The Surface – Opening Night Film at Tampa’s Gasparilla International Film Festival

Date line March 24th

Director Gil Cates Jr.:  It was a lot of work, and even more to consider logistically given the 20 day shooting schedule. We had to think about anchoring the boats, tides, sunlight, wind, and the rise and swell of the lake…

Actor Chris Mulkey: It was a tough schedule – 20 days seemed almost inhuman

Actor Sean Astin on the Red Carpet

Actor Sean Astin on the Red Carpet

Actor Sean Astin: Twenty days? – It seemed more like six months! Every day from before sunrise until after sunset. It was like Lawrence of Arabia on Lake Michigan…

Comments like the above or almost like the above were spoken by the people named after the showing of The Surface, which opened the 9th annual Gasparilla International Film Festival – Tampa’s oldest and biggest film festival.

The Tampa Theater on a non festival day

The Tampa Theater on a non festival day

The Festival’s Opening Night Reception Party, at the Tampa Theater got things started at 6:00 PM. There was a red carpet, some strong lights, and some VIP cars arriving for valet parking service. This party looked like Tampa’s best and most beautiful people were all on hand.

After which the theater doors opened to the general public and the seats were quickly filled. After an introduction by Tampa newscaster and TV personality Gayle Sierens, and a short speech by Rachel Feinman, the President of the Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF), and a short speech by a spokesperson from Suncoast Credit Union (the main sponsor) – Director Gil Cates Jr. and Producer and screenwriter Jeff Gendelman came out to briefly introduce the film..

Cates told us that Gendelman had worked on this script for 18 years.

Gendelman said – Yes, dreams do come true. He closed by saying, Beneath the seething surface, there are good things…

The movie is best described as a two-hander, meaning two main characters. They don’t meet cute, and strangely enough, both were at the end of their rope when they met.

Sean Astin, who you all remember as the wonderful and loyal Sam whom accompanied Frodo through hell and high water in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, here plays a down on his luck Mitch Lowe. He’s a guy with a non-descript warehouse supervisor job somewhere near Milwaukee. He’s had a run of bad luck like you wouldn’t believe.

While Astin, the actor, has long since left the employ of Peter Jackson as well as The Shire and Middle Earth, and the rest of the locations made famous world-wide by J.R.R. Tolkien – soon after this film begins, he will find himself not in Middle Earth, but this time in the middle of Lake Michigan.

There he will meet a dude named Kelly, played by Chris Mulkey. Now one of these men, Mitch, got to where he’s was in a small, single outboard engine, runabout of a boat – maybe a 16 footer. Kelly, on the other hand ended up in the same patch of Lake Michigan by failing to safely pilot his small plane on what he called a courier service. He delivered parcels not people.

The package, concealed in a red backpack, was sealed, and could not be opened. Kelly acted as if his life depended on delivering it. But that aside, it was a true Hitchcockian MacGuffin, an object shrouded in mystery, which is deemed important, or very important – and we never find out what it is.

Mitch, was cruising along in the runabout,  literally suddenly heard some crunching noises and realized that his boat had run over the wreckage of the plane. Kelly, injured with a severely broken arm, exposure, hunger, & fatigue – he was in bad shape to say the least, was seen clinging to a piece of the wing.

Mitch gets him on board – and what ensues isn’t pretty. Now as I said above, Mitch was down on his luck, and Kelly was also at the end of his rope. If he didn’t make the drop, losing his plane would be the least of his worries.

Who the fuck are you, and where am I?

What am I doing on this boat which really means – Who the fuck are you, and where am I?

Kelly, even his weakened state manages to come off as both a bad guy and a victim. Mitch is also a victim, and a guy without a lot of hope. Simply this is a tale of hopelessness and suicide.

But don’t believe everything you read.  These two characters tussle and get under each other skins and despite their odd couple-ish-ness, they’re actually good for one another.

It is a film which offers viewers the fact of an either or concept, that these two characters will either be saved, or as the expression goes – they’ll be lost at sea.

Gendelman’s script lays it out rather quickly. Two guys in a boat – one is injured and the other is depressed. The script gives us some brief bits of background, in the form of flashbacks for each of the two guys, and so we see why they’re where they are – both physically, emotionally, and financially. What makes it worthwhile is that neither story is let out quickly. The pacing, and the writing needed to fill in the details of these characters, which the audience needs – comes out a little at a time, and just fast enough to keep you interested. But certainly not too fast.

Despite their desperate plight, there’s more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. Maybe these are more along the lines of irony or sarcasm than stand alone funny – but I can assure you – this film is not nearly as grim as the tagline suggests: Two strangers, both at the end of their rope, suddenly meet in the middle of the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan.

Listen to what Kelly asked Mitch – What are you doing out here in the middle of Lake Michigan, all by yourself, with no food, no phone, no ship to shore….?

Later Mitch will snarl angrily at Kelly – Now, are you trying to tell me that this isn’t my destiny…is that what you’re trying to say?

I liked it – and unsurprisingly, the crowd gave it a rather raucous round of applause afterward. The Q & A which I quoted from briefly on top, made it even more worth while.  It’s not quite fully gripping, , or even a full fledged thriller, but is is definitely intriguing. Three point seven five out of five. The film opens on May 15, and I do recommend it.That’s still six weeks from now – so check out the trailer.

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