Joey Grihalva

How Jeff Gendelman Created The Surface

Hollywood producer’s 19-year journey leads to film set and shot in Milwaukee, now getting released nationally.

By - Oct 31st, 2014 03:04 pm
Sean Astin in The Surface.

Sean Astin in The Surface.

Flashback to Closing Night of the record-breaking 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival. Every seat in the Oriental Theater’s main room is occupied with anxious moviegoers. A slender Milwaukee-native strides to the stage where he is handed the microphone by MFF Artistic Director Jonathan Jackson.

“Please, on three, you have to yell “Dreams do come true,”” Jeff Gendelman instructs the crowd.

You can’t blame Gendelman, writer and producer of The Surface, for wanting to capture the moment, which was not only the result of a 19-year journey to bring its story to the big screen, but a life’s worth of work in theater, television and film. The Surface tells the tale of two men at the end of their rope who meet by chance in the middle of Lake Michigan and become each other’s guardian angel.

“It was 1962. I was five. John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth. My little brother was born. And my family was moving from the west side of Milwaukee to Whitefish Bay. My wonderful parents bought my sister and me a root beer float and we drove along Capitol Drive east all the way until it stopped. And there in front of me was Lake Michigan,” Gendelman recounted.

“I saw it for the first time that day. I said, ‘Dad, Dad, please stop the car!’ My dad said, ‘An ocean without sharks.’ I was spellbound. It was so blue. So big. And what’s going on out there where I can’t see?”

Gendelman first became involved with theater as a child. He relished the kinetic, uplifting experience of rehearsals, and the exhilaration of performances. At this age he was also introduced to Tae Kwon Do, a discipline that has afforded him the life affirming message of perseverance and indomitable spirit. (JK Lee of the local Black Belt Academy is a co-producer of the film.)

Shortly after Gendelman and I got together for drinks at Bryant’s a couple days after the Film Fest’s closing night, I learned that we’re both University of Minnesota alumni. He studied theater arts and economics there before being accepted to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, the “Juilliard of the West Coast.” After that he bounced around with different acting gigs (including Shakespeare) in San Diego, Phoenix, and Seattle, before staying in Chicago for a few years.

The Windy City is where Gendelman wrote, produced and directed his first short film some 30 years ago. It was an experience he greatly enjoyed and won him an award at the Kodak Rochester International Film Festival. He always felt pulled towards New York City, and moved to the Big Apple in the mid-80s. Luckily, he found a skilled agent that booked him a daytime soap series. The role gave him a comfortable life but he remained immersed in the theater world.

Jeff Gendelman. Photo from facebook.

Jeff Gendelman. Photo from facebook.

Gendelman had the good fortune of auditioning for an Al Pacino– directed play in NYC. He didn’t get the part, but it gave him insight into how Pacino worked. At this point he was participating in theater workshops where other writers, directors and actors fleshed out material and offered critical perspectives. After the soap character was killed off, he took parts in regional theater booked out of NYC, and like a lot of NYC based-actors in the 1990s, landed a role on the original Law & Order.

But he next decided to try Los Angeles. A friend warned him he’d regret leaving NYC, but he stuck it out, with some misgivings, and is glad he did. In LA he began to understand the mechanics of the film industry and where he might fit in. Ultimately, that was developing scripts as a producer and putting projects and their financing together. Then during a trip home in 1995 his parents took him sailing on Lake Michigan.

“We go way out. Miles out. So far out that the downtown Milwaukee skyline was about a sixteenth of an inch tall, barely perceptible. There were no boats around. It was beautiful and quiet. At the same time it was tense, lonely and claustrophobic. I wrote the first draft of The Surface soon after, and over the years the drafts kept coming and coming and changing and changing.”

Fast-forward a dozen years and Gendelman is at his son’s Tae Kwon Do class chatting with cinematographer Jimmy Sammarco, who is looking for a script on the water. Gendelman slips him his screenplay, but takes his name off it. Sammarco understood the message of the film, he believed in the project and had ties to a film crew in Wisconsin. That last detail proved a major factor in making the film happen in Milwaukee.

Jimmy Sammarco and Director Gil Cates Jr.

Jimmy Sammarco and Director Gil Cates Jr.

Gil Cates Jr. was one of the only directors that Gendelman met with who was okay with not using his own director of photographer, since Sammarco was already attached. Sammarco flew out to LA to meet with Cates Jr. and they hit it off.

“Gil also understood that we didn’t need to shoot in New Jersey, Baja California, Florida, Canada, or New York Harbor. He said, “No, I think Milwaukee is the right thing.” And that’s when I could creatively let go of the project into (his) deft hands, who brought The Surface to the level that I knew it could always reach,” Gendelman said.

Without the star power of Sean Astin (The Goonies, Lord of the Rings, Rudy) and Chris Mulkey (Captain Phillips, Whiplash, First Blood) The Surface would also have not reached said level. Cates approached Astin, who liked the script.

“If you’re an actor looking to dig into something, it doesn’t take more than a second to say yes to that,” Astin said during the MFF Closing Night Q&A. “If you’ve been touched by suicide or depression, it’s no joke. It’s sad, bedeviling, and confusing. So to dig into a movie where a guy starts in that place, where the logical progression is suicide, and then to be forced to rethink that when you’re own humanity is tapped into someone else’s suffering, that was a challenge worth accepting. As an actor, all you can hope for is to do something that has big ideas.”

“And you always hear these fantastic stories about what it’s like to film on water in a low budget indie,” Astin added. “Every day was its own adventure. At the end of a 10-12 hour day you’d be wind and sunburned from the blinding light off Lake Michigan. And you’d get home and need to drink a bunch of water and get to bed to wake up and do it again.”

Gil Cates Jr. and Chris Mulkey.

Gil Cates Jr. and Chris Mulkey.

That same night co-star Chris Mulkey, who was also on hand,  offered some moments of levity, warning the audience about getting into a boat with Astin and long shoots “with nowhere to pee,” which contrasted with his focused, gripping performance on the screen. According to Gendelman, Astin and Mulkey were true collaborators, unafraid to tackle the script, and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse in their hotel room before hitting the open water.

While The Surface can feel like a play, surely deriving from Gendelman’s background in theater, he always envisioned it as a cinematic experience. But there was no shortage of hurdles for the production. Lake Michigan might not have an ocean-sized surf, but the currents and wind shifts are more unpredictable.

“No matter how much we prepared, they always affected us. Sometimes it would take 90 minutes to set up for a shot, sometimes hours. I had to have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, Plan E, and I had to go with Plan F and G eventually. We had to be as nimble as possible,” Gendelman told me.

The Surface

The Surface

During pre-production Sammarco and Cates Jr. watched and discussed many water-based films and met with masters for advice. They found a piece of equipment called Perfect Horizon, which mounts to a tripod to keep the horizon level, but estimates had it way out of their budget. But Sammarco found a man who got so behind the project that he slashed his normal fee and brought down an extra rig for their shoot.

The greatest accomplishment of The Surface is that it was produced in Milwaukee. If Gendelman was not a native son,  it never would have been shot here. That’s mainly due to the lack of tax incentives for the film and TV industry in Wisconsin. But Gendelman was determined to tell the story how he originally envisioned it, and to do something good for our city.

“The world will learn about Lake Michigan through this film. They’ll learn about the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences and The Global Water Center. If that helps put Milwaukee on the map internationally in any way, or brings in any money to the city, then it will have been so worth the extra effort,” Gendelman said.

A few years ago Gendelman applied to the state incentives program and when much of their funding was cut he thought he would be grandfathered in. No such luck. Eventually, the state threw him a bone, which helped for post-production, but it was not even close to what he originally anticipated.

Since Wisconsin lacks tax incentives for film and TV our local pool of potential crew members is relatively small. The vast majority of them worked on The Surface last summer, many of whom were in attendance at the MFF Closing Night. The film was shot  beginning to end in Milwaukee, and includes a few notable locations such as Bay View Bowl. Just yesterday I got my teeth cleaned by a friend of one of the make-up artists. It’s a truly local production.

“To have the world premiere here in Milwaukee where it all started 19 years ago, that was complete poetry,” Gendelman said.

For those who missed the film at the festival, today begins an exclusive theatrical release at the Marcus Menomonee Falls and North Shore cinemas. Early next year it will roll out to NYC, LA and Chicago. Then later Video On Demand and international markets.

As a result of the film’s production, Gendelman has received phone calls and inquiries about developing new projects. He has another screenplay he’s written and is confident it won’t take another 19 years to produce. But first he wants to see that The Surface gets the life it deserves.

“One thing I realized watching the film is that it really is a treatise on nursing and care. I don’t know how many American movies make you want to celebrate the nature of nursing,” Astin said during the Q&A. Probably very few.

“It’s very important that people in mental health all around the world see this film. Psychiatrists, psychologists, those who are not having a good day, a good week, those who are suicidal and depressed. Ultimately, the hope is that the film will help to nurse people back to health,” Gendelman said.

The Surface is now playing at Marcus Menomonee Falls and Marcus North Shore cinemas.

Gendelman will be doing Q&As at:

Marcus North Shore Cinema
Friday, Oct. 31, 7:00PM
Saturday, Nov. 1, 7:00PM

Marcus Menomonee Falls Cinema
Sunday, Nov. 2, 2:30PM

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