In 2001 Paul Cotter watched his father stare up into the sky in the German village of Peenemünde, which the elder Cotter had bombed 60 years before as a 19-year-old Royal Air Force pilot during World War II.
They were on a road trip across Europe with Paul's mother and sister. It had started in England and continued to Schleswig, where his father had lived as a relief pilot after the war; as they approached the Polish border his father proposed an unplanned detour to Peenemünde.
"He'd been a young man, up in a plane looking down at this place where he'd never set foot before," Cotter says. "Now here we were next to an old man on the ground looking up. There was something profound about that in a small way."
That moment became the genesis for Bomber, Cotter's first feature film, a comedy drama that has its Chicago premiere in a weeklong run starting Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. (See also Cliff Doerksen's Critic's Choice.)
Cotter, who lives in LA, says his movie's premiere in Chicago will be a "homecoming of sorts": from 1998 to 2008, he cut his teeth and developed a career here as a director of short films, commercials, and theater.
In Bomber, an underachieving art school grad named Ross (Shane Taylor) drives his parents (Benjamin Whitrow and Eileen Nicholas) to a German village where his father plans to apologize to residents for mistakenly bombing them during the war. Ross spends the trip trying to get his proper British parents to open up emotionally.
Early on, he offers his father a hug. "I'm not giving you a hug," his father scoffs, incredulous. Cotter says his own father "couldn't think of anything more abhorrent than for two men to hug each other. He'd say, 'Do you think when we came back after a night of bombing and we'd almost lost our lives, we'd all get out of the plane and start hugging each other?' For my father's generation, there was a heroism and stoicism. To have a stiff upper lip and not show your emotions was considered an asset."
Cotter grew up in the resort town of Brighton on England's south coast and was the first in his family to attend college, studying geography at the University of Manchester. After graduating in 1989, he returned to Brighton and went on the dole.
"I was quite enjoying the summer, and the unemployment office was pestering me to look for a job," he says. He chose the BBC because it was "notoriously hard to get into." Once a week he'd drop by Brighton's BBC office and ask for a position so that he could report the effort to the unemployment office.
Evidently the BBC mistook this for persistence, and though they still didn't have a paying job for him, they invited him to work as a volunteer reporter. "They gave me a microphone and a tape recorder, and I went out, and it came naturally to me," Cotter says. "My stuff started getting on the air." He did feature stories for the station's magazine show Sussex Scene and interviewed bands including Throwing Muses and Happy Mondays for the rock show Turn It Up.
It was at this point that Cotter decided he wanted to make films—a career he'd never allowed himself to consider before his success with the BBC—but with no art portfolio, he couldn't get into film school in the UK. American schools, though, had more flexible admissions policies, and he actually won a scholarship to Indiana State University in Terre Haute. "You're thinking 'James Dean came from Indiana, it has to be the coolest place on earth,'" he says. "The day I got there, I thought, 'What have I done?' You have Cracker Barrels and McDonald'ses as far as the eye can see, and no discernible culture."
He got an MA in radio/TV/film at Indiana in '93, then enrolled in the MFA film program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "I could have been in Outer Mongolia studying film, and I would have been happy," he says. "But on a personal level, I found it a bit weird. There's a bunch of pickup trucks with gun racks on the back, with bumper stickers that said 'If you burn the flag, I'll kick your ass.' I came from Europe, where everything is up for discussion, and I ended up in this culture where you get a pool cue on the back of your neck if you want a debate."
In '97, while he was finishing his degree, Cotter moved to Nashville to work in a camera rental house, quickly finding gigs as a camera assistant on music videos for the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus and Jo Dee Messina.
Cotter got his MFA in 1998 and moved to Chicago, working as a camera assistant on local independent films like Kwik Stop, Serious Business, and MC5: A True Testimonial. He collected "short ends," bits of film left over from movies he'd worked on, and by '99 he had enough raw stock to put together three 30-second spec commercials, including an antismoking PSA called "Stupid." The Illinois attorney general's office released "Stupid" to TV stations, Cotter won a public service award from the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, and "Stupid" wound up in the permanent collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art. On the strength of "Stupid," Cotter got representation from the local agency Z Group Films in 2000 and launched a commercial directing career that's included work for Energizer, JCPenney, Dodge, Jeep, and Lowe's.
He had a temporary work visa but no green card, so he split his time between Chicago and London for the next several years. "I'm very fond of the city," he says of Chicago. "It's a place where you can expand and try things out and get things done. There's always an uphill struggle because it's under the shadow of LA and New York. That makes for a sleeves-rolled-up spirit that's nice to tap into both with films and theater."
While Cotter was living part-time in England his father decided he wanted to visit Schleswig, which led to the 2001 family road trip that inspired Bomber. It "seemed like a good idea at the time," he says, "but the reality is you're stuck in a car with your parents for three weeks. If you get into an argument, there's no escape. You end up talking things through. After three weeks I found I'd been put through a tumble dryer of emotions."
He knew there was the kernel of a screenplay in the vacation, but it would be a few years before he had enough distance from the experience to turn it into Bomber."
In 2003 Cotter's short film Jeff Farnsworth, shot in Chicago, was a finalist in the Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival, in which ten semifinalists made shorts films in New York featuring Chryslers. Cotter was one of five finalists, who were flown to LA to develop a feature script on the Universal lot; the winner got a million-dollar production deal at Universal Studios with Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) producing. It's the closest Cotter's come yet to securing a significant budget for his films.
Over the next several years he had a number of meetings about Bomber with the UK Film Council, a government financing agency, but they never went anywhere.
"I've never been able to make money out of my art," Cotter says. "I've come to make peace with that."
Wanting to spend more time working with actors than movies' tight schedules usually allow, Cotter resolved to improve his directing chops by helming a few plays. His first was Donald Lewis's Good Girl for Bailiwick in '03, followed by Richard Dresser's Wonderful World at Infamous Commonwealth in '04 and Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park at Village Players Theatre in '07.
Cotter's short film Estes Avenue, set in Rogers Park, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, the same year that mumblecore—a new genre of ultra-low-budget, often improvised films—became a phenomenon and microbudget movies like Joe Swanberg's Kissing on the Mouth and Mark and Jay Duplass's The Puffy Chair were generating major buzz. Cotter befriended those filmmakers on the festival circuit, and through them discovered another way of making movies.
"I'd been educated that the moment you started the camera you were counting dollars," he says. "Suddenly there was this new generation of filmmakers who didn't have that worry at all. They grew up with [Sony] PD150 [digital video cameras]. To them you press the 'on' button and do what you want. They were making these features for $10,000 to $30,000 that were very viable."
Cotter says Mark Duplass encouraged him to apply the mumblecore approach to Bomber. "He talked me through how they made Puffy Chair: reduce the crew to five to seven people, work with natural light and natural locations, house and feed everyone and make it as enjoyable an experience as possible, and roll with it."
That year Cotter participated in a workshop at the Institut Francais in London with Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami about directing professional and nonprofessional actors together. That was the final piece of the equation. In 2007 he chose a date nine months in the future and resolved that on that date he'd begin shooting Bomber with whatever resources he had. "If I have $10 in my pocket," he told himself, "it will be a $10 feature."
Ultimately he raised $27,000 for the shoot, and in 2008 he moved to Germany with his girlfriend, Nina Schloemerkemper, who left her job in England to be the film's production manager. They rented two farmhouses near the village of Bad Zwischenahn to house Bomber's three British actors and seven-person crew.
A local newspaper ran an article about the production, and 200 villagers who wanted to be in the film turned up for interviews.
"A cow farmer comes in and says 'I'll be an extra,'" Cotter recalls. "I thought, 'brilliant, I'll write a scene with cows."
He never showed a script to the nonprofessional actors. "I had a conversation with them and told them what I wanted them to say," Cotter says. "That's a technique I learned from Kiarostami."
Cotter enjoyed the unusual creative luxury of shooting the film in story order, rather than scrambling the sequence to accommodate the demands of production. The small size of the operation allowed him the flexibility to change a scene or location on the fly.
Bomber premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2009 and has been picked up by the art-house distributor Film Movement, which is currently taking it on a limited theatrical tour.
Now Cotter, who got his green card in 2007 and lives in LA, is working on a screenplay for the UK Film Council and a radio play for the BBC. They're both humorous dramas called Down and Out in Dover, "about an architect who goes from prodigy to pariah in a night and ends up in the arsehole of England," he says. "The irony is I moved to the States and started getting commissioned for work in the UK. That's fine with me if I live in LA and occasionally go back to London. I'd rather have it be that way than the other way round. My film community has always been [in the U.S.]. My heart has always been in America."