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Fingerman: Dr London and the Triangle Force is the fantastic action-comedy-drama from director A.J. Rickert-Epstein (known on FXhome.com as ajjax44), which we gave a glowing review last week. Despite being busy on set in Tijuana, AJ still found the time to answer some questions about Fingerman.
“It stemmed from my experience as an 18 year old,” he recalls of the original concept, “living in New York for the summer and returning to suburbia...seeing things with new eyes. My neighborhood suddenly seemed so weird!” The result was the original Fingerman: First Blood short film, which arrived at FXhome.com back in 2003 and quickly became something of a classic, immediately leading to sequel plans. “We thought it got a pretty good response, and then we wanted to turn it into a trilogy of shorts.”
A couple of scripts were written by AJ for the sequels, which never saw the light of day. “Our target audience was much narrower back then,” he says, talking of a time before YouTube (can anybody remember those days?), when Internet video was still a relatively new concept. As AJ moved along with his studies and began to advance his career, the Fingerman idea was put to the side.
Three years later AJ was based in Los Angeles, already working professionally on various film and TV projects thanks to perseverance and hard graft (check out our 2006 interview with AJ). With a large portfolio of short films under his belt already, it was time to move to feature length. “I realised very quickly that no one was going to hand me the job of directing a feature film unless I had already successfully completed one,” says AJ, illustrating one of Hollywood’s great catch-22s.
An unusual, multi-genre concept such as Fingerman might not be the most obvious choice of material for a first-time feature director, but AJ had his reasons. “I decided it would probably wind up being a really fun movie if we expanded the plot and added even more strange characters to the mix. It also helped that the movie is an action-comedy and not to be taken seriously, which helped us get away with some tricky stuff on such a low budget.” The original short had also proved memorable to viewers, indicating that the idea was a winner. “People have always been telling me along the way that they think Fingerman is our most original idea for a short film and I tend to agree.”
Translating the original short into a feature was a tricky process for AJ and co-writer James Flynn. “The original Fingerman, to be frank...didn’t make sense,” admits AJ. “Chris turns bad in the end for no apparent reason and some people didn’t get it.” The original sequel shorts had intended to introduce an implanted ‘violence chip’ to explain his sudden change in behaviour, while also implicating a certain Dr London as the villain behind Fingerman’s creation.
As the feature developed, so the ideas from the original unfilmed trilogy were altered or dropped altogether to make way for new ones. “I wanted to do something a little different by making the bad guys less focused on Chris and more on the bureaucracy of the Triangle Force. That way Chris becomes more of a random hero and an underdog instead of some ‘chosen one’ type like Neo from The Matrix.” The move away from a generic action formula also allowed for a more eclectic group of characters and sub-plots.
The ‘Triangle Force’ itself was a concept that did survive the conversion to feature. “It was the name of an evil terrorist group that took over a cruise ship I was on in a really awesome and realistic dream I had at around age thirteen,” AJ remembers. “Actually, I sometimes feel like I’m stealing ideas from myself because my dreams are seriously like watching an already finished film.”
“My professional experiences in LA at that point taught me mostly what NOT to do when making a film,” he says, mentioning the lack of efficiency on most big productions. “I really didn’t know how to make a feature so just treated it like a series of short films.”
Since the original short many things had changed, with the original cast and crew scattered across the USA having attended different universities. “It took a lot of planning schedule-wise and many phone calls over the months previous to the shooting dates, but it was actually miraculously easy to get everyone together,” says AJ.
As well as casting many familiar faces from AJ and Chris’ earlier work, Fingerman also attracted some new talent, such as Noah Applebaum, who brings his remarkably natural improv skills to the mix as Larry the Lemonade Guy. “I met him during my time presiding over the MAFIA,” says AJ, referring to the film organisation he established while at university. “He came to me with a script about a bunch of rednecks trying to band together to defeat the evil mayor of their town. I told him my honest opinion of the script and that it would take a lot more work than he probably thought. Later, as James and I were writing the script for Fingerman, I had Noah in mind because I wanted him to be involved with the film somehow and learn more about what actually goes into the process of making a movie. His talents shined in the improv and he almost always made me screw up takes by making me laugh.” Having acquired a taste for the business after the Fingerman experience, Noah has since moved up to LA to join Chris and AJ.
Meanwhile, Lisbet Portman plays Stephanie, the driving force behind much of Fingerman’s story, yet she only joined the team a couple of weeks prior to shooting. “Lisbet was a gift from a friend I made in LA on Chasing 3000 named Sara Van Der Voort,” says AJ. “I had originally cast a pretty half-white, half-Japanese girl to be Stephanie but she bailed two weeks before we began principle photography. I called Sara and asked her if she knew any good female actors around 18-20 years old and she said yeah...her cousin!” Lisbet lived just around the corner in Ohio and was free for the summer, so the role was cast. “I was actually glad the other girl bailed out once I started working with Lisbet, because I don’t think anyone else could have ever played Stephanie as well.”
The 22-day shoot went surprisingly smoothly for the first-time feature director. “I have to say with this movie the whole cast and crew were all giving me 900% for some reason,” says AJ. “I think it had something to do with the atmosphere that summer, because it was a magical time with most of the cast and crew either freshly graduated from college or still in college.” A highly cooperative set was encouraged, with AJ eager for everyone to make their mark on the project. “Everyone had the opportunity to toss their ideas into the mix. We’d sometimes shoot a scene twelve different ways and that gave the whole crew a sense of ownership. There was a lot of stuff in this movie I could have never have planned out or made up myself.”
While a firm overall schedule was a necessity, AJ was also aware of the film’s need for on-set innovation and a slightly anarchic edge. “The film sort of grew as we shot it. Mostly I just followed my instincts and watched the dailies every night to make sure we were on the right track. I had the flexibility with the short shooting days and the longer schedule to either re-do stuff or write more scenes in to help out the plot.”
AJ was determined to avoid fatigue setting in and aimed to keep the shoot quick and easy for all concerned. “I tried very hard to make each person’s time commitment last no more than 2 weeks, including Chris ‘Fingerman’ himself.” A focused shoot and sensible hours everyday kept spirits high and progress smooth, despite the large cast and ambitious story. “It was the first movie I ever did where almost everyone stayed late to watch the dailies. Every night.”
Fingerman is AJ’s most narratively complex project to date, with a huge cast and several plotlines all converging neatly to a satisfying climax. “I think doing a crapload of shorts helped out quite a bit because I had plenty of time to make mistakes and learn from them,” he says. “Learning to delegate also helped out a lot.”
One area in which AJ sought the skills of others was the score. Noah Applebaum, proving to be annoyingly multi-talented, created an album’s-worth of songs for the film. “He is an awesome musician and one day he came to me on set with four songs relating to the movie. I loved them so much I asked him to do one for each character.” Also employed are Daywalker composer Jason McKay, AgileMC/DJ Criminal and Pete Lewton, with the four together contributing a memorable and unique score that helps to give Fingerman a strong identity.
Always the most difficult part of a movie project, distribution has so far proved elusive for Fingerman, despite its quality. “I’ve been trying to get a distributor to buy it,” says AJ, “but that’s been hard.” The alternate plan is to create the DVDs himself and take the film on a US college tour.
Whether Fingerman finds a distributor or is ultimately self-published, we urge everyone to grab a copy at the earliest opportunity – not just to support a fellow FXhomer, but because it’s also a damned good film.
As for AJ, he’s currently planning his next film, scheduled to go before cameras in summer 2008, while keeping busy on the set of larger productions such as La Linea in Tijuana. “The film is a crime thriller and stars Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Kevin Gage, Joe Morton and many more. It’s a blast so far!”
Fingerman marks the coming-of-age of AJ’s filmmaking efforts and we hope it’s the first step of many still to come. AJ, Chris and their teams have set themselves a high benchmark, but we’re confident that they’ll surpass it in years to come. Needless to say, you’ll be the first to hear about it when they do.