Breakfast Club for Adults: Bringing Melvin to the Big Screen

“The play goes like this: Lights up, four people talk for an hour, lights down.” Two months from now will mark the 15-year anniversary of the discovery of Steve Soderbergh’s sex, lies, & videotape at Sundance, which not only caused the big boom in indie movies still going on today, but brought the Sundance Film Festival the attention only enjoyed by the biggest of film festivals. We’re also two months from the ten-year anniversary of Kevin Smith and his film Clerks being discovered at the same festival. Clerks became a word-of-mouth hit in America, breaking ground as an independently produced (read: no studio backing until after the film is in the can) film which focused on people doing nothing but talking. Isn’t this what everyone was so excited about after sex, lies? That you needn’t any action, nudity, high budgets, or really anything else short of the right actors saying the right lines to get audiences interested in your film en masse? Films of this nature are the staple of the independent film market, and sadly, they have been sorely lacking for almost a decade.

Perhaps this is because we’ve all been looking in the wrong places. sex, lies and Clerks were both discovered at film festivals, after all, so perhaps we should turn to the festival to find tomorrow’s great word-of-mouth hit, instead of wishing that someone else would find it and tell us what it is. Luckily, you won’t have to look further than the screening of Melvin Goes to Dinner at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival to find the conversationally astute celluloid friends that you have had to do without for so long.

Appropriately enough, I first saw Melvin at a film festival—specifically, the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin this past March. Melvin played to sold-out crowds and won the “Best Narrative Film” audience award at SXSW; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it was the one big runaway success of the festival, at least on the terms of the festival itself. The big drawing factor to Melvin—for me and likely the majority of the Austin crowd—was the fact that it was the directorial debut of Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk; we would soon find out, though, that Melvin has little to no resemblance to any episode of Mr. Show (this is no Run Ronnie Run, thank God). Instead, it resembles the best conversation of your life being captured on film, so that you can go back and enjoy having it again and again.

Melvin was written and edited by Michael Blieden, who adapted it from his play Phyro-Giants, which ran in L.A. and New York awhile back. The L.A. drama scene is notoriously embarrassing compared to its New York equivalent, which makes one wonder how a name star like Odenkirk would have stumbled across the play in the first place. It turns out that Bob’s wife Naomi is a talent agent who represents Stephanie Courtney, who played the character Alex in Phyro-Giants. Naomi saw it and liked it, and told Bob that it was great. “I absolutely did not believe her,” Bob says regarding his wife’s insistence that he should see it and that it didn’t suck. “But she protested, and she’s my wife, and so, for the kids, I went.” It turns out that Naomi was right, and after his third time seeing it, he and Michael (who also plays Melvin) began pursuing the project of turning it into a film.

“The play goes like this: Lights up, four people talk for an hour, there are no light cues, no sound cues, and no blocking. Lights down. That had to change for the movie,” says Blieden on the adaptation of his play into the film’s screenplay. The hour-long conversation that was the play, however, was barely altered for the film, and it is, in the end, the reason why the film is so memorable. All of the characters in Melvin are meeting at least one of the four people at the table for the first time—Melvin (Michael Bleiden) only knows Joey (Matt Price), Joey knows Alex and Melvin, Alex knows Joey and Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch), and Sarah only knows Alex. The combination of the comfort that comes from the friends-of-friends status is enough to get all of the characters talking openly to each other on the subject of everything from religion to fetishes. Blieden has said that he wanted to make a Breakfast Club for adults, and it shows most in the way that each character lets his guard down enough to admit something that he may be sorry for the following morning. Aside from being downright entertaining, this technique goes a long way toward giving Melvin the dramatic weight of a film like, say, sex, lies, & videotape (or The Breakfast Club).

This is not to imply that Melvin is a drama, however—Bob Odenkirk directed it, after all. I ask him if he thought his Mr. Show cult would like the film since, despite its greatness, it is a pretty major departure from the coarseness of his TV series. Odenkirk replies, “We actually have a contingent of dumb, loud, frathouse blockheads who like the crudity and harshness of Mr. Show. They will not like it. I also think there is a certain contingent of nerdy, awkward, bitter, socially inept Mr. Show–ers who will not like it, because they will resent the flip attitude and bourgeois interests of the main characters. Fuck them.”

And while I agree that these two categories of Mr. Show fans might be disappointed that Melvin doesn’t play like a triple-length episode of their canceled reason for living, I imagine that there is plenty in Melvin for them to like; if nothing else, a handful of Mr. Show alumni (including Bob himself) turn up in smaller roles. These roles are all parts that were added to the screenplay for the film and were not in the original play (they are, for the most part, filmed flashbacks of stories told at the table). The casting of the main characters was already locked up right from the start: the entire original cast is intact for the film version (which was probably not too difficult, as there are only four main characters and one supporting character [Kathleen Roll as the waitress] in the play). “It was like having a cast that had rehearsed literally hundreds of times,” Odenkirk says of his players. “It made dealing with 64 pages of dialogue at a dinner table seem so natural and lively.”

The lack of recognizable names in the film points to what is really the only thing that is hampering the progress of Melvin Goes to Dinner becoming the breakout success on the indie market that it deserves to be: it isn’t getting an official, studio-backed release in cinemas. “If we’d recast it with ‘stars,’ even indie film–level stars, we would probably have gotten a distribution deal…but [the film] wouldn’t be as good!” Odenkirk admits. However, Sundance’s distributing arm recently picked up the film to show on the Sundance Channel and to release on DVD this December (oddly enough, the film was at one point submitted to the Sundance Film Festival and did not get in), and it will have shown in cinemas in roughly 30 cities by the end of the year, between its festival screenings and Blieden’s efforts in self-distribution. When I ask Blieden how he felt about having to distribute the film himself (as it is usually the last thing that an independent filmmaker wants), he replies, “People may think I’m full of shit when I say that this [self-distribution] was something I wanted to do all along…I remember calling one of the principal investors before I finished editing the movie and saying, ‘We should just distribute this ourselves.’ I think I could actually hear the sound of his testicles rising up into his stomach when I said that, because he knew that would mean not making our money back. And for the record, his testicles were right.”

Without the magic of Bob and Harvey Weinstein behind it—key to the success of sex, lies and Clerks—Melvin has its work cut out for it. After all, how much of a word-of-mouth hit can it be on our turf if it is only getting one screening at SLIFF? One can only hope that Sundance does right by it and gets that DVD out to the major rental markets and complements its retail release with an appropriate amount of publicity and screenings on its cable channel. There have, in fact, been situations in which a film has been successful on the festival circuit yet, failing to be picked up by a distributor, was hastily released to cable TV or home video, where it was successful, then later backtracked to a theatrical release later (John Dahl’s The Last Seduction or Henry Bean’s The Believer are two examples). These instances, though, are beyond rare, and it would be foolish to hope for them.

It seems more realistic for a film like Melvin to pull an Office Space and be embraced on the rental market, which, assuming that Sundance gets it out there, does not at all seem unlikely. And when everyone knows of the film and wonders why they don’t remember it ever having shown in cinemas, those who had seen it at SLIFF will have a stellar opportunity to look down on the rest for waiting for the word of mouth to reach them instead of creating it themselves.

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