A couple years ago, I caught a review of a new movie called Illusion. It caught my eye because of the odd visual of Kirk Douglas in pajamas, in a bed, in the middle of a classic movie theatre. The review was very positive, so I made a mental note to catch the film when I could.
Illusion never played at a theatre near me, and it left my mind. A little over a year later, I noticed the movie while combing Netflix. The Kirk Douglas visual popped right out, and I remember that I wanted to see it, but never never had the chance. So with a quick click, I was now destined to see Illusion. It was down in the queue, so it wasn’t until a few months later that Illusion arrived in the mail. Shaun, my cousin was visiting at the time, so I asked if he wanted to check it out. We sat back on the couch and watched, what we both later agreed, was the best movie we had seen in a long, long time.
The writer, director, and star of the film is Michael Goorjian. If you’re like me, you will likely remember him most as Neve Campbells’ boyfriend in Party of Five. I also, for some twisted reason that I hope speaks more to Michael’s screen presence than my mental state, remembered Michael as one of Elizabeth Shues’ rapist in Leaving Las Vegas.
As I mentioned, the film also stars Kirk Douglas. This is likely to be Douglas’ last film, and what a performance to go out on. Michael gave Douglas a gift with this role, and Douglas repaid him with a terrific performance that will be known as some of his finest work.
The film was inspired by the play, L’Illusion Comique, by the French tragedian Pierre Corneille in 1636. The play centers around a man whose search for his lost son brings him to a magician, who tells him that he can show the father his son through a magic instrument. The father watches as his son plays a staring role in a love triangle, which ends with the tragic death of the son. But as the father sits in despair, the magician shows that what the man has watched is in fact a play, and explains that his son had become an actor.
Don’t worry, the movie is very different, so I have not spoiled the ending for you.
The film takes a slightly different approach. The father is now a man named Donald Baines (Kirk Douglas), and he has actually never met his son, Christopher (Michael Goorjian). The story begins with Donald lying in bed, clearly in his final days after living life as a successful film producer. Donald is visited by an old, departed friend who offers to show Donald the son he never knew, through a movie clipped together from pieces of his life.
The son’s story is a tragic romance with a women named Isabelle (Karen Tucker), the name of the female lead in L’Illusion Comique. The story takes part in three acts; the first with Christopher as a teenager, the second as a young man in his twenties, and the third with him in his thirties.
Throughout the film we see that Christopher’s relationship, or lack of, with his father has taken a toll on his psyche. He hears the imagined voice of his father belittling him and making him question his worth. We get to see christopher struggle to find who he really is. Is he the worthless person his imagined father says he is, or is he worthy of happiness? Of course when Donald hears the imagined voice as a type of narration, he is saddened and hurt.
I believe that good films, like all other art, are subjective. I feel I understood this story at a personal level. I grew up without a father, and not much of a family. How I don’t hear a voice, I have dealt with a feeling of self-doubt my entire life, which clearly stems from my lack of familial support. Like Christopher, I can be prone to make a bad decision if I don’t stop every now and then and think about it. One aspect of the film that I personally love is that Christopher makes bad decisions, but when it comes to the important things, he always comes back to do what’s right. I understand the struggle to sometimes find the right path.
I also personally found the changes Donald went through during the screening, very interesting. We first meet him as a cynic, who believes that when a story is heading to a tragic end, you should let it. He points to Romeo and Juliet as being the proof. This is a man who admits that he made the active decision to put his movies and carriers first, but when faced with the very real, and direct consequences of his actions, blurts out “I love my son”, and “movies don’t mean anything”.
I was so impressed with the movie that I purchased a coupe copies and sent them to friends. Everyone came back with strong reviews of the film. I decide that it would make a great blog post to not only write about the film, but to see if I could get an interview with Michael Goorjian. He was gracious enough to send me his number so that I could ask him a few questions.
The story about how the film was made was pretty interesting. Michael told me he was originally working on getting a movie made from a script he wrote called Beatrice. He was close to putting that together, but as things often do, the deal died. Feeling a little set back Michael, decided to move forward with filming the other script he had in mind, Illusion, on his own.
Knowing that the film was going to be in three acts, he decided to shot the first act on his own dime. So armed with a camera borrowed from Francis Ford Coppola (pretty good friend to have), Michael began shooting the first act.
I asked him a little about how the cast came together. The female lead, Karen Tucker, was a friend who Michael considered to be an excellent actress, whose primary interest was stage. Because her character would be in all there acts, Michael went with someone he trusted to be around for years. It would have been pretty bad if Tucker would have been unwilling to do the third act in the end.
Bryan Cranston, (Malcom in the Middle, Breaking Bad) also has a small role in the film. I asked Michael how that came to be, and he told me that he has known Bryan for a long time and he simply asked him to be in it.
One interesting piece Michael shared about filming Bryan’s scenes is that they were filming in Napa right after 9/11, so there were American flags everywhere that he had to shoot around. I found it interesting when I started thinking about the effect something a subtle as a collection of American flags in the background would have on screen. It could have taken the Napa feel from the scene, which I think played very well on screen.
Kirk Douglas was obviously a big score for the father. The role, which is played nearly 100% from a bed, seemed like such a natural fit for Douglas, who had recently suffered a stroke, it seemed like he must have had him in mind. But as it turns out, Michael did not have anyone specific in mind. It just happened that someone, after seeing the film Michael had to that point, suggested that he send it to the Douglas’ agent.
Kirk Douglas had the unusual ability to not only read a script, but also watch most of the film before agreeing to be in it. That in itself is high praise for this movie.
The performance that really caught me off guard was from someone I don’t ever remember having seen before, Ron Marasco. How I’m sure that most who read this do not know that name, it seems that many very talented actors know it quite well. Marasco shares just about every scene with Douglas, and is incredible with their dialogue. The report seems eerily natural, just like two old friends.
I was so impressed with the dialogue in these scenes that I asked Michael about it. He told me that the dialogue for those scenes were written a little differently. He and Marasco spent some time improvising lines back and forth to find lines that fit and would best demonstrate the relationship of the two men. It worked very well.
Ron Marasco is a professor at Loyola Marymount University, and author of the book Notes to an Actor, a book called “the definitive book on acting” by Patricia Clarkson. Kirk Douglas called Marasco’s book “the best book on acting I have ever read”. In his scenes with Douglas, Marasco shows that his knows what he teaches.
Understanding that Michael put two years of his life, and his entire saving, not to mention his heart and soul into this project, I thought it must be rewarding to go on to Amazon and see reviews like “independent film making at it’s finest”. But it’s clear that Illusion has not gotten the viewership Michael had wanted for his film. He mentions that is was a disappointment that the film didn’t get a theatrical release, and that even the DVD distributors didn’t treat the film very well.
I can understand Michael’s feelings on this. Like so many other great films, Illusion was put aside by Hollywood because it didn’t have a big budget. It doesn’t matter that it’s an excellent movie that everyone loves, with tremendous acting, and even one of the biggest names in film history. We will see Transformers 2, 3, 4, and 5 in theaters, but we won’t see films like Illusion. But more than frustration, Michael shows optimism. He says he believes that Illusion will pick up some popularity as more people see it and recommend it to friends. He has a good point. I’m writing a blog post about a film made over three years ago. I, like Michael, think the best days for this movie are still ahead.
I thought it would be tacky to record my conversation with Michael, so I have avoided trying to quote him. But I do want to share one note I made. I asked him what the film meant to him, and I think he gave a terrific answer. “The films is about a cycle of life that Christopher is stuck in. Essentially a melodrama where things turn out tragic with no resolution. His father tries to lift him from this cycle.”
I was excited about this answer because it’s very much in line with how I felt. It seems that how Christopher tries to make the best decisions he can, fate always seems to lead him to tragedy. And when he finally can’t escape what he sees must be his tragic fate, it’s his father who has to step up and do the right thing. The fathers road to redemption is the key to both their salvation.
There is a strong moral message to Illusion, but in doing research, I noticed that it gets lumped in with religious films. I asked Michael about this and he kinda laughed. He is aware of the categorization but doesn’t quite understand it himself. He admits that it’s a spiritual film that relates to deeper philosophical ideas, but he would not refer it it as a religious film.
I asked Michael what he would like to tackle next. He said that there might be some hope in getting funding for Beatrice, the original project he wanted to film. Michele Williams was originally attached to the project, but Michael says he has re-written so much of the film that it’s a completely different role now. That’s a shame because I think Michelle Williams is currently doing some amazing work, and I think she would fit will into Michael’s style.
As you may have noticed, I loved this film. I love it so much that I would like to share it with people. So the first ten people who leave comments will win a free DVD of Illusion. The only catch is that if you love it like I did, you must buy a copy for someone else.