Ten Hundred Kings at best in simplicity

On Saturday morning, Ten Hundred Kings, the first feature-length film of D.W. Maze ’94, premiered on the East Coast. The film, as well as Maze and his co-producer, James Towne, came to Images Cinema through the Williamstown Film Festival (WFF) as part of a day which featured the films of two Williams alumni. This screening marked the fifth festival showing their film, which was a three-year project completed in October of 2000. WFF president Bob Weir introduced the film, and afterwards the film’s creators fielded questions from the audience.

The film followed the story of a young couple, Paul and Caroline Shepard, (their last name a homage to Williams professor Jim Shepard) who share a difficult life in New York City. Paul, played by Bill Camp, is burned out, unhappy in his marriage, unfulfilled in his job as a painter for his father’s company and suffering from drug addiction. Elizabeth Marvel plays Caroline, a woman who has been blind since childhood, and who works as an associate at a law firm. She fears that due to her disability she will not be chosen as a partner of the firm and that she will be let go after her review. In one example of Caroline’s aggressive independence, she attempts to make a trip alone to review a company’s files after Paul refuses to take her. The work will take the entire weekend since she must rely on a machine that converts text into Braille.

Through flashbacks that teach us of the couple’s past, we learn that they met at college and were soon married. After college, Paul took his painting job in order to put Caroline through law school. The two agreed that Caroline would then pay for Paul to go through graduate school in classics. Paul had been an honors student at Harvard with a bright future in academia ahead of him. Their plans were destroyed when their three-year-old son, Alexander, was killed by a passing car while on a walk with Paul. Paul blames himself for the accident and feels that Caroline does the same. Since their son’s death, their relationship has become strained, with Caroline’s emotional coldness driving Paul to seek comfort from drugs.

The film demonstrated high production quality for an independent film. Many independent films have a grainier style, with unsteady shots and more abrupt editing (what Maze called “guerilla style filming”), but Ten Hundred Kings looked and sounded like a Hollywood-produced feature.

Maze commented afterwards that maintaining this production value resulted in a tight eight-day shooting schedule that made it virtually impossible to re-shoot some scenes that he later found somewhat flawed. Many key scenes were filmed with only one or two takes. About this Towne said, “asking any actor to reach the emotional core of a scene in such a short amount of time is a daunting task.” Even with two to three weeks of rehearsal before the cameras rolled, Maze was not completely satisfied with the writing and acting of some scenes.

The film suffered from a somewhat melodramatic style and some clichéd scenes and situations. Maze spoke of how he began work on the script by developing character ideas and then creating a plot around them. This method may have led to some of the plot’s clichés.

Paul’s characteristic attitude towards life as a result of his preoccupation with the death of his son provided one of the more glaring examples, one which seems familiar from a number of films with characters whose lives center on a past traumatic event. As the character deepened over the course of the movie, though, this cliché became less of a problem.

Another character who deserved some more attention and complication is Paul’s mother, who served as a traditional protective mother-in-law, blaming Paul’s wife for her son’s drug use and lack of direction. However, as the film wore on, her character was given chances to show other facets of her personality.

The flashback scenes of the events leading up to Alexander’s death served the film well, although they became somewhat predictable and tiresome by the film’s end. These scenes allowed the plot to advance while avoiding the exposition through dialogue that, when used, came off as forced in Maze’s film. For example, a hospital room scene where Caroline and Paul’s mother clash over the past, they bring up the events in a contrived manner. This type of exposition is almost inevitably unnatural because people simply do not talk about the past in the same ways that film characters do.

What drives the film forward more than the outward plot are the unanswered questions about past events. As the events underlying Alexander’s death, Paul’s depression and Caroline’s coldness are unraveled, the film begins to lose steam, and its ending is therefore somewhat drawn out and sentimental. Maze noted that some audiences found the ending, which finds Caroline and Paul back together with a new child, to be too happy. The ending does not work very hard to answer the questions of how the couple overcomes their differences to start afresh, but rather tries to leave us with the comforting notion that it could happen, no matter how incredible it may seem.

Some of the most creative and powerful scenes of the film are more tangential to the plot and show some of life’s smaller miracles. One is Paul’s explanation of the Greek concept of “expectation for tomorrow” to his group at his rehabilitation center, and another involves a young boy asking Caroline how she gets to work. Both are simple moments that avoid the predictability that plagues some of the more plot-driven scenes.

Scenes that dealt with Caroline’s blindness, some by providing only sound without image and one in which Caroline discovers Paul unconscious after a drug overdose, also provide thoughtful moments which gave the audience perspective on Caroline’s experiences. The film uses Caroline’s blindness thoughtfully, avoiding the pitfall of becoming a film about being blind. Maze, who wrote and directed Ten Hundred Kings, was a senior at Williams when, assisted by Towne, he created a short film called The Snowman. Many years later they re-joined, assembling a budget of $400,000 to create Ten Hundred Kings. The film was shot in April 1999, and was edited for six months, primarily by Maze and Towne themselves. As opposed to a Hollywood producer, who might have very little to do with a film artistically, it was apparent from their discussions with the audience that Towne and Maze’s collaboration was both highly involved and artistic.

The pair mentioned that this might be one of the last festivals at which the film is shown, since most festivals will only allow films created within the last year to be entered. Maze and Towne are currently seeking commercial distribution for the film through an agent, possibly on cable television. Maze spoke of how his agent noted three ways to sell a movie: stars, extraordinarily great press and fitting into a niche market. Ten Hundred Kings has none of the three, making it a tough sell.

Maze also spoke of how the lead actors were found for the film. Elizabeth Marvel, a two-time Obie winner, was won over after reading the script. However, finding a leading man proved more difficult. Many good actors could not work for the small salary offered. Eventually, Marvel’s boyfriend, Bill Camp, tried out for Paul, and Maze considered him the best that he had seen in the role. Since working on this film, Marvel has gone on to be cast on the TV drama “The District.”

As Maze’s first feature film, Ten Hundred Kings is a remarkable achievement, combining smooth style with compelling ideas and astounding actors. However, the film could have benefitted from more attention paid to its dialogue and plot thereby avoiding some of the clichés and its sometimes cloying style.

The film, in bringing back a Williams alumus, showed students, professors and Williamstown residents the feeling of personal success provided by independent filmmaking, a feeling which bottom-line Hollywood filmmaking sometimes cannot provide.