by Steven Travers
American Reporter Correspondent
San Francisco, Calif.
May 7, 2008
HOW ED HARRIS RESCUED THE MILLER TWINS AND GAVE HOLLYWOOD A FUTURE
SAN FRANCISCO -- In the mid-to-late '90s, independent films reached what we now see was a one-decade plateau. John Sayles had made a number of successful, low-budget movies. Quentin Tarantino was hotter than a pistol. Harvey Weinstein was said to be the most powerful executive in Hollywood.
Three films directed or screenwritten by young, or at least relatively new filmmakers, were all the rage. There was Sling Blade by Billy Bob Thornton; Swingers from Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau; and Good Will Hunting, written by and starring the duo of Matt Damon with Ben Affleck.
These films inspired a cult of screenwriting classes, seminars on independent movie making, and "meet 'n' greets" between screenwriting hopefuls and development executives. The Sundance Film Festival, Cannes, and other festivals promised moviegoers first-time glimpses at The Next Big Thing. The Independent Film Channel became popular cable fare.
A decade or so later, the concept that with some credit cards, a dream and the sweat of one's creative brow, you too can be the next John Cassevetes, has produced almost as many disappointments as a weekend splurge in Las Vegas, often with far more damaging economic results. Now, just when it looked like great moviemaking was a lost art; that only huge studios had the wherewithal to make and market a hit film; and that spirituality, family values and character arc were lost altogether in Tinseltown, mocked as shrill voices of conservatism, comes Noah and Logan Miller and their absolutely wonderful Touching Home.
Describing this film and its backstory is to give witness to a literal miracle, for the story of the twins, the story the movie tells, and how it all happened, are a collection of parables, allegories and metaphors of their lives ... and of life.
In assessing how good Touching Home (www.touchinghomemovie.com) is, let's start with an understandable scale. It is better than Breaking Away; perhaps significantly better. Whether it is better than Swingers (which was a totally different film) or Good Will Hunting (which had similar themes) is debatable. Maybe a notch below. The point is made, however. It is in the conversation. It is akin to saying a baseball hitter may not be the league Most Valuable Player, but after hitting .310 with 25 homers and 90 runs batted in his first season, he is Rookie of the Year and in the top 10 of the MVP balloting.
The film sure as heck deserves a distribution deal. It may not get enough publicity, and perhaps may not even be released this year, so star actor Ed Harris probably will not be nominated for an Academy Award. But if there are five people up for Best Supporting Actor Oscars in 2009 who were better in their movies than Harris is in this, then I will switch my registration from the Reagan wing of the Republican Party to the Communists.
Forget your shoot-'em-ups and your action/adventure blockbusters. Go to any film school and study what it is that makes a great screenplay great; character arc, caring for the characters ... it is all in Touching Home. They will be using this film at the USC and UCLA film schools some day, but try as they might, future students will not be able to duplicate it. Why? Because what a couple of kids in their early 30s, with limited education and no formal filmmaking experience pulled off is ... a miracle of the heart. Yes, they have talent. Yes, they worked hard. Yes, they deserve their newfound success, but there is a difference between luck and miracles. The twins as well as anybody can attest to this. The film itself achieves this profound truth.
The Millers have a big future as actors. They have the looks and the screen presence to be major sex symbols and models. They have natural thespian chops with some comic relief thrown in. Their biggest challenge will be the ones Tarantino, Orson Welles and Norman Mailer faced: duplicating themselves. Touching Home is too personal to be duplicated, but for now let us stay in the moment.
The story is simple. Two twin brothers are baseball prospects. One is in the Colorado Rockies' minor league Arizona Spring Training camp. The other pitches for nearby Pima Community College. On the same day, the pro catcher is released and the college pitcher flunks out of school. They return home to west Marin County, California with their tails between their legs. Their old friends ride them, trying to bring them down to their level. They have a dysfunctional family; a kind-but-mentally-challenged uncle; an alcoholic grandmother; and a more-alcoholic father (Harris) who works hard in a quarry every day but still lives in his truck.
The film tells the tale of how the two brothers alternately love and are disappointed by their dad, who lets them down time and time again. The Biblical model of Cain and Abel threatens to be their destiny. Every obstacle is placed between the brothers and their goals. One is determined to stay in shape, hoping to go after more pro try-outs. The other gives up, preferring to drink beer and shelve his dreams. His pretty new schoolteacher girlfriend never dissuades him from trying again, but she is adorable enough to make most guys just want to settle down. The let's-quit bro is peeved when the gung-ho bro lifts weights, runs and trains. They fight about it.
One friend (Evan Jones from Jarhead) is a cut-up who at first is happy to see the twins, always stars of little league and local baseball fame, get brought down to Earth, but in a wise twist of storytelling he comes around, supporting them. Another friend encourages them to try again, not unlike Sean Astin's pal in Rudy.
All their hopes are frustrated by the old man (Harris), who cannot overcome his addictions to alcohol and gambling, which is why despite the same work ethic he passed on to his sons, he cannot hold onto his dough long enough to get a place of his own. A friendly police officer and coach (Robert Forster) tries to help, but just when all seems good, the alcohol ruins everything.
Harris did this for scale, but the performance he renders is as good - and probably better - than the one he would have performed for a $5 million payday. He is the essence of a professional actor!
The film intersperses light moments with dark ones, but seems headed towards the abyss until the San Francisco Giants announce try-outs for local prospects. Here is where the writing and the direction are so masterful. The mood changes to an up-beat one at just the right time. The let's-quit bro suddenly finds motivation, and three weeks of intense training follow. The musical choices are beautiful and perfectly timed. It is not unlike Field of Dreams when James Earl Jones tells Kevin Costner, "It means we're goin' to Minnesota," which is followed by brilliant open-road sunshine accompanied by China Grove, courtesy of The Doobie Brothers. The scenes of the brothers pushing themselves on the weights and on the baseball diamond are paeans to Rocky.
To go much further threatens to ruin the plot, but additional twists and turns await. No mountain is too high. What can be said is that more fabulous acting infuses each scene, and that every one is a life lesson. This is not a "baseball movie." It does not end with the pitcher bro striking out a guy to win the World Series with his catcher bro jumping into his arms. Baseball is a metaphor. It is about the journey, and what a journey it is.
The old man finally contributes to his sons and comes around. The family unit is kept together, but Shakespearean tragedy is always a wild pitch away. The genius of Harris's character, and of the direction he got from the filmmaker/brothers, was the ability to play this flawed man without judgment. All he wants is love from sons he seems to have done all to push away, yet he gets it anyway. In it is found a Christian grace that is subtle yet profound. The father has not earned love through works, yet eventually receives it like water irrigating a barren valley. At the same time, the man who disappointed, even stole from his sons, has given them something worth more than gold. Redemption and forgiveness are the messages. If you watch this without at least tearing up a bit, you need to see a physician. Or a pastor.
It is real life, not everybody walking into the sunset to live happily ever after, but the beauty of Touching Home is that the hopes and dreams of true lives is the sense that we all can live happily ever after. This film somehow, some way - but only if you open your heart and are willing to see it - gives us the meaning of life, and it ain't multi-million-dollar bonus contracts or World Series adulation.
Then there is the cinematography. When one attends film festivals or watches indie films, there is an expectation of something grainy; pretty good for a first effort or worthy of an A in film class. But line producer Jeremy Zajonc's father, the famed (within flying circles) "Bobby Z.," who flew three tours in Vietnam as a helicopter ace before taking his talents, like Dale Dye, to liberal Hollywood, provided some great aerial footage. West Marin County is simply another character in the story; its awesome Redwood forest beauty intertwined with the tale, and herein we find some more rural wisdom.
Marin County is one of the most Left-wing places in America. It is a bastion of elitism with some of the lowest church attendance in the nation, but west Marin, separated from the salons of Sausalito and Mill Valley by towering Mt. Tamalpais, is a rural, truck-and-gun-rack culture more resembling the Bible Belt South. Resembling, perhaps, but by no means mirroring. West Marin is unique. West Marin is the Miller brothers, and they paint this portrait exquisitely.
Touching Home is a Christian story, but its spiritual themes are handled in a subtle manner that allows anybody to enjoy it without feeling preached to; not an easy feat. The brothers are hard to tell apart, but it works and besides, it will just be a good excuse for audiences to see the film over and over until they get it straight. Furthermore, it could prove a unique, winning formula in the long acting career that awaits them.
Touching Home played to an audience that sold out a month in advance of its debut on Saturday, April 26 at the San Francisco International Film Festival, held at the Kabuki Theatre. Three days later, at 12:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, in a part of The City with limited parking (the garage was full well before the movie started) and meters that dole out 10 whole minutes for a quarter and do not allow for more than an hour's worth of valuable time, the theatre was again jam-packed. So was the question-and-answer session that lasted some 45 minutes after its showing. It was the hit of the festival in every way. The reaction of the audience during and after the film was indicative of genuine feeling that they had seen something special. In an industry that pumps out film after film after film, mostly (and increasingly) dreck, the people saw stardom born and knew it.
Being local lads, many knew the story of the Miller twins, from a baseball and a filmmaking perspective. Their lives are metaphors for the making of the movie, just as the movie is a metaphor for their lives. They were raised in the San Geronimo valley area of west Marin, a sprawling, hilly area of farms, ranches, bed-and-breakfasts, surf communities and rugged, mountainous coast line that is not unfamiliar to people. It encompasses the cliffs to the west of the Golden Gate Bridge and winds for some 40 or 50 miles up the coast. A number of movies have been filmed there, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, near the Marin-Sonoma border.
They played baseball at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, but Drake is better known as a basketball powerhouse. In the early 1980s under coach Pete Hawyard, the Pirates won two straight state championships while breaking the California record for consecutive wins, previously held by San Diego Helix when the great Bill Walton prepped there. Former UCLA basketball coach Steve Lavin (1996-2003) and his Bruins coaching staff were products of the Drake hoops dynasty.
Logan and Noah had diamond skills, one as a catcher and the other as a pitcher/outfielder. After playing for Marin County coaching legend Al Endriss in junior college, they took baseball to the next level; the Toronto Blue Jays' team in the class-A Florida State League and Southern Arkansas State University, respectively. They are both legitimate baseball players. The on-field scenes in Touching Home are as authentic as any in movies. Kevin Costner, who was a walk-on at Cal State Fullerton, displayed passable ability in Bull Durham, but the Millers both look signable, especially the Charlie Lau-style one-hand-finish batting stroke made famous by George Brett and later the Chicago White Sox of the early 1990s. Line drives are not computer graphics. Fastballs, curves and change-ups are not "movie magic," although "throwing strikes" was described as "the hardest part about making the movie." They could give pointers to Barry Zito.
As an ex-professional baseball player in my own right, I judged with extra precision and found nothing wanting. The way they wore their gear, warmed up, played catch, took batting practice, did drills; even their haircuts and the can of Copenhagen tucked into the uniform back pocket rang true. Their plan also touched home for me, since they were preparing to pay their own way to Arizona for try-outs with professional teams that hold Spring Training and participate in the Arizona Fall League. Once upon a time, I was released by the St. Louis Cardinals, spent the off-season lifting, running and pitching, then paid my way to Phoenix, where the Oakland A's gave me a month-long try-out before signing me to a minor league contract. I did not make it to the Major Leagues, and neither did the Millers, which is not the point. The point is the journey; to say that one gave it all they had and left it all on the field without regrets.
In 2000, I was a columnist for StreetZebra, a sports magazine in Los Angeles. I got a call from my friend Chet Aldridge, who said he was in town hanging out with the Millers. We met for dinner, cocktails and stories in Marina Del Rey. The drinks flowed and they said they were trying to forge a career as actors/models. They were living in an apartment in Hollywood with no furniture. They were writing screenplays, I was told.
"Yeah, sure you are," I thought.
Periodically over the next few years I asked Chet about them.
"They're a powerhouse," Chet would say. "They're just making it happen."
"Yeah, sure they are," I said to myself. Again.
Around 2006 I saw an article in the local paper about the Millers filming some baseball scenes at College of Marin. One of the "actors" was my pal Tony Shapiro. I had seen this all too often; poor schmucks trying to make a movie using a VCR or whatnot. It almost saddened me, but I could not help admire these kids who were pursuing their dreams. After all, it is about the journey.
A few months ago I found myself quaffing a few icy cold brews at 19 Broadway with my good pal Mike McDowd when I ran into Jeremy Zajonc, an old friend from Gold's Gym. I knew Jeremy had gone to Hollywood trying to break into the film industry. The fact that I ran into him in Marin County indicated, at first glance, that he had failed and was back home, like the proverbial ballplayer who cannot handle the curveball. But I had seen him a few times before that and this was not the whole story. He had gone to UCLA and studied movies there, then gained valuable experience working with a variety of agents, producers and tv productions. Now, he told me, "Ed Harris is in my movie."
"Yeah, sure he is," I said to myself. It was around this time that I switched from beer to Vodka. Jeremy and Ed Harris, huh. Harris, one of the world's great actors, a man who demands and gets millions, but Jeremy, whose dad told him he would pay for one year of college before he was on his own; this guy had gotten Ed Harris? I forgot about it almost as soon as he said it. Keep dreamin', pal.
The rest of the story I did not hear about until that dream became reality, part one, in the form of a boffo debut at the San Francisco International Film Festival, complete with major coverage in the Bay Area media. I asked Tony Shapiro if he had seen the movie. He said it was good, but did not want to tell me more, that I needed to see it for myself. I did not pursue the film's details and endeavored to do as Tony suggested. I expected to see a nice first effort, something that would give them hope to keep trying; a calling card that would land them an agent, a part in another flick, an open door somewhere.
What I saw blew me away. The gentle reader has the right to say I am biased; I knew these guys; we're all part of the same crew. Not so. I had met Logan and Noah once and have no reason to toot their horn. I am no exaggerator. I studied film at USC and have written 15 screenplays. I have seen so many films that I cannot find anything new at the video store. But what I saw at the Kabuki was true greatness. It was a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing, like the first time I viewed Pulp Fiction. A new voice. A stand out performance. A completely professional effort made by amateurs who have now made their pro debut.
It is interesting to note that the Millers went to Hollywood and did not succeed. It was when they returned to their roots in west Marin that they found ... Hollywood success, at least if the making of Hollywood's best-known product can be defined as such a thing. It was in San Francisco, not Tinseltown, where it all came together for them, two years ago at the same film festival they now star in. Ed Harris was being honored and featured in a question-and-answer session. Harris has some Bay Area film ties in that he once played the "clean Marine," John Glenn, in City filmmaker Phil Kaufman's The Right Stuff. The twins saw Harris as their dad, the ultimate role reversal from the heroic Glenn and a tribute to the actor's range.
They wanted him to play an alcoholic in his late 50s; disheveled, dirty, homeless, arrested by the cops, even a thief who steals his son's savings. This was the true story of the Miller's own father, who died in 2006 in the Marin County Jail. Unable to get Harris's attention despite a front row seat, they apoplectically stalked him to the backstage. While they argued with security, Harris saw the commotion and motioned them in. They went to the alley. Harris dragged on a cigarette and they showed a homemade trailer on their laptop. Harris was intrigued. Phone calls were made and a meeting at an L.A. Starbucks ensued. Harris read the screenplay and agreed to do the role.
"I've never seen anybody like them," said Harris.
Great, except the Miller's had no dough. They were certainly not "trust fund babies" like the neurotic Medellin investor in HBO's Entourage. The very screenplay they wrote screamed, "We don't come from money and we have none." They had grown up in one of the richest counties in America and gone to high school with kids from wealthy families, but they always had to use talent and charisma to substitute for what they did not have.
"We didn't sleep at night because we didn't want Ed to know we had no money," they said (they say all their sentences together; one starts and the other finishes). But Harris's involvement enticed investors.
"It was everything when he came on board," they said.
Harris had two weeks to film in Marin. It was December of 2006.
"As anybody who knows this area knows, it can rain 30 days' straight in December here," they said. In March of 2006 it had done just that. In October, normally a dry, Indian summer period, it had rained heavily again. Marin being Marin, "global warming" had everybody convinced that strange weather patterns caused this inconsistency.
"It was a big concern," the brothers stated. "We were afraid that our summer movie would become a rainy movie and would screw up the consistency of the shots."
Either way, God graced them with baseball weather in which to film the Harris scenes, almost all in the great outdoors. All the scenes are those of gorgeous, blue sky days. They won a grant to use state of the art equipment. "Bobby Z." lent his helicopter and expertise. Somehow, these first-time amateurs, who learned to write screenplays from a book purchased at a store, managed to direct a cinematically beautiful film, then handled the post-production editing. Marin's world famous reputation as "Hollywood north" came in handy, in the form of George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic along with a healthy dose of benevolence.
They are still virgin territory, with no agent and no distribution deal yet, but whoever hooks up with these guys has the potential to make millions. It is no sure thing. Mistakes can be made. Bad luck can happen. But the twins are gamers and will fight to the last out. The larger hazard I see is not failure or lack of breaks, but ego and money. The nature of Touching Home lends one to think that these guys have the spiritual gifts to keep them grounded, but they are two good-lookin' cats who will have temptress women and big bucks thrown at them sooner rather than later. Heck, when you look like Logan and Noah Miller, you will have girls throw themselves at you no matter what.
They will have to stick together, which is the theme of their movie and their lives. At some point, one will get a big break and the other will not, and they will have to deal with that in a mature way; not like the Mitchell brothers, Artie and Jim, of 1991 Marin fratricide infamy. But the Miller's are Christians and the Mitchells were pornographers, and there is a big karmic difference in that dynamic. There is magic in their combined chemistry and hopefully this will be the formula of their success, not unlike the Coens and the Farrellys minus the violence and flatulence. Herein we see the potential not just for the Millers to succeed, but maybe for a return to real Frank Capra-style class in the long-God forsaken movie industry.
There are no grand slam home runs to win the big game in Touching Home, just a perfect game thrown by Logan and Noah Miller, maybe with a little help from above. Ask them and they will tell you, their old man is in Heaven and he is proud. At least they would if the question did not cause them to react like human beings and start to cry. God bless 'em.
FYI: Touching Home was a hit at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The Miller twins, Logan and Noah, who directed, starred in, wrote and produced it, can be viewed on YouTube ("Ambushing Ed Harris"). Steven Travers is a USC graduate and ex-professional baseball player who writes about sports for AR. He is the author of the best-selling Barry Bonds: Baseball's Superman, nominated for a Casey Award (best baseball book of 2002).