Cover Story: An Arc for the Ages

Local filmmaker stunned Hollywood with a powerful triptych

Dec 27, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jim Fugett

Cincinnati's hometown film hero (front) hobnobs with the stars.

There isn't a single Oscar prognosticator who could have foretold the arrival of this year's surprise event, because it was an occurrence unlike anything the business had seen before.

We've had directors deliver double threats during a particular year (Francis Ford Coppola with The Conversation and The Godfather II, Steven Soderbergh with Erin Brockovich and Traffic) and actors nominated in multiple categories (think George Clooney as supporting actor, director and writer). But the Altman-styled, multi-tracked cacophony stimulating every ear inside and outside the industry in 2006 involved an unknown screenwriter and his daring series of stories based on the romantic arc.

Inspired by the thematic aims of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors triptych — based on the colors and ideals of the French Flag — writer tt clinkscales and the production-directing team that helped bring this unique project together set out to re-imagine the notion of the romantic arc (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back) by drawing our full attention to the individual components and the unexplored depths of each phase.

In songlines, the chance meeting of Max and Illeana ignites sparks, although neither is emotionally available to fuel the flames. Max fears ending a relationship with an unstable ex, while Illeana maintains a bedside vigil for a would-be lover in a coma. Each yearns for the possibility of new love yet fears breaking with the past.

For part two, love loses love, we follow Marc and Quinn, best friends and inevitable romantic rivals for the affections of Antonia. This one-sentence synopsis reduces the story to the situation's missed opportunities and soft-focus sequences played for the laugh-track audience. But rather than cater to mainstream comedy, this love story set its sights on the dramatic shifts of loyalty and conflict between two men.

Finally, twisted love songs remixed and reconfigured the relationship alignment when Mingus returns home after a two-year absence to reclaim his place, not only in the life of Mia, the woman he left behind, but also a community of friends who have struggled to move on without him.

Since the three stories are set in the same location (Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square) and involve a complex, interconnected group of musicians, visual artists and young professionals, clinkscales conceived of shooting all three installments at one time.

"I had visions of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, minus the huge scale and the fantasy," he said in an exclusive interview with CityBeat, "although there's a fantasy here, too. A romantic conception of love told from an everyday perspective that utilizes economies of scale. But there's a dream at the center, a vision of one woman that binds them all, kinda like the One Ring."

And clinkscales couldn't imagine just any woman in the role.

"She's not the same person in the stories, but I wanted the same actress in each female lead, because this woman is the ultimate object of affection," he said. "That's why casting ranged from the likes of Irene Jacob and Claire Forlani to Eva Green and Thandie Newton. I wanted an alluring, cosmopolitan presence. The films don't work if the audience doesn't fall in love with each aspect of her."

But it takes more than loving the woman, any woman, for a project like this to make it to the big screen, especially from a neophyte like clinkscales. The first initial script idea, entitled Everything But, was a submission to the Sundance Screenwriters Workshops.

"I reached the final round, something like the last 20 or 30 to be considered for 10 or 15 spots," clinkscales said. "When I didn't get in, instead of being dejected I was happy. That was my first script and I had never studied screenwriting before, so I figured I must have been on the right track or incredibly lucky, and if that was the case I didn't want to pass it up.

"I kept digging into the story on my own, which at that point wasn't a trilogy at all. I came upon that a couple of drafts later, around the time I found a producer willing to back me up. And the rest is still unfolding."

This mesmerizing arc has created shockwaves across the awards season. Instead of features on perennial favorites like Scorsese, Soderbergh and Clint Eastwood, who is attempting to double up with Flags of Our Fathers and Letter From Iwo Jima, headlines were proclaiming that clinkscales and company could do the impossible and garner three spots in several of the major categories at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay). Conventional wisdom says that multiple nominees end up splitting the vote, but this scenario is so unusual that all bets are seemingly off.

The guilds (Screenwriters, Directors and Actors), along with a few separate awards programs, are considering creating a special category to acknowledge this one-time opportunity. There are so many exceptions at play here, but industry insiders, usually looking for signs in any and every frame, are far more watchful and cautious in their estimates this time.

The Romantic Arc could be this year's My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Passion of the Christ, although it's not necessarily the box-office phenomenon those movies were (each film shows signs of profitability). It's the critical response that might incite Hollywood producers to invest in serialized human dramas.

So what's next for clinkscales?

"Part of me thinks I should simply let the screen go black and disappear," he said. "It's like Ralph Ellison settling in front of his typewriter after Invisible Man or Michael Jackson following up Thriller. Can you top something like that? You're not trying to. You're only worried about doing something good and meaningful to yourself, but everyone else is going to be making those comparisons, you know.

"Maybe I'll get married and change my name and start all over from scratch. I doubt anyone will notice." ©