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25 NEW FACES OF INDEPENDENT FILM
Filmmaker's 10th annual survey of new talent. Page 5 of 5.

AASID MANDVI. RICHARD KOEK

Aasif Mandvi

You know him best as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart‘s senior Middle East correspondent, but there‘s more to Aasif Mandvi than a quick delivery and well-tailored suit. The comedian and character actor is now in production on the indie film 7 to the Palace, which he co-wrote and stars in.

Having acted since he was a kid in Bradford, England, Mandvi (who was born in Bombay, India) and his parents moved to Tampa, Fla., when he was a teen. He earned a theater scholarship to the University of South Florida and later moved to New York City where he honed his chops off-Broadway before breaking through with an acclaimed one-man show, Sakina‘s Restaurant, in 1998, which won an Obie award. “That changed things for me,” he says of the show. “It let me go back and forth from L.A. and New York doing stuff on TV and film,” he says. “I‘m fortunate that my career has progressed in a nice rise.”

With credits including Jericho, Sex and the City, Analyze This, The Sopranos and Freedomland, most of the time Mandvi was typecast as an Indian doctor. “It‘s ironic, my mom wanted me to be a doctor,” he jokes. But now as the fresh face of fake news Mandvi has been given opportunities to develop his own ideas.

He‘s in the works on a pilot at Comedy Central in addition to 7 to the Palace, a comedy loosely based on Sakina‘s Restaurant. Co-written with former Daily Show writer Jonathan Bines and directed by David Kaplan (Year of the Fish), Mandvi plays Samir, an Indian cook who must end his aspirations of being a French chef to reluctantly run his father‘s Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights. “For me it‘s [about] the image of manhood in Western culture from the perspective of an immigrant,” he explains. Struggling to find financing for more than seven years, Mandvi says The Daily Show, which he‘s been a correspondent on since 2006, certainly helped get the project off the ground. “Everyone in Hollywood watches it,” he adds.

Mandvi will star next in the Ricky Gervais comedy Ghost Town (yes, as a doctor) and The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, but he‘s trying not to stay in one particular genre. “I go back and forth from comedy to drama,” he says. “I‘m never in one camp too long. The Daily Show is like a huge comedy camp and hopefully I‘m a better writer and actor because of it.” And hopefully less doctor roles now? “Exactly. But now everyone wants me to play a journalist.” — Jason Guerrasio

Contact: Lillian LaSalle at Sweet 180: (212) 541-4443

 

DAVID & NATHAN ZELLNER. PHOTO BY: JENNY HART

David & Nathan Zellner

With this inclusion on the 25, Filmmaker is officially adding a new subcategory to its yearly survey of breaking talent: the “filmmakers who should have been on the list in the five previous years but inexplicably weren‘t.” In 2008, David and Nathan Zellner occupy this spot. Since 1997 the Austin, Tex.-based writer-directors have been making and starring in idiosyncratic comedies made on the cheap with their own local support group of technicians and collaborators. The brothers started with a couple of features (1997‘s Plastic Utopia and 2001‘s Frontier) but soon switched to an increasingly acclaimed run of shorts, which included three consecutive Sundance selections (Flotsam/Jetsam, Redemptitude and Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane).

But perhaps it‘s appropriate that we‘re spotlighting the Zellners now because their return to feature filmmaking, Goliath, feels like something new while retaining the duo‘s boho absurdism. The tale of an emotionally distraught office worker recovering from a divorce and searching for his lost cat, Goliath is funny, unexpectedly violent and emotionally devastating.

Of their strategy to step away from features for several years, David Zellner writes in an e-mail: “The whole reason we went back to shorts was because we‘d made a couple of tiny features that never really went anywhere. Making so many shorts was great because there was little investment in terms of time and money; it was easier to take chances and try different things as we honed our skills. Eventually we felt ready to properly tackle a feature and do it justice. We had some larger projects that we weren‘t able to secure financing for just yet, but had a small window of time where we could pool together resources and make Goliath happen.”

Of Goliath‘s newly found emotional frankness, David continues, “What we really wanted to do with this film was straddle the line between humor and pathos without going to the extremes of being maudlin on one end or condescending on the other. And even though there are some absurdist elements to the film, we didn‘t want to shy away from the darker and more human moments as they presented themselves. Aesthetically this time we tried to work with long takes and master shots, focusing more on composition than on coverage.”

Premiering at Sundance and then playing their home base of SXSW, the film will be released by IFC later this year. — Scott Macaulay

Contact: zellnerbros.com

 

ERIC LATEK.

Eric Latek

When Rhode Island filmmaker Eric Latek began his documentary Sweet Dreams in October 2002, he says he thought it would be “a one-hour piece on the identity crisis of young Italian-American kids in Providence — kids who were 15 or 16 years old and [behaving like] Tony Soprano.” The first sign that it might be a bit different appeared in the form of Derek Fleming, a local bookie. “He was anything but that [Tony Soprano] guy, and I started following and filming him,” Latek says. Through Fleming he met lightweight fighter Gary Balletto, a 27-year-old contractor who struggles to raise his family while pursuing his dream of being a boxer. “I started falling for these guys in a deep, friendship kind of way,” says Latek, and what started out as a vérité portrait of some guys from the nabe‘ turned into a near-epic look at role models, American masculinity and Balletto‘s attempt to memorialize a fellow fighter killed in the ring by successfully unionizing boxers under the Teamsters.

As his subject matter grew in scale, so did Latek‘s filmmaking. The first thing you notice about Sweet Dreams — after the honesty of its characters and authenticity of its setting — is the suitcase full of stylistic devices the director uses to tell his story. Slo-mo, shifts in color schemes, monumental classical music scoring, and hyperconscious sound design all give this documentary the dramatic feel of a fiction film. “I tell people that I‘m not a documentary filmmaker,” says Latek. “I‘m a filmmaker who does documentary.” Of his inspirations, after rattling off “the masters — Scorsese, Coppola, Truffaut and Welles,” Latek adds, “I‘m a huge silent film fan, especially F.W. Murnau‘s Sunrise and Nosferatu. I tried to pay homage to the silent-film greats in the film‘s last fight scene.”

When he finished Sweet Dreams, Latek submitted to the Toronto Film Festival where programmer Thom Powers liked the film but ultimately didn‘t program it. The picture wound up premiering at Full Frame, where Latek thought he‘d be able to score a deal. “I was ignorant,” he admits. “I felt like this would be an easier sell because it would have a more cinematic appeal. That wasn‘t the case. The reaction [by distributors] was, ‘We love it but we don‘t know what to do with it.‘ ”

Fortunately for Latek, that‘s not the end of the film‘s story. Powers became a champion of the film, programming it this winter at his “Stranger than Fiction” series at New York City‘s IFC Center, where audiences cheered its heart-on-its-sleeve emotionalism. And Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski became an executive producer and is aggressively shopping the film to distributors. “We have options now,” says Latek, who expects a deal to be announced soon. He‘s now hard at work on a 12-part documentary series, Three Degrees, on martial arts fighters that‘s a direct result of Cox, the cable network, seeing Sweet Dreams and hiring Latek‘s production company to make the show. And then there‘s the documentary on posttraumatic stress disorder experienced by firefighters, paramedics and rescue workers he‘s just now beginning. And, all of this from his home base of Providence, R.I. “I thought about moving to L.A. or New York after graduating college,” Latek admits, “but I didn‘t think I‘d be happy away from my family and everybody I know. I knew it would be a longer road [living away from the industry], but you can always be found.” — S.M.

Contact: ericlatek‘àt’phantazmapictures.com; sweetdreamsmovie.com

 

JULIA LEIGH. PHOTO BY: NOAH SHELDON

Julia Leigh

“I actually find scripts hard to read — ugly. I got my head around the very basic conventions — by that I‘m referring to things like present tense, introducing characters in ‘All Caps,‘ minimal parentheticals... the rules of presentation. The loss of interiority — or explicitly entering into thoughts and feelings of the characters -— was a challenge. I pay a lot of attention to the transitions between scenes: How will this scene ‘cut‘ against the next scene... I visualize it. So it‘s very organic: One scene leads to another. The film expands; it grows and deepens. I put myself in the shoes of the audience; [viewers] don‘t look at a film in retrospect, they don‘t anatomize overall structure. But that said, I appreciate a sense of ‘wholeness‘ in a film so that when I get to the end I realize that the ‘ending‘ was in fact there in the film all along.”

That‘s Australian novelist Julia Leigh on conquering the screenplay form, which the acclaimed author has more than succeeded at. Although a relative newcomer to the world of Hollywood, she is currently exciting producers and development execs with a spare, psychologically penetrating and symbolically rich brand of scriptwriting. The Witness, a spec she based on a favorite little-known book, will be directed by Walter Salles, and she‘s just been hired to write another screenplay for Plan B and Paramount Vantage.

Leigh burst on the literary scene in 2000 with her debut novel, The Hunter, which was widely translated and won awards internationally, including a nomination for the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novella Disquiet has just been published by Penguin. She‘s also taught at Barnard (where she returns this fall) and has been mentored in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative by Toni Morrison. She tried screenplay writing, she says, as “diversion therapy” while she worked on Disquiet. Her original script Sleeping Beauty is a haunting erotic fairy tale about Lucy, a student who drifts into prostitution and finds her niche as a woman who sleeps, drugged, in a “Sleeping Beauty chamber” while men do to her what she can‘t remember the next morning. On the page, Lucy feels real yet also mysterious. “She definitely flies in the face of more Hollywood-type scripts that demand detailed backstories and absolute clarity of motivation,” Leigh admits. “I‘m not a fan of backstory in general and I‘m an enemy of the ‘psychological explanation‘ tied to some event in the past. Instead I like that feeling of the submerged, the ‘tip of the iceberg‘ feeling we get about a character on screen, something latent. Something fascinating.” — S.M.

Contact: Bec Smith at UTA: (310) 776-8143

 

BENH ZEITLIN. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK

Benh Zeitlin

A true original, Benh Zeitlin‘s 27-minute short film Glory at Sea rocked audiences at this year‘s SXSW Film and Music Conference. Sharing short film prizes with John Magary‘s The Second Line and Andrew T. Betzer‘s Small Apartment, Glory at Sea has instant classic written all over it. Produced by the Court 13 collective, which counts Sundance (Ray Tintori) and National Board of Review (Dan Janvey) winners among its members, Zeitlin‘s intimate yet epic look at a ragtag group of heartbroken refugees, ever searching for their lost loved ones in a post-Katrina, postapocalyptic New Orleans of the future, is both funny and graceful, touching and altogether strange. Meticulously art directed and photographed, it retains an improvisational looseness and wanderlust, both in its style and its narrative, which verges on genius. What could have inspired such a singular work?

“The spark was an image of naked Greek men catapulting out of the ocean in a symphonic hairy porpoise-inspired resurrection finale that settled on an island paradise of obese naked love, which, of course, has almost nothing to do with the finished film,” said Zeitlin, who is still recovering from a broken hip and pelvis suffered in a car crash as he was driving to Austin for the film‘s SXSW premiere. “The script was written in the middle of an absolute spree, in an hour, then immediately sent to The Rooftop Filmmakers‘ Fund and it wasn‘t until I got the grant that I realized I was actually going to make it.”

Zeitlin, who has worked with his editor and camera operator Crockett Doob since playing Superman in Doob‘s Batman: The Movie at age 6, scouted Europe for locations before settling on New Orleans. “I met the people who ended up acting in the film, who brought with them a force of communal tenacity and fatalistic passion that shifted the focus of the film from just wild surrealistic bombast to something that‘s more human,” he explains. “Something that‘s about how people can respond to senseless tragedy rebelliously with hope and love and total insanity.”

An admitted football junkie, how does Zeitlin plan to follow up the veritable Hail Mary pass that is Glory at Sea? “I‘m heading back to New Orleans to develop two guerilla features about the end of it all,” he says. “The first is a comedy about a 10-year-old girl in Georgia preparing for orphanhood in the wild as her father‘s cancer and a mythological Southern apocalypse descend on her world. The other takes place in 90 minutes of real time aboard a boat led by a maniac who has acquired all the ingredients for a new civilization but has gotten stranded in the middle of the Arctic ocean. It‘s tentatively titled Santa Maria.” — Brandon Harris

Contact: benh‘àt’court13.com

 

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