Sundance Features

January 18, 2007

Alfredo de Villa, Adrift in Manhattan

"I noticed right away how this was a very special place because it didn't feel like the United States -- even though it was clearly a space in New York."

Victor Rasuk and Heather Graham in directors Alfredo de Villa's Adrift in Manhattan

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

The timing in your life is pretty unbelievable right now; you just had your second child last week and you have Sundance this week. How are you holding up?

It's actually a little bigger than that; my father died in early December, so it'd be the death of my father, second child and then Sundance. It's all happening at the same time. But I'm handling it very well. I was a little overwhelmed by the timing of everything, especially because with Sundance, once we were accepted, we had to figure out how were going to get the money to finish it on time. Not only for the festival, but before my second child was due. I wanted to be able to be present and participate in the birth.

My readers and I have the disadvantage of not having seen your film. For the record, what is Adrift in Manhattan about?

It's basically the story of three characters who play very secondary roles in each others' lives -- almost unnoticeable roles, roles you might take for granted in your own life if you were playing that kind of role. And then through circumstances and due to their own needs and wants, they end up playing a sort of thematic role in changing each others' lives. Without getting into the synopsis or the story, that's basically what happens. We got to develop it through the Tribeca All Access program; we were part of its first year.

Your previous film, Washington Heights, was an especially well-received New York film, and you're now revisiting similar urban themes with Adrift in Manhattan. What is it about the city that inspired you to approach another story in that sort of thematic context?

This particular story specifically came as a response to my first film -- at least from my point of view, or my process, if you will. In Washington Heights, the main idea of that film was that when I moved there and lived in New York, one of the things I noticed right away was how this was a very special place because it didn't feel like the United States -- even though it was clearly a space in New York. It felt like any place in South or Latin America. That was sort of the general impetus. From there we started writing with one or two ideas, and we just sort of wrote ourselves into the movie. It was very much a first movie in the sense that it was very well-structured and had created a certain plot - -benchmarks that we arrive at -- and then from there on, sort of follow the characters through the fire to get there.

When I was cutting the film with those certain plot benchmarks, what I had realized was that you have to give justice because you set it up and now you have to pay off -- it all has to be dynamic and interesting, but also I was spending a lot of time in the cutting room paying those things off. And while it was fun and great, as I was sure it was going to be in the writing, the best thing that I liked about my first film were those parts where nothing really much happens; you're sitting with the father and son character, they don't like each other, they're forced to deal with each other, and the son has to care for his father, which is the last thing he wants in his life. In those moments -- and there was a lot of that -- in the script there were really easy one-liners, and it was no big deal when we shot it. But then in the movie, when we cut it, they were just incredible moments -- for me, at least. You're asking the audience to sit with them and to work.

It was something for me as an audience member; I felt so good about that. You could sit down and reflect on the story and really wonder what these people are going to do to each other. That was sort of a fascinating thing. That became the main kernel to do Adrift in Manhattan. I went to the Havana Film Festival in 2003, and I was tired, and I was sitting in the plane, and that's when it dawned on me: the challenge of doing a movie like this. Can I make a feature out of a collection of these moments?

With the recent changes in your life -- having become a father again while having lost your own father -- do the themes of parenthood and mortality that I've read about in descriptions of Adrift in Manhattan take on an added intensity or resonance to you as a filmmaker?

It's a great question, and I don't know how to answer it. I think if it adds any significance to me, it's just about trying to be truthful to the world in the premise you set out, and just conveying that honesty to the actors and in the camerawork and the editing. And then just making sure -- or maybe hoping -- that honesty transcends the film itself. That unspoken quality, if you will, is something I just cherish with all the events that recently happened, whether it's sad or happy, or just unexpected or strange. The movie just kind of wraps it all around; it's cyclical. I'm still grappling with it.

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