By Callie Oettinger | Published: October 1, 2010
Jeff Lipsky is the writer and director of the films Childhood’s End (co-starring Tony Award nominee Sam Trammell), Flannel Pajamas (about which Roger Ebert wrote: “One of the wisest films I can remember about love and human intimacy. I will not forget it.”), and Twelve Thirty (Jan. 2011 theatrical release, starring Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Portia Reiners, Reed Birney and Karen Young), and the director of Once More With Feeling (co-starring Chazz Palminteri, Drea de Matteo and Linda Fiorentino). He co-founded the film distribution companies October Films and Lot 47 films, and has shepherded over 200 films to market, including John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, Lasse Hallström’s My Life as a Dog, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, and legendary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker’s Academy Award nominate documentary The War Room.
You started your film career in distribution, when you and your mentor, actor/writer/director John Cassavetes distributed his 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence—”the first time an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors.” Since then, you’ve shepherded over 200 films into the marketplace. How do you know what will work? What audiences will respond to?
The worst kept secret in the film business, even on the independent side of the business, is that no one knows what will work, myself included. There certainly are no thematic sure things, although in the past, under duress, I used to suggest that sex sells a film (sex, lies & videotape), food sells a film (Big Night), sex enmeshed with food (Like Water for Chocolate), British costume dramas are a lead pipe cinch, even when they’re not very good (Young Victoria), and classical music stories (Tous les matins du monde) can’t miss. But now that everyone gets a daily dose of porn on line, their food fix on a plethora of cable television shows, and Tower Records closed up shop, there are no sure things. The only thing we know for certain is that films, be they dramas or docs, whose backdrops are of the wars we’re currently fighting in the Middle East, will fail at the box office, even if they win the Best Picture Oscar (The Hurt Locker). And this isn’t strictly as a consequence of the “too soon” factor. WWII was a “popular” war. The films that emerged during and just after that conflict reflected that patriotic popularity. And the war wasn’t fought on television. Vietnam tinged films that were successful traded on explicit sexuality (Coming Home) and drugs, sex, rock and roll, and classic novels (Apocalypse Now) or were three-hour epics, half of which weren’t even set ‘in country’ (The Deer Hunter).
Another fact is that $50 million in advertising and marketing money will sell anything (yes, even The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when ancillary and international revenues are folded in. It never fails to amaze how often veteran pundits declare this or that studio film a write-off on the basis of domestic theatrical box office numbers. I suppose that’s because those are the only real numbers readily available to them. The other revenue results are better protected by the studios than government state secrets).
But I feel all of this is good news for independents. Who would have predicted that the year’s highest-grossing, pure independent film to date would be Winter’s Bone, a star-less drama about a young mother in hillbilly country, trying to locate her abusive, criminal husband so she doesn’t lose her home, a glorified shack in the Appalachian Mountains? It also just happens to be the best film to have been released this year. Look at how a documentary whose star never even appears on screen is one of the highest-grossing non-fiction films of the year (Exit Through the Gift Shop).
As an executive, I can only ask myself three questions in determining whether a film merits a year of my professional life bringing it into market. One: Do I love the film, am I passionate about it? Two: Do I feel I know how to market it? Three: Will the deal to acquire the distribution rights put my company at risk if it fails? If the answer to any one of these questions is unacceptable, then I can only assume that audiences won’t respond to the movie (or at least I hope they won’t, otherwise I could have made a killing!).
You have a track record for identifying and working with unknown film makers (Wayne Wang, Mike Leigh, Guillermo del Toro,) actors and actresses (Sam Trammel, Julianne Nicholson, Jonathan Groff), when they were still developing their “voices.” How do you know what—and who—has “it.”
The independent moviegoing audience has also been enamored of discovering new stylists, new modes of using style to tell a story, much more than they ever have been enraptured by brilliant classical filmmakers and filmmaking (see: John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, Eric Rohmer). But young filmmakers often are tripped up by repeated revolutionary styles; what was once original, merely becomes eccentric and rote, whereas great classical filmmaker endures.
Look at the first film of Jim Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise. Critics still love his newer films, not so much audiences. Or Hal Hartley’s bracing, brilliant The Unbelievable Truth. Even the critics turned against him when he made his next equally wonderful film Trust in the same loopy fashion, using much of the same uniquely daffy cast (Adrienne Shelley). Steven Soderbergh has never been able to repeat the theatrical success of his very stylish sex, lies & videotape, even though he never used to repeat himself— even though his early works were always marked by distinctive cinematic flair (The Limey). And where is Whit Stillman anyway (Metropolitan)? So, for this reason and many more, a great young director’s first film is like manna from heaven for independent distributors (and for the purpose of this dialog, I don’t consider major studio “boutique” divisions, like Fox Searchlight, independent distributors). The films are audience discoveries, critics choices, inexpensive to make, and even less expensive for independent distributors to acquire. Some examples of the first films that I’ve been fortunate enough to shepherd into the marketplace are Chan Is Missing (Wayne Wang), High Hopes (Mike Leigh), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi), Newsfront (Phillip Noyce), Cronos (Guillermo del Toro), The War Zone (Tim Roth), and L.I.E. (Michael Cuesta).
In film distribution, you’re known for untraditional approaches, but with your own screenplays, your themes are traditional—family, relationships, love . . . What draws you to them?
It’s quite simple, actually, and to put it properly, my recurring themes are love, family, and sexuality. These are the three phases, or transitions, in life that every human being on the planet shares. We are not all hit men, gang members, aliens (undocumented or from another planet), presidents, or dictators—so we can’t as readily identify. As much as Bonnie & Clyde is a love story, about relationships and family and sexuality, those identifiers, in this case, are tempered by the fact that the “plot” story is about cold-blooded killers (or tragic, desperate victims of a terrible time in our country’s history). Perhaps that’s why I prefer plotless, dialogue-driven stories. I find they endure and that, incorporating my three themes, a character, a situation, a moment, or that character’s entire arc, should be identifiable to everyone, in a kind of you-are there, or you-were-there, or I-get-it-that’s-me, I-know-how-to-solve-that-person’s-problem, I-know-what’s-going-to-happen-to-her-and-I’m-going-to-start-to-cry-because-it-happened-to-me, but-it-doesn’t-and-you-cry-anyway, but-they-are-tears-of-joy kind of way.
Anyone can write, take a picture, or shoot a scene. But only a few do it well. What’s the difference? Is it born talent? Practice? Mix? How has your own writing developed?
I write and direct films. I can’t load film into a camera, I can’t properly read the wave forms of a high-def camera, I can’t record sound on a DAT, I can’t erect a china ball if a gaffer demands it. I didn’t attend film school, in any formal way. Writing and directing good films I firmly believe are organic, genetic or, if you will, God-given skills. But there must be some linchpin or catalyst that comes into play for every artist (excuse the pompous designation) to allow those intuitive skills to emerge. So, I suppose, in a sense, it did require attending film school. My film school began by spending countless hours in movie theatres growing up rather than doing my homework. Graduate school was opting to become a film distributor and work alongside not just Cassavetes and Leigh but nearby Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog, Hallström, and Louis Malle, some of whose films I got to work on, all of whom I spent some or a great deal of time with. I strongly feel that every film I make (but not every script I wrote) is better than my previous film, and that with each film I become a better filmmaker. It sounds a bit twee, but I would never want to make a perfect film because then there would be nothing left to learn. And, believe me, I’ve never made a perfect film.
When you’re pushing through a project, how do you focus, what helps you move through it?
The most daunting thing I face during the writing process is that my most-inspired ideas come when I’m in motion—walking down the street, riding on the subway, sweating on the Stairmaster, never while I’m inert, sitting at a word processor, constipated fingers poised over a keyboard. Honestly, my best and most fluid writing tends to happen without thinking about it. That is to say, when I awaken at 5:00 AM, I will make a concerted effort to take a seat at my computer desk literally by 5:01 AM. Over-analyzing, over-thinking, self-doubts . . . they don’t have time to sink in, to tether my imagination, to kill my spirit. When I begin writing at 5:01 AM, I can generate ten new script pages in an hour. When I take a seat after lunch, I belch writer’s block.
Practically speaking, I never show unfinished scripts to friends, colleagues, family, or any of the other trusted believers in my life. Much like I prefer not having a monitor on set when I’m shooting (I’ve been lucky to have shot three of my four features on film, not digital), I don’t want a filter or feedback while something is still in utero, as to speak. Even words of (faint?) praise can stop a story in its tracks when it is leavened with an entirely different perspective, a new perspective, a second subjective perspective. My scripts are for me, my films are for everyone.
In your own writing, how do you know when you’ve hit that “it” moment, when you can stop editing, when you’re done?
When I finish a script, and I tend to write eccentrically but using a linear outline from the get-go, I read it and know immediately that it can be made into a good film. I seldom write entire revisions or drafts. I will add scenes, delete scenes, add lines of dialog, or delete them, but if you look at the first draft of any film I actually make, it will bear a striking similarity to the first draft of the screenplay. That said, changes are made, I’d say, up to two days before the start of principal photography. Often those changes result in hearing professional actors, during the audition process, speaking my words for the first time, out loud. Even at this early stage I’ll see a side of a character I didn’t realize even existed and requires a bit of amplification, shading, or further developing. Or I’ll hear a line that in my head, a hundred times, sounded legendary, but that now rings hollow, clunky, or inchoate. I don’t think my writing is finished until the film is finished, but in broad strokes, it’s finished the very first time I read the words THE END.
You’re known for your dialogue. In fact, you collect dialogue—as lines come to you, you write them down for future use. How do you track the material you’ve collected, and pull it together?
True, I wind up with hundreds or a thousand scraps of people filled with random lines of dialog before I enter them on my hard drive. I don’t track the material in any way until the linear outline of the film, until the scene-by-scene structure is completed (even if the script, like Flannel Pajamas, contains one hundred and seventy one scenes). Once the outline is complete, a very logical process seems to take over; a fragment of dialog that might have lost all of its meaning to me weeks after it had first popped into my head now absolutely seems to be appropriate for this or that turning point in the story structure. So that ragged slice of paper gets put into the scene seven pile, and once every last line has been “organized,” and I begin to transcribe the scribbled musings onto the page, what should come before and what should come after, out of the mouths of my characters becomes evident, and if it’s 5:01 or 5:02 in the morning, the balance of the words flow like fast, hot lava. (I promise I’ll never write those words into one of my scripts.)
What film makers have most inspired your work and why?
John Cassavetes, for his effortless dialog, for the love with which he imbues his characters, for making it easy for a 17-year-old viewer to understand the first taste of mortality in a 40-year-old.
Mike Leigh, for his weird, delicious clashing of causticity and lovable oddballs, for not profaning the English language, for devising some of the most loving couples I’ve ever seen on screen.
Ingmar Bergman, for redefining the absolute and essential need for family, for his use of color, for his use of black and white, for his woman, for his island.
Woody Allen, for being perhaps the greatest American filmmaker ever. That’s a bold statement, but if you review his entire body of work, while some other great directors can rival him for ten or fifteen years, he’s been doing it for five decades and, in the process, has created over a dozen masterpieces and a dozen other near masterpieces.
You’ve dedicated your new film, Twelve Thirty, to Simon Channing-Williams, who was another of your mentors. How did he and Cassavetes inspire your film making?
I met John while I was in college. His film Husbands, which I’d seen when I was 17, changed my life and altered the way I looked at film, forever. Had another filmmaker’s work so enraptured, affected, and transformed me, what would the odds have been that I would have even had the opportunity to meet him or her? Or that it would have been an American filmmaker? Or that the filmmaker would have been uncompromising with their art, and so full of zest and so optimistic about humanity? But John was unique. He was a real friend, at once generous with his time, his talent, his money. He became my mentor. I worked for him for six years and remained a friend, and acolyte, for the last 18 years of his life. He literally taught me how to write dialog. Personally, I feel that that particular skill came so naturally to him because he was such an extraordinary and intuitive actor. He was always on but his heart was always present. John’s films were love stories and he was one of the few filmmakers, be they men or women, in history who consistently created vibrant, three-dimensional, multi-layered parts for women. His muse was his wife so that likely also made it a bit easier to conjure up such indelible, fictional women. But John was a sponge. I’m sure there is some of me in Opening Night, in Love Streams, in Gloria, just as there is some of everyone John ever befriended in so many of his beloved characters. John made his movies in his own house; I maintain he didn’t do it out of laziness or penury but because it was a comfortable environment for his stock cast and his stock crew and it allowed him one, two more hours each day to shoot, every minute of which was precious.
Simon passed away last year; even now I don’t deserve to walk on the same planet on which he lived. He was bigger than life, he was singularly responsible for the existence of my first distribution company, October Films. He volunteers help while other people run around begging for favors. He anticipates the needs of his friends and then, surprisingly, he trumps those needs with offers of even more assistance. He did for me. He made me feel like family, like I could and would achieve anything. At his memorial service, more a lively celebration of his life of his life and career than a wake, so many elegant, gracious speakers, family and friends, shared disparate stories about Simon, but they all contained commonalities. Every story, every anecdote, at some juncture, was adorned, punctuated, sweetened with tales of drinking wine and much, much laughter. An hour-long montage of clips from the films Simon produced was prepared and screened, and my film Flannel Pajamas, which Simon executive produced, was included. Definitely one of the greatest, and most humbling moments of my life. There are dozens of artists qualified to write Simon’s biography. Each would be startlingly different and each would be shockingly similar, and each would be a Valentine to a man whose abilities were limitless, who could put his rivals, colleagues, contemporaries to shame but never would, and a man who balanced his oversized life with the delicacy of a ballerina. How can one’s work not be inspired by having known two such men as John and Simon?
Twelve Thirty is being presented at the Salem (Oregon) Film Festival, October 14th and 15th. Jeff Lipsky will attend to introduce the film and host a Q&A.