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Friday, June 29, 2012

Bob Gruen: Rock 'N' Roll's Favorite Iconographer

The list of subjects Bob Gruen has captured in his photography could double as a roll-call of virtually every musician who achieved rock-god status in the '60s and '70s. Apart from landing an unimaginably sweet gig as John Lennon’s personal photographer during his New York years, Gruen also made icons of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and many others. Today his portfolio (which includes legendary images of a triumphant Led Zeppelin, an inebriated Iggy Pop, and Tina Turner in all her hyperkinetic glory) serves as a comprehensive archive of an era when rock music came into its own as a symbol of rebellion and creative vitality.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen screens on Sunday, July 1 at 8pm as the (free!) Closing Night selection of BAMcinemaFest and will be followed by a Q&A with Gruen and an after-party. Below are a few greatest hits from his extraordinary career.

Tina Turner live at Honka Monka Club in New York City, 1970

Led Zeppelin, New York, 1973

The Rolling Stones live at Madison Square Garden, 1972
John Lennon, New York City, 1974
Joan Jett, Sunset Marquis, Los Angeles, 1976

Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry, Backstage in Toronto, 1977

The Sex Pistols in Luxembourg, 1977

The Clash live in Boston, 1979

The Ramones live at CBGB, 1979

Green Day at Top of the Rock, May 2009

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Q&A with Matthew Nolan (co-composer of a new live The Adventures of Prince Achmed score)

On the Closing Night of BAMcinemaFest, we will be turning our attention away from the best in contemporary independent cinema for a special screening of the oldest surviving animated feature, Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This whimsical, visually spectacular retelling of The Arabian Nights utilizes cardboard cutouts manipulated on illuminated glass and enhanced with gorgeous color tinting. The film has already inspired a wide range of diverse composers to take their stab at re-scoring it, and this year we welcome BAM favorites 3epkano back to our cinemas to debut their own musical interpretation. 3epkano members Matthew Nolan and Cameron Doyle will be joined by avant-garde cellist Erik Friedlander, a frequent collaborator of John Zorn and a major figure in New York's experimental downtown scene.

Nolan, who is also a lecturer on film in Dublin, took time to speak with us about his interest in early silent film and his methods of composing. We are proud to be able to share a new video from 3epkano's latest album, Hans the Reluctant Wolf Juggler, featuring acclaimed Irish dancer Liv O'Donoghue. Below you can also get a taste of some of the music from the Achmed score.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed will screen on Sun, July 1 at 6pm.

How did you become interested in scoring silent films?
It began with an experience I had watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Irish Film Institute eight years ago. I watched it completely silently, which sparked my interest in the musical possibilities of cinema of that period. Cameron Doyle and I booked a theater and a film print from the British Film Institute, pulled together some musicians, and set ourselves a tough goal over a two month period, not knowing what the next step would be after that. Then it kind of snowballed. A huge amount of people attended, since it was an unusual kind of event, and we kept receiving offers to play again. That’s how we built up relationships with institutions like the Goethe Institute in Dublin.

How did you connect with BAM?
Well, this will be our fifth performance with BAM. The first was in 2007, and the initial approach was with a woman named Juliana Camfield. I reached out to her from Dublin, and I went to meet her, just for a chat. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular; I just wanted to talk about the scene in New York, what possibilities there were. She made a few suggestions of repertory cinemas. The one that really turned into a lovely relationship was Florence Almozini at BAM. We sent emails and had a really extended telephone conversation, and Florence had lived in Dublin, so we just got on really well. That initial spark was what brought us over.

What brought you to The Adventures of Prince Achmed?
I had been looking to do something with an early animated film. I became acquainted with Lotte Reiniger’s work only a couple of years ago and was really struck by how sophisticated it is, and also how simple it is. She draws the spectator into this imaginary world, and there’s something emotionally resonant and powerful about the technique she used and the type of stories she chose to work with. Also it’s quite experimental in its own way, which lent itself well to sonic experimentation, something that we like to be able to engage in when we start music for a new project. If that kind of latitude isn’t there, then we tend not to be attracted to it.

How did you hear of Reiniger's work?
I lecture in film studies at a couple universities, so I learned of her through my own research interests. My passion is always leading me to treasures.

Can you tell me about the process of composing a silent-film score?
The working methodology I begin with doesn’t involve music at all. I just watch the film over and over again, trying to discern an emotional subtext. Once I’m confident we’ve discerned that, then we think of musical motifs that resonate with that subtext. This was our first collaboration with another musician, and Erik was really happy to work with us. This was new terrain for him. He is a hugely experienced composer and improviser, so finding creative ground wasn’t a problem. But that initial process of just watching and not touching an instrument is important, because we want to respect the film.

How did you meet and decide to collaborate with Erik Friedlander?
My wife discovered him as a musician and artist and she got me listening to him. I curate a music festival in Ireland, the Kilkenny Art Festival, and I invited Erik to perform at that. And we just kept in touch. I proposed a project a year and a half ago and that morphed into what we’re doing at BAM. Two of the musicians are relatively new collaborators, so we’re rehearsing more diligently than we may have done—we have to be extremely prepared to play with someone of Erik Friedlander’s caliber.

3epkano's new video, "River Bank":

Riverbank Music Video from 3epkano video on Vimeo.

Producer: Matthew Nolan
Performer: Liv O'Donoghue
Director/Editor: Kenny Leigh
Director of Photography: Sean Leonard
Camera Operators: Sean Leonard, Damien Dunne, Niall Cullinane
Makeup: Julianna Grogan
Wardrobe: Ciara O' Donovan
Colorist: Damien Dunne

A sample of the new score for The Adventures of Prince Achmed, written and performed by Erik Friedlander and 3epkano's Matthew Nolan and Cameron Doyle in collaboration with Bryan O'Connell and Steve Shannon:

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

R&B Festival at MetroTech: Fishbone

"How're we gonna follow them"? That's what bassist Flea apparently thought every time powerhouse funk-ska band Fishbone opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fellow bassist Les Claypool wasn't any less intimidated: "They should have been the band that went way beyond any of us who were influenced by them," he says in the new documentary about the group, Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (trailer below). Good news: this incredible, super intimidating impossible act to follow is performing live tomorrow at noon as part of the BAM R&B Festival at MetroTech. Come out! It's free. And so is the popcorn.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Q&A with Tim Sutton (director of Pavilion)

Praised as "exquisite beginning to end" by Amy Taubin of Artforum, Pavilion captures the beauty and turmoil of adolescence in a series of hypnotic images drawn from two distinct landscapes. When the film's young protagonist moves from a lakeside town in upstate New York to live with his unemployed father in suburban Arizona, he faces the challenges of life in transition. But despite dark thematic undercurrents that only gradually become apparent, the film is an often rapturous portrait of one teenage summer. Paring plot and dialogue down to the bare essentials, Brooklyn filmmaker Tim Sutton imbues each shot with the inchoate anxieties and desires of his characters as they ride their bikes, strike up friendships, and experience the last moments of their youth.

Tim Sutton spoke with us about the film, which will screen on Thursday, June 28 at 7pm, followed by a Q&A.

What drives you to make films?
I guess I just feel an incredible passion for filmmaking as an art form that incorporates so many languages and styles and forms and mediums. If you leave out the sales agents, cinema as storytelling can keep evolving infinitely. I watch anything from L’Eclisse to Beau travail to Gummo right up to Beginners and Beasts of the Southern Wild—films that offer you a path into a world that doesn’t necessarily stop when the film ends. When I made 7, the process was so alive that it felt like we were cutting through the frame into something deeper and, in its own small, home-made way, infinite.

Photograph by Robin Holland
What films have served as inspiration in your work?
I mention some above but, for Pavilion in particular, La Vie de Jesus by Bruno Dumont, Ballast by Lance Hammer, Last Days by Gus Van Sant—all films that introduce their own language to the form and create their own sense of time, rather than dealing with a familiar story arc.

What are some the challenges you faced while making Pavilion?
The biggest challenge was also the most pleasurable part of it, which was constructing and reconstructing the story every day so that it would be this breathing, sweating, entirely alive process while still creating a narrative that would connect emotionally, visually, tonally. Every scene and shot is by design, but that design was constantly in flux. This was an exhausting process for all of us, but it kept everyone in it—eyes open, always collaborating. Our production assistant grabbed a camera during a reloading session and captured a moment vital to the story. Our lead scout was a high school kid who had just had a knack for knowing what I wanted to see in the background. At any moment it all could have fallen apart but the process felt vital and full of risk and, most of all, meaningful, and it wouldn’t have if we were just following something I had written a year before.

You have an affinity for youth—could you speak about what drew you to making a film about teenagers (and also about your other brainchild, Video Kid Brooklyn)?
I feel like adults always try to define kids and, well, kids are indefinable—and that is fascinating. As an educator (I run a film school for kids called Video Kid Brooklyn), I’m pretty amazed by kids’ ability to explain the world with such clarity and color, one observation to the next, and then just go into their own world for a few minutes and come out of it somewhere else completely. As a filmmaker, I simply tried to visually describe what that looks like (what they do, where they go) rather than trying to figure out what they think or forcing too much of a recognizable plot that would have felt unreal. I wanted to make something so real and, at the same time, a waking dream, so that the film felt like it could hang out in a bedroom for a while or swim in the lake without the thought of having to get out or feel lonely and have no one to talk to while watching cars pass by on a highway—in essence, be in the film with them.

Can you tell us about the process of choosing locations, what you wanted to communicate in the character’s move from East to West, and any difficulties you encountered shooting in those locations?
I knew that our approach to story and character was going to be kind of out there so I wanted a very concrete larger storyline to serve as a goalpost—a kid moves from East to West, one parent to the other, from lush green surroundings and a sense of safety to a barren, sun-baked and just-dangerous-enough landscape. If we had that line, how we got there day-to-day, scene by scene, and shot by shot was something I felt comfortable discovering as we went. I knew we would find the Arizona kids—but we were shooting and auditioning simultaneously and were so lucky to find the group we did because their world then opened up to us, and in that world we found both intimacy and darkness out on what felt like the edge of our country—so we really travelled through what felt like a psyche of American youth.

Kickstarter has become an important part of how many American independent films get funded. Can you speak about about your experience using it (or other online platforms you’ve used to get your films made)?
Kickstarter has taken the hardest and most miserable part of filmmaking—fundraising—and made it a thrilling, community-building experience during which you can find an audience, make great connections and raise more money than you had planned. It’s like a bizarro world. Other than that it pushed me to do two things: frame the film and the story of making the film for the public eye and, second, throw away any fear of asking for support. From day one I have truly believed in Pavilion as an art film and Kickstarter was a platform on which I could state that with passion.

The film's score was composed by Sam Prekop of The Sea and Cake. He and bandmate Archer Prewitt will be performing in the BAMcinemaFest Lounge after the screening on Thursday. Below is a sample of the music you will hear in the film:

BAMcinemaFest Opening Night

BAMcinematek Program Director Florence Almozini,  BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins, filmmaker Mike Birbiglia,co-writer Ira Glass and Wall Street Journal Editor Christopher Farley (Photo: Elena Olivo)
Wednesday night we celebrated the launch of BAMcinemaFest 2012 with a BAM-wide party and screening of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s film Sleepwalk with Me. The film’s cast and crew celebrated with movie-goers late into the night at one of the season’s wildest parties!

For more on this exciting event click ahead and to see a full Event Album click here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Circle of Life: A Guest Post by Brooke Van Poppelen

Hi there. My name is Brooke Van Poppelen and I will be put up to the task of making you laugh on Wednesday as a performer on Get It Out There: Comedy by BAM & IFC. I feel nervous in a good way about the show considering not too many years ago, I was waiting tables close by. Business would slump off at 10pm on a weeknight and just as you thought it was safe to start breaking down the restaurant so you could clock out and blow your money on booze, the calls would start at 10:50pm: “Hi, is your kitchen open until 11? Our show just got out and we’re in a car racing over there.”

“Back off, ladies. He’s mine. I’ll put a cocktail fork
through your eye.”
Dammit. We just got BAMmed.

For a long time I faulted BAM for forcing me to have to stay an extra hour at work and wait on model/actress types who I would overhear say things like, “We had so much fun that one evening with Tom Waits. He’s just so down to earth.” I never knew whether to be annoyed over staying an extra hour to watch two 23 year-old models “race over” to split a shrimp appetizer, or green with envy because they were apparently hanging out with Tom Waits on the regular. I did my best to embrace both emotions with great enthusiasm.

It’s a weird and wonderful thing to be a comic but it takes a long time to start making steady income. I’ve worked so long and hard at performing and writing while working full-time in the service industry to stay afloat. I’ve been on the service end of almost every situation and looking back I really wouldn’t change that. It’s an honest profession and a great way to make money. Also, it’s a never-ending wealth of people to make fun of and hate—all great stuff for the purposes of fanning a comedy fire.

“Yes, let me get those files out of my briefcase.
My first job was at a greasy spoon Coney Island (that’s Detroit speak for diner) and I started a rumor that my boss “Sparty” carried around a briefcase full of glistening, uncooked hot dogs that he referred to as “his business.”

I still imitate customers from waitressing jobs in Chicago. Two older women who had thick, German accents would always sit down and tell me “there would be a ‘turd’ joining them any minute.” When their friend walked through the door, I would tell them that the “turd” person had arrived.I love to recall Daryl*, a customer with extreme OCD who every day would pay for his bill using only Sacagawea coins that he’d line up in perfect rows on the counter. He’d become upset if you tried to take the money before he was done arranging them and would start over again no matter how long the line was behind him.

I’ve had forks thrown at my head and I’ve thrown drinks at bar patrons. In Manhattan, at a vegan restaurant I worked at I had to tell a man to take his giant, open jug of raw goat milk out of the restaurant despite his protest that it was part of his parasite cleanse. Tough break, pal but you’re gonna have to go pass your worms somewhere else. Not on my watch.

There are so many great war stories from these 12 years in the sh*t.

That’s why I hate to admit it, but the past two years have been service industry free for me. Can you keep a secret? I’ve been getting paid to write. Like, for television and cool websites and stuff. It’s hard to know how to deal. As much as my natural, feral instincts tell me to throw a salad at someone when I am unhappy, I have to remind myself that I work in an office and there’s HR and possible firing instead of a high five from the dishwasher.

Part of me fears that my humor will or already has become depleted by working with happy people who are having their dreams come true. Where’s the fun in that, right? Now I completely get why Andy Kaufman kept a job as a busboy.

So if you can understand, performing at BAM is definitely a rite of passage for me. The disgruntled server becomes the BAM-er. The circle of life will be complete and I hope that you can come by this Wednesday to see it. And after the show gets out, I will definitely go to a restaurant five minutes before they close to annoy the hell out of a disgruntled waiter. Sometimes you’ve got to pay it forward.

*His name was Alan, and screw that guy.

Brooke Van Poppelen is a comic and writer based in Brooklyn. Check her out at and follow her on Twitter @bvpcomedy. She hosts her own show at Freddy’s Back Room in Park Slope on 2nd and 4th Mondays of every month at 9pm.

Q&A with Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson (directors of Radio Unnameable)

Beginning in 1962, native Brooklynite Bob Fass has been at the forefront of broadening the political and cultural role of the late-night FM airwaves with his WBAI show Radio Unnameable. With its title alluding to a plotless, disjointed Samuel Beckett novel, the broadcast evolved into a showcase for random, unplanned content that captured the social chaos of New York in the 60s. Fass, who would come to be known as the "father of free-form radio," improvised much of his nightly show, throwing together music, live arguments among multiple callers, and interviews with leftist figures like Abbie Hoffman, Ed Sanders, and Allen Ginsburg and musicians like Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. As the show drew more listeners, it became a forum for a wide range of political reportage, community organizing, and eyewitness accounts of urban conflict.

With unprecedented access to Fass' personal archives, BAMcinemaFest alums Jessica Wolfson and Paul Lovelace have crafted a compelling portrait of a pioneer and the era he helped to document. As a New Yorker profile of Fass in 2006 points out, much has changed about radio and WBAI over the past few decades, as audiences have splintered and the spirit of the 60s has faded. But the 78-year-old legend has lasted on WBAI for almost 50 years, bringing a tireless energy and political engagement to his broadcast, and giving the spotlight to a broad spectrum of voices that often go unheard in our community.

Photograph by Robin Holland
Radio Unnameable screens at BAMcinemaFest on Tuesday, June 26 at 7pm. Lovelace, Wolfson, and Fass will be in attendance for a Q&A.

Wolfson and Lovelace have kindly made some sample audio from Fass' radio show available for streaming. You can find the clips at the bottom of the Q&A.

What drives you to make films?
It’s hard for either one of us to imagine doing anything else. One aspect we both love is the collaborative process. For this film there were countless individuals who helped along the way. But our cinematographer John Pirozzi and editor Greg Wright both had a large hand in shaping the film. Nothing beats the feeling on a shoot or in the edit room when you are brainstorming, disagreeing, agreeing, disagreeing more, trying things out, and all of a sudden you’re exactly where you need to be. Another fun part of making a documentary such as Radio Unnameable is the copious amount of research involved. We got to meet a plethora of fascinating characters and dug into some tasty archives, first and foremost the collection belonging to our subject, Bob Fass.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?
New York City in the late night hours serves as a backdrop for much of our film, so visually we were inspired by classic film noir (The Naked City and Where the Sidewalk Ends, to name two favorites). Alphaville is another film that has its own distinct cinematic universe. Amos Poe’s The Foreigner also. Other filmmakers we admire that have used New York City as a canvas to great effect are Jem Cohen, Shirley Clarke, Ken Jacobs, Martin Scorsese, among many others. And of course classic character study documentaries from filmmakers like the Maysles.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making Radio Unnameable?
Radio is an aural medium so the biggest challenge was how to make it visually interesting. For the most part, our goal was not to take a literal approach. Sometimes the visuals match with the audio, but more often it is a visceral feeling we are trying to get across. We were very fortunate to have the run of Bob Fass’ incredible photographs. He was on the scene at every happening and anti-war demonstration with camera in hand, in addition to holding a portable tape recorder. And in those days the equipment was rather bulky. He jokes about it, saying he felt like “the Hunchback of Mixed Media.” Additionally, we did a lot of outreach and were able to locate and integrate some amazing material from a plethora of filmmakers and photographers, many who were listeners of Radio Unnameable and participated in the events Bob helped organize.

How did you become interested in Bob Fass’ show as the subject of a documentary, and how did you get access to his archives? How long did it take to sift through all that material?
Paul’s previous film was The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose (co-directed with Sam Wainwright Douglas) about the psychedelic folk duo from New York City. They were on Radio Unnameable many times in the 60s and 70s, especially co-founder Peter Stampfel, who is still sort of a regular. Peter would talk about this crazy and great radio program that was unlike anything on the air, then and now. We also heard that Bob Fass had in his possession an unprecedented audio archive, so we were curious.

As far as the archive goes, Bob has a massive collection of still photographs, video, ephemera and a ton of audio. He has been on WBAI since 1962 and for the first 15 years, Radio Unnameable was on five nights a week, six hours at a time, so that’s a lot of live radio! Neither one of us had worked with open reel audio before, which is how all of the shows pre-1977 were recorded. In 2008, a small army of volunteers gathered to help us organize the materials that had been sitting in Bob’s home for many years. Slowly we began transferring these reels to a more accessible digital format. We listened to hundreds of Radio Unnameable recordings and were surprised how great and fresh the show still sounded. For the film, we were pulling from thousands of hours of audio, choosing the best moments, editing it down to just a few minutes. It was a lot of work! There is still a lot of material not in the film that we hope will see the light of day and become accessible when the film is released. Some of it can already be heard on our website.

A playlist of clips from Radio Unnameable, including discussions with callers, an interview with Paul Krassner, and reportage from Abbie Hoffman:

Friday, June 22, 2012

An Interview with Dan Sallitt, director of The Unspeakable Act

Dan Sallitt filming The Unspeakable Act.
Photo by Jaime Christley 
The Unspeakable Act screens at BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 24 at 9:30pm. A Q&A with Dan Sallitt, Sky Hirschkron, Tallie Medel, and others follows the screening.

You’re a Brooklyn-based filmmaker as well as a dedicated cinephile. Can you tell me a little bit about what the Brooklyn filmmaking scene is like and how that impacted the making of your film? Do you feel like you’re a part of the Brooklyn film community? Do you think there is a Brooklyn film renaissance? 

I’m feeling the local film-going community a little more now at this stage because people are interested in the fact that the film is shot in Brooklyn and has almost a small town look—the look of Ditmas Park and Midwood, and that community especially seems to be very interested in it. Now about the Brooklyn filmmaking scene—you’re asking a hard one because traditionally filmmakers in the old days before the internet would be a little more solitary than they had to be, and these days it’s not that way at all. Now [the filmmaking scene] is cross-country and even international because people meet at festivals where they don’t all come from the same place. I do feel as if now I’m part of a filmmaking group and I really like it—there are some really nice, interested, and talented people. I don’t know how many of them are Brooklyn people—I know a few, for instance Sophia Takal and Larry Levine who did Green and Gabi on the Roof in July, respectively. I could probably think of some others, but the localness doesn’t seem as important in this day and age when the internet and the festival circuit are connecting people.

Your film is full of recognizable Brooklyn locations—Prospect Park especially, and even the pizza was from Di Fara’s. Do you feel like the locations are important to your film? Did you go through the process of obtaining permits and if so, what was that like?

There are two levels to that question—the first question is where you wind up shooting and the second level is what you do once you get there. I actually think I conceived my film for a small town in Pennsylvania, which is where I grew up. When I found a location in Brooklyn, it was important for me (and a lot of fun) to localize it in the way that you’re talking about, to root it as much as I could in stuff that goes on here, and to put in as many things that I could that were real—so the walk she takes to the school at the end is really the walk from her house. I wanted the geography of Ditmas Park and Midwood to be respected as much as I could. There’s one place that I couldn’t do it perfectly because of construction and it really kills me, still! But I used the real Decemberists concert in Prospect Park in the movie, and when she names the schools in the neighborhood, I made sure they were the correct schools.

If you shoot somewhere like Prospect Park, it’s out of the question not to have a permit. You can’t get in, and you will get rousted immediately if you try. Once you have a city permit you might as well use it. When I shot in Pennsylvania for my last film, I didn’t get permits nor did I feel like I particularly needed them or that anyone cared very much. But in all the scenes where I did location shooting in New York, I had a permit. Maybe some people are chaos-loving and don’t mind going out not knowing if there’re going to be busted or not, but I’m not that way. I did actually wind up shooting unpermitted in Fort Greene Park—we kind of took a chance because no one answered my request for permission, and it turned out that was ok. But on the whole we were law-abiding.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Q&A with Jonathan Lisecki (director of Gayby)

In Jonathan Lisecki's feature debut, Gayby, two old college friends—a straight woman and a gay man—try to alleviate the loneliness of the single life with some cross-orientation baby-making. Laughter ensues, of course, but what makes this a unique take on a now-classic comic scenario are Lisecki's insights into modern family and friendship, his emotional investment in his characters, and the film's lifelike portrait of New York. Adapted from an award-winning short film of the same name, Gayby is filled to the brim with snappy dialogue and witty one-liners (impeccably delivered by a cast of New York theater regulars and Lisecki in a wonderful supporting role), but it also wears its heart on its sleeve. Lisecki spoke with us about the real-life origins of the film's story and the process of getting the film made.

Gayby will screen at BAMcinemaFest on Friday, June 22 at 9:15pm, followed by a Q&A with Jonathan Lisecki and cast members Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas.

What drives you to make films?

Usually, it was the production van driven by someone who had a license, although sometimes I took a cab. See, I can’t help being silly—I come from a family of storytellers. I think we share our viewpoints to help people understand us a little bit better. I’ve been active as an actor and director since my college years. Until around 2007, I had been mostly doing theater in NYC. Then I taught myself some basic filmmaking skills and made two shorts. In the theater, I would experience this sadness when a project was finished, because I couldn’t share it with as many people as I wanted. Film opens up such a vast audience. It also allows me to work in a fast-paced, incredibly fun way with actors. I know some amazing actors from my days in the theater—I love getting to share them with the rest of the world.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?

Matthew Wilkas, Jonathan Lisecki, and Jenn Harris
Photograph by Robin Holland
I’m especially drawn to comedies and dialogue-driven movies. I often go back to His Girl Friday, All About Eve, the early films of Hal Hartley, Laura, Network—movies with amazing, rapid-fire dialogue. Some TV shows nailed that style as well. Particularly Moonlighting, which I have on DVD and which really holds up well. And although it has nothing to do with this film, one should always mention The Comeback as a breakthrough TV comedy.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making Gayby?

Things went wrong in the usual ways, and there was so little time to react. Halfway through the shoot we were thrown out of one location because the neighbors noticed us sneaking in an entire film crew without permission. We tried to claim we were caterers, but then they saw someone walking in with cans of paint. In one evening we managed to find a place that was a visual match for the location we lost. We also had to recast an actress at the same time. I made a bunch of calls in the middle of the night and we went back to filming the following morning. The best thing about our crew was that even though the situation was stressful and serious we all couldn’t stop laughing because it was so absurd. And we just kept going. There was no stopping Gayby.

The gay male-straight female friendship has been a popular subject of comedy (in both sitcoms and films) for at least the past decade. How do you feel about past portrayals of this subject, and do you have any thoughts on where your film fits in that context?

I actually haven’t seen most of the popular movies and shows of this type. I assume you’re referring to the Jennifer Aniston/Madonna rom-com films and Will and Grace. For years I was lucky not to own a TV, and I never saw an episode of Will and Grace. I simply made my version of a story I wanted to tell. I don’t think there are many truly new stories to be told, but the way I tell this one and others will always be unique to my viewpoint.

There’s been much talk about the “gayby boom” in recent years. How much of the film is based on personal experience or friends’ experiences with this phenomenon?

This story is based on a baby who didn’t happen. A friend and I had a vague plan to have a baby together if we didn’t meet someone else by a set time, but she ended up having a baby with someone else. I think I made the short version of Gayby as some sort of art therapy to deal with the sadness of that option going away. The film is my imagining of what it would have been like to go through with that pact, in a farcical mode. But some people do sense that faint sadness underneath.

Kickstarter has become an important part of how many American independent films get funded. Can you speak about about your experience using it (or other online platforms you’ve used to get your films made)?

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Kickstarter is that you can start building an audience for your film even before you shoot it. That was our experience, at least. People who donate on Kickstarter feel a sense of personal involvement in the project: they want to come see it, they post about it on Facebook, they tweet and blog and such. They become a part of the process because they are true contributors. Of course, the money is great too, but we did Kickstarter more so that we could have an excited fanbase out there waiting for us when Gayby was ready to go out into the world.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Q&A with Zach Weintraub (director of The International Sign for Choking)

Working on a micro-budget, Zach Weintraub has crafted a poetic ode to the aimlessness of expatriate life in Buenos Aires that takes in a multiplicity of forms and tones: mystery, road movie, romance, and a beautifully lensed contemplative drama. Collaborating with a few BAMcinemaFest alums (actress Sophia Takal and cinematographer Nandan Rao), Weintraub—who serves as the film’s writer, director, and star—captures the feeling of being adrift as an unemployed artist in a foreign land, suffusing each moment with the protagonist’s longing for connection and his heartbreak over a lost love.

Weintraub spoke with us about the challenges of making a film in a foreign culture, his interest in mumblecore, and his views on Kickstarter.

The International Sign for Choking will screen at BAMcinématek on Tuesday, June 26, at 9:30pm. Zach Weintraub and Sophia Takal will be in attendance for a Q&A.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?
Studying in Argentina turned me on to what they’re doing down there in terms of movies, and a lot of it really blew me away. I generally use Lucrecia Martel as an example. I think she’s a genius. It often seems like sound and image are of equal importance to her, and there isn’t a lot of redundancy between the two. It’s not uncommon for dialogue to take place off screen, for example. There’s a lot of ambiguity too, not just in terms of the plot but in terms of the characters. And these are things that are common not just in her movies but in a lot of Argentine movies from the last decade or so. I admire them so much that I went there and tried to make one myself.

I’d also like to bring up mumblecore, because I think that the spirit of those movies is so inspiring, and it bums me out that a lot people insisted on being haters and focusing on the elements that they didn’t like. When that was first happening, that was the first time that it truly occurred to me that you do not need permission to make a movie. Just make one if you want to. No-budget filmmaking is not a stepping stone to me. I’m very happy doing things this way.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making The International Sign for Choking?
One thing that I hadn’t anticipated was how difficult it would be to evaluate the quality of a performance in a foreign language. During an early rehearsal we did a take that I thought was terrible, only to find the crew nodding and saying that it seemed fine to them. If they weren’t able to see the same negative elements that I’d seen, then how many subtler points had gone over my head? So anytime we shot a scene in Spanish I would really stress out over that, probably to an unreasonable degree. Even having spent so much time with the movie, and having memorized the inflection of every single word of dialogue, I can’t claim to understand it 100%. That’s why it was so awesome to have our first screening in Buenos Aires, because getting the positive reception that we did reassured me that the performances are at least “authentic.”

Shooting in two languages gave me so much to think about and subsequently feel anxiety over. There’s an Argentine character in the movie who speaks primarily in English. It was important to me that he be a sympathetic character, which I think is best achieved by his adorable accent. But then I can’t help but wonder whether that’s totally lost on a Spanish-speaking audience. And the reverse is true as well. Does my character’s accent in Spanish come across as adorable to that same audience?

Can you tell us about the process of choosing locations, how your previous travels inspired what locations you used, and any difficulties you encountered in shooting in Buenos Aires?
I had only been to Argentina once, for a period of five months in 2008, when I started writing the movie. And two years had passed, so a lot of the physical details of the place were already fading from memory. The part that I still felt most familiar with was the house where I’d stayed with a host family, so that became the central location. Early in the writing process I was invited back to Buenos Aires to screen Bummer Summer at their amazing film festival (BAFICI). It was really awesome and strange to re-experience the city. Every tiny thing I’d forgotten still felt familiar, like the different bird calls or the way you stand when you ride the bus. It all felt fresh again, so when I got home I was able to write the rest of the movie with about 80% of the locations already in mind.

That trip to BAFICI was even more critical because all of the friends that I made there would ultimately become involved in the production. Without them, it would have been impossible to do what we did. They loaned us equipment, gave us access to locations, introduced us to actors, and in several cases even acted themselves. I always joke that it was easier to shoot a movie halfway around the world than to shoot one in my own hometown, but it’s kind of true. Looking back, I don’t think that I was in any position to be orchestrating a production in a foreign country, but a lot of good things fell into place and it happened anyway.

I suppose that there were unique challenges, though. One time a group of teenaged street kids tried to steal our camera from the director of photography (Nandan Rao). I wasn’t around for that one, but apparently he landed a punch on their leader and they all scattered. That happened during our first two weeks in Buenos Aires, so we were always on edge after that. It didn’t help that we were constantly carrying around all of our equipment on public transportation in the middle of the night. Between Nandan, the producer (Bradley Smith), and myself there was a lot of speculation about the best way to bludgeon someone to death with a tripod or boom pole. That was probably 90% of what we talked about.

Kickstarter has become an important part of how many American independent films get funded. Can you speak about your experience using it (or other online platforms you’ve used to get your film made)?
I don’t think that crowdfunding is necessarily the long-term solution to our financial problems as filmmakers, but it has definitely been a nice solution for the time being. Two years ago, it seemed like every Kickstarter link was met with curiosity and enthusiasm. That’s no longer the case, though. I think that the novelty has worn off, so we’ll see what happens. There’s a huge amount of projects right now because people seem to look at crowdfunding as free money. But it takes so much time and effort, and unless your project has some sort of “viral appeal,” all of the money is going to be coming from people you know.

That was what bummed me out the most about using Kickstarter to fund my movie: in the end it was just my Facebook friends paying for my entire crew’s airfare. I wasn’t totally comfortable with that. Still, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten the movie made otherwise, and I’m really grateful that the website came around when it did. I just don’t feel like I could do it again. My guess is that when the dust settles, these crowdfunding platforms are just going to be a slicker, more efficient tool for doing what filmmakers have already done for decades: soliciting money from their family and close friends. Not a bad thing, but not totally revolutionary either.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Q&A with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa (director of Jerry and Me)

Photograph by Robin Holland
A full-time faculty member in the Film and Video Department at Columbia College Chicago, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa is a major voice in the study of Iranian cinema, having written extensively on the subject and collaborated with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on one of the definitive books about Abbas Kiarostami. She is also an accomplished director, and her new essay film, Jerry and Me, is a cinephilic love letter to the larger-than-life comic talent that came to embody the "essence of America" to her in her teenage years. The film offers a bittersweet, deeply personal examination of issues Saeed-Vafa has grappled with throughout her work as an academic, including gender and national/cultural belonging.

Jerry and Me will screen at BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 24 at 4pm along with a pristine IB Technicolor 35mm print of The Disorderly Orderly, starring Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin. Saeed-Vafa will be in attendance for a Q&A. Here she speaks with us about what drew her to the great comedian, the place of Hollywood in Iranian movie-going culture, and some of her favorite Jerry Lewis gags.

Could you describe your experience of seeing a Jerry Lewis film for the first time?
I liked him right away. He became the icon of an American man for me. He was a sweet, warm, caring, gentle, good-looking young man. He was a man, but he had the persona of a child, very easy to identify with. He made me forget about myself and my world. It was pure fun. The world of his films, especially his Technicolor ones, was a fantastic world. It was an image of America and American houses and towns—very colorful and spacious, a very different world for me. The world of his films was warm and fearless and he was absolutely hilarious.

As a teenage girl, what was your initial reaction to his onscreen persona?
I liked him because he was not like other tough men/heroes presented in American movies. He was non-violent, unintimidating, innocent, vulnerable, gentle and soft, almost feminine. He was always well groomed, in sporty outfits, looking very modern, and his humor was humane, not mean, and so very unique. He expressed everything with his face and his movements. There was empathy, humor, and sometimes sadness.

I liked him more when he was acting like a child or adolescent: imaginative, crazy (out of control), disruptive, as opposed to his adult persona that was powerful, wise, and bossy (like the ending of some of his movies, such as The Nutty Professor.

I understood his loneliness, but he always had the magical power to shift to a happy ending if he wished. He often had a moral message about love and accepting yourself that I could not relate to. (Most of the time, there was a woman who was fond of him and saved him from loneliness. Those were the times when I could not relate to him.) As a teenager, I had a hard time with happy endings.

Jerry and Me beautifully depicts the changes in Iranian movie-going culture before and after the 1979 Revolution. What is the state of movie-going in Iran in 2012?
How has it changed since the 1980s? I’m not quite sure, since I’m not living in Iran. But from what I’ve learned, there are fewer movie theaters running now than before the revolution. This may be due to the fact that there is less audience now for movies than before and/or more strict policies for film production and exhibition. There is also inflation, and critical economic conditions that may be responsible for the recession of film exhibition and its market in Iran.

Right after the revolution, Western and Hollywood movies were almost completely banned. It was less strict for a while during the 90s, but in general, commercial Western films, Hollywood films, and most western European films would rarely get permission for public screening. Mostly due to their “immoral content” and the portrayal of women—the way women appear onscreen, how they relate to men, their intimate/physical behavior toward men, all of which would come in conflict with the moral values set mostly in 1982 by the government. Few American films have been shown in Iran since the revolution. For example, Dances with the Wolves and Seven were shown in movie theaters.

The majority of the films in Iranian movie theaters are domestic productions. A small number of enthusiastic young cineastes get to see foreign films during the annual film festival in Tehran (the Fajr International Film Festival, in early February). Sometimes, you can find pirated DVD copies of contemporary films in black markets. Every now and then, a domestic commercial film that has screening permission is pulled off screens due to religious or political opposition. Movies are still very popular in Iran and seen as a powerful tool to influence the audience, and youths in particular. There are several film magazines that regularly provide news about Hollywood and other Western films.

Has Jerry Lewis’ reputation in Iran changed significantly since the 1979 Revolution?
Is he still as popular today as he was during your childhood? Yes. The younger generation doesn’t know him that well. But older audience still like him and remember the fun times with his movies that were shown each year before the revolution.

Do you feel there’s a place for Lewis’ distinct style of comedy in our contemporary culture? If so, who do you see as his filmmaking descendants?
I think there’s always room for his style of comedy. There’s so much to learn from his films. Although no one can copy him, and only he can perform and act the way he does, many have been influenced by him. For example: Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, Quentin Tarantino, Jon Landis, Joe Dante, and Jean Luc Godard.

Could you share some thoughts/personal recollections about The Disorderly Orderly, which screens with your film in BAMcinemaFest on June 24?
I saw it dubbed into Persian when it came out. What I loved about the film then, I still love about it now. For example, the scene where he reacts physically to the description of his female patient’s medical problems (leaking gallbladder and kidney) in the hospital’s garden is still hilarious. Also, all the surreal jokes: a “patient” in a full body cast is accidentally pushed down a hill, hits a tree, and is revealed to be hollow; the scene where Jerry has to fix a woman’s snowy TV, and actual snow bursts out of the TV; and the whole final sequence, with shopping carts attacking the store and canned food rolling down the streets—they’re so fantastic.

I also remember small, terrific moments: Jerry is told to carry a couple of skeletons to two different doctors. His superior asks him whether he knows which one is a girl and which one is a boy. Also, Jerry’s hair style as a young high school boy, when he sees his beloved girl kissing another man.

I completely identified with the out of control, crazy world that the film portrayed and how Jerry handled it all. The part that didn’t work for me as a teenager was his great love for his female colleague who finally saves and cures him.

Reading Lists: An Illustrated Essay About Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson will read from and discuss his work at Eat, Drink & Be Literary on Thursday, June 21st in BAMcafé, co-presented by the National Book Foundation.
Nathan Gelgud is an illustrator who lives in Brooklyn.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Welcome to BAMslam (plus, the Greatest Ping-Pong Moments in Film History)

After descending into the dark night of the soul with movies like the pitch-black Williamsburg satire The Comedy and the nursing-home documentary The Patron Saints, you can count on a sweaty round of ping-pong with cine-friends to lighten the mood. This great pastime—which, according to our research, evolved from an 1880s British parlor game known as “wiff-waff” into the world’s most popular racquet sport—will be one of several amusements offered in this year’s BAMcinemaFest Lounge, the others being drink specials, live music, and a stand-up comedy showcase. We expect the special festival balls we’re getting manufactured will also add to the fun.

But what do these small, cinematically unheralded balls have to do with the art of film, you ask? If that photo of young, hunky Paul Newman and Robert Redford isn’t enough to convince you, below we’ve gathered three of the great ping-pong scenes in cinema history—one from American comedy’s favorite curmudgeon, another from one of the best films of Britain’s finest filmmaking duo, and—last but not least—one of the most popular Best Picture Oscar winners of all-time.

Join us this Saturday, June 23, for the First Annual BAMslam finals and semi-finals at 6pm. BAMcinemaFest alumnus Michael Tully (Septien) will be serving as tournament director.

W.C. Fields in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)

Kim Hunter and Roger Livesay in A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994)

Q&A with Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy (directors of Francine and The Patron Saints)

Two highlights in this year’s BAMcinemaFest line-up—Francine and The Patron Saints—come from the husband-and-wife team behind Pigeon Projects, a company that Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy founded in 2005 to produce their hyper-real portraits of life at the margins of American society. Named among Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” their two latest works are tightly constructed and quietly devastating. The team’s first fiction film, Francine, premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival and stars Academy Award winner Melissa Leo in a near-mute, highly improvised performance as a former inmate trying to adjust to life after prison. In The Patron Saints, a documentary set in a rural nursing home, Shatzky and Cassidy’s camera drifts through rooms filled with elderly men and women awaiting death. Praised by Cinemascope as “an impressively stylized document of the institutional apparatus of aging and dying,” the film uncovers the realities of its subjects’ loneliness, senility, and mind-numbing boredom while circumventing the pitfalls of melodrama and sensationalism.

With their shared backgrounds in documentary and photography, Shatzky and Cassidy’s sometimes unbearably intimate storytelling is heightened by a strong visual sensibility and a keen eye for the haunting close-up. The pair spoke with BAMcinématek about their search for emotional authenticity in cinema, their artistic inspirations, and their collaborative relationship.

Francine screens at BAMcinemaFest on Friday, June 22 at 7pm. The Patron Saints screens on Monday, June 25 at 7pm. Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy will be in attendance for Q&As at both films.

What drives you to make films?
Photograph by Robin Holland
Human behavior, in its inexplicable and often beautiful ways. Making films, for us, is an attempt to understand and probe at ways of being that can appear confounding from the outside. We try to share something previously unseen with viewers and introduce them to images, characters, and stories told from our own personal point of view, in an authentic way.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?
Melanie: I'm particularly interested in films that seem to get at something real. Films that are intimate and bring me closer to a person’s sense of emotionality. I like films where loneliness and dread are embraced, films where I can witness the creative ways in which people pull themselves up from their own sense of desperation. My favorites are Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl), Léolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon), and Fiona (Amos Kollek).

Brian: I tend to be drawn to work, film or otherwise, that has a severity, but which also lets in light. I was listening to a lot of choral and spiritual music, delta blues and also heavy, drone metal music while making both of these films. I recently watched Begotten by E. Elias Merhige, which I liked… Sombre by Phillipe Grandrieux and the writing of J.M.Coetzee also comes to mind.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making Francine?
Time was our biggest challenge. We had a very tight shooting schedule and an ambitious number of unique locations in the film, which meant that we were always on the move and often had to think very quickly. The logistical realities of our time frame required us to locate the heart of the scene almost instantly, and then really go after it.

The Patron Saints?
The greatest challenge that we faced while making The Patron Saints was the fact that on a moment-to-moment basis, very little happens in the context of a nursing home. There isn’t a whole lot of activity, and for the most part, the residents are in a state of waiting. Waiting for their next meal, waiting for their next visitor, and of course waiting for the inevitable. We spent close to five years making the film, which, to us, felt necessary. Within that time, we were able to build a certain trust with the residents, families, and administration, which, ultimately, was instrumental in creating a lifelike portrait. One comment that we hear pretty consistently from audiences is that the residents don't seem to acknowledge or be aware of the camera. We interpret this as a compliment. The residents became so used to our presence that our presence eventually became virtually unnoticed.

How do you work together as a husband-and-wife directing team and as co-founders of your own production company, Pigeon Projects?
We both have a hand in almost every part of the process and look to each other for confirmation during the various stages of a film’s development. We operate out of the conviction that both of us want to see the same end result on screen and that we each provide a necessary component to help get it there. Sharing in the various successes and failures together is also good, since we can experience the highs together and the lows don’t get so low. It’s a marriage, through and through.

How to Buy 2012 Next Wave Season Tickets

Whether it’s your first time attending the Next Wave Festival or your 10th, getting season tickets can be a little confusing at first, mostly because there are so many choices!

If you want to purchase tickets to four or more Next Wave shows at the Opera House or Harvey Theater, then consider purchasing a season ticket package.

Why purchase a season ticket package? One reason is to guarantee your place at some of the most popular shows that will likely sell out. Another reason is to save a bit of cash: you save 20% off up to six shows, and if you buy seven or more shows you save a whopping 30% off the regular price.

But a prime reason is that you get first crack at the 15 Next Wave shows at the new BAM Fisher. These shows are offered as add-ons to a season ticket package and they represent the next generation of artists taking advantage of the flexible new venue. All tickets to these shows are $20, and the space is much smaller (seating arrangements can vary, but the maximum number is 250 seats per performance) so the sell out risk is very high. Trust us, you don’t want to miss out on the innovative shows in this space, which involve lasers and 2x4s and rocking chairs. You can also add on tickets to artist talks for either of our brand-new series:  On Truth (and Lies) with Simon Critchley, and Unbound (with our pals at Greenlight Bookstore).

When to Buy Season Tickets:
1) Become a Friend of BAM and purchase season tickets now (before the public has access on Mon, Jun 25).

For just $75, you can become a member and get the best available seats before the general public. Members also receive benefits including: discounts on Artist Talks, invitations to opening night parties, discounts to local restaurants, and a 20% discount at Greenlight Bookstore. In other words, you get the primo treatment.

2) If you’ve purchased season tickets to either of our past two seasons (2012 Winter/Spring Season and 2011 Next Wave) then you can buy season tickets starting June 18.

3) If you just want to buy four or more shows, then mark your calendar for June 25th. That’s the date when everyone can purchase a season ticket package. And don’t worry about committing so far in advance: you can exchange your tickets for an alternate date for free if something else comes up.

How to buy Season Tickets:

You can order them online:

You can order them over the phone:
Call BAM Ticket Services at 718.636.4100

You can order them by mail. You can download order forms here.

Note: you cannot buy season tickets in person at the box office—our box office is closed during the summer and isn’t set up to process these requests. If you’re looking for suggestions and guidance on shows and seating, you should call—one of our friendly phone operators can help you.

As always, let us know if you have any questions, and we’ll do our best to help you. If you’re a Next Wave junkie, then season tickets are a no-brainer. If you’re contemplating making the plunge, we can’t think of a better time to be a part of the largest Next Wave Festival ever.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

1978: BAM Theatre Company's Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot. Photo: Thomas Victor
There have been several star-driven New York productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Most recently, Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, John Goodman, and John Glover received positive reviews for the 2009 Roundabout Theater production at Studio 54 on Broadway. In 1988, the very high-profile Lincoln Center Theater off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot starred Robin Williams, Steve Martin, F. Murray Abraham, and Bill Irwin, and was directed by Mike Nichols. It was a much-debated production.

The BAM Theatre Company production of Godot in 1978 is one that also bears remembering. Based on a production in German that Beckett himself directed at BAM a year earlier, this one was directed by Beckett’s assistant, Walter D. Asmus, at the Lepercq Space. It starred Sam Waterston, Austin Pendleton, Milo O’Shea, and Michael Egan. Earlier this year, Pendleton spoke to the New York Post theater critic Elisabeth Vincentelli about his memorable experience:
"It was this production of 'Godot' that almost, literally, ended my acting career. Or, looked at it another way, saved it. Beckett had directed his own production of 'Godot' at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin the year before, in his own German translation. That production had been brought to BAM, in German, with the German actors, in 1977, and got some of the most astonishingly good reviews I've ever read. Frank [Dunlop] asked Beckett to come over and direct five American actors in his company in it. Beckett had no desire to set foot in the United States, but sent his assistant, a brilliant young German director named Walter Asmus, to reproduce his [Beckett's] work. And reproduce it Walter did, down to each gesture and each line reading, even though those readings were based on the German translation.

"The rehearsals were astoundingly contentious. I, for example, once climbed a tall ladder attached to the wall, and threatened to jump if Walter gave me one more direction. Gradually, though, we began, somehow, all of us to get on the same page (or at least in the same chapter) with Walter, who had been the Soul of Patience through this whole experience. Whereupon I began the second act thinking, well, what the hell, why don't I just let everything go and listen to Sam Waterston? So intent was I in trying to carry though the directions that I had never actually listened to Sam. Whereupon everything, all the directions, everything, became miraculously easy to do. The applause that night at the end was actually triple what it had been. And from that time on the run was like a very, very fine dream."
Still waiting....

Michael Messina, BAM Archives

Friday, June 15, 2012

Q&A with Keith Miller (director of Welcome to Pine Hill)

Keith Miller’s emotionally intimate new film, Welcome to Pine Hill, begins with a white man and a black man’s heated argument over the possession of a pit-bull puppy. This scenario has already inspired Prince/William, a short film Miller made two years ago with Pine Hill’s star, Shannon Harper. The “moody and mesmerizing” (Time Out New York) feature that grew out of the earlier short is a daring hybrid of narrative and non-fiction that has already won praise (and a Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Narrative at the Slamdance Film Festival) for its deft subversion of racial stereotypes and audience expectations.

But Miller intended more than a sociological treatise on race. Welcome to Pine Hill is an intensely personal and contemplative film that follows a former Brooklyn drug dealer’s search for redemption in the Catskill Mountains after receiving some devastating news. Miller spoke with us about the challenges of getting the film made and what he learned in the process of collaborating with Harper.

The film screens at BAMcinemaFest on Saturday, June 23 at 4:30pm, followed by a Q&A with Miller and Harper.

What drives you to make films?
Photograph by Robin Holland
The first thing is the practical side of telling stories cinematically: being on a set, working with actors and the crew, editing, all of it. I hope to address the real world in a way that challenges our expectations and ways of seeing existing conditions. Things can come to seem natural to us when really they’re created and can be changed. If a movie can move someone enough that they look at a person or a social reality in a slightly different way, then it seems worthwhile. At the same time the main goal for a movie is to tell a story in an emotionally clear and engaging way and do that so it feels like it matters. So I guess I’m driven to make movies because I feel like it’s a great way to take on these challenges and talk with people in a deep way, both during the shoot and on the screen.

What films have served as inspirations in your work?
Like all of us, the list is long so I will just name a few that come to mind and have a direct influence on Welcome to Pine Hill. Tarkovsky is always the first one since The Sacrifice was one of the first movies I saw that moved me in a deeply human and philosophical way. Newer movies are The Son and almost everything by the Dardenne Brothers; Japón and Carlos Reygadas’ films in general; Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life was really important to me for its radical naturalism and human engagement with the political; Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy was such a startling bit of clarity that it really feels like a master class on cinematic restraint. Even though Pine Hill looks nothing like it, the emotional clarity, conception of sound and visual style of Lucrecia Martel in La ciénega was also really influential on my thinking about film.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making Welcome to Pine Hill?
We were shooting really long takes—up to 45 minutes—with three cameras, in the hope that reality would spill into the process and the final film. That marathon-like approach is tiring physically and mentally. But it’s also risky because when reality spilled in, sometimes it was a little chaotic. There was only physical danger a few times, but it was a bit too much for some of the crew. The greater challenge was philosophical. Working with non-actors on a story very close to a number of different real life situations, I was very conscious of avoiding simplification and exploitation. Luckily, Shannon and I and the rest of the cast became very close. And my fellow members of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, who are about three quarters of the crew, are really conscious about that stuff and good at what they do, so the challenges were really great opportunities to push for serendipity and surprise ourselves with what could be possible.

You wrote a compelling piece in the Huffington Post about issues of race and the dilemma of being a white filmmaker telling a black man’s story. Were these issues you had been thinking about before you met Shannon Harper and decided to make a film with him, and how have your thoughts about race in American filmmaking changed in the process of shooting and promoting Welcome to Pine Hill?
Before I met Shannon I wasn’t looking for a way to make a movie about race. I had already begun to engage in films that intentionally disregarded the line between fact and fiction. While conceiving and shooting this movie I knew I wanted to make a movie that addressed race but that was, finally, not a movie about race. In terms of race and filmmaking and the promotion of film, well, that’s a loaded issue. The bottom line is this country has a race problem. I think we have in some ways made great strides, etc., but to deny those facts is to actively promote inequality and injustice. Locating the site of these things (racism, etc.) is sometimes not as easy as it was 60 years ago, but I think most of the time that’s a matter of sophistication of language and not a transformation of social conditions.

Place plays a central role in this film. Can you tell us about the process of choosing locations and any difficulties you encountered in shooting in those locations?
The movie is set in two distinct geographic worlds, and I hope that we understand certain things from them, about class and race and expectations. Place can also be understood as a way of defining who we are in our belief system and the belief system brought to bear upon us. For this movie the location sort of defines the main character. The external conditions were imposed and in many ways invisible. Each location makes Shannon a different person, which is why he is so complex (like all people). One of the central issues there is that these external conditions, the places—many of which I would guess are internalized- are always seen as ‘natural,’ the way things are. With the big news he gets it challenges him to interrogate those conditions, to de-naturalize them in a way. The move to the woods was an attempt to undo some of that.

Artful Neighborhood

Glen Baldridge's sunset display

No big news flash here: the neighborhood around BAM evolves daily. It’s not unusual to notice a missing facade, or a just-opened store, or a sidewalk bridge suddenly sheltering your pathway. But come next week, there will be several new elements around the BAM environs that will be very different and even more thought-provoking than usual—three large-scale art projects and a series of media boxes. The artists in BAMart: Outdoors, part of the institution’s 150th anniversary celebration, were selected by a jury through an open request-for-proposal and application process.

The three large artworks will be on or adjacent to the BAM Harvey Theater. Visitors to that venue are familiar with an open, paved site just to the right of the theater entrance at 651 Fulton Street. There, Timothy Hull and Future Expansion Architects (Nicholas and Deirdre McDermott) will install The Accelerated Ruin. Three foam mesa-topped peaks of gradually ascending height, made of a biodegradable, foam-like substance formed around rebar, comprise the piece. The shapes will erode over the course of an estimated year as the weather takes its toll, revealing the artwork’s skeleton and evoking themes of loss, memory, and transience. Its continuous transformation will engage neighbors and passersby in an experiential and visual give-and-take.