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Interviews: On Set for the Chicago Production ‘The View From Tall’

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CHICAGO – The Chicago independent film scene keeps thriving, and a local production that just wrapped up will soon be a part of it. “The View From Tall” is based on a play written by co-director Caitlin Parrish, who along with her directing partner Erica Weiss brought the story to the screen.

One of the key roles in the film is portrayed by Chicago actor Michael Patrick Thornton. Thornton is a veteran performer, who most recently appeared as Dr. Gabriel Fife in the ABC-TV series “Private Practice.” Thornton suffered a spinal stroke in 2003, and is now mobile via a wheelchair, but has still forged a full acting career which also included an appearance in “The Dilemma” – directed by Ron Howard – in 2011.

Erica Weiss, Caitlin Parrish
Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss on the Set of ‘The View From Tall’
Photo credit: Tyler Core for the ‘The View From Tall,’ LLC

The crew of “The View From Tall,” which includes producer Amanda Pflieger (of last year’s notable film “Animals”) and co-producer Mary Kay Cook, invited HollywoodChicago.com to the set to watch some scene work and interview directors Erica Weiss and Caitlin Parrish, as well as actor Michael Patrick Thornton.

HollywoodChicago.com: Michael, tell me a bit about your character in ‘View from the Tall’ and what qualities do you want to emphasize about him in your interpretation?

Michael Patrick Thornton: My character is named Dr. Douglas Cecil, a psychologist, recently suffering a spinal cord injury and dealing with family trauma. This is the first time he is treating an adolescent, and is challenged by her intelligence and precociousness. There is a real moral center to this guy which serves as his North Star – adhering to this anachronistic moral code was important to me.

HollywoodChicago.com: Caitlin, what was the idea genesis for the play, and what were the biggest challenges of transforming it into a screenplay and a cinematic vision as a director?

Caitlin Parrish: I wrote the play when I was 18 years old, and it was the first play I ever wrote, so I didn’t really know how to do it. It came about when I was working as a stage manager, and one of the actors challenged me to write a play, because they said I couldn’t do it. I don’t like being told what I can’t do. I started with a funny line – my joke in high school was that I wasn’t a lesbian, I was just tall. As I wrote that down, the character came out of that. The rest of it was about high school, and the number of slights I felt, which I guess I had to work out. [laughs]

When it came time to adapt the play to film, a decade later, the main challenge was to taking a three character, bottled play and transform it into a cinematic world. Also, it was about rewriting the character to not make her right all the time, which was my attitude at 18 years old. I embraced the gray areas more.

HollywoodChicago.com: Erica, as you are both theater veterans, how do those skills translate for you in creating that cinematic world for this story?

Erica Weiss: The thing I’ve learned is that it’s like doing theater in reverse, because in theater you start with the text, working on it, get it to its feet, add technical blocking elements and bring the audience. With film, you work backward, from the picture, to the day-of shooting and then giving performance notes on the text.

That was intimidating at first, but I realized that I had done those processes before, just in a different order. Then it became easier to wrap my mind around it. In the end, it is about storytelling and collaboration, and it’s figuring out the shared language of the actors and crew. It was closer to theater than I imagined.

HollywoodChicago.com: Michael, I just witnessed your scene in which you get some bad news about the character’s injuries. How do you relate back to your real life in absorbing this type of news, since you’ve heard it before in your own personal journey?

Thornton: Personally after I got ill in 2003, I stopped working on literal translations of scripts, they all kind of tend to have become challenging, but ultimately healing types of a ‘Trojan Horse’ scenario. It unloads opportunities to relive some of my stuff, and to forgive – bury the dead and honor the ghosts. There isn’t much acting these days, [laughs] but at the same time it’s exhausting. I rather be doing that kind of thing, though, than putting on a f**king hat and doing a drawing room mystery.

The fact of the matter is I was told I would never talk again, and did after nine months of speech therapy. So to be on a set and to tell a story, is an incredible gift, in whatever package it comes in. If I enter into an acting challenge with that sense of gratitude, it makes the day a lot easier.

Michael Patrick Thornton, Amanda Drinkall
Michael Patrick Thornton and Amanda Drinkall Share a Scene in ‘The View From Tall’
Photo credit: Tyler Core for the ‘The View From Tall,’ LLC

HollywoodChicago.com: Let’s talk a bit about the actor’s palette for you, since you’ve worked on stage, film and television. What is different between the three, as far as energy level, and what is the most common preparation that works best across all three media?

Thornton: It’s such a strange environment, the film and TV world, There are all these machinations going on, and many things vying for your attention, and can seem a bit antiseptic to anything inspirational. I’ve come full circle with it, and love it as much as theater, because if we believe in all the acting techniques we use – especially in television, where a lot of money is on the line to make a day’s shoot – then no amount of preparation can get you to the point in which you actually trust that.

On stage, the script doesn’t change that much, the place you perform the play is not going to change. If we look at a film or TV set as a science experiment, the constant that we know in theater is a variable in the other media. Locations change, chronology is out of whack and the shot order changes – which means you might have to switch emotional paths depending on what is coming up. What are you going to do? The answer is that in film or TV, on a very sneaky level, has given me a beautiful opportunity to practice what I preach. To simply trust the truthfulness of what is documented, and that it is enough. More than enough, actually.

HollywoodChicago.com: Erica and Caitlin, what is the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about directing, and how do you apply it into this production?

Parrish: Hire Stephanie Duffords as Director of Photography. [laughs] I made friends with other female directors, and I went to them because we were first-timers, and the paradigm shifts when women are in charge. I got a piece of advice from a friend who said, ‘under no circumstances cede your power.’ Also she said set the tone from day one, so Erica and I both have put a premium on creating an environment that is fun, efficient and respectful. We know when to play around, but we also make sure that everyone on the set will feel that respect, and that won’t change – there was no ego tolerated.

Weiss: The other piece of advice was ‘you can do it.’ That was just enough for two creative collaborators – Caitlin and I have been working together for 12 years – and this is a major step for us, but we were told when describing the project, that everything would be fine. That made it so much less scary.

HollywoodChicago.com: Michael, at what point in your career have you turned around and wonder, ‘how the hell did I get here?’

Thornton: Everyday? [laughs] Seriously, last night we were outside in this weird parking lot in LaGrange [Illinois] and of all the things you could be doing on a Friday night, it was the only place I wanted to be. It was a wonderfully written scene, guided expertly by two directors and with a fantastic scene partner. The challenge for this type of career, in which the end goal seems to be a cover of a magazine, is that if you can cultivate a spirit of gratitude on the way to work, people will want to work with you, and the day will just go that much faster. Honestly, it’s all about today.

“The View From Tall” wrapped principle photography in November of 2014. Featuring Amanda Drinkall and Michael Patrick Thornton. Written by Caitlin Parrish. Directed by Erica Weiss and Caitlin Parrish.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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