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Bright lights, small island. Bryan Gunnar Cole and Erin O’Hara will get a shining moment at the Historic Lynwood Theatre, where Cole’s latest film, “Day Zero,” will premiere this weekend. O’Hara scored the film; the couple frequently collaborate.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Bright lights, small island. Bryan Gunnar Cole and Erin O’Hara will get a shining moment at the Historic Lynwood Theatre, where Cole’s latest film, “Day Zero,” will premiere this weekend. O’Hara scored the film; the couple frequently collaborate.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Homegrown filmmaker Bryan Gunnar Cole premieres his latest film at the Lynwood.

Bryan Gunnar Cole saw his first movie at the Lynwood Theatre, the very venue that’s about to premiere his latest effort as filmmaker.

And despite the theater’s warm, comfy vibe, there’s a lot at stake.

“What we need here are tushes in the seats,” Cole said. “And the reason we’re premiering here rather than L.A. is that I can post better numbers here because I have a community I can bring to the film.”

In other words, the number of locals who show up at the Lynwood this weekend for showings of “Day Zero” will have a direct impact on how many theaters the film ultimately makes it to.

It’s a bit of pressure for a home-town guy, but the stakes are even higher in the film itself.

The setup: America is still at war and the draft has been re-instated. Three childhood friends are called up, leading to a narrative examination of the question “What would you do?” in a not-too-distant and all-too-realistic way.

Chris Klein’s Rifkin, a lawyer, tries to use strings and family ties to avoid reporting. Jon Bernthal’s Dixon is gung-ho to serve until love calls his fervor into question. And Elijah Wood’s Feller, a successful, nebbishy novelist, undergoes a dramatic “Taxi-Driver”-esque transformation.

These character studies and their underlying representations of Americans’ response to the conflict in Iraq, not to mention what could happen if the situation escalated in a manner that gut-punched us so close to home, mirrored the diversity of opinions behind the scenes.

Writer and executive producer Rob Malkani was the most conservative of the core bunch. Producer Anthony Moody offered a reliably moderate viewpoint; Cole was the resident progressive.

Yet far from hindering the project’s progress, the trio’s different viewpoints not only clicked, but served the end product.

“We had this gamut of political ideology,” Cole said. “Every day, I’d come in and people would say, ‘I’m so glad you’re making a pro-war movie,’ (or) ‘I’m so glad you’re making an anti-war movie.’ That synergy – that’s a great experience to have your first time out.”

In international screenings, audience response to what Cole hopes will become the next “political date movie” has crossed generational lines.

Some of the most dynamic Q&A sessions have come from young adult audience members. Tellingly, many didn’t even know what “the draft” was before seeing the film, leading Cole and crew to create an explanatory prologue montage.

On the other side lie the Vietnam veterans, some of whom have approached Cole after screenings to say, “I pushed out of my mind the memory of these emotions until now. And it took me right back.”

“We’re in a very similar time now, the difference being that then the draft was ongoing, but now it’s not,” Cole said. “But the ongoing war is part of our psyche. So this is an important discussion to have.”

That, Cole said, is what drove “the guys,” i.e. his young cast members, to risk signing on to an independent feature with uncertain distribution prospects for relatively low pay.

Events roll out against a grainy, de-saturated Vietnam-era styling and a soundtrack and score – helmed by Cole’s wife, Erin O’Hara – that Cole says combined offer “homages all over the place” to iconic 1970s-era films.

Think not “Jaws” or “Towering Inferno” but grittier fare that delves into foible-ridden human messes on the small and grand scale: “The King of Marvin Gardens,” “Harold and Maude,” “Shampoo” and “Medium Cool.”

Cole’s workmanlike take on filmmaking has grown out of a skill set honed by Seattle’s fringe theater scene – he co-founded Annex Theatre – along with a steady series of editing and directing jobs. His body of work so far has left him with a clear understanding of how to get a film made.

“One of my strongest assets is that I show up every day to go to work,” he said. “And people respect that. And frankly, it’s rare.”

This professional maturity extends to his actors, who give measured performances that bely their youth.

“If you’re trying to tell the truth, and you’re going after it with a good heart, it’s going to be fine,” he tells them. “If you’re trying to hide, or trying to be coy...those are the kinds of blemishes that are going to be seen.”

That, along with everyone’s willingness to “work their arses off” is what gets a film made.

Cole and singer-songwriter-composer O’Hara recently began a professional and domestic experiment. They decided to divide their time between New York and their cabin in Suquamish, the scene of Cole’s 2004 documentary “Boomtown.”

On this, Cole’s home turf, the couple and their two young daughters are far more relaxed and able to enjoy life as a family.

The kids are in school on Bainbridge, O’Hara can work from the cabin, and Cole can seek out new projects.

“The more time we can spend together, and spend with our kids, the better. That’s what this environment promotes,” he said.

But projects are the rub. While New York gets everyone’s hackles a little bit higher – Cole notes a marked difference in his daughters’ tension level there, not to mention the necessity to take a standardized test to gain entry into the public school across the street from their building – that’s where the work is.

And although Seattle was a hot filmmaking spot in the 1990s, Cole now describes a region full of “enthusiasts, not professionals.”

But so far, the experiment is working well enough that he and O’Hara remain optimistic and content to let it play out. And he has a basic faith in the good that will come of his work.

“When you get an idea like this and put it out to the environment in a strong way and with a good heart, the world will respond,” he said.

So what was the first film Cole ever saw? As it happens, one that similarly dealt with the biggies: love, loss, heroism and the role of friendship in the development of self.

“Bambi.”

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Countdown

“Day Zero,” directed by Bryan Gunnar Cole, will be screened at the Historic Lynwood Theatre Jan. 18-24, with the filmmaker in attendance for Q&A at selected shows. See www.lynwoodtheatre.com for times, and see www.dayzerothemovie.com.

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