Monday, December 1, 2014

Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding - and More Adventures from 2014

In August, my friend Lucas Loredo and I went into production on a new short film we wrote together titled Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding. We worked on the screenplay together for several months before embarking on our summer shoot, and the film, which is now in post-production, stars Lucas and me playing versions of ourselves. In June, we launched an IndieGoGo campaign for the film -  check out our promo video below to find out more about the movie.

Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding - The Promo Video from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

The movie concerns two young men who travel to the Midwest to attend their high school friend’s wedding. Confined in a hotel room together, they’re consumed by their own insecurities, as one of them tries to write the perfect wedding speech while the other grapples with his romantic devastation. As the wedding approaches, the question arises: can they get to a place where they understand each other?

The screenplay comes from a very real place for both of us, and we believe it will resonate with anyone who has trembled a bit when their high school friends have started getting married. Though it's specific to our anxieties and fears (both as characters and as people), I think the final movie will hit home for those who have been in this situation (as well as those who currently find themselves attending a good number of weddings).

Lucas and I have been hoping to collaborate on a creative project for many years. At Austin High School, we performed together in six plays, including Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Round and Round the Garden, and …And the Rain Came to Mayfield. Although we experimented with a few awful short movies in high school, this was our first collaboration on a real short.

We were thrilled to work with a very experienced, professional crew of close friends, including Benjamin Dewey, who has collaborated with me as cinematographer on all of my past short films. Dear friends and amazingly talented filmmakers Ani Tomasic, Mike Cheslik, Eliza McNitt, Adam Boese, Spencer Jezewski, Paige Wollensak, Jared Rosenthal and Christian Carvajal made up the fantastic crew on the film.

We shot for three days – Friday, August 15th, Saturday, August 16th and Sunday August 17th – with a miraculous crew and a tremendous amount of help from Marabigo Creative Studio. This was my first time directing since my senior thesis film You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, and the first time since Jake the Cinephile that I directed and acted in the same picture. As always, the key was meeting often with Ben and storyboarding and shot-listing the film very carefully. We specifically looked at the films of Alexander Payne for inspiration for Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding. My decision to shoot the film in black-and-white was largely inspired by Payne’s Nebraska and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, both of which seemed to use black-and-white as a way of exploring the landscape of the human face. They’re both comedies, in a sense, and yet the absence of color gives the films an inherent sadness and mournful quality to them.

By draining all color away from the face, I felt we were left only with our very basic features and expressions, without any color to distract us from the emotion at the core of each character. Ben and I also looked at Payne’s Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), and of course, a little bit of Scorsese, with The Departed (2006), The Color of Money (1986) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) informing our camera movement and editing style.

Though the scale of this project was smaller than the last picture, I think our coverage of scenes keeps getting better and better with each new film. For this picture, we had the limitation of only shooting inside one room, and I’m enormously proud that the movie, in my estimation, does not feel boxed-in or constrained. If nothing else, I think we were as creative as possible with using the space in an inventive way, both in camera placement and movement and especially blocking, which becomes essential in a movie like this. There was an emphasis placed on two-shots and movement within the frame, rather than necessarily always moving the camera.

Lucas and I were diligent about rehearsing these scenes constantly and refining the dialogue as we went along. Working together with Lucas, who was my scene partner in so many plays in high school, was a joy. The collaboration was every bit as fruitful as I’d hoped, with both of us feeling free to give each other honest feedback about our scenes.

We started location scouting as early as May, looking for a hotel room in New Jersey (before ultimately finding the perfect location in the heart of Manhattan, of all places).

The IndieGoGo campaign was a terrific success – we raised $3000.00 (exceeding our $2500.00 goal), and so much of the financing came from supporters of Lucas’s and my work at Austin High School. We reached our goal from a group of such diverse friends and family coming together to make it all possible.

Earlier this month, we released the first trailer for the film, featuring great cinematography and titles by Benjamin Dewey and a fantastic sound design by Bobb Barito. Thank you to our wonderful friends at Marabigo and the crew for helping spread the word about the trailer, which you can watch below.

Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding Trailer from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

In August, just before the film shoot, I celebrated my 24th birthday by gathering friends together at my apartment and viewing the greatest motion picture of all time, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). I didn’t realize until recently that I share a birthday with Goodfellas cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who also shot Scorsese’s The Departed, Gangs of New York (2002), The Age of Innocence (1993), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Color of Money and After Hours (1985).

Lucas and I joke in our promo video that Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding is based on the wedding of our friend (and fellow Austin High School theatre collaborator) Austin Kingsbery. I don’t believe I’ve written yet about Austin’s wonderful wedding, which Lucas and I attended in August of last year with our fellow high school compadre Cora Walters.

We flew to Milwaukee, Wisconsin – where Austin and his lovely wife, Grace, live – and the three of us stayed in a hotel room together during the wedding. The structure of the movie is undoubtedly based on our trip to Milwaukee, though the events in the movie are not based on anything that actually happened. More than anything, I think the movie represents how Lucas and I feel about certain things, and perhaps certain emotions that were stirred up by seeing a close friend from high school get married. But the wedding, for the most part, simply provides a backdrop for a story about two guys who can’t really get their lives together.

In August, I learned from my friend Alexander Fofonoff that he wanted me to star in his first feature film, titled Blood and Thunder. In fact, he said he wrote the lead role specifically for me – and I could not have asked for a better acting opportunity than this. Without describing too much about the project, I’m playing a character I feel I was born to play.

Alex and I have been rehearsing often in the months since. He has revised the script again and again, and each time we go through it, I am struck even more by what a special project he has here. It’s the first feature film made by one of my close friends, and I know Alex has the vision to knock this out of the park. We’ve already spent several days going to thrift stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn picking out my character’s wardrobe.

In early November, we had an amazing morning of callbacks at the Players Theatre in the West Village for the other major characters in the movie. I read with some extraordinary actors, and the final cast is an amazing group of people – I am so excited to be a part. Our first shooting weekend is on December 5th in Virginia, and then the following weekend we will shoot in Beacon, New York. The remainder and bulk of the shoot will be in January and February.

Needless to say, this is my first leading role in a feature film, and the first time in a long while that I’ve had a role of this size (at least where I’m not directing myself). I am overwhelmingly excited for this opportunity to play my own version of Travis Bickle. In preparation for the role, Alex has had me watch John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

Although it won’t be long until I post my top ten films of the year, I want to give a brief rundown of some of the extraordinary films released in the past month.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is a masterpiece. Lucas and I saw the film on opening night at the AMC Lincoln Square, and it may very well be my favorite movie of the year. Here are the spectacular first and second trailers. Also of interest is a great Rolling Stone interview with Alejandro Gonzalez Inárritu, as well as pictures from the Birdman set by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski.

On Halloween weekend, my friend Anne and I experienced a bit of the New York City Halloween parade (which I had not really seen firsthand before) and then saw Birdman at midnight at the Angelika. The next evening, my friend Mike and I caught Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D at the IFC Center (which has a very inventive use of 3D) and later a deliriously odd movie called Bone on TCM. I also finally saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway earlier this fall, which was as hilarious and excellent as expected.

On Friday, September 26th, I was lucky enough to nab a last-minute ticket to the World Premiere of David Fincher’s new American masterpiece Gone Girl at the New York Film Festival. I haven't seen a movie that plays so well on our fears of the media ripping us to shreds. It's a horrifying movie, and Fincher scorches us again. Here’s a great article on Fincher that really gets at the brilliance of Zodiac, one of my favorite films and Fincher’s best movie, in my opinion (though The Social Network and Gone Girl are both close), as well as an excellent video essay about Fincher’s framing and camera movement.

On Sunday, September 28th, I saw Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s incredible new documentary The 50 Year Argument, which aired on HBO the following evening, at the New York Film Festival. The film is a fascinating, urgent documentary about the fifty-year history of the New York Review of Books. After the screening, Scorsese, Tedeschi, New York Review of Books editor Bob Silvers, publisher Rea Hederman and producer Margaret Bodde participated in a Q&A, which you can view here.

On Saturday, October 11th, I saw Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher at Alice Tully Hall at the New York Film Festival. As Channing Tatum said in the Q&A after the picture, this film is a masterpiece. Miller, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller and Anthony Michael Hall were there in person to introduce the film, with Tatum joining them for the Q&A afterward.

Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum give the most extraordinary performances of the year in this movie. I’ve seen this movie twice since, and it’s an astonishing piece of work. You can see the trailer here.

On Sunday, October 12th, I saw an early screening of one of my most-anticipated films of the year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, at the New York Film Festival. One thing is for sure – there’s no single viewing of Inherent Vice. This is one, like The Master (2012), where you go back and discover more. I’m thrilled there are still movies that will demand that of you. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin and Martin Short are genius in this film, and it’s not like any film you’ve seen. Check out the wonderfully insane trailer here (easily one of the best trailers in some time, followed by a groovy second one), as well as the New York Film Festival trailer that featured the first footage from the movie. The New York Times also wrote a great article on Inherent Vice and Paul Thomas Anderson in September.

Still, there’s been a lack of awards buzz for several excellent movies released this fall, including Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger, featuring a great performance from Jeremy Renner. Then there’s David Dobkin’s The Judge, which admirably emulates adult dramas of the 1980s (read this great piece from The New York Times on Robert Duvall, who is unsurprisingly magnificent in The Judge). Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight is another great Allen film, with Colin Firth and Emma Stone as lovable as they've ever been.

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is fantastic. Jake Gyllenhaal deserves a Best Actor nomination for his performance in this one (particularly after being overlooked for Prisoners last year). His recent work – from this year’s Enemy to 2012’s End of Watch – has been amazing. I love, among so many other things, that we only see the crime scenes in Nightcrawler through the lens of Gyllenhaal's camera. It removes him completely from the wreckage and desensitizes us to what we're seeing.

Earlier this month, I saw Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious and emotionally resonant movie, Interstellar, in 35mm film. We should consider ourselves lucky to get a movie as ambitious, exhilarating and huge as Interstellar these days. The surprise performance from one of the best working actors in Interstellar is one of so many things to love about the film. Nolan must receive a Best Director nomination for this film. It's not impossible - it's necessary.

Here’s an in-depth article about Nolan and Interstellar (with Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson talking about the film), along with an article that nicely discusses the internet's obsession with 'taking down' a movie by people who I can only assume don't really like movies. Seriously, when people use the word "flawed" to describe a movie, I think they must mean it goes for broke and it's a truly interesting piece of work. Interstellar is one of the best movies of the year, and not coincidentally, one of the most ambitious ones.

Earlier this summer, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the best actor of his generation, gave one of his greatest performances in Anton Corbjin’s A Most Wanted Man, one of the best movies of the year. Like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Capote (2005), A Most Wanted Man illustrates that he should have as many lead roles as he does amazing supporting parts. Here’s master novelist John le Carré on Hoffman's genius performance in A Most Wanted Man. Hoffman also just gave another great turn in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One, which, along with Part Two, will stand as his final performance.

Ira Sachs's Love is Strange is one of the best and most powerful movies of the year (if you've seen it, read this). Lenny Abrahamson's Frank is an unexpectedly moving film, with an amazing performance from Michael Fassbender. And John Michael McDonagh's Calvary might be the best movie made by a McDonagh brother yet - it's certainly every bit as masterful as In Bruges (2008).

As the year comes to a close, it’s exciting to already hear about upcoming projects coming together that will undoubtedly represent some of the best films in the coming years.

According to the internet, at least, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman is still happening - with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Bobby Cannavale all on board. Matt Damon is set to star in Alexander Payne's new film Downsizing, as well as Kenneth Lonergan’s new film Manchester-by-the-Sea. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is set to star in Oliver Stone's next film about Edward Snowden. Megan Ellison continues to save the day, making the new films from David O. Russell, Richard Linklater and Todd Solondz possible. 
And in December and January, we can expect new films from two of my favorite filmmakers, the masterful Clint Eastwood (with American Sniper) and Michael Mann (with Blackhat), who hasn't directed a film in five years.

134 documentary features were submitted for this year's Oscar Race, including Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, the great film on which I worked as a production assistant and researcher.

Even though November has not yet ended, awards season is already in full swing. 
Boyhood and Birdman, in my mind the two best movies of the year, led the Gotham Award nominations as well as the Indie Spirit Award nominations (along with Nightcrawler and Selma). Upon seeing Boyhood for a second time earlier this fall, I felt even more certain the film will win Best Picture. Three songs from Boyhood have already entered the Oscar race.

Last month, I screened my film You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory for Professor Laszlo Santha’s Advanced Production class on Halloween. It is always an honor to screen in Laszlo’s classes – I screened The Wheels in his Sight and Sound: Film class earlier this summer and With Love, Marty for his class last fall, and Laszlo welcomes and engages his guests with such good questions that make you feel like a real filmmaker. He has always been so supportive of all of my work (not to mention helpful with his great notes on my first feature screenplay), and I cannot thank him enough.

A very belated happy birthday to the world's best mom, Gretchen Kyser, and my great father, John Kyser, who would have turned 61 this August. It's been twelve years since he passed away, and recently I've been transferring footage of our family trips from old High 8 videotapes to digital files. Here's a video from 1996 in which my dad and I give a tour of Kennebunkport, Maine.

John and Jack in Maine - 1996 from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

As 2014 comes to a close, I am astonished by the number of my heroes who have passed away this year. I still haven’t fully processed that Robin Williams is no longer alive. I don’t think there’s anyone my age whose childhood wasn’t deeply affected by his work, from his Genie in Aladdin (1992) to the title character in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

For my sixth birthday party, my parents rented out an Austin movie theater for the release of Jack (1996). In the following years, I’d also see Father’s Day (1997), Flubber (1997), Patch Adams (1998) and Bicentennial Man (1999), among others, in cinemas with my parents.

Discovering his dramatic work when I was a bit older – particularly in Good Will Hunting (1997), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), The Fisher King (1991) and Awakenings (1990) – made me love him even more. I remember watching the 1998 Oscars live and being overjoyed that he won an Academy Award (it would be a few more years before I would see Good Will Hunting, of course). In 2002, the formidable year during which I saw nearly everything released in cinemas, Williams gave two terrifyingly complex performances as darker characters in Insomnia and One Hour Photo (not to mention Death to Smoochy, which I did not like at the time it was released, but can't help wondering if I would love now). His work was mesmerizing.

I had the opportunity to see Williams twice in person - first, at the 2010 Tisch Gala, where he brought the house down (as per usual) while honoring Billy Crystal, and secondly, at a performance of the brilliant 2011 Broadway play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, where he excelled in his performance as the tiger. After that performance, the Dean's Scholars were treated to a brief talk with Mr. Williams. His  enormous warmth and genuine kindness were evident even in the brief time we were able to spend with him.

On November 19th, we lost one of the greatest directors of all time, Mike Nichols. Who else could make two of the greatest films, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967), as their first two movies?

It’s hard to describe the effect The Graduate had on me when I first saw it. I was eleven years old, and it was one of those movies, like The Godfather (which I first viewed around the same time) that created such a lasting impact and a feeling within me. With that haunting soundtrack and unmistakable atmosphere, it opened up another world for me. It was such an instrumental and affecting movie that it didn’t even occur to me until years later to list it as one of my favorites movies, when of course it was – it resonated with me deeply and made me feel and understand, at least emotionally, a certain kind of sadness at a very young age.

It wouldn’t be until high school and college that I became infatuated with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, both the play and especially the film, and Angels in America (2003) and Closer (2004). All three films remain among the greatest film adaptations of plays.

I was honored to see two of Mr. Nichols's plays on Broadway, Death of a Salesman (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman) and last year's Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. His Death of a Salesman is unquestionably the best piece of live theatre I’ve ever seen, and to this day haunts me as much as any of his films.

We watched and discussed both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate quite a bit in Yemane Demissie’s Advanced Production class my senior year of college. In high school, my junior year English and film teacher Michael Blankenburg screened and discussed both films, as well.

His Working Girl (1989) and The Birdcage (1996) were also films I saw and loved at a young age. These films are representative of a kind of director that really doesn’t exist anymore - the kind of director whose films defined my childhood, whose films seemed to me wonderful, sophisticated adult pictures that I wanted to understand.

Nichols was the kind of immaculate craftsman who made studio films with real budgets aimed at adults, and they weren't made only with the intention of winning Oscars. The attitude now, even with great adult films, is to go big or go home, as if audiences won’t come if the film is modest in scale or not one of the pre-ordained "prestige" movies. This division between “art-house” and “commercial” movies has killed a sense of wonder at the movies, and each year I long for a more diverse slate of films. When something like The Judge comes along, all anyone can talk about is how "earnest" or "over-stuffed" it feels, without acknowledging that the film is trying to bring back a kind of movie that's practically extinct nowadays. That's far more than most other films attempt. I enjoy many of the Marvel movies, but I could get along just fine without any of them if it meant getting more films from directors like Nichols.

We have our dark auteurs and beloved indie filmmakers, but where are our Lawrence Kasdans, Sydney Pollacks, Sidney Lumets and Philip Kaufmans? Nichols’s death is a reminder that the world of movies I was born into and continue to cherish is seemingly coming to a close. In the last year, two of Nichols's best collaborators – Mr. Williams, who is so brilliant in The Birdcage, and Mr. Hoffman, astounding in both Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) and Death of a Salesman - have passed on. It was only a year ago I saw Mr. Nichols outside of Tisch, and thought about how extraordinary it would be to work with the great man one day.

There are so many other wonderful talents who have departed the past few months, including another great filmmaker and actor, Richard Attenborough. It is terribly sad to lose Joan Rivers. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was one of the best documentaries of 2010, and a wonderful tribute to her talent. The wonderful actor James Garner, the amazing editor Tom Rolf (Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The Right Stuff, Heat) and songwriter Bob Crewe are among the many others.

In late August, I filmed a slightly bizarre video for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It was a bit late in the game for the challenge, and I'm fairly certain the three people I nominated - Lucas, Bobb and my good friend Bolton Eckert - did not complete the challenge, but that's okay.

The Ice Bucket Challenge from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

This fall, I've also had the great pleasure of seeing Roberto Rossellini's Rome: Open City (1945), introduced by Isabella Rossellini, as well as Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), at Film Forum - both magnificent films. I also saw one of the greatest movies ever made, The Blues Brothers (1980), for the first time in a cinema at Lincoln Center. The Blues Brothers was my favorite movie for a long, long time, before I found out about Die Hard (1988).

Martin Scorsese is planning a television series based on his film Shutter Island. Here's Scorsese on the great news of Kodak keeping film alive, as well as his wise, fascinating thirty-two minute commencement speech at Tisch Salute this year. The world's greatest film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, was honored at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. As Variety notes, it's the first time the Golden Lion has been awarded to an editor.

Two new films starring Al Pacino premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, one from Barry Levinson and the other from David Gordon Green. I haven't seen either yet, but I absolutely cannot wait. Read this article from The New Yorker, titled Al Pacino's Driving Force, by John Lahr, and watch this excellent video accompaniment to the article.

In other random news, I still can't get over that President Obama used a line from The Departed to express his frustration with the Republican Party. Matthew McConaughey performed his chant from The Wolf of Wall Street to the Texas Longhorns football team earlier this fall. And as usual, Fran Lebowitz is correct about everything - particularly about movie theater etiquette.

For now, I'll leave you with a short movie for a rainy day, made earlier this year as a short exercise for the great professor Yemane Demissie, who continues to encourage our Advanced Production class to make movies.

Another Saturday Night from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

And remember, if you go to the movies this holiday season… Shhhhh! Or else fear the wrath of Jake the Cinephile (although, as critic James Berardinelli laments here, you're more likely to incur the wrath of entitled loudmouths who assume they own the cinema, should you dare to ask someone to be quiet during the movie). Let's make the holiday season a pleasant by shutting up, or else just not going to movies.

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