The auteur04/01/2015 12:53PM ● By Richard Gaw
From Fall 2012
On the evening of May 18, 1979, Butch "Mal" Malinowski, a Newark, Del., guitar instructor, took his 9-year-old son Chris to a drive-in theater on Route 202 to see a triple feature.
There, with the sound box fastened to the diver's side window, they watched "Blackout," a Canadian film; "The Warriors," directed by Walter Hill; and "Phantasm," a horror film directed by Don Coscarelli. As he sat watching the screen, Butch smoked endless cigarettes and thought about the impact his impending divorce from his son's mother would have on the young boy.
"There was some kind of solace in that film," recalled the 42-year-old Malinowski of seeing "Phantasm" with his father. "The story revolves around a young boy whose parents have died, and he's being taken care of by his brother. He was this boy going through something tragic and familial, and it was happening around the time I had to step up and become a man."
In many ways, Malinowski was destined to become a filmmaker, if for no other reason that he is both blessed and cursed by seeing the blank spots in life that need to be filled, the dark edges that need to be lit, and the dank, smelly fabrications that need to be layered with truth. Nearly frame by frame, it's all there in his films, "Alms, You Say," released in 2007, and in his latest, "Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir," scheduled to be completed in December.
"I love the art of the heightening of the mundane," Malinowski said from his cottage in Landenberg, which doubles as his studio. "Anything I see in my daily life, I seek to immortalize on film. Showering. Driving down the road. It is the reflection of life in its most boring form, but in film, when the lighting and the music is there and the set design is just right, there's a certain comfort there."
Trace the origins of any filmmaker and chances are that you'll likely arrive at the same place: Childhood. Steven Spielberg had his 8-millimeter camera as a boy growing up in New Jersey. Woody Allen had his aunt take him to the large movie houses in Manhattan when he was a boy in Brooklyn. Quentin Tarantino had his job at a video store in Los Angeles.
For Malinowski, growing up in the Pike Creek area of Delaware, it was the music he was making -- loud, ear-piecing sounds as a member of Freakshow, a heavy metal band, and then The Absurd, a surrealistic rock group. His head was a treasure trove of ideas; music was simply a conduit to other mediums.
"When I was performing with the bands, I began to think back to when I saw 'Phantasm,'" he said. "Somehow, I began to get nostalgic for that film."
Although he was a self-confessed terrible student in high school, Malinowski educated himself by watching two to three films a night until dawn -- different genres, various directors, plot lines and camera choices. By the time he was 21 and a film theory student at the University of Delaware in the early 1990s, "I wanted to do something like this," he said. "Everything I was thinking and feeling was manifesting itself as images."
One night, he watched Atom Egoyan's "Speaking Parts." He learned from Egoyan's work that there can be an entire, untapped universe behind the images and narrative of a film. He wanted to someday be able to weave that within a film of his own. He soon left Delaware and went to Ithaca College in upstate New York to learn how to make films.
Once enrolled, he began to take screenwriting classes with Elisabeth Nonas, an esteemed screenwriter. Nonas encouraged him to continue following where his writing was taking him. She told him to keep at it, to build the idea of ambiguity, to not show all of his cards to the audience. Writing has to be personal, Nonas told him. Another film professor told him, "If they don't get it, it's their fault."
Malinowski lived by himself in an off-campus cottage -- the site of a former fruit stand -- writing four nights a week from ten at night until two in the morning. In time, he wrote and directed several 16-millimeter student films, including "Metz Committed," "The Celestial Self," and "Son of a Fishlicker." He won awards for filmmaking and screenwriting.
As Malinowski began finding his writing voice at Ithaca, he felt he needed something more. He needed to be on a set. He got internship work in Los Angeles through Ithaca's satellite West Coast Campus, where, ironically, he worked as a production assistant on Coscarelli's "Phantasm IV: Oblivion," and as a sound post-production assistant on Martin Campbell's "Mask of Zorro."
"I learned that there is no quietude on a film set," he said. "There's tension. There's the setting sun. There are actors. All of these scenes need to be shot today. Everyone's putting themselves on the line. It's not relaxing."
He found it out for himself during the filming of his first feature. Financed partly through a severance package he received from employment with a local bank, Malinowski wrote, directed, co-edited and starred in "Alms, You Say," a 33-minute film he shot in Landenberg during 2005.
In order to make the film, loosely based on his father -- who died in 2003 -- Malinowski used seven credit cards and relied on the kindness of friends and family, who cut checks in order to pay expenses. To save money, Malinowski would travel to New York City and work through the night with an editor at Madhouse, who by day edits popular television series.
It was eventually screened at Clayton Hall on the campus of the University of Delaware, at the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival, twice at Theatre N in downtown Wilmington, and at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles.
His second feature, "Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir," was actually written several years ago, and its location had been burning in Malinowski's mind for equally as long. It seemed to him a logical choice that the Delaware shoreline was going to serve as the film set. In fact, it's all over the film -- 25 different locations, filmed last winter in Lewes, Cape Henlopen and Rehoboth.
They rented two buildings at the University of Delaware's Virden Center – 15 crew members and actors. When he was in his late teens and early twenties, Malinowski would often spend time in Lewes, walking down Second Street, up Pilottown Road or over the sand dunes at Cape Henlopen State Park.
Malinowski had the location. He had the completed script in hand. He had 50 actors and 12 film crew members. He had a new company, Myatin Filmworks, LLC. Now all he needed was the $120,000 to pay for all of it.
On the advice of his mother, he approached local entrepreneur Alan Burkhard, a longtme family friend, whom he hadn't seen since he was a young boy.
Burkhard had three meetings with Malinowski. On the table before them were scripts and ideas and business plans. He listened to everything Malinowski was talking about: What he wanted the film to do, the emotion he wanted to capture, shot by shot, frame by frame.
"I looked at him one day and said, 'I'll finance the movie. You go and do it,'" Burkhard said. "What made me decide to finance the film was that Chris has, up until now, never been given the chance to make something happen. I took a chance on Chris, and we put it together like a process, and we did it."
"Alan Burkhard is an amazing individual," Malinowski said. "He's someone who really believed, the smartest businessman anyone could hope to meet, and the most risk-taking entrepreneur one could ever hope to meet. And so smart about life and business. He doesn't mince words. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten yelled at by Alan and hugged at the same time."
Shot by director of photography Robert Stuart, "Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir" is not only a visual love letter to the shore life of Southern Delaware, it is an illustration of what, ultimately, Malinowski wants to achieve as a filmmaker -- to create work that represents an inexplicable longing for something, captured for eternity on film.
Again using the memory of his father as a character study, Malinowski's film centers on "Clay" Claitonowsky, a 63-year-old guitar instructor, and three of his pupils, who disappeared without a trace on the sand dunes of Cape Henlopen. Ten months later, Clay's son Cliff, played by Malinowski, makes a pilgrimage to his hometown to not only track down his estranged father, but also forge a reconnection with the people who had become close to his father and his deceased mother. As Cliff reconnects with his past, his father's three missing pupils begin to reappear, each repeating a single phrase: "Yes, your tide is cold and dark, sir."
"I felt like an imposter on set," he said. "I was already nervous. Here I am, directing this film I also wrote, and I'm also acting in it, and I'm trying to figure out how to get the most out of the actors. I was often sick to my stomach."
On "Tide," he worked not only with seasoned film actors, but with traditional stage actors, and a few actors who had not only never done a film before, they had never acted before. One of those actors was his girlfriend, Christine Tackett.
"I was honored that he asked me and he believed in me enough for the part, but I was terrified," said Tackett, who hired an acting coach to help her sort through her part. "There were some moments when the camera was a foot away from my face, but I tried to focus on the character and not worry about what was going on around me. Chris helped me work our scenes over and over again. I did the part because I really wanted to stretch my comfort zone, and I ended up having more fun than I thought I'd have."
In Lewes, Malinowski worked as many as 18 hours a day on the film, somtimes not falling asleep until three in the morning. When the shooting wrapped, he was left with the rough cut tendrils of his story -- hours of unedited film that he needed to wrestle down to a manageable length. "Tide" is in post-production now, being done at his home in Landenberg.
"Chris is frantic and obsessive when he works," Tackett said. "He has almost tunnel vision, and he'll do whatever needs to be done. In the morning, he gets up and edits. He'll go to work, and then come home and edit more. He puts his timeframe on projects and is always eager to work on the next project as well."
He expects to finish "Tide" by December, and sees it playing the festival circuit -- in New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, as well as in Prague, Milan and Australia. Malinowski is working with a system known as Without a Box, an online vehicle for independent filmmakers to see what film festivals are available, and an opportunity to market the film and the filmmaker.
When he is not teaching guitar lessons or playing with his band, The Collingwood, Malinowski spends the bulk of his time editing "Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir." He watches it several times a day. The rough cut is two hours and 11 minutes, which he would like to carve down to two hours. Day by day, hour by hour, frame by frame, he whittles and refines.
Steven Soderbergh shot "Sex, Lies and Videotape" in his native Louisiana. Paul Thomas Anderson shoots in LA. Scorcese and Allen shoot primarily in their native New York City. Malinowski would love to make his films in Landenberg, perhaps at the Kennett Middle School.
He knows the school well. He and his friend, Bill Ackerman, used to go to the school and have coffee at night and sit on the bleachers three nights a week. There, they'd watch the sunset and talk about making films.
"The school makes a humming noise," Malinowski said. "At one point, I told Bill that I want to make a film that involves this school and the hum it makes."
"I love Landenberg. It's one of my greatest inspirations," he added. "Almost everything I've written in the last ten years has been done here. My heart is in Landenberg. Sure, I'd love to be nationally or internationally known, but I'd like to stay here. I'd move to Los Angeles, but sit in a small office and attempt to get my films done? There's a great quietude in this area."
For more about Malinowski, visit www.myatinfilmworks.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].