The first day of shooting ANJLZ begins on a cold mid-November morning, in a large garage located on an estate in Free Union, just west of Charlottesville. A group of people, most still looking sleepy and clutching cups of coffee, are milling about in two small rooms adjacent to the garages main bay. A few move with purposescribbling on clipboards, opening make-up kitsbut most look as if they are waiting for someone.
At 8am sharp that someone arrives. Paul Wagner, the director and co-writer of ANJLZ , is an unassuming presence at first glance, a man of medium height and medium build, with a salt-and-pepper beard and dressed in black jeans and a pullover. His hands are in his pockets, and he looks a little chilly as he makes his way to the coffeemaker in the corner. He says a few hellos.
His relaxed demeanor, however, belies how much is at stake. Wagner, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and a Charlottesville resident, has invested a lot of himself and asked a lot of others to get this project going. With ANJLZ , Wagner hopes to make a dark comedy, or, as he calls it, a metaphysical farce, about a man who makes a deal with the devil and the angels who try to save him. It will be, he hopes, a film that will tackle issues of faith and redemption without taking them too seriously. Its an ambitious step for a man whose career has largely been spent making documentaries, with only one real feature film to his credit.
The director, with coffee now, moves into the make-up room to check how the actors are coming along. He talks with an assistant director, who then motions at some production assistants. People begin to move a little faster. ANJLZ gets rolling.
Wagners name is familiar to anyone who has been consistently involved in local theater and filmmaking during the past several years. He is a founder and board member of LightHouse, a nonprofit media-education center for teenagers, and he regularly teaches and heads workshops on documentary filmmaking for that organization. He is also on the board of Live Arts, the citys premier non-professional theater company. He sat on the search committee that recruited Richard Herskowitz, the current director of the Virginia Film Festival. And despite being involved in the community, he hasnt neglected his own career, taking on projects for public television.
His greatest accomplishment since his move to town in the early 1990s came in 1998, when Wagner directed Windhorse , his first feature, a stirring, thoughtful drama about the struggles of a Tibetan family in the shadow of the Chinese occupation. To make it, Wagner conducted an underground shoot on location, under the nose of the Chinese authorities, with a cast composed largely of native Tibetans who had never acted before.
The film was received well by criticsthe San Francisco Chronicle called it amazing, a searing political drama that rips the veils off Western idealism about Tibetand won audience awards at three film festivals. It won the award for Best U.S. Feature at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where Wagner was also awarded Best Director.
Now Wagner is taking on perhaps his biggest challenge with ANJLZ , a film that is in most senses an entirely local production. Wagner wrote the script in collaboration with Charlottesville resident and novelist Karl Ackerman; the cast is composed almost entirely of Live Arts veterans and former UVA students; crew were generally drawn from Charlottesville and Richmond; Will Kerner, a founder of Live Arts and a well-known photographer, is producing the film. Local investors have provided most of the money for the production. In addition, virtually the entire 18-day shootmost of the action in ANJLZ takes place in one mansionis at Travigne, the Albemarle home of a former Internet executive.
Every effort is being made to keep ANJLZ a cheap, streamlined production. As he did with Windhorse , Wagner is shooting ANJLZ entirely on digital video, which is considerably cheaper than film. The cast and crew are working, for the moment anyway, on a volunteer basis, having accepted deferred salariesif ANJLZ makes money, they get paid. The budget for the film, including the salaries, will total about $300,000.
The prospects for ANJLZ after it is completed are uncertain, but Kerner and Wagner will try to get the film into festivals, and then secure a cable deal. Cable seems a far likelier scenario than theatrical distribution for a small independent film.
ANJLZ will test the resources Wagner has developed over his career, a career that began in the early 70s when he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in behavioral research. In what was pretty much an accident, Wagner took a class in documentary filmmaking taught by Sol Worth, a pioneering anthropologist and a brilliant, difficult guy, with whom, Wagner further says, he had a terrific personal relationship.
The class had a huge impact on Wagner. He knew he wanted to make documentaries. He promptly quit school, hit the library, and watched as many films as possible in an attempt to educate himself about filmmaking. In time, he fell in with a group of folklorists at the Smithsonian Institute, assisting them in research projects and doing films based on the ideas.
Through the class, and then the Smithsonian projects, Wagner developed what he called an anthropological approach to filmmaking that has informed his work ever since.
That was the key thing, he says. That sort of set my direction as a filmmaker, particularly as a documentary filmmaker. And so everything that Ive done I think has been pretty much in that ballpark. Certainly the documentaries, and even Windhorse is very sort of ethnographic, even as a feature film.
In 1984, Wagners career got a significant jump-start. In collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Office of Folklife Programs, Wagner, with his friend Marjorie Hunt, made The Stone Carvers, a documentary on a group of Italian-American artisans. The charming 30-minute film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Wagner says he doesnt think The Stone Carvers is necessarily better as a piece of work than other films he has made, but he acknowledges what the Oscar meant for him.
It had two effects. The big one isand its sort of ridiculousbut it gives you this phrase, Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Long after people have forgotten The Stone Carvers , you keep using this phrase relentlessly, he says in his High Street office. And the press picks it up, and it gives you an identity, which whether its earned or not or deserved or not, is just sort of irrelevant. It just has the function of giving you this one phrase that gets attached to you, and you know what? Its great to be able to use that, so I use it.
But in a more personal way, it also sort of legitimized the direction of these ethnographic films, or anthropologically based films, as being something other than an academic exercise, he goes on.
In other words, it didnt have to be a boring documentary in which nothing happens because youre looking at real people in their everyday liveswhich might be some peoples assumption about a film like that. But in fact it proved to me that the possibilities for telling a story in that context were terrific, that they could be moving and exciting and thought-provoking and all sorts of things that films need to be successful, even though the people were unknown, or their stories not important in some ways.
Wagner’s other films in the 1980s and 90s centered on a variety of different topics, though all to some degree displayed Wagners ethnographic sensibilities. There was Miles of Smiles: Years of Struggle , which told the history of the Pullman Porters, who formed the country’s first black labor union. There was a profile of playwright George C. Wolfe; a film about the traveling medicine show, which featured many of the few remaining medicine show performers; and Out of Ireland , which dealt with the history of the Irish emigration to America.
His career took another turn in 1993, when Wagners niece, Julia Elliott, was arrested by the Chinese police while traveling inside Tibet for taking pictures during a protest demonstration. The event inspired Wagner to talk to her, and her Tibetan boyfriend, Thupten Tsering, about helping him with a film about Tibet.
There are and were a number of documentaries about modern-day Tibetlegions of artists have protested the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government since its invasion in 1951and Wagner and company soon decided that this film would be a feature. Even this, however, would be a feature somewhat continuous with the directors earlier work.
They had ideas about what the story could be about, in terms of representing the story for young people specifically, Wagner says. Not just this bigger political story about the Dalai Lama, but rooted in the lives of everyday people, people who are not the Dalai Lama, but who have dramatic stories because their lives were dramatic, and their lives dramatized these broader and cultural forces. So that became the approach, which sort of meshed with the way I had always looked at things.
Windhorse made many people look at Wagner differentlyeven his friends. One of these was novelist Karl Ackerman, who had known Wagner since he moved to town.
Id seen a lot of his documentaries before Windhorse , and I remember one afternoon he came over and [Jennifer, Ackermans wife] and I sat down and watched a rough cut of Windhorse with him, Ackerman says. And I remember beingas well as I knew him at that pointkind of stunned with two things about him as a filmmaker: No. 1, that his movies are really smart; and No. 2, that he is really concerned about story and character.
About one-and-a-half years ago, Ackerman and Wagner began to talk about collaborating on a project. The original idea, they say, was to make a film that could be shot on a single Charlottesville location, with a small cast. Ackerman had been planning a short story about the final day in the life of a wealthy man, and the two discussed ways to make this into a film.
Both men attended parochial schools, and they soon decided to infuse the story with elements from their shared background, what Wagner calls a cultural Catholicism, where youve grown up with these ideas and ways of thinking about these ideas.
In ANJLZ , Sharif and Victor, two angels, travel to the country home of Bobby Buchanan, who they know will die that day, to do his soul crossing. (The title refers to the vanity plate on the back of the angels beat-up van.) What the angels dont know, due to a cosmic mix-up, is that Buchanan long ago made a deal with the devil10 years of wealth and power in return for his soul at the endand that Azazel, the black angel, will soon be arriving on the scene to collect the debt. Victor, over the objections of Sharif, decides to disrupt the process and help save Bobby.
The religious characters in the script, angel or not, are not given an easy treatment in ANJLZ . Sharif is a cynical, hard-boiled pragmatist; and Victor is more crafty than holy. No one is particularly concerned with doing the right thingits following the rules, or getting away with bending them, that concerns them. Nevertheless, the script isn’t wholly cynical, and at the end, to paraphrase the script itself, shit is transformed into love.
The script is clever, but films, such as 1999s Dogma , which mix religion and satire, faith and farce, have a history of backfiring with audiences and sometimes provoking controversy. When youre funny, youre too flip; when youre serious, youre too earnest. Its tough to strike the right note, and thats why such movies are always risky undertakings, particularly by newcomers to feature filmmaking. In other words, theres no guarantee that ANJLZ will work as a film, and quite a lot to suggest it wont.
Whether they have something at stake in the project or not, those who know Wagner well express enormous confidence in his abilities.
Kerner, ANJLZ photographer-producer who also produced Windhorse , has had ample opportunity to observe Wagner work both on and off the set; the two share an office on East High Street.
I think hes a very skilled, patient, thorough, even-keeled personality, Kerner says. I dont think Ive ever seen him on the set lose his temper or anything like that. In a production, whether its Windhorse or ANJLZ , the nature of filmmaking is such that there are so many variables, so many people involved, so many different unforeseen things that can happen, that the attribute he has of being able to stay calm through it all I think is one that is really key to creating a positive work environment.
Richard Herskowitz, who showed Windhorse at the 1998 Virginia Film Festival, calls the director immensely talented.
Hes one of these filmmakers who really fully embraces the project and tackles each job in a fresh way, Herskowitz says. I really think hes one of those people that just loves learning about new things, and so he throws himself into each project without it already having a strong connection to something he already knows.
While Wagner may have the skills to conduct a successful shoot, whether he will be able to turn the script of ANJLZ into a successful movie is a different story. But the director himself does not sound worried about the outcome. For Wagner, the unpredictability, and the risk, is part of the fun.
Thats the nature of this process, and what to me is so exciting about it, that its always redefining itself, he says. Something that seems so important at one point in the process, once you move to the next stage doesnt mean anything. And that to me is sort of liberating, because it means you can make horrible mistakes early on and you dont have to pay for them. On the other hand, you can take extreme risks that might pay fabulous dividends.
And I think thats sort of where we are in our thinking about the script. You look at the page, and you think, to oversimplify: Is it possible to make a joke about death? Particularly after September 11? Can you joke about death?
Well, I dont know. But Im going to find out.
Its mid-morning , a bit later on the first day of the shoot. Wagner and some of the crew are on location at a nearby estate. The property has been chosen as the site for the films few exterior shots primarily because it happens to feature a large gate, which Wagner wants in the film.
Things have been running smoothly all morningseveral of the crew comment how well the first day has goneand Wagner is purposeful but calm, cracking a few jokes. For the most part everyone is smilingfor now.
The director grabs a bagel, and works with the photographer on the angle for the next shot, which will capture the angels as they drive through the opening in the gate in their dilapidated Volkswagen van.
Wagners not entirely happy with the set-up, because the angels are supposed to be speeding and the gate doors dont open as quickly as he would like. However, he knows he can speed up the shot in the editing process.
For a few seconds he looks at the monitor, examining the framing.
Yes, he says finally. That will work.