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Finding answers in A2

By Christopher Farah

Actors Nelson Franklin, left, and Christopher Gorham rehearse a scene during filming of the movie "Answer This!" at Ashley's on South State Street.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Answer This!” is an authentic Michigan story about a grad student finally coming of age – when he’s 30. Starring Christopher Gorham (“Covert Affairs”), Arielle Kebbel (“True Blood”), Nelson Franklin (“The Office”), Chris Parnell (“30 Rock”), and Professor Ralph Williams. Written, directed and produced by Ann Arbor-natives Christopher and Michael Farah (“Funny Or Die”).

Photo below right is Christopher Farah with Ralph Williams.

Ann Arbor premiere is 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 8 at the Michigan Theater. Red Carpet Gala begins at 6 p.m. with the “after party” 10 p.m. at the Michigan League.

Filmed in Ann Arbor in partnership with the University of Michigan and set in the world of competitive bar trivia, a group of frustrated academics finally get a shot at beer, women and nerdy redemption when they enter the most important contest of their lives… the First Annual Ann Arbor Trivia Tournament.

The following is Christopher Farah’s first-person account of filming “Answer This.” Farah graduated from the University of Michigan in 1998.

This autumn day is like a million autumn days I’ve spent on the Diag.

Sunlight filtering through the maple leaves by the West Hall Arch. Frisbees sailing through the air, barely missing pedestrians’ heads. Juniors walking into class at the Nat Sci Auditorium, seniors skipping class from the Nat Sci Auditorium, bewildered freshmen looking at the Grad Library thinking this must bethe Nat Sci Auditorium. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Except for the giant film crew all around me. Cameramen, gaffers, grips and best boys! Actors and actresses! Lights and cameras! Action!—Action?

“You’re, uh, supposed to call action now,” my assistant director whispers to me. “I can do it for you, if you want.”

And then I remember—it’s September 2009. I’m not a student here. Not anymore. I’m a director, shooting my first feature film, called “Answer This!”


* * *

The Michigan Film Incentive has sparked a huge filmmaking boom in the whole state, and at U-M. But unlike all the other movies filmed in Ann Arbor—movies that pretend it’s Boston or Berkeley or even L.A.—”Answer This!” is an authentic Michigan story. The main character, Paul Tarson, has spent his entire life in Ann Arbor. He grew up here, he goes to school here, he’s even fallen in love here. Now it’s finally time for him to finish grad school, to choose whether to stay or go—and all he wants to do is play pub trivia with his friends. (That’s right. Trivia. In bars. Addictively fun.) Leaving the University of Michigan—his friends, his family, his girlfriend, his home—is the hardest decision Paul’s ever had to make.

Ironic, because making “Answer This!” is exactly what brought me back to Ann Arbor. Like Paul, I too was born and raised in Ann Arbor, went to college here (’98) and went to college here again, for grad school (’02). Then, eight years ago, I left. Journalism in New York for a few years, screenwriting in Los Angeles for a few more. All to make my mark, to prove myself to the world. Funny, though. For this—my biggest, most ambitious venture so far—I came home.

It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Even now, even with the film incentive, making movies is still a novelty in Michigan, something exotic, something foreign and exciting. In Los Angeles, seeing a film crew is a common experience—too common. If you talk to a business about shooting something on their property, they don’t get excited, they ask you how much money. If a sidewalk is blocked off for a shoot, pedestrians don’t get curious, they get angry. The romance is gone; cynicism reigns.

Exactly the opposite in Ann Arbor. Sure, the costs were lower, but that was just a small part of the difference. Mostly it was the energy, the atmosphere. The people walking by who volunteered to be extras. The shop manager who brought us water and cookies when we spent a hot day shooting on State Street. Even the jaded film crew we brought with us was blown away by the enthusiasm. We crammed them into a house we rented on Church and Hill, and they stayed up drinking and barbecuing every night. It was the college experience some of them had never had. Minus the, um, class.

For me, it was a more personal experience.

We shot at places I’ve known and loved my whole life—Zingerman’s Deli, the Law Quad, Ashley’s Pub (well, since I was 21, anyway). One of our days on the Diag we spent shooting the big fight scene between Paul, played by Christopher Gorham, and his girlfriend, Naomi, played by Arielle Kebbel. It was a very public arena for a heated argument: Paul, accusing Naomi of seeing other people; Naomi firing back that she had never wanted a committed relationship in the first place. Complicating matters even further, she’s a freshman—and he’s her GSI.

I loved watching the passersby pause, watch, and take it in. Their curiosity, their laughter at a funny line, their shock when Naomi storms off in a huff, leaving Paul in the dust. I wondered: are they remembering their own awkward experience in the Diag right now? The time they had a fight with their boyfriend or girlfriend? Or maybe not a fight—maybe the first time they met the person they fell in love with, just feet away from where we’re filming this fictional relationship.

That collision of memories and experiences happened to me every single day of our five week shoot. Filming in the Diag, I remembered coming here as a kid with my dad—another Michigan grad—and playing volleyball with him and my brother. Shooting in the Law Quad, I remembered’ my senior year when I ran the Naked Mile and I streaked buck nekkid through the Law Library. When we shot the Paul and Naomi fight scene, I remembered—yes—having it out with my newly ex-girlfriend there, right after I had found out she had been seeing someone else behind my back. (She was not,however, my student. Ahem.)

And now, adding a new memory to this place: shooting a movie. A movie which, in part, taps into all those other memories. Amazing how something so new can also tap into something so old. And make the old brand-new, all over again.

* * *

A year after we finished shooting “Answer This!” we’re finally finished making it. (This is not an unusually long time. Post-production actually takes about ten times longer than the production itself.) We decided it would only be right to hold the first official screening in Ann Arbor. On the night of Friday, October 8, we’ll show the film at the Michigan Theater, and everyone is invited. After that, we’ll slowly roll out our national campaign—toward the movie’s wide theatrical release.

But even as we move beyond Michigan, the most important measure of this film’s success will be what it means to all the other people who have lived, worked, and studied in Ann Arbor. What is it about the University of Michigan that’s so unique, so special? What is it that keeps bringing us all home?

For me, “Answer This!” answers exactly that.

What about for you? I’d love to hear about the Michigan memories that matter most in your life. What campus spots were the settings for your big moments? What was unique and special about U-M to you? Why do you keep coming “home”? Share your stories in the comments section below. I can’t wait to read them.

This article first appeared in Michigan Today.

Christopher Farah is a writer/director who lives in Los Angeles. He’s written for publications such as The New York Times, Salon, and Jerusalem Report, and he was assistant editor at Foreign Affairs Magazine. He holds a BA from Michigan in English (’98) and an MA in Near Eastern Studies (’02).