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One Finn Day

Finn Taylor
Detail Man: Director Finn Taylor.

First-time director Finn Taylor talks about the real-life comedy and drama of 'Dream With the Fishes'

By Richard von Busack

It's a sunny Tuesday afternoon at about 2pm. I'm interviewing Finn Taylor, director of the new film Dream With the Fishes. We're on Vine Street, a few hundred feet from Shattuck Avenue, the main drag of Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto--a row of restaurants anchored by the world-famous Chez Panisse, cradle of California cuisine.

Every time a waiter serves you a steamed baby carrot next to a tiny blot of sauce, think of Shattuck. Some of the most prosperous toddlers in America are being wheeled past us in strollers as Taylor sits across from me at a outdoor wooden table the size of a thimble.

A robust, chunky man in his 30s, Taylor is a San Francisco area resident who was a musician in the band Garden Party and also the former literary director of the Intersection, a nonprofit San Francisco art center. His film, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, concerns a dying young man named Nick (Brad Hunt) who befriends a suicidal, introverted voyeur named Terry (David Arquette).

Each promises to kill the other if life becomes unbearable--it's a comedy. Dream With the Fishes is a strong debut, filmed in little-seen Northern California locations. First-time director Taylor leads a professional cast through a tale about death and friendship that's neither morbid nor saccharine.

The project got started when Taylor had a play running in a South of Market theater in San Francisco. At one performance, he met an admirer, who introduced himself as a filmmaker. "I was skeptical," Taylor recalls, " but when I got to his house, he had an Oscar on the mantle. I thought, okay, I guess you are a filmmaker."

Jeff Brown, who won an Oscar for Best Dramatic Short in 1988 for his film "Molly's Pilgrim," started collaborating with Taylor on the script for a film called Pontiac Moon, with the intention of directing it himself.

"Pontiac Moon almost got made over the course of the years," Taylor says. "I moved down to L.A. because I was getting screenwriting work. Then Pontiac Moon got made by Paramount, for $23 million. The budget got big enough that they bought off Jeff because they didn't want him to direct. And they made what I thought was a very bad movie with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, a very sort of sappy Disneyesque treatment, without the Disney quality. It made me realize that with personal material, I had to direct it on my own."

Taylor confesses, "I was scared. I'd never directed one frame of film. Once I decided to direct Dream With the Fishes, I had this other decision--this great young actor, Brad Hunt, came in, and I chose him. Once I had actors who were truly committed, people were able to help me.

"People ask me what's the trick to making an independent film. I say, there is no trick. I wrote 43 drafts of Pontiac Moon and 30 drafts of Dream with the Fishes. The key is just really working your ass off and making the script as good as possible, because good scripts in Hollywood are a rarity. Actors are always interested in them, and if you have the actors, you'll get the money. We had the money and then began the insanity--58 locations, 25 days of shooting."

Down to the Last Detail

For a low-budget, independent director, Taylor took a good deal of care with his visuals. He was full of praise for his location people--David Brown, Melinda Iverson, Doria Suma and Greg Reynolds--who helped him pull off some dicey scenes, such as a nude bowling sequence and a near suicide on the Bay Bridge.

Taylor adds, "It helped having a good cinematographer like Barry Stone, a veteran. It really helped my inexpertise, having his expertise."

I tell him how glad I was to see San Francisco looking like the gray, sad city it can be. Taylor replies, "I showed Barry films I liked, like The Last Detail. Film stocks have become very precise, so precise that there aren't many shadows, and the skin tones are so precise, it almost looks like video. I showed Barry the older films I liked, and he said they don't make those film stocks anymore--you'll have to invent a process and try to approximate those film stocks."

As a side effect, Taylor adds, "you do have a grain, but you also get saturated colors that are a little bit off. In older film stocks, different oranges sort of go to one color of red, and the skin tones are sort of off-color. For me what that did was mythologize it all a bit."

Taylor explains that "Stone invented this process to make the film look more '70s, and sort of charted the arc of the characters: one look for the city and for the sort of carnal fantasies there; another look for when they were tripping on LSD; another look, slightly washed out, for the rural scenes. And when we go back to the city, we go back to the intense look, and there's even a four-second dissolve between the saturated look we created and the modern Hollywood look."

Taylor misses some of the freedom 1970s filmmakers had. "Studios were supporting small films like Midnight Cowboy and Harold and Maude in those days. In the early to mid-'70s, the studios discovered blockbusters, and they started going with those as a way of making money. What kind of got lost was the risk-taking in studio filmmaking. That's being replaced a little by independent films. It can sure be entertaining, those big-budget blockbusters, but they're rarely surprising.

"I've seen Dream With the Fishes with audiences, and they're surprised. They laugh. The humor in my film comes from experiences that happened to me or friends of mind, and probably happened to the audience as well. I don't know how many of us swung from a grappling hook, and fired a machine gun at a helicopter. As strange as all of these story points may seem, they're all real."

Living Your Fantasies

Taylor's story originated from the death of a friend. "Truthfully, Dream With the Fishes is a nonsexual love story between two guys," he explains. "It's somewhat autobiographical. I had a friend who would do bold things that I would never do in a million years. He got sick, and I was helping him live out his fantasies.

"I was not a literal sexual voyeur, like Terry is here, but I was a voyeur in that I was a writer and I was essentially living through this guy. Nick's disease in the story is based on something particular that my friend had, but I've made a point of never stating what the disease is. To me the film is mainly about fantasies and life--and living your fantasies now. I didn't want it to be a disease-of-the-week movie."

One of the things that makes Dream With the Fishes worthwhile is how Nick doesn't become ennobled through his impending death.

"I find Nick charming," Taylor says, "even if he is a con man in certain ways. These characters are kind of fuckups and lowlifes, and I do try to redeem them rather than damn them. I liked films like Midnight Cowboy where the heroes are lowlifes. As a screenwriter I felt so much pressure on me to make the main characters likable Joes. I'm flawed, everyone I know is flawed, everyone's relationship is screwed up. I hate a lot of those supposed Hollywood heroes. There's so perfect--how can you relate to them?"

Taylor took his independent film into the Sundance Film Festival without a distributor. "Selling the movie was harder than making the movie," he admits. "I got literally two hours of sleep a night. I was doing so much publicity. I didn't get a chance to see much at the festival. The first night Dream With the Fishes was shown, there weren't many executives there; it was the same night as the Golden Globes. At the screening, the projector broke down. After that, at one point, 13 companies were bidding on it. I got a handshake deal, and then the bids went up. I was offered a million dollars more by a big studio, but I didn't think they'd be able to handle the film with care."

Taylor is about to leave Berkeley for Russia to head for a film festival there; in the meantime, he's considering a few other projects, and is still living in the Bay Area instead of returning to L.A.

"It maybe isn't the best career choice to move back here, but I'm flying by the seat of my pants and doing what makes me happiest. I don't want to fall into that career mind-set. As Robert Penn Warren says, 'Careerism is death.' "

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