Saturday, February 9, 2013

We Can't Be Direct, So We End Up Saying The Weirdest Things

As I finish this latest post, the snowstorm known as Nemo is coming down on the East Coast, and I am taking a moment to catch up on many things from the past year about which I haven't yet written. Forgive the episodic nature of this post - I will be jumping around quite a bit. It was very depressing to make a schedule for my last semester of college at NYU last November, but now that I am already well into my final semester itself, it is a strange feeling. There are so many film shoots on the horizon (I served as Assistant Director for my friend Erica Rose's senior thesis film shoot for two weeks in January, and I have four more shoots, including my own, coming up very quickly) that graduation seems like the least of my concerns at this moment. But, like it or not, it is rapidly approaching.

Over the past year, Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece Margaret has finally received some of the attention it deserves. Here's a wonderful New York Times piece on Margaret, as well as a link to one of Jim Emerson's essays on the film, where he writes that he's "never before seen a movie that fully recognized what human behavior is like." I was very sad to miss a screening of Lonergan's Director's Cut of the film at the Sunshine Cinema this summer, where Lonergan, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick and Thelma Schoonmaker held a Q&A after the film (I did walk past the Sunshine as the screening ended, and I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman getting on his bicycle and taking off into the night). Thankfully, I now have the Margaret Blu-Ray with both the Director's Cut and the original theatrical cut.

On August 13th, I received tickets to the New York City premiere of David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis at the Museum of Modern Art with Ben and Erica. I sat in the front row, too, which meant being a few feet away from Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti and David Cronenberg when they spoke before the film. Stanley Tucci, Judah Friedlander and others were in the audience, as well.

In early September, immediately after my return from Austin and the first day of my senior year, my friends and I obtained tickets to the New York City premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master in glorious 70mm at the Ziegfeld Theatre. We waited outside of the theatre for our most anticipated film of the year (and, in my mind, one of the best films of 2012). Amy Adams and Harvey Weinstein introduced the film (ironically, Paul Thomas Anderson could not be there, as he was doing a surprise screening of The Master in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse), and after the screening, many of us were left speechless. I've written about my love for The Master in my post on the best films of the year, but I was immediately eager to see the film again.

That next Friday night, my mother and grandmother flew into New York, along with my friend Bolton Eckert and his family, to stay for the weekend and see the Off-Broadway production of Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote (the Eckert family are relatives of the Foote family). After our Advanced Production class on Friday, my friends (including roommates Bobb Barito and Adam Boese) and I met Bolton at the Lincoln Square cinema to see The Master for a second time on opening night - again in beautiful 70mm. It was a packed house, and for the second time in a week, I was treated to a masterpiece of cinema with many by my side.

After the screening, Bolton and I journeyed downtown to meet my mom, grandmother and the Eckert and Foote families at Tavern on Jane, the wonderful West Village restaurant owned by Horton Foote, Jr. (and one of the key locations in my film Jake the Cinephile). As always, I really enjoyed spending time with the Foote family.

The next evening, thanks to Bolton's great family, we enjoyed dinner at the historic 21 Club with many of the great folks from Wharton, Texas. After dinner, we saw Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote, in which Mr. Foote's extremely talented daughter, Hallie Foote, and her equally talented husband Devon Abner, both performed. The production, as is typical with any revival of Mr. Foote's work, was exceptional, and being that it was the closing night of the play, we were invited to attend the cast after-party afterward, which was a great amount of fun.

During my family's trip to New York, we also saw the revival of Evita on Broadway, a musical with which I was not very familiar. In October, I was lucky enough to see Him, a new play by Daisy Foote (another of Horton's children) with Will and Leslie Eckert. The play was a beautiful work, and Hallie Foote once again commanded the stage.

Returning to The Master for a moment, I had the chance to see the film in 70mm a third time at Village East Cinema, and again I was struck by the beauty of the film.

On Thursday, October 11th, Mike Cheslik and I went to a screening of Seven Psychopaths at the Cantor Film Center, followed by a Q&A with the film's writer and director, Martin McDonagh. McDonagh is one of my heroes, as his play The Pillowman easily ranks among my all-time favorite plays (after seeing an outstanding production of the play in 2007 at Austin's Hyde Park Theatre, I frequently used monologues from the show for auditions and later directed a scene from the play for my Sight and Sound: Studio final at NYU). McDonagh gave a great Q&A with the students, and the film - starring Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson - is hilarious. McDonagh's first feature film, In Bruges (2008), was a masterpiece, and this is a wonderfully deranged follow-up. I can't wait to see his next film (or play - I had a fantastic time seeing his A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway in 2010).

The next week, the Fusion Film Festival held an advance screening of Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer's film Cloud Atlas at the Cantor Film Center, as the Launch Event for the 2013 Fusion Film Festival. This movie was too much fun, and I really wish it had been a bigger success upon its release - with six different narratives, genre-hopping ambition and an all-star ensemble (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant) willing to play any role, gender or race, Cloud Atlas is unlike anything I've ever seen attempted onscreen before.

I had another amazing semester with the Tisch Dean's Scholars. In September, for the second year in a row, we received box seats at a New York Mets baseball game at the historic Citi Field. We were treated to fantastic food from Shake Shack, a great game (the Mets beat the Miami Marlins) and quality time with Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell and Tisch faculty. After the game, I enjoyed some late night snacks with a few friends at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy.

In late November, the Scholars attended a dance performance titled The Tempest Replica by the group Kidd Pivot at the Joyce Theater. It was a truly outstanding show, with a fascinating dance interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. For our final meeting of the semester, the Dean's Scholars met at Color Me Mine, a popular pottery studio in Tribeca, where we each hand painted a piece of pottery that was then put in the fire and delivered to us (I chose a piggy bank).

Already during this current semester, I went on a tour of 30 Rockefeller Center with the Dean's Scholars group, which was a fascinating opportunity to explore the NBC building. We visited the set of Saturday Night Live and many other shows. Later this semester, we are taking a trip to Washington D.C. over Spring Break, which will be an enormous amount of fun.

I haven't written in great detail about my internship for professional reasons, but suffice to say my time there this past year - and particularly this summer - has been incredible. The opportunities have included meeting Leonardo DiCaprio several times (after shooting one day, he came into the office and recognized me from an earlier encounter and said, "Hey, how's it going?" and I was flabbergasted); being in the same room as Scorsese, DiCaprio, and writer Terence Winter while they work together on the script; being on set for the first day of shooting Scorsese's new film The Wolf of Wall Street; and late nights at the office with the other interns. With this internship, I really can't believe it's my lifelong hero, smiling and nodding his head at me as he walks out the door of the office.

By the way, congratulations are in order for Mr. DiCaprio, after winning the National Board of Review's Best Supporting Actor award last December for his extraordinary work in Django Unchained (as well as receiving a Golden Globe nomination for the performance). Sadly, the Academy once again did not nominate DiCaprio for his work. With brilliant and complex recent performances in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road (2008), Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010), Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010), Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar (2011) and now Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, DiCaprio is unquestionably the best actor of his generation, and I wish the Academy would recognize him.

Congratulations are in order for Mr. Scorsese, as well, for winning two Emmys this fall for Outstanding Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming, for the masterful George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and to Thelma Schoonmaker, for winning the Gucci award for women's achievement in filmmaking in August.

While interning at Sikelia Productions this past semester, I also been worked with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nancy Buirski with research for her new film, as well as promoting her extraordinary film The Loving Story in advance of its U.S. Theatrical Premiere in December (it was also shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and played on HBO earlier in 2012). Some of the Sikelia interns and I had a wonderful time attending a screening of The Loving Story at the Maysles Cinema in December, after which Buirski participated in a Q&A with the audience. It was such an honor to be a part of her work.

Speaking of Scorsese, Time Out New York released a list of the 100 Best New York City Films earlier this year that's pretty exceptional (they were wise enough to include films like Margaret and James Gray's Two Lovers, a powerful film that features another great performance from Joaquin Phoenix). They missed quite a few New York classics, though. Where are Gangs of New York (2002), Raging Bull (1980), The Godfather Part II (1974), Prince of the City (1981), Bringing Out The Dead (1999), The Age of Innocence (1993), A Bronx Tale (1993) and New York, New York (1977)? But I can't complain when the list as a whole is so good.

Sight and Sound Magazine announced the results of their very famous Greatest Films Poll this summer, which only comes around every ten years. This year was particularly notable because, for the first time in fifty years, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) took the place of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film ever made. I have to admit, I think I prefer the Directors Top 100 to the Critics Top 100 for this decade's Sight and Sound Poll. The directors rank many of my personal favorites higher than the critics, with Taxi Driver at #5, Raging Bull at #12, Goodfellas at #48 and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) at #91. It's particularly fascinating to read the top ten lists from our finest living filmmakers, including Scorsese, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Mann (who just turned 70 last week) and Quentin Tarantino.

All in all, there are so many pictures in the works by many of my heroes - according to a report, Scorsese is going to executive produce a film version of Roger Ebert's memoir, while Al Pacino has been cast as Joe Paterno in a film by Brian De Palma. Meanwhile, Scorsese has all kinds of amazing projects in the works.

Going back into this past summer, it was my first summer in New York, and it was a fantastic one. Most of my time was split between working at my internship at Sikelia Productions and intense pre-production for my film Jake the Cinephile. I like our neighborhood quite a lot. Celebrities are always out and about - I've seen Sam Rockwell walking his dog near our apartment, passed Adam Sandler on Prince Street, watched as Colin Farrell and director Niels Arden Oplev shoot a new picture on my street, and noticed Susan Sarandon at the cinema near my apartment.

I had a wonderful Fourth of July holiday, seeing the new Pixar film Brave with my friend Jess, and then spending time with friends at a rooftop cookout in Brooklyn. Later that evening, I had some homemade pulled pork with friends on a Manhattan rooftop and watched the official city fireworks. The summer was full of fun activities, including a great afternoon picnic in Prospect Park with friends.

The summer was a lot of fun in terms of film, too - three of my favorite filmmakers - Spike Lee, Woody Allen and Oliver Stone - all released terrific movies: Red Hook Summer, To Rome With Love and Savages.

Speaking of Spike Lee, he was kind enough to both ReTweet and reply to some of my Tweets regarding my admiration of his work. I wrote, "Every one of your films has had such an impact on me, ever since I saw 25th Hour at age twelve in cinemas," and "Vulture interview was outstanding. Cannot wait for Red Hook Summer. With love and admiration from a NYU Tisch senior." He replied, "Many Thanks. NYU VIOLETS." He also Re-Tweeted my link to a great interview with him.

Throughout May, June and July, the pre-production on Jake the Cinephile was nonstop. After shooting the promo video for the film with Bobb, I launched my IndieGoGo campaign for the film (to which many of my friends and family so generously contributed). Soon after, actor Tom Corbisiero very kindly drove my cinematographer Ben Dewey and me upstate to scout the Beacon Theater in Beacon, New York, which served as an excellent location for the picture. In preparation for the shoot, I re-watched and took a lot of notes on Scorsese's The Aviator (2004) and Taxi Driver (1976), which both influenced Jake the Cinephile quite a bit (I'm more convinced than ever that The Aviator is one of Scorsese's greatest achievements - it is a masterpiece, flawless in every respect). Later, Ben and I had a pre-production night where we watched scenes from The Aviator, Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) for reference, as we shot-listed for Jake the Cinephile. The coming weeks were full of meetings with my producers, Erica Rose and Harry Tarre, rehearsals with actress Bethany McHugh and script supervisor Nicole Cobb and a camera test in Queens with the Red Scarlet Camera and anamorphic adapters.

The feedback on the edit of Jake the Cinephile this fall semester has been really fantastic. At the end of the semester, I had a wonderful phone conversation with Ray Hubley, the editor of Dead Man Walking, who expressed his admiration for Jake the Cinephile. He said the film has taken quite a journey over the semester. He applauded the thought and time put into every cut, and encouraged me to never let go of my own compass, finding my own way with the edit of the film. I've never been so proud of a film I did - I feel it's the most fully-realized visualization of my fears and anxieties that I've made so far. Hopefully my senior thesis film, You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, will go even further. Jake the Cinephile will soon be picture-locked, thanks to the incredible work of my friend and editor Jonah Greenstein.

Speaking of my thesis film, my Advanced Production class with Yemane Demissie has been the best and most rewarding course of my college experience. It is both an intricate production class and an endlessly helpful writing workshop, and I am very lucky to be in the class again this semester as pre-production begins on my new film. The eleven other students who are making their films this spring are such thoughtful and mature filmmakers, and I look forward to all of us making our own pictures this coming year.

I had a very nice Thanksgiving in Austin, and I want to thank my friend Bolton Eckert for filming my late aunt's house over Thanksgiving break and helping me with a small family documentary I wanted to shoot in the wake of her passing (he's studying film in Los Angeles right now). Once back in New York after Thanksgiving, I continued preparing for my advanced film. Adam, Bobb and I received a Christmas care package from my mom, complete with nerf guns, Christmas decorations and candy, food galore, and slug zombies.

For our final Advanced Production class, we watched Michael Haneke’s devastating new film Amour, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. It appeared near the top of many end-of-year top ten lists, and deservedly so. After a long two day ordeal at LaGuardia Airport attempting to get back to Austin, I finally returned for winter break, just in time to catch the Austin press screening of Tom Hooper's outstanding Les Miserables a little more than a week before it opened.

I'm late on congratulating my heroes, but I want to acknowledge that Robert De Niro, my all-time favorite actor, has had quite a wonderful year. He gave one of his best performances in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, and he received his seventh Oscar nomination for his work earlier this month (he deserves to win the award). He has been ignored for so many powerful performances (this is only his seventh nomination). His work in Mean Streets (1973), The King of Comedy (1983), Once Upon A Time in America (1984), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), Heat (1995), A Bronx Tale (1993), Wag the Dog (1997), Jackie Brown (1997), New York New York (1977), The Good Shepherd (2006), Everybody's Fine (2009) and Stone (2010), among many others, was overlooked by the Academy. He was also excellent in Paul Weitz's Being Flynn earlier this year. He received the Hollywood Supporting Actor Award for his performance in Silver Linings Playbook, and later won the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. In Roger Ebert's review of Silver Linings Playbook, he writes that he's "been on an almost lifelong journey with Robert De Niro, and [feels] intimately familiar with him as an actor." "Here," Ebert writes, "his work unobtrusively charmed my socks off." Congratulations to cinema's finest actor and my hero on an outstanding year.

Since receiving his seventh Oscar nomination, De Niro has deservedly been celebrated around Hollywood. The American Cinematheque, in association with The Actors Studio, held a retrospective of De Niro's work, billed as an In-Person Tribute to Robert De Niro at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles, screening Silver Linings Playbook (with De Niro in attendance), as well as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Cape Fear (1991) and Awakenings (1990). With more and more talk building around De Niro's ninth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, as well as De Niro getting his footprints in cement in Hollywood, thankfully people are recognizing the greatest film actor of all time for his consistently extraordinary work. And in one of the most moving interviews I've ever seen, De Niro gets particularly emotional when discussing his work in Silver Linings Playbook. It's very exciting to see my all-time favorite actor receive such recognition (if only I had been alive to see him win Best Actor for Raging Bull in 1981). And, thankfully, in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, De Niro said he'd like to do "at least two [more films with Scorsese]" to "make it an even number - ten," adding that that's his "obsessive-compulsiveness." There is no actor I love and respect more than Robert De Niro.

In late January, I went to see Scorsese's Mean Streets at Film Forum with Ben, Jonah and Spencer. The film was screening as part of Film Forum's New Yawk New Wave film series, and although I've seen Mean Streets an endless number of times (it is one of my top ten films of all time), it was extraordinary getting to see the picture on the big screen, particularly in advance of shooting my senior thesis film in April (my film draws a lot of inspiration thematically, stylistically and visually from Mean Streets). There are few films that shake, enthrall and move me as deeply as this one - one day, I'll get around to writing a full essay on what the picture means to me.

Although I released my end-of-year Top Ten List of 2012 exactly a month ago, I need to revisit the list and update it with several films I saw in early January, including Gus Van Sant's outstanding Promised Land, David Chase's Not Fade Away, Michael Haneke's Amour (I needed to see the film on the big screen, at Film Forum, before putting it on my list) and especially Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Looking back on the year in film, I have to admit that the most affecting piece of cinema, for me, was unquestionably Silver Linings Playbook. Last month, I ranked the film at #2 on my Top Ten (just behind The Master), but I really do feel that Russell's film is the best picture of the year. No other movie had such deep understanding and care for its characters, and, in my opinion, a stronger directorial vision. Without my realizing it, the film sort of shifted my attitude last semester - Russell's movie hears the call of a misunderstood man (boy, does this film accurately capture the feeling of having so much going on inside your head), but without ever losing the darkness, Russell answers that call with love and warmth. The film acknowledges the pain and delusions of every character in its sight, and it's downright kinetic in the way it keeps up with the whims and obsessions of these same characters. The lifelike way in which the film changes course in the middle of any given scene reminds me, actually, of Margaret.

Every time I go back to see this film, I am reminded of how movies can make you feel and come to define an entire section of your life. For the past few months, I've been living with Silver Linings Playbook, and I think it should win the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (here's an excellent video essay on why Press Play thinks the film should win, as well). Of course, to talk about the year in film as a competition seems inappropriate. All nine Best Picture nominees are extraordinary films, and having seen a large number of them more than once, I feel deeply tied to many of these pictures. When you look back on 2012, it will be the year of Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Amour, as well as other masterpieces that weren't nominated, such as The Master, Moonrise Kingdom and Flight. I spend a lot of time in cinemas, and I've come to understand many things from this year's great films. 2013 will have a tough time matching 2012 in terms of movie quality.

There were an overwhelming amount of tragic deaths in 2012 (as there are any year, but perhaps this year seemed worse with the passing of my aunt). Gangster Henry Hill, the subject of Scorsese's Goodfellas, died this summer. Mr. Hill's story was first told in the outstanding nonfiction book Wiseguy by Nick Pileggi. Not only is Goodfellas my all-time favorite film, I've probably seen it more times than any other movie, so I have a certain love for Mr. Hill's life story and background. Here is a great interview with Mr. Hill. His death brings to mind one of the saddest scenes in Goodfellas, when Joe Pesci kisses his mother goodbye before he is about to get "made," and Hill (Ray Liotta) says in voiceover, "You know, we always called each other goodfellas. Like you said to somebody, you're gonna like this guy. He's all right. He's a good fella. He's one of us. You understand? We were goodfellas. Wiseguys."

This summer, the great writer and director Nora Ephron also tragically passed away. I saw many of her films theatrically at a young age, including Michael (1996), Hanging Up (2000) and particularly You've Got Mail (1998), which I'll never forget seeing on Christmas Eve of 1998 with my mom and aunt. Oddly enough, 1990's My Blue Heaven (always a favorite of mine, starring Steve Martin and written by Ephron) was also loosely based on the life of Henry Hill, and Ephron's husband was Nick Pileggi, the brilliant author of Wiseguy and co-screenwriter of Goodfellas and Casino (1995).

The list of names goes on - Frank Pierson, screenwriter of Dog Day Afternoon and Cool Hand Luke; author Gore Vidal; the wonderful film critic Andrew Sarris; the incredible cinematographer Harry Savides, who shot Zodiac (2007), Milk (2008), Greenberg (2010), Elephant (2003) and American Gangster (2007); and NYU's own Time Keeper, who passed away in October.

I wrote earlier that I'd like to devote an entire post or essay to Mean Streets. The same can easily be said for Goodfellas and The Departed. Re-watching both films recently, I was reminded of how so many choices I make in my work as a filmmaker come from these movies. But that's not simply because I want to pay homage to them - it's because these films have influenced much more than just the way I think about films. The Departed and Goodfellas are such instrumental parts of my life that they influence how I experience and remember things. Both movies are tied strongly to so many events in my life - watching these movies, I'm transported to a different time and place, to memories that exist far outside the film itself. Yes, I would love to write long essays about all of these films and what their various parts mean to me, but time just slips away.

There are many more things to write about, but it's the most hectic semester yet, and I can never seem to write about all of the things I wish I could. One day.

On your way out of this post, check out this Gentleman Party sketch directed by Mike Cheslik! It briefly features my voice talent near the end, but more importantly, it's very funny.

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