Students and faculty of a certain age may be familiar with seeing the face of retired English Prof. Ralph Williams around campus. But in recent weeks he’s been increasingly prominent in a different incarnation: as an illustration adorning a bright yellow canvas, the words “Yea/Nay?” displayed beneath his grinning visage.
Friday at 7:30 and 10 p.m.
The posters are promoting the new film “Answer This!” (formerly titled “Trivial Pursuits”), a feature-length production centering around a grad student immersed in bar trivia. The film was shot entirely in Ann Arbor and places Williams in a featured role. It’s premiering at the Michigan Theater tonight and promoting Williams’s participation to the fullest extent, even marketing T-shirts featuring his face.
“Sometimes I wonder if our main contribution to society is going to be getting him on T-shirts and people are going to forget about the movie by like next year,” joked writer-director Chris Farah in an interview with the Daily. “People love that shirt.”
Farah, a University alum who graduated in 1998 with an English degree and returned in 2002 for his master’s in near-eastern studies, put together the film with the help of his brother Mike, a co-producer who is the president of production at the humor website Funny or Die. The brothers were granted permission to film on campus and use the the University as its setting — a first for any production — and received full cooperation during the shoot that took place in fall 2009.
Several persistent e-mails were all it took for Farah to convince Williams to take the role — his first in a film. Farah was not only a former student of Williams as an undergraduate but also a graduate student instructor for his class, which led to a role-reversal when it was Farah’s turn to direct his former teacher.
“It was, as I heard the phrase, a ‘fast-learning experience,’ ” Williams told the Daily.
He added that because he was playing a character based so heavily on himself, with his mannerisms and personality, he occasionally had disputes with Farah over the direction his character, Dr. Elliot Tarson, should take.
“I can, I think, play a person doing wrong things, but it’s hard for me to play myself doing things I would never do,” he said, referring to the fact that the character is portrayed trying to exert control over the life of his son (Chris Gorham, TV’s “Covert Affairs”).
“My great fear, you see, is that my son, who will be here this Friday seeing the film, will say, ‘Yup, that’s my dad,’ ” Williams added, laughing. “I would be deeply chagrined.”
The production was granted access to filming locations previously off-limits to movie crews, like the inside of Michigan Stadium during a game. With the help of Lee Doyle, director of the University’s Film Office, scenes were filmed in the packed Big House during the 2009 season opener against Western Michigan University.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a screening when I see that, that I don’t get choked up in some capacity,” Farah said.
The University was also surprisingly receptive to scenes in the film depicting certain other student traditions, he said, like sex in the stacks at the Graduate Library.
“They actually went for it. That was the one thing that I was worried that they could protest,” Chris said. “We shot it in the frickin’ library … I’m sure if we had gotten funky or something like that, they would’ve said something.”
“I have always been aware that my students go to the library and that some of the things they do there involve study, but I had no idea of the particular range of things,” Williams deadpanned, laughing. “So the sex in the stacks, apparently. … That was new to me.”
In lieu of an official distribution deal for the film — though the Farahs have already sold the international rights — tonight’s pair of screenings is being billed as the “Ann Arbor premiere.” It’s the first time “Answer This!” will be shown to a paying audience, and test-screening-style questionnaires will be distributed so viewers can play a hand in further improving the film in preparation for its submission to the Sundance and SXSW festivals next spring.
“It seemed appropriate — for it to be a Michigan movie — to have Michigan audiences really have a hand in shaping that,” Chris said.
Asked whether he was worried the film’s appeal would be limited to audiences in Michigan, he pointed to the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, an Ohio State graduate who oversaw “Answer This!” for ratings consideration and loved the film.
“I’d like to think that there’s kind of a certain Midwestern pride that hopefully the movie plays on a little bit that people from any town anywhere in America would be able to appreciate,” Chris said.
Still, the film is a self-professed “love letter to Ann Arbor,” with a crew comprised largely of University students, and its promotional campaign is embracing the city. A short film contest also entitled “Love Letters to Ann Arbor” encouraged people to submit their own filmed tributes to the city. The winning filmmaker, LSA senior David Merian, will have his short included as a bonus feature on the eventual DVD.
Made under the state of Michigan’s film tax incentive, the movie is catching the wave of the local movie boom. And thanks to its well connected producers, the story of a University graduate student unwilling to leave the city stands a chance of finding wide success, a rare feat in today’s crowded motion picture industry. But first the filmmakers have to find success at home.
“If people from Michigan don’t like this movie, we’re kind of screwed,” Chris said.
Leaning forward in his chair, the always-optimistic Williams assured, “Yeah, we’re gonna look good.”