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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 20, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 21
2016 Seattle International Film Festival

An interview with Miles writer/director Nathan Aldoff
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2016 Seattle International Film Festival

An interview with Miles writer/director Nathan Aldoff

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MILES WORLD PREMIERE SIFF Cinema Egyptian 5/21 @ 7pm & 5/22 @ 1:30pm

The 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) came to life yesterday evening with the North American premiere of Woody Allen's latest romantic confectionary treat, the star-studded Café Society, and continues on for another 24 days featuring over 400 narrative features, documentaries and shorts from all over the globe. Special events this year include a tribute to Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen on June 11, while former 'Saturday Night Live' scene-stealer Molly Shannon sits down for an afternoon Q&A session on May 22 at 4:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Egyptian right before a screening of the Gay-themed comedy Other People.

It's one of 28 films with LGBT themes scheduled to play during this year's SIFF, another of which, the 1999-set coming-of-age jaunt Miles, also features Shannon in a key role. She plays Pam, a mom doing her best to help her smart, if reclusive filmmaker wannabe son Miles (played by newcomer Tim Boardman) achieve his dreams. But after a tragedy leads to the revelation that the teenager's college fund has been decimated, the youngster decides to go out for the girls volleyball team via a loophole in the Title IX statute, hoping that by doing so he can attract the attention of college recruiters and maybe earn a scholarship.

Never quite going where I expected, avoiding many coming out and sports-themed narrative clichés that easily could have sent the film spiraling into an emotionally melodramatic tailspin it never would have recovered from, Miles is a pleasingly character-driven affair that caught me entirely off guard. Featuring wonderful performances from Shannon, Boardman and Paul Reiser, building to a touching, bittersweet conclusion that's notable for its nuanced simplicity, writer/director Nathan Adloff's second feature (his first being 2012's Nate & Margaret) is rather wonderful, and as such ends up being an early festival highlight I hope audiences take the time to see.

With Miles having its World Premiere tomorrow night at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian, I spoke briefly with Adloff a few hours before he was scheduled to catch a plane to Seattle. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, let's start with the obvious question with the easy answer: Are we excited about heading to Seattle for the big World Premiere of Miles?

Nathan Aldoff: I am. I love Seattle. I was there four, maybe five years ago for the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and just loved it. I grew up in Illinois and I'm used to the rain, I just love it. We don't get much of it here in L.A. Looking forward to hopefully getting some overcast skies.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And, I mean, this is a big deal. Having a World Premiere here, in Seattle, during this festival.

Nathan Aldoff: I'm so excited for a number of reasons. Seattle's festival is just so massive. More than that, it's a predominately straight festival, and to come out of the Gay and Lesbian film world, and have a new movie that could easily be pigeonholed in a way that it would only be seen via the Gay and Lesbian festival circuit; which is great and amazing, don't get me wrong; it's just really nice we're going to have a much broader and bigger audience here. Right from the get-go. It's nice to come out of the gate like this by premiering at such a big festival.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Not only that, but it also happens when they're honoring Molly Shannon, one of your film's stars, the very next night.

Nathan Aldoff: It's awesome. It's wonderful timing. I'm so happy for her. It will be a nice event, I would think, and while they're not showing Miles that night [SIFF is showcasing Shannon's other picture, another Gay-themed comedy-drama, Other People, during the event] I'm sure they'll be talking about it. But it's a great honor for her. She deserves it. I can't wait to go.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Tell me where Miles came from. What was it that inspired you and your co-writer Justin D.M. Palmer to give this rather unorthodox coming-of-age story life?

Nathan Aldoff: It's very much loosely based on my own life in the late 1990s growing up in a small town in Illinois. I actually did play a season on the girls volleyball team, and it was for the same reason as the one in the film. My school was so small, we couldn't have a boys team. There just wasn't demand or funding for one. Similar to the reasons behind the implementation of Title IX, they had to let me play.

Unlike the film there wasn't a big stink about it. That's very much played up in our story because it's just better that way dramatically. But also, like in the movie, my mom was a teacher at the school, and because everyone loved her, they sort of liked me by default, I guess. They let me get away with some things. But I also just really liked playing volleyball. It was fun.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Were there other elements you drew out of your own life that you drew from?

Nathan Aldoff: I always seem to draw from my own life experiences when writing. Justin and I did that on our first film, Nate & Margaret, and we did that here as well. When my father passed away, we found out afterwards that he spent my college money on a sports car for a lady friend of his. That was the main reason why I didn't get to go to college in Chicago. That just seemed like the kind of moment that we could meld with the volleyball story; that the two could go together in an interesting way.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And the cliché is to write what you know, but writing what you know can also be very difficult from a personal perspective. You've now done that twice. How hard is it to revisit some of these memories whether they be positive or negative? Is it difficult?

Nathan Aldoff: The writing is sometimes difficult, true, but it's even stranger filming it. Filming and reenacting my father's death is one of the more surreal things I've ever experienced. I think, as time passes, the writing gets easier. But, it is interesting, that's for certain. I think you just have to be really open to not sticking to what happened 100-percent. You have to be flexible. You have to be creative. I think the most important thing is just being open because the end result is wanting to make the best movie you can, and if that means using the truth of your life then use it. If it means, making things up, then you make them up.

Sara Michelle Fetters: One of the nice things about the movie is that you avoid many of the traditional clichés, especially inspirational sports film clichés, that could have sent your film spiraling down into emotionally manipulative melodramatic treacle.

Nathan Aldoff: The important thing for Miles is not that he is an amazing volleyball player. I think it was important that we made it realistic; that he would be good enough that the idea that he had a shot at a volleyball scholarship was realistic, but at the same time, the last thing I wanted to do was to make a sports movie. This was just the path he needed to be on. If there had been a full-ride chess scholarship, it's likely he'd have decided to play chess if he thought he was any good.

I think it broadens the appeal of the movie, especially if people are looking for a story that has a sports angle to it. But it was never my intent to make a movie that revolved entirely around the volleyball element.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I do think the key to the movie's overall success is, that as important and integral to the plot as Mile's journey might be, you don't shortchange Pam, his mother. You allow Molly Shannon the room to create a complex, believable character who has to go through her own transformation right alongside that of the one her son is going through.

Nathan Aldoff: It was always very conscious and very at the forefront that [Justin and I] made sure that Pam stood on her own as a character. I think she actually changes the most during the movie. Miles is sort of hell-bent from the beginning, convinced he's doing the right thing and trying to get everyone to go along with him. Pam does a full 180 by the end, maybe even had a better grasp as to what a healthy relationship really is. She sees Miles as more of an adult.

And, of course, when someone as incredible as Molly Shannon steps into that role, you can't help but let her steal the movie.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And, it's not just her. Stephen Root, Yeardley Smith, Ethan Phillips, Missi Pyle, even Paul Reiser, who never seems to work near as much as he could anymore, you managed to assemble a pretty stellar supporting cast.

Nathan Aldoff: I'm still pinching myself. Honestly. We shot this movie just over a year ago, and I'd only made this one tiny, tiny movie in Chicago previously, so getting these people onboard was so surreal. Having such a wonderful casting director [Rich Delia], someone that gets their calls answered, it really was like, everyday, someone was coming onto the set for a day or two that I grew up watching. The movie is very '90s, and a lot of these actors were very popular in the '90s, and I think that is a very cool thing. But, yes, I did keep standing back on occasion and was like, who am I to be the one telling Paul Reiser, or Missi Pyle, or Yeardley Smith what to do? It was amazing. Life changing.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And in the middle of all these seasoned veterans you drop a newcomer like Tim Boardman as Miles. He's really quite good here, isn't he?

Nathan Aldoff: He is! I'm glad you say that. He's such a terrific young actor. We searched high and low for Miles. We sent calls out everywhere. We got tapes from everyone. His just always stuck out. It was important to me to cast someone of the right age, as it's always distracting to me when a 30-year-old plays a teenager. But it's also really hard to find someone that's this young who is also really good. Tim really is that good.

Sara Michelle Fetters: What's it like to watch a young actor like Tim essentially play your life? I get that this is a fictional story and all but, as you already said, there are a number of moments that are pulled directly from your own childhood and high school memories. Tim is essentially playing you. That has to be pretty surreal.

Nathan Aldoff: It was very surreal. With the true story elements, it was something I sort of had to get over after the first day or two. It basically faded away after a time, especially as I focused more and more on what it was we were doing. You sort of just kick into this other gear, this other mindset. But, yes, it was strange. The house we shot in? It was pretty much ready to shoot right away, and it did remind me a lot of the one I grew up in. So, shooting there? Shooting in a version of my own bedroom? The AOL dial up internet [***change to Internet] we were using? Beanie Babies? Tim's performance? All of these things, they brought back a lot of random flashbacks and memories from my own high school days.

Sara Michelle Fetters: The period setting is important, I think, because it allows for an understanding of Miles that you might not be able to have otherwise. While it is treated as something of a general given that he is Gay, while he is obviously out to his parents, it isn't like he can actually come out in the way we see so many young people doing today. He can't say, 'I am Gay.' It's a rather beautiful, if incredibly thin, line you're able to traverse as Miles attempts to finish high school and hopefully escape to college in Chicago.

Nathan Aldoff: This is an important element. I think there is a time and place for movies that are coming out stories that deal with that experience exclusively, but this, as well as my last movie, the lead character's sexuality is always just a character trait and not the reason the narrative exists. It's a matter-of-fact thing that is established and maybe addressed in a scene or two, but it's never the main thing. This isn't the main plot. It was important to me to have Miles be Gay and that be okay. We didn't want there to be this big sob story around it. I came out, my parents were angry, I got beat up, all this stuff happened; we've seen that story. I didn't feel the need to tell it again. I'd rather have all that be established and just go from there. That's what I find interesting.

Sara Michelle Fetters: With that in mind, what do you think the overall state of the LGBT film industry is right now? What makes it still important? Is it still important?

Nathan Aldoff: That's an interesting question. I do think a lot of Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals are now in the place where most straight festivals are, that they are showing films with LGBT characters but in many ways those characters and those themes are not the main part of the story. I think we're in a place where things are leveling out, the filmmakers are starting to tell stories that are more inclusive of all types of characters. I think that's a good thing.

Sara Michelle Fetters: With Miles, at the end of the day, what do you want viewers to take away from the film? What do you hope they are talking about?

Nathan Aldoff: I think this is a universal story. I think it is a movie that people straight, Gay and everything in-between can relate to. I hope they will take away that this is a story about not walking backwards in life, not giving up what you want and doing the things you think are the best things for you, not giving in when others tell you to do the opposite. I think Miles is a story about going for what you truly believe in and that it's okay to not go down the same set path everyone around you is. Stick to your guns. Go after what you really want. Be unpredictable. Be you.

The 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival runs until June 12, 2016 with screenings in various venues throughout the city and the Pacific Northwest including showcases in Kirkland, Renton, Shoreline and Bellevue. Early highlights that I would recommend include Whit Stillman's 'Love & Friendship,' James Schamus' 'Indignation,' Matt Ross' 'Captain Fantastic' with star Viggo Mortensen in attendance, Mike Birbiglia's 'Don't Think Twice,' Sion Son's gonzo 'Tag,' animated import 'Long Way North' and the demonic midnight thriller 'Another Evil.' A full schedule, venue information and ticketing prices can be found by going to the festival website at www.siff.net.

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2016 Seattle International Film Festival

An interview with Miles writer/director Nathan Aldoff

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