The concept of time is intriguing when it comes to art. When I’m speaking to a director on their current or upcoming film, they may have already begun writing their next film. On occasions, they’ve already shot, even completed their next film, and are progressing with, to them, their latest work. It seems that by the time critics and audiences catch up with the director, they are already living in the artist’s past.
I connected with director Mark Pellington over zoom to discuss his debut feature film, Going All the Way, originally released in 1997. However, we’re not too far behind Pellington, as the film is re-released this year in a new director’s edit by Oscilloscope Laboratories. “It has fifty minutes of new footage,” says Pellington. “We took twenty minutes out of the original cut, mostly from the first act and a half, and restored the entire subplot of the beard, the whole quarry [scene], and the third act arc of healing was restored.”
It has been over a quarter of a century since the film played at Sundance where it was nominated for two awards. Since then, it had fallen between the metaphorical cracks of an imaginary floor, and unlike many other films that found their way onto streaming services, Going All the Way did not. Pellington tells me that the first assembly was three hours and 30 minutes long, around twice the length of the one-hour and 47-minute original final cut.
Adapted by Dan Wakefield from his 1970 novel, the story is set in 1950s America and centres on two young Korean War veterans, the social misfit and artistic Sonny (Jeremy Davies), and the popular Gunner (Ben Affleck). Returning to their homes in Indianapolis suburbia, where once they had nothing to do with one another, the two young men find in the other a friend. Together they begin to dream of leaving Indianapolis for New York City to start a new life away from family and friends that represent the past they’re trying to escape.
Admittedly, I’ve only seen the re-edited version of Going All the Way, which, at over two hours, leaves a considerable amount of footage on the cutting room floor yet strikes the right balance. It doesn’t overplay its hand with its characters’ emotional angst, nor does it undermine these arcs at a brisk pace.
“I think that’s twenty-five years of maturity, having made eight other movies since Going All the Way,” Pellington says with humility, not eager to take credit. “It was all there in the first version that became a truncated product. Even to this day, you’re never going to meet a Hollywood executive that says, ‘make it longer.’ They’re always going to say to make it shorter.”
Going All the Way uses a storytelling method that takes its audience on an emotional journey. Pellington’s humility aside, he finds the right pace and rhythm to observe the emotions of their two central characters, Sonny and Gunner. What the director can convey is the rhythm of our everyday life. Often in films, everyday life is condensed for convenience, but here, Pellington honours the authentic rhythm of life, both in the narrative structure and the closing words of Sonny, the film’s narrator, who reminisces that life breaks down, and you have to restart.
This is the emotional essence of Going All the Way‘s story – the highs and lows that the characters must work through, especially Sonny. It’s a coming-of-age story for young men whose lives were interrupted by war and who haven’t had the opportunity to find themselves and act on that until now.
“If you don’t feel all the pain, you don’t feel the healing, and you don’t feel the power of the friendship,” Pellington says. “The thing is, if you have a hard time with a friend, maybe it takes a couple of days for you to open up and say how you’re feeling. This type of pace is more novelistic – it’s more of an internal rhythm.”
One scene cut from the original version sees a suicidal and bloody Sonny call Gunner, leading to the added quarry scene and a humorous search for a famous whore house when Sonny enters a church to ask for directions. Even in periods of pathos, this story of friendship offers comedic beats. It acknowledges how we can find humour in the darkest experiences – gallows humour as a defence mechanism when we’re processing and dealing with how to hit life’s curve balls.
Neither Sonny nor Gunner are comfortable with who they are, and the reason for their friendship is that in each other, they see the person they’d like to be. While set in the 1950s, Going All the Way transcends its period setting by thematically exploring how each generation is trying to find a way to feel like they belong, to find meaning and purpose. In that regard, not a lot has changed since the ’50s.
Pellington tells me that Oscilloscope saw this director’s cut as a new film. “It’s a re-edit, but you’re watching it as though it just came out. It’s a movie set in the ’50s, and Ben Affleck seems to be younger, but he still plays the same guy now. Ben then is not that far removed from Ben now, and Jeremy Davies is similar.” He continues, “Back then, they [Sonny and Gunner] were this composite of me coming out of my twenties. I felt myself in both of them. Maybe I looked like a jock on the outside, but on the inside, I felt uncertain.” Reflecting on the story’s timelessness, he remarks, “I’m thinking about Going All the Way in [the context of] social media. What would Sonny and Gunner be like today? Today’s youth are trying to figure out their place in the world. They, too, are coming out of one responsibility, or one expectation, to a new unknown territory.”
Going All the Way captures a snapshot of the anxiety within expectation and the struggle with our internal sense of self and how others see us. Gunner references how the war was a transformative experience for him, that it changed his mindset. Upon returning home, both men find themselves having to not only readjust to civilian life but also compromise their new sense of self with the identity their family and friends project onto them. The pair are torn between the past and present, and they silently understand this shared anxiety through their friendship.
By the end of Going All the Way, we never learn whether these two characters find their place. We’re left with the voiceover narration as Sonny leaves home to join Gunner in New York. The audience bonds with these two characters, and we follow them on their journey because they represent hope. We might not want to know whether they attain their dream or if what they hope for is realised. Sure, they chase women as young men do, and they struggle with their post-war identities in their hometown, but they also shared a desire for independence and freedom. That hope that desire will be fulfilled by living in New York City. For the audience, Sonny and Gunner represent a form of the hero’s journey, the quest to discover meaning and purpose.
“All those things are in that mythology – of people leaving,” offers Pellington. “It’s about two boys that leave their mothers. They leave the womb and have the courage to leave home, which we all must do to become adults.”
“Dan is a deeply spiritual man, and Sonny’s end monologue is about realising that circular nature of life, as you say, the journey,” he adds. “Life is a series of collapses and beginnings, and hope leads forward. I’m trying to teach my twenty-year-old daughter that as she stumbles and picks up again. I say every day is a new chance and you anticipate what it would be like.”
Pellington reels off the questions that the story leaves unanswered. “Was Gunnar at the apartment in New York? Did Sonny find Gunnar there? What was their life like in New York?” He then reveals his desire to find the answers to these questions but admits that he’s not the one to provide them, “Dan Wakefield has been talking about a sequel where Gunner and Sonny are in their fifties, and maybe something befalls Gunner, and Sonny comes to his aid. I want Dan to narrate that, even as a short story. Dan’s ninety now, and he saw the film before he lost his eyesight with glaucoma. He says he’s close to his mortal coil.”
Going All the Way, the Director’s Edit, opens in New York at the Quad Cinema, with special Q&A sessions on Friday, 16 December 2022.