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March 21, 2007

Reeler Roundtable: The New Yorkers of New Directors/New Films (Part One)

Zobel, Loktev and Zalla bring their work home for NYC premieres

Now screening at New Directors/New Films: (L-R) Craig Zobel, Julia Loktev and Christopher Zalla (Photos: Vann Apragal for The Reeler)

Launching Wednesday, the 36th annual New Directors/New Films festival features a typically diverse program of domestic and international titles screening at the Museum of Modern Art and the Walter Reade Theater. Among the selections are dramatic narrative debuts by a trio of New Yorkers: Julia Loktev, a ND/NF alumna bringing her festival hit Day Night Day Night to the city for the first time; Christopher Zalla, whose Padre Nuestro claimed this year's Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; and Craig Zobel, the director of another well-received Sundance '07 pick, The Great World of Sound. The three joined me Monday for a wide-ranging conversation about -- among other things -- New York audiences, joining the ND/NF legacy and filmmaking in the city. (Read Part Two of the discussion here.)

STV: The three of you have varying degrees of festival experience all over the world with these films. For once, though, you're screening in New York -- hometown crowd, friends, the communities where they were shot.

LOKTEV: For you guys it's fairly recent. For me, the film premiered at Cannes; it's been traveling for a while and it actually took a while to get to the New York premiere. For me it is very exciting: making it to the town where it was shot and where everybody who worked on it -- or most of the people who worked on it -- live. It's about New York, and most people except for the DP and the sound designer are from New York. It's kind of funny that it's been around, but people who are actually in the film have been like, "When can I see it?" It's very special.

ZALLA: It's the same thing with us. It's quintessentially a film about New York, and for us to show the movie to that crowd... I mean at Sundance, it's kind of Hollywood meets the Mormons. It's just a different environment than this, which I think on some level is our ideal audience, if not the ideal audience. I mean, it's the Museum of Modern Art, for God's sake. That's pretty cool.

ZOBEL: Yeah, the Walter Reade Theater. It's pretty much the same for us. This is so early in the process that I can't make too many contrasts to other festivals. It'll definitely be nice; this is the one where it's less about reviews or any kind of nerves at all. It's more about making sure my buddies get into the theater.

ZALLA: From what I can see so far, they're so organized, and there are all these events for just the directors, it seems like. Directors Cocktails, Directors Dinner. Which is really exciting, because at Sundance I didn't really get to spend any time with any of the other filmmakers.

ZOBEL:
At Sundance, I didn't have any contact with other people who made movies.

ZALLA: But it's almost how it's advertised -- like you're in this community, you're in this Sundance class together, but I never saw anybody. So to be able to do that. I'm really looking forward to it.

STV: As much as an honor as it is to be selected to a festival with this kind of track record, are the expectations and legacies a little terrifying at the same time?

ZALLA: I just found out for the first time today that it's where Spike Lee played. And Pedro Almodóvar, which I certainly didn't know. But it's something that every year when it comes out and it's announced in The Times, and it's in that double-page spread, it's always something I eagerly open up and look at. Because you kind of know those are going to be the people to watch in the future.

LOKTEV: This is actually my second time in New Directors (Loktev's documentary Moment of Impact screened at ND/NF in 1998); maybe by my third time I'll be an Old Director and they won't let me in. But it's an honor -- the audiences are amazing, they're the most beautiful theaters in New York to screen something. It's a festival that I go to. You'll see a lot of international films that won't get picked up, and that's exciting.

ZOBEL: I feel like when you're here, there's some sense of what movies went to Berlin or what movies went to Sundance every year, and you kind of start to know about a couple of them. And then New Directors is where you're like, "Oh, wow -- so that one played there, and that one... " That's always been my impression of it: sort of like the stuff that's been discovered and (that) you know will continue to have a life. Having that be my prior experience with New Directors, to get to be in it is pretty amazing.

STV: What about that festivalgoing experience at New Directors and other high-profile festivals around town? What are your expectations as audience members yourselves, and do you have any specific expectations or anything you're looking forward to in sharing these films with these audiences?

ZOBEL: Well, this is where films like ours are going to play first in distribution, so it's kind of like a trial run in that sense. We'll get an idea of what the reaction is.

ZALLA: Just in terms of an audience -- for the most part the audience you're going to have in New York in general, but especially an audience as actively interested in films that they would go to this festival -- you're going to have a very well-read audience, filmically -- and otherwise. Certainly New York audiences seem to be much more involved with the world that they live in, and that's exciting. You know it's going to be a rigorous experience. Especially on the question-and-answer front, which has been far-and-away the best experience of festivalgoing with your film. Frankly, some of my favorite question-and-answer experiences historically have been at this festival.

LOKTEV: I think it's a strange question -- what you expect from an audience. You hope they come, you hope they don't leave and you hope they think about the film and talk about the film. I would expect that of any audience, and not just a New Directors audience. Whether it's here or Mexico City or Hong Kong.

STV: The New York audience is totally different though.

LOKTEV: It is different. You kind of expect the best, which is, for me, that they come, they stay, they think about it and they talk about it.

ZALLA: And they're the most critical, too, which is also the most exciting thing. It's scary, but this whole need that's in the culture of the film world right now -- especially in Hollywood -- for everyone to like the movie is something that I think is a really dangerous space we've been moving into. I really think if you've doing something right, some people should hate the movie. It should really trigger some responses. And if I didn't make someone angry or upset -- someone -- I feel like I haven't done my job. It' like Cassavetes used to say: They can love it or they can hate it, just don't feel --

ZOBEL: Ambivalent.

ZALLA: Yeah! You know? And that's part of it -- creating that dialogue is what's exciting.

LOKTEV: See, they don't hiss and boo at New Directors like they do at Cannes.

ZALLA: I'm not looking forward to hissing and booing anywhere, to be honest.

LOKTEV: Sure. Though I think there's a beauty to that kind of passion. They should hiss.

ZALLA: On the flip side of that, that place gives 10-minute standing ovations.

ZOBEL: How was it at Cannes?

LOKTEV: We got a standing ovation, so that was good. There must have been some hissing, but I think I didn't hear it.

ZALLA: Drowned out by the applause.

LOKTEV: But I did have that feeling afterward: "Not many people left. Did I do something wrong?" You know? Because I do agree with you. Good work does polarize people, and people should have different opinions. The last thing in the world that I would want to do is to make a movie that everybody feels the same about. Everybody walks out having the same interpretation and thinking the same thing. That's boring, and that's what bad movies are all about.

STV: With that in mind, each of your films deal with a pretty diverse range of specific contemporary issues, from entertainment culture to bad jobs to immigration, 9/11, terrorism and, more generally, New York. How did the dynamics of discovering your individual styles overlap with your roles grappling with these respective issues?

ZOBEL: Since Sundance, I've been exposed to more screenplays by other people than I'd ever read before, really, and it's definitely made me realize something about what I want to do in making movies. I tend to have it be about something rather than just have it be an entertainment. You know? You have to have a question you're trying to ask in the first place; that's kind of why we're all trying to make movies in the first place. Everything that came through in the style of my movie just came out of just trying to ask the question.

ZALLA: Style vs. voice is an interesting question, especially when you're starting out as a filmmaker. It's one of the things we talked a lot about in film school; we had this thing where we talked about foxes and hedgehogs. It was this way we differentiated people who had a movie that was like, "This movie is made by me, and you can recognize it in one frame." Stanley Kubrick is always announcing you're in a Stanley Kubrick movie, as opposed to a Michael Winterbottom or a Sidney Lumet -- people who really kind of free-form and create different stylistic approaches based on the material. It's really hard to stand outside of yourself and appraise yourself stylistically. I do know that from my own experience on this movie, it was the movie itself that sort of generated the stylistic approach -- the voice. And I don't know if it's the style I would bring to the next project. I think the next project will tell me what it wants to be, too. But as you're starting out, it is one of the weirdest things to think about, because on some level, it's begging this question about this body of work that doesn't exist yet. It feels a little bit dangerous to think about.

LOKTEV: I think I'd echo that. I would sort of question the dichotomy of form and content; the question of style is not something that you put on like, "Oh, I'll put on this dress today," or maybe choose a hairstyle.

ZOBEL: But some people do. They specifically--

LOKTEV: No, some people do. It is a kind of affectation, in a sense, if you treat it that way. But for me, I think about the project -- the film. I don't set out to address an issue. I set out to make a film, and that integrates the different questions that it asks. The asking of the question is integrated into how you ask it and what you're asking. It's all one and the same in a way.

ZOBEL: It's interesting that you brought up Winterbottom, because I don't like every Michael Winterbottom movie --

ZALLA: Some of them you really don't like.

ZOBEL: Exactly! But he's absolutely picking new things to be fascinated by. I feel like he's having fun making every new movie.

ZALLA: Exactly. To me, that's the dream life: To be constantly doing that and constantly treat every movie like a project in school where you're trying something completely new and pushing the envelope. Even Coppola said: If I'm not stretching myself and experimenting and maybe failing with every movie, I'm not growing. I'm not getting anywhere. And I think that's really exciting.

And on the issue level, the one thing I want to say is that it's really weird that... For my movie, for example, I certainly never thought of it as an issue film. The idea came at the end of 2001, long before immigration really exploded onto the scene as an issue. To me, it was just this sort of movie about people who were living here within certain circumstances that helped my story. But it wasn't an "issue" film, and it's funny, because all of the things that came out post-Sundance were like, "illegal immigration drama," or "immigration drama." Maybe that's what we bring to it, but it's almost this labeling that I start to resent, because I feel like it limits the movie. In Mexico City, they're going to treat the movie like a wide release, because for them it's not an "issue movie," or a "Mexican movie." It's like if an American went to Egypt and got lost. It's really interesting to think about that desire to label a movie or focus on an issue -- with a capital "I."

STV: I guess I'm thinking of the difference between a film with an issue at its heart versus strictly dealing with an issue for two hours.

LOKTEV: But I think I also have that same reaction, that it's very questionable to deal with films based on their subject matter, because I think you can take the subject matter and make entirely different kinds of films. And I think too many films these days take on the subject matter, but they really never transcend it -- they only take it head-on until it kind of becomes a newspaper article, in effect. That's the problem with so much political cinema today: It has a tendency to make you think that you can become a better person by virtue of watching it. You know? That you've learned something from the experience, when really you've learned something you already knew.

ZOBEL: Are you talking about political cinema as in documentaries, or --

LOKTEV: No, like in the sense that a lot of fiction films now deal with different issues. And then you walk out of the film saying, "OK, well, racism is bad..." I would hope you knew that when you walked in.

STV: While your films take place to varying degrees in or out of New York City, you're all New York filmmakers. How involved do each of you feel with a larger independent filmmaking community in the city, and how does it influence your work as a backdrop and/or a base?

LOKTEV: Well, for me, I live in New York, but the story could have taken place anywhere. I set it in New York because that's where I live and that's the city I know the most. In a sense, it's a two-part answer: In a sense, I don't feel like I'm a part of a New York indie film community; I almost feel like I have a lack of being part of a community. I work primarily in isolation, but I always kind of dream or fantasize about a community of like-minded people working together. But I don't have that in my life. I don't know; maybe you guys do.

ZALLA: That's actually what I was talking about with New Directors. They're going to put us all together, which is really exciting for me. Although at the same time, I also went to film school here, so I have friends in that way where I take walks with them and we talk about scripts, which is great. But on the other hand, one of the great things about New York may also be that you are also isolated. I'll never be in L.A., for so many reasons, but the primary reason is that this is not a town that is about that.

ZOBEL: It's not an industry town.

ZALLA: I can have a real life.

LOKTEV: Right. You can have contact with people who are not filmmakers! Which is also part of my community; a lot of my friends are academics, or they're artists or architects or in other fields. That's very important to me. Another thing for me about New York is that I wanted to film a film in the middle of the New York streets. Specifically IN the New York streets -- in the middle of the crowd in Times Square. And people thought I was absolutely nuts. People were absolutely saying, "Oh, there's no way you can film in the middle of the city, in the middle of an active crowd." For me, that was a challenge -- a thrill -- for me to be able to do it. I mean, literally 40 minutes of the film take place in Times Square in the middle of the street. It was amazingly thrilling, because you're interacting with a diversity of faces, and it's just an amazing looking city. By that I don't mean the architecture, I mean what you see when you walk out on the street. And I think there's an incredible energy to it. For us, we chose to work off that energy: we cast a lot of people off the street; we worked with a lot of unpredictable things that were happening on the street as we were filming. We sort of sent a fictional story out into a documentary world.

ZALLA: In terms of filming in New York, and some of the opportunities that offers, there are so many different worlds here, and that is such a unique opportunity. It allows you to make choices about how you want to characterize things, and in our movie, for example, we had a very specific way that we tried to depict and characterize the city that relied on focusing on certain elements and not focusing on others, necessarily. You wouldn't have that kind of stylistic choice in so many other places.

ZOBEL: It's great to how every new movie set in New York defines it a different way. You're like, "Oh, that's funny," and then they take it a different way. I didn't shoot in New York because my movie didn't feel like a New York movie first and foremost. I'm from the South, and I'm a transplant here anyway, but I worked here in the city as below-the-line crew for several years with small, low-budget movies, and I'd see how much money it costs to shoot here. I'm sure you guys did it on a very low budget as well, but for the amount of money I had? It does just cost more here just because it's New York. But that doesn't mean that I don't want to make movies that take place here; I think there are a lot of unique situations here. I'm really fascinated in kind of working on a project about gentrification in Brooklyn; these are types of things that aren't happening anywhere else in the United States. You can go anywhere and find an amazing story, but throw a pebble and you'll hit an amazing story here.

Click here for Part Two of the Reeler Roundtable with Julia Loktev, Christopher Zalla and Craig Zobel.


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