Guest Artist (United States, 1 hr 14 min)
Directed by: Timothy Busfield
Written by: Jeff Daniels
The story of a young man coming face to face with his hero (Jeff Daniels) and exploring the tangled relationship between the dreams of youth and the wisdom of age. Joseph Harris (Jeff Daniels), a legendary but troubled playwright arrives at a small Michigan town at Christmastime to mount his latest play. Greeting the cynical New Yorker is a young aspiring writer who challenges his literary hero to be the icon he’d hoped for. Harris wants no part of Michigan, being the young man’s hero, or the theatre he’s come to work with. No sooner than he arrives Harris makes plans to return to NY on the next train out. Desperate and scrambling to keep him in town, the young man must face his hero and explore the tangled relationship between the dreams of youth and the wisdom of age.
Interview:Recognizing Greatness: A Review of Guest Artist, a Jeff Daniel’s Film
“There is an argument to be made that we no longer recognize greatness.” Jeff Daniels.
Joseph Harris (Jeff Daniels) New York Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is on a clunking train to Lima, Michigan, drinking liquor faster than his body can absorb. He doesn’t want to be on the train, he doesn’t want to be in Michigan, but he had promised to write a play for Lima’s small theatre company and his agent makes him honor the contract. The fact that he hasn’t written a play in twenty years—at least a play the world would want to see produced—doesn’t help his discontent. Unshaved, cantankerous and perpetually annoyed, Harris seethes with discontent—and his snow-bound journey to the Midwest may just be the last straw.
Miles away in Lima, another drama unfolds. Assigned to gather Harris from the train after midnight, young, idealistic and baby-faced Lima’s theatre apprentice and wannabe playwright Kenneth Waters (Thomas Macias) falls asleep on his couch. Waking up way past the train’s arrival, he dashes out with his most precious possessions—a book with Harris’s face on the cover along with every newspaper column and magazine essay Harris ever wrote. His car skidding on the dark icy streets, Waters speeds to the train station—only to find his hero passed out from booze on a wooden bench. Shaking him awake is like prodding a sleeping dragon who roars in fury—and demands to be on the next train to New York. “There is no play,” he informs Waters—because, as he insists, he hasn’t written one. There is nothing to stage, he is returning the check, and he wants to go home now.
It’s not exactly an auspicious start.
But it’s a start. It is the start of "Guest Artist," a drama feature, written by Emmy-winning actor and playwright Jeff Daniels and produced by award-winning Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert of Michigan-based Grand Rivers Production. It is the start of a conversation about the state of the American theatre and the American artist. And, as the movie’s creators put it, it is an exploration of “the tangled relationship between the dreams of youth and the wisdom of age.”
Adapted from Daniels’s 2006 play, "Guest Artist" is based on his real-life encounter with Lanford Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in whose plays Daniels had performed in the 1970s. When he started his own theatre company, The Purple Rose, in Chelsea, Michigan, he asked Wilson to write him a script. Wilson, who hadn’t written for a while, agreed—but months later hadn’t produced a word. “The idea for this story happened when I had to meet Lanford at the train station in Toledo, Ohio, at six in the morning, where he stumbled off the train, and I picked him up,” Daniels says. “Eventually, Lanford wrote not one but two plays for our company, but that morning on that train platform stayed with me. It’s a story I had to write—first as a play and now a film.”
In Daniels’s words, he wanted to show the plight of a real artist who won’t compromise with the world—and the amount of work and sacrifice it takes. “There is an argument to be made that we no longer recognize greatness,” Daniels says. “We are so inundated by standing ovations for everything and everyone,” he adds—from reality TV shows to the Instagram-made idols, that we no longer recognize real talent. We no longer appreciate the amount of work and effort it takes to create art.
That tormenting struggle is portrayed in Harris. “He is a playwright and he can’t do anything else,” Daniels says. “And that’s what I see with a lot of artists, singers, sculptors, theatre people, directors. Most of those people who are there for the art of it, not for the fame and stardom, are there because they have to do it.” They do it because they can’t simply hold a job, can’t do anything else, can’t not create their art. “There’s toil and sacrifice and cost and years of effort going into doing what you do really well,” Daniels says—along with a certain greatness of character that deserves a level of appreciation rarely received. “You don’t expect the whole country to celebrate the arts, but you sure wish they would.”
Rugged, cynical Harris and baby-faced, eager to please Waters can’t be anymore dissimilar than they are—but their 75-minute stand off reveals one thing they have in common: their love of theatre. It also reveals the precarious path of an artist in this world: One must believe in the art he or she creates, but one must also bow to the audience—because the show must go on despite its creator’s gloom.
Filmed over a week in Michigan and two days in New York, with a family crew of Daniels’s, Busfield’s and Gilbert’s sons as cameramen, composers and stand-ins, "Guest Artist" speaks to that forgotten greatness and the emotional price an artist must pay to achieve it.
Although it was never meant to be a thriller, "Guest Artist" takes the audience through an unpredictable sequence of twists and turns. Without special effects, computer-aided designs and million-dollar budgets, the story and the acting keeps the spectators holding their breath and guessing to the end—whether bitter or otherwise. As Busfield put it, “The audience reaches the film’s finish line just as we do,” – not as if they watched the movie but as if they lived it.
And that is perhaps the artists’ real greatness.