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'Groundhog Day' actor Stephen Tobolowsky set for Hot Springs film fest

Actor/narrator accompanies documentary at Hot Springs film fest

By Karen Martin

This article was published September 25, 2015 at 2:25 a.m.

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Stephen Tobolowsky, one of the hardest working character actors in Hollywood with more than 200 television and film acting credits over the past 40 years, has the stage all to himself in David Chen’s documentary The Primary Instinct, which will open the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival on Oct. 9.

Stephen Tobolowsky, one of the hardest working character actors in Hollywood with more than 200 television and film acting credits over the past 40 ye...

All movies are engaged in telling stories. Then there's The Primary Instinct, a movie that tells a story about storytelling, as perceived by actor and master storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky.

The documentary will screen Oct. 9, the opening night of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Tobolowsky will be there.

Who's Stephen Tobolow­sky, you ask? Just take a look at his photo and you'll recognize him. The Dallas native, who's 64, has been in more than 200 films and TV shows during the last 40 years, including The Goldbergs, Justified, Californication, The Last Ride (directed by Arkansas native Harry Thomason), Groundhog Day, Glee, Memento, John From Cincinnati and Deadwood.

The 73-minute film, directed by David Chen, centers on a mesmerizing performance by Tobolowsky at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, bookended by segments in which the actor describes his process and what storytelling means to him in fascinating detail. When the camera cuts from Tobolowsky to the audience, you won't see anybody scrolling through a cellphone or gabbing with a seatmate. Their attention is totally focused on the man on the stage as he masterfully guides them through vignettes that range from poignant and funny to absurd and heartbreaking, all connected because they are intensely personal.

"It sort of crept in the back door," he says about his craft. "I'm guessing I always liked telling stories. I won a storytelling contest in sixth grade about a ghost ship, an amazing mystery with other ramifications. I always got that reward, the carrot, not the stick."

Then, he continues, "when I was in my 20s in Los Angeles, when we'd have people over I would start telling stories about things that happened to me that were weird and odd and strange. I'd regale people, but not with what I would call stories; more like anecdotes, what TV sitcoms call the 'high moment.' Sometimes I would tell other people's stories."

Cinematographer Robert Brinkman, a close friend of Tobolowsky, soon cornered the actor and told him he wanted to get him on film telling stories. "I thought it sounded like watching paint dry," Tobolowsky says. "And there was no HD [high-definition] video around then. A story would have to fit into an eight-minute time frame or you're going to run out of film."

Now, he says, you can film extended takes on a 50-minute memory card without stopping, which completely changes the content.

Nevertheless, Brinkman won, directing, producing and serving as cinematographer on 2005's Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party. "In Birthday Party, I was telling true stories from my life in eight- to 10-minute categories," Tobolowsky says. "Not other people's stories. I began to have more reliance on telling true stories, as in from my point of view. By doing that, you can't fill in other points of view because you just don't know."

The next stage, he says, was in 2008 "when I had what my doctor called a 'fatal accident' while horseback riding in Iceland," resulting in a neck broken in five places and the need to wear a neck brace for almost four months. "With a broken neck you have a lot of time on your hands. One thing I could do, I could write. So I started writing true stories for my two boys [from the perspective] from their dad who passed away from an accident in Iceland. Along the way, I developed two other audience members: my youngest son, who's 21, as a 6-year-old, and my late mother. I want these stories to be for these people."

When telling the stories in front of audiences, he soon discovered that his intense focus on those four subjects did not mean no one else was interested. A fan base, which started out small, began to grow.

"Sometimes concert audiences expect stand-up comedy, in which the energy is completely different," Tobolowsky says. "There have been times I'll bring a new story to a local comedy club and people at the bar stopped talking, stopped drinking; the bartender waved them away because he wanted to listen. That's great."

In 2009, David Chen, a Harvard student and fan of Birthday Party, wanted to record the stories as a podcast, Tobolowsky says. "So we started doing The Tobolowsky Files, feeling our way through it. We figured out that 7,500 to 8,100 words were the sweet spot. It got picked up by various radio stations around the country, playing in 15 of the top 25 PRI [Public Radio International] stations, then to other countries. Since it was aimed at such a specific audience [the four mentioned above], there was no swearing, no bad influence. But I wanted to tell the truth about mistakes I made, heartbreaks and victories in love, with entertainment elements but not gossip. That was the genesis of it."

Next, Chen wanted to make a movie, "the best movie he could about me as a storyteller, and in the end it turned out the best story I could tell was to do a concert film, making it as bare-bones as it is," meaning a stage, a performer and an audience. "In terms of The Primary Instinct, which runs about 70 minutes, the original concert film idea was two stories, Primary Instinct and Conference Hour, which concerns three years of punishment in college with a teacher doing what she could to keep me from graduating. The whole film was a normal length of around 110 minutes, but it was exhausting. Primary Instinct requires so much from the audience. You have to listen all the time and you have to engage and be involved. So we limited it to one story."

Along the way, "we filmed so much stuff that isn't in the movie -- lots of interview material, coffee shop performances in Seattle," he says. "Those will be the bonus features."

He has been lucky, or maybe just naive, Tobolowsky says. "I've always had really good audiences that listen, that adapt to what they're hearing, and are respectful. They'll shift gears instantaneously. They are interested, they are curious. They engage."

When you tell a true story, he adds, not only can it continue, but you can touch other people's lives. "They hear their story in your words. In the stories, it seems like a no-brainer but it's not -- the truth trumps clever. The audience will sniff out something that's fake."

The Primary Instinct, with Stephen Tobolowsky in attendance, will screen at 7 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which continues through Oct. 18. Visit hsdfi.org.

MovieStyle on 09/25/2015

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