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Boston Globe Online / Living | Arts
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'Forward' thinking

For BC grad Tom Gilroy, writer and independent filmmaker, what we say is often hidden behind the words we speak

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 6/8/2001

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NEW YORK - When Tom Gilroy, Jim McKay, and Michael Stipe attended Boston College in the early 1980s, they worked at the campus radio station, liked each other's avant tastes, and hung out together, watching movies, taking photographs, playing in a psychedelic punk band.

Now all three are bustling figures in the up-and-down world of New York independent filmmaking. Each has carved out a separate path along the way. Stipe, of course, is front man for the rock group REM. Gilroy also acts on TV and writes plays for his own theater company. But 20 years after meeting they still collaborate to an amazing degree.

''We're in each other's projects all the time,'' says Gilroy, now 40, sitting at an outdoor cafe in his Brooklyn neighborhood.

One such project, ''Spring Forward,'' plays this weekend, belatedly and briskly, at the Brattle Theatre. Gilroy wrote and directed it. McKay and Stipe were among the producers. (In turn, Gilroy and Stipe were coproducers of McKay's latest film, ''Our Song,'' just out in New York but not yet in Boston.)

Gilroy describes how the interaction works: ''I tend to write every day, four hours a day. Sometimes, I don't know what it is. Then I hit a point where I see how certain pieces are related to each other, how they coalesce into a story, so I take those pieces out and put them in a pile. I have several of these piles in my office'' - a large room on the third floor of his house. ''There's the love story between the Chinese guy and the construction worker, the story with the vampires talking about existentialism.'' (He says this with a bit of a smile; it's hard to tell whether he's kidding or whether these proto-stories really exist.)

''The `Spring Forward' pile was the largest pile,'' he goes on. ''The guys'' - meaning McKay and Stipe - ''read it, thought it was ready, and gave me a kick in the [butt] to finish it.''

''Spring Forward'' is one of those films that you could say they don't make anymore, except that they never really did. It's about two men (played by Ned Beatty and Liev Schreiber) talking - not about sports or cars, but about things that circle around (but never quite explicitly touch) the meaning of life. That's rare enough but, rarer still, the men are blue collar - groundskeepers for the parks department in Ridgefield, Conn.

Gilroy spent his teenage years in Ridgefield, but before then he was raised in Queens and Long Island. His parents were high school dropouts, lower middle class from families of cops and steamfitters. Then his father went to night school, on to Harvard, and finally soared to the position of vice president for two major corporations. When Gilroy turned 14, the family moved to what he calls ''the WASPish gentry'' of Connecticut.

''For a writer, it's a pretty good background,'' Gilroy says. ''It gives you two unbelievably different lifestyles in one lifetime. It gives you perspective.''

Certainly it gives this film an authentic feel - a complete lack of either the condescension or the sentimentalism that plagues many movies about the working class.

The film was inspired more directly by a period five years ago, when Gilroy and his father spent a lot of time together, holed up in a Boston motel and hospital waiting room while his mother lay in a coma. (She eventually died.) ''My father told me stories about his early life that I'd never heard when I was a kid,'' Gilroy remembers.

The other ingredient came from an in-joke routine that Gilroy and McKay developed at BC, in which two old guys with thick Boston accents would talk about New Age ideas.

That germ of a notion, combined with the tales from his father and memories of his own dual existence, eventually grew into ''Spring Forward.''

Gilroy shot the film over the course of four seasons three years ago, then edited it for eight months, showed it at the Toronto Film Festival, reedited, and then brought it to Sundance last year. There it won high praise and a small distribution deal with IFC Films (a branch of Independent Film Channel).

Nobody thought it would be a box-office smash. Gilroy says he's satisfied it has won an intense following and has financially broken even.

Still, he says, ''If I were starting this film now, I'd find it a lot harder to get made.''

The independent-film scene has changed dramatically just in the past few years. The start of the indie craze can be dated to 1988, when Steven Soderbergh's ''sex, lies and videotape'' won the best-film prize at Sundance and then Cannes. Suddenly, every major Hollywood studio was on the lookout for indies; many started their own indie-like divisions.

Charles Fleming, an LA-based author who has written several books and articles about Hollywood's workings, recalls, ''For a while, it appeared that, unless you were stupid, you couldn't lose money on a low- budget film.''

So the studios picked up just about every ''independent'' film that came along. After a while, there was a glut of these movies, and, cheap as they were, some lost money. The bloom was off. The hammer came down.

''The studios,'' Fleming says, ''started treating these movies not like independent films but like studio films that happened to have low budgets.''

Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment magazine, agrees. ''They started putting pressure on these films to be more commercial, to have star actors.'' These films also came under the same pressures as the big films to make huge money in the opening weekend.

With the bigger films, this has led to enormous advertising budgets, often as large as half the size of the production budget. But with a film that costs only a few million to produce, it makes no sense to spend tens of millions on marketing. And so the chances grew slight - slighter even than before - that the an indie film would stick around a theater long enough to attract its natural audience, much less expand beyond its niche.

''Spring Forward'' has played in a handful of cities. And its Brattle run is scheduled for one weekend only.

Still, Gilroy & Co. keep at it. Besides acting in small roles for ''Law & Order'' and ''Sex and the City'' (shows he rarely watches), Gilroy writes plays for the Machine Full theatrical company (which he heads with Michael Imperioli, who's gained fame as Christopher in ''The Sopranos,'' and Lili Taylor, a perennial indie-film actress). He's directing a production of ''Hamlet'' for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, with Taylor as Ophelia. And he's working on two screenplays - one that he calls ''very different from `Spring Forward,' less commercial,'' and the other ''a Marx Brothers, Vonnegutian comedy.''

Gilroy was an English major at BC, and so has always been influenced more by novels and short stories than by films. ''Most novels don't have neat resolutions, the way Hollywood movies do,'' he says. ''I make money as a script doctor for studios. I know where these people want to go. But when I do my own stuff, I deliberately subvert what people's expectations would be for a movie.''

In ''Spring Forward,'' there's a scene where Schreiber's character meets a woman (played by Peri Gilpin, known for playing Dr. Crane's radio producer on ''Frazier''). It's clear the two will go out, but that's the last we see of her; the subplot vanishes.

''Some people have said they wanted Peri to come back,'' Gilroy says. ''I ask them, `Why do you want that?' Their expectation is based on a million Julia Roberts films they see. If I bring her back, then that scene becomes `the scene where he meets his girlfriend.' But the scene is about a lot more than that. That scene - this film - is about coincidences, about understanding your dreams, about not forcing your life to go in one direction. You might go one way, you make this turn, suddenly everything changes. That's what happens in literature. That's what happens in life.''

This story ran on page 01 of the Boston Globe on 6/8/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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