Within the first couple minutes of our phone conversation, the star and director of Autumn Wanderer, which screens at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum for one night next week and will be available via video-on-demand* April 8, was asking me to guess how much it cost to make the dreamy, gorgeous and unsettling film.
“Um ...” I fumbled, “I’m the worst person for those kinds of estimates.”
So Nathan Sutton, who plays Autumn’s lead character Charlie, helped me out.
“We shot for 12 days and our budget was $12,000. We only had a four-person crew.” Sutton, who is married to Autumn co-star and San Antonio native Elisha Skorman (a MacArthur and UIW grad), put that into perspective, “Including post-production costs and deliverables, the total cost was $30,000. For most movies, that’s what it would cost to feed a whole crew for one day.”
That’s impressive. Though obviously an art house film, Autumn Wanderer features clever, painterly shots and a washed-out palate befitting of its Los Angeles location. That is to say, it looks high-dollar, thanks to the many, many favors Sutton and Skorman called in as executive producers and veterans of LA’s film industry. However, the subject matter is one unlikely to be coming to a multiplex near you.
Set in an alternate reality LA in which beautiful people read books and have answering machines instead of being tethered to their smartphones (note: that’s not even the trippiest part of this film! Keep reading!), Autumn Wanderer follows Charlie after a rough break-up.
To put it vaguely, Charlie meets a woman, Nia (played by Skorman), who helps him come to terms with who he really is.
Initially, you might think “ugh, low-budge indie flick about intelligent dude and quirky chick meeting cute, she changes his life, he loses her, blah, blah, whatever.”
But both Nia and Charlie have much more going on below the surface. Charlie’s father is in the heavily medicated depths of schizophrenia, and Charlie fears he may suffer the same fate. One of the more heartbreaking scenes occurs when Charlie tells his friend Audrey (a delightful Marianna Palka) that the reason he and his previous long-term girlfriend split is that he wanted to start a family—perhaps because he felt the inheritable disease hanging like the sword of Damocles above his head.
As the film progresses, we’re drawn into Nia and Charlie’s increasingly bizarre relationship, which functions as a proxy for Charlie’s worries about his possible prognosis. “I’m hard to handle,” Nia warns Charlie early on, but neither he nor the audience has any idea how true that is.
* Video-on-demand services scheduled to air this film starting April 8 include Comcast, Time Warner and itunes
“So many films don’t handle serious issues in serious ways,” said Sutton, who built the screenplay around a short story he had written five years ago, “
from an everyday perspective of someone you might know,” added Skorman.
The couple wanted to tackle these meaty roles. For Sutton, it meant absorbing as much as he could from first-person accounts of schizophrenics and their family members. Skorman, meanwhile, had her own challenges for this unique role, which is high “manic pixie dream girl,” emphasis on the “dream girl.”
“Basically,” said Skormam. “I represent everything that Charlie doesn’t want to face about himself.”
Both actors note that it’s incredibly rare to find feature films starring a mentally ill character. A Beautiful Mind and Silver Linings Playbook aside, most depictions of people with severely debilitating disease like schizophrenia relegate them to the sidelines: a homeless guy hearing voices here, a babbling relative there.
In fact, earlier in the week, the filmmakers participated in a panel for the Entertainment Industries Council about mentally ill characters in film.
“There’s an association that people have with the mentally ill where you’re kind of afraid of them,” said Skorman, “but, it’s a treatable disease.” Sutton added, “the episodes of violence are so few
you see people with schizophrenia and a lot of them are just homeless [much due to deinstitutionalization].”
Sutton wanted to depict, like his wife said, “an everyday person” grappling with the onset of the disease and the legacy of a schizophrenic father.
Indeed, Charlie seems like a likable, if introverted, guy, who rides a bike, watches weird old movies, works in a bookstore and paints a lot. His normal life is shown in long, long takes, which Sutton favors over flashy editing. There’s very little of the lurid “unhinged crazy person” scenes that typically pass for depictions of mental illness in Hollywood. Make no mistake, though it has a thriller twist, the pacing is pure character study.
Lest you’re still not convinced this is a worthy indie flick—don’t be alarmed at the unconventional screening location, given the artsy look and focus of the film, Blue Star’s a sensible alternative choice—Skorman and Sutton are racking up awards. Sutton won the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Hollywood Film Festival, and the film won for Best Cinematography at Scotland’s Bootleg Film Festival. Skorman was nominated for Best Lead Actress in the 2013 Madrid International Film Festival.
6pm (reception); 6:30pm (screening and Q&A with Sutton and Skorman), Weds March 19
Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum
116 Blue Star