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25 Years Later: A Conversation with Director Mark Pellington on 'Going All The Way: The Director's Edit'

Mark Pellington speaks with Script about making his first feature film, adding back essential scenes to the film, the Kismet teaming with Oscilloscope, and working with the literary master that is Dan Wakefield.

Mark Pellington's adaptation of Dan Wakefield's seminal novel about a young man coming of age in the 1950s is a timeless story of freedom and repression, friendship and family, sex and love, and the psychological and spiritual struggle to be true to one’s self even if it means going against society’s expectations. In his debut as a feature filmmaker, Pellington constructs an elegant and morally complex tale about two young high school alumni and Korean war veterans returning to their sheltered Indianapolis community, only to find they no longer fit in. As classmates, shy, artistic Sonny (distinctly portrayed by Jeremy Davies) and charming, popular Gunner (Ben Affleck in his first lead role) had nothing to do with one another, but now, in the stifling climate of Eisenhower America, where prejudice and paranoia rule the day, the two young men find in each other the strength to change their lives and futures. Each must choose between the suffocating, but familiar comforts offered to them by their mothers (Jill Clayburgh, Lesley Ann Warren) and their old flames and friends (Amy Locane, Nick Offerman), or the exciting, but uncertain futures represented by a pair of enthralling new romantic prospects (Rachel Weisz, Rose McGowan). Theirs is an emotionally fraught journey—especially for Sonny, who struggles with self-doubt and thoughts of suicide—but one leavened by moments of humor, uplift, and self-discovery. 

Originally released in 1997, the newly re-edited and restored version of GOING ALL THE WAY completely upends the original cut, hews closer to the source novel, and cements the film as one of the most aesthetically fresh and thematically fascinating films of the 90s, as well as a testament to the ever-evolving possibilities of cinematic rediscovery.

Going All The Way could have been and should have been a seminal film for up-and-coming filmmakers to learn from and be inspired by. Thankfully, 25 years after it premiered at Sundance and was stripped down once again for theatrical release, losing its whimsy and heart, director Mark Pellington was in the right mind and place (aka boredom during the pandemic) to revisit his film and bring it back to all its storytelling and visual glory with editor Leo Trombetta. 

It's independent filmmaking at its rawest and finest, shot on film, with all the limitations imaginable but the spine of the story and vision was always there, and Mark found his way back. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Mark about making the film, adding back essential scenes to the film, the Kismet teaming with Oscilloscope, and working with the literary master that is Dan Wakefield.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

[L-R] Ben Affleck as Gunner Casselman and Jeremy Davies as Sonny Burns in GOING ALL THE WAY The Director’s Edit. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

[L-R] Ben Affleck as Gunner Casselman and Jeremy Davies as Sonny Burns in GOING ALL THE WAY The Director’s Edit. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Sadie Dean: There's just so much to process about this film. And that new title sequence sets the tone right off the bat.

Mark Pellington: If you'd watch the old one now, the opening was much more nostalgic - it was a little bit of a missed directive of everything was fine in the 50s. Yet, it really wasn't. And I just wanted to do something that was more like the title sequence in Seven, I want to make it contemporary because the movie is a little unsettling. And once I had the whole composite of what really the book was, now this version of the film was much more complete to my experience of having read the book from age 14 on. And I didn't hate the movie when it came out. But it was only years later I was like, ‘this was truncated.’ So, it was a great way to paint the front door of the new house.

Sadie: Yeah, paint it red, go for it, make it stand out.

Mark: Paint it red!

Mark Pellington

Mark Pellington

Sadie: As a filmmaker, I too would be frustrated not being able to share the full story or cut of your film right out of the gate. And losing all of the bits that really do round out this film, and are so important and integral, I can see why a lot of reviews and the first audience weren’t as drawn to the material as you had intended.

Mark: Well, it's having no power. It's no experience or power to understand the complete nature of the story. And so, in the original cut that came out, it was a really elongated first act, and it was very repetitive. So, there's a character of a preacher that came through, the mother that was there to save him and his sexual fantasies and getting caught masturbating by the preacher and throwing away the nudie magazines. And it just was like this hormonal repression, which it's evident from the first time you see him in looking at the girl and being afraid that he's kind of this detached, voyeuristic guy. It was really a question of like, ‘How many times are you gonna hit the note, again, again and again?’ And then the first version of the film, it's at the expense of a complete subplot of a beard, which opens up the cans of worms about mothers and anti-Semitism, and the community and the country. And an entire third act of healing, which was about the catharsis of their friendship, and really the bonds between the guys, which is the seeds of the movie.

I was rereading some of the early reviews that it was a little imbalanced and as a filmmaker, it's your first movie and you're like, ‘Oh, I'd never done narrative before. Never done screen direction.’ I'd made a lot of stuff, but it was completely new. So to be able to go back and do it again, the voiceover, make the score, 20 new cues to make the score complete, you understand the focus of music, tonal arcs and rhythms, and completion in a film now. Before I think the movie was schizophrenic. The first movie - each scene was probably OK. But when you put a realist scene against 50 satire with a 21-millimeter lens - American Beauty does it perfectly, but these are a little bit disjointed. It's uneven, but the performances were always good. I think people always liked the performances, but now, especially Jeremy and Ben - their whole relationship now is just much more complete.

Sadie: And you had mentioned before that the script was originally 160 pages.

Mark: The first one had everything that I wanted in it. And Dan Wakefield wrote it. We hired him and then we got it down to like 135 [pages]. And that's what we shot.

Sadie: What was that collaboration process like working with an author you're already a fan of but also having him adapt his work for you? Was there a North Star in place for you to or did you know going in what needed to truncate to work as a narrative film?

Mark: Dan had adapted one of his novels before Starting Over with Jill Clayburgh. And they've done a TV show, James at 16, which was the Euphoria of its day. And so, he was comfortable with adaptation. I just really underline the book. Everything I loved, he knew the fact that I knew stuff more than he did, because I knew it inside out. And I said, ‘Here's everything I want. Let's just do the first job with everything I love in it.’ And that was our starting point, then it was just chiseling away. And he wrote some stuff specifically for the movie. He was very easy, but not just like, ‘Hey, this is my stuff.’ He was very understanding of what we wanted to do. And just a great guy. And again, the fact that he's 90 now and got to see the cut before his glaucoma took away his sight is a miracle. He got to see it eight months ago when we were done. And now he's lost sight of his eyes.

Sadie: Wow. Now that's a movie in itself. That's beautiful.

Mark: Really, isn't it? Yeah. Well, you want to hear something interesting? For years, he always said he wanted to write the sequel. And it was Gunner becomes infirmed in his 50s. And they're in New York. So, this is probably in like the early 80s or something. And Sonny comes to Gunner’s aid. And they go through this midlife thing and mortality. And he always wanted to write it, but he never wrote it. I literally talked to him last week and I said, ‘Dan, I'm gonna get somebody to record you. And we'll just narrate a short story.’ I'd love to hear what he would say. I mean, he's just such an amazing one of the last literary lions. Joan Didion is the one who convinced him to write this novel.

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Sadie: I just had goosebumps from that story. I hope he does the recording with you. I was thinking after seeing this film, ‘What’s next for them? Does Sonny become the artist?’

There's this really wonderful scene that's at the quarry. And it’s amazing just in terms of how you’re building story and the character arc for Sonny especially, but it's this line from Gunner when he hands Sonny a sandwich, ‘Eat it! Enjoy it!’ And I feel like that line just thematically and emotionally encapsulates so much of what this movie is all about, and in just one bite. I'm curious, was that quarry scene in the original cut?

Mark: Going into the quarry, the first scene there where they jump in, the aftermath from that night, where he talks about he didn't want to go all the way. And the next day with the sandwich, when we showed it at Sundance, we had the first swim and the nighttime scene and then cut out that second sandwich scene. And then they're on the road. The finished cut of the movie did not have any of it in there. And I looked back, because you're so close to it there and it's just like, ‘God I just want to get out. OK, shorten it, shorten it.’ So, my memory was different. The editor was pissed. But again, full circle now, it’s restored in its glory. And just the image of in the way that Jeremy just, stuffs it in, allows himself, you know?

[L-R] Jeremy Davies as Sonny Burns and Ben Affleck as Gunner Casselman in GOING ALL THE WAY The Director’s Edit. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

[L-R] Jeremy Davies as Sonny Burns and Ben Affleck as Gunner Casselman in GOING ALL THE WAY The Director’s Edit. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Sadie: Yeah, it just says so much. It goes back to the final cut and why people weren’t receptive to that first run. And that scene is in a nutshell, that's filmmaking beauty and charm.

Mark: You know, what it was it's just that like that third act again, it's like, when does the third start? And it's extended? It's two hours and four minutes. It's not like it's two hours and 35 minutes. Because we took 25 minutes out. We replaced the Buddy scene, where he's in the car, right? And she's like, ‘Oh, darling,’ I had four scenes where they would have sex - how many scenes of that are you going to have? So, the thing was just keeping it balanced throughout the whole thing.

And I think that studios - I don't want to be the “big bad studio” because I was complicit in it - but again, I was 33 years old, first movie, I think I was exhausted because it took two years to get the thing made. And I was just like I want this thing to be done. It had been in Sundance, we kind of knew what the response was gonna be. The response when it came out really wasn't that much. It was acceptable to solid. It wasn't like it wasn't gonna hurt me, you know? But now for it to come out, I hope people discover that it’s a pretty good film. Less Porky's more American Graffiti. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Your approach to filmmaking and I’ve noticed this in your other films as well, and not sure this is the right term for you necessarily, but it’s radical filmmaking. As if you were to take a Jim Jarmusch film who is one of the best and just dig a little deeper with his characters and the colors.

Mark: Deeper. Well, it was there, and what I really realized it's the patience. Now, this patience carries an amount of limitations. This nostalgia had a lot of static. There was like, one take, two takes maximum. We had one camera, so when they're at the fireplace – Jeremy gets two takes maybe, one camera on Ben. And we shot only one take on Ben, two on Jeremy. That was it. So, there was an economy of means and a trust in the material, and in the actors, that it wasn't like, ‘Oh let's just shoot it and cut it together later.’ It was very much cut in camera because we didn't have the money to. Like when you're at the pool scene, there's Rachel, there's Amy - I remember Amy, it's like, do your line. What are your other three lines? Give me some reactions and move on. You don't have five minutes with two cameras to just blow on her the way you would now. So, there was a simplicity to it that really has re-inspired me.

Sadie: And shooting on film!

Mark: Yeah, absolutely.

Sadie: With your background as a music video director, how much of that expertise has played into directing your first feature and beyond? I feel like I can kind of sense those sensibilities in certain frames just like the intentional sliver of light on characters that emote a specific mood and tone.

Mark: When I did Going All the Way I had done little story narrative pieces and a couple of commercials and poetry series, but never like a straight master, single-single-over, never that basic film grammar. And I remember shooting the movie and I was like, ‘God, this is Indiana in the 50s.’ I just was so enamored by hearing the book brought to life. Cameron Crowe give me advice, he said, ‘Just do a master three times faster than you think it should.’ That was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. It's just slow. And you know, ‘Oh my God, I love them getting out of the car, I love them walking up,’ you fall in love with it because it's your first feature, and you love the world.

[L-R] Jeremy Davies as Sonny Burns and Amy Locane as Buddy Porter in GOING ALL THE WAY The Director’s Edit. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

[L-R] Jeremy Davies as Sonny Burns and Amy Locane as Buddy Porter in GOING ALL THE WAY The Director’s Edit. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Music videos are a more subconscious stylistic thing. So, when Sonny is running home after the failed attempt with Gale now, because of where the voiceover is, and where the suicide attempt, and to see an actor that recalls Gunner, those four scenes together as a movement make sense. But when that was truncated, then that was eliminated, it felt jagged. So, you're doing a symphony, and you're kind of taking out eight bars here, 16 bars there. It was expressionistic as, ‘Ooh, what is the feeling there?’ And the fact that we could do it from a pickup truck with two lights, that subjectivity, him talking to himself that had been in evidence throughout the film, the red light of photography, and then running, that was kind of a theme throughout in his inner life. And now I just think those things are more connected to voiceover and they're little portals between these more cogent, narrative sequences.

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Whereas in the first one, they felt a little jagged. I remember rereading a New York Times review, and it said, ‘a fine movie that's ruined by the music video tendencies that don't trust the material.’ And he was completely right. Completely, right. So, it takes 25 years to be like, ‘I trust this. Let me restore it.’ And the credit really goes to the editor, Leo Trombetta, because I just said, ‘Let's do something with this.’ So, when he showed me the first version of it, we both were like, ‘We like that scene,’ but it's what he took out that I was like, ‘Good. Let's just keep a complete version of the book.’ And he had cut Little Children for Todd field. which I loved. And I love the voiceover in that, so I said, ‘Leo, let's do the voiceover. Not to repeat what's there. But just maybe add context and let that and the new score kind of be the new frame of the painting.’ Because the movie before that didn't have any frame. It just was kind of a bunch of scenes, stapled together and now I think it's a little more of a movie. It's more of a film.

Going All the Way was an archeological dig through boxes and literally filthy digging through it. It was nearly impossible. The fact that we pulled it off is incredible. It was missing negatives, ‘where's that shot?’ who knows. In the sandwich scene for example, if you rewind about 30 seconds before it, you'll notice this extremely long reaction shot of Jeremy and Gunner is talking. And that shot was missing one shot, just one 12-second shot in the cut, we could never find it, can never find a print of it, can never find a work print a dub of a dupe of a workprint just missing, it could have been on some little strand. And so, therefore, when we had to redo it, you're like holding on Jeremy uncomfortably long. Yet it really works because you realize the point of view of the scene wasn't about Gunner. It was about Jeremy allowing himself to listen to somebody say, ‘You did this for me. You did this for me. And you didn't think of me as a jock.’ And it's seeing somebody really listen to him. It allowed him to take the sandwich. You know what I mean? And normally, we would have cut away. I'm like, ‘What can we do?’ I didn't want to lose the audio. Just kept it incredibly long shot of Sonny in there.

Sadie: And at the end of the day, it’s a love story about the friendship between Gunner and Sonny. I read that you really connected to these characters as a young man and growing up, but do you still see yourself reflected in these guys watching it again?

Mark: Yeah, I see my youth and I mean, literally I was an athlete and was kind of comfortable in my skin, but always questioning things. And also, a little bit nervous about stuff and insecure about my creative instincts. I didn't know if I had. And it was just the inner voice that Dan had, because it was a third person novel, that just when you read that book, it was my Catcher in the Rye. I still feel that way. But I feel every day of 60 years old. Do you know what I mean? But that's why it's really beautiful to look back at them and be able to honor them with the full completion and really to Dan Wakefield. I mean, when a guy writes this thing that informs your worldview as a piece of art, to then come full circle, his message to me, and his gratitude for this thing being done was just heartbreaking. It's a message I'll always listen to because he got to see it before he lost his sight. That's an amazing story. I want to write that story - I don't know who would publish that kind of little anecdote.


Sadie: It's poetry. Again, goosebumps. Now you have this new cut, what are you hoping it emotionally evokes for a new audience and hopefully the few lucky ones who got to see it 25 years ago?

Mark: I don't know. I have a twenty-year-old daughter and you're obviously a lot younger [than I am], so the fact that you responded - I've no idea. But I think everybody, especially in this day and age, I mean, my daughter deals with anxiety all the time, I think kids can find the uncertainty of youth in the characters, and they can find the sense of people comparing themselves to the way Sonny feels uncomfortable around other people. There's peer pressure. And there's a lot of relevant youth themes in it, even though it's not communism, it's something else, but it's really about fitting in and beginning your life. It's kind of this coming of age and does coming of age ever really change emotionally? I don't know, I'm really curious to see what the reaction will be now, but the fact that Oscilloscope, like they're all, I mean, I'd say this respectfully, they're all kids. So, they look at it as like a new movie and the fact that they connected to it enough to put in all this work they're doing to rerelease it…I loved that the first time I showed it to him, and they said, ‘Well, it's not an auteur film, but it's an interesting story.’ I was like, ‘Great. Whatever gets it out there.’ I was just grateful that they'd taken it on.


Sadie: I think that’s amazing and the music connection between your background and the beginning of Oscilloscope’s foundation – it’s like Kismet.

Mark: I used to run with Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys, put them on my shoulder at clubs in New York in the 80s before they were the Beastie Boys, so the fact that that energy of what he founded there can come full circle is… and it just takes me back to New York - our book books, where I started, before it became Hollywood algorithms.

Sadie: Right, tangible things that you can hold and smell right?

Mark: Tangible things, yes.

Going All The Way returns to select theaters beginning November 9, 2022. Find showtimes here.

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