Someone whose name has been lost in time said, “Pain reminds us we’re alive — love reminds us why.” Based on this observation, it’s safe to say that the characters in debut Director Dennis Lee’s Fireflies in the Garden are very much alive.
Fireflies in the Garden sets us down in a family reunion planned to celebrate a long-delayed graduation from college by family matriarch Lisa Taylor, played by Julia Roberts (Eat Pray Love), but the reunion is given a dark turn when she dies unexpectedly. The story is told from the point of view of her son, Michael Taylor, played by Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern). Michael, long estranged from his domineering father, played by Willem Dafoe (Once Upon a Time in Mexico), and more recently estranged from his alcoholic wife Kelly, played by Carrie Anne Moss (The Matrix), tries hard not to reconnect with his family or his feelings.
Director Dennis Lee wrote this semi-autobiographical family drama after his mother’s death in 2002.
“It is a story about a family,” Lee said. “I think for most families a mother tends to be, for lack of a better way to describe it, like a picture frame that holds everything in the picture together. I think that once that picture frame is gone, things just start falling apart. The question is whether or not this family is going to let things fall apart or do what they can to bring it all back together. In that process, emotions come out and truths come out.”
You might be thinking, I’m glad my family isn’t like this. But, Lee’s screenplay hit on truths that touch most everyone.
The film making truth for Lee, who won a student Academy Award for his short film Jesus Henry Christ, was that he hoped to produce this story on a low-budget with an unknown cast. Instead, Lee’s good fortune found him with a formidable cast, made up of A-list talent. In addition to Roberts, Dafoe, Reynolds and Moss, he also signed Emily Watson (Punch-Drunk Love), as well as up-and-comers Shannon Lucio (Prison Break), Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), Cayden Boyd (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D), Chase Ellison (Tooth Fairy), and Brooklynn Proulx (Shelter).
Lee’s big break came about when Roberts attached to the project. She was introduced to the script by her husband Danny Moder, who had already signed on as director of photography. Moder was brought the project by his brother-in-law, Philip Rose. Did I just hear someone say, “It’s all about who you know”?
For Willem Dafoe, the excellent script was a definite draw, but the commitment of those already signed-on to the project sealed his involvement. “With a first time feature director, it is always a little risky because you really don’t know how he is going to behave on a set,” Dafoe said. “You can look at shorts but that is really a different form, so you don’t really know. You have to get behind people’s take of the movie and their passion for it. This is also a case where this terrific ensemble cast was coming on board really for the passion of Dennis and also for the script. I have a nose for that kind of situation. It is not so much the character, because I don’t know what the character is until I have done it—and sometimes not even then. It is really more about the situation.”
How we get into that situation is through a tool that script gurus and screenwriting books tell you never to use, especially if you’re a beginner – the flashback.
The story starts with young Michael Taylor in the back seat of his parent’s car. Fireworks between him and his father begin almost immediately and we are introduced to hands and cornfields – important symbols in the film. Then, suddenly, we are with grown-up Michael Taylor, successful romance novelist, on an airplane, signing an autograph for an admiring flight attendant.
Rapid cuts like this go on throughout the film, switching between the present and decades ago, with no hint as to where we are except the visual context. This shouldn’t work, but it does.
One caution, I found it a little difficult at first to identify the grown up instantiations of the young versions of the characters. But, if you pay close attention it will work itself out.
Family dramas like this are not usually the kind of film I go to see. I admit it – the A-list cast tempted me to attend the preview. I avoid films of this genre, because often they are pretentious, unbelievable and an excuse to lecture the audience about current trendy social issues. That is not the case here.
So, if you join the painful family reunion of the Taylor family, which I recommend you do, you’ll be reminded you’re alive, and, like the Taylors, you’ll remember why.
Fireflies in the Garden will open on Oct. 14 in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Austin with an expanded roll-out to follow.