A clean-cut, fast-talking Jersey boy, Jon Bowden is the antithesis of the moody, inscrutable auteur. At the same time, he’s a notch too iconoclastic, or perhaps too much of a wiseass, to be mistaken for one of those glibly ambitious smart-guys that infest and infect Hollywood. Bowden’s second comic feature, The Full Picture, which premiered at SF Indiefest in 2009 and begins its theatrical run June 11, centers on two grown brothers who came to San Francisco years ago to escape their scandal-stained adolescence and overbearing mother. Mark (played by Daron Jennings) has neither gotten over the past nor spoken about it to his girlfriend, and Mom’s imminent visit (the title derives, at least in part, from her inappropriate snapshot obsession) threatens to blow the lid off his neat, tightly controlled life. The Full Picture runs June 11-17 at the Roxie, and also screens June 24 at the Smith Rafael Film Center with Bowden and Bettina Devin (who plays the mother) in person. I met with Bowden met over coffee at Quetzal’s Internet Cafe on Polk.
SF360: What is the secret to film comedy?
Jon Bowden: For me, it’s being as naturalistic as humanly possible. I think the greatest comedy plays out in real life. For me, it’s the tempo of things, and having the actors try not to be funny. I think that is one of the things that kills comedy.
SF360: Are you saying that in real life, people are funniest when they’re not trying to be funny?
Bowden: There are funny people, but that’s who they are. That’s part of their personality. When people suddenly try to be funnier than they truly naturally are, that’s when it dies. That’s crickets to me. There’s nothing worse than that. When we cast this film, I was looking for people who believed in what they were saying. If they found a little lightness in it, that’s great. But so long as I was able to see that they believed it, then I could work the moment.
SF360: So you didn’t want actors who were going to wink at the camera.
Bowden: Exactly. I didn’t even want someone to say, ‘I can’t wait to say this line!’ and then hammer it home, smile and do a little dance. I was looking for the people that would give me the line exactly as written on the page with the right emotional thread. And I think a lot of my cast was surprised how funny [the film] was upon their first viewing. Because we’re playing it true to life. Those moments are very funny from the outside looking in, those uncomfortable moments, those moments when the conversation completely goes 180. Those are great moments in real life. So that’s what we were going after. To me, that’s the key, to be able to play the drama through, to be able to play the material through and let the writing and the comedy take care of itself.
SF360: I appreciated that each character in The Full Picture has an edge, as opposed to the designated wiseass in Hollywood comedies whose surrounded by straight people or buffoons.
Bowden: I cannot stand it when you have the one funny guy. [This movie] is about a family. There’s a lot of comedy with daily interactions with your family, particularly when you don’t see your family for a long time and you realize how crazy everyone is. That was the thing that was most attractive to me, taking a horrific event that happened in the past and have them not talk about it for a very long time, and then throw them in the same room.
SF360: That so-called horrific event works the way a MacGuffin does in a Hitchcock film.
Bowden: We never really address it straight on as far as filling in the whole backstory about the father. You’re able to glean the story through what the characters say. That was my way of making it a little bit different, a little bit unusual, and more about the moment and the characters than the big reveal. I found there was nothing that I could do as a writer that would make the big reveal big enough. Those [drafts] always seemed fake and false and quite Hollywood in a weird way, but we weren’t making a Hollywood film.
SF360: Speaking of different versions, how did you turn your three-act play Big Mouth into The Full Picture?
Bowden: Step one was ditching the play. I knew certain lines and the general structure I had to keep, but it was a 100 percent rewrite. That was essential because [it made me] rethink everything. It’s funny because in the play I have a flashback that I don’t have in the film. No one is anticipating a flashback in the play, while everyone’s anticipating a flashback in the film. One screenwriting [tip] is, “Flashbacks are a cheap way out.” So [the challenge was] expanding the story, and how do you keep the momentum going, where in the play it’s like stream of consciousness. It’s far more verbose, it’s something where you let the actors basically duke it out in this room. You need to keep that narrative thread, but totally rework it, keeping just the bones. As a matter of fact, Graeme Clifford, who’s a filmmaker (Gleaming the Cube) but has gone on to do a lot of theater, is thinking about doing the play. He saw the film first; he was being honored at the Red Rock Film Festival when I was there. Who’d ever think they’d do a film and then want to go back and do the play? But I think that’s the key. It’s just like [adapting] a book. You’ve got to rethink it entirely.
SF360: What does that mean from a cinematic standpoint?
Bowden: More locations, shorter scenes, stretching it out over an entire weekend rather than taking place in one night. And boiling down the dialogue. The play is just chock full. It’s all you have: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Even though [the film is] dialogue driven, it’s not like a play.
SF360: Talk a little bit about adapting the play to a San Francisco setting.
Bowden: I’m living in one of the most picturesque cities in the world. I’d be a moron not to [set the film here]. Once I started to embrace the idea of doing it in the city, I found a metaphor in Sutro Tower. The tower, to me, is a very important aspect of the film. It’s one of those things that’s totally for the movie geeks. If you watch it a bunch of times, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m beginning to understand what the tower is.’ The tower is the elephant in the room. It’s always there, it’s always visible, and Hal alludes to it as the thing that nobody ever mentions. You can see this alien piece of shit from every corner of the city, but nobody ever mentions it. Like the backstory of the Fosters, always present and nobody’s ever talking about.
SF360: It feels like a San Francisco movie, and not just because of the Sutro Tower shots and the day the family spends sightseeing after the mother arrives.
Bowden: It couldn’t be any other place. If someone were to say ‘Hey, I love this film, I think we should throw X, Y, Z stars in there,’ I’d still feel like, ‘You’ve got to do this in San Francisco.’ One other little thing: San Francisco is a town people escape to. Few people are from here, you know? And everyone has histories elsewhere. Rarely do you hear, ‘I moved here, and then my parents moved in. It’s great!’ No one wants their parents out here! Everyone came out here because they wanted to be on their own and get away from something. That’s why the brothers are here. They’re transplants, and this is their purgatory where they duke it out. That’s an important aspect of this city that I think is showcased in the film.
SF360: Once you set the film here, what was your next big decision?
Bowden: When I raised the first $100,000, I could have easily said, ‘OK, this is casting money. Let’s go down to LA, let’s try to get people involved in this, let’s make this project bigger.’ I might take the investors’ money and squander it trying to get a big casting director, trying to land X, Y, Z in the main role. That would have been a much different film and I could have had a greater chance of success. But there was no guarantee.
SF360: Do you feel that sooner or later you’ll have to go to New York or Los Angeles to take the next step in your career?
Bowden: The truth is, San Francisco needs independent filmmakers to be a success and then stay. Would I have the balls to be that guy? If opportunity truly knocked and I could work in L.A.? Honestly, seriously, I’d go. But the fact is, if I could do it here, I’d love to. This is where I call home now, my wife has an acupuncture practice here, our kid was born here. So I’d love to be able to make it happen here. It’s a question of, Can you?
SF360: Let’s flash back to your debut feature, Eddie’s Dead, made with Scott Rothman in 2001. What lessons did you take from that experience?
Bowden: There’s no better learning process than screwing everything up. Not that we did. There were a lot of things that were great about it. Our goal was to have a great production. But it wasn’t to make a great film. We were really close friends, and we were so committed: ‘Let’s have the best production in the world.’ A lot of people who worked on the film told us, ‘Yours is the most well-oiled, managed production.’ That’s really great. And the film? Eh, not so great.
SF360: That’s not a story that first-time filmmakers typically share.
Bowden: At the end of the day, what we realized was all that matters is the story. Truthfully, as director, I didn’t know what I was doing. I went and took years of acting courses [at Shelton Studios]. It irked me that during Eddie’s Dead I felt like some of the actors held it over my head. They were like, ‘This is an actor thing. We’re going to talk about this.’ I never wanted an actor to be like, ‘He’s not going to understand this.’ I’m the director. Hell, that’s my job to understand.
SF360: The upshot is that The Full Picture is a better film, even if the production was chaotic and people got run over along the way.
Bowden: Well, there were a only a few minor breakages. Sprains, really. Actually, the production was well organized. I learned to keep the same things that worked, but focus on what’s truly important, and that’s the story and the characters. That’s what’s on film. At the end of the day, that really is all that matters.
With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.
Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.
Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.
Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.
Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’
For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.
Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.
Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.