JESSE EPSTEIN. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
Jesse Epstein remembers exactly when her life changed. “It was before my grandmother died,” Epstein recalls. “She said, ‘Look, you could either inherit $500, or I can spend it now and get you a camera.‘ It totally changed everything.”
For most of her life Epstein has been fascinated by the perception of beauty. Growing up in Boston, she moved to Mozambique for two years, where full-figured looks are celebrated. Moving back to the U.S., where the media promotes a punishing standard of beauty on women, Epstein enrolled in NYU Film School and decided to explore different issues surrounding body image.
For Wet Dreams and False Images, Epstein‘s thesis, which went on to win the Sundance Online Jury Award in ‘04, she filmed men in a Brooklyn barbershop who adore the glossy magazine pinups of J. Lo and Beyoncé hanging on their walls. But in a clever twist Epstein takes the same images to a touch-up artist who reveals their heavy amount of airbrushing and tweaking. Next came The Guarantee, a funny look at a male ballet dancer‘s decision to have plastic surgery told through the drawings of a sketch artist, and, this past year, 34x25x36, a visit to a company that makes unrealistically perfect mannequins. “What I love about short films is you can get in there, raise some questions, tell a little story and get out, leaving it all open for discussion,” Epstein says.
With financing from the Chicken and Egg Fund, she‘s currently compiling the shorts into a feature film about body image. There will be one more short comparing a California girl who tans with a girl in India who bleaches her skin. “Body image is such a huge topic,” Epstein says, “and I‘m trying to raise the discussion through different styles and different cultural definitions of what‘s attractive.”
Before getting financing, Epstein found money to make her shorts through being an instructor at Sundance‘s Reel Stories youth program for three years, as well as working in the art department, acting and being a cinematographer (she shot Astra Taylor‘s Zizek!) on other independent features. She‘s also involved in the filmmakers network Shooting People. Though Epstein is working on a narrative feature, she still loves to just pick up her camera and shoot everyday people. “A lot of times people come up with something that I could never think of,” she says. “I love the exchange between the person being filmed and the filmmaker — the camera makes them feel special.” — Jason Guerrasio
ANDREW OKPEAHA MACLEAN. PHOTO BY: ROB MEYER
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
Growing up in Barrow, Alaska, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean imagined the frozen Arctic Ocean outside his window as his own Wild West. But instead of riding on horseback he rode on dog sleds, and instead of a wearing a cowboy hat he wore a hood.
Now McLean‘s imagination has come to life with Sikumi, which was awarded Best Short at Sundance ‘08. Beautifully shot by 25 New Faces alum Cary Fukunaga, the story is set atop the frozen Arctic Ocean where Apuna, an Inuit hunter, finds himself witness to a murder between two people he knows and is then faced with the difficult decision of whether to honor his dead friend or protect the fate of the other. “A lot of what Westerns are about is morality,” McLean says. “People who are faced with these choices outside the bounds of society. So I went with that as inspiration and really tried to examine the choices these individuals are making, but in the culture as Inupiat men.”
In making the first film ever told in the Inupiat language, MacLean, 36, felt a duty to shoot in his homeland. He also couldn‘t resist filming where a beautiful sunset can last through most of the film. Shot in the time of year when there‘s sunlight for close to a day, he says a pinkish horizon can literally last for hours. But there were also negatives. Over the five-day shoot the temperature would range between -5 and -20 degrees and though the ice was too thick for anyone to worry about falling through, there was always the fear of polar bears. MacLean admits he wasn‘t too concerned about bodily harm — he just hoped his footage would survive the weather. “We shot on 35mm with anamorphic lenses and the biggest thing was to let the film warm up to room temperature really, really slowly when the day was over in order to keep water from condensing onto it,” he says. “We would put it out near the entrance of the garage and through time gradually brought it inside.”
Now Sikumi is playing the festival circuit and MacLean is in the works on a feature script loosely based on the short. Currently living in New York City, he returns to Alaska a couple of times a year where he‘s cofounder of the Inupiat Theatre in Barrow, something that keeps him in touch with his heritage. “We are the first generation not to learn to speak the Inupiat language so we put on shows that are translated from English to Inupiat. It‘s a big hole in our lives and something we feel responsible to correct.” You can include his films as part of that healing. — J.G.
Contact: Craig Kestel at William Morris: (310) 859-4580
TARIQ TAPA. PHOTO BY: WINSTON CUTSHALL
“Everything I used to make this movie, from soup to nuts, fit in one little backpack,” says Tariq Tapa, whose Zero Bridge, a neorealist tale of unexpected friendship and moral complication set in the Indian-occupied city of Srinagar, Kashmir, is set to explode on the festival circuit this year. Tapa, who not only directed this first feature but shot, edited and recorded sound for it, says he wish he‘d had one extra crew member, but “financial and logistically, it wasn‘t possible. Also, I didn‘t know what would come up in [Kashmir], and I didn‘t want anything to happen [to the crew member] and have it on my conscience.”
Tapa was born in New York City to a Kashmiri Muslim father and American Jewish mother. “I spent every summer and extended vacations [in Kashmir] with my father‘s side of the family,” he says. “But when the war began in ‘89, I didn‘t see them in a decade. When I went back in 2002, my cousins and I had grown apart. I thought it would be interesting to make a movie because no one knows about daily life in Kashmir, and it was also a way for me to reconnect with my family and heritage.”
The L.A.-based Tapa, who graduated from CalArts and whose short films have screened at the Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Modern Art, received a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to Kashmir and make Zero Bridge. The film tells the story of a teenage pickpocket, Dilawar, who plans to escape from both Kashmir and his strict uncle but whose plans are complicated when he forms a bond with a woman whose passport he has stolen. Tapa says that his first job when arriving in Srinagar was to convince the community there that he “was on their side.” He says, “Tempers could flare very quickly because of cultural and political issues [having to do with] traditional and conservative Muslim. We were often mistaken for doing something illicit. Or, they didn‘t understand the kind of movie we were making. They‘d say, ‘Where are all the tiger and the dancing women?‘ I‘d say, ‘Well, it‘s a story about people‘s lives,‘ but the concept of this kind of movie doesn‘t exist over there.” In order to teach the community, including the non-actors who star in the film, about his kind of filmmaking, Tapa showed them DVDs of such movies as Tree of Wooden Clogs, The Bicycle Thief, and Il Posto.
After surviving production — “We were constantly getting interrupted; there‘d be a car bomb, or a policeman nearby would get shot,” he remembers — and a lengthy postproduction process that included 93 separate cuts, Tapa, who also attended the IFP Rough Cut Lab in 2008, now expects to premiere his film at one of this season‘s top festivals. He‘s also preparing two more features: Young Offender, which he‘ll shoot in Texas, and then, in 2010, another picture to be shot in Srinagar. He says he will “absolutely preserve the same level of intimacy in production [as the no-crew Zero Bridge]... but I would really like to bring along one or two other crew members.” — Scott Macaulay
JOSHUA SAFDIE. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
For Joshua Safdie, the roots of his filmmaking lie in his childhood, but not in the way that you‘d expect. He says he doesn‘t remember much before the age of 10, let alone movies, but lately he‘s been reacquainting himself with those years. His dad, who raised him and his brother in both Paris and New York City, was a compulsive home moviemaker. “He bought this camera and filmed my brother and me all the time,” says Safdie. “He just gave me some of [these films] for the first time, and they are really beautiful. For example, he‘d be filming our birthday party and he‘d move the camera to follow this girl who is looking sad and holding a balloon. He would film my brother and I sleeping a lot — all these mundane moments — and we‘d wonder, ‘Why are you filming this?‘ That‘s where filmmaking comes from for me — it‘s a place to learn from and a place to escape to. It‘s become a place of introspection for my father and now for me.”
The whiff of rituals remembered from childhood — car rides, trips to the zoo, an afternoon in the park — become peculiarly resonant moments in Safdie‘s filmmaking. The young director has been steadily crafting a unique voice in shorts like We‘re Going to the Zoo and I Think I‘m Missing Parts, but with his first feature, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, “accidentally” made when his 40-page script clocked in at 72 minutes, Safdie has been discovered. The film premiered at SXSW and then traveled to Cannes where it was the closing night film of the Director‘s Fortnight.
The Pleasure of Being Robbed is the lithe and lovely tale of Eleonore (played by the hypnotic Eleonore Hendricks), a young woman who lives life entirely in the moment, viewing the world around her as if it‘s a toy shop full of the most curious playthings. We watch as she absconds with all matter of objects — a purse, a set of keys, a bag of kittens, a car — and uses them to kick-start a series of experiential explorations that include a romance with a smitten young man played by Safdie himself.
“The whole idea of using film to recreate an emotion you once felt, almost like a documentary, is really interesting to me,” says Safdie. The Pleasure of Being Robbed will be released by IFC this October. That‘s around the time Safdie will go to work on his new film, which he‘ll co-direct with his brother Benny and which will star Frownland director Ronald Bronstein as a single dad. — S.M.
RYAN BILSBORROW-KOO & ZACHARY LIEBERMAN. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo & Zachary Lieberman
The first shot of the first episode of The West Side perfectly sums up the aesthetic of this striking Web serial. It‘s a wide shot of the exterior of a city funeral home, and as the wind whistles on the soundtrack, a plastic bag — a piece of urban detritus — dances like a tumbleweed across the screen. Called an “urban Western” by its creators, Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman, The West Side is ingenious low-budget independent filmmaking that just happens to be viewable only on the Web. Set in an alternate universe where a traditional tale of frontier justice plays out against a depopulated urban landscape (one that looks an awful lot like the rougher neighborhoods of New York City), The West Side recently won a Webby Award for Best Drama Series of 2008 and seems poised to bring greater attention to its resourceful and talented creators.
Of their decision to create a work for the Web, Bilsborrow-Koo says, “Zach and I had some student films play at festivals, and the audiences weren‘t large. Once the Internet came along we realized it was a way to very easily get eyeballs on our stuff.” The director says that the idea of grafting a literal Western, complete with bad guys in dusters, onto an urban setting sprang from a college thesis paper. “Zach and I saw similarities between the Western film and the hip-hop of today,” he says. “We thought, ‘What if we combined the two genres and set it in an alternate universe?‘” Continues Lieberman, “The urban part of it was almost a necessity — we knew we wouldn‘t be able to build sets.” Indeed, the desolate urban backdrop, in which wide avenues are devoid of passers-by, is one of The West Side‘s most eye-popping elements. “We spend a lot of time location scouting,” Bilsborrow-Koo admits, noting that the duo only received official shooting permits for their most recent episode. “And as we have had the need for larger set pieces and wider shots, we have moved from Harlem to industrial neighborhoods in Brooklyn. We also use visual effects to erase people and signs in the background. We hope it looks effortless, but it hasn‘t been easy.”
Bilsborrow-Koo and Lieberman shoot The West Side with a DVX100 24p high-definition camera with a 35mm adapter and old SLR lenses, giving it a polished, stylized look that does indeed set it apart from most other Web video. The other thing that distinguishes it is its deliberate production schedule. There are 12 scripted episodes, of which just four have been finished in about 15 months. The filmmakers have resisted the urge to “go viral” and have controlled the viewing experience by making The West Side available only on their own site. Explains Lieberman, “Ryan and I both work 40-hour weeks at MTV [where Lieberman is a producer and Bilsborrow-Koo a graphic designer]. So, we are doing this on nights and weekends. From the very beginning, we told our audience on our blog that we aren‘t going for the most views, we‘re just trying to create a quality story. And if we are going to take eight weeks [to complete an episode], we may as well take 10 to get it right.” — S.M.
Jon Zimelis at UTA: (310)-776-8223