CCT: Dreamland

Film Division


  {Jason Matzner}

A Conversation with Wesleyan Graduate Filmmaker Jason Matzner

By Ellen Woolf


Jason Matzner may not be one, but he knows what it feels like to be a rock star.  The unassuming, 35-year old Wesleyan graduate hit the ground running at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.  The director's first feature film, "Dreamland" premiered January 26th to a packed house and rave reviews.  The after-party at Park City's Hollywood Life Lounge proved just as heady with A-list "Dreamland" pals Gina Gershon, Agnes Bruckner, Kelli Garner, John Corbett and Justin Long.  Flashing cameras tracked Matzner's every step, guests danced on tabletops, and the kudos were as free flowing as, well, the spirit of celebration.  And now, thanks to his acclaim at Sundance, Jason Matzner also knows what it feels like to be a successful movie director, too.


EW:     Hi Jason. I appreciate your taking time to speak with me about your experience as a young director whose first feature film, "Dreamland," was accepted into the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.  As a Wesleyan-schooled filmmaker, did Connecticut play a part in making you who you are?


JM:      Well in some sense Connecticut literally did because I was born in Yale-New Haven Hospital. So for the first year of my life I was in New Haven. 


EW:     Where were you raised after your family left New Haven?


JM:      Mostly in New Jersey, prep school in Concord New Hampshire, and then I went to Wesleyan.


EW:     When did you catch the film-directing bug?


JM:      Well unlike a lot of filmmakers you've talked to who say well, I saw "Star Wars" when I was 10 and I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, I really didn't.  For me, I was into photography, I was a musician, and then when I got to college I was in that classic freshman struggle - what am I going to major in?  What am I going to do with my life?  And I went to a screening of Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist" and I was absolutely floored.  I thought that's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and I want to make one of those. And that's what started it.


EW:     This was during your first year at Wesleyan?


JM:      Yes.  You know, it was the Paris dance hall scenes of that movie.  That was the moment where I specifically thought this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.


EW:     What about Bertolucci's dance hall scenes were more beautiful than anything you had ever seen up until then?


JM:      The way that the camera danced with the two gorgeous actresses as they moved together - cameras pirouetting around them with these incredibly elegant moves.  And it was all lit so beautifully.  It was like watching music.


EW:     Did you study with Jeanine Bassinger while you were at Wesleyan?


JM:      Yes. Yet another student of Jeanine.


EW:     What classes did you take with Jeanine Bassinger at Wesleyan?


JM:      The required Jeanine senior seminar, which basically looks at filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger with regard to establishing a point of view in what Jeanine called subjective or objective films.  For instance, Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" is the ultimate courtroom drama, a classic objective film in which you're watching from the outside trying to figure out who's lying and who's telling the truth.  Then we'd contrast that with Hitchcock's movies - something like "North by Northwest" where you're in it with the main character, seeing and feeling everything from Cary Grant's point of view.


And then I also took a class on the Western genre with Jeanine that was very inspiring to me … which was interesting because I didn't get it at first.  Basically if you're a film student at Wesleyan you want to take every class you can with Jeanine because she's just an incredibly knowledgeable figure.  Well, she was teaching this Western class during my senior semester and I remember going to Jeanine's office after the first week and saying why are we studying these dumb cowboy movies?  Why can't we study something artful like Bertolucci movies?  You know, I had grown up on a steady diet of European movies from my mother as a kid, and to me that was film art.  And Jeanine said look, give this another three weeks and if you still think these movies are stupid cowboy movies, you can do an independent study on European art films.


EW:     OK, so I'm thinking you had an "aha" moment …


JM:      I did, I did.  In this case it was not a specific "aha" film, but within three weeks I started to understand that these were major films about our history and the myths and legends of what it is to be an American.  And that these filmmakers were not making stupid cowboy movies; they were making real films about these issues. 


EW:     So are you a fulltime filmmaker now?


JM:      Well I've been in the entertainment industry since I moved out to California in 1992.  My first job was as an assistant for a producer.  Then I became a story analyst, reading, evaluating, and helping to develop material for various different studios. I've been doing that at Universal Pictures since about '98.  As part of that job I participated in the development of a number of major motion pictures including "Borne Identity," "8 Mile," and a lot of different Universal movies. At the same time, I directed music videos and commercials, first for friends' bands and then for major label artists and various corporate clients. And then I took a leave of absence to go make "Dreamland."


EW:     How long did it take you to make "Dreamland?"


JM:      Physically or from the initial inception of when I first saw the script?


EW:     How about both?


JM:      It took 19 days to shoot "Dreamland" and it took 6 years to actually make the film.

EW:     Describe "Dreamland's" plot.


JM:      Sure. "Dreamland" is about an 18 year-old girl who lives in a remote desert community in New Mexico.  It's the summer after her senior year in high school and she is very immersed in her community, taking care of her agoraphobic father and her sickly best friend.  Into this mix comes a boy, a basketball player, who is spending the last summer before college with his family.  His presence changes everything for her.


EW:     So what inspired you to make this film and make this particular story happen?


JM:      I was inspired by the themes and tone of the script, itself, which is by a wonderful screenwriter from Austin Texas, named Tom Willett. 


EW:     How'd you get it?


JM:      I met Tom at a party.  We talked for a little bit and he said he would send me a script.  He did; it sat on a pile for 6 months; I finally read it; and I was entranced by the voice of this screenplay.  I've read about ten thousand scripts in my career and it's very rare that you read a screenplay that has a genuine voice to it.  I was also taken with the visual possibilities of the world that Tom was creating. I immediately started seeing all these visual images that I wanted to shoot, so I began working with Tom by e-mail and phone.  We worked on the script for the next two years.


EW:     So you finally shot the movie.  And you looked at the movie and you said, what? You're going to Sundance?


JM:      We had always wanted to take "Dreamland" to Sundance.  That was the goal when we first started making the film.  We saw that Sundance was the right place for this movie -- it's the premier, independent American festival and this is an American story. 


EW:     Why enter "Dreamland" in the Spectrum category?


JM:      God only knows – Sundance makes that distinction and as far as I can tell, no one but the programmers themselves knows what that means! I had a wonderful experience with the Sundance people.  It's an incredible honor to get your film into Sundance.  There were about 3,100 films submitted this year and they take 130.  So this is an extraordinary thing to get your film in whether it's in Spectrum, or Premieres, or in competition. 


EW:     Spectrum is not a competition category?


JM:      No. From what I can tell, it's movies that they feel are important. They're voices that the programmers feel need to be heard, but that don't fit into their overall plan for the competition.


EW:     So what did it mean for you to be at Sundance? 


JM:      From an artistic standpoint, it's a tremendous honor.   It's a wonderful audience of filmmakers and film lovers that see your work.  And on a career level, it's the most amazing launching pad.


EW:     How was your experience there?


JM:      It was fabulous.


EW:     What did you do?


JM:      What didn't we do!  It's interesting, "Dreamland" is a movie about a community, and at the same time this incredible community of people has grown up around making it. So I was up there with a huge group of people that I love, and we were all there celebrating and it was really, really electric.  We did parties, and press, and interviews.


EW:     Do you know if it's been picked up by anyone?


JM:      Well, the response seems to be extremely positive about it.


EW:     What’s the next step for "Dreamland?"


JM:      The next step would be a theatrical release – certainly that's the goal.  We made this film to be seen in theatres. 


EW:     You mentioned that you shot the film in New Mexico.  Where were your cast and crew from? 


JM:      I brought certain key positions from LA, but otherwise used almost exclusively New Mexican local crew.  Cast was all from LA with the exception of minor parts. 


EW:     How did you go about locating the New Mexico crew?


JM:      Through the New Mexico Film Office.


EW:     That would be the correct response!  Did going to school in Connecticut have any bearing on the film – the experience or the process?


JM:      The Wesleyan film program was a significant factor in my life.  There's a lot that I learned from Jeanine that I wasn't able to put into practice until I was finally directing a film.  We started the conversation talking about her senior seminar about the differences between objective and subjective scenes, and I became very aware of that when I was shooting. My goal is to allow the audience to feel through Agnes Bruckner's character and at the same time be able to watch her feel.  And I found myself drawing from my education a lot while I was filming.


EW:     So you moved to California in '92 – what was your goal?


JM:      I went to LA to be a filmmaker.


EW:     Would you consider shooting a project in CT?


JM:      Sure, if I found the right story.


EW:     Would anything prevent you from doing so?


JM:      Well I hope Connecticut's going to come up with some nice incentives for filmmakers to come and shoot there like they did in New Mexico.  I have to tell you, state incentives really work.


EW:     Is that what drove you to shoot "Dreamland" in New Mexico?


JM:      No.  Artistically, I wanted to make this film in New Mexico from the beginning, but what allowed me to sell that idea to my producers were the state incentives.  So what will make it possible for me to shoot my dream project in Connecticut is if you guys can have some great incentives - then the artistic people, the directors, can sell it to their business people, the producers, and make it happen.


EW:     You think so?


JM:      I know so.


EW:     Hey, what did you spend making "Dreamland?"


JM:      More than "Blair Witch" and less than "King Kong."


You know, incentives are a critical tool to keep this business in this country.  And to keep the talented artists and technicians working here in the US, and …


EW:     …and out of Vancouver?


JM:      Yes.  Canada and New Zealand, and now South Africa are kicking our ass.  The first thing that comes out of a producer's mouth when you start to budget a movie is "Can we shoot it in Canada?"  And I understand.  When you're trying to shoot a movie, the biggest problem you're faced with is budget and time.  You start saying well if we shoot it in Canada we’re going to have 5 to10 extra shooting days and we can still use the same actors from L.A. Canada's done a terrific job building a good crew base.  They've done a great job making it possible.  But you know, my movie's an American story – specifically a New Mexican story, and that movie should be made there. I was dreading the idea of having to re-write this thing to set it in the plains of Manitoba.  To keep this industry strong and alive and make it grow, incentives are a critical tool.


EW:     I hear Jeanine Bassinger's lessons of the cowboy stories talking through you now – keep American stories in America, right?


JM:      Yeah, you know in New York and L.A. there's a huge community of talented people who have grown up multi-generationally doing these crafts, and to lose that will be a tragedy.  New Mexico's doing a really good job, Louisiana, too, and I would love to see every state in the Union do this so as creative artists we have the tools to tell all kinds of different stories right here at home.


EW:     Do you have your eye on a new project?


JM:      There are some ideas for movies that I'm working on with some of my writer friends.  As it was with "Dreamland," I'm looking for that next script or book that I read where I feel compelled to bring it to life.


EW:     We certainly hope you do that quickly and perhaps in Connecticut.


JM:      Well you know I went to prep-school and I've always wanted to make a movie in that setting and Connecticut would be a perfect spot for that.


EW:     I think so, too.  Thank you Jason.


JM:      Thank you.