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The Quest For An Unusual Romance

July 22nd, 2009 · 1 Comment

Quid Pro Quo, 2008, poster Quid Pro Quo, 2008, DVD

Quid Pro Quo (2008)
Written by Carlos Brooks
Directed by Carlos Brooks
Produced by Sanford-Pillsbury Productions/ HDNet Films
Running time: 82 minutes

By Joe Valdez

So, What’s This About?
“I don’t remember any of what I’m about to tell you. I only know what the police and coroner reports said.” So begins a personal remembrance from Isaac Knott (Nick Stahl), correspondent for “Public Radio New York”. His editor (Jessica Hecht) shares with him a tip from an anonymous caller — known only as Ancient Chinese Girl — who claims a man entered a bayside hospital and tried bribing an intern to chop off his leg. The tipster wants to meet Isaac, who’s been paralyzed and restricted to a wheelchair since the age of eight, the only survivor of a car accident that killed his parents in upstate New York.

After Ancient Chinese Girl dispatches him to a clandestine gathering of “wannabes” — able bodied men and women who share the unusual desire to be disabled — Isaac finally meets his wily tipster, an art conservator named Fiona (Vera Farmiga). Fascinated by why someone would want to be paralyzed who isn’t, Fiona agrees to tell Isaac what she knows about this underworld if, quid pro quo, he helps her understand what it’s like being disabled. Daffy and unpredictable, Fiona’s complicated feelings for the reporter change when a pair of antique spectators shoes suddenly give Isaac the ability to walk.

Quid Pro Quo, 2008, Vera Farmiga, Nick Stahl

Who Made It?

Carlos Brooks attended Western Washington University as an English major and was later accepted into USC on a merit scholarship to study film and writing. Brooks would win an Abraham Polonsky Award for screenwriting at USC and marry classmate Helen Childress, who was hot as a bottle rocket after authoring the 1994 Winona Ryder/Ethan Hawke flick Reality Bites. Brooks spent the next decade carving out a career as a screenwriter. Among his scripts was a spec called Empire — which Robert Zemeckis was to produce through his company Imagemovers — that took place amid construction of the Empire State Building.

In 2004, Brooks appeared to finally be getting his shot at the director’s chair through HDNet Films, a division of Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment. Mark Cuban is the billionaire who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and once spent a day managing a Dairy Queen in Coppell, Texas after Cuban accused a game referee of being unfit to run a DQ. Sticking his big toe into film financing, Cuban has had an energetic run, producing Good Night and Good Luck, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Bubble, among many others. HDNet Films was launched to develop, finance and produce feature films to be shot in High Definition.

Quid Pro Quo, 2008, Nick Stahl, Rachel Black

How’d They Do It?

The idea that would become Quid Pro Quo began germinating in 2000 with Carlos Brooks, whose focus of study at USC had been Alfred Hitchcock. “I wrote the script just to write. I didn’t write it to direct or anything; I just wanted to write something different. I’ve always wanted to write a detective story, and what this really is is a detective story in disguise. It’s an investigative journalistic piece, and the best detective stories are the ones where the detective ultimately realizes he’s been investigating himself. I would never write an actual detective story — at least I don’t think I would — but that’s what this secretly is.”

Brooks’ original idea involved an agoraphobic and a pair of headphones that gave him access to the outside world, Rear Window style. Googling through disabilities, Brooks stumbled upon the wannabe subculture. “I kind of vectored in on them. I’ve never met anybody who had Body Dysmorphic Disorder — that’s what it’s really called, I guess. I just kind of lurked, and I was fascinated by the tone of their writing. They knew they sounded quote, unquote ‘crazy.’ It’s entirely different talking about something we think is crazy without knowing you’re crazy. They were incredibly self-aware, painfully self-aware and wanted acceptance despite what they were saying.”

Quid Pro Quo, 2008, Nick Stahl, Vera Farmiga

Intended as a writing sample, Quid Pro Quo started attracting interest from directors. Brooks decided he could do no worse himself and working with producers Midge Sanford & Sarah Pillsbury, landed a $2 million commitment from HDNet for his directing debut. He faced a long slog after being greenlit in 2004. Pre-production was shut down for 11 months after Brooks reached an impasse with the producers over casting. For the female lead, Brooks was set on an unknown named Vera Farmiga. “To find an actress who can make that role sympathetic and living and breathing was too good to pass up. When you find the right actor, you stick by them.”

Vera Farmiga mused, “I grew up watching Murder, She Wrote and Love Boat. Quirky detective stories and oddball romances. I imagine initially that’s what drew me. I love romance. I am always on the quest for an unusual romance, and this was it. There always has to be something about the character in the script that really turns my head and Fiona — I have a stiff neck from craning at this one. My initial response was she’s that woman in your life that you are absolutely terrified of but at the same time have to be around. She fascinated me. And the fact that it is just an unusual detective love story, and also a taboo subject that you don’t hear anything about.”

Quid Pro Quo, 2008, Vera Farmiga

Quid Pro Quo began rolling October 2005 for an 18-day shoot in New Jersey. Brooks revealed, “I shot on a Sony 900 camera, and we used the 950 for a few scenes where it was a tight space. My production designer, Roshelle Berliner, and the DP Michael McDonough, and I experimented with shiny metallic surfaces to trick the video lens into thinking it’s film. I don’t know why this works, but it does. It tricks the chip in the video camera into softening those hard video lines and edges. If you walked on the set, you would think it’s the strangest looking place because Isaac’s apartment was full of wallpaper with metallic inlays. But on video, it looks like film. It gives it this Sidney Lumet-circa-The Verdict look, and that’s what I wanted.”

Quid Pro Quo, 2008, Nick Stahl

Joining Vera Farmiga was Nick Stahl, the best John Connor (in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) and the lead in the HBO series Carnivale. Stahl elaborated on the film’s difficult journey. “We actually ended up re-shooting some stuff, and adding a couple of scenes. I think it was the kind of thing that, it was so clear on the page, the story, and the tone of it was so clear, but, for whatever reason, it’s such a different process once you actually film it and then you actually go to start editing it.” He added, “A lot of people didn’t get it, and that was the reason why we had to go back and retool some stuff. Carlos Brooks worked endlessly for so long. He kept cutting it and working at it.”

Screened January 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival, critics went along with Quid Pro Quo, for the most part. Justin Chang, Variety: “An exceedingly odd meeting of the minds (and bodies) occurs in Quid Pro Quo, a strikingly original and provocative first feature from scribe-helmer Carlos Brooks.” Stephen Holden, The New York Times: “After spinning out metaphors of paralysis and eroticism in its characters’ feverish imaginations, Quid Pro Quo decides at the last minute that it has to explain everything. The moment it pulls away from the fantastic, it lands with a thud.” Jenni Miller, Premiere: “Fans of strange love stories and detective thrillers would do well to investigate this indie gem.”

Quid Pro Quo, 2008

Should I Care?

Quid Pro Quo has been unfortunate to draw comparisons to David Cronenberg’s Crash, but I didn’t find anything disturbing about the movie. It’s edgy and a bit dark, but immensely fresh, sharp witted, impeccably well cast and I would even describe this as a film David Fincher might have shot if given only $1.6 million. I don’t care for the title and wonder why Mark Cuban is producing so many movies that barely see the light of day. Distributed by his Magnolia Pictures in June 2008, Quid Pro Quo never expanded beyond four theaters in the United States, grossing $11,864. This movie deserved an attentive publicity campaign and a much better commercial fate.

I liked how Quid Pro Quo defies categorization — if I had to, I’d label it an unusual romantic comedy with mystery — and forced me to both pay attention and react to it, as opposed to just watching passively. The dialogue has a lot of crackle and pop, and for a film with such a grotesque sounding premise, is pretty funny. Rachel Black puts in a cute performance as Stahl’s office buddy. But the chief reason to see this is the daffy Vera Farmiga, who once again spins through a movie like a punk ballerina. Carlos Brooks demonstrates a sharp ear, a terrific eye and great taste not only delivering a solid debut, but executing a film with such a high degree of difficulty.

Your thoughts?

Quid Pro Quo, 2008, Vera Farmiga

Where’d You Get All of This?

“Carlos Brooks, Quid Pro Quo” The Reeler, 20 January 2008

“Local Film School Drop-out Gets into Sundance” By Sam Vicchrilli. The Seatle Times, 25 January 2008

“Nick Stahl” By Terry Keefe. Venice Magazine, March 2008

“Vera Farmiga Offers up Quid Pro Quo By Jenni Miller. Premiere, June 2008

“Interview: Carlos Brooks on Quid Pro Quo
By Matt Singer. IFC. Com, 13 June 2008

Tags: Bathtub scene · Black comedy · Dreams and visions · Mother/daughter relationship · Museums and galleries · No opening credits · Paranoia · Unconventional romance

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Aug 12, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Nice work, Joe – I definitely consider this a movie that was overlooked last year. I actually got to see a premiere of it with Sarah Pillsbury here in Minneapolis, and then it never received an actual theatrical release nearby (though late last summer I saw it available on a hotel PPV menu for $19.95?!?!).

    I found Vera Farmiga entrancing in this role and the ending really worked for me. I knew nothing about this condition and someone who does have it actually left some thoughts on my review:

    Looking forward to the next project by Brooks.

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