Jim Daniels is a word guy. The Carnegie Mellon University professor of English has published eight books of poems and two of short stories, and he's director of CMU's creative-writing program.
But something keeps drawing him back to making movies. No Pets, the feature-length film whose screenplay he adapted from one of his stories, played the 1994 London Film Festival. Now, at the Three Rivers Film Festival, Daniels unveils Dumpster, shot earlier this year from his original screenplay.
Dumpster is a campus-set odd-couple comedy delving into the often papered-over issue of social class. Its inspiration was pulled literally from the garbage. Daniels, whose writing consistently explores his working-class roots, was intrigued by the stories his brother-in-law, a gardener on the CMU campus, told about stuff he found thrown out there -- including most of his own wardrobe and a nearly perfect bicycle for Daniels' daughter (all it needed was one bolt).
Daniels' script centers on two men, both variously disposable. Francis is an aimless college student, long overdue for graduation, who takes to hiding in a big green Dumpster after his girlfriend starts sleeping with one of his frat brothers. Jim is the sardonic campus janitor who finds him there one winter night, and strikes up an often prickly relationship that will -- maybe -- leave each a little wiser.
Daniels likes making movies because, well, it's fun. "I get energized by other people who are actors or cinematographers or sound guys who do what they do well and add something to the product," he says. "For me it's fun to make something where you don't have anything."
Fun enough that Daniels secured a $10,000 faculty-development grant from CMU (which mostly bankrolled the production) and approached renowned Braddock-based filmmaker Tony Buba, who had directed No Pets. Buba was too busy, but recommended John Rice, the veteran local filmmaker who was cinematographer on No Pets.
The cast, meanwhile, was recruited primarily by David Conrad, the Pittsburgh-born TV and film actor who plays the sensitive Francis. Conrad -- who co-stars with Jennifer Love Hewitt in the new CBS series Ghost Whisperer -- agreed to work for a share of any of Dumpster's almost certainly negligible future profits. He also helped recruit the other actors from among local stage talent: Bricolage theater company chief Jeff Carpenter plays Jim; Elena Passarello portrays Jim's wife, Serena; and Patrick Jordan and Alexi Morrissey are Francis' dubiously fraternal frat bros.
Daniels even got more hands-on himself, serving as Dumpster's producer -- a deceptively glamorous title that involved scouting locations, searching Goodwills for costumes and buying food for the cast during the five-day shoot on mini-DV this past March, mostly in and around CMU's campus.
Daniels liked writing directly for the screen, rather than trying to adapt something. "I like the starkness of trying to bring everything out through what people say," he says.
How much people say in Dumpster was a challenge for Rice, directing his first feature-length fiction project in a career built on TV ads and industrial films: Dumpster is very talky, even stagey, built around two-person scenes of Francis and Jim or Jim and Serena, each in a single location, rather limiting visual possibilities. (The script even contains a sly joke about that talky classic My Dinner With Andre.)
"I was sort of handcuffed," says Rice. He added several very brief scenes, some mordantly comic, that break from the main action, but otherwise stuck to the script. "It's that old Roger Corman thing: If you're in a small room, get a lot of angles."
Daniels says that the film's talkiness was addressed by cutting between scenes more frequently to heighten a sense of narrative progression. But he acknowledges it's an unconventional script. "Jeff Carpenter got it right away when he said, 'This is a poem.'"
Perhaps, Daniels quips, it's also like verse in another way. "I'll consider it a success if we get in a few more festivals," he says. "I guess because I started out as a poet, I never expect to make any money."
Still, Daniels says, "I wager more people are going to see this than are ever gonna read any of my books."