(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reel Thoughts Interview: Who Left the Lights On?

Daniel Pace’s mysterious drama, The Appearance of a Man, has earned numerous awards and nominations at festivals in Europe, Egypt and the US, but its mix of spirituality, psychology and sci-fi will hold special meaning to Arizona audiences. Set in March of 1997, the film explores the impact of the strange lights that appeared over Phoenix and the coinciding appearance of a handsome man who may be some sort of messenger.

Father Michael, brilliantly played by Michael Tassoni, is a progressive priest who is battling both the small-minded church hierarchy (sound familiar?) and debilitating headaches and visions. Richard Glover plays Jimmy, a man riddled with regret and indecision who spots the mysterious stranger (Slade Hall) and is sure that he must be related to a similar man who saved him in Vietnam. He becomes obsessed with finding the man for reasons he doesn’t even understand.

Meanwhile, Father Michael finds himself embroiled in gossip and innuendo tied to a too-attentive (and unhappily married) parishioner (Katherine Stewart). He seeks guidance from his former mentor, Father Daniel (Tom Basham), who has relocated to Mexico.

The film is very atmosphere-driven, only giving you bits and pieces of the puzzle, and fascinating you with its use of Phoenix locations and landscape and skillful building of suspense. The film has been developed and shot over a five-year period, which allowed director Pace time to perfect the vision he had for the story, although he continues to refine the project and re-cut it, even including the version I viewed. If you lobotomized the movie and put it on steroids, you might get the Nicolas Cage action downer Knowing, but The Appearance of a Man has a much more hopeful outlook.

I had the opportunity to meet with the charismatic lead Michael Tassoni, who co-produced the film, and he explained why the film means so much to him.

Tassoni admits that it was surreal to walk off stage at the San Diego Film Festival with Pace after Pace won the Heineken Red Star Award (for Best Filmmaking) to find that he won for Best Actor as well. “It’s just like everyone said,” Tassoni explained. “It’s very quick, and there were literally like thirty paparazzi cameras going nuts. Thank God we won the Heineken Award because then I got a beer right away.”

Tassoni was living in LA when the famous bright lights appeared over Phoenix, but Pace lived here and was fascinated by the stories he kept hearing on talk radio and from people who had various experiences. “Once I read the script, (I thought) it was brilliant. We both grew up Catholic, so his use of the Bible to try and explain what these lights are is a work of art. Because it’s never been done, using the Bible verse or using UFO sightings as more of a spiritual event. What we’ve seen from audiences from San Diego to France to New York to even Egypt, it’s really touching people’s hearts big time. You know, the talkbacks are like an hour long — people have so many questions after the film. This movie’s really going under people’s skin. It’s really challenging people to think differently in terms of what these lights are about, why they’re visiting, if they’re here.”

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy The Appearance of a Man, in fact, having a healthy skepticism may make the film’s fate-driven, science-meets-spirituality storyline even more satisfying. Tassoni, who has married (his wife appears in the film), had a daughter and has a son on the way, all during the filming and release of The Appearance of a Man, is eager for a larger audience to see his own labor of love.

Clearly, from its response, you don't have to be from Phoenix or to even know what the Phoenix Lights are to enjoy the film, but all of the local settings and actors make the film a special pleasure to watch. Tassoni is excited for Phoenix audiences to explore the mysteries in The Appearance of a Man.

The Appearance of a Man opens today exclusively at Harkins Valley Art Theatre. Click here to watch the trailer.

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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