The Oscar-winning star of Union Square recounts the adrenaline rush of working on the indie film and explains how audiences can relate to it.
Actress-activist Mira Sorvino
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Mira Sorvino back to this program. The Oscar-winning actress can be seen in a new film hitting theaters this month. It’s called “Union Square.” So here now, a scene from “Union Square.”
Tavis: All right, so sometimes clips don’t need much explanation, and sometimes they need explanation. Explanation, please. (Laughter)
Mira Sorvino: Explanation, okay. Well, these two sisters have been estranged for three years. I’ve come to the city to deliver a message, but I think I’m bringing this letter to her business address, and I don’t think she’s going to be there. I think she’s in California. She’s really out of touch with me.
She happens to be there instead, and I’ve just been having a breakdown in Union Square Park with a boyfriend on the phone who’s breaking up with me, and it’s like the apocalypse for me. I think it’s the end of the world. You see as soon as I see my sister, I change on a dime and I’m very happy to see her. That’s the way the movie goes, like up and down, up and down.
Tavis: Ups and down, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a good explanation of that particular clip. How would you describe what the film is, “Union Square?”
Sorvino: I would say it’s basically about a reunion of two people who are from the same family who haven’t been able to get along in the past because of some very deep issues, but ultimately really love each other.
So it’s kind of like that old thing – you can’t live with them, can’t shoot them. So the third part is really you have to find a way to love them. It’s a very beautiful movie and very funny. It’s a great balance between drama and comedy.
Tavis: I’ve been anxious to talk to you. You and I were discussing before we came on the set here about the way this was shot. When I say “the way,” I’m talking about the location, the number of days, the camera equipment that was used.
I’ll let you tell the story, but it just speaks to the fact that when you have good material, you can forgo all the bells and whistles and make the story sing if the storyline and the narrative and the wrestling with humanity is all there. You can make it work, even when you’re shooting it over a number of days, in one location, with – I’ll let you tell the story of how you guys actually shot this.
Sorvino: Well, it was originally scheduled for – Nancy says it was scheduled for 10 days. I thought it was scheduled of r12 originally, and then we went to 15. She says we went to, like, 13 and a half. I’m not sure. But Nancy Savoca is the director.
Sorvino: She’s an amazing director, and she and her husband felt very confident, Rich Guay, one of the producers, along with Neda Armian, that they could make this movie with an incredibly micro budget and a skeleton crew and this 5D Canon camera. Basically, it looks like a still camera but it’s a video camera. It’s a very versatile, amazing camera, and other films have been shot on it. They also do a lot of second unit work on this camera for other movies. They put it in action shots and stuff.
But it allowed us to walk through Union Square Park and film scenes, and people did not know we were making a movie. They thought it was like somebody taking a picture. The people walking around us became part of the scene, literally, because they didn’t know they were in a movie.
It’s that light and that sort of run-and-gun guerilla style, and it gives this movie, I think, a real sense of organic urgency and pacing, and, like, real life, but not like a reality TV show where it’s kind of goosed up. Everything feels very spontaneous and like this camera’s just like a fly on the wall, like a person kind of watching things, like another person in the room.
Because it’s a little bit faulty, a little bit bumpy. The focus kind of racks back and forth all the time, as though it’s shifting the idea of who it’s looking at. But I think it works perfectly for this story, which is really, as you say, just about the people and about their story together and their odd personalities.
The thing is we’re both lying all the time. You find out as you go along that we’re both harboring big, big secrets from ourselves, from our loved ones, and they keep revealing themselves as the film goes on. Something about the low budget and the small sets, limited locations, it just kind of worked. It just feels real.
Tavis: This whole thing is shot in and around Union Square, so you guys didn’t go much farther than – yeah.
Sorvino: No, it was all in that neighbor. It was all within, like, a 10-block radius.
Sorvino: A lot of it’s shot in the apartment that you saw, a lot of it’s shot in Union Square or the stores near it. There’s a club scene, there’s an East River scene and there’s one other apartment.
Tavis: To your point, it works for what the film is that it was shot in the way that it was shot, but how does that challenge, or for that matter, bring a different kind of freedom to an actor when you’re shooting on this run-and-gun, folk around you don’t even know you’re shooting, as you said. It’s organic and it works for the film, but how does it work for an actor?
Sorvino: Well, I think it ups the ante, because honestly, the page count was about eight to 10 pages a day, so you have to have that dialogue and that scene down. You’ve got to be ready, loaded for bear when you come in in the morning, and it doesn’t stop until the day is over.
So you’ve got to come in just with all of this, like – I can’t describe it except that I had to be just on my game every second, because there wasn’t a second to spare. Maybe we did two or three takes, and then it was moving on to the next thing. You’d do these big, long master takes, sort of like Woody Allen does, where you don’t cut in for coverage back and forth.
A lot of it goes on for several pages, and you’ve got to be just right there. But in a certain way, because of that adrenaline, I think it gets, like, freer. I don’t know, it’s not the boringness of shooting a long day on a conventional movie set, where they have the budget and time to cover a scene six ways from Sunday. Like you first do the wide, the traveling, the establishing, then the medium close-up, then the close close-up, and then the over-the-shoulder, (laughter) the dirty over-the-shoulder.
By the time you get to the end of the scene, it’s tired, it’s old, a little bit. Like you’ve done those lines all day long, and you’re a little – maybe you’ve lost that sort of momentum. This is nothing but inspiration and momentum, and there’s a lot of improv, at least for my character.
Nancy was very encouraging of me to kind of burst out with whatever was kind of occurring to me, because the character’s bipolar, and she has this uncensored quality, which I love it when a character is like that because then you can really go with your instincts.
It’s not intellectual at all, and yet she’s smart. She may seem a little dumb at first, but she really actually has a brain in her head. She’s just emotionally all over the map. But the thing is, the more you see the film, the more you realize there’s a real substance underneath her pain.
In the beginning, you just think oh, this girl’s hysterical, I can’t take it. Then as it goes on you’re like oh, oh, oh, oh, okay, okay. I see why she’s acting out. I see what’s happening.
Tavis: I think I could probably judge the answer to this question, but I could be wrong, so let me just ask anyway. So you’re an Academy Award winner. This hustle and bustle, low-budget stuff, is not the stuff that you have to do. Obviously, you choose to do this. Why choose to do it?
Sorvino: I started off with this kind of atmosphere. The first film I was ever in was called “Amongst Friends,” and I was the associate producer of it, I was the casting director, the third AD, the extras caster, (laughter) and I bought the doughnuts and drove the van. I was also the female lead.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Sorvino: So it was that kind of crazy, like, we’ve got a (unintelligible), we’ve got some kids, let’s make a movie. But I love that spirit of it’s about the work, it’s about the purity of trying to make something good. It’s not about earning any money whatsoever. I paid my nanny twice as much as I earned every day on it.
But it was a chance to work on really great writing, a fantastic character, and work with a stellar director. Nancy is really, I think, people forget how great she is. I hope with this film people will see again that she is like a major independent film director.
To my mind this is a very fine film, and I think she’s going to be sort of rediscovered with this. Because she had a lot of attention in the early ’90s, and I think that this might make people say, “Wow, Nancy Savoca is an amazing auteur director.”
Because she really describes a world that is very personal and local, and yet because of the family themes in it, I think it’s very universal. People see this film and they’re like, “Wow, this is just like me and my dad.” Men respond to it. It doesn’t have to be women.
It’s just like anyone who has a family, like a niggling family issue that ugh, they’ve been avoiding it, they’ve been putting it off, and then they have to come to face it, and you always want to get back to that love. It’s been too long. There’s people that you can think of now that you wish that you hadn’t had that conflict with, and you want to fix it and you don’t know how to make that first step. This film is all about kind of busting through those barriers and figuring it out.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad you came by to see us. Speaking of fathers, how is your father?
Sorvino: He’s fantastic.
Sorvino: He’s constantly amazing us with how he turns over new leaves. He’s just done this film that he feels is one of his best career performances. It’s called “Last I Heard,” and he’s very excited about that one. But he’s done like five films this summer. (Laughter) He’s unbelievable. He’s sculpting, and he’s singing and directing. He does everything.
Tavis: Yeah, he doesn’t stop. So you get that energy honestly, I see. (Laughter) Yeah. The project is called “Union Square,” starring Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino. Good to have you on. Thanks for coming by to see us.
Sorvino: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you. Good luck on the project. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and keep the faith.
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