The Mill Valley Film Festival opened this week with a spotlight on locally produced films. Among them are Nancy Kelly’s short film “Smitten,” a chronicle of art-lover Rene di Rosa and his personal art collection; Jesse Block’s “Brotherly Jazz: The Music and Stories of Percy, Jimmy & Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath,” a portrait of the noted fraternal jazz troika; and “Sound of the Soul: The Fez Festival of World Sacred Music,” Stephen Olsson’s homage to the festival in Morocco.
“The Californians,” directed by San Rafael’s Jonathan Parker, seems tailor-made for the festival. Set and shot in Marin County, the film finds an attractive singer-songwriter pitted between a brother and sister — Noah Wyle is the brother, a snarky real estate developer, and Illeana Douglas is his sister, a willowy advocate of “open space” initiatives.
The screenplay, written by Parker and Catherine di Napoli, is based on the Henry James novel “The Bostonians.”
“We wanted to do a story about a developer, and it just so happened that that was a perfect little story to update,” said director Parker, 46, of James’ 1886 satirical look at female emancipation. “An interesting thing happens when you update a story — in the process of trying to contemporize the issues that are being dealt with in this 19th century literature, you get a good opportunity to satirize the present-day culture because the story stays the same.”
An astute observer of humanity, Parker put his satirist’s chops to task lampooning characters on both sides of “open space” issues. A scene set in a local chain organic grocery store finds an entire aisle clogged with Marinites reading the backs of product labels. The moment suggests that personal vigilance can sometimes become stifling.
“Whole Foods moved in a couple of blocks from my house,” Parker said. “Whenever I get the urge to see some drama and don’t feel like driving to the city to see some theater, I just go hang out there. The plot is thin, but the drama is very intense,” Parker said with a laugh.
The filmmaker had an intimate understanding of his material, not just as a resident of Marin County, but as a real estate developer.
“I still am a developer, I haven’t quit my day job yet,” Parker said. “Everything is, in part, autobiographical. It would be hard if you’re a writer not to be inspired by what happened to you.”
To bring the character of the developer to life, Parker cast Wyle of “ER”. The veteran of the long-running television series acclimated quickly to Parker’s decidedly independent style of filmmaking.
” ‘ER’ is like the absolute pinnacle of a corporate, manufactured entertainment,” Parker said. “The way they do things and the way we do things — with the chaotic, spontaneous world of independent filmmaking on a limited budget — is so different I have to say that he held up pretty well making that kind of transition.”
The film also stars Douglas (“Ghost World,” “Grace of My Heart”) as the developer’s green-minded sister and Kate Mara (a series regular on TV’s “Nip/Tuck” and “Jack and Bobby”) as the golden-throated object of their affections. Keith Carradine plays Mara’s acoustic guitar-wielding father, and Cloris Leachman has a cameo.
Parker was happy to shoot the film locally despite the Hollywood pedigree of the cast.
“I’m very location-based as a writer just in terms of the people I see and the things I think about,” Parker said. “Everybody wanted us to go shoot in Canada where they can get some money back on the production,” he said, referring to the country’s aggressive incentive programs to lure film productions north of the border. “That’s so unappealing to me for so many reasons.
“It’s also very convenient to shoot locally. I also have a lot of local resources. Being in real estate, I usually have some space I can find to do things in.”
Parker said he was careful not to editorialize on the issue of open space in the course of his film.
“I hate when movies are so obviously trying to take some position on what could be a political issue. I just tried to say literally, ‘Hey, this is how it happens,’ ” Parker said. “One of the notions that I thought was unusual about the movie is that you see the developer succeed in getting his approvals, but he builds a project that causes him to fail financially. This is something people who are on the opposite side of the thing never even consider. They always just think that every developer is rich, and that every developer makes a ton of money. In reality, to pull off a financially successful real estate deal is just about as easy as trying to make a successful movie.”
“The Californians,” made in the range of $3 million to $4 million, has already secured distribution with Fabrication Films. It opens Oct. 21 in San Francisco.
Parker’s film career developed simultaneously with his real estate aspirations, though his initial ambition was to be a musician; he played in the Question Men and as a sideman with the Units. In the early ’80s during the rise of then-nascent MTV, Parker created music videos for his band, which garnered attention from the film industry. At one point, producer Brian Grazer, who would later collect a handful of honors including the Academy Award for best picture for “A Beautiful Mind,” called Parker with an offer.
“It was weird to get a call saying, ‘How about if I pay for your next movie?’ when I was a musician. I asked ‘What movie would that be?’ ” Parker recalled with a laugh, then added, “I did start to think that film would be a better way to express myself. I had always been a writer — I was a writing major at Stanford — and it suddenly just kind of dawned on me that I could put the music and the writing all in the same package and get the best of (my) abilities in one product.”
Parker and his collaborators are developing another feature project. As with his other projects, Parker expects to remain outside the Hollywood system.
“Hollywood is a dark, dank place and I have absolutely no desire to live in that area and swim in those waters,” he said.
He later added: “I’m sure that I will remain autonomous, not necessarily out of choice. I write this certain type of material that does not appear to be of a typical commercially viable movie.
“I just want to move one rung up the ladder with every project. Fortunately, I have the other business so I don’t have to do this for a living. The goal is ‘Hey, can you do this and break even?’ and then ‘Can you do this and make a little bit?’
“But really, it’s the enjoyment of writing and making these movies. Once they’re done, they’re like kids. They go off on their own — and ‘good luck,’ ” he said, and you can almost picture him waving a fond farewell.
The Mill Valley Film Festival plays Oct. 6-16 at the CinéArts @ Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley; 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley; and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael.
“The Californians” screens at 2 p.m. Saturday, the Sequoia; and at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Rafael Film Center.