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June 19, 2007

Conventional Wisdom

Conventioneers director Stephens revisits '04 as award-winning film hits DVD

Woodwyn Koons and Matthew Mabes in Conventioneers, which reaches DVD today Photos: Hyphenate Films)

Even today, nearly a year and a half after her feature debut Conventioneers won big at the Independent Spirit Awards and two years after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, it almost always comes back to that sweltering day three summers ago when Mora Stephens and her cameraman headed to Ground Zero.

"I thought we had gotten through the most difficult parts of shooting, and the rest would be really easy and small and very tame," said Stephens, 31, whose tale of romantic and political idealism run amuck at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York had already filmed its climax earlier at that week's much bigger United for Peace and Justice march. "They mapped out a route with police, and we were at the front filming the start of the march. And we stepped in the street, and the police said, 'Get off of the street; come up on the sidewalk.' We followed their orders, and the next things we new were surrounded by bicycles and orange netting. And we were all arrested. It was the most confusing, baffling thing at the time, because I didn't intend to get arrested that day; I didn't see it coming in any way."

You could say that such is the running theme of Conventioneers (which Cinema Libre releases today on DVD): the surprise of discovering a love story in the tumult that was the '04 presidential campaign is superseded only by the surprise at the degree to which it works. As far as mismatched couples go, married, conservative Massey (Matthew Mabes) and engaged, liberal Lea (Woodwyn Koons) are cut from fairly common, star-crossed cloth. More than a decade removed from their college acquaintance and its accompanying unrequited crushes, the two reconnect in Manhattan in advance of the GOP convention; it's Texan Massey's first trip to New York, where he'll be a delegate, while Lea hits town to help organize part of a massive protest during George W. Bush's nomination speech. A drinking bout propels them bedward, the jumping-off point for a reevaluation of politics through love and sex. Or is it the reevaluation of love and sex through politics?

Obviously it's open to discussion, which the surest sign of Conventioneers' success. Rooted as it is in crises of the moment -- a la Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler's standard-bearing drama set against the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention (not to mention The F Word, another 2004 convention narrative that premiered at Tribeca alongside Conventioneers) -- the film's personal dynamics reflect a strong, even startling authenticity. Stephens tweaks the zillionth cinematic take on anomie-addled Gen-X romance to accommodate the era's high and utterly compelling stakes.

Conventioneers director Mora Stephens

"It was about that sort of rite of passage for people in their late 20s and early 30s, where you feel like college wasn't so long ago," half-laughed Stephens, who co-wrote the script with her producer (and husband) Joel Viertel. "All the characters in the movie are in a real moment of transition in their lives. Massey's been married for a while, but he's right on the verge of having kids. But he doesn't feel ready for it. Lisa's on the verge of getting married but also doesn't feel ready for it. More than any kind of statement about marriage and relationships, it was more about that generational thing: that moment of transition where you should be an adult, but you're more passionate about politics than you are about growing up."

In the film's equally strong subplot, Lea's former comrade-in-arms Dylan (Alex Friedman) juggles his obligations to his own wife and child with his job as a sign language interpreter and a nagging drive to reenter the activist realm. He reaches a crossroads after receiving a call inviting him to interpret Bush's speech at the convention; his hesitance to accept the gig at first stems from political dissent, then from his compulsion to sabotage the event. Further deepening Conventioneers' mythology is the fact that Friedman really was the president's interpreter in 2004; the ever-resourceful Stephens communicated the shot list to a secondary camera crew with media credentials and seamlessly cut tense shots Friedman's work -- and Dylan's ultimate backing down from his planned peace-symbol sabotage -- into her climactic protest montage. The failure of idealism compounds outside Madison Square Garden, where arrests ensue and Massey and Lea confront the consequence of their trysts.

Then there's the real ending, which I'm loath to spoil but which gamely subverts the red-state/blue-state bathos indigenous to so many political odd-couple narratives. "I found it really interesting watching the film through festivals and when it played in New York -- the different (ways viewers) interpret the ending," Stephens told me. "I don't think there's one right interpretation." She also noted the DVD features alternate endings along with recollections from herself, Viertel and her cast about everything from developing characters to getting out of jail, but I don't even want to consider a different ending; I could barely process the audacious one it has.

"I was definitely trying to say something on the bigger scale of just how hard it is for these two sides to really communicate," she said. "How I want these two characters to be together and I want these two sides to talk. But it's not going to be easy, and politics have gotten very ugly and personal. But when I was talking to the actors, we weren't talking about the political at all."



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Comments (1)

i saw this on a spirit screener a few years ago and thought it was fantastic in so many ways, but without being a spoiler, a thought the ending wasn't so great. i wish i could talk about it more but i don't want to spoil it, but someday you should revisit the ending in place where people know there will be spoilers and i'd be curious to see what other people think. kudos to mora for finally getting it out and i think it stands as an amazing example of top notch low budget filmmaking and naturalistic dialogue, and really sharp editing. good work.

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