Fearlessly fighting to discover who you truly are is an important passage of life that both the protagonists and filmmakers of the new comedy-drama, ‘The Dunning Man,’ are embarking on as they take whatever means necessary to achieve their goals. Michael Clayton made his feature film writing and directorial debuts on the project, which is based on the 2014 short story collection of the same name by author Kevin Fortuna, who also served as a producer on the crime movie. The filmmakers successfully battled the odds to adapt Fortuna’s short story into an independent movie that emphasizes how a down-on-his-luck man can revitalize his personal relationships and professional prospects in Atlantic City, a town that’s looking for its own deserving restoration.
The comedy-drama has screened at numerous festivals this spring, including at Cinequest in San Jose, where it had its World Premiere in March. ‘The Dunning Man’ then went on to have its East Coast premiere at the Garden State Film Festival in Atlantic City, and then screened last weekend at the Sacramento Film Fest, where it won the Best Feature award.
The movie is also making its New York premiere tonight at 10:10pm at the 12th Annual Harlem International Film Festival. The screening will be held in Screening Room B at the MIST Harlem theater (46 W. 116th Street, New York, NY 10026), and will include a Filmmaker Talkback.
‘The Dunning Man’ follows the down-on-his-luck Connor Ryan (James Carpinello), who has lost his real estate job and was dumped by his girlfriend in New York City. So he decides to return home to Atlantic City, where he reunites with his Uncle Bishop (Tom Kemp). Bishop encourages his nephew to try rebuilding his life by becoming a landlord for a few apartments in a low-rise condo complex that sits in the shadows of an exorbitantly expensive casino.
The problem is, Connor’s tenants don’t want to pay him. Willing to get his money by any means necessary, Connor is forced to take on a pair of Chechen animal trainers with underworld ties, as well as Stryker Jones (Nicoye Banks), a hard-partying rapper who keeps the neighbors up all night, and Alice (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a charming single mother.
Clayton and Fortuna generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing and producing ‘The Dunning Man’ during an exclusive interview over the phone while they were preparing to attend the Harlem International Film Festival. Among other things, the helmer and producer collection discussed how Fortuna was inspired to pen the short story after he spent time in Atlantic City when he was a child, and how he feels that the area is destined to reemerge as a leading and vibrant place of entertainment. The duo also expressed their appreciation for audiences who have embraced the independent movie during its film festival run so far.
ShockYa (SY): Kevin, you wrote the acclaimed short story collection of ‘The Dunning Man.’ What was your inspiration in penning the short story collection?
Kevin Fortuna (KF): A lot of times, when we talk about the movie, we talk about how Atlantic City is also a character in the story. The short story collection includes different stories. But Connor Ryan, who’s the main character in ‘The Dunning Man,’ also appears in another story, which chronicles an earlier period of his life.
I spent a lot of time in and around Atlantic City growing up, as I went there every summer. I have family in a beach town called Margate, which is in the same area as Atlantic City. Some of the family on my dad’s side actually grew up in Atlantic City, so there’s a lot of history there.
I’ve always been a big believer in the elusive comeback of Atlantic City. So a long time ago, I invested in some rental properties there, but I can assure you that ‘The Dunning Man’ is purely fiction. But I had some experiences as a landlord down in Atlantic City, where a lot of the exteriors of the apartment complex in the film were shot, that inspired the short story. (‘The Dunning Man’) is actually the longest story in the collection.
I’ve had some great fortune with the collection of short stories; it was well reviewed in the national press. A lot of people whose opinions I trust, including Michael, read the short story and said, “Wow, that would make a great movie.” But I’m not a screenwriter, and I’ve never written a script. But I knew that Michael was an excellent writer, so I asked him if he would like to adapt the short story into a script.
SY: Michael, you wrote the script for the screen adaptation of the short stories, like Kevin just mentioned. What was the process of deciding to adapt the story into a film? What was the collaboration process like between you both as the screenplay was being developed?
Michael Clayton (MC): Well, I have read all of Kevin’s stories, and we jive on what we like. What I really liked about this short story to start with was the voice behind it. It’s a first-person narrative from Connor, and I liked the voice and energy. The world that he’s living in is beyond what I expected.
Once we started working together, the work went back and forth between us. Initially, Kevin would suggest some movies to me, and then I would suggest some movies to him. Once we got an understanding of the feel we were aiming for, I started working on the roots of the characters. For the movie, Kevin and I wanted to go in a slightly different direction than the short story. So we just needed to figure out what that needed to be. It was really what we hoped the process would be.
KF: One of the things that made it clear to me that Michael was the right choice to not only adapt the short story, but also direct the movie, was that he understood Atlantic City. He had never been there before, but he came and visited for a long weekend. I took him to where I would hang out.
We also spent time with my uncle, who was about 81 at the time. He told us stories about growing up there, and the different cycles that Atlantic City has gone through since the Skinny D’Amato and Boardwalk Empire days. Every once in a while, there would be a moment of hope, and I think that hope has recently returned, like when Hard Rock bought Taj Mahal.
So Michael saw what I saw. Atlantic City’s not for everybody, but he took a liking to it. He immersed himself into the history of the city while he was getting ready to write the screenplay. He took the story in some interesting directions, and added subplots and a character or two that weren’t in the short story. He really had a feeling about how to adapt the story effectively into the movie.
We actually just won Best Feature at the Sacramento Film Festival, and was also named Best of the fest at Cinequest. The audiences’ reactions have proved that we pulled off what we were going for.
SY: In addition to scribing the screenplay, you also made your feature film directorial debut on ‘The Dunning Man,’ Michael. What was the helming process like for you? Did working on the script influence the way you approached directing the movie?
MC: Well, originally I was just going to be the writer. We spoke to two other potential directors, but then Kevin talked me into directing the film. After speaking to other people and seeing what they had envisioned for the movie, I had developed a pretty good idea of how things should look. So after hearing what other people might do, I realized I wanted the story to feel a certain way, and I decided to direct the film myself.
We then found our cinematographer, Petr Cikhart, early on (during the pre-production process). He was actually the first person we brought on board. I looked at some of his previous films, and I thought, this is how I want (‘The Dunning Man’) to look, and how I wanted the camera to move. We then brought Petr into the discussion, and started talking about some of his ideas. So there was a lot of planning, work and structure as we started mixing our ideas. Without Petr, the movie wouldn’t have been the same as it is now.
During the planning process, I was also trying to catch up on new technology, as I went to film school in the ’90s. All of the technology is different now, so I was learning new processes.
KF: Yes, just to echo what Michael said, we lucked out in a big way. We made the right decisions for the key members of the crew, both before principal photography started, and once we got to our two locations. We shot our interior scenes in New Orleans, and also shot a few exterior scenes in Atlantic City and Manhattan.
But we can’t say enough good things about Petr. He’s an award-winning DP (Director of Photography). He’s done some camera work for ‘The Amazing Race,’ and has also done some great feature work. He brought a smart aesthetic to the filming (of ‘The Dunning Man’). He went above and beyond the film’s small indie budget, as we couldn’t pay him what he’s used to making. He did a lot of stuff that he didn’t charge us for. He really invested a lot in the process, and his efforts on set were heroic.
We also lucked out with our two editors, who did great work. The post-production process was led by Ian Blume, who has a personal connection in Atlantic City. His grandfather was a frequent visitor to the Resorts Casino, so whenever they took family vacations, they would stay in comped rooms he received.
Our East Coast premiere was actually in Atlantic City at the Resorts Casino, during the Garden State Film Festival, where we received the Home Grown Feature award. That was a magical premiere for us.
We’re also having our New York premiere this weekend at the Harlem International Film Festival. New York played a big part in our post-production process. Also, a lot of the actors either worked here for a big part of their careers, or still live here. James Carpinello, who has a recurring role on ‘Gotham,’ lives in Brooklyn, as does Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who now has a role on ‘Queen Sugar,’ the hit show on the Oprah channel. Nicoye Banks also used to live here.
Going back to the film’s post-production, we received amazing contributions from (co-producer) Brent Butler, who’s an NYU grad, and lives and works in New York at one of my internet companies. He’s a super-talented young guy, who also happens to be successful as a gigging musician, as part of a hip-hop duo. A lot of the music in the movie was actually donated by Brent and other musicians who are friends of the film, including some of Brent’s friends and my brother, who contributed four songs. So we’re excited for all of the people here in New York to come see the film in Harlem. It’s actually one of the festivals I was really hoping to get into.
SY: Speaking of the film festivals, ‘The Dunning Man’ has played at several festivals, including Cinequest, where it had its World Premiere, and is also screening at the Harlem International Film Festival this weekend, like you mentioned. What has the experience been like of bringing the movie to the film festivals?
MC: Anytime you see your film with an audience, it’s a great experience. I got to go to Cinequest, as well as the festival in Atlantic City. The people who have seen the movie at the festivals have loved it. I would think, they didn’t just see the little mistake I just saw! We see every little mistake, but the audiences seem to get what we’re trying to do, which makes us feel us great.
SY: What was the experience of shooting ‘The Dunning Man’ on location, like you mentioned earlier, particularly in Atlantic City, where the story’s set? Do you feel that experience is beneficial for an independent movie?
MC: It was amazing to be able to shoot on location. We were able to get away with doubling a few places in New Orleans for Atlantic City, but no place can fully stand in for Atlantic City, as there’s no place like it. There’s nothing like seeing those resorts and the little apartment building in the shadow of this $3 million casino.
SY: ‘The Dunning Man’ features a diverse cast, including James, who plays Connor, as well as Dawn, who portrays Alice, and Nicoye, who stars as Stryker Jones. What was the casting process like for the actors in the comedy-drama?
MC: We did open casting calls in three different cities.
KF: Yes, we found James and Dawn, as well as Tom Kemp, in New York. We also filled some of the smaller roles in Atlanta. For Nicoye’s role, we actually had hired another actor first. But then he also took another job, so he had to leave our film at the last minute, due to scheduling conflicts. Serendipitously, Nicoye was already working in New Orleans, and we ended up finding him at the last minute. He was perfect for the role of Stryker Jones, so we were lucky to be able to cast him.
SY: Once the actors were cast in the movie, particularly James, were you able to have any rehearsal time together, in order to build the characters’ backstories, motivations and relationships?
KF: We didn’t have a whole lot of time, but we were able to have one table read with James and the original actor who was going to play Stryker. But we didn’t do elaborate rehearsals to speak of.
MC: I was in New Orleans for a month before we started filming, as I was working on pre-production. So I was on the phone a bit with Dawn, and since Nicoye was already in New Orleans, I was able to meet with him. But with James and Tom, we pretty much just spoke once we got to the set, which is often the case with independent films.
SY: Speaking of filming the movie independently, did that process influence the creativity on the set? Kevin, what was the process of also serving as a producer on ‘The Dunning Man’ like?
KF: We tried to make virtues out of necessities as much as we could, as we had a pretty lean budget. I financed the film myself, to make sure that the movie would get made. Michael and I ended up playing a bunch of roles in the crew that we didn’t initially plan on playing.
It was crazy filming in both Atlantic City and New Orleans. We had a heat wave and water ban in New Orleans. We also had a nor’easter in Atlantic City, so they shut down the power the first day we were shooting there. So our job was to really keep the set together, and keep people calm and sane. That’s when Petr, Ian and Brent were extremely valuable, especially during the Atlantic City shoot. So everyone really stuck it out.
MC: People always ask what the hardest part of making a film is, and the hardest part is actually getting the entire thing made. This film could have fallen apart so many times. But between Kevin, Petr, Ian, Brent and I, we were all able to keep it together, and get the film made.
SY: Once ‘The Dunning Man finishes its festival circuit run, do you have any plans yet on how you’ll distribute the comedy-drama? Are you aiming for a theatrical and/or VOD release?
KF: I received some great advice (about distribution) out at Cinequest from Michael Rabehl, who’s the Director of Programming. He works on selecting the films that will be featured in the festival, and he’s a big believer in our movie. He’s kept in touch with me, and has looked at what’s going on.
We’ve been contacted by a number of folks who want to represent the film, or potentially acquire it. We haven’t made a commitment to anyone yet. We want to make sure it’s exposed to the widest audience possible. It would be great to get at least a limited theatrical release, and VOD is also a logical place for this film. But that part of the story hasn’t unfolded yet. But we are racking up some nice wins at the festivals, and the momentum is building.