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Film Fests launch “Rocket Science” director Jeffrey Blitz’s career into Orbit

For director Jeffrey Blitz, figuring out how to get his films screened was just short of “Rocket Science”.
But with the success of the aforementioned film, he just may have found the right formula. The award winning film at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival was released theatrically last week to encouraging numbers.
“Rocket Science”, a wonderful film about a stuttering boy (played brilliantly by Reece Thompson) who is recruited by an attractive overachiever (Anna Kendrick) to join their high school’s debate team, is Blitz’s first narrative feature film as both writer and director. The filmmaker, who also directed the 2003 Academy Award nominated documentary “Spellbound” took home the directing award and a grand jury nominee at Sundance for “Rocket Science.”
With him being two for two in successful independent projects, Blitz’s filmic path may seem gilded with the Midas touch. But quite the contrary, the road was built on blood, sweat, and tears and the film festival circuit. It was for the journey along this route of both films, did he truly appreciate the difficulties in gaining an audience.
“We were so naïve when submitting “Spellbound”,” Blitz said after a screening and Q and A in Santa Barbara. “First of all, we didn’t understand the different tiers of festivals. We knew people talked about Sundance so we tried them. When Sundance said “no” my producing partner Sean Welch and I decided ‘ok’ whatever the next festival is we will submit to them-not knowing that our chances of selling Spellbound would be really hurt by this.
“We were pleased with our premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW), but also sort of confused because we didn’t know that this was not a fest where films get bought and sold. And later, because we felt that all of the potential buyers had seen the film early in our fun, we became total festival whores. We felt it was the only way to reach an audience. So we screened at two dozen fests from SXSW to East Lansing to anywhere that wanted us.”
From this, the documentary film about the participants of the National Spelling Bee, garnered 14 awards and 6 nominations: culminating in critical acclaim and the Academy nod. In addition, people started contacting him about other projects, hence the birth of “Rocket Science.”
“My producing partner Sean Welch and I had financed “Spellbound” on credit cards,” Blitz said. At the time, we were swimming in debt. After the success of the film’s festival run, HBO called to hire me to write a screenplay. The fact that they wanted to hire me for something that wasn’t against the law excited me (laughs).”
From writing the screenplay to assembling a cast to play quirky characters, there were unique challenges specific to making a feature as opposed to a documentary. In addition, instead of having to finance a film on their own with complete control of their product, they had the luxury of not worrying about finances with the same opportunity to make the film their way.
“Well, I'm sure in some ways I must have approached Rocket Science differently—because I had to get lots of parties on board with my vision for the film while shooting,” Blitz said in a later interview. “The one challenge was to find the right actor for Hal Heffner. When it was time to shoot, we hadn’t found Hal yet after going through virtually every candidate possible. It wasn’t until we pulled a box of audition tapes that didn’t go through the regular channels and was set to be thrown out, were we able to find Reece.”
“But the actual process of making a movie, of visual storytelling, is the same. You’re constantly "rewriting" or "re-imagining" based on what you’re getting. That's the most energizing part of filmmaking and it was very similar for Spellbound and Rocket Science.”
Once the film was completed, despite having financial backing, he was faced with the same issue that challenged him five years earlier-how to get the film seen. Having his experience with “Spellbound” helped him have realistic expectations. So, naturally life and the film world threw him a curve.
“When it came time to do with “Rocket Science”, part of me had the feeling that I wanted to be the filmmaker who never wanted to have a movie at Sundance,” Blitz said. And then of course we were accepted and won the award and I thought it’s better to be the guy who won an award at Sundance than the one who never got in (laughs).”
While it was rewarding, the experience was hectic to say the least.
“The Sundance experience was really weird,” Blitz said. “I mean, the whole thing was great but the actual experience being there was completely stress-making unlike “Spellbound” where there was no expectation. There was so much work to be done in the film that for the first week I was there, the only film I saw was “Rocket Science”.
“By the time I got to Park City, I had reached a point where I didn’t want to see my movie again. When I was there, I had to watch it everyday and talk about it. The first week was very hard. It wasn’t till the 8th day did I get to see someone else’s movie, and only then did I realize what a great festival Sundance was.”
From there it got easier- a little.
“Because we've known from the get-go that Picturehouse would distribute the
film, the festival screenings have been low-pressure,” Blitz said. “I've been more interested in feeling out audience reactions, in getting a handle on how people respond to the film, than in worry about whether the movie would make it to theaters. Also, festivals are a great way to keep in touch with my filmmaker friends
who are normally on the road, at work. Festivals turn into reunions.”
Blitz then added that they have been vital to his career.
“I think they're a great way to have a film find or start to build an audience,” Blitz said. “I don't know what it's like to screen a film without building buzz on the festival circuit so I have nothing to compare it to. But festival audiences tend to be full of film lovers and there's nothing better than sharing your movie with an appreciative crowd.”
Since Sundance, the director’s life has speed into overdrive- directing an episode of the television show “The Office” (with Steve Carell) and has begun shooting his next film, a documentary focusing on lottery winners. But as of this moment, he is trying to shoot for the moon with “Rocket Science”. Apparently his efforts are paying off-the word of mouth buzz has possibly made this the sleeper hit in the vein of “Little Miss Sunshine”, “Sideways”, and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”
“I can only say that I sincerely hope you're prediction comes true-but you never do know,” Blitz said. “When I make a film, I don't really think about its eventual
audience. I'm just really hopeful that it will find its way to an appreciative group of people. If it turns out to be a big group, all the better. But I think it's out of my hands now. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed!”

Mike “Tak” Takeuchi is an award winning non-fiction writer and contributor to Filmfestivals.com. He is also the production manager for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.









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