In director Allan Mindel's first film, Milwaukee Minnesota, Jane Fonda's son Troy Garity plays a young man with a mental impairment and a fine skill in fishing under the ice. Brought up by his controlling mother, Albert finds early on in the film, that he has to stand on his own two feet, fend off the attentions of others who are out to steal his money and prove to others that he can cope on his own. It's a low-key but engaging tale that avoids being patronising and over-sentimental, and minus those obvious pitfalls, it also features good cameo roles from actors like Bruce Dern and Randy Quaid.
MA: To start with, how would you describe your film to someone who hasn't seen it yet?
AM: It's got no specific genre. It's a coming-of-age love story, thriller, drama, black comedy, which is kind of representative of life and of human behaviour in that we all are a mixture of good and bad.
MA: How did the idea for the film come about? What interested you particularly in the idea ?
AM: Well, about 7 years ago, it was the first script I purchased for myself when I was producing. It began with the idea of me producing it, and a friend directing, I was part of the New Line family at the time. I'd produced six films with them including My Own Private Idaho. My friend said I should direct it rather than him. I was initially nervous. Could I direct? I'd worked with the likes of Bruce Webber and Gus Van Sant, could I be as talented as them? I thought perhaps I should stay behind the scenes but I was getting less interested in producing. I set it up initially with me directing and Tim Roth starring (we'd worked together on Bodies Rest and Motion and become friends) but that idea didn't get off the ground. Years later I was cleaning out an old cupboard and found this script again and it reawakened a desire in me to rewrite the story.
MA: In what way did it require re-writing years later?
AM: I chose to take out the drugs and sex, so I contacted the writer, and over 6 drafts, it began to turn into an American fable. I wanted to keep it small and simple to manage it as my first film. Location wise I wanted a city where time had passed it by. Writer Richard Murphy came from the Midwest and said 'I think you'll like Milwaukee' and I fell in love with the architecture when we went there for a weekend, Goldmans, the local fishing hall, main street.
MA: Shooting in the cold winter, can't have been easy. What were your biggest challenges in bringing the film to the screen?
AM: It was tough. I mean we had cameras breaking down with the cold, people falling on the ice, temperatures below -40 at night, everyone getting sick. Troy (Garity) and I got so sick, we had to close down for 48 hrs! We were blessed with tragedies. The film took 25 days to shoot over get this, an 18-month period! I lived for 7 months in Milwaukee. We ran out of money. The good thing was I had the backing of the actors. It was a small budget movie but they were so into it. That was a positive thing.
MA: Was it hard to find the financing then?
AM: I couldn't find anyone to finance it because of the nature of the script and the fact that I didn't have a headline cast, so myself, a friend of the family and his cousin just threw all our money into it. Then there was the stockmarket collapse in March of that year and we were scuppered. I mean we were 15 days into the shoot and we had to close down. Then we got sick.
MA: Did you think the film was jinxed?
AM: Well each time something came about to help us. It was like we were guided by an angel or something! It was total guerrilla filmmaking, with a crew of just 8 people. Every crew member did 4 jobs whilst the actors did props. My producer was the assistant director, the grip and the caterer! Director Paul Morrissey taught me a good lesson. He said you don't have to have a given location, big deal, find some other way to do it. I mean we couldn't go back to Albert's house for the second period of shooting. He said put a wall up, stick a bed in a room! We just matched everything. We glued the film together. Out of these terrible situations, better things appeared to form the movie in a new and better way than if I'd just shot it, all 25 days together. In some way, the break helped I think.
MA: Were you elated when you finally saw it through to a finish?
AM: It was like I was pregnant and I had to go, and I just did it. I gave birth and I was just so relieved I'd finished it. I'm proud of it, flaws and all, it was a miracle it got done at all!
MA: And the casting?
AM: Honestly anyone that I had the phone number of, is in the movie. I come from the world of actors. I go on my instincts. I have a vast array of actors in my mind which I'm a fan of. Troy came about completely by accident. Three weeks before shooting, I still didn't have an actor to play Albert. Josh Brolin appeared in the film by accident. I had prepared a one-day role for my friend Tom Jane who intended to be with me on a day off from shooting Dreamcatchers but they couldn't fly him from this obscure island off Vancouver to Milwaukee so over the second winter that I shot the film, I called Josh and he flew in and we remodelled the role for him. I skip around but I don't forget so back now to Albert. I was talking to Ellen Lewis who casts for Scorsese, and I asked her for someone who is not that recognizable who could play someone with Asperger's Syndrome, she gave me 10 actors and the only one I knew was Troy Garity whom I'd met at a Batman premiere with Elliott Gould's son! All the girls were around him that day, it was like honey to the bees. Here was Jane Fonda's son, he told me at the time he was a political activist and a graffiti artist. Cut to three years later, when he's taken up acting. Ellen told me he'd done a great reading for Gangs of New York but he wasn't going to get the role because he was the wrong age. I called him, he slightly remembered me. I sent him the script. The next day he called me and said 'I'm in!'. He was inspired to model the role of Albert on Dostoyevsky's character Prince Michigan in The Idiot, ie. a character who is more clever than others think he is. It's this idea that people assume if he's mentally disabled, he must think slower than they do. The idea of being an outsider and being able to triumph in a way that no one else believes you're capable of doing, really appealed to me. Teenage audiences like my film they tell me, because it identifies with that awkward age when no one thinks of you as an adult and all of a sudden, you blossom and rise to a point that no one else expects you to be able to rise to.
MA: You must have thought long and hard about the disability you would give to Albert to cope with ..
AM: Aspergers' syndrome we researched widely through the internet and realised this would be perfect for this champion ice fisherman, a genius in what he did but in other aspects of his life facing conflicts. But I didn't want to make an 'issue tissue' movie, so I refused to overdo it.
MA: What about the casting of legend actors like Randy Quaid and Bruce Dern?
AM: Randy I knew well. We'd often dined together with our other halves. I got to Bruce (Dern) through a contact who knew actress Diane Ladd who knew Bruce. I got a script to him and two days later, he'd signed up and I liked the idea of Bruce and Randy starring opposite each other. It was rather like The Last Detail meets The King of Marvin's Gardens without Jack Nicholson. I love casting. I think its 90% of a movie, I even call my friends and tell them who they should be casting in their movies.
MA: Your director of photography does a great job.
AM: I loved Bagdad CafÃ© which he did. I needed someone happy with the fact that I wanted to do a lot of myself. I like framing and lighting, I did a lot of it by instinct. I wanted my fingerprints on every frame, good or bad. If the result was a mess, I wanted it to be my mess.
MA: Have you got the bug now for directing?
AM: Yes, I'd like the opportunity to do it again. I don't know what else to do jobwise. I quit producing, I thought I was rubbish at it. This way I can be my own boss, it feels good and I would like to try it again, but its tough. I have a project I'd like so set in El Paso, I have actors ready who are interested but I need some money to enable my writer to work on it.
MA: You couldn't write it yourself?
AM: No, I don't have enough confidence. I think writing is a magical skill. I think my best skills are working with actors, photography, the blocking, sculpting a story. I call it my spaghetti theory in that what sticks, sticks, but I need a script. That's only a script and I then need to reinterpret it visually with my own dreamlike feeling. I don't have confidence with my dialogue so I need others to come up with that.
MA: Who are your influences in film?
AM: I'm influenced a lot by the Italian films of the 60's and 70's. I'm a big Italian film nut, films where humour is played straight and the humour of everyday life comes out. In terms of its reception initially, I said to others afterwards 'its funny, isn't it ?' and they'd like go, 'well .. no ...' and I'd like think they haven't got those parts that I thought played out like an Italian comedy where there's tragedy and melodrama and humour within the melodrama.
MA: Finally, what lies behind the title 'Milwaukee Minniesota' ?
AM: Richard came up with the title of Milwaukee Minniesota and I couldn't think of anything better and believe me I tried! However the character does start in Milwaukee and finishes up in Minniesota, and even though there is no Milwaukee Minniesota, I felt we'd created this strange place. There's also this period of nostalgia that runs through the film, and the feeling that we're in a configuration of two places at one time and it did make it a regional independent American film that day. I thought not too many Europeans would spot the fact that Milwaukee isn't in Minniesota even though one character in the film even goes as far as to disclose that Milwaukee is in fact in Wisconsin. So that's a lot of reasons for the title, but I'm sure there's even more.