- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

An auspicious first feature, "Roger Dodger," playing at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row, has made DylanKidd, its 33-year-old writer-director, the get-acquainted subject of the fall movie season. During a recent phone conversation, Mr. Kidd confirmed a legitimate Cinderella story while reflecting that it was kind of a joke that every independent feature that transcends obscurity does lend itself to the Cinderella cliche.
Mr. Kidd has a fleeting Washington connection: He attended George Washington University in his freshman year. He transferred to New York University and graduated from the film school.
"Boston would be the closest thing to a hometown," he says. "I spent my high school years there. My mother still lives there and works for Harvard. She's in charge of the public service wing. If a student wants to do some kind of community service, he goes through her office. My father is a college professor, now remarried and teaching at a university in Virginia. We moved around a lot all over the East."
At NYU, Mr. Kidd formed an enduring friendship with an aspiring cinematographer named Joaquin Baca-Asay, who had little trouble landing jobs right out of school. Ultimately, he supervised the crew that shot "Roger Dodger" for Mr. Kidd.
"Joaquin was on a fast track while most of us would-be directors were struggling in the early 1990s," Mr. Kidd says. "He has been shooting very large commercials and working on occasional features as a gaffer since graduation. While he was on a meteoric rise, I was often drunk and depressed.
"Joaquin works a lot with Mike Mills, one of the top five commercial directors. They did the Gap campaign with the 'West Side Story' takeoffs, for example. And the Volkswagen campaign where a Jetta falls from a tree. Big high-end stuff. I hope I've seen the end of struggling to get by. I have a list of odd jobs a mile long. I worked in a pool hall. I was a real estate broker, a doorman, a towel boy at a tennis club, a cook, a waiter, a video store clerk. Every so often I'd even get some useful professional experience by working on Joaquin's camera crew."
The title character of "Roger Dodger" is a witty but also self-loathing advertising man played by Campbell Scott, encountered at a vulnerable moment by his nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a runaway high schooler seeking shelter and a few pointers. The lost teen and the lost smarty-pants end up doing each other a bit of good during a long night's prowl in Manhattan.
"I've never worked in advertising," Mr. Kidd says, "so I want to be careful not the leave the impression I know that world intimately or believe it attracts personalities like Roger Swanson. For me it seemed a plausible professional setting for this character's bizarre set of talents and flaws. I was thinking, what would be a good job for someone who excelled at making people feel uncomfortable? I ended up with a copywriter who was on the brink of a fall after rising fairly high in the agency hierarchy."
Mr. Kidd summarizes his title character as "a bright guy and a verbal guy." He credits Mr. Scott with "really latching onto the fact that Roger loves to play with words, loves the taste of words on his tongue. He's kind of a car wreck socially, but still so entertaining that you enjoy watching and listening to him."
Mr. Kidd had discarded a couple of original scripts before completing "Roger Dodger." He thinks of himself primarily as a director. "Writing is difficult for me," he says. "All the usual disadvantages apply. It's lonely and scary compared to working on a film set. The only reason I go to the keyboard is to give myself something to direct.
"'Roger' was the most recent thing I had written. One screenplay I wasn't happy with was based on my real estate period. It wasn't good enough. The bar is placed so high now that if you're going to make a first feature, you need to be really accomplished in some way or clever enough to reinvent the cinematic wheel, like 'Pi' or 'Blair Witch' did.
"There was a time in school when I thought that any first feature, by whatever available means, would be enough to get me in the club. Now if you start with a bad feature, it can be worse than having nothing to your credit."
Mr. Kidd entertained hopes that Roger was a character actors would want to play. "That became the strategy," he recalls. "We'd need a Roger before we could raise any money. We did have a couple of people in mind, but it was impossible to get to them. You know how the industry works. It's impossible to crash through the fire wall of agents and managers."
Mr. Kidd and a trusted associate, Anne Chaisson, who served as the working producer on the film, weathered the runaround while making the rounds of potential leads. "You waste time sending scripts to people who are merely on your wish list," the filmmaker reflects. "Agents have no motivation to pass along low-budget scripts. It doesn't make sense to push anything that would make them 10 percent of a small price."
There was the option of finding a "fantastic, unknown stage actor" who could use Roger as a cinematic calling card. "But the movie needs to get financed," Mr. Kidd observes, "and it can't be financed without one or two people who have some name value. I know when other people talk about their projects, or just about movies that they've seen recently, I always ask, 'Who's in it?' Everyone does. It's important. So unless you've got a concept that blows everyone's mind, you need credible actors."
Mr. Kidd admits that he and Miss Chaisson were at an impasse at the time when chance brought him in contact with the project's eventual knight in shining armor, actor Scott. "We weren't babes in the woods," the filmmaker says, "but I started carrying the script around. In an envelope. I thought it more likely that I'd run into somebody in New York than L.A. We hadn't considered Campbell for the role. Not ever."
This now fabled encounter occurred in the West Village, while Mr. Kidd was strolling with a friend. "I think we went into a place called the Gray Dog, a coffee and veggieburger place," he says. "Campbell walked in. I had already approached a couple of actors in an impromptu fashion and been politely told that they couldn't accept unsolicited material. I expected the same response."
Mr. Scott accepted the stranger's manuscript without a fuss. "I said I was sorry to intrude," Mr. Kidd says, "but I had a script with a role that might suit him. He said he'd read it and get back to me in a couple of weeks. The upshot is that he did read it promptly. He called me and wanted to be certain that this was something I intended to direct. Campbell himself has directed and worked a lot in independent features. He asked if I were aware that there were a lot of long scenes. 'Do you have a plan?' he wanted to know."
The new acquaintances met for a prolonged conversation, and Mr. Kidd tried to clarify his plan of attack. "Campbell has little of what people think of as conventional actor's ego," the filmmaker says, "but he did need to know what I had in mind, because sometimes directors have an idea of what a performer is like that is completely out of kilter with the actor's sense of himself or what the role would require. Campbell brought more to Roger than I dared hope for. The charisma factor was there. Women love Campbell. But whatever he's doing, even in a seductive kind of vein, is so invisible that he never seems to be pleading or showing his hand."
According to Mr. Kidd, the script he presented to Mr. Scott was basically the script that was shot, beginning in late October 2001 on a tight 20-day schedule in New York City. The production budget was "way, way, way below $2 million."
The most substantial change was the ending. "I thought it would be a cheat to leave people with a completely bleak impression," Mr. Kidd says. "Having asked people to make an emotional investment in the characters, I thought I needed a postscript to the original fadeout. I do think of myself as part of the audience. I would have been annoyed by a movie that ended with my original last scene. I also felt Roger was too smart not to learn something from the rough 24 hours I had tried to put him through."
There were also dialogue trims in many scenes. "Believe it or not, the original had more dialogue than you hear now," Mr. Kidd comments. "Campbell was really good about alerting me to things that felt repetitious. When an actor tells you he has too many lines, it pays to listen. That seldom happens. There were rough things about the situation, but I wasn't interested in punishing the audience."
Mr. Scott also served as a volunteer casting director. He recruited Isabella Rossellini, who plays his boss, and Jennifer Beals, who pairs with Elizabeth Berkley as a dazzling set of pickups whom Roger and nephew Nick contrive to amuse during part of their evening of barhopping and party-crashing.
"We always thought it would be desirable to attract more than one name," Mr. Kidd says. "Campbell took care of a lot of that himself, by simply possessing total credibility with other actors. Isabella agreed to be in the picture without reading the script. She simply trusted Campbell. He handled all the negotiations. He called up and told us, 'I told her it would be four days. She'll do it.'"

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