MOON MOLSON. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
Short films are rarely as devastating as Pop Foul, the lyrically mounted, subtly acted debut of Columbia University’s Moon Molson. The film tells the tale of a confused young boy who struggles with his reaction to a beating his father endures at the hands of a local thug following a Little League baseball game. Pop Foul stingingly depicts the emotional violence that follows the physical as the young father enlists the boy to deceive his mother about the incident in order to retain the remaining fragments of his shattered masculinity.
Although he’s yet to earn his MFA, Molson has been racking up an assortment of honors on the American festival circuit. Since its world premiere at last year’s American Black Film Festival, Pop Foul has won the HBO short film award as well as prizes at SXSW, the Independent Film Festival of Boston and third place at the 2006 Student Academy Awards.
Pop Foul originated at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a short story by Anthony Eleftherion titled “Boys’ Club.” “After reading it, I asked him to adapt it [to the predominantly black milieu of Newark] because I thought it was too ethnically specific for me to pull off,” Molson explains of the original story, which was about a boy from a Greek-Italian family in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst. Pop Foul is largely influenced by the French new wave and the Black American social realism of the 1970s. Not the blaxploitation films, mind you, but rather the dramatic comedies like Claudine, Cooley High, Cornbread, Earl and Me, and A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich.”
The Grand Rapids, Mich.-bred, Harlem-based Molson, whose interests as a filmmaker he lists as “urban poverty, cathartic violence, concepts of masculinity, dysfunctional families and mental disorders,” is developing a feature set among Latino teenagers in Washington Heights and will soon be directing the short film Meadowlandz, which he describes as the story of “a black teen who finds his alcoholic stepfather unconscious on the floor of their tenement building hallway and, after a futile search to find a place for the man to sleep, is pressured by his friends into murdering him.” — Brandon Harris
Contact: moonmole ‘àt’ mac.com
SOPHIE BARTHES. PHOTO BY: FRED HAYES
Filmmaker Sophie Barthes plans to open her first feature, Cold Souls, with a title card containing words from the French philosopher René Descartes: “The soul has its principal seat in the small gland located in the middle of the brain.”
The quote is typical of Barthes’s ironic and unexpected sensibility. In both her Sundance short Happiness and her upcoming feature Cold Souls, she tackles dark themes (loneliness and existential crisis, respectively) with a witty blend of fantasy and character-based humor reminiscent of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. “I’m very interested in poetic science fiction, films like Alphaville, that play with philosophical concerns,” Barthes says.
Cold Souls is the story of a famous American actor who contracts with Soul Storage, a New York lab that offers its world-weary customers relief from the burden of their souls. (The indeterminate made physical is the theme of her short as well; it is the story of a depressed factory worker who impulsively buys a box of happiness.) Barthes says her feature script was inspired by a dream she had following a viewing of Woody Allen’s Sleeper. “I was in a strange, futuristic office in a line of people,” she says, “wearing the same costume as Woody Allen. We are all holding a box and are told that our souls have been extracted. Woody Allen opens his box and inside there’s a chickpea.”
Barthes grew up in the Middle East and South America — “My father worked for a French multinational, and I moved around every two or three years,” she says — before attending Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. After school she co-directed two films with cinematographer and director Andrij Parekh, a doc on Yemen and a short, Snowblink, shot in Ukraine. This year she has attended both the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab with Cold Souls, and she arrived there with an actor (Paul Giamatti), d.p. (Parekh) and producers (Giamatti’s Touchy Feely Films and Journeyman Pictures) attached. — Scott Macaulay
Contact: Craig Kestel at William Morris: ckestel ‘àt’ wma.com
“About a year ago,” Daniel Barnz says, “I decided that if I didn’t have a project in production by November of this year, I was going to abandon L.A. and move to Africa for a year with my family and go live among the elephants.” At the moment, though, Barnz is not packing his bags for the safari but directing his debut feature, Phoebe in Wonderland, on Long Island.
Phoebe is the tale of a 9-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) with behavioural problems and the attempts by her parents (Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman) and an inspirational teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to help and understand her. Barnz first wrote Phoebe almost a decade ago, and although people loved it, they couldn’t see a film with a 9-year-old lead and a mainly female cast getting financing. “It’s been an uphill battle,” Barnz says, “and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the word ‘no’ in conjunction with this project.”
Though Barnz has worked consistently as a Hollywood screenwriter since the late ’90s, often with his writing partner, Vanity Fair journalist Ned Zeman, Phoebe is the first of his scripts to get made. Many of his and Zeman’s projects originated with Zeman’s reportage, and the two have been commissioned to write screenplays for Jodie Foster (Sugarland), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Man Who Loved Grizzlies), Bruce Willis (The Billionaire Fugitive) and Mel Gibson (Under and Alone and Sam and George). Frustratingly, all are still in development. Both Under and Alone and Emperor Zehnder, a biopic to be directed by Gregory Hoblit and starring Richard Gere, were greenlit and weeks away from production when the plug was pulled.
Now, however, filming on Phoebe is under way, with Half Nelson’s Lynette Howell on board as producer. Barnz admits that all the experience he gained on his Hollywood projects has actually helped him become a better director than when he first tried to get Phoebe made. He describes finally filming his pet project as “most exhilarating and also fairly exhausting. It’s pretty great.” — Nick Dawson
Contact: Adriana Albergetti at Endeavor: (310) 248-2000
JENNIFER VENDITTI. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK
Jennifer Venditti has always walked backward into her future. “I was obsessed with characters and character through clothing — that’s what got me into fashion,” says the casting director turned director, who started out in the magazine world. She quit when she got close enough to see that for all its creativity and access to talent, the fashion industry espoused an idea of beauty that was as narrow as its waistlines.
Photographer Carter Smith had noticed Venditti’s keen eye for street casting and brought her to Scotland to find real people for a W magazine shoot. That first job grew into one of the most dynamic and successful print-casting agencies in the city, stuffing its files with characters Venditti pulls off streets from Minnesota to Rio. Smith came back to Venditti to populate the world of his Sundance-winning short Bugcrush. She was casting with Smith in Maine when some bullies told her about the boy who would become the subject of her first film, Billy the Kid.
“Sometimes, of course, casting gets trying, seeing face after face,” Venditti says. “It’s a huge turnoff when people are trying to please or impress me. Billy wasn’t even aware of the idea of conforming to the accepted. He wanted what other people had, but he didn’t have any idea of changing himself.”
Billy the Kid is as deep a character study as one is likely to find in documentary, and it was honored with a Jury Prize by the SXSW Film Festival. Billy, 15, is a strange and singular person, alone in his articulate, curious, passionate opinions. Without narration or any third-party commentary, Venditti plays the audience’s temptation to judge and diagnose with a maestro’s touch. He might be autistic, he might have Asperger’s, but who cares? Venditti believes in willing away labels and seeing beauty without demanding to understand it, and the film proves her right. — Alicia Van Couvering
Contact: (212) 741-1281, www.billythekiddocumentary.com
KIM REED. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
At its most basic level, editor turned director Kim Reed says her first feature doc is “a good old family drama” dealing with classic themes of sibling rivalry. She began the film when, after her father died, she journeyed back to her Montana hometown for his funeral. Deciding to film her attempts to repair her fractured relationship with her older, “fiercely competitive” adopted brother, she brought a cameraman with a Sony Z1 camera and began Prodigal Sons, currently in post.
Oh yeah, two more things: Reed is a transsexual, and her trip back home was her first as a woman. And, while making the film, Reed and her brother Marc discovered that he was the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
The combination of family drama, gender politics and cultural history could make Prodigal Sons, in the words of one industry watcher, “next year’s Capturing the Friedmans.”
Reed says that before she could begin Prodigal Sons she had to reconcile herself with the idea of mining her own past for a movie. “When you’re trans, everyone says to disappear,” she says. “If you are able to pass, to call attention to yourself is seen by most people as absurd. Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t want to shoot this film,” she continues. “I’m comfortable in my anonymity. But the filmmaker in me couldn’t not shoot it.”
Reed began her career as a film and video editor in San Francisco, but, she says, “when I transitioned genders, I wasn’t comfortable staying in the film world there. If you transition at work, you can just say, ‘Next week when I come in I’ll have a different name.’ But [as a freelance editor] it was about going back and contacting people from every job I had done. I wasn’t ready for it.” Reed moved to New York and became the editor of DV Magazine for several years until the lure of Prodigal Sons’s story took her back to Montana and then later to Croatia, where she filmed Marc “inheriting his legacy” in a meeting with Oja Kodar, Welles’s ex.
“I don’t know any trans filmmakers who are in charge of the media that’s portraying them, so for me that’s really important,” says Reed. “But the really powerful thing about this film is that there’s so much other drama going that the trans issue, which is usually enough to swamp any story, kind of evaporates. Individuals are people first and then whatever identity politics you want after that.” After she finishes the doc, Reed will work on a narrative feature about an Olympic athlete who takes a drug test and finds she has XY chromosomes. — S. M.
Contact: kr ‘àt’ bigskyfilm.com, bigskyfilm.com
ANDY BLUBAUGH. PHOTO BY ERIC ROSE
Andy Blubaugh makes films quite unlike anyone else, but it was not always this way. Things changed when he was sent a camera belonging to his late mother. Blubaugh conceived an idea for a fictional short film based on this event but felt he was “hiding behind the narrative.” “What was really interesting to me about it was my own reaction, and it felt insincere to try to cloak that within narrative,” he says.
The resulting film, The Burden, saw the emergence of Blubaugh’s distinctive documentary style, which blends interviews, reenactments and “symbolistic imagery.” Blubaugh’s films are about exploring subjects, and his ideas “come from identifying unique phenomena and seeing how they relate to me personally, and then on a broader scale.” Blubaugh’s two most recent shorts, Hello, Thanks and Scaredycat, both Sundance selections, have employed and built upon this method, with the latter also incorporating animated sequences.
Hello, Thanks is a playful examination of lonely-hearts ads, Blubaugh’s identity as a gay man, and language, but Scaredycat is much darker, and was prompted by an incident in which he was attacked and robbed by a gang of youths. “I knew that it would be my next film within a day,” says Blubaugh. “There’s nothing more confusing and baffling than being the victim of a random crime, and I used the film to understand what was going on.”
Though he expected it to be an angry film, after Blubaugh interviewed one of his attackers, Scaredycat evolved into a brutally honest examination of his own rational and irrational fears and also his most accomplished and powerful work yet.
Blubaugh is now developing a feature about his relationship with an older man that began in his teens, a subject he has previously attempted to tackle. “I’ve always failed because I found it difficult to separate myself from the material enough,” he explains. “So I’m going to incorporate that difficulty into telling this story. I freely admit I don’t know how it ends — by producing the film it’s going to produce its own ending.” — N. D.
Contact: acb ‘àt’ andyblubaugh.com, andyblubaugh.com
AZAZEL JACOBS. PHOTO BY: SARA DIAZ
When he bought a one-way ticket to New York City in January, Azazel Jacobs was determined to shoot his third feature no matter what. The story of a young man who travels home to New York for the holidays, leaving his wife and baby — and is then unable to leave the sanctuary of his parents’ apartment — Mommas Man was meant for a winter shoot, so Jacobs had to work fast. Collaborating with producer Alex Orlovsky (Half Nelson), Jacobs found financing from Artists Public Domain and a free location — his parents’ own NYC loft — and was shooting just a few weeks later.
Jacobs’s moviemaking boasts a punk-minimalist sensibility that mines multiple influences, from naturalism to Chaplin to Jarmusch to the avant-garde. His debut feature, Nobody Needs to Know, was one of the pioneers of the free-download terrain, available online in late 2004. His second feature, shot in his hometown of L.A. in 2005, The GoodTimesKid, is a beautifully framed, freewheeling and deadpan comedy about two men with the same name and the woman that comes between them. Jacobs starred in the film alongside girlfriend Sara Diaz and co-writer Gerardo Naranjo (director of the upcoming Drama/Mex). He also co-shot the film with Naranjo and Eric Curtis. The film is, in his own words, “kind of like a home movie we shot on 35mm.”
Extending the home movie metaphor, Jacobs allowed his own parents — including avant-garde filmmaker father Ken — to play themselves in his latest feature. Their loft — crammed with 40 years worth of stuff — was shot exactly as is. “If you can document the people and places that are close to you,” Jacobs says of his filmmaking philosophy, “you wind up winning no matter what. The coolest thing for me is just to realize that film is something you can get better at as you go on.” — Durier Ryan
Contact: info ‘àt’ goodtimeskid.com
A stark mix of underground horror shock with existentialist atmosphere, Calvin Reeder’s three short films, Piledriver, Little Farm and The Rambler, are putting the art into lo-fi splatter pics. Like an Abel Ferrara Jr., Reeder meshes thought and design with genre storylines, like a Euro-filmmaker making ’70s drive-in films.
But Reeder is just shooting films the only way he knows how. “I’m not really sure” how he arrived at his alt-horror style, Reeder says. “Just sorta roll the dice. I do love Sleepaway Camp. I just like to make movies all bent up, I guess.” Originally from Portland, Ore., and living in Seattle up until this year, Reeder played extensively with the great art-punk bands the Popular Shapes and the Intelligence. But he got notoriety, for better or worse, with the twisted public access show and later-feature film Jerkbeast, co-made with Brady Hall.
Perhaps stemming from his musical background, the sound designs in his films are complex in their layering of thick aural moods. They give the movies the feeling of old folk songs telling brutal tales. “Songs tell stories and set a mood like nothing else,” Reeder says. “When I listen to Jimmie Rodgers or someone like that, they just lay down these amazingly sad and gnarly stories so perfectly. ‘T.B. Blues’ is a favorite that comes to mind. If I could write songs like that, I would never even bother with film.”
Reeder’s shorts are playing fests from Seattle to Vegas to Sundance, and even winning at AFI Dallas. His newest, The Rambler, is a Western odyssey of sorts that follows a stranger around with mummies and vomit. It stars Reeder and girlfriend Lindsay Pulsipher and took a small toll: “I don’t want to give away too much, but Lindsay spitting unknown brightly colored liquid foods in my face for upwards of two hours while I froze in a flooded basement with my hands tied to a bedpost was pretty horrible. I have no one to blame but myself.” Next comes the feature version. — Mike Plante
Contact: calvinleereeder ‘àt’ yahoo.com, (206) 218-5041
When Fellipe Barbosa, 26, flew to his native Brazil in 2006 to prepare for the short Salt Kiss, he had no clue that his life would change dramatically once he returned to the States. Before that flight, he had submitted his latest short, La Muerte es pequeña, to Sundance. Certain it would suffer the same fate as his previous submissions, he didn’t bother dwelling on its chances and went straight into preproduction on Salt. “In the island [where we would shoot Salt Kiss] we had no Internet access,” Barbosa recalls, “but when I came back, there were seven e-mails from Sundance wondering why I wasn’t replying. I think I’m probably the first person in Sundance history to take a week to say yes.”
The experience at Sundance was educational but also liberating for Barbosa. It gave him the validation that he could be successful as a filmmaker along with the confidence to make Salt Kiss the way he wanted to.
The beautifully shot 18-minute short, which was his thesis film at Columbia, veers from the common themes we’ve come to see in films set in Brazil — violence, poverty — and instead concentrates on something lighthearted: a carefree bachelor named Rogério who struggles to deal with the fact that his recently engaged best friend has moved on with his life. Barbosa uses non-actors, including the Rogério character, who was inspired by the man who plays him, Rogério Trindade. Barbosa had met him four years earlier and was “completely fascinated by his personality and charisma and [became] obsessed about making him immortal [on film].” Though many thought that not using actors was unwise, Barbosa felt he had nothing to lose. “Having a film at Sundance already took a lot of weight off my shoulders and let me make the movie the way I saw it.”
The short would go on to garner enormous praise at this year’s Sundance, and Barbosa is currently shopping around his feature scripts, including a Salt Kiss feature with that same non-actor, Rogério Trindade. “The most important thing about Salt Kiss and working with Rogério was discovering a type of filmmaking that I want to pursue further: to make movies about my friends.” — Jason Guerrasio
Contact: Jennifer Konawal at Gersh: (212) 634-8135, Melissa Breaux at Washington Square Arts: (323) 850-2760
Studio films are often pre-planned to ride the zeitgeist, to be released amidst a flurry of popular interest that is actually nothing more than a well-plotted calculation of merchandising deals, planted press stories and phony Internet buzz. But with their years of fundraising and pre-production, indie films often find it harder to sync their concerns with the public consciousness, so when it happens serendipitously, it feels like something special.
Case in point: Craig Zobel’s Great World of Sound, an offbeat drama about a guy who takes a job pitching the services of a shady recording company to would-be singing stars. Shooting in the South on a small budget and using hidden cameras to weave into his drama real encounters with musicians hoping to make it big, Zobel captures the emotions that churn beneath the surface of every American Idol contestant. “The American dream used to be the idea that you’d own a plot of land and provide a better life for your kids,” comments Zobel, “but now there’s this bigger desire to be a celebrity, and I wanted to talk about this in the movie.”
Zobel, a North Carolina School of the Arts grad, began Great World of Sound long before Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul began exchanging annoyed glances. He wrote a rough draft in 2001 before accepting what turned into a “nightmare” director-for-hire gig for a “writer-producer-actor-financier.” Zobel says, “It’s one of those movies that sits in a closet, but I ended up learning a lot. It made me super conscious of how important the [production] role is in on a low-budget movie. In addition to a good d.p, you need someone who knows how to spend and allocate the money and schedule.” Zobel then began years of work as a co-producer, a.d. and production manager on films like David Gordon Green’s George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow. He also wrote extensively for the Internet animation site homestarrunner.com before teaming with writer George Smith to finish the script for Great World of Sound. The film, which premiered at Sundance, opens in late September from Magnolia Pictures. — S. M.
Contact: David Kopple at The Gersh Agency: (310) 274-6611
PHILLIP VAN. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK
“I’ve known forever that I wanted to make films and play with narrative structure and invent genre conventions, so it’s all been incredibly verifying,” says Phillip Van, referring to a year that’s included winning a Student Academy Award and numerous festival honors for his short High Maintenance.
A recent grad of NYU’s graduate film program, the 26-year-old has been on a whirlwind ride since being accepted to the Berlin International Film Festival’s Berlinale Talent Campus in 2006. During a six-day workshop/competition, he developed High Maintenance and then shot the short during the festival in two days. In the short Van mixes romance and sci-fi genres to tell the story of a couple going through a rough patch in their relationship, though one of them (or both) may not be human.
The unique experience had Van casting, choosing his crew and working on rewrites via the Internet from New York. Then, once he got to Berlin, there was little time for sightseeing. “The minute I touched ground there I was thrown into a couple days of preproduction and then immediately shooting.” In post, Van says, “I used an exercise I call ‘overcutting,’ where you cut out all the pauses, shortening [the film] beyond the extent of anything watchable and then adding back the pauses and critical breaks. It forced us to evaluate the necessity of every pause.” The film went on to win the competition, making Van the first American winner as well as the youngest at 25. The short also won the Delta Airlines’ Fly in Movies Competition and Gen Art Film Festival’s Best Short.
Van, who is also receiving attention for an earlier short, Dunny, has signed with Endeavor and has a deal with Rhea Scott at Little Minx, a wing of Ridley and Tony Scott’s commercial and television production company RSA. He’s also developing High Maintenance into a feature. — J. G.
Contact: Bryan Besser at Endeavor: (310) 248-2000
SEAN KIRBY. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK
While many d.p.’s steal from art history in order to fashion a cinematic style, artist turned cinematographer Sean Kirby started the other way around. Having received a BFA from Syracuse University in 1993, Kirby quickly found cinema seeping into his artwork. “I was watching Tarkovsky and Kieslowski,” Kirby relates, “and their films were inspiring compositions and visuals in my painting. It was then that I started to see film as image making.”
In 1997, Kirby entered the world of film by working in New York and Boston as an electrician, gaffer and grip. In 2000, Kirby told himself that if he wanted to make a name for himself by shooting films, he’d have to move to a smaller market, where he could break in more easily. Soon after moving to Seattle, he found himself working on Charles Mudede and Rob Devor’s Sundance competition feature Police Beat, his first job shooting a feature. A stunning portrait of a bicycle messenger in romantic crisis, the picture, shot in anamorphic, captured Seattle in exotic, glowing imagery.
It was on this film and the next Mudede-Devor production, Zoo, that Kirby developed his own shooting style. “For eight years of my life,” he explains, “I fancied myself a painter. Because of that, I find every moment visually important. When I studied painting, I didn’t want to say what the thing ‘is’ as much as define its mood, and that same emotional effect is what I strive for in cinema.” In Zoo, Kirby pushes the boundaries of shadow and turns a potentially explosive exposé of bestiality into a lovely and lyrical meditation on nature and loneliness. Kirby’s current projects include everything from the indie horror feature Cthulhu to a documentary on the economy of slums with director Astra Taylor and writer-critic Mike Davis. — Peter Bowen
Contact: Rebecca Fayyad at Sheldon Prosnit Agency: (310) 652-8778, rebecca ‘àt’ lspagency.net
TZE CHUN. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK
Tze (pronounced “Z”) Chun took charge of his early 20s with the self-discipline of a prizefighter in training. After graduating from Columbia’s undergraduate film studies program in 2002, he set an aggressive delivery schedule for his own work and stuck to it. Supporting himself along the way by painting portraits (his commissions include the poster for Half Nelson), Chun committed to making a short film every six months and writing a feature script every nine months.
In the five years since, he’s completed seven feature-length screenplays and directed 12 short films, with budgets ranging from $200 to $1,000. It was less of a numbers game, however, than a refinement through repetition. This past January his 11th short film, Windowbreaker, was accepted at Sundance. A story of race and class tensions set in his suburban Boston hometown, Windowbreaker marked not just the first major industry recognition for Chun but also an achievement he noted in his own capabilities.
“My earlier films had been either very personal and felt a little pretentious, or else were very political and came across as pedantic and pushy,” he says. “With Windowbreaker, I found a way to marry both of these ideas and tell a story that’s definitely political but also very close to its characters.”
Blending the personal and the political will be paramount to his upcoming projects as well. For the past two years he’s been researching and writing a feature-length script based on his mother’s childhood in Singapore in the 1960s. Titled You’re a Big Girl Now, it tells the story of a young girl raised in a brothel who later escapes to Hong Kong with an older prostitute who adopts her as a daughter.
“The reference points for me have been Maria Full of Grace and Central Station — these films that are able to depict what a changing world is like, but through the eyes of a single protagonist,” says Chun. Producer Jeremy Kipp Walker (Half Nelson) is currently attached. He is also planning a feature version of Windowbreaker. — D. R.
Contact: Scott Halle Sleeping Giant Entertainment: shalle ‘àt’ sleeping-giant.net, (323) 930-2232
RICHARD GOLDGEWICHT AND JEREMY GOLDSCHEIDER.
Richard Goldgewicht and Jeremy Goldscheider
Director Richard Goldgewicht and producer Jeremy Goldscheider met six years ago while working on a travel film about Israel and Egypt. The two are from differing backgrounds — Goldgewicht grew up in Rio de Janeiro, and Goldscheider is the son of a Long Island rabbi — but they seem to form an ideal working partnership. They started collaborating on projects together through their production company, Kihou Productions. “It was a natural complementary blend of talent, and we just had a good time working, so it made sense,” says Goldscheider.
Though the pair’s initial output was mainly promotional films and television documentaries, recently Goldgewicht and Goldscheider have been broadening their horizons. In 2004 they made Tel Aviv, a short film about an American Jew whose car breaks down in the Jordan Valley, which has won praise and accolades at film festivals worldwide. And they are currently working on their biggest project yet, a “hybrid biopic” of Pablo Ferro, the enigmatic artist and filmmaker best known for his imaginative and often iconic opening credit sequences, from Dr. Strangelove to Napoleon Dynamite. Goldgewicht co-directed a short about Ferro in 2002, but felt that a larger-scale, multistyled platform was necessary to tell his life story, and conceived the idea of a film combining documentary footage with animated reimaginations of real events. “The idea comes from Pablo himself,” says Goldgewicht, “from trying to understand him.”
So far the documentary segments of Pablo — talking-head interviews with Ferro’s contemporaries, plus vérité footage — have been completed, and the Kihou principals are about to begin the animation process. They have also just signed with the Endeavor agency, which is helping them secure completion funds for Pablo (due to be finished by summer 2008), and already have Norman Lear and Jeff Bridges on board as associate producer and narrator, respectively. Goldscheider plans to make the film’s release an event, in which it will be the “centerpiece of live exhibits, gallery showings and a book.” — N. D.
Contact: richard ‘àt’ kihou.com
Vicente Amorim has worked as an assistant director on 23 features, mostly films set in his home of Brazil like At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and has directed over 200 commercials and music videos in the country’s thriving commercial scene. With the 2004 film, The Middle of the World, however, Amorim, making an intimate family drama set against 2000 miles of Brazilian landscape, devoted himself to narrative features. The film did well, playing New Directors/New Films, Toronto, and San Sebastian, and received a U.S. release through Film Movement.
The Middle of the World has now propelled Amorim into his next movie, which is taking him far away from Brazil. A German-set drama starring Viggo Mortensen, Good is a tough moral drama based on C.P. Taylor’s Tony-award winning play about a honest literary professor whose novel advocating compassionate euthanasia becomes embraced by the Nazis. Amorim says that Good producer Miriam Segal “had seen [The Middle of the World] and was looking for a director without the pre-concepts that most American and European directors have about Germany in the ’30s. Someone who could take it off the beaten path.”
Describing his take, Amorim says, “The rise of National Socialism in Germany is not seen simply through the character’s eyes, but through his actions. He is a common man who becomes an anti-hero. That makes it as much a film about him and the period as a film about us and the world today.” — S. M.
Contact: Stuart Manashil at CAA: (424) 288-2000
M DOT STRANGE.
M dot Strange
When M dot Strange touched down in Park City this past January for the world premiere of his first animated feature, We Are the Strange, thousands of Internet-obsessed teens and twentysomethings already knew more about the film than any buyer at the festival. For months M dot (born Michael Belmont) had been leaking footage and behind-the-scenes featurettes of the film to YouTube, and once he was accepted to Sundance he put up the trailer; it got 500,000 views in four days. Not bad for a guy who made a movie in his bedroom.
With a love for 8-bit video games and stop-motion animation, the San Jose–based M dot has been honing his bizarre brand of stories since the late ’90s. “I’ve never taken a film class or an art class ever,” he says. “I learned everything through the Internet and reading books — YouTube was my film school.”
It’s hard to summarize We Are the Strange (some have described it as Eraserhead for the digital age, while M dot himself admits it’s “a movie about nothing”), though most will agree it’s a testament to DIY filmmaking. The film was made in M dot’s bedroom for under $20,000 in a style he’s dubbed “Str8nime” (strange+8-bit+anime). Nine computers, a makeshift greenscreen out of linoleum draped over his closet and a Mini DV camera make up his “animation studio.” “I shoot the stop motion, and then when I’m done I sit in my chair, turn 45 degrees and work on the computer all night,” he explains. The computers then render the 3-D animation. “The first four months were so hard I would just break down in tears,” he adds. At one point he was jumped by four guys and the LCD screen on his laptop was shattered. Instead of wallowing in his misfortune, he used the broken screen to design the demented sky in the film’s finale.
Though he’s happy he got into Sundance, M dot admits the festival wasn’t the right venue for his film (after it premiered in the Midnight section, half of the audience walked out) and vows never to go back. Now he wants to create a path for films that aren’t right for the festival circuit to get noticed. This summer he’s putting up a free version of We Are the Strange on YouTube and driving across the U.S. showing it through the mobile drive-in group mobmov.org. He’s also helping his fellow viral filmmakers with “M dot Film Skool” videos he posts on YouTube that give filmmakers lessons in how to make films the way he has. “Most people will tell you it’s virtually impossible to make an animated film, but I know there are people in their garages doing their weird films right now.” — J. G.
Contact: mike ‘àt’ wearethestrange.com
Writer-director-editor Kentucker Audley (a.k.a. Andrew Nenninger) initially started making films pseudonymously because he wanted to “push the envelope and didn’t want to drag the family name down.” Audley’s films so far, however, have been “family friendly,” though he admits they are “not easy to watch for some people. My family do not understand what I’m going for in terms of not much happening and exploring really small things.”
Audley’s narrative sensibility is certainly restrained and minimalistic, and his short Bright Sunny South and debut feature Team Picture both feature young protagonists (played by “Andrew Nenninger”) desperate to escape the nine-to-five grind in order “to pursue something that they’re actually more interested in, even if it’s just loafing around.”
His heroes, like Audley himself, often seem ill at ease and struggle to express themselves verbally. Audley, 25, had his own epiphany after watching Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket as an eighth grader in Lexington, Ky. “It made me think about the impact of films you really love that make some sort of difference,” he says. “It opened my eyes to a different kind of film.”
Audley studied film and video production at the University of Memphis, making “little rinky-dink films” throughout. Just after graduation, Bright Sunny South played at Slamdance 2006.
He has remained in Memphis and shot Team Picture on DV there for $1,500. Audley has recently befriended mumblecore figureheads Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and Aaron Katz, with whom he feels a great kinship. He saw Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation just before shooting Team Picture, and says it “inspired me to keep things small and rely on a natural situation being interesting enough without intensifying it.”
His no-budget approach is something he is confident he can continue: “I haven’t had a regular-paying job in two or three years. I just scrape by. I’ve never had any money. I haven’t spent more than $50 at once since I bought a new pair of shoes two years ago. All I want is to be in interesting places and around interesting people and ideally making more films.” — N. D.
Contact: Kaudley ‘àt’ teampicturefilm.com, myspace.com/teampicture
HOPE DICKSON LEACH.
Hope Dickson Leach
Hope Dickson Leach grew up in Hong Kong, watching American movies with Chinese subtitles, with a mother who loved musicals and a father with a passion for science fiction. It was only later, once she had moved to England, that Dickson Leach had her eyes opened to the U.K. and world cinema. She cites Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet and Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table as seminal films. “Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird was the first film that made me want to make films,” she says. “I was blown away by the idea that films could be so different and so powerful.”
After a brief period as a painter, Dickson Leach studied film at Columbia, then worked as Todd Solondz’s personal assistant, and her various and conflicting cultural and geographic influences have given her films a distinctive, skewed and slightly surreal perspective. Her first two shorts, Cavities and Ladies in Waiting, both tackled the perils of female adolescence in an innovative, distinctive way and tapped into her own teenage years at boarding school, “an unnatural, horrible environment where children can be even more cruel to each other than they are normally.”
Her most recent short, The Dawn Chorus, which wowed Sundance audiences this year, is about a brother and sister’s annual ritual of re-creating the plane crash that killed their parents, the only way they have of communing with them. Brilliantly original in its concept and beautifully shot on 35mm, it was inspired by feelings prompted by her own parents’ divorce and living in New York during 9/11.
Dickson Leach is currently prepping her first feature, English Rose, a darkly comic coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who believes Princess Diana has ruined her parents’ marriage, and which has shades of her mentor, Solondz. “Working with Todd was an inspiration in making the films you have to make,” she says. “It was about learning how to make it happen, and trusting in the audience. He taught me how to ‘kill my babies,’ and how to tell my story in the most efficient way possible.” — N. D.
Contact: hope ‘àt’ dicksonleach.com, the-dawn-chorus.blogspot.com
RONALD BRONSTEIN. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
Viewers can debate, analyze, decry or rhapsodize over Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland, but no one can more accurately sum it up than its writer-director, whose spirited director’s statement has been compelling enough to turn many a befuddled critic into a partisan defender.
Bronstein writes, “[Frownland is] a jagged little pill of a movie, in turns scary and strayed, honest and threatening, funny, frustrating and frazzled. A crummy window into a world where not just its creators but everyone feels rootless and displaced....
“More succinctly, Frownland is my own small contribution to the sinking barge of the 16mm indie model; both an overripe tomato lobbed with spazmo inaccuracy at the spotless surface of the silver screen and a mad valentine to the craggy tradition of unadulterated cheap-o-independent expression. Its inelegance is its spirit.”
What’s noteworthy about Bronstein’s poetic statement of intent it is in the service of a film that’s all about not communicating. In Frownland, which premiered at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize, we follow Keith, a painfully inarticulate door-to-door coupon salesman, as he traverses a particularly hellish outer circle of New York searching for some semblance of human contact.
“The script is about a miserable run I had in my 20s,” explains Bronstein. “I was judgmental, unhappy and not very social.” Bronstein says he had the idea for the film for years, but it wasn’t until he met his lead, Dore Mann, a Pathmark deli clerk and suicide hotline operator, at a family funeral that it gelled. “This guy was a conduit to all my feelings about myself in my 20s,” Bronstein says. “I worked with Dory for six months to create the character, to get to the essence of the character’s dysfunction.”
Bronstein, whose day, or rather night, job is working as a projectionist at MoMA, the Walter Reade and other NYC arthouses, cites film influences as diverse as Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke and Candid Camera’s Allan Funt. He self-financed Frownland with savings from a one-year gig he took as a copywriter in Sweden and spent two years shooting and completing his film. “I gave zero consideration to market trends or entertainment value,” he says with a laugh. “I’d like to make films that play in theaters, but I wish those films would show more respect for the complexities of human behavior.” — S. M.
Contact: ronald ‘àt’ frownlandinc.com
VINEET DEWAN. PHOTO BY: JENS ASSUR
Although you would never guess it from the genre, production values or scope of the subject matter, Vineet Dewan’s Iraq war narrative Clear Cut, Simple was made for a tantalizingly low $10,000. Despite its startling verisimilitude, the film was shot in Los Angeles and Santa Clarita, Calif., in the maintenance parking lot of a prop-vehicle depot and on sets formerly used by the HBO Mormon-polygamy series Big Love. But really, who cares? What makes this 14-minute short really special is its scary plausibility, how it digs into America’s worst fears about the war raging in the Middle East and our complicity in the “terrorist insurgency.” This USC MFA thesis film, based on the wartime experiences of Iraqi war veteran Jason Delmarty, follows a young American private whose budding friendship with an Iraqi translator is tested when he’s suspected of Baath party membership and supporting insurgents. The film has won jury prizes at SXSW and Aspen Shortsfest, a student Emmy, student BAFTA and the Directors Guild of America student filmmaking prize.
Born in Bahrain to Indian parents and reared in English boarding schools after he was displaced by the onset of the initial Iraqi war, Dewan seems at home with tales of the displaced and alienated. “My birthplace, citizenship, cultural heritage and ‘home,’ wherever that is — no two are the same,” he says. “I’ve always been the ultimate outsider.”
Citing references as far flung as Costa-Gavras’s Z and Pontecarvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Dewan favors a vérité aesthetic within scenarios in which “what is familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar, where the domestic becomes foreign — scenarios replete with paranoia and uncertainty.... I guess I want to be the bastard lovechild of Paul Greengrass and Alfred Hitchcock.”
Up next for the 26-year-old director is a stint in NBC’s director training program this fall, where he’ll be working on episodes of Friday Night Lights and Heroes, while he develops several feature film projects. — B. H.
Contact: Ramses IsHak at William Morris: (310) 859-4296, rsiasst ‘àt’ wma.com
When Georgina Lightning was 6-years-old, she realized what she would grow up to be. It happened while watching TV in her living room with her father. Always walking on eggshells when he was around, she stayed glued to the screen. By the end of the program she noticed her father reacting to the show and tearing up. She suddenly had a revelation. “I want to be those people,” she says of the actors onscreen. “Those people made my dad gentle and human for one second.”
Leaving her reservation in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to pursue her dream in the early ’90s, she’s now had 14 years in the industry, getting steady acting work in TV, including roles in Walker, Texas Ranger and The West Wing. But she never forgot her roots and two years ago began talking to Native American tribes about how important film can be in expressing Native American identity.
Through her company, Tribal Alliance Productions, Lightning is now making her directorial debut with Older Than America. Starring herself and Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers), it’s set in Northern Minnesota’s Fond Du Lac Reservation and takes on the “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” genocide, where Indian children were forced to attend government-funded boarding schools to “Americanize” them. Lightning’s story follows a group of Ojibwe Indians dealing with their ancestors’ brutal legacy — a close subject for Lighting as many of her relatives, including her father, were boarding-school kids.
Lightning sees the project, which is currently in post, as an early step toward building up a Native American presence in the film industry. “We’re so at the beginning,” she says. “Maybe in 10 years we’ll actually have some Native Americans in the unions and able to give jobs to other Native Americans.” — J. G.
Contact: Tribal Alliance Productions: (612) 866-5659
BRIAN M. CASSIDY AND MELANIE SHATZKY.
Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
Filmmaking couple Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky met at the School of Visual Arts in New York, both getting MFAs in photography. Shatzky says, “Brian thought I looked vaguely foreign, and I liked his teeth.”
Now they have two luscious short films, God Provides and The Delaware Project, and Cassidy co-made with Aaron Hillis and Jennifer Loeber a feature doc, Fish Kill Flea, which premiered at SXSW. Both shorts played Rotterdam and God Provides also hit Sundance. The duo, based in New York and Montreal, may become a film-world equivalent of lyrical realism photographers Stephen Shore and William Eggleston.
An unusual portrait of New Orleans that combines fiction and reality, God Provides sheds the usual stale newscaster approach for observation without commentary, whether citizens are talking about partying or how God destroyed the modern Sodom. “We’re not trained as documentarians,” Canadian-born Shatzky explains, “so we approached the project in a way that just kind of made sense to us.” Cassidy adds: “Our filmmaking shares something with documentary, but I’m not sure what that is. I suppose it is our interest in the actual world and how it can be shaped and represented, but beyond that I don’t know.” They produce their films under their Pigeon Projects banner and, with an offshoot division, Pigeon Spots, create “stylized nonfiction work” for commercial clients like Benetton, Heineken and UNICEF.
Meanwhile, The Delaware Project is a unique short fiction following a woman looking for a connection in a bare town. Cassidy and Shatzky make the tone clean and sterile to show the character’s world. The short is even romantic, in the vibe of an abandoned gas station in a forest. “Without dialogue, the viewer is encouraged to look elsewhere for the story,” the couple says. “They might even have to look more closely at the images, use their ears more, read the film rather than simply watch it.”
On their Web site (pigeonprojects.com) are photo albums each filmmaker took showing that in their work nothing is normal when scrutinized. Every second has a lucid narrative developing. “We are interested in an observable reality, reordered, extracted from its origins,” they write. “We are after the orphan moments — the images no one else wants: a wet pack of gum or a statue of Zeus loaded onto a flatbed truck.” — M. P.
Contact: melannsha ‘àt’ hotmail.com, (718) 551-1990
JESS WEIXLER. PHOTO BY: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Jess Weixler received a Special Jury Prize for Acting for what the jury called “a juicy and jaw-dropping performance” in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth. Despite the bad pun — she won for playing a virgin with vagina dentate — Weixler humanized a role that many might have played for laughs or camp. But even more, Weixler exudes in the film a sense of real excitement. As Lichtenstein says, “Her performance is so full that people will find different aspects that make it special to them. For me, it’s something I detect deep down under every scene she plays: the pure fun of acting.”
Growing up with her father, a photographer, in Louisville, Ky., Weixler was not raised on theater. Only after seeing plays by Anton Chekhov did the thrill of acting hit her. She went on to study Shakespeare and the classics in high school before landing a position at Juilliard. It was there that she became aware of the wide world of characters inside of her. “Originally I thought of myself as the ingenue,” Weixler remembers. “Juilliard helped me discover that there are many more characters, more complex ones, that are still ‘me.’”
After school, Weixler worked in all media: doing a Chekhov festival in regional theater, showing up on television (in Everwood and Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and appearing in independent films. Mostly she wants to find new roles and worlds to explore. For her, acting remains “a way to express yourself and have a community of people to explore.” — P. B.
Contact: Rhonda Price at The Gersh Agency: (212) 634-8139
While we use various criteria in selecting the people who make up Filmmaker’s annual “25 New Faces” list, at the most basic level we ask ourselves one simple question: does this person feel new?
After coming across Alex Holdridge’s fresh and funny In Search of a Midnight Kiss, we knew instantly that Holdridge was right for this list. He felt new. Imagine our surprise, then, when we met the writer-director over drinks and learned that he’d just signed to CAA and has been taking meetings all over town. And that In Search of a Midnight Kiss is not his first feature but his third.
“For most people I’m brand-new,” Holdridge quipped, “but I’ve been making movies for 10 years.”
After hitting our tape recorder’s pause button for a moment, we decided to continue the interview and keep Holdridge on the list. His story demonstrates that talent and perseverance can win out in this business.
For Holdridge, Break No. 1 happened when, after spending four years on his film debut, Wrong Numbers, he premiered it to good notices at SXSW. He then moved to L.A. to launch a big-budget remake with screenwriter and director Jessica Bendinger attached as a co-writer and producer. But development went slowly, and when money appeared to make another low-budget feature, Sexless, Holdridge took it. He premiered again at SXSW, and then returned to L.A. to continue work on Wrong Numbers. “When I came back, everyone was at different companies, so that was the end of that,” he remembers. “It was a bizarre, frustrating experience.”
Soon Holdridge found himself in a position just like that of his Midnight Kiss hero. “I had zero dollars and my girlfriend of five years was gone,” he says. “I didn’t know if I had the energy to start over.” And then, on Christmas Day 2006, Holdridge got a call from his friend, d.p. Robert Murphy. “He’d just bought an HD camera and asked me if I wanted to make a movie,” says Holdridge. “I wrote Midnight Kiss in two weeks and we were shooting on January 10.”
Shot in B&W on high-definition video, the film — shot for $12,000 and a hit at Tribeca — tells the story of a down-on-his-luck guy who posts an ad on craigslist looking for a New Year’s Eve date. A complicated hottie responds, and the film follows the couple through a crazily heartbreaking evening in a luminously photographed downtown Los Angeles. Of his attention to both visuals and performance, Holdridge says, “I told my actors we’re going to do 20 takes, we’re going to get performances... but we’re going to get them on a long lens!” Holdridge is currently at work on a comedy titled 50 Ways to Kill Yourself. — S. M.
Contact: Stuart Manashil and Greg McKnight at CAA: (424) 288-2000
A filmmaker who gives the term “multi-hyphenate” a strikingly diverse spin, Stephane Gauger has worked on a variety of short and independent feature films as director, writer, actor, cinematographer and gaffer. Born in Vietnam to interracial parents and raised in Orange County, Calif., Gauger studied theater and French literature at Cal State Fullerton, where he first began writing and directing Super 8mm short films.
“I like to model myself after filmmakers that have a good sense of story but who also are visual,” notes Gauger, citing Martin Scorsese, P.T. Anderson, Wong Kar-wai, the Dardenne brothers and Zhang Yimou as influences.
On his debut feature Owl and the Sparrow, a charming contemporary drama shot in 15 days last year on the bustling streets of Saigon, he served as writer, director and cinematographer. Ten-year-old newcomer Pham Thi Han leads the cast of the low-budget self-financed film as a runaway girl bringing together two lonely hearts, played by Cat Ly (Journey From the Fall) and Le The Lu (Buffalo Boy), both experienced Vietnamese actors.
“In essence, I wanted this to be a very simple film that’s apolitical and just about humanity,” says Gauger, who shot on 30 Saigon locations with two Panasonic DVX100 Mini DV cameras. “Owl and the Sparrow was just a whimsical kind of thing. I guess I had trigger finger — I wanted to do a feature, I knew that I could shoot digitally and wanted to have something completely handheld.”
This summer, Gauger is directing second unit on Timothy Bui’s Powder Blue, which the two co-wrote. The ensemble drama stars Forest Whitaker and Jessica Biel. — Justin Lowe
Contact: info ‘àt’ owlandthesparrow.com