American Dream

Two local filmmakers are busier than ever shooting reality shows for NBC and HBO

If anybody's got more going on than Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet), I'd like to meet him. For starters, they spent the second half of last year in San Diego shooting material for four episodes (two of which they directed) of NBC's nonfiction Crime and Punishment series, which debuts June 16 and hails from Law & Order godfather Dick Wolf. "It was 100 percent vérité," Friedman says. "We didn't do one interview. And that was great fun for us. With our prior films, the stories were more thought out from the get-go. We'd go in with a story direction in mind."

The courtroom scenes were shot through two-way glass so the participants wouldn't know where the cameras were, while the filmmakers called the shots from a booth elsewhere in the building. But they still got caught up in the drama at the end of a murder trial they'd been tracking (and which airs June 23). "When the sentence came down, the defendant and his brother staged a riot in the courtroom," Epstein relates. "They went after the prosecutor. They had to bring in every deputy in the building." In the domestic violence case that the duo followed, network boundaries for language get pushed big-time. Room tone replaces the words a witness attributes to the defendant -- "You fucking bitch, suck my dick" -- but lip readers will have no trouble understanding.

A much different vibe informs the "Chasing Monuments" segment they shot for the June 13 season opener of Life 360, the Oregon Public Broadcasting/ABC News Nightline series. "We took a trip across South Dakota," Friedman relates, "and we visited everything we could find that would reasonably qualify as a monument -- from Mount Rushmore to a cemetery we happened to find on the prairie." The duo also redesigned the show's look, even building a set at Custer Avenue Stages to shoot wraparounds. "One of the benefits of being a team is that one of us was on to other things while the other was in San Diego," Epstein explains.

This summer they're jetting to New York to film gay life for HBO, focusing on five guys who've shared the same Fire Island house for seven summers. "We're interested in what young gay men are thinking these days," Friedman says. "They're trying to maintain relationships in a sexually overwrought environment. But a lot of the talk is about their jobs, and what they're trying to accomplish in their lives." Despite cable's permissiveness, Epstein and Friedman won't be turning in a sexploitation piece. "A lot of 'reality' shows have changed the nature of how people relate to a documentary camera," Epstein notes. "Those shows tend to be much more manipulative. Our approach is somewhat different, and we certainly see the results as being different."

On the Town Brit composer Adrian Johnston premieres his Pacific Film Archive-commissioned score for Earth (1930) on June 15 at the PFA, then performs his score for Lucky Star (1929) the next evening. ... Former Examiner and Chronicle film critic Wesley Morris signed on at the Boston Globe. ... The Roxie snagged the U.S. theatrical debut of Rivers and Tides for a two-week run beginning June 26 and is negotiating to distribute the exquisite study of landscape sculptor Andy Goldsworthy that was a surprise hit at the recent S.F. International Film Festival.

Children of Paradise Give me a second to wipe the frosting off my fingers. June 17 marks the 10th anniversary of Reel World in these pages, and, to paraphrase Ratso Rizzo, "I'm celebratin' here!" That debut column reported the departure of critic Michael Sragow from the Examiner (Mike's now at the Baltimore Sun, after stints at SF Weekly and Salon.com) along with Tom Waits' appearance at a pool-hall benefit for maverick Rob Nilsson's Chalk. Mike Myers was getting ready to shoot So I Married an Axe Murderer here (his career survived that now-forgotten hiccup, although Nancy Travis' took a tumble), and Billie August was prepping local novelist Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. Nostalgia's fun, in small doses, but nothing kicks like the present. See you next week.

 
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