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

When filmmaker Wendell Jon Andersson describes himself as "a pretty average white kid from Minnesota" and "not the deepest person in the world," he isn't being falsely modest, constructively masochistic, or nicely Minnesotan. He's just being himself--which happens to be a deeper story than it seems. Not unlike his debut feature, the romantic comedy-drama With or Without You, Wendell Andersson (no relation to our former governor) is a genuinely disarming type whose boyish appearance and affable demeanor are merely the first act of a plot that thickens over time, taking his audience unawares.

To wit: During the course of a lengthy interview at my house last week, I watched the young writer-director repeatedly fill a McDonald's cup with Mountain Dew (never mind my glassware) before going on to speak maturely about everything from the corporate ownership of alt-weeklies and arthouses to the indieness of George Lucas and a woman's right to choose. Accordingly, With or Without You begins as a somewhat typical post-adolescent farce: Geek meets punk, falls head over heels, and gets dumped on his ass. But then the punk discovers she's pregnant with the geek's kid and decides to give it up for adoption, causing these mismatched partners (and the film) to reveal more than first met the eye. The fact that this seemingly superficial tale is Andersson's "emotional autobiography" further proves its point: Looks don't always tell the whole story. "I just wanted to make an entertaining comedy-drama," says Andersson, 32. The fact is, this humble first-time filmmaker has accomplished something more.

At first glance, this blond-haired and blue-eyed Minneapolitan Swede--a cross between Ron Howard and the young Max von Sydow--appears positively blessed. A native of St. Cloud and a graduate of MCAD, he won the local Blockbuster/McKnight Film Fund Award three years ago for his first script, With or Without You. Soon after, he was invited to workshop his draft at the Sundance Institute with screenwriters Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects); and when he came back to the Institute a few months later for its Directors' Lab, he earned best wishes from "the Bob" himself, Robert Redford.

Returning to Minneapolis, he shot the film in 24 days on a million-dollar budget (using leftover stock from James Cameron's Titanic, yet), edited it on the digital AVID system, and recruited Jed Alpert, the guy who sold Sling Blade to Miramax, to represent it. Andersson spent last week at the L.A. Independent Film Festival, where his was one of 26 features chosen to screen from among 1,200 submissions; and on Saturday he'll introduce With or Without You at St. Anthony Main as the closing-night feature of the Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival--before following up an open invitation to pitch a story treatment at Disney.

On paper, the wunderkind's quick rise reads like very good luck. But, just as Andersson calls With or Without You the story of how "we have to be whole people before we can give ourselves to someone else," the film would not have been possible without its maker's own dramatic coming-of-age. Twelve years ago, when he was a 20-year-old "geek-boy" who'd just dropped out of Augsburg's pre-architecture program, Andersson met "a wild and dangerous girl" named Stephanie Falls at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut where they were both working and immediately fell in love with her. To make a long story short: As their partnership led to unplanned pregnancy and, in turn, to marriage, Wendell and Stephanie made the painful decision to give their child up for adoption. Three years later, Andersson had a new baby: the first draft of his screenplay.

"My initial impulse to make the film was that I wanted my son to know how I felt when we placed him for adoption," Andersson explains, swallowing hard. "And actually, the whole film was born out of this," he says, pointing to a black and white photo of Stephanie holding the baby on the last day the couple saw him. "We went to the foster home to visit him and I brought my camera. As I was loading the film, I looked up and saw Steph holding the baby, staring out the window with this...this look that has haunted me ever since." Indeed, a reenacted version of this melancholy shot made its way into one of Andersson's Super-8 productions at MCAD, and it reappears near the end of With or Without You, as Stephanie's screen counterpart, Zoe (Marisa Ryan), takes a long last look at her newborn baby before letting him go.

One of the many remarkable things about With or Without You is how well it works as a women's picture despite being an autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young guy. In a brisk 100 minutes, the 18-year-old heroine metamorphoses from a tough, tattooed chick who smokes while screwing (that's the first scene) into, well, the near-perfect picture of drug-free, lily-white motherhood. But at no point does Andersson attempt to domesticate Zoe or turn her into the poster girl for an anti-abortion tract. (Believably, her decision is made largely through indecision.) And Marisa Ryan's brash, authentic, no-bullshit performance allows Andersson's insightful direction to seem all the sharper.

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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