Long Way Home for Sollett’s “Raising Victor Vargas”
by Eugene Hernandez
Opening today in Manhattan at the Sunshine Theater and on 42nd St. is a true New York indie, “Raising Victor Vargas.” Peter Sollett’s first feature, an adaptation of his award-winning short, “Five Feet High and Rising,” has had a charmed life on the festival circuit since its debut at Cannes nearly a year ago. After the premiere, the film went to Deauville, Toronto, and then Sundance where is was warmly embraced. This week, reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time Out New York (among other publications) praised the low-budget film as it returned home for the opening night of New Directors/New Films on Wednesday and its theatrical debut today. What a perfect opportunity to take a look back at this terrific film’s road to the big screen.
I first met Peter Sollett back when I worked at the AIVF in lower Manhattan. The soft-spoken Sollett would often quietly drop by the office to visit collaborator Eva Vives who also worked at the organization. At the time, the pair were making “Five Feet.” They wrote it in 1997, and shot the short during the summer of 1998 with the same core cast that would later appear in the feature film. Vives scoured the Lower East Side to find the lead actors for the film (Sollett made the short by maxing out his credit cards to the tune of $20,000). Victor Rasuk, star of the short and the feature, literally walked in off the street and into an audition, unexpected. Working for director Todd Stephens (“Edge of Seventeen”) at the time, Sollett borrowed an unused AVID and moved it into his kitchen so that he and Vives could cut the short.
The Sundance premiere of “Five Feet High and Rising” was a success. The film won the short filmmaking award and Sollett was noticed by a number of critics and biz attendees. “In the dramatic narrative field, Peter Sollett’s ‘Five Feet High and Rising’ struck chords because of its tender honesty,” wrote indieWIRE’s short film reporter Tim LaTorre in his Sundance short film wrap. “The verite visual style and subdued pace complements the performances from the young non-actors, creating an entirely realistic tone.”
It was there that Sollett first met an important member of his team, attorney Todd Rubenstein, and it was also there that Sollett and Vives began talking about making a feature film with the same characters and actors. At Clermont-Ferrand, after Sundance, Sollett met Jean Michel Dissard who sold the short in numerous international territories. They made up the $20,000 debt and then some, giving Sollett a bit of “development money” for a feature.
“There’s so much energy there that’s untapped,” Sollett told indieWIRE writer Andrea Meyer in late March 2000 after the short screened at New Directors/New Films. “Eva and I want to make a feature that is an outgrowth of our short film. We want to stick with the same style and develop the story but stick within the community.” Selected as one of 25 filmmakers to watch by FILMMAKER Magazine in 2000, Sollett met the mag’s editor (and producer) Scott Macaulay who would later produce the feature film with Robin O’Hara.
The short film award at Cannes led him to the festival’s prestigious Cinefondation fellowship. Af the residency in late 2000 and early 2001, Sollett worked to imagine all that the story could be, while at the Sundance lab in June of the same year he worked with advisors to focus the script. Financing was secured through Wild Bunch (a part of Studio Canal) — a rep for the company had seen the short at Clermont-Ferrand and pursued the director. Sollett begged him off until he had a script to show and later made a deal that gave him final cut for the half-million-dollar budgeted movie. While the team had met with the usual New York production companies, none were willing to offer Sollett final cut. The movie was shot by Tim Orr on 16mm film in a production that began in late summer 2001. The film was in production in downtown Manhattan on the morning of 9/11 and production was interrupted with five days to go. The film was then finished in October.
A Cannes premiere was in the cards for the feature, then titled “Long Way Home.” Its first screening was actually a small industry showing for a group of about 12 acquisitions execs. Tom Quinn of Samuel Goldwyn and Bob Aaronson of Fireworks immediately fell in love with the movie, and about an hour into the showing they immediately put an offer on the table. A deal was sealed ahead of the movie’s magical public premiere. Asked to recall the Cannes debut, Sollett told me that he still remembers the “very big room” and the film’s soundtrack playing as he and the cast made their way up the steps. “The first laugh was such a relief,” he said in our conversation. The standing ovation that followed the screening led to actors Rasuk and Judy Marte being mobbed by people after the showing.
Later in 2002, the film (then re-titled “Raising Victor Vargas”) won an award at Deauville even as it was screening for the first time in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was at dinner with the team when word came from Deauville, it marked another feather in his cap that Sollett seemed to take in typical low-key stride. At Sundance 2003, the film was heralded once again. “Sollett has created a glorious, full-blooded, oft-profane, fully inhabited microcosm of life and love among teenagers on New York’s Lower East Side,” wrote Ray Pride in his indieWIRE review of the movie. “The 26-year-old Sollett and his collaborators prove themselves to be masterful miniaturists and also that there’s no subject larger than the beating of the human heart.”
Since Sundance, Sollett told me that he has spent a great deal of time helping to promote the movie. “The approach to marketing this film is not obvious,” he explained, “This is not the low-budget film where the Holllywood star decided to make something more edgy, and we market that star.”
Reflecting on the long road to this week’s opening night slot at New Directors/New Films and today’s debut in theaters, he added, “It feels like every day you wake up and your position and your point of view is different from the day before.” On Wednesday, he said that he awoke to Elvis Mitchell’s rave review in the New York Times. “Amazing,” Sollett said simply.
Next up? No word yet from Sollett. “I really want to work…” he told me. Cutting himself off he said, “This is work…this is the work part of the work.” Pausing for a moment, he said simply, “I want to make a film.”
As for tonight’s opening night at the Sunshine, just blocks from where the movie was shot, Sollett said that he had not yet decided what to do with himself. “Anything you do feels pathetic,” he chuckled, “It’s like having your kid go to the first day at school.” Taking a quiet moment to ponder a bit further, he said, “I’ll probably just check the projection at the theater and then be overwhelmed and anxious.”