Film Notes

Jason Smilovic's Prime 'Number'

Friday, April 7, 2006

Almost 10 years ago, Jason Smilovic did what any newly minted graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in political theory and philosophy would do. No, not law school or an entry-level position sorting some congressman's mail. He decided to become a screenwriter.

"I found out that I was born of the strictest aversion to work," says Smilovic, now 32, and with his decade-old screenplay hitting theaters as "Lucky Number Slevin"(see review on Page 40), a twisty, verbally dexterous thriller starring Josh Hartnett, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis and Ben Kingsley. "I wanted to be a writer because that was something I really and truly enjoyed, and that never felt like work to me."

Wait a minute. Writing isn't work?

"No, no, no, no, no," he says, correcting himself. " That was a 23-year-old talking. Now, as a working writer, I know that writing is torture. Writing is work. Writing is hell. I hate those writers who say that writing isn't work and that it comes easy and that they think that everything that they write is great. Let me be very clear: Writing is very much work for me. And I hate everything I write."

Harsh self-criticism from someone, who, at 28, was already a Hollywood wunderkind. Despite that unproduced screenplay (which Smilovic kept "putting back in the drawer and taking out" while shopping it around), he did manage to finish something. In 2003, he was the creator and co-executive producer of the TV series "Karen Sisco," based on a character from the Elmore Leonard novel and Steven Soderbergh film "Out of Sight." And shooting has recently wrapped on the pilot of "Kidnapped," another dramatic series written by Smilovic and starring Delroy Lindo, Timothy Hutton and Dana Delany. He hopes it will debut on NBC in late summer or early fall.

So when does the self-loathing stop?

"When you get paid," Smilovic says with a laugh. "When you're a kid and you're working on a script, you're focused on someday being a professional screenwriter, so there's no pressure. It's a hobby. It's something to do after your day job ends. And you don't ever really get a chance to think it through. You're not at the point yet where you can even begin to feel the pressures of trying to maintain artistic integrity or trying to make a deadline."

As for artistic integrity, Smilovic says he owes a debt of gratitude to a long list of influences. "Alfred Hitchcock, obviously. The films of Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Robert Wise, Robert Altman's film 'The Long Goodbye. He's been a huge influence on me. Anything by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, J.D. Salinger. Anything I ever read by Shakespeare, any play I ever saw."

Oh, and indirectly, his father.

"When I was younger," he says, "my father owned a lot of video stores. I used to watch as many movies every week as humanly possible."

Despite that youthful obsession, Smilovic insists that "Slevin" is anything but a film geek's film. "There's probably less than 10 references to films in the movie," he says. While acknowledging that the arch dialogue and stylized look of the film are "heightened" and that "it doesn't mimic life in any way that we know it," he denies that his creation is supposed to feel like a movie. "That's like saying 'Star Wars' feels like a movie. Or 'Superman' feels like a movie, or 'Casablanca' feels like a movie, or 'The Lady Eve' feels like a movie, or anything made before 1948 feels like a movie."

Like anything created by any artist -- musician, photographer, painter, novelist -- the world of "Slevin" is, according to Smilovic, "a place that has been conceived, and not one that has been drawn from daily experience. I think it's a world that is a world unto itself and that is not meant to look like your own world and not meant to sound like your own world."

-- Michael O'Sullivan

Piedmont Film Festival

George Mason University's Friends of Film presents the inaugural Piedmont Filmmakers Festival, Friday through Sunday in Warrenton, showing films by and about the people of the Virginia Piedmont region.

Friday night, director Richard Squires will lead a post-screening discussion of his 2004 film "Crazy Like a Fox," about a farmer fighting to keep his land from developers. Saturday morning brings two family films by Tom Davenport, and four short documentaries screen Saturday afternoon. Rappahannock County resident Ron Maxwell will discuss his 1978 TV film, "Verna: U.S.O. Girl," after its Saturday night screening. Sunday features documentaries and student films, capped by an evening performance by the Piedmont Regional Orchestra. The festival is at the Highland Center for the Arts at 597 Broadview Ave. in Warrenton. For information and tickets, call 540-347-1221, Ext. 1033, or visit http://www.piedmontfilmmakersfestival.com/ .

-- Christina Talcott

New French Prints

This weekend the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring screens a new print of Robert Bresson's 1967 film "Mouchette," about a young girl's struggle against isolation and horrible circumstances and the chance encounter that changes her forever. For tickets, showtimes and more information, call 301-495-6720 or visit http://www.afi.com/silver/new . Sunday at 2 the National Gallery of Art presents a free screening of "J'Accuse," Abel Gance's silent 1919 antiwar epic shot in France. When two men meet in the trenches, they discover that the one is sleeping with the other's wife, and their conflict comes to mirror the horrors of the war around them. Pianist Robert Israel accompanies the film, playing the original musical score. This screening, in the East Building Auditorium in conjunction with the museum's "Dada" exhibit, will feature the American premiere of a new 35mm print. Call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov/ginfo/calendar.shtm .

-- Christina Talcott


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