“You Have to Work with What Reality is Giving You”: Danielle Lessovitz on Port Authority
Port Authority, filmmaker Danielle Lessovitz’s gritty debut feature, is “so New York” that one of its least surprising traits is that Martin Scorsese is credited as executive producer. Opening in the cold, shadow-filled halls of the metro transportation hub that provides the film its title, the narrative follows Paul (Fionn Whitehead), a twentysomething arriving in from Pittsburgh, as he attempts to get in touch with his estranged sister (Louisa Krause). A bloody altercation on the subway leads to a chance encounter that connects Paul to a few (temporary) friends, odd jobs, and shelters to live in.
One evening, Paul meets Wye (Leyna Bloom), a transgender woman who participates in the city’s prosperous ball culture, and a relationship begins to form. Is Paul, subjected to numerous personal tragedies and failures throughout his life, meant for the big city? Will the people who make up the ball culture accept this dude who claims to possess “white boy realness?” No mere tawdry tearjerker, Port Authority is more interested in the details of the community it depicts, proceeding to build out the story from there.
After premiering in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Port Authority is now in select theaters and on demand. I recently caught up with Lessovitz about the advantages of shooting on location in New York City, her familiarity with the ballroom community, and more.
Filmmaker: As a graduate of NYU Tisch and with your debut feature being set pretty decisively in New York City, I wanted to ask about what your relationship is to movies that take place in New York. I know Ira Sachs was a professor of yours, and he’s one example of a New York filmmaker who tends to make “New York movies,” but how has the city influenced yourself professionally as well as personally?
Lessovitz: One of the more interesting things about New York is that, because it’s always changing, you can never completely capture it. Every film you would make about New York is going to somehow be new, as the city itself is always new, right? The constant fluidity of the city can be exciting for that reason. Now, a lot of people say this, so it’s definitely a cliche at this point, but New York possesses an energy that, when you land here for the first time, can make you feel like a number of things are possible. You’re surrounded by so much culture and you’re watching it being born right in front of you. What you see around you and the words you hear people use will eventually branch out into the lexicon of the mainstream four years from now by people living in the Midwest!
New York feels like a cauldron filled with creative energies that allow you to take yourself and your work more seriously and in a certain direction. You will somehow find the creative support you need, as you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who are ambitious dreamers and go-getters and are used to this city. People work really hard here and it makes a lot of sense. And I think the films set in New York City influence moviegoers’ view of the city in a way, too. I say this as someone who didn’t grow up in New York but felt they knew a version of it as a result of watching numerous New York movies.
Filmmaker: When I think of New York City ball culture represented on screen, it tends to be in the form of nonfiction films, with, of course, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning being the most notable (and Sara Jordenö’s Kiki being considered a thematic sequel). When you were considering incorporating that community within the narrative of Port Authority, how did you, potentially as an outsider, plan to approach it? Were you enveloping yourself in the community via a “nonfiction filmmaker approach,” meeting with potential participants to include? How did you get involved in this site-specific culture?
Lessovitz: While I’d previously seen Paris is Burning and Kiki, beyond that, I’ve stayed away from the different on-screen representations of the community, because I didn’t want the representation itself to be my main source (or medium) of information through which I connected to the culture. My experience came as more of a direct experience, spending about a year and a half attending hundreds and hundreds of balls and hanging out with different people in the community and building relationships from there. Most of these relationships were merely friendships, although I made a rap video for someone who is a part of the ballroom community and is also a great rapper. I explored the different forms of dance present in the community, as people would often toggle between different dance forms.
In terms of my immersion into the community, yeah, I guess you could call it documentary-like in that sense, but for me it was more about becoming a part of the culture somehow. I felt quite welcomed, as people were open and happy to meet with me and always made me feel very welcomed.
Filmmaker: Had the basic narrative structure of Port Authority existed by this point? Or did you begin by wanting to write a feature set in New York that included aspects of ball culture and go from there?
Lessovitz: I had first been invited to a ball in New York, then found myself participating in a few ball events—not in a dancing sense but by casually attending different evenings. Then I moved to Italy for four or five months and, as others before me have said, it can be easier to write about your home country when you’re not physically in it. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to write this film if I were living in the US at the time. Being able to step outside [of your home surroundings] and take a look at things gave me some freedom and perspective to write about it. I let a lot of time pass, as it was about a year before I actually wrote the story I had in mind for the film. I was in Italy at the time, but once I came back [to the U.S.], my first draft was, as all first drafts go, pretty bad.
I asked myself, “OK, what can I do to make this script better?” The first phase of educating myself included befriending and interviewing a number of trans women of color. I needed to understand the nuances and variations and individual experiences that come with being a trans person of color in New York City. That made up the first layer of the writing process, then that naturally led to my attending different balls and seeing familiar people and supporting certain [ballroom] houses.
Filmmaker: And a producer on your film, Jari Jones [the first Black trans woman producer of a film competing at Cannes], had originally auditioned to be in the film, but was instead given a very different role, behind the camera. Was that an organic turn of events? As you auditioned potential cast members, were you thinking of other ways these auditioners could potentially be involved in and enhance the production? If not on screen than behind it?
Lessovitz: Exactly, and as another example, Afrika (who plays Mother McQueen in the film), had his role invented for him. That role didn’t exist until he auditioned for the film [and it was created from there]. I wish each person featured in the film could have their own film, to be honest, as they ended up taking their own personal experiences and adding to the story of the film. When Leyna [Bloom]’s character talks about herself and recounts personal stories, those are real-life memories that Leyna experienced and decided to use on screen. She’s drawing from her own life, in numerous ways. The energies of everyone who worked on the film are what inspired me, I suppose, as were the qualities of how they speak and how they move and interact with one another. That all made its way into the narrative of the film, if that makes any sense, and into how I revised the screenplay.
Filmmaker: As you were assembling your production team, how did you decide on a cinematographer? Was Jomo Fray someone you had previously met through NYU?
Lessovitz: He was, yes. I knew “of him,” as he was the “star DP” of his year, and I had seen his work on several short films, one of which was called Give Up the Ghost from director Marian Mathias (I thought his work was brilliant on that film). Then in 2017, that project and a project I had written [Vladimir de Fontenay’s Mobile Homes, which screened at Directors’ Fortnight in 2017] were both accepted into Cannes, so we met up there. I immediately found him to be a brilliant artist in the way he thought about filmmaking as something both broad and complete. He expanded my thought process on filmmaking and I still find myself today, in general, thinking about several small “Jomo gems of wisdom” that he graciously shared. So, in a sense, Jomo and I met through NYU but actually at Cannes for the first time before we began working together.
Filmmaker: The film is obviously very location-specific, so by this point in pre-pro, are you blocking out a schedule with a location manager about what locations you’ll have access to (and when) and which locations you’re just going to have to steal? The film opens and concludes at the Port Authority in Times Square and then, later on, there’s a scene, I believe, on the lower platform of the Bedford-Nostrand Avenue subway station. These are very active, lively, 24/7 locations, so how did you foresee and prepare for any potential production headaches?
Lessovitz: The scenes at Port Authority were shot on location, and I believe we had a little over two hours to get everything we needed, beginning at around one in the morning and ending a little before 4am. We were granted permission to shoot there, but the caveat was that we didn’t have much time and it was quite run-and-gun. It’s always stressful planning to shoot the beginning and the end of a film, especially so when you only have two hours to do it in the middle of the night. And that sequence was actually shot on the last day of production, so we were all exhausted.
There may have been a few locations we stole, but I can’t mention those specifically! [laughs]. However, even when we were to steal a location, we weren’t arriving at the location on the day of the shoot without any concept of the specific surroundings. For example, if we were planning to shoot in a specific kitchen that we wouldn’t be able to visit ahead of time (with our cast), one of us would visit solo and measure the exact dimensions of the space, then take that back to our rehearsal room and tape out the dimensions on the floor so everyone could familiarize themselves with their marks. It was all very controlled and thought-through. I personally like shooting at “live” or “active” locations, as they really force you to be on your toes and aware of any possible disruption that might occur. You have to work with what reality is giving you, and that’s a fun challenge that can enhance the quality of your work.
Filmmaker: It feels like a film that’s primarily lit in very natural light, although, of course, you can’t escape the ambient light that bathes the city. New York has its own illuminated identity, depending on what area you’re standing in.
Lessovitz: Jomo and I talked a lot about potential lighting sources and, for example, to not create a lighting source for our actors where one wouldn’t naturally be [in the city]. Our lighting had to feel like it was coming directly from those city lights you described and to not upend the surroundings. We have that one scene in the film by a subway train, and I remember looking over to our French producer [Virginie Lacombe] as we were filming. She was shaking her head and saying, “No DP in France would ever allow you to shoot this way!” What she meant by that was that we would be filming our cast, often on exteriors, without any additional lighting sources or external forces to enhance the look of the scene. That wouldn’t typically be how films are shot. Nonetheless, we tried to use what was organically around us without our team shaping or affecting it too much.
Filmmaker: Then there are the recurring group shower scenes at the homeless shelter where Paul resides. There’s a distinctly emerald green hue that engulfs everyone in those scenes.
Lessovitz: So that is something we actually lit.
Filmmaker: Oh, of course, but I was wondering, in a controlled environment like that, how do lighting decisions get made? Choosing a specific color, a specific temperature, and then in post, working through the color grading…
Lessovitz: Originally we wanted Wye’s world to feel much warmer than Paul’s, and we planned to use different color palettes and tones to reflect that shift—in the shelter versus Wye’s home, for example. That made a lot of sense to us. But going back to how choosing locations can affect subsequent lighting choices, the shower itself had these beautifully high ceilings, with these windows centered at the top. I remember Jomo walked in to familiarize himself with the space and said “this will look amazing,” simply due to the location lending itself to our intended stylization, especially in terms of lighting capabilities. Even though you can’t see the entire space within the camera’s framing, the space was beautiful in the light it naturally pulled in through those windows.
Filmmaker: How long was the entire shoot?
Lessovitz: 24 days in total, but one or two of those days were half-days.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked on numerous films in numerous roles, including as a screenwriter. Now thinking back with Port Authority in the rearview, did those prior experiences prepare you for directing your first feature? I imagine it’s its own beast, the pressure of “making your days” and fielding questions from everyone at all times and doing your best to answer and provide guidance. There are a ton of moving parts!
Lessovitz: I should note that I was never one of those people who felt that just because I had gone to film school that I would ever get to make a feature film. The idea of being able to make one was surreal, especially so when I was really “in it.” Every day on set was like “OK, this is really happening.” In terms of scheduling, I don’t think my experience working on short films necessarily prepared me for how fast-paced feature film production can be. That’s especially true of this film. I learned very quickly to let go of any kind of perfectionism I had been holding onto, to immediately let go of the movie I had envisioned in my head and just roll with the punches and allow for mistakes to happen. In that sense, it’s almost the polar opposite of short filmmaking. Short filmmaking is very precise and, of course, doesn’t allow you much room for error. On this feature, however, the process was drastically different. If I couldn’t get something one day, I could hope to get it on a later shooting day or could remove a scene if I felt it wasn’t working. I haven’t found that you’re given that same type of freedom on a short. Directing a feature kept me thinking ahead and moving forward, as opposed to getting stuck in the mistakes I may have made and getting stuck on how something was supposed to look but didn’t. Constantly looking ahead is something I learned to do while making this film, and it’s been a useful skill in my life—to be able to step out of what I feel maybe I didn’t get as well as I would have liked (or something I wished I had done differently) and step out of that way of thinking and make up for it as I go.
Filmmaker: And how was the experience of developing and working with so many different partners? Port Authority was a co-production of the TorinoFilmLab and took part in the Hercules Film Fund, then MUBI came aboard the film for it to be the inaugural project in their planned production wing. What was that experience like, of bringing on partners and companies you couldn’t have foreseen working with at the start, but of course, had to adjust and open up to as collaborators took shape?
Lessovitz: When Virginie and I went to the TorinoFilmLab together, everyone thought we were crazy as they had never seen a French producer and an American director working in tandem. I think they weren’t sure how it was going to work. There aren’t many co-productions in the United States, as America’s financing structure is viewed as completely strange and ridiculous to European film producers (they generally work with soft money or non-equity sources). For whatever reason, I had faith that we’d find our way at that phase of development, and it was nice to see who was attracted to the project and who wanted to participate in its making. So, in that regard, it made sense to be open to collaboration.
I’ve written or co-written several films, one that even screened at Cannes, but even then, I didn’t feel particularly noticed in the United States. You really have to be at the top of your generation (in terms of the recognition your work accumulates) in the United States in order to be on the receiving end of certain financing opportunities. But it was important for me to recognize that many of my cinema loves didn’t necessarily stem from the U.S. (they originated in Europe) and so it made sense for me to try to enter the world of filmmaking through that door. That was the idea, at least, and as the film world is shrinking in numerous ways, if you have a favorite film or a particular international film tradition you appreciate or wish to emulate, I recommend you visit that place, then go make your film.