It used to be standard for San Francisco to be portrayed in movies as a magical, mythical and slightly mysterious place where transformation could take place anywhere. Writer-director James Savoca takes a stab at reviving that rep with Around June, a dreamy-gritty fable that traces the offbeat romance between a Rapunzel-like Potrero Hill girl and a sweet but broke Mexican immigrant. Between her bullying father (Jon Gries of Napoleon Dynamite) and mentally challenged uncle (Brad William Henke), June (Samaire Armstrong of "Dirty Sexy Money") has no room to forge a new life—until she chances to meet Juan Diego (Oscar H. Guerrero) in a gentle rainstorm. Around June strikes a poetic but unsentimental tone, aided by well-placed slices of Charlie Canfield’s watercolor-influenced animation. Savoca, a former actor and playwright, directed the indie features Sleepwalk (2000) and The Crooked Corner (2005) in his native New York before relocating to San Francisco two years ago. With his angular features and staccato New York accent, he evokes comparison with the late, great John Cazale. We met up at the Mechanics’ Institute downtown a few days ahead of Around June’s sold-out world premiere this Friday, October 3, at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
SF360: How did Around June come to be shot in the Bay Area?
James Savoca: When I moved out here, I started working at the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking teaching screenwriting. This school also happens to have a production company [Fog City Pictures], and they make films. I just, as any good soldier would do, passed along my script, and the owner of the company liked it. Then the next challenge was, because I wrote it a couple years ago and it was a New York piece, I had to figure out, 'can I make it work [here].' Some stories can work anywhere. And this was one of them. I rewrote it for San Francisco, but I think at the same time it’s not a San Francisco film. I tried to make it look like a blue-collar port town on the West Coast. We shot on Potrero Hill and you could see downtown and the skyline. Somebody said, ‘Look at that, it’s gonna be a great shot.’ Not in this film. You’ll never see it. I was more interested in the boats and the shipyards and the foghorns and the telephone wires.
SF360: But we never hear a car or street noise, so you take the realism only so far.
Savoca: It was a conscious decision. You don’t see an iPod or a cellphone, You don’t even see a phone, right? There is no technology at all. It’s a story about a young girl who lives with her abusive father, and she takes care of both her father and her uncle. I felt part of the theme of the story is this inability to change, or being stuck, so I thought it might be more interesting to make it timeless, and not about a certain town or a certain time, and therefore just strip out any of that.
SF360: If only you’d known that ‘change you can believe in’ was going to be this year’s mantra.
Savoca: (Laughs.) You should be my publicist. Change is organic or integral to any good storytelling. One of the staples of a good story is that people change. It’s episodic when they don’t.
SF360: When you started writing this screenplay, was it your optimal goal to have all of the four main characters change by the end of the film?
Savoca: Absolutely. Dylan has one of my favorite quotes. He says, ‘There are four songs. I just write ‘em a thousand different ways.’ How many stories are there? Some writers believe there’s only one story, and that everything’s taken from The Odyssey. There aren’t really a lot of plots, there’s maybe five or six major plots, right? I made a modern fairy tale, if you will. So I’m taking the fairy tale structure, where the father is the villain and the daughter is the princess and the man she meets, Juan Diego, is the prince. And the house is literally the prison, the castle. Now in terms of change, it’s a classic thing to do: For someone to rise, someone has to descend. What goes up must come down. You and I, we fight, you knock me out, you’re standing up, I’m on the ground. So if June’s going to rise, somebody’s going to have to fall.
SF360: You underscore the fairy tale by integrating some lovely animation, yet you manage to avoid preciousness. What’s the trick?
Savoca: How do I make it so it’s not Disney? The only way I could succeed at trying to take a fairy-tale structure and not make it saccharine, sentimental, sappy, all that nonsense, is by having real characters. There’s two types of stories, the story driven by plot or the story driven by characters. Most of us indie filmmakers are character-driven people. So the characters have to be real.
SF360: Jon Gries makes the father so real he seems gnarled, especially in contrast to the ethereal June.
Savoca: One of the things I wanted to explore is the idea that you make a mistake in your life, do you recover or not? Murry makes a mistake that he never recovers from. He’s a real person, he’s a decent human being. He’s not your standard villain. I don’t believe in all bad and I don’t believe in all good. There’s a lot of good in Murry. Things happen in life. How do you react to it? He reacted poorly. He made the wrong decision, then he made another wrong decision. I wanted to explore this idea, which is very precious to me, this idea of perception. He built this house of lies. He’s sort of believing his own lies. If I did that properly, and had the right actors to pull that off, it wouldn’t even seem like a fairy tale. I kind of wanted to make a film where it’s half character-driven gritty and half fairy tale.
SF360: How does the animation fit that bill?
Savoca: The animation is kind of bridging the gap between those two types of stories. The idea of being able to see what people dream, that was something I didn’t have in the first drafts of the script at all. But I think the animation actually moves the story forward and we get to see the characters in a different way.
SF360: What’s the plan for the film, given that there are no stars, sex or action sequences, and it’s not a genre film.
Savoca: My true definition of independent cinema, and I’ll give a nod to John Cassavetes because he is the father of independent cinema, is you make a film without distribution. That’s what John did. Orson Welles didn’t do that. Howard Hughes didn’t do that. Sam Fuller or any of these guys — they were mavericks but they had money upfront and they had distribution. We, like other real independent films, have to go to festivals. We’re going to go to the American Film Market (AFM), which is the largest market in North America, in Los Angeles in November and try to sell the film. Ideally, we’d like to be released theatrically in North America. We didn’t make the film for a lot of money. So if you liked the film and you think the film works, the dangling fruit, the cherry, is that the nut that we have to crack isn’t very big. It was a small, small budget.
SF360: You shot two features in New York before Around June. Would you rather shoot your fourth film there or here?
Savoca: That’s a conversation we could have forever. New York is a much easier place to shoot than San Francisco. I don’t know what’s going on here, I haven’t lived here that long, but from what I understand, like everything, it’s political. [David] Fincher (Zodiac) had some very negative things to say about shooting here. It’s an incredibly beautiful city and they want to charge a lot of money to shoot per day. For independents, it was slightly difficult at times.
SF360: And New York?
Savoca: New York is a film-friendly town. All you need to get a permit is to have insurance. Here you have to pay for each day to shoot. You don’t have to in New York. I shot in the streets of Brooklyn, and I remember it was like 11 o’clock at night and the cops drove in and I went over and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got some donuts and coffee. Want some coffee?’ ‘No, no, no, how’s it going, what are you doing?’ ‘We’re shooting a movie, I got a permit, you want to —’ ‘No, we don’t need to see the number.’ It was that kind of thing.
SF360: Now you’re sounding nostalgic.
Savoca: I always wanted to shoot a film in San Francisco. Hitchcock liked San Francisco. Where we [were] in Portero Hill, what I wanted to do was shoot a location that I feel is going to be lost someday soon. That area from the ballpark over is all getting gentrified and it’s going to be gone someday. I did it in Brooklyn, too. I shot in the Gowanus Canal.
The one tricky thing shooting in San Francisco was the inability to nail a season. That was a challenge. It was something I hadn’t thought of. Because you shoot very early in the morning, you need a jacket. You’re shooting at one o’clock and you don’t. So there’s this continuity thing.
SF360: So would you shoot another feature here?
Savoca: I would. I would, and I see locations where I want to shoot. If I’m driving on Third St. going toward Cesar Chavez and I make a right, and then I go up Cesar Chavez, there’s this knoll and this little tree. I don’t know if you know it or have seen it but it’s crazy, and I want to shoot a chase scene there. There’s so many little places in this town that don’t scream ‘San Francisco’ but do scream ‘Shoot me. Make a movie here.’
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