FILMS GONE WILD: A CONVERSATION WITH “TWELVE THIRTY” FILMMAKER JEFF LIPSKY

My first experiences doing PR for films at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 basically lit the fire that has fueled my work doing film festival public relations and journalism from that time through my years at AFI FEST and the American Film Institute to the DALLAS International Film Festival and many others, to finally – the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Two films in particular – and specifically, the filmmakers responsible for them: Heather Rae’s documentary TRUDELL and Jeff Lipsky’s FLANNEL PAJAMAS colored the respect and reverence I have carried through every single film festival and event for the filmmaking artists I have worked on the behalf of or written about.

On Monday, January 10, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen FLANNEL PAJAMAS as well as a special sneak preview of Lipsky’s latest film, TWELVE THIRTY at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. FLANNEL PAJAMAS made Lipsky, who previously had built a reputation as the co-founder of October Films and a founding father of independent film distribution, an independent filmmaker himself with a capital “I”. A film purist and true artist, Lipsky embraces the word “independent” not just in the filmmaking process, but even more so with the characters he lovingly and exactingly creates for his films. For anyone that rails against the fare that studios pour into multiplexes and force-feed the populace, films like FLANNEL PAJAMAS (of which Roger Ebert was an early fan) and now, TWELVE THIRTY prove that all is not completely lost. And any conversation with Lipsky would also assure you that if anything, he is just getting warmed up delivering the kind of films that he himself would have championed back in the day.

TWELVE THIRTY’s tale of a young man becoming entwined romantically and sexually with two daughters and their mother in short order is for grown-ups. Lipsky populates his films with people that are smart – sometimes too smart for their own good. And then he turns them loose on one another. That’s good sport in my book. It isn’t a sport that’s always played fair, as the characters in TWELVE THIRTY demonstrate to both dramatic and comic effect – but it’s certainly real. And entertaining.

What was the genesis for the story of TWELVE THIRTY?
There was a wonderfully droll film in 1990 by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich called ADAM’S RIB about the lives and loves and three generations of Russian woman who live under the same roof. It struck me that it might be equally compelling to write a story about three women who live under the same roof but who barely know one another. I decided early on that two of them, a mother and her younger of two daughters, would be the mirror images of each other; confident women with like personalities and very strong voices, equally beautiful, both masters of manipulation, both keeping a tight lid on reservoirs of seldom-exposed vulnerability, while the other woman, her older daughter, would be bitter and angry, judgmental and damning of her peers, of her family, and especially of her father, with whom she had obviously been so close, and whose perceived abandonment of her has left a searing scar.

The other film that obviously influenced my decision to write TWELVE THIRTY was THE GRADUATE. I was enthused about conjuring up a contemporary reimagining of Mike Nichols’ film, but this time it would be our Mrs. Robinson who maintains the upper hand, while our Benjamin (this time a 22 year old virgin) be a hapless, beautiful man whose life is buffeted uncontrollably as a consequence of his encounters with all three women. The question of whether he will ever recover could, I suppose, be asked of the antihero in the Mike Nichols film as well. Finally, I loved the idea that a very modern, very beautiful, fifty year old woman would be a successful furrier, passionate about and successful in her career, and that her bi-sexual ex-husband would have a “green” job.

And, the main character’s name is ‘Jeff.’ So… fess up – How autobiographical is the story?
First of all, the most challenging and distressing thing for me in writing a screenplay is having to name my characters. I can’t do it. I hate it. Therefore, the principal male character in each of my scripts, at first, is always ‘Jeff.’ (Just as the names of the other characters tend to be men and women I’m related to.) When the script is finished I have to go back and rename everyone. This time I said, ‘fuck it.’ I’d never had a character named Jeff before and laziness got the better of me. Autobiographical content? Yes, my first girlfriend was nicknamed Mel (short for Mary Ellen), yes, her brother (not her uncle) was a drummer in a band, yes, she practically had to rape me to get me to sleep with her, such was my level of paralyzing shyness, insecurity and inexperience, and, yes, TWELVE THIRTY’s Jeff’s first sexual encounter with Mel in Mel’s sister’s bedroom was virtually identical to my defloration, except that the real life Mel didn’t have a sister. That’s about where the similarities between fact and fiction begin and end in regard to TWELVE THIRTY and Jeff/Jeff.

I count myself as fortunate to have been there for the unveiling of FLANNEL PAJAMAS at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. And now, TWELVE THIRTY is your fourth film at the helm (also following CHILDHOOD’S END and ONCE MORE WITH FEELING). For you, personally, how is the experience different by this point? And what things seem to never change?
Wow. It’s easier to address what hasn’t changed than to address what has. While I feel the movies I write and direct get better each time I step up to the plate I remain as confident now in the way I work with actors as I did when I directed by first film. I’m seldom if ever nervous on set; I’m prepared and exhilarated and disciplined. I know how to keep my actors fresh, energized, and on their toes. I make low budget films, and I shoot on film, so I seldom shoot more than two or three takes of anything (98% of the time takes one or two are always better than takes five and six, even when circumstances cause me to burn that much film on any one set up), and halfway through any given shooting day I am responsible enough to kill planned for shot-list set-ups if I feel jettisoning them won’t hurt the story, the performances, and in doing so, I am better able to ‘make the day,’ therein enabling the crew also to show up happier and fresher the next day.

Zeroing in on the filmmaking process itself, how has the comfort level changed (and how has your approach changed – if at all) for you from the first film to the most recent when it comes to putting the production together, setting up shots, inserting yourself into the editing process, etc?
The crazily creative Sara Corrigan has been my film editor, and my conscience and my trusting sounding board, for my last three films. After she completes her rough assembly (without involvement or interference from me) I sit alongside her in her editing room for every minute of the rest of the process. Our short hand way of working together has become so honed that even though I shot more coverage for TWELVE THIRTY than I had on any other film the editing of that film was our fastest yet. I attribute that to her genius and to my comfort level with her talent.

I shot my first film on 35mm, no monitors. I shot FLANNEL PAJAMAS and TWELVE THIRTY on super 16, no monitors. I shot ONCE MORE WITH FEELING in HD, two cameras, five monitors, and not only are there more matching problems and continuity gaffes on that film than on any of my film shoots, it took more time, lighting, and money to finish the movie. (Although I didn’t write that film I am so, so proud of it, proud of Gina O’Brien’s script, and, especially, proud of the audiences reaction to the film, from that of the sell-out crowds at Sundance to that of the dedicated throngs who saw it at a little art house in Madison, CT.) I feel that monitors foster insecurity on set, they are a time suck, and that they stifle creativity. I think that great actors will tell you they’d prefer seeing their directors right next to the camera lens during a take rather than down the hall, in video village, perhaps cloaked under duvetyne, watching a movie instead of directing one.

I have fallen in love with steadicams and wish I could afford to use them more often than my embarrassingly low budgets allow. I used one to film a complex walk-and-talk in a hospital on FLANNEL PAJAMAS (it was used three days in all on that show) and every day on ONCE MORE WITH FEELING (Dave Isern was my wonderful steadicam operator on that film). It would not have been appropriate to use at all on TWELVE THIRTY, but I do love that toy.
What else? I loathe car rigs. People accuse me of being a technological Luddite but I’m in love with GPS and GPS apps during location scouts and production.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is screening a double feature comprised of FLANNEL PAJAMAS and TWELVE THIRTY. At first glance (and frankly, more than that as far as I’m concerned), TWELVE THIRTY has a kind of prequel-type relationship to FLANNEL PAJAMAS. Would you agree with that? And, if so – was that by design?
As flattering as the “double feature” construct of the schedule is, and as humbling as I feel about the entire evening, I don’t know that I necessarily agree. If I’m fortunate enough to continue to direct films for the rest of my life, and even more fortunate to direct my own original screenplays (although I’d love to adapt for the screen an incredible Estonian novel called Purge), they will always all boast certain thematic commonalities – family, love, sexuality. Those are the only three subjects that are associated with every human being on the planet.

In theory, if I do my job right as an artist, and someone steps up to the plate with a reasonable amount of marketing money and clout, I feel large audiences will clamor to see and embrace the stories I write and the films I direct because of the universal truths of these themes. So that’s what FLANNEL PAJAMAS and TWELVE THIRTY have in common.

To a certain extent my films will always filch characters and plot points from my own life, although I can’t imagine the foundation of any future work resonating with as many parallels to my real life as did FLANNEL PAJAMAS. That said, the two most striking sequences for most audiences who see that film – an angry/hurt ‘Nicole’ undressing while stunningly framed by the floor-to-ceiling picture windows of her high-rise Manhattan apartment, and, the other scene in which Nicole’s mother, while experiencing the first ravages of onset Alzheimer’s, matter-of-factly confesses to her son-in-law her personal hatred of Jews – are complete, utter fiction. I suppose that what gives me the greatest pleasure as a filmmaker, successfully melding real life and fantasy, autobiographical detail with pure invention, and having audiences believe equally in both.

Certainly, Karen Young’s powerful tour-de-force performance as ‘Vivien,’ especially during the lengthy bedroom sequence with Jonathan Groff in TWELVE THIRTY, is utter fabrication (but appropriately real to the story). But, some of Vivien’s ‘confession’ to Jeff during the sequence reflect my own credos, philosophies, and observations. I suppose the thing that the two films most share in common is their abject honesty, and the fact that anyone who’s ever been in a relationship with anyone in their life should be able to identify some something, with somebody, with some aspect of each film.

I’ve always maintained that if the distributor of the most dense, subtitled, Romanian film (assuming it was a very good film) dedicated to its release the same obscene amount of ad dollars as, say, Universal is presently doing on behalf of LITTLE FOCKERS that it would gross over $100 million theatrically…and until a distributor does try that then my premise can’t be proven wrong.

The two films also share your penchant, skill, good fortune – take your pick or choose all of the above – for casting some great, young talent somewhat ahead of the curve. Can you give some details as to the process that scored Jonathan Groff, Portia Reiners and Mamie Gummer for the cast of TWELVE THIRTY?
Julie Schubert! A very young Julie Schubert was my Assistant Casting Director on FLANNEL PAJAMAS. My equally, uncannily brilliant FLANNEL PAJAMAS and ONCE MORE WITH FEELING casting director Patricia Dicerto was casting a Woody Allen film when it came time to start work on TWELVE THIRTY. So she and I both agreed that Julie should absolutely be considered for the top casting job. Julie then read the script and she so got it, every nuance, every character. I enjoyed working with her in the days of FLANNEL PAJAMAS and now she’s as dynamic, conscientious, and insightful a casting director as anyone could ask for.

I wrote the part of ‘Vivien’ for Karen Young. Karen and I have known each other for years. We ran into each other on a subway six years ago and I told her I’d love to work with her. Then I made FLANNEL PAJAMAS and she figured I must be full of shit since I didn’t cast her for it. But I couldn’t wait to call her to offer her the role in TWELVE THIRTY and, thank God, she loved the script, relished the idea of playing Vivien, and delivered a performance that surpassed even my own expectations. But Julie brought everyone else in to audition for the other key roles. (I’d worked previously with Rebecca Schull on FLANNEL PAJAMAS so that became just another comfortable instance of calling her to ask “okay, ready to work again?”)

I had never even heard of Jonathan Groff. I saw “Spring Awakening” when I was casting ONCE MORE WITH FEELING but he had already left the show. I didn’t see the revival of “Hair” and the Ang Lee film TAKING WOODSTOCK hadn’t yet been released. Julie said he’d be perfect. He was. He is.

I resisted for weeks Julie’s badgering me to meet with Mamie. I was only able to see one of her previous films and I didn’t like it at all, and it was a period piece where her character’s physical look was 180 degrees away from what I wanted for TWELVE THIRTY. But I finally met with her, at Julie’s insistence, realized Julie was right all along, and Mamie knocked it out of the park.

Portia, for me, is the real discovery in the film. Although she’s been acting from the age of ten (including one year on a high profile soap) no one I know was at all familiar with her. Not only does she embody the character of Mel to a tee, not only was she, in fact, the same age that her character was supposed to be during filming, not only does the camera love her, not only did she and Mamie absolutely look like they could be Karen’s daughters, every time I watch Portia’s scenes, scenes I’ve watched hundreds of times by now, I instantly become lost and wrapped up in every word her character says; I’m no longer listening to someone spouting words I wrote, instead I’m watching a triumph of great naturalism and instinctual acting.

The most difficult role to cast was that played by Reed Birney. Well, suffice it to say that I’ve written one of the lead roles in my new script expressly for him. He’s is a complete joy to watch work, to work with, and to see on film, and on stage (where, this year, he seems ubiquitous).

Film Society’s Associate Programming Director Scott Foundas said, “Jeff enjoys making films comprised of moments that other films left out.” What would your response be to that assessment?
Scott was, and is, always a great wordsmith, a wonderful writer. I love his description of my work. I suppose what he could be referring to is my skill in depicting intimate situations intimately, and by saying that I’m not necessarily talking about sex and sensuality, rather, I desperately try, and take great pride in, imbuing my films with a sense of naturalism, especially in dealing with stories about love. I also tend not to repeat what so many films before mine have done: in FLANNEL PAJAMAS I elected not to show ‘Nicole’ and ‘Stuart’ exchange wedding vows, we’ve seen that a thousand times, I’d rather have the bride and groom awkwardly discussing their vows with each other pre-ceremony, and I’d prefer hearing the surprisingly moving toast by the groom’s best man, and the duplicitous toast by the bride’s maid-of-honor.

Then there’s the peeing issue. In FLANNEL PAJAMAS, ONCE MORE WITH FEELING (again, a film I didn’t write), and TWELVE THIRTY, characters are either peeing or they talk about peeing. Remember what I said about a sense of naturalism within relationships? Well, we all pee many times a day (and night), and when we are in committed relationships many people don’t even bother interrupting conversations to pee. In CHILDHOOD’S END (while nude, preparing to go to bed), in FLANNEL PAJAMAS (in a scene edited out of the film), and in TWELVE THIRTY one or another character is shown brushing their teeth.

Maybe I just feel that we experience more pivotal moments in our lives in the kitchen and the bathroom more so than in any other room in our apartments or houses. In this regard, I often flash back to a scene in an otherwise middling Hollywood comedy that struck me then, and still does to this day, as one of the most natural, spontaneous, real moments ever recorded on film between characters meant to be a loving husband and wife. The movie is the original 1977 version of FUN WITH DICK & JANE directed by Ted Kotcheff. In it, (the title characters played by) Jane Fonda and George Segal breathlessly arrive home from somewhere in the midst of a highly animated and excited conversation. She charges up the stairs and he follows at her heels, not pausing the conversation for a second. They enter their bedroom, walk through the bedroom into the master bathroom, whereupon she sits on the toilet to pee while he sits on the ledge of the tub, and their conversation continues without missing a beat, without any embarrassment, without a scintilla of change, or a flickering of the flame in the cadence of their dialog. She finishes, wipes herself, and leaves the bathroom, followed by her husband, with the conversation moving forward all the while. I’d seldom seen anything so believable in film before. It helped make these people seem three-dimensional to me in what was otherwise a movie peopled by completely two-dimensional characters.

Let’s talk about sex. In fact, both films don’t just talk about sex, they REALLY deal with the awkwardness and discomfort of sex. Truth is, they border on inspiring a warning to the viewer of “be careful what you ask for,” if they head to the theater upon hearing that there will be nudity on display. What exactly is your overriding philosophy as a filmmaker when dealing with the subject of sex and nudity onscreen? And, can you specify in the case of both of these films?
Bulldinky! There is more on-screen sexual congress in BLUE VALENTINE, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, BREAKING THE WAVES, Y TU MAMA TAMBIÈN, to name but a few, than there is in any one of my films. There may (MAY) be more nudity in my films than there is in those but that’s because I strive for reality, intimacy, naturalism. When women go to bed in my films they don’t wear bras. When a couple in love go to bed or clasp together in a post-coital embrace in my films they don’t drag a blanket up to their necks (or the woman to her neck and the man to his waist) and clutch it tightly as if frightened for their life. And if a couple is dressing or undressing (or engaging in heavy petting or other sexual behavior) the man is just as naked as the woman. That’s what you’ll always see in my films and what you’ll never see in almost any other American film (that doesn’t star Harvey Keitel).

Julianne Nicholson and Justin Kirk’s lengthy nude scene upon first visiting their high-rise apartment in FLANNEL PAJAMAS is more about power, not sex. In fact, Portia Reiners peeing in TWELVE THIRTY is also about power and control and manipulation, as well as a comical commentary on…well I don’t want to give away a laugh before people see the film. While there is a depiction of cunnilingus in FLANNEL PAJAMAS, the sequence quickly turns into a comical dialog moment, and love replaces sex. One of Jonathan Groff’s nude scenes in TWELVE THIRTY isn’t about sex, it’s about pride and vulnerability.

But I don’t want to sound totally disingenuous. Sex will always have a place in any film I write and direct, just as I hope it will always have a place in my life.

You also remain Kodak’s best friend in a manner of speaking due to your steadfastness in shooting (and wanting to continue to shoot) on film (versus digitally). Why? And realistically, how long will you be able to keep that up?
I’ll continue to shoot on film for as long my budgets permit it, and for as long as Kodak continues to produce their ultra-light sensitive, lush, beautiful stocks, and for as long as some lab somewhere in the world continues to strike 35mm prints. Thank God, Kodak still has a great many best friends. As you know, another featured director at the Walter Reade this month, Darren Aronofsky (for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s screening series, Darren Aronofsky’s Dreams and Nightmares on January 4 & 5), shot much of both THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN on film. And thank God for Kodak’s Anne Hubbel!

Finally, if it were up to you to give someone a couple of films (by other filmmakers) to serve as fitting guides to the world of Jeff Lipsky, filmmaker, what homework would you assign them? Or, looking at it a different way, what would play in the sidebar for the First Annual Lipsky Film Fest?
Finally! An easy question!

Ingmar Bergman’s FANNY & ALEXANDER
Ingmar Bergman’s CRIES & WHISPERS
Ingmar Bergman’s SARABAND
John Cassavetes’s HUSBANDS
Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE“ (you heard me!)
Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN
Woody Allen’s CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK (that’s what it says in the credits, as it should)
Francis Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION
Bill Forsyth’s LOCAL HERO
Paul Thomas Anderson’s PUNCH DRUNK LOVE
Bob Fosse’s CABARET
Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE
Eric Rohmer’s THE AVIATOR’S WIFE
Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST
Warren Beatty’s REDS
Lindsay Anderson’s O LUCKY MAN!
Steven Soderbergh’s SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE




Posted on January 7, 2011 in Features, Films Gone Wild by
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