Bliss: About The Production

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"This is a film about love and communication, including communication through sensuality..."
-Lance Young, writer/director of BLISS

After leaving a successful business career and high-profile position as a production executive at Warner Brothers, writer/director Lance Young traveled to Mexico where he wrote the script for BLISS during a self-reflective period of his life. "I had seen so many scripts, even good ones, go by the wayside," says Young. "So, it was a really frightening experience to sit down and try to write a script after having been involved in developing so many movies. As a first time director, I needed to make a low-budget film that would be marketable, but I also wanted to write a story about real characters I deeply believed in. With BLISS I knew I had to push the envelope, in order to get people talking. Because it's not violent or sensationalistic, it had to have a core of truth for the audience."

Once the script was finished, it began to circulate and attracted considerable attention. "On a personal level, it was kind of a miracle," he remembers. "I started out developing the story as a short, which I planned to direct," he remembers. "Then I started thinking it might be possible to make it as a low-budget feature. Later, when other people read it, they saw it as a much bigger movie -- as a star vehicle. I was offered a lot of money for the screenplay, but I would have to forego directing. The choice was easy, as writing was a hard and personal experience for me. I didn't want to just hand it off to someone else."

Though Lance Young and producer Allyn Stewart had both worked in production at Warner Brothers, the two had only met once or twice and Stewart first heard about the project from friends in the industry. Curious, she read the script and had an immediate and powerful reaction to the story. "I called Lance and said I would love to be involved in getting the film made," she remembers. "There were several producers chasing him, but I got lucky and got a deal together first."

Stewart got an extremely positive and enthusiastic response from David Saunders, president of Triumph Films, and Stewart and Young were ready to begin casting. They immediately approached Terence Stamp for the critical role of Baltazar. "Once we saw 'The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,' there was no question in our minds that Terence was Baltazar," Stewart recalls. "He has the internal power and presence on screen that Baltazar absolutely must project."

For Joseph and Maria, they chose Craig Sheffer and Sheryl Lee because "we felt that the audience could really identify with them," Stewart explains. "After all, the central theme of this film -- that we all want good relationships, and especially good marriage relationships -- is universal. We needed to be sure that, as the characters go through all the transformations in the screenplay, we had the kind of acting talent that would allow the audience to experience every significant beat in the movie. We were fortunate in getting two such fine actors."

Widely praised for his role as the wise, observant brother opposite Brad Pitt in the critical hit "A River Runs Through It," as well as for roles in such films as "Sleep With Me," "Wings of Courage" and "Fire in the Sky," Craig Sheffer was ideally suited to play the young husband who, unexpectedly, has a chance to learn the true meaning of love when he commits himself to helping his wife overcome deeply-rooted emotional problems. "Joseph takes that journey of love and discovery and sacrifice in order to get to the other side," says Sheffer. "He is willing to feel the pain with her no matter what the end result because he believes in her and in the love they share. I was drawn to this story because it deals with sex and sensuality in a completely new way, and how we create roles for each other and then break out of those roles."

Sheryl Lee, who mesmerized audiences as the mysterious, doomed Laura Palmer in the ground-breaking television series "Twin Peaks" as well starring in numerous feature films, including the recent "Mother Night" and "Backbeat," stars as Maria. "Aside from being very beautiful, Sheryl Lee projects a very spiritual quality that was exactly what I was seeking for Maria," Young recalls. "Maria also goes through several dramatic changes that demand both immense range and great subtlety from the actress. Sheryl was with her every step of the way in an extremely moving and brave performance."

"Maria seems quite normal at first," Lee notes. "But as time goes by, you begin to see little clues that something is not quite right with her. Her reactions to things are just a little too extreme. In fact, this is her unconscious way of expressing certain issues from her own past that she's having a hard time dealing with. She is not the woman Joseph thought she was and that has put a real strain on the relationship. I think any woman would want a partner who would make the effort Joseph makes for Maria."

Terence Stamp, who garnered critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as the aging transvestite Bernadette in "The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert," stars as Baltazar, the wise and insightful sex therapist who guides Joseph toward a deeper understanding and communication with Maria. "I was looking for a suitable follow-up to Bernie," says Stamp. "Something out of the ordinary, but with universal appeal. I don't want to disappoint those people who believe in the big screen; who still cherish the moment when the lights go down."

Playing classical violin, fixing his own vintage car, giving instructions on the intricate art of love -- the complexity of Baltazar, a man who combines European and Oriental sensibilities, offered a perfect vehicle for Stamp's ability to draw an audience into a character that lives outside most people's day-to-day experience. "Once we saw Priscilla, we knew that Terence Stamp was the perfect choice to play Baltazar," says Young, "He gives Baltazar the dignity and depth that the story demands."

"Our actors all brought great talent to their roles" says Stewart. "They also gave us their emotional commitment to the story. With a project like BLISS, that is essential because so much of what is happening is happening inside the characters. You have to work with actors who have the courage to go into those places within themselves."

Casting was paramount for other roles as well. The selection of Spalding Gray as Alfred (the psychiatrist) is typical of the effort to see that each role brings out those little moments that give this film it's strength and authenticity.

The next hurdle was the nuts and bolts of production. Because the set for Baltazar's loft (his home and office) was central to the film and had to have a sumptuous look, Stewart and Young were concerned that they get the maximum impact out of every set construction dollar. With the Canadian exchange rate, there was a clear budget bonus to be had by filming in Canada, so Stewart and Young visited Vancouver. "We came here because of our modest budget. We found great beauty plus the opportunity to stretch the dollars," says Stewart, "We found locations that really enrich the film."

Remaining on the fine line of Young's delicately-balanced script made demands on actors and crew to ensure that each shot would carry an audience along on the lead characters' emotional journey. Many of the shots were similar to carefully-choreographed dances between the actors. In others, the camera moved at a near-imperceptible speed on dolly tracks as it closed in on a character's evolving emotional responses. At other times, Young mounted his camera on a crane, letting it rise and sweep over the scene, carrying the audience on the scene's waves of emotional content. These techniques, coupled with cinematographer Mike Molloy's evocative lighting, help immerse the audience in the emotional journey that brings Joseph and Maria within reach of marital BLISS, then cruelly thrusts them onto the edge of disaster. "It is a love story," says Molloy. "That kind of lighting feels right for it. It was especially important for the love scenes. We wanted them to have a surreal quality. They can't be too literal, so we lit them to be a bit abstract and yet retain a sensuality."

"The most difficult part," says Young, "was to keep the emotional journey on track. In each scene, in each shot, the audience has to be able to read where the characters are in the film's emotional landscape. That is much more difficult than letting the audience know, in a plot sense, what is happening. It requires great subtlety from the actors, but it also needs to be reinforced by things like the right quality of lighting and the right camera position, lens and moves. Then you have to rely on instinct to tell you if the scene you are shooting now will follow, emotionally, from the one that went before and also lead the audience on to the one that follows."

Young wanted the camerawork to continually reflect Joseph's point of view. "It's about his journey," says Young, "It's not about Maria -- although she does have her own very dramatic journey -- and it's not about Baltazar. It's about Joseph's experience. So it was important to shoot and cut the film so that the audience will stay with Joseph."

"BLISS has certainly been unlike any project I have worked on in the past," notes executive producer Matthew O'Connor. "The subject required very precise handling and that was time-consuming and frequently stressful for all of us. But, when you screen the footage, you can see that it was worth all the effort."

When BLISS went into production for Triumph Films, Young became the first Hollywood film executive to direct since the 1930s. "I don't think you can look at BLISS like a traditional Hollywood narrative such as 'Jerry Maguire' or even 'sex, lies and videotape.' Yes, it has characters you hopefully root for and grow to love, but we were trying to connect to an audience on a more personal level; to provoke an audience to face their own intimacy. In a sense, we wanted the movie screen to be a huge mirror, but instead of being alone in the mirror, there's a large audience behind you, heightening and provoking your feelings. We set out from the beginning to stimulate, challenge and even incense; as well as move and entertain. We took a lot of chances with the tone of the film, trying to invite an audience on an unsafe journey by mixing comedy with serious drama. Dysfunction in relationships can be funny one minute and tragic the next, so the tonal shifts of the film are necessarily sudden and brutal. In a 'Brechtian' sense, we wanted the audience to be jolted by this and constantly aware of their own feelings."

How people respond is of great concern to the filmmakers, as audiences have rarely been exposed to films that challenge their own feelings and relationships. "Seeing BLISS without an audience is a completely different experience than seeing it with one," Young continues. "In the scenes where two men discuss the intimate details of their sexuality, the comedy comes not so much from the words, but from the uncomfortable nature of discussing intimacy. A lot of the impact of the film lies in the range of response from the audience that each person witnesses. A serious moment for one can bring uncomfortable laughter from another."

Music Composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek contributed enormously to the deeply emotional feel of the film. Kaczmarek created a haunting and lyrical score for BLISS which features several variations on the film's main theme. "We really sought out people who were willing to get involved because of their powerful reaction to the screenplay," says Stewart, "That lead us to approach composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. We were very fortunate to get him involved because music plays such an important role in this film. His score is an absolutely integral part of BLISS."

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