Making second film is harder than first

'Garden' took eight years to blossom

"Garden" guy: However difficult it is to get to direct your first feature, it can be even harder to make your second film.

A case in point is Jason Freeland, who after making his feature directorial debut with the 1998 drama "Brown's Requiem," adapted from James Ellroy's first novel, spent the next eight years putting together his second film "Garden Party," which opens today (11) in New York, L.A., Portland and Seattle via Roadside Attractions.

Written and directed by Freeland, "Garden" is produced by Tim Youd and executive produced by Joseph Middleton. Starring are Vinessa Shaw, Willa Holland, Erik Scott Smith, Alex Cendese, Richard Gunn, Patrick Fischler, Christopher Allport and Jeff Newman.

In "Garden" Freeland focuses on life in Los Angeles, examining the painful lives of some seemingly unconnected characters, all of whom wind up becoming involved in one way or another with sexy real estate mogul Sally St. Clair. As played by Shaw, Sally's a temptress who knows exactly what -- and who -- she wants and how to get it.

After an early look at "Garden" that left me thinking it's one of the best indie films I've seen in a while, I was glad to be able to focus with Freeland on how he finally managed to get it to blossom on the screen.

"You kind of think, oh, I'll make a bigger movie," Freeland explained when I asked him about struggling to make his second film. "I adapted some other novels and I got involved with different people trying to make different movies. And you think, okay, I'll make a bigger movie and it'll have stars or whatever. It's a lot more challenging and from making an independent film you really don't know anything about the business. You know more about how to make a movie, but from making an independent movie you don't necessarily know anything about how Hollywood works. And just because you made an independent movie, it's not like anyone really thinks you know what you're doing."

So how did he manage over the past eight years to get "Garden" to happen? "I really felt like the part of me that's a filmmaker was dying and I had to make another movie," he replied. "I thought that if I'm going to make a movie and just do it super low budget and ask friends and family for money, I want to do something I really believe in. The genesis of this movie was some short stories I had written. I started to see there was a theme -- like the idea of sex having lost (its) value or meaning. There were a few things that started to occur to me -- like when you think back when (you were) a kid and what you thought about sex and love."

Moreover, Freeland said, thanks to the Internet "explicit sexual material is available with the click of a mouse. I think kids today are much more sexually active and maybe don't feel there are any taboos to sex. I think the openness and freedom to explore your sexuality has changed people's thinking. Having spent a bunch of time in (Los Angeles) being around people trying to get projects made and (having) watched some people have success and other people leave town, I just thought there was something there. I also felt there was this style of storytelling that would make it fresh.

"(After) trying to develop projects and then get to the point where you're chasing cast and sending the script out and waiting for someone to read it, I really wanted to do an ensemble where it wasn't going to be based on one person. The movie was going to be (done) with the best people to play the part and not be stuck trying to chase somebody who is going to get the movie financed."

"Garden's" set in L.A. and the city plays a key part in how these characters behave. "The thing that's great about L.A. is that there's a real lack of moral judgment," he said. "You've got the movie business here. You have the music business. You have the porn business. Obviously real estate, which plays a part in our movie, plays a huge part in Los Angeles. If you're successful -- whatever that means -- people don't judge you. They're not going, 'Wow, you're in porn' or 'What's your background?' No one really cares. They just kind of care about what you're doing at that moment.

"There's not a lot of back stories. The characters' stories were the types of stories I've seen and heard just living in this city. When I went to USC (film school) I met this kid and he was playing (with a group) on the Strip. He had been in town for like a month and the next thing I knew he had a record contract. So those things really happened."

Freeland wrote the film's screenplay in early '06 and it was made soon thereafter. "The producer, Tim Youd, read it and he felt let's not over-develop the material because it'll just feel like everything else. The thing is, we don't explain a lot of (the story intentionally). We sent the script to Joseph Middleton, who had cast some short films for us and had cast 'Brown's Requiem' (Freeland's first movie), and we said, 'Do you know an up and coming casting director who would be interested in casting this film?' because we had no money and he's obviously very busy and does huge movies (like 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith' and 'Bourne Identity'). He read it and said, 'I want to cast this film.' When he heard (how tiny) the budget was he said, 'I can't take any money from you.' But he had a passion to find the right people."

Shooting took place over 22 days in March 2006. "We shot on Super 16," he said. "We looked at digital production, but we didn't want it to feel like reality television. Given the subject matter, we felt it was important to shoot on film and not make it feel like what everyone sees on television. We shot pretty much exclusively in (the L.A. neighborhoods of) Silverlake, Los Feliz and Echo Park."

Looking back at the challenges of production, he recalled, "I threw my back out while we were making the movie and had to direct from laying on a sofa for one day. Then we shut down the production for a few days so I could actually walk around again. It was a super small crew. We had no trailers so wherever we shot we used pop-up tents or had a room in a house. So from that standpoint it was great because you were lining up the shots with the actors and looking at them through the lens. It was very communal. It felt much more like a student film than a professional production."

Did he rehearse a lot? "We didn't want to rehearse as much as we wanted to get the actors together and just talk about the scenes," he replied. "I really got a chance to talk through everything with the actors. I said to them, 'I want to try to get as many of your ideas now so that I'm prepared and when we go to the set we're ready to build on that.' That worked out in a huge way. Some of the really funny moments were things that weren't in the script, but were things the actors came up with when we were talking about the scenes. I really felt like we had a lot of pre-production and that kind of saved us. The beauty of it was that (because) we were very small we were very flexible."

The movie's title is shared with its famous title song -- the 1972 Rick Nelson hit "Garden Party," in which Nelson sings about having been booed at Madison Square Garden in New York in October 1971 because he was singing newer country music rather than his 1950s rock 'n roll oldies. The experience led Nelson to conclude, "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."

"I had this idea that Sammy (the movie's young singer who's homeless one day and winds up getting a recording contract a few days later) would sing 'Garden Party' at this party (in the movie) and that's kind of how he got discovered," Freeland pointed out. "I had the idea that he was going to sing a song. I remember listening to 'Garden Party' while I was working on the script and it just stuck in my mind -- that chorus 'You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself.' In some ways, I think that really summed up the movie for me. The people (in the film) are connected thematically and I feel that's the journey all the characters take. Once it got in my head it was really hard to get out of it. Luckily, we got the rights. We had to start shooting before we had closed the deal, but it got closed. I didn't think we'd get it, to be honest."

Was the song very expensive to license? "It wasn't really," he replied. "I can't remember the exact number. If the movie does really well it could get really expensive. But it was actually very reasonable -- in the thousands of dollars. I didn't know if they would be willing to (license it for use in a small independent movie). I think if you read the script, you would think it was a darker movie than it turned out to be. I think there's a lot of really, really funny scenes, but that has a lot to do with nuance and performance. It's not like jokes."

Now with the film opening in a marketplace dominated by summer popcorn pictures, Freeland observed, "Everyone who worked on this movie (has) just said try to be different and don't play it safe. We felt like this was definitely going to be an alternative (for moviegoers). Our hope was that one night during the course of the summer you will look for something different and we want to make sure that it becomes 'Garden Party.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel