Twelve years ago, Eric Small wrote a script that originated with his own fears about death and dying. Now the script is a movie, being released in six markets this Friday by MGM.
From left, Hayden Panettiere, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ryan Kelley (MGM)
"The Dust Factory" features Ryan Kelley, Hayden Panettiere and Armin Mueller-Stahl in a coming-of-age tale with surrealistic flourishes. Kelley's character has an accident that transports him to a new dimension between this life and the next, and while there he learns to deal with his own mortality.
"It was a personal story for me," Small told EthicsDaily.com on the phone from Denver. He described the film as a magical world with a "Wizard of Oz" element.
Small, who holds a film degree from UCLA, said he worked on the script for a number of years as his agent continued to shop it around Hollywood. It never went anywhere, though, because potential producers couldn't raise enough cash and studios didn't want to commit to a film that colored outside the lines.
"It challenges kids to think a little bit," is how Small put it. A little more than two years ago, executive producer Erika Lockridge secured funding for the project. With producer Tani Cohen on board too, Small's script began the journey to screen. And his vision wasn't compromised.
Small wanted to push the envelope and challenge young and old alike. He also wanted Armin Mueller-Stahl's grandfather figure to play a pivotal role, which he does. Small emphasized the importance of "the old nurturing the young" and expressed regret that Western societies have strayed from this concept.
Small shot the movie in 29 days in Oregon, having assembled an impressive roster of industry veterans: director of photography Stephen Katz, costume designer Rita Riggs, composer Luis Bacalov, editor Glenn Farr and others.
"I believe that a good director is a good collaborator," Small said. Though a director's vision is essential, the contributions of others cannot be underestimated.
"You have to allow a lot of talented people to be artistic and offer what they do best," he said, because they do certain things better than the director ever could.
"I never say it's my film," he added, "because it's not my film." That's a rare attitude, especially for a writer-director. Small didn't even take a possessory credit on the film (meaning you won't see "An Eric Small Film" on any promotional materials). He simply doesn't believe in it.
But he does believe in his actors, which include rising star Hayden Panettiere, seen in "Remember the Titans" with Denzel Washington and more recently in "Raising Helen" with Kate Hudson and John Corbett.
"Hayden, of course, is quite a talent," Small said. "What Hayden brought to the picture was an exuberance for life," he said. "She had this zest about her." Small also praised her ability to portray empathy on camera.
"You can't learn that," he said. "It's just who you are. If you got it, you got it. And she's got it."
The feelings are mutual, as Panettiere had high praise for her director.
Panettiere told EthicsDaily.com by phone from Miami that Small was "the best."
"I adore him," said Panettiere, now 15. "He's really great. I find it really nice and refreshing to work with young directors because they're not so controlling."
"He was really great at finding the words to tell me what he wanted," she added. "He has a great way with words."
Small's way with words also came through on the page. Panettiere described the script for "The Dust Factory" as "very different, beautiful, creative."
As mentioned above, the genesis for the script lay in Small's own childhood.
With the movie's central character being a 13-year-old kid who contemplates life and death, one might wonder if Small himself delved into such issues when he was a youngster.
"Yeah, I did," he said, adding that when he was 11, he asked his father what happened when you die.
"He gave me kind of a bleak answer," Small said. Small spent a fair amount of time sorting through the issue of mortality, and he recalled vivid memories from a trip to the circus, with its ringmaster and trapeze artists.
"It was a surreal feeling in that circus that day," he said, "and it just stuck in my mind." As he wrote the movie, the big top seemed like an appropriate place in which to set the dust factory: magical and unsettling, yet safe.
Now that Small is 40 years old, he's still thinking about life's weighty issues.
"As I get older, there's always more questions," he said. "You come to a certain acceptance." Small said he has a spiritual understanding of life and death now.
"It's not so much religious as it is spiritual," he said. "It's a feeling that gives me a positive, optimistic view of life."
Small said he lives with the knowledge that death is inevitable, "and that's what makes life beautiful."
When asked what he hopes audiences will take away from the movie, he quickly responded, "Hope."
"I want them to feel hopeful about their life and the world."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie's official Web site is here.