The Blood Oranges
San Francisco native Philip Haas thrived in the '80s making mesmerizing documentaries about artists from Aboriginal ground painters to David Hockney before turning his hand in the '90s to directing skewed features like The Music of Chance and Angels and Insects. While the indigenous artists Haas profiled were readily accepted by their respective societies, his features -- including his latest, Up at the Villa -- depict self-deluded innocents who don't realize until much too late that they're outcasts.
"In a sense, artists make their own lives, so they're self-sufficient," says the New York-based Haas during a short visit to promote Up at the Villa's S.F. International Film Festival screening and theatrical release. But his fictional characters "are people who are self-sufficient until they realize they are no longer self-sufficient. It's more about introspection than being an extroverted character, which is what an artist is when he or she is making something."
Haas also locates this common thread in his features: "They all take place in a big house, with people feeling entrapped and ultimately trying to liberate themselves. There's a sense of dread." In fact, Haas discloses he's directing Glenn Close next year in Chekhov's Sister, another period movie set in a mansion. "I suppose I feel, without sounding too highfalutin, a sort of Henry Jamesian quality of being an American abroad," he confided.
If nothing else, Up at the Villa will be remembered as the film in which Sean Penn altered his voice and played his first adult role. "I think we both wanted to get away from his native Malibu, to give it a sense of a more sophisticated, urbane, European-ish American," Haas explains. "I think Sean's probably the best actor of his generation, and when you see him in the film you're thinking about Bogart or Mitchum."
While Haas can work with movie stars, he's not much suited to Hollywood. "Last summer I was in Los Angeles and I was sent some typical Hollywood scripts by my agent," Haas relates. "I said to a friend, 'I'm interested in doing films in which language is important, and in which ideas are important.' He replied, 'Well, you don't have to worry. There's very little competition on that front.'"
The Public Eye
Pick one on May 19: A sneak preview of the next wave of iconoclastic Bay Area filmmakers is on view at S.F. State's 40th annual Film Finals. The party begins at 6 p.m. at McKenna Theater; if risky films aren't enough, a batch of Zippy-bedecked Film Finals posters signed by Bill Griffith will be given away. And local filmmaker Caveh Zahedi (I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, A Sign From God) holds a work-in-progress screening of his neurosis-fueled video diary, A Year in My Life: 1999, at the Film Arts Foundation. Incidentally, the Iranian-American filmmaker gave tapes of his work to SFIFF honoree Abbas Kiarostami to take back to Iran. I wonder if they had a VCR at customs. ... In other news, co-directors Josh and Jake Kornbluth and producer Nancy Carlin successfully raised the cash to shoot Haiku Tunnel (Reel World, Feb. 23). Casting is under way with production set to begin next month. email@example.com
Michael Fox is host of Independent View, which airs Fridays at 10:30 p.m. and Saturdays at midnight on KQED (Channel 9).