Look at the calendar. It’s less than four months until Christmas, and less than three months until Thanksgiving, and that means all those family get-togethers are swiftly approaching.
Some of us cringe just to think of getting together with the family: the sweet ones, the long-suffering, the nutty and the not-so-nice ones. Makes you want to run screaming for the hills, doesn’t it?
A holiday meal with a dysfunctional family is the setting for “Fanny, Annie, and Danny,” a new film by San Francisco-based writer/director Chris Brown, which will be screened Friday, October 1, as part of the New Jersey Film Festival, on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
The annual festival kicks off on Saturday, September 3, and runs through Thursday, November 4, screening some 40 films from across the country and around the world. The New Jersey premiere of “Fanny, Annie & Danny” will feature an appearance by Brown, and hopefully Jill Pixley as well. The director’s wife, who plays Fanny, recently won a Best Performance award from the 2010 San Antonio Film Festival. This year the movie also scored a Best US/International Narrative from the Kansas City FilmFest.
The feature film is a dark comedy about a trio of siblings and the ties that simultaneously bind them and tear them apart. The parents are Ronnie, the dad (played by George Killingsworth), a laid-back Vietnam veteran who watches family life play out with a sense of bewildered helplessness. Then there’s the mom, Edie (Colette Keen), a harpie with a gravelly voice, hellbent on making Christmas perfect and her family miserable.
Brown says that we can all recognize elements of this messy family, with its favorites, scapegoats, and unappreciated members. He adds that there is an autobiographical resonance in the film, but just the barest. “Some of the feelings are autobiographical, but not the facts,” Brown says in a phone interview from San Francisco. “The characters are fictional, but I’ve taken bits of actual dialogue here and mixed it with a relationship there, and maybe some other people over there.”
A veteran filmmaker and songwriter/musician, Brown most enjoys crafting stories about “invisible” people, the non-fabulous Everyman and Everywoman who we don’t see on TV, but who, after a closer look, might be as quirky as a character in a sit-com or drama. “Most of the films we have access to don’t reflect the life I know,” Brown says. “I don’t see the people I know up on screen, I don’t see the world I know up on screen. Instead, we see this hyper-glamorous reality.
“We don’t see people waiting desperately for that check, so we can pay our rent, and I know I’ve waited desperately for that check and so have other people I know, too,” he continues. “But I don’t see this up on the screen. However, with ‘Fanny, Annie, and Danny,’ these are people we never get to see.”
Brown also subtly explores such current issues as strained economic times, loss of a job and home, and the growing need for adult children to move back in with their parents.
The character of Fanny is a disabled 39-year-old living in a home for dependent adults. Her world starts to implode when the candy factory where she works goes bankrupt. The oldest of three children, Fanny has long been a source of strain and resentment within her family. Her jittery sister, Annie (Carlyle Pollack), has spent her life taking care of her, while their successful but elusive brother, Danny (Jonathan Leveck), has thus far escaped responsibility.
Add to this dynamic the fact that Danny is his mother’s obvious favorite (but is also a con man), and that the dad, Ronnie, has unspoken empathy for Fanny. Then mix that with Annie’s neuroses. When it all comes together, it’s a recipe for disaster — but not without humor.
For one thing, Fanny has a strict ritual of very early morning music practice, which drives her housemates insane. She toodles her recorder, rehearsing and re-rehearsing a tune that sounds like a cross between “I’m a Little Teapot” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” We later learn that she is preparing to entertain her family at the Christmas gathering.
“I can’t tell you what the song is, but actually my wife Jill wrote that song,” Brown says. “More importantly though, Fanny’s practicing is part of her ritual. She has to do these things every day at a certain time, and I know a lot of people like that. I myself have little ritual things that I have to do every day, like I have to make the coffee and whatnot. Fanny has a very extreme case of that.”
Comic relief also comes from the character Todd (Nick Frangione), who is Annie’s stoner boyfriend. He spends most of his time sponging off Annie to score weed, but he touts himself as a genius. That’s why he can’t get a job: Todd says he is too smart, too much of a specialist. “I know people like Todd, who can’t apply for a job or whatever,” Brown says. “You write a character, and you might judge them, but the weird thing for me is that as soon as I cast the character and shoot him, I’ve then lost all judgment, and I’m seeing their point of view.”
Growing up in California’s Bay Area, Brown thinks it was inevitable that he would be a creative person, first in music, then in filmmaking. His father plays trumpet and had a variety of groups as a young man, including a swing band. Both of his grandfathers had bands as well.
“I’ve been creative most of my life, started playing music around age five, and picked up a camera when I was about eight,” he says. “I made my first film when I was 10. I was one of those annoying little kids. But I think film and music go hand in hand; one informs the other, and I go back and forth between the two.”
Brown studied filmmaking at San Francisco State University, graduating in 1993, and also studied at the California College of Arts in San Francisco. He says many of his friendships from those years have lingered and that this group collaborates on each others’ films. One friend, Andre Fenley, did the sound editing for “Fanny, Annie, and Danny” and has some real clout in the film business. He is a longtime member of the Skywalker Sound Team, part of director/ producer George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. “Andre lent a real depth to this film,” Brown says.
Brown’s wife, actress Jill Pixley, studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York City, as well as Stanford University, also graduating in 1993. “Jill has taught me more about acting — and by extension, about directing — than anyone else I know,” Brown says.
He names numerous filmmakers as influences, including Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, John Cassavetes, and Martin Scorcese. “I’m not like any of those people, but they are the ones who really excite me,” he says.
The writing process for “Fanny, Annie, and Danny” was magically easy, as soon as Brown found the key that unlocked the story. “There was a process of discovery on the page, and this script came out faster than my scripts usually do,” he says. “I had just finished another script, but these stories and characters forced themselves on me, they forced me to tell the story. It flew out of my laptop. I was often surprised by the things these characters did: they made me laugh, then they made me sad.
“They were separate stories though, and I didn’t realize they were in the same movie,” Brown adds. “Then I realized, ‘oh, they’re related!’ And then it was like, bang, now I get it. Then I had to make the movie. Exactly a year after I started writing, I had the film in the can, and that’s really fast for me.”
New Jersey Film Festival, Voorhees #105, 71 Hamilton Street, Douglass campus, New Brunswick. Friday, October 1, 7 p.m. Screenings of “Boundless,” “Calling My Children,” and “Fanny, Annie, and Danny.” Chris Brown on the Web: www.chrisbrownfilms.com. The festival runs from September 3 through November 4. $10. 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.