Peter Sollett, Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist
For all the current talk of the sky falling on American independent cinema, you don’t have to look any further than Peter Sollett’s recent experiences to see how tough things have become for even the most gifted indie writer-directors. Thirty-two-year-old Brooklyn native Sollett grew up in an Italian-Jewish neighborhood in Bensonhurst and studied film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduating in 1998. In 2000, he directed and co-wrote, with his partner Eva Vives, the short filmFive Feet High and Rising, about Victor, a Latino teenager living in New York’s Lower East Side. The film won best short at both Sundance and Cannes, and its success allowed Sollett and Vives to develop the project into a feature. The resulting film, Raising Victor Vargas (2002), used the same two lead actors, Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, and returned to the story of the eponymous Victor, his romantic exploits and oddball family. Released in 2003, the film was both a critical and financial success and gained five Independent Spirit Award nominations, however Sollett subsequently struggled to set up his follow-up project and took five years before making his next film.
Sollett’s long-awaited sophomore effort is Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, an adaptation by Lorene Scafaria of the bestselling novel of the same name by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. While its title references the Thin Man movies of the 1930s and 40s, the protagonists (played by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, respectively) are a decidedly contemporary pair, two indie loving kids who meet and fall for each other over the course of one night in NYC – despite the myriad obstacles presented by their exes, unreliable friends and Nick’s ailing Yugo. Sollett’s connection with the characters and their lifestyle is very apparent in his affectionate portrayal of
these two smart but unlucky-in-love teenagers, though the film is as much a love letter to New York at night as it is to adolescent romance. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is funny, sweet and unashamedly enjoyable. As hinted at by the title, the film has an excellent soundtrack, featuring artists like the National, Richard Hawley and the Shout Out Louds, which perfectly complements the action and lends the proceedings some serious musical cred.
Filmmaker spoke to Sollett about the challenge of getting his second film made, crying at The 400 Blows, and the wisdom of John Cassevetes.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the five-year period between Raising Victor Vargas and now. I think it’s been a lot longer than anyone would have expected before your second film appeared.
Sollett: Well, I was absolutely trying to make a film. I went back with my co-writer from Victor Vargas, Eva Vives, and we wrote another script which we set up at a studio and we got stuck in development for quite a long time. That took up a long while and then, while we continued to seek financing for that film, I started to get involved in screenplays that were written by other people. This is the first one where all of these pieces of the puzzle came together.
Filmmaker: It seems strange that after Victor Vargas you had such difficulties given the film’s success.
Sollett: Well, it was interesting because I feel very confident (unfortunately…) in the fact that I’d not be able to get Victor Vargas made right now and, as everyone has been talking about quite a bit recently, things have changed dramatically in the independent world. I don’t think that something happened very suddenly this year, I think that something happened very slowly over the past few years and I think that between what I expected would happen after Vargas, and what did happen, is explained by the shift in that sector. You know, I was trying to make another movie in a similar way to the way we made Vargas and we really couldn’t get anywhere. So, in a way, what I’ve been doing is learning a different way of making movies, which is the way one makes movies inside the system. Because I’ve had to.
Filmmaker: Did you turn your focus to other people’s screenplays in order to help your chances of getting projects off the ground?
Sollett: After coming out of a long development situation on the movie that Eva and I wrote, so much time had gone by that I felt like I needed to increase my odds of making another film in as dramatic a way as possible. I remember Eva saying to me at one point, “I think the only mistake for you right now would be to not make a film if you can find the opportunity.” I got into this because I wanted to make films, not because I didn’t want to make films. For those years, I wasn’t making anything and it was incredibly frustrating and I found it very upsetting.
Filmmaker: A lot of directors who have projects stuck in development hell often turn to directing TV to keep working. Was that something that tempted you at all?
Sollett: Absolutely. I mean, I would do television. The majority of the best filmmaking right now is on television – I’d love to work, and it’s a great way to keep working, but I didn’t do any of that after Vargas. I did a couple of television commercials and I started teaching at Columbia film school – which I loved and want to do more of – but no TV, unfortunately.
Filmmaker: Your short film Five Feet High and Rising and your debut feature, Raising Victor Vargas, were both about the same set of characters. Was it daunting or liberating to leave that world behind?
Sollett: I actually found it very liberating. I love the short movie and I love the feature very much, but they were built around, and for, very specific people – I’m talking about Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte and Melonie Diaz. In a way, I felt very liberated but I also knew that I couldn’t go backward. They were growing up, their lives were starting to change, they started to move to L.A. and act in other people’s films. I treasure my experience with them and it’s been really amazing to make a film about someone else and someplace.
Filmmaker: What particularly attracted you to Nick and Norah?
Sollett: Well, I read the script and I was shocked because it was kind of like something autobiographical that I wished that I’d written. It was actually much closer to my personal experiences than Victor Vargas was, in that it was about kids who lived just outside the city who liked to come into the city to spend time and live their lives and meet people. It’s about people who are passionate about music, especially new music, and most importantly because it’s about falling in love in the East Village, which is something that I’ve experienced. I read the script and I said, “My God, I feel expert in many of these areas! I have to do this because I think I could do this pretty well.”
Filmmaker: It feels very much like the flipside to Victor Vargas.
Sollett: Yeah, they’re set in the same place virtually and it’s not a stretch of the imagination that Nick and Norah are down the street at Arlene’s grocery and at the other end of the street is Victor trying to charm Judy.
Filmmaker: You mentioned your passion for music. When you were a teenager, did you fanatically make mixtapes like Nick?
Sollett: Pretty much, yeah. I just wrote these liner notes for the soundtrack, which just came out, and I wrote about being a teenager and working in a record store, which is a treasured memory. At that time, I was really just obsessed. It was before [mp3s] had come [into being] and working in a record store meant that I could pretty much listen to anything I wanted to in that shop, so every time I went in there was a major discovery. People came into the record store and wanted to talk about music and it was really a new way of relating to people for me.
Filmmaker: How heavily involved were you in choosing the songs on the soundtrack?
Sollett: I was very hands on. It was really a collaboration between myself, Myron Kerstein (who also cut Vargas and edited Garden State and was very involved in that soundtrack) and our music supervisor Linda Cohen. For the most part, what you hear in the movie is songs that I emailed to Myron while we were shooting that he placed in the film. That was one of the most pure aspects of the movie, the songs that are in it – they’re really only in there because we liked them there, there’s no other commercial agenda. I’m really proud of that, because I really feel you can always smell that on a soundtrack when they throw in a cover of something that was previously a hit or something like that.
Filmmaker: With the Devendra Banhart cameo and Bishop Allen playing live in the film, it really just seems like you were having fun with the musical aspects of the film.
Sollett: Yeah, it was a total dream come true and I was telling Myron that I’m not sure if I will ever get to make another film that’s quite this… cool, where musically speaking we get to follow our interests as much as we did on this. I think I got lucky because the financier and the studio, there was nobody in that group who knew all that much about music or the music that we had in the film, so there were really not that many voices in there. I kind of felt like it was Myron and me in the editing room getting giddy on the possibilities of the music we could put into these scenes. It was pretty thrilling that way.
Filmmaker: When I spoke to Greg Mottola when Superbad was released last year, he was rhapsodizing about working with Michael Cera. He said he was just hugely advanced for his years.
Sollett: Yeah, it’s true. I think Michael may be a genius. [laughs] I don’t really like that term, but I don’t really know how else to explain it because his performance appears – and I know for a fact it’s not – completely effortless, completely honest. He is just thoroughly accomplished for his age and I don’t know quite how to account for it. He’s an incredibly intelligent guy and he’s certainly wise beyond his years, and he’s an incredible pleasure to be around. It’s very, very impressive. He’s a very impressive guy.
Filmmaker: There’s one shot of him in the car where he’s smiling, and it seems so natural and unmannered that it feels as if there couldn’t be a camera there.
Sollett: Yeah, I think he’s a terrific actor who’s at an amazing age, and I just can’t wait to see how he’s going to evolve as a performer, as an artist. It’s going to be thrilling to see it happen.
Filmmaker: What are you working on at the moment?
Sollett: I’m reading scripts and trying to figure out if there are any out there that I can make well. That’s really the criteria that I’m using: I’m trying not to think too much about “Is it a studio?” or “Is it independent?,” “Is the budget high or is it low?,” I’m just trying to figure out how I can try to make a good film, which is the only way I can tell how to do it right now.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Sollett: That’s a tough one. I’m not a big crier, but I cry every time I see The 400 Blows. But I haven’t seen it in a while. That’s my big cry movie. Poor Antoine just can’t catch a break.
Filmmaker: If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
Sollett: I would say yes more often. I think that it would widen me. I have a tendency to not try new things when I should, but if you don’t go, you’ll never know. I’m trying to say yes as often as I can now and I think that is ultimately the key to continuing to make films. It’s just never the perfect time – it’s like having a kid, you know what I mean? [laughs] It’s never the right time, the script’s never just right, the edit is never just right, so it’s always a leap of faith. For me, it’s a question of training myself to take bigger leaps of faith. Dave Eggers wrote this essay, maybe in McSweeney’s, and one of the sentences was “No is for pussies.” Now, Dave is not afraid to say no [laughs] – I’ve gotten to know him a little bit – and he may have been talking to himself a little bit in that piece, but I kind of agree.
Filmmaker: Which phrase best describes your philosophy on life?
Sollett: I don’t have a [phrase that describes my] life philosophy, but I can start off with a movie philosophy. My favorite Cassavetes quote – here it is, very simple. He said, “You’re either going to make the movie, or not make the movie.” What he meant by that was we’re never going to have the money we need or the time we need or the help we need, but in spite of that we need to make a choice. Are we going to or are we not going to do this? I definitely apply that to my life too. It’s always going to be kind of a mess, but either we’re going to trudge forward and do this, or we’re not. And to choose not to do it is no way to live. That’s been a helpful quote from John for me. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Finally, which classic film are you most ashamed to admit you’ve never seen?
Sollett: The Thin Man. My excuse is that I didn’t want it to shade my direction of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. [Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel] was an hommage to those characters and the quality of their banter.