Petra Wright in Laura Smiles, directed by NYU alum Jason Ruscio
The real-life melodrama behind Laura Smiles
By Steven Snyder
Its been a long journey from that cold night when director Jason Ruscio stood in downtown Manhattan, holding a camera trained on a burger joint, to the warm evening last Friday, when his movie, Laura Smiles, finally opened in its first New York theater. The film was a hit at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, where the influential industry publication Variety dubbed the work a possible indie American Beauty, and Ruscio, a graduate of New York University, said he has been a bit frustrated with the grueling and prolonged festival-to-theater experience. Reached in southern California where he now calls home, only two days before the film was set to premiere at City Cinemas Village East some 2,700 miles away, Ruscio seemed ready to burst with anticipation: You now, I may just walk into the airport on Friday and fly out on an impulse, to be honest with you he said. After all this time, its finally opening in New York. How can I not be there?
Given the autobiographical nature of the film, and the way its themes parallel the recent changes and upheavals in Ruscios life, his excitement is not unwarranted. Living in New York City for the majority of his 20s, and falling in love with Petra Wright, who stars as the lead character in Laura Smiles, Ruscio, 37, later moved to southern California, where his marriage to Wright hit bumpy times and fell apart. All of which parallels one of the movies central themes, as Laura Smiles segues from the hopeful and idealistic story of two young Manhattan twentysomethings, Laura and Chris, to a second romance years later between an emotionally scarred Laura and an uninspiring businessman who runs an insurance agency in the suburbs. Essentially a story about one womans inability to get over a devastating loss early in her life, the movie also has a few things to say about the nature of parenthood, adultery, suburbia and the turbulent conflict between money and happiness.
It was written on the heels of the years Petra and I were together, Ruscio recalls, saying this was the first script he had ever written with a female protagonist and insisting that he was the one to blame in regards to the couples unsuccessful domestic existence in California. I think it will resonate with people who have caught a glimpse of living an inauthentic existence, who know something about repressed pain in our past and the way it affects our present claustrophobia.
While their romantic relationship fell apart, Ruscio said that his friendship with Wright, as well as the strength of their creative partnership, has never been stronger. Theres no other person who could have played this part, Ruscio said of Laura, a character he had written with Wright in mind. Despite whats happened, were still as close as human beings can be, and shes such a professional that she jumped at the possibility there was zero reluctance.
Singled out during his days at New York University as a student filmmaker, Ruscio was awarded the student Academy Award for the 25-minute short film Eclipse, a black-and-white story about a young boy who survives a firing squad that enjoyed a special screening at the Telluride Film Festival. Recalling those early days, he said he has long had a sense of nostalgia for New York City, and that he deliberately wanted to film Laura Smiles New York segments differently from the later sequences set in suburbia. Using lower grade digital video to give those memories from Lauras New York past a grittier feel, Ruscio said he intentionally chose to present the Big Apple less as a sprawling metropolis than as a series of small corner bars, off-off-Broadway stages and, in the films most moving scene, a late-night hamburger stand. Its here, not atop the Empire State Building, that Chris proposes to Laura amid the grease and grime of a hamburger joint, two broke but hopeful souls find their better halves.
Many film writers have been impressed with Laura Smiles complicated structure, with how the movie jumps between time, locales and emotional states with sophistication and ease. Ruscio said its those jarring jumps forward and backward in time that give the New York scenes such resonance (the calm before the storm, so to speak), and which make the storys first and last scenes, both set in a grungy new York diner and both closing with a smiling Laura, such a complicated one-two punch. Noting that the script came to him easily, and that he mapped out all of the plots twists and turns from the first draft, Ruscios enthusiasm for the movie, and its sprawling three-year journey, is obvious and infectious despite all the setbacks and successes in both his personal and professional lives, he is still ecstatic about the work of art hes crafted and appreciative for the chance to engage audiences back in his old neighborhood. Im not sure what Im working on next, hopefully another collaboration with Petra, a screenplay I wrote several years back that started to get off the ground, Ruscio said. I get frustrated sometimes that things arent moving faster, but thats a reality about this business you come to accept. Most importantly, we have to enjoy our lives, and I have done that completely. I feel very fortunate, to be able to make movies and have them hit the screen and know that people will be getting lost in this world. Its indescribable.