Daniel Robin isn‘t the first filmmaker to blur the line between fact and fiction, but his my olympic summer, which won Best Short at Sundance ‘08, is so convincing in its simulation of the truth that audiences are filled with mixed feelings after learning that the personal story Robin tells is an invented one.
In my olympic summer, Robin examines his own divorce by dissecting his parents‘ troubled relationship. He uses Super 8mm footage of the couple intercut with footage from the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where his father was part of the Israeli team taken hostage by Black September. Well, that last part isn‘t exactly true.
“I have made three 16mm shorts, and they are all about me and people in my life,” Robin explains. “But for this one I wanted to try to figure out a different point of entry. My parents had given me these old Super 8 home movies several years ago so I decided to create a fictitious storyline about them. There‘s no relationship with the Olympics at all. There are kernels of truth throughout, but I wanted to create a more lyrical truth than a literal truth.”
Inspired by the work of Jorge Luis Borges and comparing my olympic summer to Woody Allen‘s Zelig, Robin admits he was curious how aggressively he could push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking. Of the festival submission process, he says, “They have these boxes [you have to check]: narrative, documentary, maybe experimental. I asked some of my peers and professors, and they said to check ‘documentary‘ because ‘they‘re not going get it‘ if I would have checked ‘narrative.‘” Still, some haven‘t “gotten it” as a doc. Epstein says the biggest reaction came while showing the short at Amsterdam‘s International Documentary Film Festival where many viewers felt betrayed while others defended his artistic license. “I‘m not dishonoring anybody,” he says. “I‘m just bending the truth a little and plugging in my father. Otherwise all that stuff happened.”
A graduate of San Francisco State University, Robin is the creator of the Web series Neighborhood Stories, which he began in 2000, long before anyone knew what a Web series was. “I‘m into being self-contained and not depending on a crew,” he says. Next he is developing another Web series as well as a project about “family mythology” that may turn into a feature. Robin also recently moved from San Francisco to Atlanta to teach documentary film production at Georgia State University. He intends to use my olympic summer in his curriculum. “I think people really need to stop catering to one style,” he says “... and push the boundaries. That‘s what I‘m going to teach.” — Jason Guerrasio
TOM QUINN. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
Amiable and unassuming, Tom Quinn is a man of superior endurance. A native of Philadelphia, Quinn, who has worked in the camera department for area filmmakers like DIY guru and Filmmaker contributor Lance Weiler (The Last Broadcast, Head Trauma) and Eugene Martin (Diary of a City Priest, Edge City), wrote, directed, produced and shot The New Year Parade, a gripping look at a year in the life of a blue-collar South Philadelphia family torn apart by divorce and enmeshed in the culture of the city‘s string bands, whose yearly parade and competition give the film its title.
After working on a now-shelved DIY feature for seven years following his initial run at film school, Quinn began filming his Slamdance 2008 grand-prize-winning feature The New Year Parade in the summer of 2004 and continued for three long years, shooting it piecemeal, largely in downtime while attending Temple University‘s MFA Film Program — no small feat given the sprawling cast of largely non-professionals Quinn used and the under-$10,000 price tag. “The most difficult thing is keeping interest and momentum,” Quinn says. “I was fortunate to have a great producer, [Steve Beal], to get things off the ground, but during the long production Steve had to step back to have some kids, buy a house, etc. I was fortunate to have [Mark Doyle], who was the only crew most days — setting up lights, dressing the set, unpacking the car, giving ideas, running audio, acting as a background extra.... He was tireless and exceptional in a thousand areas.”
While still in postproduction, the film was admitted to the IFP Narrative Rough Cut Lab in 2007, where he continued to shape the film. “Over the course of five days we met with editors, composers, producers, sales agents, music supervisors and veteran filmmakers,” he says. “It was a crash course on every area of post- and festival strategy. More than anything, the Lab mentors and speakers gave me the confidence to follow my gut.”
He plans quite a departure for his next outing. While still seeking distribution for The New Year Parade, he‘s at work on a script that “uses the Easy Rider road trip model to look at what the boomer generation left to this one.” — Brandon Harris
JOHN MAGARY. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
John Magary is a little frantic. He‘s agreed to be interviewed and do a photo shoot for his inclusion in the 25, though he‘s due to fly to the Sundance Directors‘ Lab in just a few hours. I tell him to take a few breaths before we talk about his impressive short, The Second Line, which recently won a special jury award at SXSW and Best Short at the Columbia Film Festival. Magary, 30, shot this striking look at a post-Katrina New Orleans as his Columbia thesis and, in the process, found a muse out of The Big Easy.
Born in Chicago and raised in Dallas, Magary says he comes from a family of “screen watchers,” including his movie-loving father and older brother Jim. After a brief detour into acting he turned to directing and, then, after college, attempted a feature film. “It‘s been seen by virtually no one and it shall remain so” is all he‘ll say about the endeavor. To make money he spent time in Buenos Aires teaching English before he returned to the States and applied to Columbia Film School.
While at Columbia, hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Magary, Jim and his girlfriend, filmmaker Myna Joseph, decided to visit New Orleans. “We volunteered with this group and gutted a house that had been ruined by the hurricane. After that [experience] I felt compelled to tell a story in New Orleans.”
That story is The Second Line, about two African-American friends, MacArthur and Natt, stuck in a FEMA trailer park and finding work gutting the house of a white couple in the well-off neighborhood of Lakeview. MacArthur‘s realization that the two aren‘t getting paid what they hoped leads to a shocking finale, which ends on the tattered streets of the Ninth Ward. Magary says the response to the film has been amazing, but he hasn‘t liked that some people feel the violent ending is just. “Violence in a film should feel wrong,” he says, “and if it feels like a victory then I‘ve failed.”
Not expecting the good will his production got from the locals in New Orleans, Magary says that the community responded because his team was creating a story there and not just documenting the destruction. He has since written a feature script, Blood Abundance, which follows the life of an African-American New Orleans woman with seven kids over the span of 45 years. It‘s this script that has already gone through the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and will now have a turn at the Directors‘ Lab. — J.G.
OREN PELI. PHOTO BY: BILL HERZANDEZ
In 2006 using a Sony HD camera, a crew of three, his own house as the location, and not much more than a good idea and a why-not attitude, Oren Peli made his first feature, a supernatural thriller titled Paranormal Activity. The film terrified audiences at its premiere at Screamfest last October and with word spreading that this faux doc, DIY pulse-pounder may be scarier than The Blair Witch Project, DreamWorks snatched the pic up when it screened at Slamdance in January. And even though only a thousand or so people have seen Paranormal Activity before DreamWorks abruptly halted the film‘s festival run, many believe the film, with its riveting special effects and talented cast of unknowns, has the potential to be the next indie horror crossover hit.
The Israeli-born San Diegan came to the States when he was 16 after quitting high school and picking up a video game programming gig (a job he‘s still doing). An obsessive movie viewer, Peli says, “With the success of movies like Blair Witch and Open Water, I thought if I had a good idea, bought a video camera, and planned everything carefully, I didn‘t need a million-dollar budget to make a film.”
With that self-taught tenacity, Peli spent a year reading books on filmmaking and searching the Internet for tips on editing, audio mixing and, most importantly, visual effects. He also crafted his “good idea,” which spawned from the weird noises he heard in his recently bought first house and his love of films like The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense and The Others.
The story: After a series of ghostly occurrences, student Katie and her boyfriend, day trader Micah, videotape themselves while sleeping in their new house. Since childhood, Katie has felt “haunted,” while Micah is the skeptic who becomes a believer as he pores over the footage. What begins as a few bumps in the night turns into a genuinely scary movie that pumps new adrenaline into the reality-themed horror genre.
Peli shot his film in seven days and spent a year in post using the Sony Vegas to create the visual effects. He then scheduled a test screening to see if his pet project was any good. “This couple showed up,” he recalls, “and the boyfriend was this 6‘5” muscular guy. I was watching them as they were watching the movie. Then during the night scenes he was grabbing his girlfriend and saying, ‘Oh shit, oh shit,‘ I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I have something here.‘”
DreamWorks thought so too. It put the film under lock and key after Slamdance, and since then rumors have ranged from the studio shelving the original and hiring Peli to shoot a remake to them beefing up the special effects before releasing Peli‘s version. But Peli is staying quiet and producer Steven Schneider will only say that Paranormal Activity “stands up to any horror movie I‘ve ever seen in terms of being frightening. It will wind up being seen by a lot of people.” — J.G.
Contact: Martin Spencer at CAA: (424) 288-2000
MATT WOLF. PHOTO BY: PAUL SEPUYA
“I never thought this could be a feature-length film, simply because of the lack of footage,” says Matt Wolf, director of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. Two years of research uncovered only a tiny handful of clips featuring the iconoclastic New York composer, so Wolf was forced to invent his own visual language to bridge the gaps in the recorded history of Russell‘s story. Lyrical and emotional moments — listening to mix tapes on the Staten Island ferry, running through Iowa cornfields, the act of musical composition itself — are represented with elements as disparate as Super 8 reenactments and abstract VHS inserts.
The plot points of Russell‘s life: Sensitive farm boy escapes Iowa corn fields and picks up a cello, moves to a Buddhist commune in San Francisco, expands mind with help from Timothy Leary, moves to New York City, immediately falls in with the glittering vanguard of the downtown scene, colonizes early disco and avant-garde composition, makes thousands of hours of mind-blowing music, dies much, much too early in the AIDS epidemic and experiences a critical revival decades later.
Wolf, 26, grew up fantasizing about the downtown world Arthur inhabited. He trolled for obscure Derek Jarman bootlegs on weekend trips to the city, and, not surprisingly, was the only openly gay 15-year-old obsessed with New Queer Cinema in his small California town. “I came to New York to be an experimental filmmaker and totally resisted storytelling,” recalls Wolf. But after meeting Russell‘s loved ones, whose relationships with the musician are still very much alive, Matt saw a narrative opportunity he couldn‘t ignore.
“I‘m not an identity politics junkie or anything, but I do think of the film as a queer film,” Wolf says. “But I made this film to be accessible to all of Arthur‘s fans and hopefully introduce him to a completely new audience. A good story can transcend any ‘scene,‘ and that‘s what I‘m hoping to do now.”
Wild Combination isn‘t Wolf‘s first film about a gay artist in the 1980s. Smalltown Boys, a short about David Wojanorwicz, was an experimental biography of the artist and activist that incorporated a documentary-style segment about a fictional teenage My So-Called Life fan on a quest to save the show. Wolf directed it and all of his early films for a tiny slice of the art world, but making Wild Combination opened his mind to a wider target audience. He is now watching the demand for the film at festivals swell (Berlin, Edinburgh, Sarasota, Karlovy Vary, Silverdocs, Thessaloniki and many more) as glowing reviews roll in from papers like The New York Times, Variety and Film Comment. The film had its New York City premiere in May at a special two-day tribute hosted at former Russell haunt and employer The Kitchen and will likely be released theatrically in the fall. — Alicia Van Couvering