Richard J. Leskosky: UI grad returning to campus to show off work

Richard J. Leskosky: UI grad returning to campus to show off work

Independent filmmaker David Franklin, a 1992 University of Illinois graduate and the winner of two Emmys, will be appearing with his award-winning first feature film, "As Far as the Eye Can See," at 7 p.m. Tuesday on campus at 124 Burrill Hall. The event is sponsored by the Campus Honors Program in cooperation with the Department of Media and Cinema Studies and is open to the public. Admission is free.

"As Far as the Eye Can See" tracks a week in the life of erstwhile concert pianist Jack Ridge (Jason London) as he frets about doing a star turn at an annual Texas piano competition that gave him his start 25 years earlier as a prodigy mentored by Van Cliburn (also a Texas native).

The piano took him away from his small hometown to international fame, but he walked away from that seven years ago and has been idling on the family farm ever since, not performing and not farming, either.

When Jack receives final divorce papers from his estranged wife (Jenni Tooley), he smashes his fist into the wall in anger and frustration. So a good part of his prep for his performance involves icing his hand for the rest of the week. And as if performance anxiety and an aching, swollen hand were not bad enough, a big agri-business firm keeps bombarding him with offers to buy his land (the last parcel in the country they don't own), and he finds himself pursued by a high school student (Jasmine Skloss Harrison) who wants to do some sort of farming internship with him for credit.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Franklin by phone about his film and his career, and what follows came largely from that conversation.

As a student here, Franklin wrote film reviews for the Daily Illini, and he recalls fondly the Saturday morning previews at The Art Theatre (back then, The New Art Theatre). In fact, it was seeing Richard Linklater's 1991 breakout film, "Slacker," about life in Austin, Texas, that inspired him to go to the University of Texas at Austin for his MFA in Radio-TV-Film.

Back then, he notes, the usual strategy for the path to success for young would-be filmmakers was to make a short film, win a prize at a prestigious festival and get a contract for a feature from Miramax Films. When Franklin's shorts did not win prizes, he turned to academe and landed a tenure track position teaching filmmaking at Hofstra University.

While teaching at Hofstra, he appeared on the popular television quiz show "Jeopardy!" for three episodes in October 2000. With the money he won there, he financed a short about a man prepping for an appearance on a TV quiz show.

He subsequently moved into television production himself for a decade as an editor and producer, most notably on the CBS news program "48 Hours," for which he won an Emmy for News and Documentary — Editor in 2014 and another for News and Documentary — Producer in 2015.

"As Far as the Eye Can See" had its genesis in 2013 when Franklin suggested to his friend, actor/writer Paden Fallis, whom he'd met when he directed him in a 2008 short, that they make a movie based on Fallis' memories of his youth in Texas. Fallis wrote the screenplay and appears in the role of auto mechanic Don. Franklin produced, directed, edited and did all the special visual effects.

According to Franklin, there are about 90 special effects shots in the film, but the total absence of giant robots or fishmen in the film might have you doubting that. In fact, it's largely what isn't there that is the special effect. All the locations (there are no scenes shot in a studio) lie within 25 miles of Austin (Fallis' hometown of Windom is 290 north of Austin, with no resources for a film project).

To create the sense that Jack's hometown is dying or at least losing a lot of its residents, the filmmakers of course blocked off whatever streets where they were actually shooting. But that doesn't mean that shop windows would not reflect cars moving a couple of blocks away, so Franklin spent many hours removing such artifacts from windows and other reflective surfaces, as well as cars and people from the backgrounds of other outdoor shots.

"As Far as the Eye Can See" has played at several festivals, including the prestigious Montreal World Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Zenith (best feature film) Award. It won the Festival Prize as Best Texas Film at the Lone Star Film Festival. Jason London won Best Actor at the Hill Country Film Festival, and David Franklin was nominated as Best Director and the film as Best Film.

Besides being set and shot in Texas, "As Far as the Eye Can See" also has casting roots in the Lone Star State. Jason London (one of People magazine's "Fifty Most Beautiful People in the World" for 1996) starred in Richard Linklater's 1993 "Dazed and Confused." And Jenni Tooley had a memorable role in Wes Anderson's first feature, "Bottle Rocket" (1996). Both Linklater and Anderson were born in Houston, and their films were shot and set in Texas.

Franklin is now on a 10-city tour screening and discussing his film with the audience in preparation for the Blu-ray and VOD release.

In my 35 or so years of advising Cinema Studies majors in the UIUC Unit for Cinema Studies, I spoke to many students who wanted to become filmmakers. Franklin is the first one to achieve that goal and return to campus to show off his work.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the UI and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film