Review Fix chats with “Ingenious” Director Jeff Balsmeyer about the film, which stars Dallas Roberts and Jeremy Renner and his effort to get the flick a mainstream theatre release. Balsmeyer, a veteran of the film industry for over 25 years also discusses his experiences working with some of Hollywood’s best.
Review Fix: You have worked as a Storyboard Artist on some fantastic films. How do you think that helps you in your work as a director?
Jeff Balsmeyer: It was an ongoing apprenticeship with some great directors––like Woody Allen, Marty Brest, Robert DeNiro, Spike Lee, Robert Redford––getting inside their heads so that I could stage and block scenes in their style. I did a few films with Michael Mann, for example, who has really strict aesthetics about composition: no 3/4 angles, only direct frontals or profiles; or Penny Marshall, who told me, “If part of the film is losing energy or getting in a bit of a slump, then just throw something up in the air.” ––which resulted in the trampoline sequence in ‘Big’; or Sydney Pollack, who taught me to use music as an inspiration for shots.
Review Fix: The work on Ingenious has been a long time coming. How have the last few years been and what does it feel now that the film is starting to get some recognition?
Balsmeyer: The film has gotten recognition in fits and starts over the last few years. Initially it did really well at festivals, where it got a several awards and received amazing reviews in places like Variety. But people said it couldn’t get distribution without a star cast, so nothing happened until… lo and behold… Jeremy Renner TURNED INTO a star. All of a sudden we sold dozens of international territories and got lots of interest again. But we still couldn’t get the kind of distribution we wanted in the States. We’ve had low-ball offers. But Mike Cram, our writer/producer, wants to do it his own way.
Mike is a total character. The lead role of the film is based on him––a novelty inventor who hits it big. Mike’s first success came in late-nineties when he came up with a Bill Clinton growing-nose watch, which he put on the market miraculously a few weeks before the Monica Lewinski scandal hit. He sold truckloads of the watches, moved to Telluride and lived like a king for 5 years, then spent all his money and went back to living in a log cabin for several years before coming up with the gizmo that INGENIOUS is based on. Mike is a total self-made, do-it-my way kind of guy. Just like the main character in our film, he’ll stop at nothing and never give up. Like Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Kickstarter is MADE for Mike and this film.
Review Fix: How was it to work with someone like Jeremy Renner?
Balsmeyer: Incredible. Jeremy stayed in character, day and night, on and off the set, for the whole month of filming. When we first met Jeremy, at a lunch in LA to talk about him doing the movie, he was a thoughtful, quiet kind of guy. That’s the real Jeremy. But when we all got to location in Arizona he was a wise-ass, rabble-rousing rouge. After filming every night he and Dallas would head out to nearby casinos and, just like their characters, lose and win lots of money. Jeremy is astonishingly creative in a way that reminds me of the classic hard-boiled, no-nonsense, John Huston kind of actor like Humphrey Bogart. I would talk to Jeremy before doing a scene, he’d nod and take on-board what I was saying, but then when the camera rolled he’d play an angle that was breathtakingly original. He’s also quite an amazing and soulful singer/ songwriter, and between scenes I remember sitting out under the Arizona stars listening to him croon away.
Review Fix: Ayelet Zurer has been in some good flicks over the past decade too. What was she like working with?
Balsmeyer: Intense. Off the set, Ayelet and I got along on really well and had an easy-going kind of friendship. But on the set she was full-on, challenging, and all-consuming. Like a force of nature. She’s fiercely intelligent and passionate and she knows her heart.
Review Fix: How did it feel to have this type of cast for an independent film?
Balsmeyer: More than any other part of the film, Mike and I gave top priority to casting. We couldn’t go after actors who were huge stars, because we didn’t have the budget for it. But we were committed to finding the very best, the actor’s actors. The film is essentially a character piece, so we wanted actors who could dig deep and really breathe life into the characters.
Our casting agent is one of the best, Ronnie Yeskel, who cast lots of Tarantino’s films. At the beginning we and Ronnie kind of danced around each other, checking each other out, until we clicked. And we really clicked. Then she pulled every favor in the book. Also I wrote letters. Handwritten, old-fashioned, real ink-on-paper letters to actors we were approaching, telling them why we thought they were perfect for the film. In an email-kind-of-one-line-world, I think they were impressed to get an actual letter, and impressed that we went to that much trouble. So that got us meetings, and from meetings we ended up getting our dream cast.
Review Fix: Dallas Roberts and Renner work great together in the film, was their chemistry natural? Did you have to do anything special to get them on the same page?
Balsmeyer: Dallas Roberts and Jeremy Renner are both cut from the same cloth, but they’re the ying and yang of each other. Dallas is a kind of young Sam Shepherd crossed with a modern day Jimmy Stewart––a gritty, weathered gravity mixed with an everyman quality. Jeremy, on the other hand, is more known for his bad guy roles, which he plays with a deliciously wicked mix of sinister malevolence and puckish mischief. We thought it would be great to see Jeremy play something with a lighter, more comedic touch. And in fact, we later learned that Jeremy got his start doing comedy improv.
When Jeremy was considering the part he wanted to meet Dallas. They were both in the general vicinity of New Mexico, filming different projects, so they met for a day in Santa Fe. I was later told that they both agreed that the film existed in between the lines of the script. I can’t tell you had perfect that is for actors, because it meant they had to fill-in between the lines, to fully create their characters with their own grist and gristle. There wasn’t any one special thing I did as a director to get them together, except that we all had a massive drive to create something brilliant, subtle, natural and with depth. We constantly challenged each other, agreed, disagreed, butted heads and rejoiced.
Review Fix: The film, at its core, is very human, and easy to feel. What kind of film were you looking to make after the pieces started coming together?
Balsmeyer: What I love about INGENIOUS is that it’s a real American story. In a world of celluloid froth and formula, that’s pretty refreshing. As an U.S. ex-pat living in Australia, I’m acutely aware that while I might not agree with the politics of the States, there’s still a rich, living culture there. It’s where I’m from. And for me this film is a loving portrait of an America that’s not so bad: dogged tenacity, the audacity to believe in your own dream, a celebration of Yankee know-how and ingenuity. It’s a workaday, bread and butter, Jonathan Demme-esque realm of the American middle class.
In the midst of this landscape, the novelty inventor is a true hero. I’ve always been intrigued by people who are extremely creative, but not recognized as artists. And novelty inventors are true poets. The retail cowboys. They dream. They search for inspiration. They come up with inventions that are sometimes so ridiculous they can only exist as sheer poetry. They cook up the outlandish theories that masquerade as common sense. In the film, the main character, Matt, has a theory about how ideas are in the air like old radio waves, and his brain is a receiving station. I love this stuff. It’s pure cracker barrel, and there’s a real populism to it.
The film itself is an understated, character-driven comedy. We call it a serious comedy. Two of my favorite films are JERRY MacGUIRE and LOCAL HERO, and for me they’re the paradigms of real, textured, human comedy. INGENIOUS was performed and shot against genre. The actors approached it as if it was a drama. We even lit it like a drama––dark and atmospheric. The humor comes out in pure character moments and in the natural occurrence of human folly.
Review Fix: You’ve got Kickstarter going trying to get the film a theatrical release. What’s the next step it that doesn’t work.
Balsmeyer: For both Mike and I, a question like that is like a red rag to a bull. We will stop at nothing. If this doesn’t work, we’ll find another way. But this Kickstarter thing IS working. We’re well on our way of reaching to $48,000 goal. That isn’t exactly a goldmine of a distribution budget, but the money will be used to hire people to promote and advertise the film and help us get it into theatres. Already we’ve received dozens of great reviews from the Kickstarter process. We’ve already had a great initial response from theatre owners: 11 booked to date for a one-week minimum run and a dozen or so pending. At this rate by the end of October we will have booked 75-100 theatres and should be getting major attention. The important thing is that we’re doing this on our own, with no studio interference or control, and without being relegated by a distributor to being one of their marginal films that they don’t give much attention to. We are NOT looking for a distributor. We are a grassroots, underdog operation driven by the hope that with all our supporters from Kickstarter, we can get a film out and generate word-of-mouth from the ground up.
Review Fix: How do you want his film to be remembered?
Balsmeyer: As a richly textured natural comedy with surprising depth. With its gizmos and novelties, this film is more than a get-rich-quick fantasy. It’s a longing for individualism, ingenuity, and the audacity to think that anybody can actually do something extraordinary.
Review Fix: What are you working on now?
Balsmeyer: A rollicking travel film that’s an updated, completely contemporary kind of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road film gone psycho.