INTERVIEW: NANETTE BURSTEIN AND JORDAN ROBERTS
"We were struggling ourselves. Somebody could have been filming us."
| ||Producer Nanette Burstein|
Producers Nanette Burstein and Jordan Roberts talk about their series "Film School," a camera's-eye look at the struggles of four NYU film students to make their own films in the face of constant crisis.
By JOSHUA TANZER
IFC's "Film School" brought Nanette Burstein and Jordan Roberts back to where their own stories started New York University film school to produce a reality series about four film students' struggles to make their own student films. Burstein, director of "On the Ropes" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture," said she wanted to make a "docu-series," with a documentary-film concept but an episodic structure. IFC jumped at the idea, and camera crews were dispatched to follow students Leah Meyerhoff, Alrick Brown, Vincenzo Tripodo and Barbara Klauke. Unlike typical "reality" shows, she points out, the events of "Film School" aren't contrived for the show they would be happening with or without the cameras turned on. It's reality reality TV.
Burstein and Roberts sat down with three reporters to talk about their series in IFC's Midtown offices. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
|NANETTE BURSTEIN AND JORDAN ROBERTS|
Related links: Official site
|IFC Independent Film Channel|
Fridays at 10:30 p.m.
Starts Sept. 10, 2004
| RELATED ARTICLES|
IFC's 10-part reality series turns its own lenses on four NYU film students constantly on the edge of disaster as they try to organize and complete their own films.
The NYU graduate talks about film school and "Film School," the IFC documentary series about four students' struggles to get their student projects made.
Q: Alrick said the greatest thing he said that he felt he was chosen because he had a story to tell. The others also stuck out as very interesting individual characters, so is that the reason you chose them?
BURSTEIN: Mainly it was that they were interesting characters and they had a good story to tell. I mean, Leah [Meyerhoff], the woman who was changing her hair color all the time, was on this intense journey of reliving her past and trying to use film as a way of developing a relationship with her estranged mother, who had multiple sclerosis. Casting your mother in a movie about your dark past is a pretty crazy thing to do. And plus, she's very charismatic even though she can be a mean person at times, she can really win you over.
Q: The mother or Leah?
BURSTEIN: Leah. The mother, she was a really nice woman and she gave a lot to do that for her daughter. You could tell, she really wanted to just make her happy. When they started shooting the film, it's pretty intense what happened between the mother and daughter.
And Alrick, he's so charming and he wants to change the world. And not in a preachy way he's the real deal, you know? He was in the Peace Corps in Africa in some tiny little village, trying to teach them English and help them with their lives. And you know, a lot of people go to film school and say, "Oh, I want to change the world," but you can tell, he had dedicated his life prior to that to really trying to have an effect in social change. And he wasn't doing it in a preachy way either he was edgy. "The Adventures of Super Nigger" right when he said the title it was like, "Oh! What's that?" And it was a comic-book story that was an allegory for the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. You know, that right there is pretty interesting.
And then Vincenzo [Tripodo], who was 35 years old. He had a whole other career, an opera director successful, at that. He gave it all up and moved to New York City to "ride the tiger," as he said. He said, "You either ride the tiger or the tiger will eat you." He had tremendous financial burdens, especially being an international student. And as you saw, his journey to try to raise money for his film is just full of folly, with these blond producers who try to help him. He gets a taste of Hollywood but not what he had intended.
| ||"We're having meetings at night going, 'Shit, what happens if Vincenzo [drops out]? Let's get backup people! Let's do this! Let's do that!' And Vincenzo's, like, freakin' out and doing Vincenzo things. At the same time, for some reason, in the back of his head, he knew he was going to pull it off."|
| || Jordan Roberts|
And then Barbara [Krauke], who is the ultimate underdog. She's very insecure. You know, Mick, who's a writing professor there, says there's a lot of people like Barbara out there insecure, original ideas but you rarely see them try to make a movie. Because she has to overcome that. She talks about it she was the kid in school who got made fun of all the time, so she retreated into herself. But out of that comes, you know, the crazy kind of Charlie Kaufman-type stories. So she's trying to make a movie with a monkey in it. Like, of all things, that makes your life even more complicated. She needs a monkey, she needs a mall, she needs an actor, and a week before production she has none of those.
Q: A monkey and a mall?
BURSTEIN: Yes. It's about a really insecure security guard who is in love with this woman. And suddenly this monkey who has escaped from a zoo shows up in his apartment, and he starts becoming more and more like the monkey. And in the end he gets fired from his job and retreats into this safari and he's one of the monkeys.
ROBERTS: He's happier living amongst the monkeys than he is amongst people. And it was really good. It was really good!
BURSTEIN: And it was such a metaphor for her life. I mean a security guard that's like becoming a director, trying to have to be this aggressive person, and you're not, and you just want to retreat into the netherland of the monkeys.
ROBERTS: All of the students they all have their passions and their individuality, and different stories. But all of them, this is the most important thing in their lives. So they share that common bond. This is serious business to all of them. It's kind of life or death to them.
BURSTEIN: Do or die! They're constantly on the brink of major disaster.
Q: I was surprised to see Vincenzo show up with a camera and a crew and actually start filming.
ROBERTS: And a crane!
BURSTEIN: Yeah, and a crane! And a 35 mm! Unbelievable!
Q: Where did he find his producers?
BURSTEIN: He was putting up fliers everywhere, he was desperate, and someone said, "Call this woman." And, you know, I think they were interested because they didn't have a lot of experience and I think they loved the fact that they were being filmed on television you know, it was a good opportunity. And they charmed Vincenzo, and I think he, not having been so experienced in this world, thought, "Whoa! This woman really is going to be able to raise me $30,000 in two weeks. You know, she's going out to L.A ... she's got connections with Warner Brothers ... she knows someone who knows Ted Turner ... I really think she can do it." And of course, you know, she comes back with a $20 bill autographed by Henry Winkler and another $100 from Gil Cates. It's like a week before he's supposed to shoot. It's like everyone is constantly on the verge of disaster.
ROBERTS: And we always thought Vincenzo could be gone at any minute. We stuck with him, but he was always literally on the edge, and he always felt on the edge but Vincenzo is, like, used to that. You know, as dramatic as he is, he always somehow in the back of his mind knows he's going to pull it off. And you know we didn't think so, and we're having meetings at night going, "Shit, what happens if Vincenzo [drops out]? Let's get backup people! Let's do this! Let's do that!" And Vincenzo's, like, freakin' out and doing Vincenzo things. At the same time, for some reason, in the back of his head, he knew he was going to pull it off.
BURSTEIN: Even at the end, like at the very last episode when you think all is lost for him, he totally surprises you. I mean, it's awesome. And he says I forget which episode, two or three or four he says, "I never had anything easy in my life. I've always, always had to struggle." So, as Jordan said, he's used to it. But we're not! I mean we're used to it for ourselves, but we're like, "Oh my God, this guy, forget it. We need backups! Who else can we talk to?" And that was kind of happening with all the subjects. We never knew if all of them were going to end up dropping out and we would need completely new people. And we were like, "Can we go over budget?" You know, we were struggling ourselves. Somebody could have been filming us.
Q: How many people did you look at?
BURSTEIN: Well, there's only 36 students in each class, and we wanted people who were going for their second or third year you know, big films. So we probably interviewed 30 people. But the great thing is, NYU does this great pre-selection process for us, because they already pick people who are interesting, who are diverse, who have some talent, and purposely they pick people who don't have a lot of experience because they're there to learn. If you've already made a feature, they're like, why do you want to go to school here? So that alone is like, they're these great casting directors for us, just in the student body they've chosen. They actually wanted us to shoot it except it wasn't part of our story, but the selection process is really intense. Apparently, because there's such a large number of people that apply because anyone thinks, "Hey, let's go to film school," you know it's harder to get into NYU grad film school than it is Harvard Law School. Because Joe Schmoe is not going to apply to Harvard Law School. But he might to NYU film school. [Laughter]
Q: Being an NYU film graduate and then going out into the real world and making documentaries that were very successful, were you guys behind the scenes looking at this going, like, "Wow, these guys are doing it much worse than I ever did," or, "My God, this is exactly what I went through. It's so interesting to see it from an objective, director's point of view"?
|"It's like this little bubble where they can do whatever they want artistically. And I remember that, and it's a great bubble to be in."|| |
| Nanette Burstein|| |
BURSTEIN: Yeah, I think we all went through it, and what's great about it is, it's always something different and unexpected, what they end up going through. Like, I never expected Vincenzo's fund-raising experience to be like that. We all had crazy experiences, but they're all unique in their own way, which is what makes film so interesting. But yeah, I personally felt like, God, I've been there and done that. And I'm glad I'm here. [Laughter]
ROBERTS: And you know, we became such good friends with them. And it is [true], you want to kind of [say], "Hey do it this way." We were constantly walking the line on how much you want to help them, or when they're asking for help.
Q: Did they ask for help directly?
BURSTEIN: Sometimes. Not like "Give me money." [Laughter]
ROBERTS: No, it wasn't ever a number, just more advice.
BURSTEIN: Like how do you do a budget. Like, hey, there's this software program! They're like, "Oooooooh!" Like their whole world opened up when they learned Movie Magic. They're like, "Oh my God! You could actually schedule your shoot!"
ROBERTS: I met with Vincenzo a lot during his whole traumatic "What if we don't have the money" thing, working with Jen and Parker and all that. He came in just to talk about this world of "What if I don't get the money" or "How do I make sure I have the money?"
BURSTEIN: What was genius was, Jen and Parker, his producers, after having been fired from the job, said, "We'll finance your film." And Vincenzo came in to talk to us and he was like, "Should I take them up on this?" We're like, "Are you crazy? Of course you should! Are you nuts? How else are you going to make your movie? Go with it, let them finance your film, and make the movie you want."
ROBERTS: Because Vincenzo had already fired Parker
BURSTEIN: Like, three times! With a translator!
ROBERTS: Yeah, and he was so caught up in this world that he didn't know if he could even take the money. He was just in this chaotic state and he came to the office pretty much panicked. And I said, "Well, it sounds like you're in a pretty good place right now. They want to put up the money for the film." And Vincenzo just went, "Oh, you know, you're right!"
BURSTEIN: [With Italian accent] You are right! Let's do it! Okay! Let's go!
ROBERTS: You know, you cringe at it, and we'd both been through film school so we'd been through a lot of the same type different things, but we struggled through it and we made the mistakes. And you know they'd have to go through it for themselves to get anywhere.
Q: Looking back, having had some success in filmmaking now, how do you feel about your own experience in film school? And has making this series changed how you feel about it?
ROBERTS: Well, my experience of film school was terrific, because I was focused on making the project I loved. I was surrounded by creativity. I made some contacts there. Since then, there's a lot of other factors that come into play in the filmmaking game. But I was definitely able to get my chops up, decide that I did want to be a filmmaker, which is a big thing, because I think it's a stressful world and that was the time to explore that.
Since then, in watching this series, I feel the same way. These are people who are trying to make something that they believe in, and striving for it and believing in it. And watching them do it is very inspiring, in a lot of ways. I mean, I loved it when Alrick's actually putting his ass on the line there, and Vincenzo's succeeding, and Leah's doing her bit with her mom. You know, it's very inspiring to see ideals and passions coming to life, and film school's the environment to do that.
BURSTEIN: Yeah. I think what's great about it is that they don't have to deal with the real world of real filmmaking yet no one's telling you, "Okay, this is your demographic," or, "You need to cast this kind of actor," or, "You need a star." It's not that. It's like, whatever your vision is, you can do. And so even though they struggle with amateur crews and struggle to get money and get decent actors and learn how to become a filmmaker, it's like this little bubble where they can do whatever they want artistically. And I remember that, and it's a great bubble to be in.
|SEPTEMBER 11, 2004|
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