On December 16th, in a little-known world called the Internet, via Itunes and VOD, a film of super natural superiority will emerge. The Sublime and Beautiful, both written, directed and starring Blake Robbins (Oz, FlashForward, Sons of Anarchy), is a tragic tale of loss, grief and reckoning- following husband and wife David and Kelly Conrad after losing their children to a drunk driving accident.
The film, which had its world premier at Park City Utah’s Slamdance Film Festival- where it was nominated for Best Narrative Feature- explores the depths and ramifications of an uncompromising sense of loss, masquerading itself as anger. And Robbins so pointedly captures this complexity in his performance, breathing life into the father character while audiences watch as he slowly begins to unravel. I had the pleasure of speaking with this prolific director during a recent press event here in Los Angeles.
“I’ve always found myself drawn to films that dealt with meaning-of-life themes and grief,” he shared. “But more often than not, I would leave the theatre feeling like something was missing, or it didn’t resemble what my experiences were like.”
The experiences Robbins’ referring to would be the loss of his best friend Greg to a brain tumor at the slight age of 27, and almost losing his Aunt Jeannie to a drunk driving accident just six years prior. “There was definitely a loss of innocence because while most kids were just out having a great time, I had already watched Greg experience the final three years of his life, knowing his life was limited,” he said. “So you have a different kind of grief and different kinds of relationships when that happens. And it absolutely impacted me as a human being and as a creative artist.”
One of the impacts that watching his best friend die had on Robbins was it gave him a burning passion and appreciation for life. He went full throttle in his pursuit of an acting career, making significant strides and landing roles like “Tom Halpert” on the NBC’ hit show The Office, and his recurring role as “Dave Brass” on the strikingly original and critically acclaimed HBO series Oz. He’s also guest starred on the FX-hit Sons of Anarchy and he had his Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s The Man Who Had All the Luck, opposite Chris O’Donnell, directed by Scott Ellis. So commitment and follow-through are his default settings, to say the least. And while working as an actor on set, he used the access to learn as much as he could about directing and writing and anything he could get close to, preparing himself for the leap in performance this next phase of his career would require.
“I was building my career as a young actor, and, simultaneously, always watching with a mind’s eye of a future filmmaker,” he commented. “So when it came time to put something down on paper, what kept itching at me was this idea of a family sideswiped by tragedy. I experienced the events of 911; I was living in NYC at the time, and it was very profound for me to be around that. And while I didn’t have any interest in dealing with that issue on a national level, I had this itch inside of me to deal with it on the family level.” Robbins also wanted to set the film in the Midwest, giving audiences a view of how grief, pain and loss can quickly consume a family living in Lawrence, Kansas, with a slightly scaled-down version of life, where family and community is everything.
“I wanted a family that would be accessible to the majority of this country who experience incredibly horrible things all the time,” he said. “And I didn’t want the creative forces pushing me in one direction or another, or having an agenda behind it like creating an Oscar-winning role, which sometimes happens with these movies. And the businessperson in me doesn’t knock that because I understand that, I just didn’t want to have to fight through that. I just wanted to tell a story where the central character is stuck in grief even though most people don’t love a character like that.”
That might be why Robbins places The Sublime and Beautiful under the “niche film” category. He’s not trying to be all things to all people, but to tell a story that will make the difference for those who have found themselves or someone they care about in similar situations. “The huge payoff for me is when people who have experienced enormous grief in their lives due to loss actually see the movie, and the response I get is that it’s so powerful and cathartic for them to experience the other side,” he said. “I get such gratitude from them for telling this version of the events. And they connect in a way that truly honors their experience. And I think that’s the best way to approach a niche film. It becomes a niche film because it’s not for everyone, but for the people who need it, it’s so important.”
Robbins kept the financing of the film niche too, turning to Kickstarter to raise the funds, and incorporating many of the locals in his film while shooting on location as to avoid having to shut businesses down. And it turns out that all his training in TV as an actor couldn’t have served him better when stepping up as a director. “Being a television actor, I just said, ‘Okay, a two-week shoot is going to cost me a third less than a three-week shoot. How can I create a two-week shoot out of this?’” he pondered. “Because in television, the hour-long shows shoot in 8 days. And they got about 55-60 pages. I’ve got 90 pages; if I just stop thinking that the only way to make a movie is the way that movies get made, and start thinking that I can make a movie the way that television shows get made, I can get in 90 pages of content with this approach. And that’s what I did.”
And the cost-effective budget and fast-paced shooting schedule only enhanced the authenticity of the project, specifically the performances. How do we know? Well, so far, The Sublime and Beautiful has won the award for Best Actor at the Milan International Film Festival (MIFF), it received the Best Heartland Feature award from the Kansas City Film Festival, and it’s been honored with the title of Official Selection 2014 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, and the winner of the Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Cinematography awards. Yes, I think that’s one way to measure a film’s effectiveness.
“Great actors elevate the moments, and the moments become of singular importance,” Robbins’ shared. “That’s why you want great actors because no matter what else is going on, they’re going to come in and make sure that it’s the moment that will be the most important thing that’s happening. And as an actor myself, I recognize that. And now as the director, my directing became all about the moments too.”
What’s next for Blake Robbins, the masterful writer, director and actor, is more directing and writing. He’s already been approached to write and direct a film centering on a handy-capped yoga instructor who works with other people with special needs, all from his wheelchair, in order to change their lives, and he’s creating a television series centering around the evangelical church. “And a TV show like that probably won’t make too many people happy, but there’s a lot of great material there for a series,” he commented. He also has a satirical, black comedy about the facade that Hollywood can be and a strong first draft completed on a civil war re-enactment comedy, so the man is certainly not taking a vacation anytime soon.
Meanwhile, what’s certain is that The Sublime and Beautiful will continue to have audiences across the country experiencing that someone gets it. They will be experiencing that someone out there really gets what they’re dealing with so much that they would put themselves on the line to make this film. And Blake Robbins is that person who is making the difference. And the truly remarkable thing about that is that for Robbins’, he’s just doing what works.
“It doesn’t surprise me that many successful film directors started in the manner that I started where you create your own piece of work and you have to just figure it out. And you have to figure out how to take all these components, some of which might be considered restrictive, prohibiting the creative process, and you will have to turn them all in your favor and make them part of your solution. And that’s what I did in order to make this film and make this difference.”
For more information, please visit http://www.thesublimemovie.com/.