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Relationships that seem so long ago

Director Peter Mattei figured a film about connecting amid the dot-com boom would be topical. Then came 9/11. Now he sees his work as nostalgic.

October 27, 2002|Andre Chautard | Special to The Times

Almost any first-time director would envy the cast Peter Mattei was able to assemble for his bittersweet debut feature, "Love in the Time of Money," which follows a roundelay of sexual encounters between unhappy Manhattanites looking for fulfillment during the dot-com fever of the 1990s.

The ensemble includes veteran character actors Steve Buscemi and Carol Kane; familiar television faces Jill Hennessy ("Crossing Jordan") and Michael Imperioli ("The Sopranos"); and a host of up-and-comers including Rosario Dawson ("Men in Black II"), Adrian Grenier ("Harvard Man") and Domenick Lombardozzi (HBO's "The Wire").

But these actors are so in demand that not even a few are available on the same date to schedule a premiere in New York. "I was bummed out," Mattei says, "but I'm actually really happy that every single actor is working."

With several current screenwriting gigs, Mattei, 45, is keeping busy himself. After working over the years as a playwright, stage director, video game designer and Yale film studies instructor, Mattei, a longtime Brooklyn resident, finally resolved a few years ago to focus on his true desire. "I just decided, I really would rather just make a film, even if it's for 50 cents," he says over breakfast at a cafe on La Brea Avenue. The film opened on Friday in Los Angeles.

After three years of designing content for Internet companies, Mattei wanted to portray how during an economic boom he saw New Yorkers around him frustrated in their relationships. Many of the film's characters are based on people he knew, like an angry, ex-cop landlord or jaded art-world friends. Mattei lifted the structure for his script from the 1896 Arthur Schnitzler play "Reigen," which has been adapted frequently in works such as Max Ophuls' 1950 film "La Ronde" and David Hare's recent play "The Blue Room."

"Love in the Time of Money" opens with a scene between a prostitute and her john (as "Reigen" does), then follows the john as he works as a contractor for an undersexed, wealthy housewife -- and then follows the housewife with her aloof husband and so on, up and down through social classes until arriving, full circle, with the prostitute from the first scene.

"I wasn't interested in it just being about sex," Mattei says. "I was more interested in it being about desire and loneliness and how we affect each other in really subtle ways."

The film itself was affected by an event that was anything but subtle: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. "When we did the rough assembly, at the end it just had a sadder feeling than we anticipated that it would, and we spent a lot of time fighting that with pop songs and faster cuts," Mattei says. "It just really wasn't working and I thought, 'Let's just let the film be what it wants to be.' "

When Mattei wrote the script, he intended it to be set in the present. "At the time, we really felt like these times were going to go on forever," he says.

But the attacks coupled with the fall of the stock market placed the finished film firmly in the past. "I look at [the film] sometimes and I think that these people are ghosts, that maybe they all died."

Even the ironic title, a play on the title of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel "Love in the Time of Cholera," seemed to reflect a change. The film had the working titles "Nine Scenes About Love" and "The End of Love." Mattei remembers that he came up with "Love in the Time of Money" on Sept. 10, 2001. Now, he reflects, "it has a sense of nostalgia in it, like it's a different time."

Mattei's script had been accepted in 1998 by the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, where it was optioned by Robert Redford through his production company, which helped secure a $650,000 budget. Mattei says Redford gave him advice on the set and in the editing room, and the film screened in the dramatic competition in a special noncompeting slot (because of the ties to Redford) at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The film received mixed to negative reviews but was acquired for distribution during the festival by ThinkFilm.

The decision to shoot on digital video was budgetary, Mattei says, and he and cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski ("You Can Count on Me") wanted to avoid the gritty, hand-held look of the Dogma films they were seeing. The two took care in lighting the film, which was shot in 23 days at the end of 2000, mostly in Brooklyn, giving it a distinctive sleek and glossy look.

At one point in editing, Mattei tried to cut between the different story strands -- in the manner of independent films such as "Your Friends & Neighbors" and this year's fellow Sundance entry "13 Conversations About One Thing" -- but he ultimately stuck with the "Reigen" template, adding an abstract, ruminative ending.

"I just felt like it's much riskier to do it this way," Mattei says. "It's much harder on the audience because you have to sit in a room with two people for a long period of time and people just aren't used to that in American films."

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