Leland Orser's Morning is the type of film that often falls through the cracks in today's depressed distribution landscape: a small, challenging passion project that makes no concessions to commercial cinema. It needs to find an audience via artist-nurturing outlets like the Cincinnati Film Festival, where Morning makes its regional premiere at 9 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Esquire Theatre. (It will also be screened on Oct. 9 and 12.)
Orser, a longtime character actor who's appeared in everything from Se7en and Saving Private Ryan to 24 and ER, makes his feature-length filmmaking debut with Morning, which follows Mark (Orser) and Alice Munroe (played by Orser's real-life wife Jeanne Tripplehorn) as they struggle to deal with the accidental death of their young son. Set over the four days immediately following the tragedy, the grief-stricken couple reacts in ways both similar and dichotomous, expected and unexpected.
Dazed and numb, Mark barricades himself in the couple's house (pictured above), where remnants of his son appear at every turn. Alice, meanwhile, flees the home in an effort regain her footing and process what's just happened to her once-idyllic life, along the way crossing paths with a hotel worker (Jason Ritter), a family friend (Julie White) and a pair of doctors (Elliott Gould and Laura Linney) who try to ease her alcohol-numbed pain.
The nexus of Morning grew out of a story Orser saw in The New York Times about couples dealing with the loss of a child and the high percentage of marriages that don't survive the ordeal. Soon after, while working as an actor at the Sundance Institute, he started writing the story as a 14-minute short, which eventually premiered at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival.
“I wasn’t interested in writing about this story and writing about this subject matter whatsoever,” Orser says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It just seemed to be something I collided into and couldn’t get away from. I’m a parent (Orser has has an 8-year-old child with Tripplehorn), and a lot of this came from fear. It’s a fear that’s created from the moment your child is born, the fear of 'what if.' You want to protect them and give your lives for them. It sort of becomes an exorcism of that fear in a strange way.”
Orser, who expanded the narrative following the short's positive festival reception, transcends the story's melodramatic possibilities with impressive, often dialogue-free restraint. He counts the poetic, minimalist approach of acclaimed Belgian filmmakers the Dardenne brothers (La promesse, Rosetta, L'Enfant) as a major influence. He also cites Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Last Days and the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski as guiding lights.
Then there's the inevitable comparison to John Cassavetes' collaborations with his wife Gena Rowlands, a married couple who worked together on small, intense films like A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria.
Along those lines, Tripplehorn is fearless and affecting as the emotionally paralyzed woman at the center of Morning's uncompromisingly sad narrative.
“When I finished the screenplay, she was the first person to read it,” Orser says.
“She admired it. She said to me, ‘You can get any actress in Hollywood to do it, and you should in fact go out and get any actress in Hollywood to play this part.’ And I said to her, ‘Would you ever consider playing the part?’ She said, ‘If this had come to me through representation, it’s exactly the kind of part an actress would kill to play.’ ”
But, given the wrenching subject matter and what would likely be a stress-laden, whirlwind production schedule, it wasn't an easy decision to work together.
“We talked about whether we should do this particular story together and whether it was just too weird, but I think sort of the artist in both of us overruled,” he says. “She was at the Whitney Biennial in New York and she called and said, ‘You know, we have to do this. It’s what we were born to do, it’s what we do best, and why shouldn’t we do it together?’ It was a tough decision to come to, but very rewarding once we made the decision.”
Tripplehorn has been good in a number of film and television roles over the years, including her ongoing turn as Bill Paxton's eldest wife in HBO's Big Love, but Orser believes her performance in Morning confirms that he made the right decision to cast her in the role.
“Jeanne and I have known each other for 12 years,” he says. “I’ve watched her work on many different things, and I’ve always suspected that she is one of the most talented actresses out there today, that she has this rare instrument, a rare accessibility of a wide range of emotions. She’s also astonishing-looking on film. These are the things that you need to be a great film actor. I always suspected that (she was), and once I worked with her all my suspicions were confirmed.”
Orser's experience as a performer and calm demeanor — which is curious given his penchant for playing neurotic characters — informed his actor-friendly directorial approach.
“What I respond to in films is truth in performance,” he says. “Of course, I love it to be visually beautiful, but to me it could look crap — it could be shot on a cell phone — but if the actors are truthful with themselves and with each other I’ll forgive what it looks like. That was my mission on this movie: To bring out the truth in each of the actors.”
His industry connections, as well as the quality of Morning's screenplay, attracted an accomplished crew (including producer Todd Traina, composer Hamilton Sterling and casting director Debra Zane), all of whom essentially worked for scale.
“You never have a free moment as a director,” he says of his first-time role as on-set maestro. “You’re constantly making decisions, you’re constantly thinking, you’re constantly moving with your hands, your eyes, your ears. If you take five minutes off it’s five minutes you could be making your film better.”
Even trickier is what happens when a small film like Orser's is completed. Years of nurturing and the hard work of many talented people could go for naught if the film never makes its way into the world.
“Independent film is in big trouble,” he says. “There are people out there who want to make independent films and to tell their stories. All of the specialty houses at the major studios have closed. All of the distribution arms do not want to put the P&A money out for movies like this. Distribution for these movies is dying, and it’s dying fast. Many films are getting lost because of it. Films that five or 10 years ago would have gone to our local art houses are no longer making it.”
Which is where entities like the Cincinnati Film Festival come into play. Morning has already screened at festivals in San Francisco and San Diego, where Orser says it received strong audience interest and support.
“Festivals like this one in Cincinnati are picking up the slack,” he says. “They are, in fact, becoming our modern-day theatrical distribution outlets. This is where people who are interested in good, independent films can see them in a theater.”
Orser specifically singles out CFF's founder and current Creative Director J.C. Schroder.
“I just commend this guy,” he says. “I think it’s great that he’s persisted. They called out of the blue and described the festival, and I told our team, ‘Look, these people want to see our movie and I don’t care if their festival is not Tribeca or Sundance, they want to see the movie and they want to show the locals there our movie. This may be the only opportunity that that part of the world will get a chance to see this movie.' So I was very gung-ho about it and very supportive.”
Our 40-minute conversation now winding down, Orser once again emphasizes the growing importance of film festivals and the people who support them.
“There’s something quite wonderful about the local film-festival circuit, and I’m excited that we’re playing in Cincinnati,” he says. “I’m proud of that, and I’m proud of them for having found us and having the balls to say, ‘Hey, can we have your movie?’ ”
The 2010 CINCINNATI FILM FESTIVAL screens 100 movies at various venues in Cincinnati, Covington, Hamilton and Lawrenceburg (primarily at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton) Oct. 8-16. Find screening times and ticket details at www.cincinnatifilmfestival.com.
Read Jason Gargano's interview with the Cincinnati Film Festival's new executive director, Katharine Steele, here.