Tag Archives: New Directors/New Films

Falling In (and Sometimes Out of) Love, the Filmmaker Way

Not that long ago I went to an event near my home, Midsummer Night Swing. It’s put on every summer by Lincoln Center. They erect a dance floor in one of the plazas, invite some amazing musicians to perform danceable music of many genres (swing, merengue, salsa, disco and more), and let the paying public on the dance floor while a whole other dance scene takes place beyond the dance floor. There is a lot of joy concentrated around Lincoln Center when Midsummer Night Swing is happening.

Dancers at Midsummer Night Swing.
Dancers at Midsummer Night Swing.

I started attending Midsummer Night Swing when I first moved into this neighborhood. It inspired a screenplay, Wigs by Coco (1999), that was set in the then burgeoning swing revival scene, and later it inspired Tango Octogenario (2003). I went several nights this year, but anticipated tango night most of all. I had hoped I would see an old friend, Alex Turney, one of the stars of Tango Octo.

And I did. Alex is in his 90s now, not as spry as when we filmed him and his wife, Jean, who died several years ago. But he was still on the dance floor. I yelled his name and he and the person he was with, an attractive woman of about 40, turned. (Alex is beloved and has many people who check in on him and take him where he needs to go, whether that’s a doctor’s appointment or a milonga.) They found me on the perimeter of the dance floor — I was not one of the paying public. He didn’t recognize me at first, but when I repeated my name and added “the filmmaker” it came back to him. He began to gush about me to his companion in superlatives that make me uncomfortable. But what touched me most was when he began quoting lines from the press materials I used to send out. (Alex requested every little Tango Octo thing that I created, postcards, poster, stills, press kit.) Alex said, “’the portrayal of seniors as active, vibrant, and independent is a much-needed antidote to the stereotypical representations of America’s graying population.’ Who writes such a beautiful thing? Can you believe it?” Alex is quite the sweet talker.

David Licata, producer Tom Razzano, choreographer Nancy Turano. Seated, Alex and Jean Turney
David Licata, producer Tom Razzano, choreographer Nancy Turano. Seated, Alex and Jean Turney

I once heard Alex say, “Tango is a three-minute love affair.” One might say the same thing about making a film. You work very intensely with people, you share meals, war stories, secrets, and then suddenly it ends, and you’re on another set with another crew where it happens again. It lasts longer than three minutes, but it’s still pretty brief. I’m not sure if people who are born with that tendency gravitate to the profession or if they become that way because of the profession. This happens with documentary filmmakers as well, often with their subjects. Filmmakers woo them to be in their film, lavish attention on them, making them feel special. We share our secrets with them and get the subjects to share their secrets in front of a camera.

And then we leave. And what’s worse, the trust we established with our subjects is violated, because we reveal all those secrets to the world, edited in a way they can’t control with moving pictures over their words they did not intend to be there. It’s part of the deal, and if you can’t stomach it, documentary filmmaking is not for you. Sometimes I have a difficult time stomaching it.

Anywho, note that I did write “some.” I know many filmmakers who develop lasting relationships with their subjects and crew. I happen to think I’m one of those filmmakers. Alex Turney and I, we are bound for as long as life will allow. He knew that and expressed it once he saw the finished film at New Directors/New Films. We don’t see each other frequently, and mostly that’s my fault, but judging by the way Alex held my hands that night, frequency isn’t an issue.

It’s the same with the subjects of A Life’s Work. I like to think that we will be linked for a good many years and, in my fantasy world, the subjects are also entwined, though they’ve never met each other. (Yet!)

This tight bond the work creates, it’s one of my favorite things about filmmaking and compensates for the less savory aspects. I don’t know that I’d do it if that weren’t part of the deal.

Coda: I started writing this July 17. On July 18th, I was surprised to learn William Swearson was stopping in NYC for a couple of days. I met Will on the second SETI shoot in 2007, while he was spending his summer in the SETI REU program (Research Experience for Undergraduates). I offered him my couch and he took me up on it. Will is one of the students I stayed in touch with and he contributed one of the most moving posts on this blog. We had a swell evening full of good food and stimulating conversation.

Coda coda: On July 19th I received an email from someone putting on a tango event in NYC on July 20th. They wanted to screen Tango Octogenario. Alex Turney was to be present and I was invited to attend. I did. It was a small affair. Alex and I sat in the front row, and afterwards answered a couple of questions. When it was over I said goodbye, hugged Alex, and as is his way, he kissed me on the cheek. I love that.

Here’s Alex and Jean and I after I called “that’s a wrap” (there is no sound) and a clip of me thanking Paolo Soleri for sitting down to speak with me.  You can read more about this clip in this post.

See also: The Most Wonderful Thing in the World


cross-posted on http://www.extracriticum.com and
The Film Society of Lincoln Center blog.

People who know me well will tell you that I’m modest. But there is one thing I’ll drop without hesitation: I directed a film that screened at New Directors/New Films, a showcase presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. ND/NF showed the early films of Pedro Almodovar, John Sayles, Atom Egoyan, Sally Potter, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar Wai, Guillermo del Torro* — and those are just the filmmakers I love. There are quite a few more directors on the roster that are now household names, including that guy who made Jaws and E.T. and a few others.

Official acceptance letter.

ND/NF was by far the most enjoyable screening experience of my film career. They invited me to a tech run. They had a press screening. They were one of a handful of festivals that projected a 35mm print of the film. It looked glorious and sounded amazing at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, the premiere art house theater in NYC and my favorite place to watch a film. (It’s also three blocks from my home.) Other festivals may have had better swag, but ND/NF treated the films like works of art and the filmmakers like artists. Honestly, the way to my heart is not through my stomach. No, call me an artist and I’m yours. And as if to prove that they respected the filmmaker as an artist, in addition to screening the films at the art house, they also screened them at MoMA.**

Publication of written work, screenings at film festivals, acceptance into artist residencies, they’re all great validations, and certainly, ND/NF was that, to the Nth degree. I mean, something I created was going to be in MoMA? Can there be more of a boost to an artist’s ego than that?

But more than this validation, ND/NF gave me a sense that I belonged, that I was on the right track, and most important of all it gave me the confidence to tackle a bigger, more ambitious project, A Life’s Work. So, thank you, thank you, thank you fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (you know who you are), I cannot express how grateful I am for your support.

New Directors/New Films takes place March 23-April 3, 2011. Tickets are still available for select screenings. Why not go and show your love for some up and coming filmmakers. Then you can say, “I saw his/her work when…”

*To celebrate its 40th year, indieWire is featuring videos of filmmakers talking about their ND/NF experiences. To see the awesome Guillermo del Toro, click here.

** The year Tango Octogenario screened at ND/NF, MoMA was having a face lift, so the film actually screened at the Gramercy Theater, which was the official MoMA theater until the re-model was finished.

Celena Cipriaso interviewed me about my ND/NF experience for the  Arts America blog.

Bigger, Longer, Better

“The trajectory is right,” my friend H. said to me years ago about my filmmaking career.

At a recent dinner with my friend S. we discussed what we wanted for our artistic lives in 2011: “I just want the trajectory to keep going up,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be steep, a little incline is okay.”

Seems obvious. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? But what does it mean for a filmmaker and/or writer to be on a desirable trajectory?

There is the obvious: 8½ x 11’s budget was x, its running time 9 minutes, it was shot on 16mm film, and it screened at 10 film festivals. Tango Octogenario came in at x+y, ran 7 minutes (ooops), was filmed on glorious 35mm film, and screened at 33 film festivals around the world and on a number of PBS stations. That’s a desirable trajectory.

But I am misleading you, because really, after 8½ x 11, I wasn’t thinking bigger, longer, more viewers; what I really wanted to do was make a better film. And I think I did with Tango Octogenario. This is why when the film was first completed and it wasn’t getting shown ANYWHERE, I was totally flummoxed. Festivals wanted to show 8½ x 11, so did TV stations. Why wasn’t anyone interested in Tango Octo when it was so obviously (to me) better?

It took a few months and many rejections before a festival took a chance on Tango Octogenario. Fortunately, the festival that took a chance was New Directors/New Films, a film showcase put on by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. After that, the film took off and suddenly many festivals wanted to show it. Some even waived their application fee. Imagine that.

And A Life’s Work? Budget x + y + z. Feature-length running time. The SD DV format is not as glamorous as 35mm film, but it’s a documentary; what it lacks in the format department it makes up for in the amount of footage department. Total footage of both of my previous films: under two hours. Total footage of A Life’s Work: over one hundred hours. Will it find a larger audience than Tango? I hope so.

The big question: will it be better?

Better is subjective, of course, and sometimes a work’s author is not its best judge, but from my subjective point of view, yes, it will be better.

So I’m happy to say A Life’s Work is on the right trajectory.