied out for the holiday. So were almost by ourselves out there in the drizzling rain doing the scene."

For a scene in which Mol approaches a White House guard station, Olsson said, "we weren't allowed to film at the exact location. What we did was film her walking up to the guard house there, but then we built a tiny replica of it in a park in Baltimore where we were filming the scene between her and the guard (who tells her that her name's no longer on the list to enter the White House)."

Olsson likes to rehearse with his actors. "I did rehearse with Cameron, who plays Adam, and Gretchen," he said. "We rehearsed a few days before filming. We talked a lot. We went out to dinner and things like that. I felt that in some ways that was even more important that they would feel comfortable with each other and have some kind of personal connection that they could later relate to as they were doing the scenes. I think primarily it was a lot of talking and socializing, but we also rehearsed especially some of the earlier scenes of the screenplay (when the characters first meet)."

As for his biggest challenges in production, Olsson mentioned "scheduling with actors and the art department, but besides that I think we were quite lucky that there weren't any huge obstacles that happened. We were always able to find new ways around things. I think one of the biggest challenges for me, though, as a director was simply (the amount of time that could be) allotted to each scene. We were on a very strict schedule. I couldn't really afford to go overtime (on a schedule of) 28 days. But, also, those were strict 12-hour days. So I think that was one of the challenges. I guess every director always wishes to have more time, but there are some scenes I felt that we had to work (to get) very quickly."

Of course, shooting period piece films always poses special challenges in terms of framing shots so you don't show anything that's not from the period: "I would have to be extremely careful on how we were framing things. There were literally a bunch of shots where if the camera had just panned or tilted a tiny, tiny bit we would have seen the 21st Century. So all those shots had to be incredibly composed and it was quite challenging dealing with that kind of restraint. That certainly had an effect on where I could put the camera and where I couldn't put (it)."

Now that his first feature's behind him, Olsson's busy developing new projects. "Although it was incredibly stressful and hard work, it certainly left me with a taste for more," he told me. "We have a few projects in development and they're all quite different. One is a spy thriller set in the early stages of World War II in Japan. And then we have a screenplay called 'The Eulogist,' which is a tale about two brothers who grow up in Northern Ireland and have to find a new meaning in life as the war ends.

"They're both youthful terrorists on the IRA side, but as the conflict ends they don't find themselves wanted there anymore so they travel to South America where one of them becomes a mercenary and the other becomes a poet. They meet up a few years later during the funeral of one of their fallen comrades and then a lot of things start to happen from there. And then there's a third project I'm looking at that is a touching story about an immigrant mother who tries to bring her son from Ecuador to the United States (to) her grandmother who lives there. Those three (are projects) we're trying to find financing for."

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