Thursday, November 22, 2012

Jake the Cinephile Is Coming Soon To Theaters... To Tell You To Shut The Hell Up

As I pack for my early Thanksgiving flight back to Austin tomorrow morning, I realize that it's been a considerable amount of time since I last updated this blog, and I can attribute a large part of that to my fairly rough start to the school year. The death of my aunt, Nancy Neff, still hasn't fully sunk in, but after a very sad week in Austin in early September, I returned back to New York for the first day of my senior year (after missing the first week of classes). Luckily, I have had truly extraordinary courses this semester to keep me motivated.

My first class, Modern American Drama, is a terrific course that encompasses many of the major American plays of the twentieth century and their depiction of the American Dream. We started with Eugene O'Neill, reading both The Hairy Ape and his masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night (soon after reading the play, I watched the film version starring Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards and directed by Sidney Lumet, which was every bit as devastating and powerful as the play). From there, we studied works by Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!), Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), Lorraine Hansberrry (A Raisin in the Sun), Edward Albee (The American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), August Wilson (Fences) and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross).

Speaking of Glengarry Glen Ross - which has been a favorite of mine for years now (there's one particular expletive-filled monologue that I very much enjoyed using for many auditions in high school) - Al Pacino is currently starring in the revival of the play on Broadway. Pacino was masterful in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross as Richard Roma, but in the current revival he is playing Shelley Levine, a brilliant casting decision. On Sunday, November 4th, I saw Pacino in the Broadway revival, and it was very likely the second-best performance I've ever seen on Broadway (just behind Mike Nichols's production of Death of a Salesman earlier this year). To see Pacino, one of my lifelong heroes, perform in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway two years ago was a dream come true. But to see him again, in this particular play, was something else entirely. Bobby Cannavale, John C. McGinley, Richard Schiff and David Harbour are also amazing in the play, and it was fascinating to see Pacino play Levine. During intermission, I talked with Tisch Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell, who was also in the audience for the performance. Everyone comes out for Pacino. How extraordinary is it that you can go to New York and see one of the world's finest actors perform live any night of the week?

I'll return to my classes this semester. I am also taking Advanced Editing Workshop, where I am editing my film Jake the Cinephile that I shot this past summer. My professor is Ray Hubley, the outstanding editor of films such as Dead Man Walking (a personal favorite of mine), and it has been so valuable to screen dailies and rough cuts of my film to the class and receive supportive feedback. Our first class was overseen by the legendary film editor and filmmaker Sam Pollard, who I had as a professor last fall. When I screened dailies from Jake the Cinephile in class, Mr. Pollard became the film's first vocal fan, making some wonderful suggestions. If Spike Lee's editor enjoyed the dailies so much, I am very much looking forward to where the film goes from here.

The most important class of the semester, of course, is my Advanced Production Workshop course, where students make their senior thesis films. My professor is the incredible Yemane Demissie, who has been my academic advisor (as part of the Dean's Scholars program) for some time. The nineteen students in the class - all of whom are remarkable and visionary filmmakers - spend the semester workshopping and critiquing each other's scripts in class.

The professor can only give film allotments to twelve students (meaning that seven students will not receive the allotment to shoot their film in the spring), so both the pitch process and the script workshop element play a large role in who ultimately receives the allotment. My advanced film is titled You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, and I think it will work well as an expansion on many of the themes I've been exploring in my other films (I will write about this film more in the future, particularly since it is my senior thesis picture). The process of refining the screenplay with my professor has been extraordinary, and Yemane's class is full of such a supportive and talented group of people. Though in the end the class has a competitive nature to it by design, I've never had such an effective writing class with so many passionate students and great friends. It reminds me that I'm getting closer and closer to the end of this whole thing, and I need to cherish every moment.

My fourth class is my Directing the Camera course, and it is also taught by Yemane. In this class, every student shoots three exercises or scenes in the class over the semester, and it is highly suggested that you use material from your own Advanced Production screenplay. I have already filmed three of the most important scenes from my script in class, each time using different actors and trying to approach the scene in a new way. This class has been valuable as both a workshop for my senior thesis script, as well as an opportunity for me to audition different actors for the lead roles in the film. More than anything, the class places an equal emphasis on camera and performance.

For my Advanced Production pitch, I prepared a short trailer for Jake the Cinephile to screen briefly during my forty-five minute pitch. I'll take this opportunity to post the first trailer for Jake the Cinephile.  Since our final evening of pick-up shots in early August, I have been slowly editing the film this semester, and I'm incredibly excited to show it to everyone. I was very lucky to get to work with so many talented individuals who made the movie possible. (By the way, I think Jake the Cinephile would wholeheartedly share the sentiments expressed in this recent blog post).

Jake the Cinephile Trailer from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

I've also been very lucky to continue interning at Sikelia Productions this semester, as the greatest filmmaker in the world and my hero, Martin Scorsese, shoots his new film The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese recently celebrated his 70th birthday, and needless to say, it is such an honor to be associated with him in any way.

I want to stray from writing in great length about specific films (my next post will be devoted entirely to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which has come to play a large role in my semester). But on Tuesday, November 13th, I was lucky enough to attend a private Tisch School of the Arts screening of Ang Lee's Life of Pi, an overwhelmingly moving adaptation of Yann Martel's great book. The screening was followed by a wonderful Q&A with the extraordinary Ang Lee (who is a Tisch alumnus) and the film's stars, Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan, moderated by Academy Award-winning Tisch professor John Canemaker. As Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell pointed out in her opening remarks after the film concluded, both Lee and Canemaker won Oscars at the 2006 Academy Awards, with Lee winning Best Director for Brokeback Mountain and Canemaker winning Best Animated Short Film for The Moon and The Son: An Imagined Conversation. Many Tisch students and faculty members eagerly attended the screening, and we were treated not only to one of the year's best pictures (the use of 3D in Life of Pi is every bit as outstanding as in Martin Scorsese's Hugo), but an incredible conversation with one of our finest filmmakers. I was speechless as I shook hands with Mr. Lee after the screening.

Of course, one of the defining events of this semester will always be Hurricane Sandy, the furious storm that took away power from Lower Manhattan for a full week and resulted in the cancellation of a full week of classes at NYU. At our apartment on Broome Street, Adam, Bobb and I lost power on Monday night. We started living in the dark, trying to decide who should sacrifice their laptop's battery life so we could watch Die Hard. (Why Die Hard? Because it's the finest action film ever made, and Bobb had never seen it). Instead, we lit some candles and painted a collaborative piece of art we call Hurricane Art (the piece now hangs proudly above our living room television, and you can see our masterpiece in the picture to the right).

Going outside during the hurricane seemed like an excellent idea, but after a few seconds walking outside of our apartment during the height of the storm, we went running back inside - it was truly terrifying. By the next morning, all of Lower Manhattan was without power. The now-famous dangling crane on 57th Street meant I couldn't go to my internship for safety reasons, even though power was back above 34th Street not too long after the storm ended (the hanging crane disrupted more than just my internship, though - read here).

New York University really came through during the hurricane. Adam, Bobb and I walked to NYU's Kimmel Center and Weinstein Dining Hall the day after the storm, which - thanks to back-up power generators - provided food, shelter and power not just for NYU students, but for many Greenwich Village residents (Alec Baldwin even came to have lunch at Kimmel). We were served delicious free food and were able to charge our laptop and phone batteries. In the eerie darkness of Lower Manhattan, Kimmel was the lone beacon of light. I've never felt more proud or more protected than I did after the hurricane thanks to NYU's relief efforts - the university truly provided for everyone during this time. Later that night, Adam, Bobb and I took shelter at our friend Mo Faramawy's apartment in Brooklyn, where power and hot water were in full force (and yes, we finally watched Die Hard that evening).

The next day, Bobb and I traveled back across the Williamsburg Bridge to powerless Manhattan, and we spent the evening at Mike Cheslik's apartment with a large group of friends, playing card games, eating canned chili (thanks to Mike's gas stove) and having late-night conversations by candlelight during the blackout with a joyous group of film students. If it sounds rather romantic, that's because it was, in a sense. We spent the night at Mike's apartment, and then our group reconvened the next morning, eating our free lunch and charging our phones and laptops at Kimmel. When then walked up to Times Square (which at this point had regained electricity) and had a movie day at the AMC Empire Times Square. We split up and saw several films in a row, some of us seeing Pitch Perfect while others saw Seven Psychopaths. Then, we joined together to catch an hour of Cloud Atlas (which most of us had already seen) before ending the day by seeing the wonderful and moving The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Afterward, we walked back into pitch-black lower Manhattan and reconvened at another person's apartment.

The period of time following the hurricane, in short, became a lot of fun. There's something to be said for losing all electricity and traveling around this great, dark city for a few days with an incredible group of people. I was scheduled to pitch for my Advanced Production class that Friday, and I had been rapidly preparing for the pitch the week before the hurricane. But once the hurricane hit Manhattan and everything was put on standby for an entire week, it was an initially frustrating but ultimately remarkable week that will remain one of the most memorable times of my college experience. It felt like summer camp with all of the people I love, or at the very least a side of college to which I'm unaccustomed.

Once classes and my internship resumed (and my attention back toward my pitch for Advanced Production Workshop), there was also the ever-important 2012 Presidential Election. My aunt Nancy Neff would have been overjoyed with the outcome. She was endlessly passionate, well-informed and articulate about her political beliefs, and the election felt a little more personal this year than it might have had she been here to vote and speak. I emailed many of her friends and reminded them to vote on Nancy's behalf, and it was a magnificent victory. At the end of the night, I went up to the roof of my apartment building to look at the Empire State Building, which had turned fully blue to commemorate President Obama's re-election. I know Nancy was smiling. (I joked, however, that as amazing as election night was, it still didn't make up for the injustice of Martin Scorsese losing this year's Best Director Oscar for Hugo).

Just before I traveled home to Austin in early September, I learned that my film The Wheels was an Official Selection of the 2012 Coney Island Film Festival. The film had a wonderful screening on Sunday, September 23rd at Sideshows by the Seashore, as part of Program 16 - Coney Island Films. This particular screening closed the festival, and the awards ceremony immediately followed the screening at El Dorado Bumper Cars. Here's a link to their website, where they have a great write-up on The Wheels. Here is a link to the full list of 2012 Official Selections at the festival.

It was truly unlike any film festival where I've had the privilege to show my work - particularly considering the amount of press the festival brought to my film. The popular blog Amusing the Zillion selected The Wheels as one of the five "Must-Sees" at the Coney Island Film Festival - here is the link to that article. Bad Lit, the Journal of Underground Film, mentioned The Wheels in their article on the Official Lineup for the festival. In addition, Deno's Wonder Wheel kindly promoted The Wheels and mentioned me on their Facebook and Twitter pages, encouraging their many fans to attend the festival and see The Wheels.

Other prominent articles on the festival included pieces from the New York Post and Time Out New York. The Coney Island Film Festival website also has a great page of Filmmaker Feedback, where you can read quotes from all of this year's directors.

As for the actual festival itself, it was a incredible experience. I attended the screening with my friend and Assistant Director of both The Wheels and Jake the Cinephile, Mike Cheslik, as well as Tom Corbisiero, the lead actor in The Wheels (he also has a small role in Jake the Cinephile). Michael Blankenburg, one of the best and most influential teachers in my life (he was my junior-year English professor at Austin High School), met us at the festival with his partner Brandon, and I was overjoyed to have a small support group present for the film. After The Wheels screened with the other shorts in the program, the directors were called onto the stage and participated in a Q&A with the audience before the awards ceremony started.

When I learned the news of my aunt's passing, I was serving as Assistant Director on an outstanding film project in Bushwick. After finishing principal photography on Jake the Cinephile in late July, much of August was spent doing pre-production for the paranormal rom-com Limbos, produced by and starring the incredibly talented Freddi Scheib and David Rysdahl, and directed by Mike Cheslik.

As part of our effort to fundraise for the film in a short amount of time, our Kickstarter campaign became a Staff Pick on Kickstarter, and we raised nearly $10,000 in a little less than two weeks. Here is the link to the Kickstarter campaign, where you can learn more about the film. Unfortunately, I needed to leave the set a day before our wrap because of the tragedy. I'm very proud of all of the effort put into Limbos - you can watch our Kickstarter video below, in which I make a brief appearance.

There's much more to report (including Tisch New Theatre's recent Fall 2012 Staged Readings), but alas, it is Thanksgiving Day, and I want to spend time with my small family. Time hurries on - there are still many experiences which occurred over the summer that I want to share, so my next few posts may recede into the past a little bit. I left New York with a smile, as there's nothing like a good heart-to-heart talk with Thelma Schoonmaker about our respective Thanksgiving plans at my internship.

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