When a Sundance audience learned after a Wednesday screening of "The End of Love" that director-writer-star Mark Webber had cast his own 2-year-old son Isaac in the film, a collective "awww" went up in the theater.
The crowd seemed both surprised and impressed that Webber was the father of the precocious child, who figures heavily in the film and its story of a single father's grieving the death of his wife. What most in the audience probably didn't know, however, was that Isaac's real-life mom -- the actress Frankie Shaw -- is still very much alive. In fact, Shaw and Webber reportedly recently broke up, with the split inspiring the filmmaker to write the movie.
Indeed, the drama often straddles the line between truth and fiction. Webber's character -- named Mark -- is a struggling actor, and he goes on auditions and talks about landing roles that one imagines Webber might actually seek in real life. (Webber, best known for supporting roles in "Storytelling" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," is currently starring in two other films at Sundance -- "For a Good Time, Call..." and "Save the Date.")
Meanwhile, we see Mark interact with his crowd of L.A. acting buddies -- he tries out for a film with Amanda Seyfried, borrows money from Jason Ritter and attends a party at Michael Cera's house. In a way, the film has a lot in common with Cera's 2009 Sundance premiere "Paper Heart," a similarly could-this-be-real movie about the development of a romantic relationship between the actor and Charlene Yi, who were also dating off-screen at the time.
Webber said making a film that felt true to life was important for him, saying repeatedly in a question-and-answer session after the screening that he is "obsessed with realism."
"Being an actor, more than half of your job is to pretend that a P.A. didn't just take you from your trailer to a set with lights. It's been hard for me," the 31-year-old said.
Accordingly, Webber said he never told Isaac what to say in the film. Instead, he spent a month "rehearsing" with his son and a cinematographer using a discreet camera. He informed Isaac that a friend would be taking pictures and videos of them for a while, so the child never knew he was actually taking part in a feature film.
"When you're making a film that's improvised, there's a tendency to think it's somehow easier -- but it's not. We had to be very prepared, Webber said. "There was a meticulous outline with plot points and emotional beats. But I was living in character and guiding him with the power of suggestion and knowing his moods. So anything he did would pretty much be right."
How long will Webber wait to tell Isaac that he's made his film debut?
"I can't wait to show him -- when he's 7," Webber said. "I think that's the appropriate age."
-- Amy Kaufman in Park City, Utah
Photo: Mark Webber's 2-year-old son, Isaac. Credit: Sundance Film Festival