Finding Bliss on East Fifth

Morris Bliss (Michael C. Hall) awakens to another mundane New York day.

When I parted company last night with writer-director Michael Knowles, he was having a drink with other filmmakers and movie lovers at a bar called Velvet in Bend, Oregon.

This was ironically appropriate, given that the genesis of his latest movie, East Fifth Bliss, may also be traced to a bar called Velvet in New York City.

Knowles is one of the luminaries at this weekend’s BendFilm Festival.  And East Fifth Bliss is a strong contender for honors when festival winners are announced tonight.

A quirky comedy-drama starring Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame, the movie follows a mid-30s New Yorker named Morris Bliss in his struggle to find self-esteem.

Morris lives in a small apartment with his widowed father (Peter Fonda), whose presence is a constant reminder of the emotionally wrenching death of his mother two decades earlier.  An introverted book lover, Morris wants to travel but has no money nor job prospects.

Enter a string of characters who include NJ (Chris Messina), his best friend, a slacker with exaggerated swagger; Stephanie (Brie Larson), a sexually precocious 18-year-old; Jetski (Brad William Henke), Stephanie’s father, anxious to relive his high-school antics with classmate Morris; Andrea (Lucy Liu), a married woman in mid-life crisis; and Hattie (Sarah Shahi), an urban rebel who is not what she appears to be.

As Morris interacts with these characters, he finds his stagnant life beginning to change.

Check out the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqVecMLeCVY

Director Michael Knowles discusses "Bliss" with this blogger. (Barb Gonzalez photo)

Knowles, 42, had already established himself as a capable actor, writer and director — Sex and the City fans may remember his role as “Marathon Man” in a 2001 episode — when he ran into author Douglas Light in 2007 at the Velvet Cigars Lounge in New York’s East Village.

Light had just finished his debut novel, East Fifth Bliss, to considerable acclaim.  He gave a copy of the book to  Knowles, who was so impressed that he suggested they collaborate on a film script.  For the next six months, Knowles said, they hung out at the Velvet Cigars Lounge, drinking, smoking and writing.

Hall was recruited to play the lead role of Morris through a mutual friend, but the demands of filming his TV series Dexter, followed by treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, didn’t allow him to shoot the movie until last year.

Produced on a $750,000 budget, it is now on the film-festival circuit, where it recently was honored as “best feature” at the San Diego Film Festival.

The general theatrical release of East Fifth Bliss, by Variance Films, is scheduled for March 23, 2012.  It will simultaneously go to Video on Demand, Knowles said.

Born into a working-class family in southern New Jersey, Knowles got hooked on acting his senior year in high school.  He studied acting and screenwriting — along with martial arts — for 4½ years in New York, appearing in numerous off-Broadway productions before landing that “first paying gig” on Sex and the City.

Somewhere along the way, he realized, “It’s hard to make a living acting.”  And while he still makes occasional on-screen appearances, he has recently focused on writing and directing.

His first two movies, Room 314 (2006) and One Night (2007), were ensemble dramas.  Now, he and Light hope to go to production soon with an adaptation of the novelist’s most recent book, Where Night Stops.

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