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Diamond in the Rough: Director Daniel M. Cohen

Diamond Men skillfully navigates the emerging friendship of nearly burnt out old-timer Eddie Miller (Robert Forster) and cocky young Bobby Walker (Donnie Wahlberg) as they take to the road as jewelry salesman. As Eddie teaches Bobby his professional trade, he says goodbye to the life he once knew. As he gradually breaks his hardened code of conduct, Eddie is presented the chance to rediscover himself in the form of a new romance with a friendly roadside masseuse (Bess Armstrong).

Things are looking up, but writer-director Daniel M. Cohen skillfully manages to create a story where anything can happen. Cohen’s approach is quietly observational, rich with lived-in details. Eddie’s fate is not clearly telegraphed, and the tone of playful humor and bracing drama may leave an unsuspecting audience curious about where Diamond Men will ultimately lead. The answer may surprise you.

Diamond Men opens in New York on September 28th, 2001 to be followed by a national release. Cohen was open to sharing his thoughts with filmcritic.com on legendary actor Robert Forster, the use of authentic locations in small-town Pennsylvania, and on the Cohen family’s three generations of life as traveling salesmen.

filmcritic.com: It seems Robert Forster was instrumental in the development of Diamond Men as executive producer and star. Could you describe the genesis of that relationship?

Daniel M. Cohen: Robert liked the script right from the start, but was also pretty busy with other projects. It took a year for me to convince his management that he should do the picture. And, of course, we talked quite a bit along the way.

People are now starting to recognize what an excellent actor Donnie Wahlberg is. He’s done fine work in movies like Ransom and The Sixth Sense. How did you select him as Bobby Walker?

When I saw Donnie’s reel I thought I identified something very unusual: the ability to be both comic and vulnerable without seeming to put it on. He’s got a deep talent. I mean that sincerely.

You don’t pay for the sort of performances the actors delivered; they’re gifts. Bess Armstrong, Jasmine Guy, George Coe; they all gave me things I never expected.

Did you create an extensive backstory for Eddie and Bobby? You can infer a lot from their dialogue.

No. We talked a little, at table readings. Once again, they were cast because they bring things to the party just by their mere presence. Robert’s face, to me, is a story in itself. Donnie too, although he’s much younger. The rest is a talent that I wouldn’t even pretend to understand.

Diamond Men depends on the central relationship. Did you have much rehearsal time and how was it used?

[Robert and Donnie] had chemistry right away. They also had the script way in advance of shooting, and I made myself available for questions.

This is your first time as a film director, but you’d worked with actors before in the theater and have acted yourself, haven’t you?

Yeah. I acted in a little movie I made in my backyard about ten years ago. All my friends were in it, and it was more like film school than filmmaking. For the record: I’m no actor, but I learned a lot working with local professionals and had respect for their talents.

I also did a lot of low rent local TV; to sort of teach myself how to assemble raw footage. The technicians at WGAL-TV in Lancaster were very patient with me, actually.

Then I directed Bruce Smirnoff’s one-man show; ‘Other Than My Health, I Have Nothing… And Today I Don’t Feel So Good!’ The thing ran off-and-on in L.A. for about a year and a half. That was a lot of fun.

It seems a very confident debut for a first-time filmmaker. What is your experience in film?

I’ve been a movie obsessive since I was… 11. It’s been a long and bumpy romance. I’ve never taken any film classes. I’m like the kid in your high school who was so nuts about cars he always had his head under the hood of some salvage jalopy.

Seriously; when I write, I visualize. I’m very conscious of how I think I want to edit. I try to do it on the page; try.

How would you describe The Whole Truth, the movie you wrote, produced, and acted in?

A hilarious headache, from start to finish.

Your editor, assistant director and co-producer Rick Derby was involved from the get-go on Diamond Men. What was his contribution?

I think you just said it. Rick edited my first film. I like hanging around with him. We have different temperaments, which make for a good working relationship. He’s a great sounding board, and a terrific person.

The film is dedicated to the memory of your father, who was a traveling salesman much like Eddie. Was he also a storyteller?

Yes, and he had a great sense of humor. I can remember, as a small child, way past my bedtime, standing by the second floor landing in our little house, listening to him regale his friends with amusing anecdotes. He was dry, funny, and unpredictable. A person both bemused by life in general and pretty much content with his own.

His grounded nature made it possible for me, years after he died, to reinvent myself in this life without going totally nuts.

You come from three generations of salesmen ‘on the road’ — and you yourself had a taste of that life, right?

Yeah, a taste and a half. I spent about 15 years doing that while I tried to develop as a writer. I also spent a lot of time working with the Franklin and Marshall film series in Lancaster, where I spent much of the year.

The roadside massage parlor (The Altoona Riding Club) seemed remarkably accurate and honest. How was it conceived?

The Riding Club itself? Well, it’s mostly a figment of my imagination. Not that small towns don’t have massage parlors.

As you probably know, The Altoona Riding Club was the movie’s working
title. In addition to the jokey imagery, I liked the way the words tumble out of your mouth. But then it became evident how hard it was to get the idea across. People thought it was about horses or ‘writing’ and it was just too much to deal with.

Were folks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and the adjoining towns receptive to a film crew shooting there? How did you decide upon those locations?

The local town managers seemed very excited at first. Then nobody showed up to even watch us shoot, except in Lebanon (Penn.). Maybe if Redford was the lead, or something. That was okay with me, though, because it made our shoot relatively easy.

I decided upon locations based on the imperatives of the story. I know Pennsylvania pretty well. I also love the light. And my DP, John Huneck, did such a great job capturing it.

What has your experience been like along the film festival circuit?

Fun. The festivals helped me to see first-hand how the picture played with real audiences. And here I’m not talking about the elite fests; they turned their nose up at Diamond Men. I’m talking about the great mid-range fests. We gave out cards, so in addition to watching the audience, we got first hand knowledge of what they thought.

I probably don’t need to tell your readers this; but only a very few, select festivals will help you recruit a distributor. This is a topic for somebody else’s interview, but a word of caution.

I’m almost never a fan of the third act device of a crime/robbery, but Diamond Men uses it as a catalyst for Eddie to make a life-altering decision and it worked surprisingly well. Could you discuss your r
easons for setting up the scenario in this way?

You answered your own question, exquisitely! Isn’t it the case that plot points become ‘devices’ when they fail to resonate on more than one level? They seem like add-ons. But if they’re integrated, they feel organic. [WARNING: SPOILER!] When Eddie opens up to Bobbie’s suggestions, and becomes vulnerable to Katie’s (Bess Armstrong) allure, he compromises the credo he’s lived by for so many years. Without getting too Jungian, (although I’m a real fan of that sort of thinking) his surrender to the feminine carries with it threats that go deep. It’s often referred to in the vernacular as ‘the cost of doing business.’

Your tone is such that anything could happen, comic or tragic.

Thank you! You have no idea how good it is to hear you say that.

It reminded me of how movies were made in the ’70s, when you couldn’t predict whether things would work out for Jack Nicholson at the end of Five Easy Pieces or Gene Hackman in The Conversation. Same with Robert Forster here.

I’m completely in awe of those two films, along with so many other wonderful ‘70s movies, like The Last Detail, Shampoo, The Last Picture Show, just to name a few. What a great time for movies. All the wonderful, disciplined craft developed by people like Hitchcock, Ford, the European New Wave, was almost miraculously put to the service of material that couldn’t have been done before the screen loosened up. You couldn’t pay me a higher compliment than to mention Diamond Men in the same breath with movies like that. Or did I pay myself that compliment?

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