Wanted in Tibet: But will <I>Angels</I> play in Peoria?

"I wish I'd had an eighth grade Citizen Kane moment," says Academy Award-winner Paul Wagner, who swears he got into filmmaking by chance, around the time his graduate career at Penn was tanking.

"By accident, I took a documentary film course," explains Wagner. "I got very excited and declared myself a filmmaker– with no experience."

He parlayed that one course on visual anthropology into a career. Wagner started working with some folklorist friends at the Smithsonian, using his behavioral research background to direct documentaries on aspects of culture. The Stone Carvers won an Oscar for outstanding short documentary in 1984 and an Emmy as well.

By 1995, he had Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Brenda Fricker narrating Out of Ireland, a documentary on Irish immigration to the U.S. His first dramatic feature, Windhorse, was filmed clandestinely in Tibet and Nepal in 1999.

Wagner is stepping outside the documentary box and on the line again with Angels, which premieres at the Virginia Film Festival October 29.

"A new millennium Scrooge story" is how he describes the screenplay he wrote with Karl Ackerman. The $350,000 film uses Charlottesville locations, actors, crew, investors, and musicians, and the soundtrack's courtesy of what he calls "Dave and Coran's own record company," ATO.

The key difference between filming a documentary and a feature?

"Suspension of disbelief," replies Wagner. "When you watch a documentary, you assume it's reality. For a feature film, you operate on a different level. You know it's Liam Neeson. You know it's not real, but you turn a switch in your head, and then ask, 'Why am I crying?'"

Otherwise, the technical aspects are the same, says Wagner, who can drop the phrase mise en scene without sounding at all pretentious.

Filmed on weekends, Angels is ready for audience feedback– and there's still time for changes, Wagner says. It needs a distributor, which is "damn hard," he notes, even for a director with Wagner's film production chops. [And as John Grisham and Hugh Wilson found out recently with Mickey.–editor]

"The main reason it's important it's successful: we want to do more of them," says Wagner. "There's a burgeoning filmmaking community here whose talents can be used."

And being successful is important "for my own ego," Wagner admits.

Originally, the picture's working title was ANJLZ– the license plate on the VW microbus the film's two angels of death drive. "We changed it because people thought it had to do with hip hop– or was pronounced 'angles,'" explains Wagner.

Now that he's gotten his second feature under his belt, would Wagner ditch documentaries?

"I love the documentaries," he exclaims. "I want to do both. The good thing about Charlottesville– you can do both."

Age: 55

Why here? What Frommer's figured out in 2004, my wife and I realized in 1991. [That Charlottesville is #1.–editor]

Worst about living here? That Frommer's figured it out and told thousands of people.

Favorite hangout? Spudnuts

Most overrated virtue? Single-mindedness

People would be surprised to know: I'm perpetually and pathetically insecure.

What would you change about yourself? See above.

Proudest accomplishment? Proved (in Angels) that Charlottesville has all the talent necessary to make really excellent movies

People find most annoying about you: My wife, Ellen, would say it's that I can't think of a single annoying thing about myself.

Whom do you admire? Joe Gibbs

Favorite book? Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville

Subject that causes you to rant? In descending order, George Bush, John Kerry

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Seeing my children become adults

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The reaction of many Americans to 9/11

What do you drive? A beat-up '87 Saab

In your car CD player right now: The Angels movie soundtrack: Jem, Ben Kweller, Patty Griffin, David Gray, Seamus Egan, Antje Duvekot, Dave Matthews, Ron Sexsmith (sorry, not commercially available)

Next journey? To Louisville, Kentucky, for Thanksgiving dinner at Churchill Downs

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Having my picture posted on the bulletin board in the offices of the Chinese secret police in Lhasa, Tibet

Regret: Renting, instead of buying, an office on the Mall when we moved here in 1991

Favorite comfort food: It's a tie between cashews from Sam's Club and Ellen's chocolate chip cookies.

Always in your refrigerator: Sam Adams

Must-see TV: Daily Show

 Favorite cartoon: Sponge-Bob and the weekly round-up of political cartoons in the Sunday Times

 Describe a perfect day. A Sunday when the Redskins win

Walter Mitty fantasy: Winning another Academy Award

Who'd play you in the movie? Johnny Depp, with the nose appliance worn by Nicole Kidman in The Hours

Most embarrassing moment? Sorry, I just can't go there.

Best advice you ever got? Twenty-five years ago, Roy Acuff (no kidding) told me, "Make 'em laugh and make 'em cry, and you'll have a good show."

Favorite bumper sticker? "I am a paw-roud parent of a Burnley-Moran Bobcat"

Paul Wagner