Thursday, May 24, 2018

On the Beauty of Art Weekends

During a dark week at The Daily Show last month, I had the rare opportunity to spend a whole week charting out a new screenplay with my dear friend, Lucas Loredo, back in Austin (Lucas is currently in the MFA program at UT's Michener Center for Writers). We relived past glory years in the service of creating something new, spent time with our beloved theatre directors Annie and Billy Dragoo (who changed the course of our lives) and reminisced on the formative years that made us who we are. We had an excellent time looking back, and more importantly, ahead.

The screenplay, which recounts our wonderful experiences performing in Austin High School's renowned theatre department, is something Lucas and I have been talking about writing for a long time. We finally decided we weren't going to make any headway unless we took a full week and bunkered down to structure the piece. During that time, we charted out the events and character arcs in the film, and mapped out the entire movie and its events on foam boards attached to the wall. In the evenings, we cooked dinner and watched coming-of-age films which have inspired us over the years, including Almost Famous (2000), Lady Bird (2017), Dazed and Confused (1993) and The Spectacular Now (2013), taking notes for our script along the way.

Leading up to our self-imposed writing "residency," I spent the last several months working on a quite long document in which I recall every single thing that happened to me in high school. Even though I've only made it about halfway into my junior year, the document is already over 150 pages long. It's a bit overwhelming, but the document has provided a wonderful well of memories from which to cherry-pick for our film. Lucas is particularly talented at story structure and the hero's journey, and I think his discipline, combined with many of the specific memories and ideas I've written down over the last few months, make us a great writing team (we've already made one short film together, Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding, in 2014).

A final script is a long way away, but we're finally on the beginning path to a dream project that means a great deal to me. On its tenth anniversary, here’s Lucas and me in action back in high school, in the Red Dragon Players' seminal 2008 production of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, directed by Billy Dragoo and filmed here by Paul Schattenberg. One day I'll put up the whole show in its entirety.

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me - Scene Seven from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me - Scene Eight from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

Speaking of Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding - this is a bit belated, but the film had its festival debut at the 2016 Black Cat Picture Show, followed by a screening at the Hudson Valley International Film Festival! I was thrilled to screen the film at the Black Cat Picture Show, only one year after my film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory won their Best Student Film prize. You can see a clip from our film in the trailer for the festival.

In a bit of related news, I applied last fall to the University of Texas at Austin's MFA Film and Media Production program, which was a great experience in and of itself, as I was able to obtain letters of recommendation from my advisors and mentors and write about my interests and aspirations as an artist in detail. I had been considering applying to UT's MFA program for some time (it was the only graduate program to which I applied), but I certainly didn't expect to get into the school (they accept twelve students every year). In February, however, I was delighted to learn that I was offered admission, and for a time, I did not know what the immediate future held in store for me. When I was in Austin for my writing retreat, I also had my official UT campus visit, and I was astonished by the school's facilities, professors and classes - it had everything I could possibly want in a graduate school program. It was a very difficult decision. Ultimately, I decided that I was enjoying my current job too much and should stay in New York for the immediate future - but I was beyond honored to have been accepted to the program, and it was a wonderful experience touring the campus and imagining what my life would be like as a University of Texas graduate student.

Still, just being in Austin for a short period time makes me long for the opportunity to make movies there - specifically, one about growing up with my mother and father in the 1990s, and then the aforementioned film about the Red Dragon Players I'm currently writing with Lucas. They're both dream projects of mine, and ones I intend to make in the coming years.

I’ve been revisiting all kinds of wonderful memories from those glorious high school years lately. Nearly ten years after it first premiered, I re-watched the Red Dragon Players’ production of Jim Merillat's original musical Radio Eyes, in which I played the wildly erratic Inspector Riley. I received a copy of the musical from Jim (my DVD copy of the play was scratched), and it was a tremendous joy viewing the show with fresh eyes (it was one of my favorite musicals we performed at Austin High). I’ve also been looking at our productions of Round and Round the Garden (UIL), Over the River and Through the Woods (UIL), the aforementioned Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Willy Wonka, Seussical: The Musical, Into the Woods, Urinetown: The Musical, High School Musical and others. There’s an overwhelming amount of material from which to pull for our film, and I’m thrilled to have recordings of many of our productions (although I wish we had recorded our productions of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, Carson Kreitzer’s The Lovesong of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Jason Milligan's …And the Rain Came to Mayfield).

The memorable writing retreat in Austin has been surrounded by a welcome succession of what I'll call art weekends in New York, mainly spent with my wonderful girlfriend Sophia. After the production of our short play White Castle Valentine’s Day 2018 in February, she and I have embarked upon a series of escapades on the weekends, hoping to take advantage of what New York City has to offer.

On March 16th, we saw Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero on Broadway, which was, honest to God, one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Then again, it was written by Lonergan, so what did I expect? Michael Cera, Bel Powley, Chris Evans and Brian Tyree Henry were all exceptional – I’ve since bought a copy of the play, and I’m in the midst of learning one of the many outstanding monologues from the show. The next night, on St. Patrick’s Day, we screened one of my favorite films of all time, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), at my apartment – I mean, how else was I supposed to spend St. Patrick’s Day? Scorsese’s film has lost none of its immediacy and power in the now twelve(!) years since its release, and the picture still stands as the defining cinema release of my lifetime (seriously). On Sunday, I treated myself to a double-feature of Francis Lawrence’s riveting Red Sparrow, which way exceeded my expectations, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, one of the first Marvel movies actually about something. The immensely talented Coogler also gives us the best and most complex superhero villain in some time, with Michael B. Jordan excelling as Eric Killmonger.

This is a bit of a brief tangent, but in the fall of 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing Kenneth Lonergan in person three times within a two-week period. The first time was at the Museum of the Moving Image, where Lonergan spoke after an early screening of his new film Manchester by the Sea, which was the second-best film of 2016 (after Martin Scorsese’s Silence). I saw him again shortly thereafter at the opening night screening of Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet, on which I was an associate producer and assistant editor.

By Sidney Lumet opened on October 28th at Lincoln Plaza Cinema (which has sadly now closed after thirty-five years of business) and received rave reviews. On opening night, there was a Q&A after the film with Nancy and Christine Lahti (who starred in Lumet’s Running on Empty), followed by a great after-party at the Tisch WNET Studio in Lincoln Center. Lonergan joined us for the after-party, as well (our editor, Anthony Ripoli, edited the Director’s Cut of Lonergan’s masterpiece Margaret), but I didn’t actually get to meet him until after a screening of Margaret the next weekend (also at the Museum of the Moving Image). MOMI screened the Director’s Cut of the film (they were doing a retrospective of all of his films), and Lonergan held yet another fantastic Q&A. After the screening, I shared with him my adoration for both Margaret and Manchester by the Sea (not to mention his first film, You Can Count on Me). It’s always an honor to get to meet your heroes, and I’ve truly enjoyed familiarizing myself with his work as a playwright this year.

But back to the present! The next weekend, Sophia and I went to the David Bowie Is exhibit at Brooklyn Museum, which was astonishing – an aural and visual experience like no other. On Saturday, I saw The Panic in Needle Park (1971) at the Quad Cinema as part of the Pacino’s Way retrospective. I could have lived at the Quad during this run of films, screened mostly on 35mm. At this particular screening of The Panic in Needle Park, director Jerry Schatzberg introduced his film, and discussed working with Pacino in depth. He also directed the masterful Scarecrow (1973), with Pacino and Gene Hackman, which has long been one of the unheralded highlights of 1970s cinema. I was sad to be working during Pacino’s visits to the Quad, where he screened his passion projects Salome and Wilde Salome – but I cherish my memories of seeing him onstage in The Merchant of Venice (2010) and Glengarry Glen Ross (2012). Pacino recently turned seventy-eight, and he continues to inspire and amaze – most recently in his magnificent performance in Barry Levinson’s Paterno on HBO (less than a year after Levinson’s great The Wizard of Lies with Robert De Niro, also on HBO).

And then, on Sunday, Sophia and I saw Wes Anderson’s new film Isle of Dogs, which filled me with joy. It’s an emotional, beautiful movie – I was smiling the entire time. You can read my full review of Isle of Dogs for Austin Family Magazine here.

In Austin, in addition to my residency with Lucas and my UT campus visit, my mom and I saw Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which was a total blast (and just flat-out mind-boggling that Spielberg released the film within the same three-month period as The Post). We also saw John Krasinski's A Quiet Place, which I wish I could say I viewed in a very quiet place. I loved the movie (between this and 2016’s The Hollars, Krasinski is one talented director), and I think filmmakers should slowly start conditioning audiences to this level of silence in more movies. It is a truly effective dramatic tool – and it requires audiences to shut the hell up.

When I returned from Austin, the art weekends continued. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was a strange, beautiful and mesmerizing movie with one of the world’s greatest and most interesting actors, Joaquin Phoenix, at its center. Ramsay strikes gold once again, after her masterful We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) - there was no scene in this film that unfolded how I expected. And this picture could have been so violent, reveling in the brutality of our protagonist's methods - but Ramsay isn't interested in close-ups of hammers bludgeoning heads. She's interested in more specific details, and the effects trauma has on the human body.

Seeing the film a second time, I was struck even more by the connection between Joe (Phoenix) and Nina, the young girl he rescues from a New York City brothel. Subtly over the course of the movie, they recognize each other as having both experienced abuse and trauma in their lives. Both characters use counting mechanisms to cope with their suffering – as a child, Joe held a cellophane bag over his head and counted down in order to repress the brutality exacted upon him (and his mother) by his father. Likewise, Nina counts down in her head when she is preyed upon by men inside the brothel. These elements are beautifully woven together in an underwater sequence in which Joe attempts suicide, and as he counts down, he begins hearing Nina’s voice counting instead of his own, leading him to abandon his suicide attempt and attempt to rescue her. When I was in Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar had a You Were Never Really Here promotional photo booth, and you can bet I spent some time in there. Very well done, Amazon Studios.

The next weekend, I travelled down to Charlottesville with Sophia, where we stayed with her family and had a truly great time, as always. We even held a photo shoot with her friends Ivy and Clara, in which Sophia’s mom Maiya took some fine and truly strange portraits of us – you can see some of them throughout this post (I’m smoking a fake cigarette, by the way). While we were there, we spent time at a nearby reservoir, held a lavish banquet with friends, ate outside near the Blue Ridge Mountains, and, on our final night, watched Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) with Sophia’s dad Walter (I first saw this film when doing research for Blood and Thunder, and it remains one of the best and most original westerns I’ve ever seen).

Once back in New York, Sophia and I ventured to the Tribeca Film Festival the next weekend. On Friday, April 27th, I had my first virtual reality experience at Tribeca’s Horizons program. I was mainly attending because the program featured a short VR film by Terrence Malick, and it was beautiful (it’s telling that I finally tried out VR only because of Malick’s involvement). The next day, Alexander Payne spoke at Tribeca, with fellow Nebraskan Dick Cavett moderating the Q&A. What an amazing filmmaker and human – I sat in the front row and took notes, as every piece of filmmaking wisdom Payne offered was so valuable. Afterward, he told attendees he’d be around to talk in the lobby, and so I got to speak with him and share my adoration of Downsizing (2017). I could tell I was among devoted Payne loyalists, as much of the audience was quick to share that they loved Downsizing, too (which I maintain will be considered an ambitious modern classic in due time). I wish there were more like Payne – humble, Midwestern, authentic voices who make soulful movies about real people.

That evening, Sophia and I watched the recently released Criterion Blu-Ray of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), which is just as astonishing and powerful as ever. I saw a restoration of this film at the 2013 New York Film Festival with Scorsese in attendance, and it’s taken this long for that stunning transfer to make its way to DVD and Blu-Ray. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection has given the movie a welcome home.

Sunday, April 29th was the sixteenth anniversary of my dad's passing. I know I share a lot of the same videos of him, but here's something he shot on our family's 1996 trip to New York. He was a wonderful soul, and over the years I've been overjoyed to transfer more and more of his home video recordings as a way of remembering him.

The Kyser Family in New York - 1996 from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

In the midst of all of this, I caught a screening of Avengers: Infinity War before going to my evening shift one day, and I was surprised by the film’s effectiveness – particularly Josh Brolin’s performance as villain Thanos. You can read my full review for Austin Family Magazine here.

The next weekend, we saw Jason Reitman’s Tully, which was a delight, reuniting the dream team behind Young Adult (2011) – Reitman, writer Diablo Cody and star Charlize Theron. It’s exactly the kind of interesting film that rarely gets made anymore. Reitman never ceases to surprise and engage me – he never makes the same film twice (I remain a fan of his slightly un-loved Labor Day and Men, Women and Children). Tully is also a movie that I heard people dismissing before it was even released. I’m irked every time I hear people talking about a film they haven’t seen, prejudging it and having no real interest in what the picture might have to say – instead reducing the movie to its most basic elements. This happens with older films, too, as social mores change and folks want to reevaluate certain films based on a new set of criteria and whether it aligns perfectly with today’s ideas. What they don’t seem to understand is that the capturing of a certain time and place is precisely what makes a film interesting, and in time, today’s seemingly evolved values and ideas are going to seem outdated, too.

On Friday, May 11th, we saw Carl Theodor Dreyer's astounding film Ordet at the Quad Cinema, followed by a Q&A with one of the greatest of all filmmakers, Paul Schrader. He gave great insight into Ordet and its influence on his new film First Reformed. The impact Dreyer's film had on our audience was palpable - it's a thoughtful examination of the role religion plays in our lives, and it takes on a kind of meditative quality as it goes on. There's something nearly God-like in its slow pans and long takes, creating a truly spiritual feeling I haven't experienced since Martin Scorsese's Silence.

There is a shot near the end of the film in which the camera does a slow, nearly-360° rotation around Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) and his niece (as her mother lays dying) that simply took my breath away. It was one of the most profound and haunting marriages of dialogue and camera movement I have seen in some time, and it will not leave my mind any time soon.

On Saturday night, Sophia and I saw one of my all-time favorites, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) in 35MM at IFC, as part of their Waverly Midnights: Scorsese program. It’s as much of a delightful and exhilarating ride as it was when I first watched it on VHS as a kid – frenetic, thrilling and truly bizarre. Over the past year, there have been a lot of terrific opportunities to see Scorsese’s work on the big screen – I saw Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975) and The Last Waltz (1978) at the Museum of the Moving Image last year during their amazing Scorsese exhibit, and IFC has been screening much of his filmography over the last few weeks (I’m going back in June to catch another favorite, Bringing out the Dead, in 35mm). Soon enough, I’ll have seen most of Scorsese’s films in cinemas (so far, I’ve seen nineteen, including the ones that were released in my lifetime).

When back in Austin more recently, I watched Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992) for the first time. This is perhaps the most formally fascinating film of Allen's career, and yet beyond all of the breathtaking handheld one-takes and jarring jump cuts, there's something truly unsettling here, both thematically and in the masterful performances. Husbands and Wives also has some very memorable set pieces - Sydney Pollack's drunken, rage-fueled visit to Judy Davis's house in the middle of the night is downright haunting (and, as more and more characters enter, it becomes one of Allen's best-directed group scenes ever). Meanwhile, two sequences with Allen and Juliette Lewis (when they retrieve his manuscript from a taxi driver, and then later share a kiss at her birthday party) will both linger in my memory for some time to come. This film is a scorcher.

My job at Comedy Central is going well – it’s always a joy to work on an interview clip with a guest I truly respect and admire. Here’s Sean Penn on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah this past March – with a (hopefully good) still I picked out for him. I’m currently reading his first novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, and it is a wild ride – a truly original and fascinating peek inside Penn’s mind. I miss seeing him onscreen these days, but Bob Honey is holding me over until his next film.

I also got to work on a great interview clip with Matt Damon and Gary White of, which you can find here.

The film I directed last October, Four Play, is officially finished, and the film’s writer and producer, Ben Krevalin, is busy submitting the movie to film festivals. I think we made a pretty strong movie, with four really charming lead performances and some creative blocking in there. I suspect it will be some time before it’s available online, but if you’re interesting in seeing it, please let me know. And, yes, I’m still editing Harvey’s Last Night on the Avenue. I’m getting closer and closer, and more and more excited with each passing day as it comes together. I’ve never taken this long editing a film (in fact, I used to pride myself on making and releasing new films with great regularity), but this one feels like it needs my full attention and focus. It’s already been in the works for two-and-a-half years – what are a few more months? Anyway, by the next time I post here, I’ll have a trailer ready – and a full film (and web series) shortly to follow.

A few extremely talented artists have passed away since I last wrote. Milos Forman was one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – and, in his incredible career, directed two films pretty much everyone can agree are among the finest ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). Actor R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket, Seven) was such a presence onscreen – he will be missed. I had the opportunity of meeting him when I was a volunteer at Dennis Quaid Charity Classic Golf Tournament in high school, and he was extremely kind.

I don’t think I’ve written anything about this year’s Academy Awards. There’s really not much to say – they got nearly everything right except the biggest prize of them all. I suppose it doesn’t matter ­in the end – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was always a little dangerous, and the film (thankfully) didn’t play by the rules of what’s expected in cinema nowadays. But I can’t imagine anyone in his or her right mind looking back years from now and thinking The Shape of Water was a superior film. But the fact that Sam Rockwell, Roger Deakins, Gary Oldman and Allison Janney are now Oscar winners is heartening (not to mention Frances McDormand receiving her extremely well-deserved second Oscar). It’s not every year that your favorite film has a shot at the big prize (see Silence last year), so I was certainly rooting for Three Billboards in a big way. But now the noise of awards season is gone, and the greatness of McDonagh’s film remains.

Lastly, I never thought it’d happen, but I’m going to Springsteen on Broadway with Sophia in July! I haven’t been this happy since the last time I saw Bruce Springsteen during The River tour and made something of a tribute video here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Two Hearts Are Better Than One

Since I last updated this blog (my end-of-year top ten films list notwithstanding), I started two new jobs in September of last year. I was hired as a website video editor at Comedy Central for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, which has been a tremendous joy and an opportunity to work in a large, corporate edit office on a major television show. In addition, I began working as an after-school filmmaking teacher with CinemaKidz, teaching two classes on Wednesdays at Brooklyn Friends School.

Last semester, I taught alongside another great instructor, Bryn - one class comprised of elementary schoolers, the other comprised of junior high students. I was struck by the knowledge and aptitude of the students with filmmaking technology - we primarily use iPads to shoot in-class films, and the various filmmaking apps include iMovie, Filmic Pro, Green Screen and Stop Motion Pro. Many of the students were already very familiar with these apps, and it was an absolute joy to get to work with them and help cultivate their voices as filmmakers. They were particularly enamored with the green screen, which we set up before class most weeks - although for their final class films, we recommended using real locations around Brooklyn Friends School instead of relying on the green screen.

In order to focus on editing my web-series Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue this spring, I am not teaching a weekday class during this current semester, but I continue to work CinemaKidz birthday parties on the weekends. The birthday parties often consist of four-hour shoots with a large green-screen set-up in a studio, in which the birthday party attendees shoot a music video or a short film in rapid-fire speed. It's invigorating and heartening to watch young people learn about collaboration and the art of filmmaking.

You can view my online staff profile and introduction video on CinemaKidz's website, or watch the link below.

Meet Jack @ CinemaKidz from CinemaKidz on Vimeo.

My job with Comedy Central has been an incredible experience. I work four nights per week (the air dates for The Daily Show), usually coming in at 6:00 PM and leaving at 2:00 AM. It's a rather ideal schedule, actually, as I'm able to edit Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue during the daytime before work. I primarily edit the website material for The Daily Show, along with some social media content and additional editing on other Comedy Central projects. The best part of the job is the lively camaraderie among the nighttime video editors - our edit room inside the Soho Viacom building is full of energy and ideas (and, often, food). It rarely feels like a late night when I'm working there, primarily because of everyone else in the room.

Because the show regularly has dark weeks (in which The Daily Show does not air), the breaks and holidays are generous (although you can work daytime shifts during the dark weeks, too, which I have done). There are certainly perks to working with a large company. When there was a major snowstorm early last month, I was put up at the Hotel Hugo in Soho overnight after my edit shift to ensure I wasn't traveling home on dangerous roads. There's also a hoverboard in our office, to my great delight - although I'm not sure I'm very good at it.

Watching The Daily Show every night is a lot of fun, too - here's one of my favorite pieces Trevor Noah has done from the last year. We have guests in the edit room sometimes - after her interview on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, newly elected Virginia Delegate Danica Roem visited our office - she made history with her win this past November as the first transgender person elected to a U.S. statehouse, and it was a joy to meet her.

In January, I had the opportunity to act in a Columbia University MFA film. Director Cooper Troxell found my acting reel on Columbia's casting website, and he cast me as a romantic lead, of all things, in his film Hidden Gems. The picture centers around an office party where I'm at the center of a love triangle. We shot for two days in an architecture studio in the Flatiron District, and I was mightily impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of these MFA students. I've been on too many NYU film sets to count, but this was my first experience on a Columbia set, and I had a great time. I love to act whenever I can, and here, I was teamed with a great filmmaker and a fun script (and an opportunity for some successful improvisation). I look forward to seeing the final film.

Speaking of acting, no less than a few weeks ago, my effervescent girlfriend Sophia and I wrote a short play called White Castle Valentine's Day 2018 on a whim. It takes place at a White Castle on Valentine's Day, which, let's face it, is exactly where we all want to spend that cherished day. Sophia submitted the rough draft to a few theaters in New York accepting play submissions, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre accepted the play as part of their New Works Short Play Event. In a rather fortuitous turn of events, we just performed the piece on Friday, February 16th and Saturday, February 17th at 6:30 PM - which was not only the week of Valentine's Day, but also fell on a dark week for The Daily Show. Just like that, in a matter of days, a new project emerged seemingly out of nowhere! Here's what Sophia and I wrote for the 'About' section of our play's program:

"When Sophia and Jack stumbled into a White Castle for a late-night soda less than a month ago, neither of them could imagine that they'd leave ten minutes later with a potential short play percolating in their minds. Written over the course of a single weekend and reflecting the whims and idiosyncrasies of both writers, White Castle Valentine's Day 2018 arrives near the one-year anniversary of Jack and Sophia's relationship. While this piece doesn't exactly reflect their love story in any real way, it's still a representation of their ideas and concerns, filled with generous helpings of bizarre humor and non-sequiturs. In the spirit of this holiday, you're invited to discover what it means to accept your romantic partner (flaws and all) in White Castle Valentine's Day 2018."

I directed the play, with my friend and fellow Red Dragon Player alumnus Zachary Gamble leading the cast as Vincent (a stand-in, more or less, for me). Two extremely talented actresses, Nadira Foster-Williams and Audrey Harris, play Trash Lord (a character more or less standing in for Sophia) and Gloria (an ornery White Castle cashier), respectively. Rounding out the cast is me - I played Gene, a homeless man who lives in the White Castle, who gets a nice soliloquy before falling dead mid-play. I was overjoyed by the opportunity to perform in a live theatrical piece again, and even more excited to direct theatre for the first time!

We held rehearsals the last few weeks in spaces at the University Settlement, where Sophia works. She also constructed simple but elegant set pieces, namely a bullet-proof glass window separating Gloria from the rest of White Castle. I'm used to the directorial duties when it comes to filmmaking, but I'm rather new at some of the theatrical demands - creating a lighting and sound cue list, making a master blocking document, and furnishing the set with props that can be easily placed and stricken within minutes (since we were part of a series of plays).

White Castle Valentine's Day 2018 is a mysterious, romantic riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Sophia's brother Jack made the poster, and I think it's pretty great (additional publicity images were made by Jasmin James). I encouraged everyone to come on by via our Facebook event, and I sincerely hope they were moved, exhilarated and surprised. Our wonderful guests included my roommate Bobb Barito; dear friend and fellow Red Dragon Player alumnus Cora Walters; my beloved high school English teacher Michael Blankenburg and his husband, Brandon Durham; fellow NYU alumnus Aaron Kodz; and Sophia's entire family. Backstage, I was able to do something I've always wanted to do - lead our cast in vocal warm-ups I learned from my Austin High theatre days.

In short, it was a glorious experience - the dress rehearsals, the thrill of performing live, the backstage camaraderie, the excellent after-party - it all came flooding back to me. And, of course, the opportunity to direct and act in a play I wrote with my incomparable girlfriend doesn't come along every day, and so this one meant a lot to me. Sophia and I really put our heart and souls into this piece, and I'm enormously proud of what we put together in a matter of weeks. Here was the link for tickets, which I expect will expire in the coming days as new shows move into Manhattan Rep.

But never fear! Ken Wolf, the Artistic Director of Manhattan Rep, recorded a video of both of our performances. You can see our second performance in its entirety in the video below.

White Castle Valentines Day, Performance #2 from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

One year ago on Valentine's Day, I had one of my first dates with the amazingly talented and stunning Sophia. I can't possibly express what a joy it is to have her in my life. I was beyond honored to have collaborated on this performance.

On December 29th, Sophia visited Austin for the first time, and stayed at my house for four nights over the New Years holiday. We had a packed and thrilling three days together - on our first night, we ate at The Tavern with my mom, and then travelled down South Lamar to check out Waterloo Records (where we both made some fine purchases) and Book People.

On Saturday the 30th, we went with my mom to the house of my wonderful uncle and aunt, John and Keni Neff, and then went to The County Line to have some of the best Austin barbecue out there. Sophia and I then took a trip down to the Hike and Bike Trail, where we visited Lou Neff Point, the beautiful overlook at Town Lake (or Lady Bird Lake) named after my grandmother (my mother's mother, Lou Neff). She, along with Lady Bird Johnson, started a beautification effort in Texas to plant wildflowers all along the Texas highways in the 1960s. Here's an Austin-American Statesman article with a picture of Lou Neff Point from decades ago.

That evening, Sophia, my mom and I had tickets to an early screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread in 70MM at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in downtown Austin. This was a perfect opportunity to not only see downtown, but to take in one of Austin's best cinemas (and see the newest work from one of our finest filmmakers on glorious celluloid). We were enraptured by the film - it's an astonishing study of two people in love, told mostly through glances and gestures, each of them trying to discern what the other is thinking. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps gave two of the best performances of last year. Anderson is such a treasure - and his taste, I might add, is so wide-ranging and unpretentious. Here is someone who clearly loves movies and doesn't play into the Film Twitter game of taking films down a peg.

After the film, we walked down Congress to the Roaring Fork and had a delicious post-movie meal. We then headed down toward the Texas State Capitol and roamed around outside the beautiful structure.

On New Year's Eve, Sophia and I had lunch at Kerbey Lane Cafe on the Drag, and then roamed around the University of Texas campus. We ended up inside the Harry Ransom Center, one of the great archives and museums in this country, and studied their display Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920-1945 (before inquiring about their copy of Paul Schrader's Dark, a re-cut of one of his films only available at the Ransom Center and at UCLA's film archives).

We then went out to South Congress for New Year's Eve, meeting up with Zach (who was also in town for the holiday) at Guero's Taco Bar, one of the great Mexican establishments in Austin (and also heavily featured in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof). After dinner, we headed across the street to The Continental Club, a historic Austin music venue, and saw live music by the Peterson Brothers, who were positively electric. It was a stirring way to ring in the new year - a year in which I met Sophia, made Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue, and got a few new jobs. We ended the night in the best possible way - by stopping by Magnolia Cafe and munching on late-night pie.

The next day, Sophia and I met up with Billy and Annie Dragoo, my high school theatre directors, who I consider part of my family. We looked around the Preas Theatre, the home of so many cherished memories, and then went out to lunch at Red's Porch on South Lamar. Sophia and the Dragoos clicked right off the bat, discussing their collective encyclopedic knowledge of plays and theatre. I was thrilled they had the chance to meet.

That evening, my mom, Sophia and I had a great dinner at P.F. Chang's, and then saw Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World at Westgate Cinemas. Later, back at home, we opened Christmas presents with my mom, and I was overwhelmed by my mom and Sophia's generosity. My mom gave me, in addition to numerous Blu-Rays and books, a record player for my room in Austin. I put on my favorite album, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones (another Christmas gift), and it was a joyous way to end the trip before we all went to sleep. And Sophia gave me the sweetest gift imaginable - a hand-crafted book charting our relationship and the many memories we've had together. I will cherish this forever.

Austin is changing - the toy store of my childhood, Over the Rainbow, along with the Arbor Cinema and Vulcan Video North, are all being consumed by rising property taxes. It's simply not Austin without these landmarks - we simply can't let this city become another anonymous metropolis. But at least Austin now has an In-N-Out Burger - God forbid we not have one of those. I have so many wonderful memories at the Arbor, as well as the Sunshine Cinema, which just closed in New York.

Speaking of the Sunshine, I said goodbye to perhaps my favorite theater in New York in January during its last week of operation. Sophia and I paid pilgrimage the weekend before the cinema closed by seeing Scott Cooper's extraordinary Hostiles, one of the most overlooked movies of the year, with an incredible Christian Bale. And then, the following weekend, we attended the last Saturday night at the Sunshine ever, joining a large groups of friends for a midnight screening of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Now, the space is closed to make way for a shopping mall.

I saw more than forty films at this wonderful theater over the last eight years, and I'm understandably so sad to see this place go. I vividly remember seeing Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (2011) there for the first time - it was the only cinema in the city, to my recollection, that even played the film during its limited run. Months later, the Sunshine held the premiere screening of the Director's Cut of Margaret. I couldn't go, as I was interning at Sikelia, but I remember Thelma Schoonmaker needed subway directions so she could be there. When I was walking home late that night on the Lower East Side (I lived on Broome Street at the time, my senior year of college), I passed by the Sunshine as folks must have been getting out of Margaret. I walked by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was unchaining his bike and about to head off into the night.

The first time I ever went to the Sunshine was for Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man (2009), which I saw on opening night with three friends from film school. This was less than a month into my first semester at NYU, and I could tell this cinema was a place I would return many times over the years. The staff threw out A Serious Man t-shirts to the audience before the film - luckily, I still have mine. Let's protect the small cinemas we still have left.

In early October, on my first dark week from Comedy Central (I had only been working for two weeks), I directed my second film of 2017, Four Play. I wrote a great deal about Four Play in my last post, but in short, it's my first film that I didn't write. Ben Krevalin, an actor and producer with whom I share mutual friends, hired me to direct his screenplay early in the summer, and the early October shoot was a great learning experience. Even when I thought I had fully considered every aspect of a scene, there was something I hadn't thought of - such is the nature of directing someone else's script. I had a chance to work with some amazingly talented actors (Justin Danforth, Lizzie Stewart, McLean Peterson and Ben), and collaborate with some friends with whom I love working on set, namely production designer Maddie Wall and script supervisor Lain Kienzie, both extremely talented artists.

During our three-day shoot, we packed in a lot of scenes, and in the months since wrapping the shoot, Ben and I have been in the edit room with our editor, Daniel Sorochkin, who has done a great job with the film. We just picture-locked this past weekend, and I'm very proud of the final movie. Once it's fully sound-designed, color-corrected and scored, we'll be sending it off into the film festival circuit.

Speaking of my films, I'm still chugging along with the edit of Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue. I've been moving slowly but consistently - although I know most people prefer to make a rough cut of the entire project early in the process, I prefer to work on each individual scene at a time pretty thoroughly, resulting in a 'first cut' that's hopefully a little more refined. I'm not terribly far from a full first cut, but considering Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue will be nearly double the length of Four Play, I think the amount of time spent in the edit room so far is well-justified.

In September and October, I saw three films at the New York Film Festival - starting with the incredible North American premiere of Nancy Buirski's The Rape of Recy Taylor. Sophia and I (as well as my friend Tommy Bernardi, who also provided voiceover work in the film) attended a pre-screening party for the film at Indie Cafe at Lincoln Center, before traveling across the street to the Walter Reade Theater to see the film on the big screen. It was a great experience, with a fantastic Q&A afterward with Nancy, Robert Corbitt (Recy Taylor's brother), Cynthia Erivo, Crystal Feimster and Danielle L. McGuire, moderated by Kent Jones. I will admit, however, that I was a bit taken out of the film when I heard my own voice - it was an odd sensation.

The Rape of Recy Taylor has received some wonderful attention in the last few months. The film was front and center of The New York Times' Holiday Movies section, listed as one of the must-see films of 2017. On Saturday, November 11th, Nancy was joined by Academy Award nominated actress Ruth Negga (Loving) for a screening of the film at the annual MoMA Contenders Series with a post-screening discussion. On Friday, December 8th, the film opened for an Oscar-qualifying run at Laemmle Monica Film Center, followed by a New York theatrical release on December 15th at the IFC Center. In late December, The New Yorker's Richard Brody listed the film as one of the best pictures of the year, alongside The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Phantom Thread and Logan Lucky.

Recy Taylor passed away in late December at the age of ninety-seven. During last month's Golden Globes broadcast, Oprah Winfrey spoke about Ms. Taylor, which I hope shed even more light on her story and on Nancy's brilliant film. I'm extremely proud to be associated with The Rape of Recy Taylor, and I highly encourage you to seek it out.

Later during the New York Film Festival, Sophia and I saw the Closing Night screening of Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel, which I thought was Allen's best film since Blue Jasmine (2013). It has some of the most imaginative staging and blocking in any of his movies, and Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is simply beautiful. Upon a second viewing in December, I was even more struck by Kate Winslet's performance and the strength of Wonder Wheel as a whole. But just remember, Woody - I shot at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park first (see below)!

On the last day of the festival, I was quite astonished while watching Dee Rees's Mudbound at the Walter Reade Theater. Not just by the film, which was beautiful, but by the audience, which was not. I have rarely seen as many cell phones or heard as much talking as I did at this screening. Not one, not two, but three different people in the row in front of me on their phones - and that was just one row. Was this at a multiplex, perhaps in Times Square? No. This was the Film Society of Lincoln Center, for crying out loud. The New York Film Festival. I know that no space is immune to this kind of behavior - look no further than Film Forum, which seems to thrive now on loud talkers - but I was surprised that nobody in the audience really seemed to care. Certainly not the narrator behind me. Is there not one employee who can monitor these screenings, particularly for films not yet released, and ask people to close their phones? I was dismayed. There are many good films coming out these days, but not nearly enough audiences that deserve them. At this point, this song echoes through my mind nearly every time I sit down in a cinema.

There were several great films that played the New York Film Festival that I ended up catching elsewhere, including Todd Haynes's Wonderstruck, an overwhelmingly beautiful film that was clearly too quiet, sophisticated and strange for the non-stop talkers at Village East Cinema on a Saturday afternoon. Special shout-out to the know-it-all dad who inundated his young son with useless comments the entire film. Here's my review of Wonderstruck for Austin Family Magazine (you can read all of my reviews at the website, if you'd like).

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) was one of my favorite films of last year, continuing Noah Baumbach's streak of magnificent achievements. The film features Dustin Hoffman's best performance in years, with an equally amazing Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller.

Thanks in large part to Sophia, I've seen quite a bit of theatre the last few months. Most recently, we experienced one of the best plays I've seen in a long time, Bruce Norris's The Low Road, at the Public Theater. In January, we saw Robert O'Hara's Mankind at Playwrights Horizons, which was a wild ride overflowing with ideas. The first act finish was a delight, as all men in the audience stood and performed a prayer from a pamphlet hand-out. Earlier in the fall, Sophia's dad took us to see 1984 on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre, starring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde, which was a horrifying and difficult-to-watch staging of George Orwell's novel. 

I was most moved by the revival of Torch Song, which was produced by Richie Jackson, a wonderful mentor and advisor to me through his fellowship. Written by Harvey Fierstein, directed by Moises Kaufman and starring Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl, the show closed on December 9th (I saw it during its final few days) at the Tony Kiser (no relation) Theater on 43rd Street. However, the play is opening on Broadway this fall, with previews starting in October. Torch Song was truly one of the most imaginatively staged and beautifully acted shows I've seen in some time.

Sophia has had no shortage of her own live performances in the last year. Her play Trash Lord: Domestication was performed in January at Sidewalk NYC, directed by Keith Paul Medelis of the Upstream Artists' Collective, and she also staged her performance art piece Body Fluids last fall at the University Settlement on Eldridge Street. This came after a whirlwind 2017, in which she held a packed staged reading of her play Please, Mrs. West in January at the University Settlement; directed and starred in a production of her original play Solo: An American Choreopoem at Dixon Place in April; and produced a film adaptation (which I assistant-directed) of Please, Mrs. West in July. 

In late October, we had a very fun Halloween. The night before, we went pumpkin-carving at Zach's apartment with some of his friends. As we didn't buy a pumpkin in advance of the party, we decided to temporarily "borrow" a pumpkin from a nearby bar (which had outside pumpkin decorations). We carved it impressively at Zach's apartment, and then we promptly returned the newly enlivened pumpkin to its rightful spot near the bar, with the message 'Do Not Judge Lest Ye Be Judged!' written onto its side. I like to think we didn't steal their pumpkin - we made it even better. We then travelled over to a party at another friend's apartment.

The next night, on Halloween, Sophia and I dressed up as our favorite movie couple - Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn. I had my aviator goggles and a piece of paper taped to my chest reading 'The Way of the Future,' while Sophia went full Hepburn in her costume choices. And then we headed off into the night, spending time at her friend's costume party in Harlem. All in all, it was a good way to honor The Aviator (2004), which I watched (with Sophia) for the one-hundredth time early last year. You know, watching The Aviator really puts things into perspective. For instance, there is no better movie than The Aviator.

I returned to Austin for Thanksgiving, and I had a grand Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Bolton Eckert and his family. My mom, Bolton's mom Leslie, his girlfriend Allie, grandmother Myr and other family members gathered at Leslie's house and had a great meal. Only a year prior, I had joined Bolton, Allie and the Eckert family for a celebration of the wonderful Horton Foote's centennial - but I'll write about that in a future post (where I'll go back to 2016 and fill in some gaps). Bolton had his new drone camera at Thanksgiving, so we played around with flying that thing around Austin and getting some really beautiful aerial footage. He's now started a production company in Los Angeles where he'll be a drone operator and videographer.

Over Thanksgiving, I also saw some of my favorite films of 2017, primarily at the Alamo Drafthouse. In case I wasn't clear enough in my praise last time around, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is likely my favorite American film since Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). I have been positively thrilled by the film's awards season reception this year - seven Oscar nominations in total, although Martin McDonagh's omission for Best Director is disappointing. Three Billboards won five awards at the BAFTAs, including Best Film, Actress (Frances McDormand), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell) and Original Screenplay. The film won the same four awards at the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild awarded the picture Best Ensemble, Actress and Supporting Actor. The film richly deserves each one of these accolades. I've been laughing a bit at the hit pieces on the film ever since it became a frontrunner this awards season - God forbid a movie not adhere strictly to the doctrine of political correctness and have a bit of a nuanced view on some complicated issues. Thankfully, there are plenty of good pieces defending the film, as well as year-end top ten lists with Three Billboards out front I can get behind (I also particularly enjoyed John Waters's top ten this year, where he included The Wizard of Lies, Wonder Wheel and Wonderstruck).

I also saw Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird while in Austin, which was so moving and true - particularly in its expression of only appreciating your hometown once you've moved away. It's a beautiful piece of personal filmmaking that deepens our understanding of Gerwig's brilliant work as an actress. Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) rounded out my Thanksgiving viewing - both of which deserved far more recognition this awards season.

The fall in general brought about quite a few excellent films - many of which didn't quite make my end-of-year top ten list. I'll write about a few of them here. I saw a killer Alamo Drafthouse double-feature in November of Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Sean Baker's The Florida Project - as always, A24 is giving us some damn fine work. For another Alamo double-feature, Sophia and I saw James Franco's The Disaster Artist, which is a blast - one of the funniest movies in years, ending with an almost The King of Comedy-style rise to fame. We followed it with Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, which is engaging and leisurely from start to finish. The film is a confidently directed and realized picture, with a supporting turn from the always fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg that sneaks up on you.

At our third-to-last date at the Sunshine Cinema before its closing (our first, by the way, was Jim Jarmusch's Paterson early last year), Sophia and I saw Brett Morgen's Jane, which has some of the most extraordinary, cinematic archival footage I've ever seen. The parallels between Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzee behavior and her own personal life is so well-done. The great thing about Darkest Hour is that Joe Wright's inventive and exhilarating filmmaking is every bit as good as Gary Oldman's towering lead performance. And in Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya, we get a haunting look at a life marred by abuse and scandal, with performances by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney that are among the best of the year. I, Tonya is a film that continues to linger with me, and may very well find its way into my 2017 top ten after some reconsideration. If you're looking for more writing about my favorite movies of the year (in addition to my below blog post), check out my end-of-year list for Austin Family Magazine.

In general, I've been pleased with the major awards this year (although we'll see what happens at the Academy Awards this weekend). In addition to the Three Billboards love, I was thrilled Paul Thomas Anderson and Phantom Thread received so much attention from the Academy. I was less thrilled that both Tom Hanks (The Post) and Hong Chau (Downsizing) were omitted. What does Hanks have to do to get nominated for an Oscar these days? Because apparently the answer isn't starring in five Best Picture nominees since his last nomination seventeen years ago and not being nominated for one of them. For the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, I wish Robert De Niro would have won for his incredible performance in Barry Levinson's The Wizard of Lies. In general, there has been far too little praise this entire season for Downsizing, The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Logan Lucky - all movies I feel certain are going to grow in esteem over the years (and are far superior to many of the nominated films).

In November, my hero Martin Scorsese turned seventy-five years old. He's currently shooting The Irishman, which is essentially my favorite film of all time in the making. There have been endless amounts of exciting updates on the film - Anna Paquin has joined the film, set photos have emerged and much more.

Here's a few assorted Scorsese links and news items, all bundled together: he wrote a great article last year about the danger of relying on Rotten Tomatoes and Cinemascore ratings when considering a film, using Darren Aronofsky's mother! as an example (by the way, congratulations to Paramount Pictures for making something as bold and audacious as mother!, which was brilliant and totally go-for-broke, and a great companion piece to Aronofsky's Noah). Here's another important (and slightly older, at this point) article, in which Scorsese and other great directors say we're getting ripped off at the cinema. Scorsese says, in particular, "... unfortunately, a few bad experiences in a movie theatre can lead to an audience ultimately deciding to stay home."

Last December 20th marked the 15-year anniversary of Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002). I remember opening day vividly - I was twelve years old, and it was my first Scorsese film in cinemas. My ticket cost $5.00, my friend Manny Munoz and I went with our moms, and as the lights went up, I felt as if I had just seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962) on opening weekend. I am still in awe.

On September 21st of 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the day Martin Scorsese Day. Want more? Here's a link to a history of Scorsese's love affair with The Rolling Stones. Here's a look at the future of the movies from 1990, the year I was born, where Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas discuss with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel where they see the movie industry headed. It's a fascinating watch. And for the 40th Anniversary of Taxi Driver (1976), here's Scorsese and his cast with an oral history of the film.

Lastly, boxer Jake La Motta, the subject of Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), died in September at ninety-five years old - what a life. May he rest in peace.

Speaking of those we've recently lost, I'm still mourning the loss of Tom Petty. In addition to being one of the greatest musical artists of our time, Petty also made the best music videos I've seen. In particular, Into the Great Wide Open and Don't Come Around Here No More are really astonishing. If I had to make a top five Petty, it'd be: Don't Come Around Here No More, Into the Great Wide Open, I Won't Back DownLearning to Fly and It'll All Work Out, with a bonus nod going to Handle with Care by the Traveling Wilburys. It's also worth mentioning how beautifully his music is used in the films of Cameron Crowe. We also lost one of the best actors around last year, Harry Dean Stanton, who appeared in so many great films.

Two of my all-time favorite directors passed away, as well. Curtis Hanson died in September of 2016. His films L.A. Confidential (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) are both among my favorite one-hundred movies of all time. He was a filmmaker who could seemingly work in any genre and make true art, as evidenced by films as diverse as 8 Mile (2002) and In Her Shoes (2005). And then, last year, Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) passed away at 77. What an extraordinary director - seeing The Deer Hunter (1978) for the first time as a child was eye-opening. Like Raging Bull, the film's power was beyond anything I had ever seen, and it remains one of my five favorite films of all time.

Last but not least, I wish to share with you what my friend Jon Annunziata, an ebullient taco of a human being, sent me in the mail in December. Arriving home after work, I found a top-secret package containing my long-lost copy of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, a Travis Bickle t-shirt and a letter too pure for this world (plus some Carlos Santana memorabilia for Bobb). I can only express my gratitude to Jon by quoting the Reverend Al Sharpton: "Who among us has not showered with the dishes? For you are nothing but a mafioso waiting to take my breath away, and I for one couldn't be more surprised."