Porn tale 'Auteur' bares all

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Appealing "Auteur:" As enticing as the world of porn moviemaking appears, it turns out to be just as ordinary as other businesses that we'd never give our right arms to get into.

Indeed, James Westby's very appealing satirical romantic comedy "The Auteur" bares all and lets us see that the people working without clothes in the porn epics made by fictional filmmaker Arturo Domingo don't think twice about it. Their nudity is just part of the job and when that's done they slip on a robe and get on with their lives. As played by Westby's longtime collaborator Melik Malkasian, Arturo is the Scorsese or even the Fellini of porn, turning out titles like "Five Easy Nieces" and "Gang Bangs of New York," to cite two that can actually be named here.

Written and directed by James Westby, "Auteur" was produced by Byrd McDonald and Amber Geiger. Starring are Melik Malkasian, Katherine Flynn, John Breen and Cara Seymour.

Having enjoyed an early look at "Auteur," which has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, I was happy to have the chance to focus with Westby on the making of the film. Its press and industry screenings are set for April 26 and 27 and its public screenings will take place April 25, 26 and 28 and May 1 and 2.

"The germ of the idea is that Melik and I made a short film with the same character back in 2001," he told me. "It was right when I decided to embrace digital video as a medium and we made a five minute short called 'The Auteur' that just consisted of the character sitting in a room recording a commentary track for his newest DVD release, which was 'Requiem for a Wet Dream.' It played at a couple of film festivals and people really liked the character and I liked the character. It was very funny and it was just presented in this little five-minute piece. I decided to expand it into a feature using that character. Every film that I've made, this one included, the germ of the idea always starts with Melik Malkasian.

"He's my best friend and an amazing actor and part of the reason that I make pictures is to put him in them and to watch him go with the character. For this role he gained lots of weight and he learned Italian. And that was the starting point. It just seemed like he could deal with this character. I come from Portland and pretty much every movie that I make has something to do with the Pacific Northwest. And (the idea of) putting this European immigrant who went to USC Film School in this sort of fish out of water situation by being honored at a film festival in Oregon just kind of formed because of where I'm from. I'm a big fan of elegant comedies and wanted to make a film that felt sort of mainstream and yet had really outrageous things in it."

The nudity in "Auteur" certainly qualifies as outrageous, but no one thinks twice about it in the context of the movie because it's really just all in a day's work. "I think in general I like to make movies with a mixture of high brow and low brow and ridiculousness. That's implicit or inherent in the porn business," Westby said. "The concept at its most basic (of) a Scorsese of porno is kind of what starts the whole thing off. When Melik really started interpreting and inhabiting the character, the more seriously he took himself the funnier it became. It helped us put a lot into those films, the actual movies that he makes."

Asked where the idea for "Auteur" came from, Westby replied, "In general it had to do about wanting to make a movie about a director and wanting to make it a comedy. The short was about him recording his commentary track, which is kind of a high concept short for a little five-minute thing. It just popped into my head that that would be a funny little thing and then the feature just sort of took off from there. The short was made in 2002. After the short Melik and I and Byrd McDonald, who produced and co-edited 'The Auteur' with me, made a movie called 'Film Geek,' which I wrote and directed and edited.

"Melik starred in it and I wrote it for him in three weeks. It actually had just as much of a designed visual plan as 'The Auteur' did, but its design was that it would look like an early '80s CBS documentary that we could just turn the video camera on and just start shooting like a documentary. It took a total of about two years to make that movie. It had a good festival life and it certainly played well on DVD. All through that time I wanted to do another movie with Melik and I got a couple written in addition to 'The Auteur,' but 'The Auteur' just kept popping out as something that could be achievable. It could be a really fun movie and it could be achievable on a relatively low budget. The way we make films here is based entirely on the resources that we have at our disposal."

Westby wrote the film's screenplay over a three-month period: "The first act of the movie involves a documentary (about Arturo) that people are watching in which you learn all about the character's life. A lot of improvisation went into the interviews. Certainly that was the part of the film that went off-book and it made it pretty exciting because whatever these interviewees were able to add to their parts really informed and enriched the film.

"We started shooting in the fall of 2006 after Melik had put 40 pounds on. We kind of jokingly refer to the movie as the 'Raging Bull' of comedy. (After Melik's weight gain) we shot for three weeks and then he lost the weight. And then we reconvened four months later and shot all of the flashback material with him on the set of his ill-fated Vietnam epic. In that interim, also, he'd grown out his beard and his hair. It was kind of a complicated schedule for such a small film."

How did Melik manage to lose 40 pounds in four months time? "I don't know how he did it," he answered. "He certainly put the weight on healthily. I know he was a vegan at the time (so) he couldn't eat ice cream or anything like that. He wasn't even eating dairy. He actually put the weight on eating avocados. He was living in Los Angeles and was renting a house that had tons of avocado trees. I think he ate good fat. Taking it off, I think he exercised and swam a lot."

As for the weather in Portland, Ore., during shooting, Westby recalled, "The first part of the shoot was just fine. It was very mild. And then in the wintertime when we shot the flashback material in February 2007 it was ice cold. It was as cold as I've ever been."

The biggest challenges of production, he said, included not being able to storyboard: "I like to storyboard all my films and there were so many shots to get that a short shooting schedule makes the originally planned shots kind of difficult to get so it's a constant battle trying to combine shots and cut them down to their most basic elements. And actually Melik keeping the weight on for three weeks was pretty tricky. He started smoking and we started worrying about fluctuation with his look. It does (change) slightly, but luckily there are enough flashbacks within the film to help take away from that.

"Another challenge was just finding people to get naked although this did get easier near the end of that first shooting schedule. Our producers, Amber Geiger and Byrd McDonald, were both essential in trolling strip clubs with our casting director and getting people to take off their clothes. The men were fine with taking off their clothes in the hippie commune sequence and whatnot, but strippers make a lot of money and we didn't have a lot of money to spend. I was way out of my element, but luckily the actors were very brave and really into the possibilities of the final results. And now the cast and crew, of course, have seen the film and are really happy with it."

Did he rehearse with his actors? "A little bit," he explained. "A lot of what comes out on screen, especially with regard to myself and Melik and myself and John Breen, who plays (porn superstar) Frank E. Normo (resulted from talking) for months about the characters before we started shooting). We would get together and watch movies and just talk about the characters. In the original script John Breen's character cussed a few times. Out of conversations with John it just came down to it that he would be as wholesome as possible and it certainly made it a lot funnier. And conversely with Melik, his character in the film probably flies off the handle and has a bit more of a temper than he did in the script. And then when we were actually shooting because of the constraints of a schedule like that we had to buckle down and do what we did in any kind of rehearsal beforehand."

Besides having its world premiere at Tribeca, "Auteur' is looking for a domestic distributor. "All the rights are available," Westby noted. "It's exciting. We're thrilled to be a part of the festival."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 18, 1991's column: "One of the best barometers of Hollywood's health comes when exhibitors and distributors get together in Las Vegas for the annual NATO/ShoWest convention.

"'The general health of the exhibition business seems to be very good,' NATO/ShoWest general chairman Tim Warner told me. "'Although last year's boxoffice of over $5 billion didn't beat the prior year's record, it was still very significant for the U.S. market. I haven't heard the tally on the international market, but I do feel from everything I'm aware of that the international marketplace has increased substantially, also. As we get more state of the art complexes developed in the international marketplace, I think that's going to be a real growth market for the future...

"Hollywood's massive marketing campaigns tend to create a huge first weekend or two of business when distribution terms don't favor theater owners as much as they do when a film's been playing for a while...

"'I think the old adage (is correct) that there's nothing like word of mouth (to sell movie tickets). 'Home Alone' is an example of that. The word of mouth is so outstanding on it...'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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