Review Fix chats with Searching for Fortune director Brian Smolensky, who discusses the creative process behind the film and how it feels to be a part of the Queens World Film Festival.
Review Fix: What was the inspiration for your film?
Smolensky: My favorite movies, with a few exceptions, are ’70s movies — The Deer Hunter, Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, etc. Many movies then were about working-class people and the hard-scrabble life of scraping-by in America. They were about the ambiguity of existence in a world that forces you to rent your life away by the hour. I wanted to write a story like that. Deer Hunter in a time without the draft. Without the war. Since the draft no longer exists, my generation’s war, to quote Chuck Palahniuk, is “a spiritual war.” A war of identity. So Michael must face his potential, the dice roll of his birth, and try to reconcile to two while forging a new path forward in a life that was, until now, a well worn, comfortable rut.
Outside of movies, my inspiration came from my life. I grew up in a working class, cow-town in Florida. Spent my youth working as a roofer, a cowboy, a carpenter. Mending fences, painting houses, mowing lawns. My brother stayed in our hometown and became an electrician. I left and went to the Air Force Academy and flew jets for a time. I was fascinated by the different paths out lives took given that they started in the same place. One is not better than the other, but the distance between them is certainly quite far. My brother was always the more gifted person. He, like Michael in the film, always hit the ball out of the park every time life threw a pitch near the plate. He just didn’t get the same pitches I did. So my brother was a big inspiration for the movie, and certainly for the character of Michael Denton Junior. In essence, this film is a love letter to him. A chance for me to look at the world from my brother’s perspective. To reach across that distance and connect with him on a level that only stories can bring.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself while making?
Smolensky: I learned the value and power of keeping a dream alive. I wrote this screenplay seven years ago. It has gone through so many near-miss productions. So many almost-got-the-fundings. There were times that I wanted to give up. But I kept sending it out there. Kept giving it to people to read. And eventually, finally, it made its way into the right hands. Seven years is a long time to keep dreaming. And if someone would have asked me seven years ago if I would keep at this for that long, I would have said no. I wouldn’t have thought I had it in me. But dreams are powerful things.
Review Fix: What was the most challenging part of making it?
Smolensky: As a writer, most of the work was done before the “making” part started. As an actor, the most challenging part was remaining faithful to the character’s arc. Joe, Phil, and Mandi scrounged around and came up with a portion of the funding needed to make the film and, in order to get the rest, we took the money we had and shot a small portion of the film, cut it together, and used it to raise the remaining funds. Obviously, this proved successful. However, it meant that a small, but a crucial, scene was shot one year before the rest of the movie. And as an actor, in the moment, I wanted so much to play it to the hilt. To go all out. To release all the character’s tension. But the scene where that actually happens is later in the film. So I had to hold back just enough to leave the character room to move in those later scenes. That was tough. Joe was very easy to work with that night and really helped me keep it in check. I think we succeeded in hitting the right notes.
Review Fix: How do you want it to be remembered?
Smolensky: At a time when it seems impossible to be sympathetic to working-class Americans and be a progressive, I hope that this film is remembered for threading that needle. For depicting blue-collar life with a tender touch. For rendering the lives of these hard-working people with empathy and understanding. For showing their world with as much realism as possible. Without pity or derision, we made a movie that strove to show the truth of their lives and hopefully, at least for a moment or two, we succeeded.
Review Fix: How does it feel to be a part of the festival?
Smolensky: The QWFF feels like what I imagine Sundance was like in the 1980’s — before it became a Mecca for consumerism, brands, and marketing — when it had its finger on the pulse of truly independent films. Don and Katha run a festival that is focused on shining a bright light on the thriving world of independent film. That is so rare and is something to be cherished.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Smolensky: My novel, Fellow Man, is out to agents and publishers right now. It is a duel narrative story about Hurricane Katrina and deals with themes of equality, love, identity, human potential, the power of art, the limits of stories, and the never-ending battle for the survival of the human spirit. I just finished adapting the novel into a screenplay and a few production companies have already requested a copy of the script.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Brian Smolensky: I would like to add that friendship is very important in this industry and I was fortunate enough to make this movie with my friends. It made the struggles easier and the triumphs all the sweeter. I’d like to thank them all for their love and support. It was a dream come true.