The Man in the Chair
By Madelyn Ritrosky
When the lights went down and Man in the Chair flickered onto the screen, I was immediately pulled into the film’s vibrant opening sequence. There are jarring crosscuts and dynamic camera movement, heavy-beat soundtrack and the city at night, classic film clips wrought postmodern. It’s Cary Grant and Orson Welles as historical context.
But this sequence was more than just music-video show or Hollywood history, more than a flashy opening credit sequence. Writer-director-producer Michael Schroeder is, in fact, giving the audience its first look at Flash Madden, an aged film crew veteran played with virtuosity by Christopher Plummer.
Schroeder, who directed two of the Cyborg movies, sought to create a film statement that “we live in a throwaway society. It’s more of a metaphor for responsibility or, better, the lack of responsibility.” The theme operates on different levels, including an abandoned dogs motif, but the primary one is the plight of elderly people in the U.S.
More specifically, in Man in the Chair, it’s the plight of retired workers from the film industry itself. They not only serve as a microcosm of the wider problem, but they help the other central character, high-schooler Cameron Kinkaid (Michael Angarano), make a film about this troubling issue. In a hall of mirrors approach to a social problem, Man in the Chair had a benefit screening for the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in late August.
Flash Madden is the cynical, alcoholic liaison who Cameron initially approaches. Flash is the last surviving crew member from what many consider the greatest film ever made, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).
Michael Schroeder explained his introduction of Flash in that opening sequence: “I wanted the clips to resonate personally with Flash. I used His Girl Friday because Cary Grant says, ‘I’m particular about whom my wife marries.’ Flash had lost his wife to Taylor Moss (Robert Wagner) in the film. In The Last Time I Saw Paris, Van Johnson plays a frustrated failure in Hollywood. Flash is also a failure. The Touch of Evil footage was imperative because I needed to establish the Orson Welles connection with Flash and Citizen Kane.”
Interestingly, Schroeder’s inspiration for the dramatic Man in the Chair originated in conversations with a comedian. Twenty years ago, he was the first assistant director on a comedy called The Longshot. And Jonathan Winters had a small part in the film. Schroeder explained, “Jonathan Winters is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He sat next to me at lunch and told me how he’d gone to the Motion Picture Hospital and done a little standup for them. He told me all about the Motion Picture Home for retired actors and film crew. Then he said, ‘You could crew up a whole movie out of that place.’ That’s when the light bulb went off.”
The idea “percolated” for a long time. Schroeder directed one modest-budget thriller a year for eight years, and then his next opportunity evaporated in 1997. Shortly after that, he reassessed his career. “No one, even those who believed in me, was going to go out on a limb for me for a drama or comedy or character driven project,” he said. He decided he would no longer “work like a dog to make mediocrity rise to at least acceptable entertainment. I had that Jerry Maguire epiphany when you know you can do more with your life. Since I couldn’t buy a script, I was going to have to write it.”
He sold his house and cars and moved into a small apartment, dedicating himself to writing. “It took me about two years to finish the script. I taught director classes at North Carolina School of the Arts and directed commercials and wrote at night and on weekends,” Schroeder explained.
By 2004, he had his script but no financing. And securing financing is often extremely difficult and distasteful. Schroeder said of his experience with Man in the Chair, “Most of these meetings were so horrible I needed a shower afterwards.”
In stepped his sister, Sarah Schroeder, a mortgage broker, who secured a number of investors in her neck of the woods in Idaho and Utah. The production budget was $2.5 million.
For the plum role of Flash Madden, a starring opportunity for an older actor, Schroeder said, “I definitely wanted Christopher Plummer. No one else was offered the role.” Plummer has been called “arguably the finest actor of the post-World War II period never to be nominated for an Academy Award.” When his name has been bandied about in Oscar talk in recent years, it has been for supporting roles. Now, there is talk of a nomination for Best Actor for Man in the Chair.
Schroeder said Plummer “loved the script and was immediately on board.” It was strictly on the merits of Schroeder’s writing: “I’m sure Christopher had never heard of Michael Schroeder until he read my script.”
The other star, Michael Angarano, now 19, downloaded the script from an industry breakdown service where scripts and character descriptions can be read by casting directors and agents. “He was very diligent about getting together with me. An interview was arranged and I knew five minutes into it that he was my Cameron,” said Schroeder.
The film was shot in November and December 2005, and premiered in January 2007 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where it won the American Spirit Award for Best Independent Film. It has won a number of other awards at subsequent festivals, including a Best Actor award for Plummer and an Outstanding Achievement in Directing award for Schroeder.
Michael Schroeder explained that he wanted the film “to be a poem,” and its festival awards suggest he has succeeded. He said, “In the sense of style, tone and dialogue, I simply wanted to create an unforgettable film experience, one that would not be thrown on a pile of other films cut from the same cloth a poem.”
Although Man in the Chair was Schroeder’s first film as writer-director, the shift to writing as well as directing is definitely the path he wants to take. He has written a number of other scripts of varying genres, some of which he controls through option.
When I asked him if he hoped to write and direct more independent films, I wasn’t surprised at his answer: “Yes, of course. Man in the Chair was the greatest film experience for me to date. I can’t wait to do another one.”
He also can’t wait to see how Man in the Chair fares, as a small film with a weighty performance by Christopher Plummer, when Oscar time comes.
In the meantime, it is still playing the festivals. An upcoming one is the Heartland Film Festival in late October, where the film has already won a Crystal Heart Award as one of five selected dramatic features that will compete for the grand prize.
Man in the Chair opens in theaters on December 7, 2007, in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco.
2007 Film Entertainment Magazine / EMOL.org. All rights reserved.
Film Entertainment Magazine
Michael Angarano, Michael Schroeder, and Christopher Plummer (left to right).
Photo left: Christopher Plummer
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