Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Nov. 25
Jeff Lipsky, Writer-Director of Twelve Thirty
Photo at left: Jeff Lipsky
Jeff Lipsky was there at the dawn of the independent film distribution movement. John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, the first film then 21-year-old Lipsky ever distributed, was also the first independent film to receive national distribution. In 1979, Lipsky was hired on as General Sales Manager of New Yorker Films, a high-end art label that distributed everything from Fassbinder and Jarmusch to The Care Bears Movie.
As co-founder of two dearly-departed film distribution companies, October Films and Lot 47, Lipsky was finally able to realize his dream of becoming a director. Twelve Thirty, an intense, low budget indie drama about a young Iowa City virgin who becomes sexually involved with a mother and her two daughters, marks Lipsky's fourth feature. It opens tomorrow at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15. I was honored and fortunate enough to speak at length with Jeff Lipsky, a man who has given so much back to the art form he adores. We talked about everything from our mutual crushes on Hayley Mills and Ingmar Bergman as a sex counsellor, to "jiggle-vision" cinematography and the future of celluloid.
Scott Marks: Do you remember the first film your parents took you to see?
Jeff Lipsky: I do, in fact. My father took me to see Walt Disney‘s Darby O‘Gill and the Little People on 42nd St. in New York. As I recall, it started my childhood crush on Hayley Mills.
SM: Our birthdays must be a year or two apart because my love for Hayley started with The Parent Trap. Come to think of it, I don’t think she was in Darby O’Gill.
JL: Now that you say that, I’m not sure. That was definitely the first movie I have any recollection of seeing, but I’m not 100% positive (about Hayley). She was definitely in the one made between that and The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways.
SM: Now hold it now! Castaways came out after The Parent Trap. You’re not talking to a Hayley Mills duffer, Jeff.
JL (Laughing): We may need to find someone for you to talk to about that. What’s really funny is that I have to thank you for bringing this up. This is not a joke: when I decided to make Twelve Thirty, for a fleeting moment I spoke to my casting director about reaching out to Hayley Mills to play one of the British women in the restaurant.
SM: Wouldn't that have been great?
JL: It’s so funny that you should bring it up. I always knew that Rebecca Schull was going to be in the movie because she blew people away in my other film, Flannel Pajamas. That was a no-brainer for me. When Barbara Barrie came to my attention, and she was available and wanted to do it, I realized that I can’t have everything.
SM: I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first film of yours that I have seen, so it‘s time to hit our local Kensington Video to do some catch-up work. What impressed me so much about this film was your jeweler’s eye when it comes to casting.
JL: I have been blessed with some of the greatest casting directors in New York. On Flannel Pajamas and the film I did after that, Once More with Feeling, where I was a director-for-hire, I was able to work with Woody Allen’s casting director (Patricia Kerrigan DiCerto). She is a genius who knows everybody! She wasn’t available to me on Twelve Thirty, so I immediately went to Julie Schubert who was my assistant on Flannel Pajamas. She did such an amazing job. I wrote the part of Vivien for Karen Young. I’ve known Karen personally for about eight years and it has always been my dream to work with her. When I went to her with the script after I knew I was going to make the movie, she embraced the character completely. After Karen was cast, I told Julie that I needed her to find the best available actors to play her family. That’s the way the process began. Casting Twelve Thirty, when you basically have eight roles to fill…I was not familiar with Jonathan Groff‘s work on Broadway, and he had only done one film (Ang Lee‘s Taking Woodstock), but it hadn‘t been released yet. It was all based on auditioning him and speaking to him, and I just felt he‘d be perfect. For me, the real discovery of the movie is Portia Reiners who plays…uhh...
JL (Laughing): Yes, Mel. Thank you. You have this 19-year-old woman playing her age and even though she’s been an actress since she was nine, I was not familiar with any of her work. She was very impressive at the audition and so responsive and focused and smart and believable when we were working together. It was frighteningly impressive to me.
Portia Reiners and Jeff Lipsky
SM: Mel is the perfect girl: sexy, smart, dangerous, willing and, after the first date, completely unavailable. You’re kind of let down when you realize that she’s just using Jeff for sex.
JL: And then the next day, it’s not about sex for her, it’s about being amused by these two kooky women.
SM: Not being familiar with your work, five minutes into the film, when Jeff offers to take Mel to church, I begin to fear a Walden Media production. It didn’t take long for me to realize that your frank and casual approach to human sexuality is the most refreshing I’ve seen in ages. In my mind, when I was 15-years-old, sex on-screen was still dirty and prohibitive enough to make it cool. Nowadays, I want something more than an excuse to high-five the director because he convinced his leading lady to disrobe instead of using sex to advance the plot or tell me something about the characters that I didn‘t already know. Who were some of your influences when it comes to presenting sex on screen?
JL: Ingmar Bergman, who is also one of my influences in general. He was able to capture…it’s not even a sense of sexuality or eroticism...it’s a sense of naturalism, especially when it came to the women in his movies. That was something I always wanted to capture, and I still endeavor to capture, and I hope to someday achieve that sense of naturalism as believably and emotionally in that raw way that he was able to.
SM: From the looks of him, you wouldn’t peg Jeff as a hopelessly insecure, virginal nerd of 22, yet there is something in Jonathan Groff‘s performance that convinces me that he’s the kind of guy who would carry a packet of Kleenex in his pocket in case a young woman suddenly felt the need to clean up after a roadside urination.
JL: I think that there are more Jeffs in the world than there was when I was growing up. One of the interesting things about opening Twelve Thirty around the country -- you should have seen my Q&As over the weekend! In our age of very short sound bites and abbreviated writing and Tweeting, a lot of writers say that Jeff makes love to all three women. That’s incredible to me since he doesn’t make love to any women in the film. Mel seduces him. She practically has to rape him for him to close the deal. Whether Maura (Mamie Gummer) is or is not technically raped in the closet, what he does to her is not making love. There is never, on-screen, any empirical evidence whatsoever that Jeff even had sex with Vivien. I love that I leave it completely up to the audience whether she puts his penis in her mouth or doesn’t.
SM: He does have sexual contact with the mother, but you are right, we are never given any reason to believe that he and Vivien had sex together.
JL: I think that’s the power of the buildup. That scene is like a mini three-act play. There is this amazing, very shocking [moment] of this half-naked, middle-aged woman being completely unfazed, and manipulating him every step of the way. I wanted this scene, where she basically exposes him to her relationship with her ex-husband and her father, shot in extreme close-up for two reasons: Vivien is so spot-on and penetrating in talking to Jeff (and the camera), that you have completely forgotten that fact that she’s half-dressed. Also, Mel is very much her mother’s daughter and I wanted to reprise the opening shot of the film when Mel is talking directly into the camera in an extreme close-up to -- as you learn a few moments later -- Jeff.
SM: In a lot of ways, this film brought back 50s melodrama. Imagine “Imitation of Life” had John Gavin been fortunate (or in this case, unfortunate) enough to hook up with Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, and Lana Turner.
JL: I wish you could see me blushing right now.
SM: My initial response while watching the film was mumblecore with a script, and the more I watched the more I realized that was not the case. But one nagging question remains: Why all the hand-held camerawork?
Jonathan Groff and Portia Reiners
JL: I was hoping that it would compliment the feel and texture that I was trying to create. When we started the film, I asked my cinematographer if he was familiar with Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. That film was shot entirely hand-held except for the chapter headings. I call that jiggle-vision. That kind of hand-held was so exaggerated that it drew too much attention to itself. What I wanted to do was shoot the first 85% of the film hand-held, while trying to hold the camera as steady as possible. I wanted to achieve an extra level of tension to keep the audience off kilter a little bit, but not be wildly distracting. (Laughing) Obviously I failed for you.
SM: It’s not a question of failing. This is just one of my pet peeves. I guess I prefer compositional tension over losing a tripod in order to present characters that are ill at ease. Too often I see filmmakers relying on a single stylistic camera technique as a main mode of expression throughout a film. After awhile it loses its impact. Towards the end of the film, you do stabilize the images and, in a sense, justify the shakiness that came before.
JL: I specifically decided when Jeff leaves the kitchen confrontation, once back inside it was the right time to start shooting with a tripod. That’s when things with the family begin to hopefully re-stabilize.
SM: And I certainly do not mean to imply that the film is without its cinematic moments, like the way in which you cut around the sudden appearance of the ghostly sheet in the Churchyard. Or Jeff‘s under-his-breath, “Why did you even bother,” when he pays a surprise visit to Mel’s job. Look, you are obviously a very gifted filmmaker, but my old-school ways force me to wince whenever the camera isn’t nailed down for more than two-minutes.
JL: I think that in most cases I would agree with you. I was very satisfied with what we did achieve, but I certainly respect the fact that it might not work for everybody. Since my films are so dialog-driven, a lot of times it takes people a second viewing to appreciate some of the technical considerations and visual flair. One of the things I am most proud of in this film are the book-ended scenes in the closet that begin and end the party sequence. I wrote in the script that it was to be shot black-on-black. People don’t realize than in the first set-up, we never cut. At the second lighting set-up, without the camera being turned off, Maura says, “Why would I do that? I can’t even see you in there” before Jeff turns the light in the closet on. That’s a very sophisticated lighting set-up. And then, a moment or so later, Irina (Halley Feiffer) opens the door and there is a third lighting set-up. When you are doing these low-budget films, and we did shoot this on film, it is a very sophisticated way of selling it to the viewer. You might not notice this until the second time, which is fine, because these performances blow everything else away.
Portia Reiners and Jonathan Groff
SM: The New York Times called you on the fact that you broke one of the cardinal rules of cinema by letting the screen go black for a prolonged period of time. I had to watch Twelve Thirty on video, but I will be there to see it in 35mm when it opens. For the first time in my life, I was happy that a screener was branded, because without the name of the production company written across the bottom of the screen, my immediate reaction would have been that they screwed up in the lab. I guarantee you that projectionists will be pulling out their hair the first time the show the film.
JL: That’s the problem with DVD screeners. Digitally, you cannot capture what we did in that scene on film. When you go to the theatre and watch it again, there is much more visual information on the screen, especially in that closet scene, than you can see digitally. If you’re watching it on film and in a theatre, providing the projector bulb is bright enough, you will clearly see Jeff and Maura’s outline. You do not see it on the digital screeners.
SM: I understand that it costs a lot more money to rent out a theatre for ten critics than it does to press ten DVD screeners. Nowadays, if I like a film I am almost automatically forced to watch it twice, once on my television and the second time on the screen. For me, it’s not official until I see it projected, especially since you shot Twelve Thirty on film. It’s the least I can do.
JL: Thanks for saying that.
SM: You are the co-founder of the late October Films. How did it go from an independent film production company and distributor to an arm of Universal Pictures and eventually Focus Features?
JL: I co-founded the company with Bingham Ray on October 9, 1990. Our mandate was to avoid the pitfalls of other independent companies and never go into production. It was going to be acquisition-based and acquisitions-oriented. That’s what the business plan said. As soon as we took on more partners, everyone suddenly wanted to get involved in production. I left the company after five years because I was finally able to make my first movie as a writer-director. At that point, the company had been profitable every single year. The company then got involved in production and began going into serious, heavy debt. Believe it or not, big corporations love putting money into companies that have debt. I don’t know why, I am not an MBA, but they do. Two years after I left, Universal acquired half of the company. Two years after that they acquired the rest of the company at a point when the company was $40 million in debt. Universal had made a deal with Barry Diller to acquire USA Films and finally ended up with the consortium of Grammercy, USA Films, Good Machine and October Films. Once they were all owned by universal, they merged everything into Focus Features. Even though I was gone long before that merger took place, I am very proud of that I started in my Sherman Oaks, California living room ended up an asset of General Electric.
SM: As well you should. October was responsible for bringing a lot of great films our way. How do you see the future of motion picture exhibition? Will celluloid still dominate? Should it?
JL: My answer to that is "probably," but more than likely it’s still ten to twenty years away. We are completely in the dark as to how long digital files will remain permanent. I think that everybody would agree that it’s far easier for digital files to be lost or disappear, to degrade, for drives to be misplaced, than it is for properly-stored film. NASA recently started taking all their digital files and recording them on film! Even they recognize that their digital files are very impermanent. I am not in denial, and I’m not a Luddite. I am going to have to shoot (due to budgetary constraints) my next film digitally, and I shot my first film digitally. High-definition is basically good for covering sports. That’s how the next generation’s eyes register images. For them it’s completely natural. I consider well-made digital films basically pretty pictures wrapped in a condom.
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