Q & A: Director William Sten Olsson on “An American Affair”

Director William Sten Olsson

“An American Affair” Director William Sten Olsson

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to first time director William Sten Olsson about the making of “An American Affair”, a coming of age film that’s also a political thriller set in Washington, D.C. as JFK grapples with the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war.

Olsson, a native of Sweden, has an MFA in film production from USC and began his career by directing short films. Produced by Kevin Leydon and Olsson and written by Alex Metcalf, “Affair” was executive produced by the late John Daly. Starring are Gretchen Mol, Noah Wyle, James Rebhorn, Cameron Bright, Perry Reeves and Mark Pellegrino. After opening Feb. 27 in New York and Washington via Screen Media Films, it will move into other key markets, including Los Angeles (Mar. 6) and Boston (Mar. 13).

In “Affair” Bright plays Adam, the film’s coming of age teenager, and Mol plays Catherine, the half-naked lady he sees through his bedroom window while looking into her house across the street. After Adam manages to meet Catherine he finds out she’s an artist and a world-weary divorcee as well as a “confidante” of JFK. Moreover, her name’s on the list to get in at a White House security gate. Not surprisingly, given her relationship with the President, her hidden past and the Cold War paranoia gripping America at the time, Catherine is in danger of being killed. Although Adam’s his relationship with her isn’t physical, it’s an emotional connection that his parents want to put an end to.

Q: How did you get to direct your first movie?
A: It all started when I was introduced to John Daly, who is the executive producer on the film, and who has now sadly passed away. I told him I was looking for a screenplay at the time and he very generously invited me to come to his production company, Film and Music Entertainment, and to look through their whole library of screenplays that had been submitted over the years.

(I spent months at Daly’s offices) reading through probably around a thousand screenplays and I found this little gem that had been submitted to them I think in 2001. Immediately after I had read it I Googled it and there was nothing on it so that encouraged me that it might still be available. And the after some more discussions with John and the writer (Alex Metcalf) and Kevin Leydon, who is my producing partner on the film, it all sort of came together.
Q: What was it about the script that made you choose it to be your first feature?
A: What I really responded to and what I find so original in the film is the unique blend between the coming of age drama and the political thriller. That really spoke to me. And then on a personal level, I grew up in Sweden. It brought back a lot of memories of my own reactions as a kid when Olof Palmer, the Prime Minister of Sweden was assassinated (in Stockholm in 1986). So in a strange way I could relate to Adam’s experiences and I think that’s what triggered my personal interest in the story.

Also, I’m always interested in how people struggle to find a meaning in life in a constantly changing world and how to on the surface incredibly different characters can find a kind of soul mate in each other and through that rise to the occasion and encourage each other to move on and try to find a new individual meaning in life. And then, of course, I found it very entertaining and it triggered my curiosity of that particular time in American history.
Q: So you discovered it in 2006.
A: The screenplay had been lying around for five years in (Daly’s) office and was probably lying around in a lot of production companies at that time. What happened after my discussions with John was that we approached the writer and it took some convincing on his behalf since I was a first time director and that we wanted to make a low budget adaptation. That combination took some clarification and we spent a lot of time talking and John was incredibly helpful in that he was supporting me and that he believed in me. Once the writer had made his decision to support the project and to let me direct it, he was incredibly helpful. And then we were able to bring in some private equity investors in the project.
Q: One of your first key hires for the film was casting director Johanna Ray, who did the casting for “Kill Bill (Vol. 1 and 2)” and “Mulholland Dr.”
A: I met with her and she had read the screenplay and she loved (it) and really believed in what I was trying to do directing-wise. I had shown her my short films and previous work. She opened up a lot of doors in terms of the casting of the film.

On the production side (Kevin Leydon and I) did a location trip to a few cities. We went to D.C. and Baltimore and we found out that D.C. was going to be way too expensive to film in. But the film commission in Baltimore was incredibly supportive. At the time there was a bigger budget film that was supposed to film that fall that had been pulled. So basically the crew had nothing to work on so that sort of played a lot in our favor.
Q: Another of the key people you brought on board was production designer Vincent Peranio.
A: He’s done most of John Waters stuff (“Hairspray”, “Female Trouble”, “Pink Flamingos”) and “The Wire” and “Homicide”. He and I immediately got a connection. I felt that he had to do the production design for the film. He showed me around. We started looking at pictures and applications. We also attached a line producer in D.C., Carol Flaisher, who had been a location manager for a lot of bigger budget Hollywood films that had been filming (there). We felt if someone was going to pull off that we were going to film outside of the White House it was her. And finally she was able to make that happen, which was an absolute thrill.
Q: How difficult is it to film outside the White House?
A: The regulations are (that) on Pennsylvania Avenue the sidewalk is White House property but Pennsylvania Avenue, the street, actually belongs to the city of D.C. So you can film on Pennsylvania Avenue, but not on the sidewalk. Of course, in the scene we have Gretchen walking on the sidewalk next to the fence.
Q: How did you make that work?
A: (We had Gretchen walk) right on the street and then we went quite far back with a long lens camera so as to give the impression that she was right next to the fence where, in fact, she was probably 10 or 15 feet, at least, from it. That took a lot of scheduling and we were finally allowed to film on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. Bush had already left for Texas. It was quite an amazing feeling because the whole D.C. had emptied out for the holiday. So were almost by ourselves out there in the drizzling rain doing the scene.
Q: How did you do the scene where she walks up to a White House guard station and asks to be let inside?
A: We weren’t allowed to film at the exact location. What we did was film her walking up to the guard house there, but then we built a tiny replica of it in a park in Baltimore where we were filming the scene between her and the guard (who tells her she’s no longer on the list to be admitted to the White House).
Q: Did you rehearse with your actors?
A: I did rehearse with Cameron, who plays Adam, and Gretchen. We rehearsed a few days before filming. We talked a lot. We went out to dinner and things like that. I felt that in some ways that was even more important that they would feel comfortable with each other and have some kind of personal connection that they could later relate to as they were doing the scenes. I think primarily it was a lot of talking and socializing, but we also rehearsed especially some of the earlier scenes of the screenplay (when the characters first meet).

It was really nice because then we had already got Catherine’s house (to shoot in) so we were able to go there, just the three of us, and rehearse there in quiet. As I’m sure you know, once you start filming there’s just so many people around everywhere. I think that was the primary rehearsing and then, of course, on each day we would rehearse the individual scenes.
Q: Looking back, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in production?
A: Scheduling with actors and the art department (were two challenges), but besides that I think we were quite lucky that there weren’t any huge obstacles that happened. We were always able to find new ways around things. For example, (a scene) was originally supposed to be in front of the Capitol, but it was pouring rain that day and we just weren’t able to film there, but luckily in a few hours (we) were able to find an alternate location that was covered by the Daughters of the American Revolution building. Of course, we had some technical problems and things like that, but in general it worked out well.

I think one of the biggest challenges for me, though, as a director was simply allotted to each scene. We were on a very strict schedule. I couldn’t really afford to go overtime (on a schedule of) 28 days. But, also, those were strict 12-hour days. So I think that was one of the challenges. I guess every director always wishes to have more time, but there are some scenes I felt that we had to work (to get) very quickly.
Q: I know that shooting a period piece film is always difficult because you have to frame shots so you don’t see anything that’s not from the period.
A: A period low budget film is very challenging in that regard. I would have to be extremely careful on how we were framing things. There were literally a bunch of shots where if the camera had just panned or tilted a tiny, tiny bit we would have seen the 21st Century. So all those shots had to be incredibly composed and it was quite challenging dealing with that kind of restraint. That certainly had an effect on where I could put the camera and where I couldn’t put (it).
Q: Did you enjoy directing and, looking ahead, are you working on any new projects?
A: Although it was incredibly stressful and hard work, it certainly left me with a taste for more. We have a few projects in development and they’re all quite different. One project is a spy thriller set in the early stages of World War II in Japan. And then we have a screenplay called “The Eulogist”, which is a tale about two brothers who grow up in Northern Ireland and have to find a new meaning in life as the war ends.

They’re both youthful terrorists on the IRA side, but as the conflict ends they don’t find themselves wanted there anymore so they travel to South America where one of them becomes a mercenary and the other becomes an artist and a poet. They meet up a few years later during the funeral of one of their fallen comrades and then a lot of things start to happen from there. And then there’s a third project I’m looking at that is a very touching story about an immigrant mother who tries to bring her son from Ecuador to the United States to deliver her son safe in the hands of her grandmother who lives there. So those three (are projects) we’re trying to find financing for.