Real to Reel

Minnesota filmmaker Wendell Jon Andersson has devoted the better part of his youth to creating his debut feature, With or Without You

There's a great scene about a half-hour in, which has Zoe riding a city bus in which a billboard touts "caring, confidential" pregnancy advice and a pregnant woman fills the seat next to her; eventually, a whole busful of folks appear with buns in the oven. On one hand, the scene provides a dash of surreal comedy and a chance for Andersson to show off his film editing acumen; on the other, it evinces his earnest desire to get deep inside Zoe's psyche. Compare this to Kevin Smith's careless treatment of the omnisexual cipher in Chasing Amy and you have a sense of what distinguishes Andersson from his peers.

While we're on the subject, let me mention that Smith's voiceover commentary on the Chasing Amy laserdisc pales beside the private "Criterion Collection" run-down I got from Andersson last week while the two of us screened his movie. The guy certainly made clear his passion for the film. ("She's at the threshold between the future and the past" is how he described the recreated shot of mother and child.) But he also revealed a thorough understanding of it--explicating everything from the color-coded costuming and the running water motif to the phallic model-rocket symbolism(!) and the cinematographic progression from dark to light.

Not surprisingly, his favorite line of dialogue belongs to Zoe. ("I'm gonna remember this," she says near the end. "I'm gonna feel it every time I breathe for the rest of my life.") But when Andersson began to describe the "dark quest" of his alter-ego, Alex (Kristoffer Ryan Winters, a dead-ringer for the director), in terms of Joseph Campbell, I felt convinced that I was in the presence of an auteur.

Given the melodrama inherent in With or Without You, it's a credit to Andersson that he manages to keep the histrionics at bay for the duration of the picture. His trick is in delivering two films in one: The first half works as a skillfully nimble sex comedy with witty dialogue and well-drawn supporting characters, suggesting a smarter John Hughes; while the second half heads for more adult territory, drawing unexpected pathos from Zoe and Alex's abrupt coming-of-age. As a double-sided calling card, With or Without You shrewdly displays its maker's ability to work in either register, with or without convention. But the shift in genre also mirrors the evolution of the characters: By the end, Zoe and Alex have outgrown their Pretty in Pink wardrobe just as the movie matures past the adolescent adage that you are what you wear.

As this split-personality narrative also means to bait and switch the potential core audience of college-age kids, Andersson hopes the film will be able to find that audience. Last week, while With or Without You was earning a warm reception from peers and paying customers at the L.A. Independent Film Festival, Andersson and his producer Robert Schwartz (a fellow MCAD grad and the producer of Disney's Minnesota-based Iron Will) were busy taking meetings at the William Morris Agency and the production company of actress Sally Field (an Andersson admirer from his Sundance days). They also shuttled the print to such distributors as Trimark (Eve's Bayou) and Fox Searchlight (The Full Monty). Andersson summarizes some of the more predictable industry feedback as follows: "They say, 'Well, it's not quirky enough to be Chasing Amy but it's too quirky to be a mainstream film, so without a big star to hang it on...'"

Strategically, Andersson is covering his bet with his two new projects: The mainstream property he's planning to pitch to Disney (and hoping to write but not direct) is called Astrochimps, an undeniably funny and rather sly concept having to do with apes, aliens, Armageddon, and outer space; while his personal project is As the Night the Day, set in a small town in Minnesota and loosely based on the state's rash of child sex-abuse cases.

Meanwhile, in terms of his desire to place With or Without You in the hands of those who'll give it the proper care, Andersson laments that the indie-film explosion of the last five years has ironically made it harder for directors in their infancy. "Because the business has been taken over by the Miramaxes and Fox Searchlights of the world, the decisions are back in the hands of Hollywood agents and executives rather than filmmakers and audiences. If Kevin Smith made Clerks today as his first movie, he'd still be in New Jersey."

Andersson, however, reflects the temperament of his home state by favoring the work ethic over the fine art of schmoozing. "At this point, if I have a successful career, I'd like my work to be the thing that sells me and not the fact that I had cold beers with some agent who's a friend of a friend of a friend who didn't see the film but heard I was a good guy."

With or Without You screens at St. Anthony Main on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. as part of U Film Society's Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival. Tickets are available only at St. Anthony Main prior to showtime.

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