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Yeardley: Award-winning Los Angeles indie has its roots in North Carolina

by Mark Burger

Jeff Yeardley’s at a bad place in his life. His wife Susan has just left him, having never gotten over a previous indiscretion of his, and taken their young son Chase with her. He’s also just lost his job after being accused of sexually harassing a co-worker.

Jeff, played by Jesse Bernstein in an awardwinning performance, is the main character in Yeardley, an independent drama laced with lethal black comedy that marks the feature debut of writer/director Heath C. Michaels.

This Saturday, the film will be screened at 7:30 p.m. at the Market Fair Carmike 15 Cinemas (1916 Skibo Road, Suite 300, Fayetteville) with the filmmakers in attendance, followed by an after-party at the Azales Event Facility (1565 Purdue Drive, Suite 201).

The screening was originally by invitation only, with a ticket donation of $100 per couple. With the invitations out and some seats still available, those who would like to attend and make an optional donation are welcome to do so. Tickets for the screening are $20 at the box office. Proceeds from the event will be used to fund a West Coast screening of the film.

The character of Jeff Yeardley is a complicated and often abrasive one, but Michaels was determined to make him empathetic. In many ways, he is the architect of his own predicament, yet outside circumstances force him to further compromise his integrity and his relationships to such an extent that he is forced into making a desperate, final decision.

The film “was inspired by having seen and been around different friends in relationships,” said Michaels, who recently became engaged to be married. “When those relationships end, you usually only get a one-sided take as to what happened.”

Citing the Oscar-winning 1979 adaptation of Kramer vs. Kramer, Michaels “set out to create something that was a good, honest take on divorce” — and yet something different and unexpected. “It seems to me [the kind of] story that has not often been told, and not in this way.”

On the festival circuit, Yeardley has already made waves. At its world premiere at the Santa Fe Film Festival last year, the film was nominated as Best Feature. It didn’t win, but “it left us with a really great feeling,” said Michaels.

Yeardley won the Platinum Award at the 2009 Nevada Film Festival, then scored the Best Actor and the Best Feature First Runner- Up prizes at the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival, followed by its Best Feature victory at the Malibu International Film Festival — “a huge win for us,” said Michaels.

Although filmed in Los Angeles, Yeardley’s roots are very much in the Piedmont Triad region. Michaels, who grew up outside of Greensboro, and producer Paul Papadeas, a Fayetteville native (hence the screening on Saturday), met at the UNC School of Arts School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem in the mid-’90s. The two became fast friends and shared a determination not only to work together in film, but to bring it back to North Carolina. It’s taken a few years, but Yeardley is the first step toward that goal.

Michaels recalls it being drilled into him by his School of Filmmaking instructors that, on a low-budget feature, there will never be any time for rehearsals.

“That is hogwash,” he laughed. “We rehearsed for an entire month, in my apartment mostly. It must happen, because the film really lives and dies by the performances. It’s terribly important knowing that the actors are where they need to be.”

Chief among them is Jeff Yeardley himself, Jesse Bernstein. The actor’s credits include a couple of low-budget thrillers (Death Tunnel, Camouflage) and some small-screen work, but in Yeardley he’s essentially the whole show. “He did a fantastic job,” Michaels said. “I cannot say enough about the actors.”

Despite ignoring the lessons about no rehearsals, Michaels took much of what he learned at the School of Filmmaking and put it to good (and practical) use. The film’s budget, an unbelievable sum far south of the proverbial $1 million that many filmmakers denote as a quintessentially low budget, precluded such niceties as shooting permits.

“We had not a lot of money,” Michaels said, “and it’s a funny thing shooting in LA: Everything requires a permit. Everybody wants their little cut. Certainly, I can understand that.”

Understand, yes. Heed, well…. “It really was ‘run-and-gun’ time,” Michaels said. “We were thrown out of parks, some more than once… we had our cameras covered by coats when we were shooting….”

The film has polarized audiences. Some viewers find the character too unlikable and the film’s ending too shocking. “There is a line of demarcation,” Michaels observed. “It really is two movies. You think it’s going to turn out one way, and then it takes a complete 180-degree turn and subverts your expectations.”

As Michaels noted, the film does elicit a reaction, which is satisfying whether it’s positive or negative. “Some people love it and some people hate it. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.”

For more information about the film, visit the official website: www.yeardleymovie.com.

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