MYNA JOSEPH. PHOTO BY: RICHARD KOEK
A simple and startling premise, the rivalry that exists between sisters, especially when a strange, cute boy is involved, grows into an arresting account of female adolescent sexuality in Myna Joseph‘s fantastic graduate thesis film Man. Another terrific product of Columbia‘s graduate film program, Man bowed at Woodstock last year and played Sundance and New Directors/New Films before being chosen for the 40th Director‘s Fortnight in Cannes, where Joseph was one of only four American directors invited. Initially planned for an even younger pair of girls, Joseph struggled to find actresses who were mature enough to embody the roles. “It‘s about how sex is a chasm that the older sister jumps over while the younger sister is left behind,” says Joseph. “When we couldn‘t cast those girls, I ended up bumping up the ages and I rewrote the script. That‘s how I came to what I think is a much more interesting and complicated situation.”
Joseph, who lives in Harlem with her boyfriend John Magary, himself a budding young director (he gripped on Man while directing the lauded short film The Second Line), came late to filmmaking. She majored in biology as an undergrad. “If I met my younger self now, I‘d be shocked that I became a filmmaker,” she says. “It was during college in Boston that I took a Super 8mm class that totally opened my eyes. It was like reading for the first time. It was like, ‘What the hell have I been doing! Why haven‘t I been doing this?‘”
Clearly a director who is interested in provoking and challenging the audience, Joseph is currently at work on a feature script entitled My Favorite Nightmare. “It‘s about a girl who finds herself pregnant,” she says. “We meet her when she‘s on her way to meet the young father. She goes to tell him, but she has second thoughts about telling him. She wants to make him into the person she wants him to be. In some ways it‘s a reaction to a lot of films that have been about pregnancy recently, where the girl enables the schleppy guy who knocked her up to fix his life.” – Brandon Harris
ENCYCLOPEDIA PICTURA. PHOTO BY: BOB JONES
To make it in the music-video business, you have to be known for doing just one thing. Hip-hop eye candy, for instance. Reinventing the star. Or, everyday surrealism. So what is it that the incredibly hot music-video team who go by the name Encyclopedia Pictura — the guys behind the acclaimed 3-D Björk “Wanderlust” clip — tell people they bring to the table? “Our approach has been to figure out if eyes and vision instead of mathematics can be a gateway into the sciences,” says Isaiah Saxon who, along with Sean Hellfritsch, founded Encyclopedia Pictura. And while most video directors show up to meetings with the requisite Guy Bourdin or Gregory Crewdson reference books, Saxon and Hellfritsch are more likely to garner their visual inspiration from crystal photography, sunspot videos and turn-of-the-century U.S. geological surveys.
The San Francisco-based Encyclopedia Pictura‘s rise in the music-video world has been swift. In 2007 they created a video for Grizzly Bear‘s song “Knife,” which is an indescribable tale of transformation and mutation set against the desert backdrop of an old mining rig. Saxon says, “I think it‘s perceived that we ambitiously create things that have a lot of handmade warmth and that are both pretty realistic and epic in scope. And that we can do something that is big for not much money.” This year‘s Björk video, shot in 3-D and preferably viewed wearing those old red-and-blue lens cardboard glasses, finds the singer leading a herd of giant yaks alongside a raging river when a second self emerges from her backpack. Both videos make creative use of low-fi effects — puppetry, paintings, animation — and, amidst their crazy visuals, evoke the feelings of wonder you had watching old science-educational films as a kid.
Saxon and Hellfritsch hail from Santa Cruz and share similar interests and backgrounds. “We both have pretty far-out parents and share a real philosophical interest in nature — trying to figure out how the world works in an old-school, Da Vincian fashion,” Saxon says. Of their collaboration, Hellfritsch says, “Isaiah‘s strong skills would be in illustration, art direction and just watching things very closely. My skill sets would lie in the technical side of things — putting things together from a VFX standpoint. And we work with a third member, Daren Rabinovitch, who brought in a lot of experience with fabrication, sculpting and model-making.”
After “Wanderlust,” Encyclopedia Pictura says they are living in a “post-Björk world” with new opportunities available to them. Explains Saxon, “We‘re starting to develop a feature and slowly developing another project in the world of video games and virtual reality. We‘ve leaked only that it will be a creative tool for people to express complex emotions through visuals they create in a virtual or augmented reality. And the feature will be very entertaining. It will be in 3-D, will be as ambitious as we can muster, and it will be fun for little kids and old people.” — Scott Macaulay
Contact: Mark De Pace at Ghost Robot: mark.depace‘àt’ghostrobot.com
One of the few visual-effects supervisors who prefers to work in the tightly budgeted independent arena, Mark Russell has taken an unusual path to the world of VFX. It wasn‘t until after he graduated from the University of Southern California, where he got a BA in Theater, that he began to dabble in VFX work. He took a job at DreamWorks, where he apprenticed on a series of effects-driven Spielberg pictures, first as a producer‘s assistant on Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, later on the visual-effects teams behind the elaborate worlds of AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report. It‘s without shock then that he mentions some of his earliest influences. “Like anyone who grew up with the original Star Wars films, I made my share of Super 8mm knockoffs and homage movies,” he says.
In his recent work, Russell is bringing the tools thought to be only at the disposal of Hollywood blockbusters to independents. In Alex Rivera‘s forthcoming Sleep Dealer, he created dozens of effects shots for the low-budget feature that depicts a near future in which immigration and outsourcing issues have been solved by virtual reality and robotics. “The biggest challenge with Sleep Dealer was that it had the ambition of a big studio film, but the financial resources of a true indie project,” said Russell. “We wanted the factory to appear endless, but the art department could only build eight stations. I suggested using a mirror to double the length of the factory. It brought the effects from a complicated 3-D scenario to a much simpler 2-D cleanup, and with the help of the production designer and the cinematographer we were able to achieve the desired outcome.”
Russell has been known to use students to complete essential shots, allowing him to “meet fresh faces and even give a little something back while saving on costs at the same time.” Russell first delved into the indie pool with Zak Penn‘s Incident at Loch Ness, and now he‘s recently finished dynamic work on superscribe Charlie Kaufman‘s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, which bowed in competition at May‘s 61st Cannes Film Festival, and George LaVoo‘s A Dog Year. “What‘s exciting for me is getting inside the director‘s head to understand the intention behind the film and use that knowledge and the support of the entire crew to make the visual effects seamless,” he comments. Russell is currently at work on Carriers, by previous 25 New Faces directors the Pastor Brothers. “It‘s not always easy to get everything that you want without financial resources, but I‘ve found that working with severe limitations makes you think more creatively, which can be very satisfying.” — B.H.
We Are the Mods, E.E. Cassidy‘s debut feature, is full of cinephilic pleasures. Yes, it‘s a teen drama that references (with, by the way, both imagination and restraint) the classic “good girl corrupted by the bad” storyline familiar from films like Thirteen and Poison Ivy. But it‘s also an affectionate and good-hearted homage to not only seminal films of the 1960s but also to the heady rush of young artistic discovery familiar to any sensitive ex-high schooler. Cassidy‘s tale of the contemporary mod subculture — teens in geometrically balanced dresses and suits who listen to British-flavored rock and ska and drive Vespa scooters — is full of knowing nods to Antonioni‘s Blow-Up, Godard‘s Bande à part and the films of William Klein.
“The movie came from my interests in high school,” explains the California-born writer-director. “I was into ska, I had a Vespa and the video I watched over and over was Quadrophenia. When I went to college at UC Santa Cruz there was a little a mod culture there. Then when I moved back to L.A. in the late ‘90s, mod-inspired clubs were suddenly going strong, and everything sort of melded together.”
What congealed was not just Cassidy‘s interest in the mods but also a desire to make a classic teen movie (she cites as favorites Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) about “girls doing something. [The mod scene] is a male-driven subculture — I wanted to make a movie about girls who weren‘t just sitting on the sidelines.” After writing a script about a shy teen photographer seduced into a love triangle by an alluring mystery girl with bangs and a strangely sexy foot deformity, Cassidy set it up with a succession of producers. “Nothing was happening,” she says. “We had some money lined up and it fell apart. I knew that if I didn‘t make it then I‘d just have to abandon the idea so I decided to do it with credit cards.” With Rob Poswall she produced We Are the Mods on a tight 21-day shoot, impressively packing the film with a boatload of style in addition to nuanced and charismatic performances from leads Melia Renee and Mary Elise Hayden.
Cassidy recently attended the IFP Rough Cut Lab and is in the final stages of post. She‘s also thinking of other projects, like an adaptation of Heather Lewis‘s novel House Rules and a doc, All American Dog, about pit bulls that‘s intended to burnish the reputation of a breed once owned by both Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller. “I have two rescue pit bulls,” Cassidy says, “It‘s amazing what people will say to me when I walk them down the street.” — S.M.
DEE REES. PHOTO BY: MISTI LAYNE
When Dee Rees makes her first feature, Pariah, she‘ll be following the path set by the filmmakers of such successful indies as Half Nelson and Raising Victor Vargas. That is, she‘ll be transforming an acclaimed short — one that has played multiple festivals including Sundance in 2008 and which won the Audience Award at the L.A. Film Festival in 2007 — into a full-length film. The difference, however, is that rather than expand her short into a feature, she previously shrunk the feature script into the short. Rees wrote the full-length Pariah while interning on Spike Lee‘s Inside Man in 2005. A year later, when she needed to shoot a thesis film to graduate from NYU‘s Graduate Film Program, she decided to take the first act of her feature script and its ending and make a tale of a conflicted Bronx teen living a dual life between her conservative family and her gay friends at the local nightspots.
Rees, who cites Toni Morrison and Alice Walker as creative influences, calls the film “semiautobiographical, in the sense that it took me awhile to figure out who I was. Living in New York I was amazed to see young teen women unafraid to express their sexuality. I thought, if I had known who I was at 17, would I have had the courage to express it?”
The short version of Pariah follows Alike, a closeted gay teen (powerfully played by the striking Adepero Oduye) locked in a confrontation between her emerging identity as a lesbian and her denying parents. It features fantastic performances and a beautifully expressive visual design. Bradford Young‘s camera sets Alike against a variety of color-saturated backdrops that plunge the viewer into the character‘s shifting emotions. “Alike is a chameleon,” Rees says, “and we wanted her to be painted by the light around her. In the club she‘s purple, in the bus she‘s green and at home she‘s orange. The only time she is free is when she is outside at the end of the movie.”
Rees hopes to make the feature version of Pariah this fall. Nekisa Cooper is producing, Effie Brown has signed on as executive producer, and the project has received the full imprimatur of the Sundance Institute: Rees attended the Sundance Writers‘ and Directors‘ Labs, and Cooper will attend the first Sundance Creative Producers‘ Lab. The new version of Pariah will be one that is well-informed by the process of making the short film and attending the Sundance Labs. “It‘s changed a lot [from the original script],” she admits. “I learned a lot of things about character, and making the shorts I saw that you can say so much with looks and body language. You don‘t need as many words.”
While she raises money for her feature, Rees, who recently moved from New York City to Long Beach, Calif., is finishing another project, Eventual Salvation, a feature documentary on Liberia that received funding from the Sundance Documentary Fund and won the 2007 Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award. — S.M.