Monday, October 20, 2008

"Waiting For Fluffy" an interview with Peter Sollett, director of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. Track 3

*note this piece is by Matthew Rovner.

I think this is one of the first times I've seen gay teens in a film who are completely comfortable with their sexuality and the straight characters take that as a given.

Something that I learned on this film is that sometimes the most political thing you can do is just be casual about who people are. And it seems to me really kind of a progressive and modern thing to just have those characters defined by who they are, they're friends of Nick and music aficionados, and not defined by their sexual orientation. None of the other guys are defined by their sexual orientation so why would these guys be?

But, we never really witness any intimate moments between the gay characters.

Well, there was one gay kiss in the film that we actually cut out because it was just slowing things down and it didn't advance the story at all. One of the characters kisses a stranger in the club because he was just excited and the guy's cute, but it confused people because they were like "Oh, is that the guy he's going to be spending the night with?" but of course it wasn't. It was a misdirect.

What was it like to direct from someone else's script (Lorene Scafaria) and someone else's source material (Rachel Cohn & David Levithan)?
I found it really liberating actually. Because there wasn't this connection to my pre-visualization of the scene. When you write something you imagine it a certain way and then maybe a year or two or five later, you get to shoot it and you try to get it to be exactly what you imagined. But in this case, I didn't really have that kind of dedication to what I had seen in my imagination, which is really freeing. I think it opened me to be a lot more collaborative, which is cool.
Speaking of collaboration, I noticed that you worked with the same editor, Myron Kerstein.
Myron's a tremendous collaborator and he's an amazing editor, he's an amazingly talented guy, and I was lucky to have him. He was involved with everything. Every choice involved with telling this story that happened after we shot, he was essential to. He's just a whole lot more than an editor to me, he's a prized collaborator, and a genius with music, and a really dedicated professional. And, we have similar taste in things, which really helps. He does a pretty good job of anticipating what I'm going to like, what I'm not going to like, and what the audience is going to like more importantly [laughs]. Yeah, I look forward to working with him again.
Let's talk about the cinematography. You were working with Tim Orr last time and this time with Tom Richmond. What was different about their styles?
Well, they're both very excellent and I'd work with both again. They have different approaches, but these are also, to be fair to them, radically different films to shoot. Vargas was a lot of natural light on 16-Millimeter and we wanted it to look naturalistic. And for Nick and Norah, there are bars and clubs, all at night. The street needed to be lit, everything needed to be lit. So it was a different experience. I haven't shot the Vargas style with Tom or the Nick and Norah style with Tim. I guess Tim comes from a little bit more of a naturalistic place. On Vargas, he'd walk into a location and turn off all the lights to see where it comes from naturally and just try to enhance what was already there. Tom on the other hand, would make choices such as "this club is gonna have this look", "we're going to choose these colors and contrast with the colors of the previous club" so it was a little bit more stylized. I think Tom's films tend to be darker than Tim's, moodier and a little grittier, actually. And I know that sounds maybe a little backwards because Tim shot lower budget, higher grain film. Tim makes things look really glorious. And Tom finds what's beautiful about the messiness or the dirtiness and goes with that.
What was it like working in 35-Millimeter this time as opposed to Super 16?
Good question. It's harder. [laughs] Those cameras are huge and when you decide to move a camera a couple inches you've got three guys coming over to move it and it takes time, that's ten minutes. And that's not true on 16-Millimeter, the DP (director of photography) grabs it and slides it over. It was sort of like switching to large format filmmaking from small format filmmaking. It was a learning experience.
Do you have a preference?

Hmm. I prefer the experience of making a 16-Millimeter movie. I like the intimacy of it, I like how easy it was to hand hold. It's crushing weight to have a 35-Millimeter camera on somebody's shoulder all day. I mean that's really hard work, holding that beast and making the operating look elegant. So 16 is definitely preferable. But, by that same token, if I could make a movie without a camera I would. If you could just do it with the actors and have it somehow be recorded, that would be the best.
Did you find that you had more complicated technical challenges this time around?
Yeah, I mean but we also had more help. Vargas cost $800,000 and this cost $8,000,000. So at ten times the budget you get some more hands and some more experienced hands. So it was nothing I felt directly. But I learned when to ask for a Steadycam shot and when not to. [laughs] I'll tell you that much. One of the things I've learned in film is asking for a Steadycam shot in a crowded room is, you know, really time consuming. Because inevitably people are bumping into it, it floats in the wrong direction. I had to learn about things like that for the film because we didn't have any of those gadgets the first time around. So, that stuff was interesting.
What were some of the other things that you learned this time around?
Well you know, things like night exteriors. We didn't have anything like that on Vargas. We were shooting this movie when it was supposed to be spring, but it was actually winter. And it rained pretty much every night, and it can't rain at all in the movie. So with giant lights on cranes we had to learn how to hide the rain.
I didn't notice any rain in the movie.
Oh god, it rained non-stop. One of the tricks is not to backlight the rain, you have to front light the scene if you want to hide the rain. And it's the same with vapor from people's mouths, you know, what happens in the cold weather. We had to learn how to hide that too because we didn't have the money to remove it digitally later.
So there were people constantly drying actors off?
Yeah. We had people drying off cars, and trying to dry the street, and drying car windshields, and hanging giant flags over the actors and things like that. Thank god it worked out.
What was it like to get up day after day to shoot at night on the streets of New York City?
It was a little surreal to be honest with you. It was a little disorienting. At first we were all just very tired. And then things started to get weird. After months of waking up at one o'clock in the afternoon with a two PM call time and seven AM wrap time, people start to get a little slap happy. You feel a little disconnected from the world. It's weirdly isolating in a way. It was like going someplace else to make a movie. It was as if we all took a trip to Ohio to make a film or something like that, you know what I mean? We were occupying a space that nobody else was really occupying.
Did you preview Nick & Norah?
Yeah. We did. We did it three times and it was pretty cool. I really believe in that process, I know that a lot of directors find that to be torture. But with this kind of film, made for a mainstream comedy audience it was really an asset. Because you find out what's working and what's not and you fine tune the thing.
Is Nick & Norah performing as you had hoped?
Yeah. I'm thrilled, I didn't think it was going to get this much of a reception, I have to say. So it exceeded my expectations. You know, I had an eight million dollar budget and it made that by the end of its second day in release. So, I'm thrilled about it. It's doing well critically. I'm proud of the way it's done.
You know, I was surprised that after the critical success of Raising Victor Vargas (2003)-I believe it received a 96 out of 100 on the "tomatometer" [Peter laughs]-that there would be this five year gap between that film and this one. What took so long?
Well, I was trying to make movies. There were scripts that came in the mail from studios and agencies, and that was great and thrilling and exciting. But I was a little bit shy about making a studio film; I didn't really know how to do that yet. And I thought: "Victor Vargas went very well. Eva, why don't we do what we did last time and write another script and sort of follow a similar process?" And that's what we started doing. We took a year and wrote a script very thoroughly. We got great producers, we set it up at a studio, and then they developed us for a year, year and a half. And then they decided not to make the movie. And that took up a lot of time. After that I started getting involved in things that I hadn't written to see if I could try to find another way to make another movie.
What was the project that didn't get made?
A comedy about a guy who's misdiagnosed with cancer. For a couple weeks he thinks he's dying. It's about how he copes and ultimately it that has a positive, transformative effect on him. But, not at a theatre near you, currently.
Do you think you'll have a better chance of getting it made now?
Yeah, I think I would have a better shot at making it now. But at the same time, the studios have contracted in such a way that now nobody's making films like that. And I don't really know how to make that movie inside the system either. From what I can tell, the result of all these labor disputes in Hollywood is that if the studios are going to say yes to a film right now it's going to be a film that's worth risking exposure to a strike. And they're only going to risk if there's such a guaranteed giant upside, say a super-hero film or something like that. Otherwise, why would they take a chance? They're running the risk of having a film shut down.
What filmmakers have influenced you?
Well, I do love Bergman and Cassavetes and Fellini. I think those are my main guys. Although Truffaut's gotta get in there somewhere because of The 400 Hundred Blows (1959). This film actually, although there were shades of those guys, this really had more to do with John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. People like that. And I love those films too. I don't think of them as people who made me necessarily want to make movies. I think it was discovering things that seemed foreign and learning about them that got me really excited in the first place.
I saw that you're teaching at Columbia University. How is that going?
I love it. It's a way to be around filmmaking that is completely sheltered from the commercial concerns of Hollywood. A very pure place to spend time and talk about how to approach yourself through movies. It keeps me really enthusiastic about the possibilities of that.
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