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Dostoyevsky with an iPhone Camera

Posted September 12th, 2012

Festival Blog contributor Richard Bon lives in Northern Liberties with his wife and daughter. He posts original flash fiction of his own or by a guest writer every other Monday on his blog, liminalfiction.com.

He’s written plays, films, and television shows, and taught others about all of the above. But his newly produced seventy-seven minute movie, co-directed by and starring Seth Reichgott, is the product of a more than twenty years of thinking, and is the first full length film he’s produced himself from soup to nuts. The man is Larry Loebell, and the film he’ll debut as part of Philly Fringe is Dostoyevsky Man.

In his Mount Airy home, Larry discusses the evolution of this one-actor movie where Seth delivers all of its lines in the form of a monologue spoken into his smart phone. True to his art, Larry shot the entire film on his own iPhone. As he puts it, “The reality and the fiction of the piece is that he’s talking into his phone, the actor and the character he plays.” Interior footage was taken in Larry’s basement and at Arcadia University, with exteriors shot around Mount Airy and again at Arcadia, where Larry teaches playwriting and dramaturgy (he also teaches film history at University of the Arts).

After the jump: The history of man. Dostoyevsky Man.

Though today Larry lectures in college classrooms, he sat on the other side of the podium when he wrote the first incarnation of Dostoyevsky Man in the mid 1980s, which became a short film with a five-person cast. In the early 1990s, he adapted that film into a full length play, the script of which was a semi-finalist in the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild/Julie Harris Playwright Competition and also the Cleveland Public Theater Festival of New Plays in 1993. Then the Man went dormant until this year.

What made Larry decide to remake Dostoyevsky Man the way he did for Fringe? Like most artists, even with his extensive and diverse résumé, Larry wants people to be able to see his work and seeks inexpensive means to make it accessible. “It was a practical decision to test the waters about whether this is a viable way to put out work,” he says. Larry and Seth shot the film in multiple takes for multiple scenes, working five hour days, and then edited it down to approximately a quarter of their total footage.

Perhaps one reason they were able to work so smoothly together, maintaining a relatively low shooting ratio, is that they’ve known each other since 2000. They met while Larry was literary manager and dramaturg at InterAct Theater Company, and according to Larry, Seth was “terrific” in Larry’s play The Ballad of John Wesley Reed, produced by Theater Catalyst in 2005. Larry didn’t consider anyone else for the sole role in his new movie; in fact the idea for the project and the idea to cast Seth came simultaneously. Says Larry, “Seth has a certain intellectual gravitas and disturbed humanity” required to portray Gilbert Findlay, the protagonist in Dostoyevsky Man, a college professor who loses his teaching job and then takes hostages in a deranged effort to win it back.

Fictional professor Findlay’s self-destructive reaction to being fired helps explain the name Larry chose for the flick. Literary giant Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great 19th-century Russian novelist, wrote characters whose personal ambitions and desires often led them to justify strange, usually self-defeating acts. “I’ve been enamored with Dostoyevsky for a long time,” Larry tells me, “particularly Notes From Underground.” Often taught by college professors as an introduction to Dostoyevsky’s work, an unnamed character (aka the Underground Man) narrates the book, taking us on an existential journey through three main events.

Larry created the storyline as an “homage to difficult professors,” adding that in his studies he found that the “people from whom [he] learned the most were the ones who were most demanding,” further describing these types of professors as those who ask students to go “beyond [their] capabilities,” want students to “live up to something,” and make students “think about things [about which] they wouldn’t otherwise have thought.” He also says he realized that many of these professors who he “loved dearly were slightly mad.” Ironically, the name he chose for the fictional professor in Dostoyevsky Man, Gilbert Findlay, is the real name of one of the “most sane” professors Larry ever had, and one of his favorites, an English professor and Larry’s thesis advisor while getting his MA in creative writing at Colorado State University.

While Seth’s character is based on an amalgam of qualities Larry imagines for professors who would teach a book like Notes from Underground, the action of the film “reflects the story” of the book’s three main events, Larry offers. The events in the novel, described vaguely, are the Underground Man’s encounter with a police officer, his visit to a brothel, and his awkward conversation with a young lady. For fans of the book, it will be interesting to see how Findlay’s experiences in the movie compare to those of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. One thing we know is that once Findlay grabs a gun and takes hostages, anything can happen (As a point of clarification, the movie’s start to finish monologue consists of Findlay’s retelling of his story, not the hostage situation unfolding in real time. –RB).

Though this is Larry’s first time producing a Fringe show in his own name, he’s worked as dramaturg for New Paradise Laboratories in 2005 and 2011. He calls Fringe a “unifying event” and compares the feeling around the city during Fringe as a feeling of being temporarily “taken out of life.” For seventy seven minutes during Dostoyevsky Man, viewers will have that chance, to be taken out their own lives and submerged in the life of a fictional professor who cared too much about teaching to let go without a fight.

Dostoyevsky Man runs September 14 at Connelly Auditorium at The University of the Arts, Terra Building, 8th Floor, 211 South Broad Street, Center City. 7:00 pm, $9. It also runs September 16 at the Spruance Theater at Arcadia University, 450 South Easton Road Glenside. 7:00 pm, $9.

–Richard Bon

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