"Trivial Pursuits" director, Ann Arborite Chris Farah, comes home
“I’m staying at my dad’s house,” said Farah, 33, during a break from filming at Ashley’s on Thursday. “That’s part of the whole adventure. I actually pitched a tent in my dad’s backyard to give myself some privacy, and just out of a really misplaced sense of adventure. I spent one night there and I woke up with a chest cold, so I decided that was not a good idea. Nonetheless, the tent remains.”
Farah’s film — produced by Chris’ brother, Mike, 30 — tells the story of a longtime U-M grad student, Paul, who’s facing down his own dreaded graduation when he gets involved in a citywide pub trivia tournament.
And while Farah himself confesses, “I’m horrible at trivia. I stink,” he nonetheless became fascinated with the subculture of trivia tournaments while earning his masters degree in journalism and playing on a team with his trivia-whiz cousin.
“I played [trivia] in a small bar called the Night CafÃ© at Columbia University, and it was filled with really great characters,” said Farah. “Disgruntled academics, disgruntled former academics, disgruntled wannabe academics who never quite made it.”
But to play the role of the main character’s father, Farah approached an academic who’s more than simply “made it.” He drafted Ralph Williams, for whom Farah had been a grad student instructor while earning a masters degree in Near Eastern studies at U-M.
Initially, Farah envisioned Paul’s father as a domineering, gruff presence. “But then I thought, well, let’s try for something better than the clichÃ©,” said Farah. “Ralph Williams was the most unique professor I’d ever come across and very much fit the bill as a star on campus. But he also had that kind of warmth that would make the father a sympathetic and complex character, as opposed to just a jerk.”
U-M's ties to 'Pursuits' don’t end there. Farah’s team hired about 10 production assistants from U-M’s screen arts and cultures department; some of the last bits of shooting for the film will be done at U-M’s first football game (September 5) and on campus during the first day of classes (September 8); and for the first time ever, U-M will allow a film that’s been shot on campus to be identified, in the narrative, as U-M.
Farah thinks his, as well as his parents’, history with the university may have positively influenced the decision.
“And in the movie, it’s a place that means a lot to the main character,” said Farah. “It’s one of the main plots — his relationship to the university and the city, the place that he’s spent his entire life, and he’s having a very hard time leaving. The University of Michigan is not incidental to this story. It kind of is the story. It’s another character.”
Farah wrote 'Pursuits' after moving to Los Angeles and spending a frustratingly long time on an “over-the-top” comedy script that never went anywhere.
“I just thought, why did I move out to Los Angeles in the first place?” said Farah. “It wasn’t just to write things that end up being stillborn. It was to actually make things, create things, so let’s try to do something that we can have control over.”
By “we,” Farah means himself and his younger brother, Mike, who moved to L.A. years ago without knowing a soul. (Mike now works as a producer with Funny Or Die.) Chris had been on a career path toward journalism, and later worked in that field, but he’d long harbored latent dreams of working in the film industry.
“I basically never had the guts to actually do anything about it, and probably wouldn’t have ever gotten up the guts if my brother hadn’t moved out there basically five years before I did,” said Farah.
But before Mike moved to the West Coast, the two brothers spent part of a summer co-writing a script in Angell Hall’s computing center, known among students as the fishbowl.
“He’d sit on one side of the aisle, and I’d sit on the other side, and we’d write alternating scenes and then pass them off to each other and edit each other’s scenes, which was a fascinating process and also, at times, a very contentious process,” said Farah. “When you spend a lot of your childhood fighting with somebody, I think you tend to work out issues by the time you reach adulthood. Or at least, that’s the way it is with us.”
So both brothers ended up pursuing film dreams.
“For people of our generation, who spend so much time watching movies and watching TV, there’s something like that always planted in your brain,” said Farah. “My one friend who actually I know from Michigan, and who’s a filmmaker out in Los Angeles now, put it well, I think, when he said, ‘It used to be that everyone wanted to write the great American novel, but now it’s really, everyone wants to write the great American screenplay.’”
U-M grad and director Chris Farah and his brother, film producer Mike Farah stand by during filming for Trivial Pursuits at Ashley's on State St. on Thursday. Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com