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The Great Train Robbery

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" I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Not this big a one. "
— Martin Sheen, Badlands

MRQE Top Critic

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Greg Harrison’s first feature, Groove, showed an insider’s perspective on the rave scene in San Francisco. Now he has directed November, a movie told in three parts (a la Run Lola Run) about trauma and grief. November opens around the country in the late summer of 2005. The movie stars Courteney Cox as a photographer whose boyfriend (James LeGros) is killed in a convenience store — at least in one version of the movie’s reality.

Harrison, who started in the biz as a film editor, is now in his mid-thirties. He has a tall frame and a young face. He has no industry-snob airs, except for being dressed in all black, which seems more like convenience than conceit. He is getting married in the fall (to a film journalist, no less) so he toured the country earlier this summer giving interviews.

He spoke about his budget, about grief and trauma, and about the puzzle that November is.

As good as the movie is, it’s impossible to overlook that it was shot on video. But considering it cost one-tenth the price of other low-budget indies, it’s a trade-off more and more directors are likely to make.

“We shot [November] for $150,000, in 15 days, on Mini DV,” says Harrison. “We did it through a company called InDigEnt [Independent Digital Entertainment] out New York, which did Tadpole and Pieces of April. That’s their model: $150,000 for production, 150 for post, has to be Mini DV, and 15 days. You do get profit participation that’s real. The grip owns part of the movie. And when we sold the movie to Sony, that grip got a check, immediately. The model works, so it attracts good crew and it attracts good cast that want to do something different.”

“[InDigEnt] is a place to experiment, to try something as a filmmaker, and feel completely supported. It is all about empowering the filmmaker to try something new, to learn and grow as a filmmaker. That’s how it was designed by Gary Winnick, who directed Tadpole and went on to direct much bigger Hollywood movies. But he designed InDigEnt to be that respite from the industry. And it’s worked, quite well.”

Harrison was indeed able to take some risks with November. Instead of a linear storyline, it has a three-part structure, with each part showing a different version of reality. Also, the film tackles a very dark subject with very little “fun” to it. At its core, November is about grief and coping with trauma.

“The script came to me from my friend who wrote it for entirely different reasons,” says Harrison. He recalls that screenwriter Benjamin Brand had written something that looked like an exercise in nonlinear storytelling. Harrison added the emotional component to the film. “As I was developing the script I made it personal, thematically, trying to express the subjective experience of trauma.”

“Right around [the time I was writing] Groove I was going through a very intense depression with another friend who was also very depressed. We drifted apart. I had overcome my depression and went on to make Groove. But unfortunately I had lost touch with her, and I had heard through the grapevine, two or three years past, that she ended up committing suicide. I felt like I made it and she didn’t. There was this terrible, terrible sadness about that. I feel like some of that is in the movie. I’ve never had someone die that way in my life. It’s a whole different experience. It’s really terrible.”

All of us will experience loss and grief at some point, but these emotions are hard to convey in movies. Emotionally, the story of grief is the story of life trying to heal itself, but the factual reality is still loss and death. Acknowledging both requires an artist to introduce a paradox into his work. Harrison does this, although his explanation for the paradox is much more mundane: imperfect perception.

“There were puzzle elements to [November]. But it was the least interesting part to Ben [Brand] and me. It was more interesting to take this journey of trauma, visually and tonally, to play with the theme of perception and how ambiguity is inherently part of perception.”

Still, some moviegoers don’t want ambiguity; they want answers to the puzzle. Harrison mentioned two: one he had in his mind while shooting, and another that a fan gave him after the movie was completed.

Spoiler warning: this section may reveal some of the movie’s surprises.

For those who haven’t seen November, or for those who need a refresher, the three parts are different in the details. In the first part, Sophie sees her boyfriend killed in the store and is racked by guilt; she projects the guilt from her affair with another man onto her boyfriend’s death. In the second part, her boyfriend is still killed, but Sophie takes more control of her fate. In the third part, she and her boyfriend both enter the convenience store and both get killed.

“In terms of the puzzle, it was all memory as she was dying on the floor. Each movement of this memory was her process of coming to terms with the terrible trauma, which was that she was killed for absolutely no reason, and it was some random act of violence she couldn’t confront.

“The movie isn’t organized in a linear narrative, it’s organized by emotional importance. Organizing things by emotional importance feels like how emotional memory works because you don’t remember A-B-C or even the details of the room, you remember how you felt when you broke up, or when you saw the murder, or when you first heard the news, or whatever. So if you notice, there’s a lot of details that keep evolving. She’s basically dressed in the same clothes that she dies in, but the clothes slowly change, the bag she carries blooms flowers. By the second movement, in her apartment, it’s actually mirror-imaged. The kitchen is on the other side, she’s left-handed, not right-handed. It all seemed very much like how memory works where the details aren’t exactly right, but the emotional importance is right.”

But Harrison would prefer that audiences bring their own experiences to November. That’s why the movie doesn’t explicitly solve the mystery for us.

“It’s enough open-ended,” says Harrison, “where people come up with the most beautiful stories themselves that are very different from how I saw it. That’s what I was hoping. I remember in Seattle we screend the movie and this woman described, in perfect detail, this whole other way of looking at the movie, which is: the first chapter is total reality, but the lead character can’t take the guilt and the sadness, so she creates these other two versions. In the end, she saw their laying next to each other as a vision of empathy, accepting the death of her boyfriend and everything that she did, both right and wrong, by laying next to him and saying goodbye.”

Is November a low-budget indie? A meditation on grief and trauma? A puzzle? Or is it a Rorschach test that reveals the personality of the viewer?

Harrison probably won’t be disappointed when I say: it depends on how you look at it.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies