2007 Fast Track
Currently in its fifth year, Fast Track, a joint program of the Los Angeles Film Festival and Filmmaker magazine, was created to promote the careers of talented filmmakers over the course of a year, while spreading the word about their newest projects. The filmmakers chosen are alumni of the LAFF as well as alumni of Film Independent’s Talent Development Programs: the Filmmaker Labs, Project: Involve, and the grants awarded at the Spirit Awards. Here are the Fast Track filmmakers of 2007 and their upcoming projects.
You know you’re in for some trouble when your dutiful Christian wife discovers that you’ve been secretly donating to a local sperm bank. That’s the premise of Robbie Pickering’s feature film Natural Selection, which follows housewife Linda White as she breaks off from her idyllic yet reserved life in search of the “mulleted, foul-mouthed child” that her husband laid the seed for behind her back. In addition to directing, he also wrote the screenplay which was selected to take part in Film Independent’s 2006 Screenwriter’s Lab.
Pickering, one of only four students to graduate with thesis honors from USC’s Graduate Screenwriting Program in 2006, was prompted to write the story “about a year ago, [when] my stepfather became terminally ill and my mom, a Texan housewife, was suddenly faced with the prospect of being alone for the first time in her life. I had been wanting to write a story about the women I knew growing up in Houston for a long time, and my mom’s fragile emotional state became the starting point for the movie,” he says, “…did I mention it’s a comedy?”
Before going to USC, Pickering graduated from the Film Production Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Art in 2003, where he was awarded a Lew Wasserman Screenwriting Award and a Warner Brothers Production Grant for what would become his critically acclaimed short film, Prom Night, “a raucous comedy about an awkward boy’s chaotic senior prom.”
Now in the midst of directing his first feature, which is being produced by Charlie Mason and Justin Moore-Lewy, whose company Perfect Weekend just produced Ferris Wheel starring Charlize Theron, Pickering reflects how “my short film and commercial work has helped me to hone my comedic voice and base the humor in my stories less on gimmicks and more on human need.”
Robbie Pickering: (917) 846-7291; [email protected]
Many artists have experienced times of creative discouragement and rejection, but the successful ones find a way to push through it. Serving as an example of this is writer-director Mike Ott, whose newest project about a 28-year-old actor on the verge of superstardom, yet still living with his parents on the outskirts of L.A., was born out of the same dilemma. “A Letter to Elise was originally inspired after a stage in my life when I was finding a number of my friends giving up on their creative careers and endeavors due to a lack of immediate success,” he says.
Rather than fall in line with the pack, Ott, who earned his MFA in Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts, found strong comfort and inspiration in the career of legendary filmmaker John Cassavetes, a man who “reveled in so much success in the past, yet [he’s still] forced to prove himself as a director. I felt it really illustrated the journey of any artist, a series of ups and downs, successes and failures.”
While some may look at A Letter to Elise as a send-up of Hollywood ethics, Ott stresses that “the main character striving to become an actor is really a side note to the plot. The film in a way is more about the people who are trying to survive on the outskirts of Hollywood…the only thing it comments on in regards to Hollywood is people’s desire for instant success and fame, without willingness to struggle.”
Growing up himself on the outskirts of Los Angeles (Valencia, Calif.), a self-proclaimed “different world,” Ott clearly has a solid, firsthand understanding of his subject material. Helping him with his endeavor is co-writer and producer Jennifer Shahin, who worked with Ott on his previous feature Analog Days, which premiered at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival. In addition to being a filmmaker, Ott also finds the time to run his own record label, Sound Virus Records, releasing CDs and vinyl for unknown, yet promising, artists like himself.
Mike Ott: (661) 312-6569; [email protected]
With the raging Iraq War serving as a backdrop for his directorial debut, A Lifetime in Heat, Joe Forte paints a poignant picture of a day in the life of a suburban Detroit teenager who spends his last hours with his closest friends before being shipped away to fight for his country as a Marine.
The idea for the story arose spontaneously during a visit with his sister-in-law and 17-year-old nephew, whom the main character is partially based on. “I was down in their basement and realized their entire family history was stored down there – everything that made him who he is, yet also everything he was trying to get away from. That was the departure point and became the setting for the film. A kid trapped in a suburban basement, trying to get out.”
Producing A Lifetime in Heat is Gina Kwon (Me and You and Everyone We Know). Also to her credit, Kwon co-produced the enjoyably dark The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, and won Film Independent’s 2005 Bravo/American Express Producers Award. “Daring, smart and experienced” is how Forte concisely describes her.
Given Kwon’s success in producing small and meaningful films, Forte should feel comfortable that A Lifetime in Heat will be viewed on a humble scale compared to his recent gigs. “The last two films I’ve worked on have been large, studio movies, including Firewall, starring Harrison Ford, which I created and wrote. This is smaller and more intimate.” And as a result, instead of focusing on Hollywood standards, A Lifetime in Heat is justly concerned “about authenticity; the struggle between one’s deepest personal desires versus society’s expectations. It’s definitely a personal theme and hopefully a universal one.”
Joe Forte: [email protected]
Susan West has a lot of experience producing. She’s collaborated with creative filmmakers such as Eleanor Coppola and Academy Award winner Jessica Yu and has covered just about every medium from film to television to documentary. Her most recent accomplishment was producing Yu’s latest film, Protagonist, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and will be released theatrically later this year.
Now West is taking on an elaborate period piece (she’s currently finalizing an agreement with a “very well regarded director”), appropriately entitled Elysian Fields, which is set during the birth of jazz in New Orleans. “I was so struck by how beautifully it was written, and how vivid it made New Orleans in this particular time and place I knew immediately I was committed, no matter what, to make this film happen,” West says. “Plus, since I had been working in documentaries, the fact that this story is based in actual events made it even more appealing to me.”
The story she is referring to is that of Countess Willie Piazza, a woman who tries to save her only home, which also happens to be a brothel, by challenging the tough political establishment of the city. “She enlists the help of two men – one the father of jazz, the other a lawyer and amateur in the new art of moving pictures, who counsels her to play America’s first race card.” Despite all the opportunities to take political stabs, West assures Elysian Fields is ultimately “about someone’s right to live where they choose, which is of course an issue just as relevant today as then.”
The fact that she is working in New Orleans inevitability raises questions about the city’s current state. Her answer: “Jeffrey LaHoste (The Laramie Project), the script’s author and a New Orleans native, and I started working together on the project at least 6 months prior to Katrina, so it was not born out a response to the disaster. However, since that time, the fragility of the city is so clear, and the sense that it could vanish has made us feel all the more urgently that this film must be made and very soon…plus, we are committed to bringing as much work as possible back in to the city.”
Susan West: [email protected]
Fatigued and practically penniless, Silas Howard was unsure of her future after completing By Hook or By Crook, her first feature film, co-directed by Harriet Dodge. Despite the film’s success in premiering at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and being released theatrically by Artistic License, the experience was just draining for Howard, “I thought I’d never want to make another film,” Howard says.
Things would soon change for Howard after coming across the interesting story of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician during the 1940s “who married several women, and who, at the end of his life, was discovered to have been born female. I struck not only by the world’s perception of him but by how much I related personally to his story.” This would eventually become the basis for her next feature, Exactly Like You.
Howard was quickly drawn into the controversial subject, “Issues of gender are so complex and yet metaphorically have the potential to speak to everyone. To some extent we all create who we are in the world, embellish or hide things about ourselves, and perhaps many harbor a secret fear being found out and labeled a fraud. In the end the power of taking an audience from voyeur to sympathetic, co-conspirator is one the most exciting journeys a film can create. That goal was probably my strongest pull towards this story.”
Being a musician herself and touring eight years with her band, Tribe 8, nationally and internationally has certainly helped Howard keep a firm grasp on the lead character who “scores the world around him by translating sounds and interactions between people into music. Music has a way of reaching people’s visceral level, bypassing words and labels which can be so reductive. I love that Billy was a jazz musician, a man constantly improving on the spot — creating on the edge of nothing.”
Exactly Like You is produced by Effie T. Brown (Rocket Science). Currently Howard is writing an adaptation of a novel for production company East of Doheny that Allison Anders is scheduled to direct.
Silas Howard: [email protected]
Having lived and worked in rural Kenya, accomplished documentary filmmaker Amie Williams was more than qualified to write and direct her latest project, Jua Kali, about a young, soul-searching Kenyan girl named Grace living on the fringes of society with other AIDS orphans like herself. Williams was a teacher and health-communications consultant for non-profit organizations back in the 1980s, a time during which no one “could have predicted the devastation of the AIDS pandemic.”
Jua Kali, which translates to “Harsh Sun,” is actually based on an exemplary, real-life student Williams once taught there. “Grace’s story has always haunted me, not so much because it’s about AIDS and Africa,” she says, “but because this girl’s spirit was so remarkable, her absolute refusal to take the cards that life had dealt her…she was playing from another hand altogether.”
After her mother died, Grace went off to work for a wealthy family in Nairobi. Years later, Williams still felt a connection to the girl and began the process of tracking her down, which still continues today. “I never found her. But she lives on, I think in many young women today, faced with tough choices, and choosing life. This project is to put her face on the map, and simply listen to what Grace might have to say.”
Williams’s films have won numerous awards over the years including the International Documentary Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Media Grant, the SONY/Streisand Award for emerging female filmmakers, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Peace Grant.
Throughout her career documenting controversial films in a raw and authentic manner, films that concern “broader social/political issues grounded in small/personal stories”, Williams has mastered the ability to “let the story flow, however messy or non-linear, and to let the camera discover the ‘silences’ between people’s words, between what they wish for and what is.”
Amie Williams: [email protected]; balmaidenfilms.com
“The Obit Writer was inspired by a macabre fascination with obituaries. Obits are poignant, inspiring, and sometimes hilarious sketches of individuals who left a mark on the world, which is something we all aspire to in some way, consciously or unconsciously,” writer-director Bill Oliver says of his latest feature film, which follows the life of a NYC crime reporter who gets resentfully reassigned to writing obituaries and begins to investigate the murder of one of his subjects.
The idea for the story developed between Oliver and his writing partner, Peter Nickowitz, while conceiving a series of “what if” scenarios surrounding a person whose job is to write about the dead. “What if the obituary writer falls through the rabbit-hole of the obituary he is writing and becomes involved with the loved ones of the deceased person? What if the dead man were about his same age, which causes him to reflect on his own mortality? What if the dead man were murdered? What if the obit writer decides to investigate the murder?”
Oliver, who earned his MFA in directing at the American Film Institute, is not shy about revealing that both he and Nickowitz are strongly influenced by “the great noir and neo-noir films from the ’40s to the present, movies like Double Indemnity, The Naked City, The Dark Corner, In a Lonely Place, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Croupier.” Many of Oliver’s other short films, especially Guilt, a story about “a son who is asked by his family to donate his heart to save his dying mother,” also creatively reflect these much-imitated, yet seldom-rivaled film classics.
Another similar theme present Oliver’s works is the complexity of family dynamics. The Obit Writer, which is being produced by Susan Stover (High Art, Laurel Canyon), is “also about family in the sense that the events of the story cause the main character, Cam, to reflect on his own lack of family and the terror of oblivion,” Oliver explains, “an obituary describes not only ‘what’ we have achieved but also ‘who,’ if anyone, we have loved.”
Bill Oliver: (323) 691-1279; [email protected]
Living in a world that gets smaller every day due to technological advances in global communication, writer-director Minh Nguyen-Vo’s background experience makes him easily eligible to take on this subject in his latest film, Point of Reference, which traces the path of an elderly immigrant who relies on the accuracy of time and location devices in our society to discover his ultimate destiny in America.
Growing up in a small village in Vietnam, Nguyen-Vo spend much of his time in the region’s sole movie theater where he learned to escape the brutality of the war around him. Now with all that’s going on in the world today, Nguyen-Vo felt it was as important a time as ever to make this film. “I am fascinated with the speed that globalization, i.e. immigration, free trade and technology, is accelerating the change on national, ethnic and personal identity worldwide. The world suddenly becomes so small but the differences in cultures and religions that dictate human behaviors are still so wide [and] bring many misunderstandings, distrusts and eventually wars and terrorism.”
All of these ideas coincide within Point of Reference, which Nguyen-Vo refers to as his “reflection into the ways lives and goods cross national and ethnic borders in Southern California, particularly in relation to a multiethnic group of people living on the fringe of society. They are losing their points of reference in space and time and attempt to transcend these losses in their own ways.”
Nguyen-Vo spent time in France and the U.S. training in mathematics and physics before deciding to try filmmaking. Buffalo Boy, his acclaimed first feature film, became a worldwide hit, winning 11 international awards and the FIPRESCI Award for Best Film. Being produced by DViant Films, which is now handling a collection of feature films that are shot by foreign directors from inside the United States, Point of Reference should prove his strongest and most appropriately-timed films to date, as he assures his close proximity to issues of foreign relation grants him “the observation of life in different perspectives simultaneously.”
Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo: (310) 293-4181; [email protected]
Director Jon Reiss admits that “since my own trip down the punk rock road, I have been obsessed with how subcultures provide a way for people to find out who they truly are.” This obsession began when he was young and has continued to captivate him, most recently influencing his latest project, Suck, a story about a quiet girl who finds herself drawn to a wild musician and on a greater level, the growing punk rock scene of ’70s San Francisco.
“I grew up in the stultifying suburbs of what was to become Silicon Valley, ¬ thoroughly alienated from my peers and the world around me,” Reiss says. While attending college, studying anarchist economics, he began working for, Target Video, a famous San Francisco studio which churned out early punk and hardcore bands such as Black Flag, Crucifix and Flipper, which sparked Reiss’s fascination enough to start documenting the local punk scene. “The experience changed my life completely, stopping my predestined career in academia and turning me into a guerilla filmmaker par excellence.”
But it wasn’t until a few years ago when screenwriter Ursula Holloman called him up out of the blue for research information on a script she was writing that Reiss finally had a creative outlet to focus his unique punk rock experiences into. “When Ursula told me the story, I knew that I had to be involved. It spoke of what punk rock meant for me and for so many of my friends at the time, a place to create a sense of family amongst misfits ¬and a place in which to transform as a person.”
Truly no stranger to counterculture, Reiss’s previous film was a feature length documentary entitled Bomb It that explored the worldwide popularity of graffiti and premiered recently at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. His other films include Better Living Through Circuitry, which explores the rave culture in a crazed yet amusing manner and Cleopatra’s Second Husband, a probing, psychological drama. In addition, Reiss has also directed numerous groundbreaking music videos, including “Happiness in Slavery” by Nine Inch Nails, which won awards at the Chicago and San Francisco film festivals and was voted Top Ten by the Village Voice Critic’s Poll for Best Music Video.
Jon Reiss: cell – (310) 866-7210, home – (310) 471-7210; [email protected], jonreiss.com
For Aldo Velasco, much of his newest film SuperMacho comes from his own actual experience working as a private investigator. “I’m not a tough guy at all. In fact, I’m kind of scrawny and not at all imposing. So as a P.I. I had to force myself to draw on an internal reserve of ‘machismo’ I scarcely knew existed, just like the main character of my film. Alex takes a job arresting shoplifters, and he finds to his astonishment that he takes a perverse pleasure in dominating others. The twists and turns of his transformation from geek to macho tough were based in part on my own work experience.”
Velasco, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico but who lives in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, has a deep understanding of the Chicano culture and is adamant to not “rely on the stock types often found in commercial Latino films: the saintly maid, the kindly abuelita, or the hapless immigrant. The characters in SuperMacho are based on real Chicanos, some more likable than others, and none of them saints.”
Helping him out is producer Jasmine Jaisinghani who Velasco says has “single-handedly transformed it from a script in my hand to a viable film production. She’s tireless and persistent in a way a producer needs to be, and she’s also a great defender of the elements that make SuperMacho unique and powerful.” After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, Jaisinghani worked for Capitol Records in promotion as well as George Harrison’s label, Dark Horse Records. Having most recently produced The Good, the Bad and the Avon Lady, she is currently in the midst of producing a number of films as well as recording artists.
Velasco earned his MFA in Film Production from UCLA and has directed numerous short films, the most recent of which, Hinge, premiered at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival. “My previous works have been shorts, so by necessity SuperMacho is more story-based and less wantonly impressionistic. But it shares with all my works an unconventional blending of comedic and dramatic styles, and an unusual tone of absurdist-realism.”
Aldo Velasco: [email protected]