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Exclusive: Jonathan Parker Skewers the Art Scene in (Untitled)

Marley Shelton left an indelible impression on just about every hormonal teenage boy as lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn in 1993’s Sandlot (not to mention the effect she had on slightly older men, such as Roberto Rodriguez, who cast her as the deliciously creepy Dr. Dakota Block in the Planet Terror portion of 2007’s Grindhouse). Since that breakthrough she has teased, tantalized, horrified, and downright mesmerized in a slew of American cult classics and box office hits ranging from Sin City to Pleasantville.

Earlier this week, Shelton sat with Flavorpill to discuss her newest effort, Jonathan Parker‘s (Untitled), screening this week as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film is a skewering commentary on the contemporary art scene that features a heavy dose of the dark sarcasm and witty irony that distinguished Parker’s 2001 breakthrough, Bartelby. Populated by a stream of narcissistic and vapid gallery owners, nitwit collectors, and marvelously hubristic artists, the pic manages not just an ironic dismantling of the Chelsea art world, but a surprisingly compelling and credible commentary on the very real divide between art and commerce, drive and success, and genuine passion and pre-fab enthusiasm.

Shelton stars as Medeliene, a shrewd young gallery owner who secretly funds her calculatedly eccentric showroom (featuring a rotating selection of works from minimalist pieces such as “push-pin in wall” to gaudy Damien Hirst inspired taxidermy) with a shamefully commercial back room that sells colorful tableaus to hotels and hospitals. When she falls for the commercial artist’s (Eion Bailey) quirky, misunderstood misanthrope of a “new music” composer brother (Adam Goldberg), she attempts to prop up his floundering career to hilarious and gleefully painful results.

Flavorpill: What attracted you to this project?

Marley Shelton: I really responded to the script — it was incredibly fresh and unique. I couldn’t quite actually believe that they were making it, because it was too good to be true: this movie’s actually getting made! Adam Goldberg was already attached and I was really excited about the possibility of working with him as I am a huge fan.

That drew me to it, and we were also shooting in New York in the fall, which is a pretty ideal time to be in New York City, so that also drew me to it.

FP: Were there any personal experiences you had with the divide between the high art world and commerce that you spoke to you in the script? Perhaps the differences you’ve seen between working in mainstream Hollywood and the more independent productions you’ve worked on?

MS: The most obvious allegory, especially with the Madeleine character, is the Hollywood allegory, because she herself is such a heat-seeking missile, and is always ambitiously looking for the next big thing, the next cutting edge, the next get — identifying what is the “now of now”, or what’s going to be the “now of now” in two seconds, regardless of any merit or value. So, you can draw that obvious comparison with the way Hollywood is sometimes structured with looking for what’s hot and sometimes that just gets out of control, that search for the flavor of the moment.

So that concept spoke to me a little bit, but the most important thing was that I found all the characters voices to be refreshingly unique and I was intrigued by the Chelsea art dealer world. I have a couple of friends that are contemporary art dealers in New York, and they were kind enough to give me the “inside scoop,” or at least their perspective on what these young gallerists are like. There does seem to be a particular brand of person who is attracted to that line of work, so it was fun and interesting to research what kind of person goes that route. A lot of times there seemed to be a trend that they are well-educated but they don’t necessarily come from a lot of money. There does seem to be a desire to socially climb in the art world, as a way of climbing in New York’s social scene in general. I found myself really intrigued by that world.

FP: What ended up being the most useful research you did in preparation for this role?

MS: Talking to those art gallery friends was the biggest help to me. Not only through their own stories, but they also connected me to several other gallerists, so I was able to interview people, and go to their galleries, and talk to them and get a sense of what they were like. Something that was kind of interesting though was that somewhere about halfway through these interviews, it would come out that the movie was a satire, and they would immediately clamp up, because no one wants to be satirized, especially not the art world. They take a big hit anyway.

FP: Did you ever find yourself mentally satirizing them as you were having these conversations?

MS: I tried not to, I wanted to be very open. It was really funny though to see them be very open with me, until they started to realize what this was all about. But they were helpful. I also spent a lot of time with one foot in the fashion world, as I have a lot of friends there as well, and I felt that went hand in hand.

FP: The movie is coated with irony — was it difficult to embody the character you’re playing? How did you prepare for the role and manage to empathize with her desires in the context of such a skewering portrayal of her world?

MS: That was a big question mark. Adam and I talked about it a lot. What is unique to all the characters in this movie is that there is really no protagonist. Usually there is at least one character that the audience identifies with, and sees the world through their eyes. In this film there isn’t that, or a true villain. What also is unique is that all the characters, including Madeleine, truly believe in their plight. Even as an audience looks at Madeleine and makes judgments, it is important to understand that she really believes in her cause, really believes in what she was selling. She was a hundred percent behind it — she drank her own Kool Aid.

This is particularly visible in her moments of vulnerability, which thankfully were written in. When she breaks down when she has to lower her standards and show [commercial] artwork, she is genuinely devastated — it is real to her. Perhaps she is a little misguided or a bit blinded by ambition, but it’s still very real for her. Watching the film again recently, it’s clear that there is somehow an empathy evoked. All the actors are so committed to genuinely playing their characters — these people that are so insular, and caught up in their particular plight or cause, and yet here is still an endearing quality to it all. You want to say, “Oh, that’s sweet.” You can’t worry about being likable or accessible. The key is simply not to judge them; a satire is a judgment, but as an actor you can’t judge. The one thing that’s fair about the film is that, yes, it’s satirical, but everybody is being made fun of. It’s not pretentious in the sense that the music wins or the art wins; there is no scapegoat, it’s a level playing field.

Something else I felt was successful about it was that it’s almost a parallel universe of sorts, or a microcosm — it exists on its own. There is a timeless quality about it, even though there are some obvious references [to the current art scene] in it, I think somehow the movie won’t get stuck in something that was “so five minutes ago” or de passé. I think this comes from dealing with some larger human nature issues with heightened reality – issues that have been around forever.

FP: What was it like working with Jonathan Parker and the other cast members?

MS: Jonathan wrote the script. It’s his project, his baby; he had complete autonomy, which was really cool. It was true independent filmmaking — there were no financiers to answer to. That freed us up a lot and made the whole project a pleasure. His brand of humor and subtlety and dry sort of gentle sarcasm permeated what we were doing. The cast that he assembled were all really cool and committed and got it immediately, so it was effortless in a way. It kind of ran itself.

Casting is so obviously important — everyone says it’s 90 percent of the puzzle. There are a couple of roles that were cast at the very last second, after some people fell out. I felt that we got very lucky. I was really impressed with how everyone put their shoulder behind these goofy characters and gave it everything they had. It was a very cohesive group.

FP: How long did you shoot? Did the sound design surprise you in any way, or significantly change the way you viewed the film?

MS: There were two components to this movie that were absolutely key: the sound design and the art itself. Obviously we knew when saw the art that it was going to be good, because that’s a big question mark when you read the script. You think to yourself, “this will not work if the art sucks.” But the art was so funny… The style of the movie is visually very basic. There are no bells and whistles. It’s static shots, very basic sets, not a lot of fancy camera movement, no smoke and mirrors. It’s funny that in a movie about aesthetics, the cinematic style is so simplistic, but I think that works and allows the art to pop, and allows these crazy characters to come to life. There was no extra comment on the comment of the comment. I didn’t know that the visual style was going to be that simple, so that surprising. But I ultimately realized that I really liked that.

The sound we also didn’t really get a sense of until much later. Once that was in the movie, it came together on a whole different level. Especially for my character — the clip-clop of the heels everywhere she went, the crazy skirt squeaking, and all that stuff added a lot to what he was trying to say.

FP: Were there any scenes where the absurdity of the situation threatened to get to you? Where you had trouble not laughing at your surroundings?

MS: What’s so weird about every movie I’ve ever been in — and I always think this is so absurd — is how quickly you become anesthetized to that. You don’t see all the stuff that’s so ridiculously absurd and funny around you. You are so focused on what you’re trying to do, whatever the practicality and logistics of it, and you are exhausted, the hours are long, and it’s such a tall order, there is so much going sometimes you just forget that you’re in this ridiculous setting, whatever it is. I think that’s almost even funnier, that all this stuff seemed like nothing.

FP: Interestingly, throughout (Untitled), none of the characters seem fazed by much either. With the possible exception of Adam Goldberg’s character, no one experiences any major epiphanies or changes their attitudes and approaches to life in any way. At the end, nothing really changes, which is a pretty unique way of making a film.

MS: This is definitely true, especially for Madeleine. Toward the end, she starts representing something larger than herself — the movie goes on. She becomes less of a character and more of a force or an entity, a symbol really. Adam’s character does have his one mild epiphany… but I love that she was a die hard to the end and went up and went down with what she believed.

There was a scene that was taken out that I wish they’d left in, where I actually have more to do with Ray Barko’s death. Inadvertently I take him back to his studio when he shows up drunk and he can’t even stand up and I’m stumbling along with him trying to help him. He passes out and I roll him up in one of his tarps, like a little blanket. I give him some bubble wrap as a pillow, thinking that I’m doing this good deed. When he comes to, he realizes that he’s stuck in the tarp and then the cow falls on him, so I accidentally murdered him, or had something to do with a second-degree murder.

I liked that scene – I liked her being more complicit in the future.

FP: Could you talk a bit about the back story you developed for Madeleine? Where do you imagine she came from and how did she get to the place we see her in?

MS: I definitely developed a lot of back story. As I mentioned before, these gallerists are very well-educated if not necessarily moneyed. There was one scene where Madeleine reads of Ray Barko’s death and she’s wearing the Sarah Lawrence T-Shirt, and that’s a little glimpse of what her past was. That she went to this liberal art college, and was clearly trying to present herself as fancier than she was, that she’s on the climb. Her hair was down, she had her little college t-shirt on and she’s in her sweats. I wanted to work that in there in at least one place.

Jonathan and I talked about how she was probably from the Midwest. She had literally gotten herself to New York and had this vision of what she wanted her life to be and how she was going to get there.

I was very interested in what her private life was like. I felt [her daily] preparation was very important — she always looked so flawlessly put together and seamless. What does a woman like that have to do in between to come off that way? There is never a hair out of place. It was fun for me to imagine her going to the hair salon and reading magazines, and always trying to stay one step ahead and thinking about the dry cleaning she would have to pick up. Where would her headspace have to be? She is always one step ahead, but not always present.

FP: Did you find any basis for Madeleine in any of your previous roles, or inspiration in roles others’ played?

MS: No, not really anything direct. There’s a little bit of an homage to the Hitchcock blonde. I find myself trying to put a little bit of that into all the characters I play. Just in terms of that icy-blonde feeling. That was something Jonathan was into as well.

I watch movies like The Player and a little bit of Tim Robbins from The Player is in Madeleine. I think she’s pretty exacting. There was a movie called Mostly Martha, a German film that I drew from a little bit as well.

That was mostly it. That’s what was kind of fun about this — it was a very unique role. And of course, my adventures of being an actor in Hollywood were an inspiration too.

FP: What’s next for you and the film?

MS: I was very happy to hear that we got distribution for the film and that it will be seen. As for me, presently I’m pregnant, so that’s my main production for a while.

The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 7; click here for more information.