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There's Something About Matt

[whitespace] Matt Leutwyler Lens Crafting: Matt Leutwyler's 'Road Kill' is a crime movie filtered through the director's memory of his favorite films.

Photographer Farika, Photo Stylist Jay

Bay Area filmmaker Matt Leutwyler doesn't want to be just another indie 'Road Kill'

By Richard von Busack

THREE YEARS AGO, on his 29th birthday, Matt Leutwyler defused a crisis that might have finished off a less determined neophyte director. The Bay Area filmmaker was set to begin shooting his first feature-length film, Road Kill, in less than a week. After charting a budget of under $100,000, Leutwyler decided to take a gamble.

If he could convince his producer to add another 35 grand to the budget, Leutwyler could go from 16mm to 35mm stock. It was a question of millimeters, but the difference would give Leutwyler the clout to recruit performers from the Screen Actors Guild and provide much-higher-quality visuals than grainy 16mm allowed.

Leutwyler insisted, but the extra 35 grand proved to be the breaking point for Leutwyler's producer, who withdrew all of his backing from the project. With days to spare, Leutwyler hooked up with a new producer and was back in business in a matter of hours.

This March, Leutwyler may finally reap some rewards for his toughness. Leutwyler's two feature films will play at separate Southern California film festivals. Road Kill (1996) screens at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and The Space Between Us (1999) is debuting at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Meanwhile, Leutwyler is being sought out for profiles in E! and Details. It may be too much to predict, but if all goes well, The Space Between Us may fit into the shock/romance niche that made There's Something About Mary a hit.

Blue Moods

BEHIND CLOSED BLINDS at his San Francisco office, Leutwyler sits in a dimmed room, working at an editing system. Four Sony monitors surround his work station; one of the monitors displays an orange-red negative image of a woman singing into a microphone.

I take a seat on the suede couch in the corner while Leutwyler solves an editing problem. He starts to say something but is summoned into the other room by the persistent buzzing of a telephone. Neglected, his computer system starts quacking like a flock of peevish electronic ducks. He returns, soothes the balky computer and sits down to show me coming attractions for his newest film.

The Space Between Us is a romantic comedy with autobiographical undertones. It tells the story of a filmmaker named Alex Harty (Jeremy Sisto), who finds L.A. to be a dead end, thanks to one too many horrible pitch meetings ("I've got three words for you: Punky ... Brewster ... Reunion"). After stabbing a producer with a Mont Blanc pen, Harty blows Tinsel Town to come to San Francisco to forget his professional and personal heartbreak.

The cast is impressive for a low-budget feature. Sisto will be in the February TV miniseries The Sixties. The romantic lead, Poppy Montgomery, is co-starring with Juliette Lewis in the upcoming comedy/drama The Other Sister. In smaller parts are Kate Donnellon from Low Hum Satellite and David Lowery from Cracker as husband-and-wife members of a San Francisco band that had one hit many years ago; and Brian Vander Ark, front man from Verve Pipe, as a white-gangsta tagger.

The Space Between Us, with its director protagonist, recalls Leutwyler's previous film, Road Kill, which is also about a young filmmaker named Alex--"just an average name, nothing unique about it"--looking for material. In The Space Between Us, Alex is trying to sell a screenplay about an inspirationless filmmaker and a female hit woman--which is exactly the plot of Road Kill.

Leutwyler denies that there's a grand pattern. "That's what's problematic about The Space Between Us," he says. "The main character is a filmmaker, but the movie has nothing to do with filmmaking. The Space Between Us is about a filmmaker who loses his drive to create when his wife dies. So it's really not about a filmmaker at all. It's about an average guy."

Like Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Road Kill is a crime story filtered through all of the movies the director has enjoyed--there are references to everything from The Warriors to Chinatown. The action begins as a blanked-out film student, Alex (Erik Palladino), encounters a professional hit woman. Blue (Jennifer Rubin), as she calls herself, is about to go to Miami to execute a stranger and agrees to take Alex and his comic-relief soundman, Lars (Billy Jayne), on the road with her to make a documentary about her work.

Leutwyler cleverly cuts from Blue buying a gun to Alex buying cameras, to make a Godardian point about two tools that fix reality permanently. Blue's occupation, usually glamorized by action movies, turns out to be mundane and grubby. What begins with a satire of feminist art-school filmmaking ends as a film about an angry woman--namely Blue. In midpicture, Blue confesses to being molested by her stepfather--a confession that, ironically enough, you'd hear in an angry woman's student film.

But Leutwyler's feminism goes only so far; Blue, with her penchant for cigars and her love of Sam Peckinpah movies, is mostly a sort of honorary guy. In any case, if Alex is really a Leutwyler surrogate, Road Kill shows the director looking at himself with a sense of humor and detachment. There's usually more self-pity in first films.

In the opening scene, Alex is being dressed down by a stodgy film-school prof who prefers Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, White and Blue trilogy to the Hong Kong action films that Alex adores. So Road Kill ought to be full of violence, but it's actually full of conversation. Not to drop Quentin Tarantino's name, but Leutwyler used the indie deity's trademark method: bursts of action to keep the short-attention-spanned audience interested in the talk.

"That's the thing that's so funny about Road Kill," Leutwyler says. "There are six minutes of violence out of 90 minutes. It's really not a violent film by any stretch of the imagination." This violent 1/15th of the film means that the film will get an NC-17 rating if it is released theatrically. "Every major studio who came to see it said that it would get an NC-17. That really shocked me, because what I thought came through the film was a moral tone."

Commute Career

THERE COMES a time in every Bay Area filmmaker's life when he must decide if he can afford to stay here or if he must swallow hard and move down to Los Angeles. Leutwyler was one of those who made the move. "I was down in L.A. for six years, and nothing happened," he tells me. "I kept saying if I couldn't get work off the ground, I'm going to leave. One of my problems is that I never felt comfortable working under other people. It was a real hindrance in my career. I guess my ego was so big that I thought I'd never work on anybody else's films. Which is the stupidest thing you can do. You should be out there working, making contacts."

Leutwyler started on the ground floor as a production assistant, the lowest-echelon person on a film shoot. While Leutwyler was in this capacity on the sets of some music videos, he had the opportunity to watch the directors. "It just bothered me, seeing someone who I felt wasn't as good as I was doing the work. I couldn't continue doing PA work, so I just started my own company and started picking up crummy music-video jobs, shooting for unsigned and small-label bands."

The pickings were slim. "Fifteen, sixteen grand a year is your take-home pay, and you're working all the time. I suppose you're doing what you wanted to do, but the bands aren't very good. You don't have enough money to make the videos very good quality, so you try to stick as much of the money they give you back on the screen to help your career. It got very frustrating."

After days making sure that the hairdos of next year's version of Metallica were sufficiently glossy, Leutwyler decided to make a short film. "It was an experiment," he says, "to see how I could write dialogue. It was a simple film, five people sitting around talking, real-time conversation, people in their 20s talking."

Leutwyler put the short--which, like his latest film, is titled The Space Between Us--onto the independent film festival circuit. The short film was enough of a success that Leutwyler decided to write a full-length script. The writing took two weeks--"though it was in my head for a year previous"--and just six weeks later, with time out for the budget debacle, Leutwyler was filming the first few scenes of Road Kill.

Leutwyler learned all about location photography by filming The Space Between Us in San Francisco. The film includes scenes at the Paradise Lounge, the Elysium Bar and the Cypress Club--"a really nice location, and the owners didn't charge us. All they asked was whether we had insurance." Still, Leutwyler found filming in the Bay Area often discouraging.

"This is not a cheap place to shoot. It cost $300,000 more to shoot here than in L.A., because of hotel costs. Parking is atrocious, the permits are a little more money ... people are more private here, so using locations is trickier. Unlike L.A. this is not as film-friendly a place as I keep being told it is," Leutwyler insists. "And I'm from here. I tell 'em I'm local; they say, 'Who cares; we want $30,000 a day for our house.' People have gotten pretty film-savvy here. I mean, they make a lot of movies here, but they're all big studio films. As far as independent films, you had Dream With the Fishes a couple of years ago, and that's about it."

Now, Leutwyler gets ready for another journey south, a 400-mile commute to the house he's staying at in L.A. "We didn't have a lot of money for post-production," Leutwyler says about The Space Between Us. "You end up spending all of your money before you get to post-production. That's a problem that so many indies get into. We didn't get into it too badly, but certainly we didn't have the money toward the end. Fortunately, the whole crew and cast was behind The Space Between Us. We had actors lie to their managers and agents, fly themselves back up to San Francisco on their own dime and come finish up their stuff. It's one of those fortunate things that happens. I don't know if it will ever happen again."

Maybe not, but Leutwyler's style, a sort of informed pessimism lightened by a lot of luck, should keep him behind the camera for life.

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From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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