Thursday, July 26, 2012

Movie Review - Saltwater

(SPOILER ALERT)

The second feature film, written, produced and starring Ronnie Kerr, centers on Will, a soldier in the Navy who comes to live with Rich, his best friend in Los Angeles. Will retires or else doesn't re-enlist, so that he can figure out the next move in his life, but Rich plays matchmaker and sets Will up with Josh, a fellow Navy soldier from Australia. The two connect but a misunderstanding separates the two and over the course of a half-year, their small circle of friends continually try to push them together, forcing the question of whether they will pursue a relationship with one another or not, a question promulgated by an unforeseen tragedy.

Saltwater premiered on July 14 at the 18th Annual Philadelphia Qfest. Qfest is the east coast's largest LGBT film festival and the third largest of its kind in the nation. Saltwater played to a sold-out crowd in the Ritz Bourse theater. It also played to a near, sold-out crowd the next day at the Ritz East, an even bigger venue. Because it was a World Premiere, Kerr says Qfest made his movie a kind of centerpiece, arranging a special After-Party in the city's multilevel, piano bar, Tavern on Camac.

Kerr says he started working on the script for Saltwater about six months after the premiere of his previous film, which also debuted at Qfest in July 2010. The death of Kerr's real-life friend, Rich, on New Year's Eve 2005 inspired the story. Rich was an ex-Marine, good-looking with a boyfriend and great friends. Yet, Rich hung himself, having exhibited no warning signs and leaving no suicide note. While the real-life Rich has a personality that's totally different from the on-screen version, not as flamboyant or out-going, Kerr wanted the on-screen death to be just as shocking as the real-life one.

Kerr has since made peace with the loss, but he hadn't seen a lot of films about suicide that dealt with it the way he saw fit. He wrote the rough draft about a series of couples, each facing the suicide, but seeing what would be most marketable, Kerr decided to focus more on one couple and the love story that evolved between the two. That couple ended up being Will and Josh. The couple still has to grapple with the suicide, which in terms of writing Kerr says was easy, but the couple also has this romance to contend, which in terms of writing Kerr says wasn't.

The reason the former was easier than the latter is seemingly counter-intuitive but does make sense. The movie is handling two things. It's juggling a romance and a tragedy, a tragedy that's introduced half-way through it. When it comes to romance and dating, Kerr says that's a more frequent occurrence than this specific tragedy. It's not as if most people have suicides on a weekly basis but most do have romantic dates on a weekly basis, if they're of a certain age. Ironically, Kerr says the high frequency of romantic dates or just dating in general was why it was difficult to write, whereas the low frequency of suicide made it easier to write.

The nature of experiencing a friend's suicide was so singularly emotional and unique that it stuck with him. The eulogy, for example, was so vivid in Kerr's mind that he didn't have much trouble penning the on-screen equivalent. Yet, the dating scenes were the reverse. Kerr says how he got through it, particularly the first date between Will and Josh, was by imagining a date he would love to have.

That first date isn't a perfect, romantic wish-fulfillment. The scene is perhaps the longest in the movie, clocking just under ten minutes. If the scene is perfect, it's perfect in its dramatic arc. Will meets Josh for the first time and it's initially awkward but then a rhythm develops. It's obvious that a connection and an attraction are made but when the conversation turns to gays in the military, a personal topic for both, things devolve into a tense argument.

Kerr says that when rewriting the movie, the ending changed. The focus changed and some dialogue had to be tweaked. Yet, he says this first date scene for the most part remained intact and it remained a scene of about 24 pages, mostly dialogue. While the movie is all about timing, the timing of this scene is very long. It could almost be its own short film, but it works. As a way of establishing and even building character, it works extremely well.

Given the limited funding and resources, the odds were stacked against the scene not working. Kerr says the total budget was only $10,000 and the filmmakers had merely six shooting days, and that particular scene had to be accomplished in only three hours, which is next to impossible. Even with the handheld camerawork and naturalistic style, to do it, Kerr says you need a cast and crew to be on point and bring their A-game.

Kerr says it helps when you work around people whom you trust. When the actor-turned-producer first came to L.A. in 1997, driving cross-country in his Dodge Lancer from New Jersey, the first few movie sets he worked taught him the value of working around people whom you trust and with whom you have a camaraderie. In fact, a lot of people involved in this production were friends or friends of friends, starting with the director Charlie Vaughn.

Vaughn came by way of Kerr's good buddy, Dylan Vox, but that alone wasn't enough to land Vaughn the job. Vaughn had experienced a suicide in his own life and unlike other directors, Vaughn understood and shared Kerr's vision of how that suicide should be told and even of how the romantic stuff should be told, especially with regards to nudity. Because of that shared vision, Kerr had faith that even under the conditions of limited funding and resources, Vaughn could pull off a 20-page scene in less than half-a-day.

Ian Roberts as Josh in "Saltwater"
Kerr says the scene was accomplished thanks in large part to his co-star Ian Roberts who plays Josh. Roberts is an Australian, former rugby player who became the first player in a competitive team sport to announce his homosexuality. He later graduated with an acting degree in 2003, but, because of his size, nearly two meters in height and 115 kilos in weight, Roberts only got certain kind of roles. Josh is actually the first gay character he's played and the first who is a romantic lead. Looking at his IMDB page, there is a diversity of roles but his demo reel certainly emphasizes his physicality, something the role of Josh doesn't, but any question or concern of how well this athlete-turned-actor could perform is assuaged after seeing the first date scene.

In another, Roberts proved himself not only a good thespian but a supportive one as well. Kerr had to give a very emotional speech toward the end. During Kerr's camera close-up, which didn't require Roberts to stand there and deliver lines, Roberts remained anyway, giving a performance, which Kerr says was immensely helpful.

It's that kind of dedication and support that gets these small, independent films made. It's also that kind of person whom one wants working with you. It's the kind that Kerr certainly wanted, and, as a result, Kerr and Roberts have become business partners as well as gym partners. Their future projects together haven't been announced, but their current film Saltwater will play in about a dozen or two festivals until its DVD release in December. It will open in Roberts' native Australia in early 2013.

Not Rated But Recommended 13 and Up.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 20 mins.
For more information, go to the Saltwater Facebook page or follow on Twitter.

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