Doctoring Reality

One of the highlights of the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival was "Mail Order Wife," a feature that flew in under the critical radar. Co-directed by Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko and executive produced by Doug Liman (director of "Swingers" and "Go") and Dave Bartis ("The O.C."), the film follows the circuitous path of Asian mail-order wife Lichi as she arrives in America to live with a lonely doorman named Adrian. Gurland, who appears in the film as himself, chronicles the difficulties in the couple's relationship and before long sees some disturbing things start to happen. The film won the American Spirit Award at the festival, earning the filmmakers a $30,000 camera package from Panavision. By turns fascinating, harrowing, and hilarious, "Mail Order Wife" takes its audience on quite a ride. To offer the details of that ride, however, will spoil the film for those who don't want to know any of the tale's startling twists. But for those who must know the truth, read on.

The truth of the tale was apparent to those paying attention to the festival's program synopsis, which described the movie as a comedic narrative feature, not a documentary. Gurland dislikes the term "mockumentary," but the film is a cleverly crafted tease of the documentary genre. He co-wrote the script with Botko, a story that begins with dark realism and gradually becomes more outlandish and surreal. It's so well done, however, that even though the two filmmakers are credited as co-writers and the actors are listed by their roles, some audience members at the festival still thought the whole thing was real. Gurland enjoys surfing that fine edge between comedy and reality, and he says he was inspired by this tricky humor from an early age.

"I was always interested in [comedy]," he says. "I knew at an early age that I wanted to do it. I went to NYU. Huck and I were students there together. I never wanted to have a regular job, so let's start with that. I wanted to be a comedian at first. I'd watch Don Rickles and Jonathan Winters, and [thought] I'd just get in front of people and tell jokes. That would be my job. When Letterman came around and the younger comedians—Richard Lewis, Jay Leno, and all those guys—I got even more excited about it. The one that really touched me was Andy Kaufman. When he would come on 'Letterman,' I'd wonder, 'Does he know he's funny? Is he trying to be funny on purpose?' That tension became very interesting to me, as opposed to the tension of when a guy was just doing setup, punch line—where you could see it coming. With Kaufman, I wasn't really sure, and I just loved that kind of confusion. He's definitely a huge influence, and Huck and I bonded over being big Kaufman fans.

"I was really influenced by documentaries," continues Gurland, who still lives in New York. "When I went to film school, I saw how hard it was to make a regular movie, with these big crews and lighting. It wasn't as easy as it is now, because, with these new cameras and technology, you can work with smaller crews. With documentaries, you can work with a small crew. I got really excited about that; it was a more immediate art form, I felt. I made a documentary that was funny called 'Frat House' that won [at] Sundance in 1998. It was mixing documentary and [fictional] comedy, and that's kind of the evolution of how I got here."

"Frat House," which tied for the 1998 Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance, brought Gurland both fame and controversy, because festival officials didn't realize it was a fake documentary until they'd already awarded the film the prize. Since then, Gurland has been persona non grata at Sundance, which, frankly, is a shame. But he didn't let that unfortunate event stop him from further exploring the format.

"I knew that I wanted to move from real documentary to fake documentary for a number of reasons, one of which is that it's really hard to make real documentaries," he observes. "You have to deal with a lot of real people, and emotionally you have to deal with [knowing that] what's good for the movie isn't necessarily good for these people, who I'm trying to convince to do things. That didn't sit so well with my conscience. If somebody cries, I'm concealing a smile because I know I've got a good moment. I don't think people should reveal themselves in documentaries, for the most part. I don't know that it's such a great idea. I don't want to be convincing them. Yet I love the feeling I get when I watch a documentary. To make a good fake documentary, you need something that will hold up as a real documentary. With 'Mail Order Wife,' that industry, that world, is quite compelling."

The casting of the supposed subjects of the documentary was painstaking, says Gurland, who looked for actors who could seem real and yet were skilled at improvisation.

"I saw Adrian Martinez [who plays Adrian] in a play, and Eugenia Yuan [who plays Lichi] was introduced to me by one of the producers," he says. "We were casting extensively and looked at hundreds of people for both parts. It's weird, because I don't go out a lot, I don't see a lot of theatre, but when I'm casting I get very involved with what's going on in New York. They elevated the material and made the movie much better than I thought it would be. With Adrian, the character was written so unsympathetically, and he was able to bring such a sincerity and honesty to the performance that people actually liked him. When he started to exhibit unlikable behavior, they were disappointed in him, but they eventually got back with him again. [Without Adrian] that would have been much harder to do. As far as Eugenia is concerned, there are so many layers to that character, and the character undergoes such a transformation. What's amazing is how she can do all those different things and still seem like the same character."

Botko is also featured in the film, but to a lesser extent than Gurland. When asked how the two filmmakers switched off on directing duties and how much of the dialogue was improvised, Gurland delineates the system the pair used to make the movie.

"It starts with the script," he says. "We wrote the script together, but [we were also] improvising a large percentage of it as we were shooting. I'm directing other actors by actually acting in the scenes as the filmmaker. [Huck] was giving direction when we're not rolling, but he's also giving direction to the other actors that I don't know about, so I can be surprised. All this is in the interest of keeping everything very spontaneous. Structurally, the architecture of the finished film is almost identical to the script, but the majority of the dialogue that's in the movie was not scripted. Most of the funniest stuff came from real interactions."

A stickler for realism, Gurland has his own mother in the film playing herself, and her wry putdowns of her son's character are very funny and show that this sort of humor is not necessarily confined to the younger generation.

"The most surprising part was how older audiences have responded to it," he says. "In the Hamptons and Palm Springs [film festivals], there are a lot of more mature audiences. I would think they'd be a little bit shocked or turned off by it, but they really respond to the humor. That part has been a nice surprise. It's been well received on the festival circuit. We did get some walkouts, but those, I think, are from people who think it's real. My goal is not to trick people or make people feel stupid, but in general when you're making a movie, it is a magic trick. You try to have people believe a story that is not true. The idea wasn't to have everyone believe that it was a documentary, but for them to forget that they weren't watching a documentary, and for them to be along for the ride in that way."

The film's budget, according to Gurland, was approximately $750,000, and the funding was secured from an equity investment: half from Cherry Road Films (a group of investors from Memphis, Tenn.) and half from Double Edge Entertainment (a Taiwanese syndicate of investors). The movie was shot on a Panasonic Vericam HD camera, which was rented from Bexel in New York. It was edited on an Avid that Botko owns and rented to the production; the sound equipment was owned by sound recordist Dan Johnson, and the filmmakers used DuArt for the film out and Heavy Light for color correction. The production spent three weeks on location in New York and one week in Miami. The real challenge, says Gurland, was not so much making the film as marketing it without giving the game away.

"First of all, do you market it as being real, or do you market it as being fake?" he asks. "Do you market it as a comedy, and if you're telling people it's a comedy, will people be disappointed because it's not as funny in the beginning but gets funnier? It does belong to its own genre, so I think that's a little more difficult. The biggest challenge is that there aren't that many real independent films. Most independent films have some recognizable names in them. The biggest challenge is that we have a movie with no stars, that didn't win any big awards at the major festivals. It didn't get into Sundance because of my history with them. We weren't part of any feeding frenzy. It's a small movie with small distribution. I'm very happy, but I'm just saying there is no huge buzz about this film except at the festivals that it's played. I don't know how much that translates to box office. We do have a distributor. We're very happy with them, but it's not a huge one, not one of the studio art-house divisions. It's a true independent company called First Independent [Pictures], run by this gentleman named Gary Rubin. He used to work at Artisan. It's his first movie, and it's a challenge." (Dada Films is co-releasing the movie with First Independent.)

"Mail Order Wife" opened in Los Angeles and New York on March 11.

Terry Morgan writes for Back Stage West.

Are you an actor who is starring in as well as writing, directing, and/or producing a film? If you'd like to share information about your project, contact Jenelle Riley at [email protected]