The 39th Frameline Film Festival runs from June 18 to 28, and one of the movies making its world premiere at the San Francisco event is The Surface, a story about two lost sons who become romantically involved as each are forced to examine or reconcile their pasts, or lack thereof, especially as one makes a choice about his future.
This article is based on a conversation with the two creative forces behind the making of this movie. The first is Michael J. Saul, the writer and director. The other is Michael Redford, the actor and star. Talking with the two Michaels, I got a clearer picture of the relationships between them and their own fathers, which in many ways was the intent. In fact, the fathers of each of the two Michaels here played an integral part in each of their roles in the movie.
Michael J. Saul in fact dedicated this movie to his own father, Jimmie who was a mechanic in Ohio who repaired scales for the weighing of trucks. Saul said he didn't share a whole lot of interests with his father, but his father was a frustrated artist, a painter who along with Saul's grandfather was avid in making home movies. Saul's father shared or bequeathed that sense of art to his son in the form of his 8 mm camera, which arguably ignited Saul's career as a filmmaker and laid the groundwork for the plot of the movie.
Saul has been working as a video artist and filmmaker for 30 years. Most of his works have been short subjects. The Surface is only Saul's third feature-length film. Yet, his first two features were compilations of multiple short subjects. The Surface is his first single-story feature. He started writing it two years ago. The screenplay only ended up being about 60 pages, contrasted with most feature-length scripts, which are between 80-120 pages. Saul simply says he's not long-winded in his writing.
However, many writer-directors from Christopher Guest to Sofia Coppola also churn out short scripts, which go on to become feature-length films. Like them, Saul had the problem of having to convince people his short script could be long enough. His answer simply is that he's a more visual storyteller. He also knew the pace would be slow and things would be told more through what you see rather than through the words. Saul's film directly before this one was the short film Adults Only (2013), which is a story told with absolutely no words. Not a single piece of dialogue is spoken by any of the actors.
Michael Redford appeared in Adults Only. He had a brief role but he managed to impress the writer-producer-star Heath Daniels so much that Daniels had Redford in mind when it came time to cast The Surface. Redford said he was sent the script and couldn't put it down. He thought it was a great, sweet story and wanted to jump on board. After 15 years as a working actor, this movie then became his first lead in a feature film, but Redford said it's now an intimate part of his life for another reason.
Redford was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, just outside New York City. He attended Trinity College, but he moved to Los Angeles in 1990. Redford would go to L.A. during the summers to visit family he had out there and always considered himself a west coast person. Yet, he never intended on becoming an actor. He had friends in the business who encouraged the handsome redhead to pursue it. His first professional gig in 2000 was a car commercial for Saturn and after that, he caught the bug.
Now, his first lead role has him playing a man who is dealing with the death of his dad, and the reason the movie has personal resonance for Redford is because, as he was making The Surface, his real-life father also passed away. As Redford plays a character dealing with the death of his dad, he himself is also dealing with the same thing.
Redford's father was originally from Chicago. He moved to New Canaan with his wife from Paoli, Pennsylvania, where he worked as the VP of advertising at Chase Bank in Manhattan. Redford reveals that as a child he never felt a close connection to his dad and never really shared stuff with his dad. That dynamic changed as Redford became an adult, but there was a bit of an estrangement or distance when he was younger.
His character in the movie is Peter Berg, and when thinking about the back story for Peter, Redford believes that Peter's relationship with his father was probably similar to his own estrangement. Because Redford was dealing with the same thing as his character, he perhaps couldn't help but start to transpose his life onto Peter, or incorporate his truths into his performance, as many actors throughout history have done. Most simply don't have the immediate coincidence that Redford had.
Interestingly, during my phone conversation with him, Redford kept reiterating how his character Peter was really focused on work and being successful. It's a wonder if Redford wasn't at once speaking subconsciously about his own father and what the Chicago native's focus was. Peter's profession is never discussed, but he could very well be a VP at a Chase Bank. It's not to say that Redford was in fact playing his father, but echoes are certainly there. Redford admitted that his favorite scene was his final one of dialogue with his younger co-star, Harry Hains, where Peter, as Redford says, is being a kind of father figure to Hains' character.
Saul, meanwhile, says he also dedicated the movie to his grandfather. The love of making movies, which was bequeathed to Saul from his dad, was also present in his dad's dad. At one point, the protagonist of the movie uses a 8 mm viewer and film splicer that belonged to Saul's grandfather. Saul said his aunt found it six months prior to principal photography for the film.
The Surface isn't autobiographical, according to Saul, but, as one can tell from reading this and from watching the movie, that there are a lot of personal and intimate connections that make it come across as that much more genuine and sincere. The Surface premieres June 27. For show times and tickets, go to Frameline39's website. For more information, go to TheSurfaceFilm.com or Michael Redford's online site.