Editor's note: Rob Nelson will report on Sundance documentaries in next week's issue.
Fiction Becomes Fact
The standout story among Minnesota filmmakers in Park City this year belonged to Minneapolis-based writer-director-actor Patrick Coyle, whose slyly resonant neo-noir Detective Fiction became the first fully Minnesotan feature to be presented in the prestigious American Spectrum portion of the Sundance Film Festival--on Coyle's 44th birthday, yet. Addressing the crowd at the sold-out world-premiere screening of the movie last Monday night, Sundance programmer Shari Frilot proclaimed that Detective Fiction "heralds a smart, fresh voice" in American cinema; then a sax player proceeded to serenade the Nebraska-born auteur with a surprise rendition of "Happy Birthday" while the audience sang along. It was a sweet moment, one well-earned by a filmmaker who has dared to defy current indie convention by creating a quirky drama that refuses to appear slick either in content or presentation. In fact, the stage-trained Coyle goes a step further by directing himself in a role that requires him to pull off a discomfiting form of anti-charisma in relation to MADtv's Mo Collins (a Minnesota native), who plays the Coyle character's estranged wife.
The day after the premiere, Coyle and I met for coffee in a bustling café at festival headquarters in the Park City Marriott to discuss the movie (adapted from his like-titled play), in which he stars as a recovering alcoholic pounding out pages of a hardboiled novel while struggling not to pound back drinks.
CITY PAGES: It has been almost 24 hours since your first screening. What has happened since then?
PATRICK COYLE: Well, some of it may not be printable [laughs]. Or maybe it is printable in City Pages.
CP: It is.
COYLE: Okay [laughs]. We had a Detective Fiction party at a bar last night, and it ended up being the place to be on Main Street. There was a line around the block. My wife and I went home at 1 a.m. to be with our daughter, and there was still a line of people waiting to get in the door. Anyway, after the bar closed, the party moved to a condo and lasted until 6 in the morning. I've been told that at one point a woman walked in completely naked with her boyfriend, who was also naked. Actually, he was on a leash. And they spent the evening like that. There was another woman canvassing the party, telling people that she was doing research for a documentary she's making called Third, about ménages à trois. She said she was looking for a couple that she could have sex with--for "research." The report I got was that she did find a couple, and the three of them did have sex at the party.
CP: "Coming soon to a film festival near you."
CP: How 'bout the buzz on your movie?
COYLE: We've received really positive feedback from a variety of sources. And I found out from my publicist that there were a couple of heavy-hitter reviewers at the screening [including Variety's Todd McCarthy], so we're expecting some ink. As for sales, my agent said it's his policy not to sell a film at a party: The atmosphere is too energetic, too emotional, too loaded with friendly fire. But there's definitely some interest out there.
CP: It seems to me that the challenge of this film for distributors is that it looks and feels like a true, old-fashioned indie--with dialogue rather than action, actors rather than stars. It's rough around the edges. And it was shot on film rather than video. Did you meet resistance from investors when you told them you were going to shoot in Super 16mm?
COYLE: Not from investors, but from my producer [Paul Johnson]. We had a big fight--or let's call it a really good argument [laughs]. He's a huge fan of digital video. He said that if we had $100,000 to spend, it would be absolutely foolish to spend it on film. We went back and forth on it, and I won the battle. As a result, the movie has a grainy look to it--a sort of timeless look--that we both love. I think it adds to the story. But it meant that I had to be incredibly organized with my shot list and my storyboards going in. And the actors had to be really well-rehearsed before we started: That was crucial. As for actually raising the money, we did it pretty quickly. I told my wife that if I couldn't raise the money in a year and a half, I wouldn't make the film. I looked her in the eye and swore that.
CP: That's interesting, because the movie itself is about the promises and negotiations that come with marriage, right? In fact, in the press kit you're quoted as saying, "Fundamentally, Detective Fiction is about the politics of sex."
COYLE: I think politics begins with yourself. Then you make a decision to move beyond yourself, to forge a relationship with another person, and you create this world. You decide to work at it: You negotiate with the other person, you compromise, you give and take, you choose your battles. Someone once asked me if Detective Fiction was a political film, and I said, "Yes, it's a very political film: politics at its most fundamental level."