When I reviewed Mark Freiburger’s debut film Dog Days of Summer less than four years ago, I described it as having “the period spookiness of Something Wicked This Way Comes” with “macabre touches hinting of Tennessee Williams… and the lighter moments of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me.” That’s pretty serious praise for an indie “faith market” film.
Since then, Freiburger has worked on three other feature films—as screenwriter on The List and The Trial, both directed by Gary Wheeler, and now on the straight-to-DVD release Jimmy.
This latest effort tales the remarkable and utterly believable tale of a developmentally disabled teenager with a phobia about water... and an honest streak that gets him into trouble when he overhears troubling conversations. As he did with Dog Days, Freiburger pulls a noteworthy performance out of Ian Coletti in the title role, a performance that is worth buying or renting the film to see. You won’t soon forget having seen Jimmy, and its redemptive storyline will stick with you a long, long time.
Upon the release of the film to DVD last week, I exchanged some emails with Freiburger. A portion of that conversation is recorded below.
Greg Wright: You’ve been working closely with Gary Wheeler for a number of years now—pretty much your whole professional career, as Gary even gets “Special Thanks” on your feature debut. And your last three projects together have all been adaptations of Robert Whitlow novels. This time out, though, you “flipped roles,” as Gary puts it, with Gary writing and you directing. How did that decision come about? Was it connected to your success working with younger actors in Dog Days of Summer?
Mark Freiburger: Yes, Gary and I have been collaborating for about 6 years now. The film version of Jimmy began developing when he gave me a copy of the novel back in 2007-2008 I believe. He had seen Dog Days of Summer and was helping me find distribution on that film at the time. He thought I had a knack for working with younger actors, so he suggested I read the novel for Jimmy and consider directing it. After I read it, I told him I loved the story, and especially loved the challenge of making a film where I’d have to work with an actor to create a mentally disabled character and make it believable for an audience. Once Robert Whitlow approved Gary’s decision to bring me on as the director for the film, we then spent a few years developing it and finally shot the film after we all completed our work on The Trial.
GW: You do seem to have a knack both for the aesthetics of film (a trait you share with Gary) as well as working with young actors. Was there some element of the story of Jimmy that you connected with in particular?
MF: Yes. I love underdog stories... especially stories about individuals who are overlooked by society, yet end up becoming heroes to those same people who had once written them off.
GW: The success you’ve had as a young filmmaker looks a lot more like the track record you’d expect from a UCLA grad than an alum of North Carolina School of the Arts’ film program. What do you think your strengths are, as a filmmaker?
MF: Let me interject a little something here first for your readers. The UNCSA Film program is considered to be on the same level as UCLA’s program. The Hollywood Reporter recently ranked UNCSA the #12 Film School in the entire world... up there with AFI, Beijing Film Academy, USC, and the national French film academy, Le Femis.
GW: That’s good to know. I imagine I’ve got a fairly typical West Coast bias when it comes to film schools because, well, Hollywood is West Coast, too. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That sort of thing.
MF: UNCSA’s alumni have been making major waves in Hollywood over the past few years, not to mention the fact that one of our alum, Jeff Nichols, had back-to-back films in feature competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year and last—a feat that I don’t think any other American film school alum has reached in recent years. Just need to spread a little love for my Alma mater.
That being said, back to the second half of your question... I would say I’ve just made a point to focus heavily on the basics of good storytelling, and working with actors to draw out the best performances possible. Directing actors is one of my favorite parts of the filmmaking process. I’m always looking for ways to strengthen that skill in between movies as well, whether it be directing actors on the stage, taking workshops that focus on working with actors, scene study, or just helping actor friends prepare for their auditions. I have a special place in my heart for actors, and I’m amazed at the guts they have to be able to do what they do.
GW: The last time I formally checked in with Gary, on the DVD release of The Trial, I specifically asked him about his working relationship with you. He said, “The Bible talks about how pleasant it is when brothers work together in unity.” Gary got his start about ten years earlier than you did. How did your artistic bonding come about?
MF: Gary Wheeler is one of the best guys I’ve ever met in this business, and he has also become one of my closest friends in recent years. We met after he hired my editor Jonathan Olive to cut his first film The List. Jonathan thought Gary and I had similar sensibilities, and that we should meet up. When Gary came to L.A. to finish post-production on The List, we met in person for the first time, and soon after a great working relationship began.
GW: Gary says the two of you “work together toward a common goal, and that common goal is to impact culture. And to tell stories in professionally-made, competent films that are comparable in every way to other films out there.” Is there anything you can add to that “mission statement”?
MF: I would agree with that. I would just say that Gary and I have always worked our hardest and made attempts to strive for excellence, even when the budgets we’ve had to work with have been very small. Just because you have limited resources, doesn’t mean you have to settle.
GW: This summer, you’ll also be interning with Michael Bay thanks to your win in the Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” ad contest. How have your early interactions been in swimming with the “big fish”?
MF: Winning the Super Bowl ad contest with Doritos, combined with the release of Jimmy and the production of the current film I’m directing have created a perfect storm of open doors in my career this year. I’ve met with production companies all over Hollywood that I used to only dream about meeting with, and new films are being developed out of that process. I am very, very thankful for these opportunities. And I’m very much looking forward to learning from Michael Bay later this summer and fall. He’s doing a wonderful thing by taking on a mentee and allowing me access to his world.
GW: Have you been happy with the responses you’ve been getting to Jimmy?
MF: Very happy. It’s the first film I’ve been a part of where it seems like everybody either likes it or loves it. That’s a bizarre feeling. With each film you make, there are always going to be people that hate your movie or feel indifferent about it. But this is the first time I’ve worked on a film where people only seem to be saying positive things. It’s also been nice to see how well it’s been selling in its first week of release. I’m told a lot of stores, and even online retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, sold out within the first few days, and have had to order more copies. Hopefully folks that see the movie will continue to spread the word and tell others to check it out as well.
GW: Is Bay familiar with your body of work?
MF: Yes. He’s aware that I’m directing my third film, and he’s obviously very familiar with my Doritos commercial since he was such a big part of that whole selection process.
GW: What’s next in the pipeline for you and Gary, and for you personally?
MF: Gary and I are both working on our own projects individually at the moment. I’m currently directing a romantic comedy starring Josh Lucas and a bunch of great up-and-coming young talent—we’re in the middle of casting as we speak. I’m also developing a sports themed movie for a production company that’s run by one of the producers of the Dark Knight franchise and new Man of Steel movie. My managers have also been sending me a lot of scripts and underlying material to consider as my next film to direct, and I’ve found two projects that I’d love to take on, so we’ll see how those develop over time.
Gary is currently directing back-to-back movies for the UP Network (formally known as GMC) this summer, and he’s going to be directing another Robert Whitlow adaptation this fall, so he’s staying very busy as well. Even though we’re working on our own projects at the moment, Gary and I are still looking for the next appropriate project to collaborate on together.
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