Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Iowa getting its close-up in '16 to Life'

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Aug. 26, 2009.

One of the highlights of this week's Landlocked Film Festival will be Saturday's Iowa premiere of "16 to Life," a film written and directed by Iowa native and UCLA film professor Becky Smith. Smith and the film's star, Hallee Hirsh ("E.R.," "Jag") are scheduled to attend.

"16 to Life" is Smith's freshman foray into feature filmmaking after her broad experience in television ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") and documentary ("The Daring Project"). She said she had written about 10 screenplays for feature-length films, but she tended to focus only on developing the storyline and never really paid attention to budget concerns. When she started working on "16 to Life," she focused on telling a story she would be "proud to tell" in a way that would be affordable for a low-budget production.

"I had this idea that if I worked really hard and if I developed a good reputation, then someone would ask me to direct a feature film," Smith said in a telephone interview Monday. "But the industry doesn't work that way. If you develop a good reputation, you are more often pigeonholed into the thing you are already doing."

After spending a year writing and rewriting her script, Smith started fundraising and was lucky enough to get a grant to scout for locations. That's when things started falling together and when "16 to Life" became even more of a labor of love to the Okoboji-born California transplant.

Filming in Iowa

At first, Smith had intended to shoot only a few exterior scenes in Iowa. But during trips to her native state, two factors came together to make it possible for Smith to shoot the entire film here:

• Iowa passed a tax incentive program for film productions with budgets more than $100,000 and

• Iowa businessman Terry Trimpe, who helped produce the Iowa-based "The Final Season," agreed to become a partner.

Suddenly, Smith realized her story of a teenage girl who reads more and who dreams more than the other residents of her small town -- a story that very much comes out of Smith's own Midwest upbringing -- actually could be set and filmed in the Midwest.

"I, of course, think Iowa is gorgeous," Smith said. "It's a perfect place to film. I was always disappointed that 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape,' which is supposed to be in Iowa, was filmed in flat, dry Texas -- which doesn't look like Iowa in any shape or form."

Because the story called for a resort town near a lake, Smith considered various sites, including Storm Lake, Clear Lake and the Okoboji area where she grew up. After "making a big circle around Iowa," she decided on McGregor, which she said is her mother's favorite place and where Trimpe had property on which they could film.

"So, I rewrote some of the script for a river rather than a lake," Smith said, "And it turned up to be the best possible idea. We were able to also film this great footage of the rolling hills and the surrounding farms. It was spectacular."

'16 and never been kissed'

"16 to Life" takes place on the 16th birthday of the main character, Kate (played by Hirsh). The tight focus surely helped reign in the film's low budget -- Smith said the film came in at less than $1 million -- but it also helped contain some of the craziness that happens to Kate and her friends on that day.

Smith's film clearly strives to fit into the "indie sitcom" genre opened up by "Little Miss Sunshine." With the main plot focusing on Kate's attempts to change her status of being "sweet 16 and never been kissed," the film feels similar to "Juno" (penned by University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody) and the uniforms featured on the movie poster seem designed to bring to mind the late Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress."

But Smith manages to put her own stamp on the genre. In between the events of the day, she shows Kate reading from "Duck Farm No. 13," a book written by a teenage girl who lived through China's Cultural Revolution. To make the comparison as clear as possible, Smith often cuts from Kate's everyday world -- which includes many beautiful images from around McGregor -- to images from Kate's daydreams about how her teenage, angst-filled problems would look if transposed to China 40 years ago.

Because Smith is writer and director of "16 to Life," she has more control over the final product than many filmmakers have. But she said even she was surprised at how the actors brought depth and sincerity to a story she thought of as "a lighter comedy."

"I wrote it as a comedy very much based on my sense of humor -- which is hard to describe, but has a very droll quality to it," Smith said. "But people after (screenings) would come up and say that it wasn't just a comedy; it was moving. That is something that I have to give the cast full credit for."

There are some remnants of that earlier, lighter comedy. The voice-over narration at the beginning and end of the film, for example, seems to belong to another film altogether.

But in the end, "16 to Life" is not only a film Iowans can be proud of; it's also a film the Iowa Film Office should send out as an advertisement for why other directors should follow Smith's example and start thinking about making their films in Iowa.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or jcharisc@press-citizen.com.

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