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PARK CITY ’06: Jeff Lipsky: “…That’s when my life with films began in earnest. I’d just experience

PARK CITY '06: Jeff Lipsky: "...That's when my life with films began in earnest. I'd just experience

Every day for the next three weeks, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview and each was sent the same questions.

Jeff Lipsky directed “Flannel Pajamas” screening in the Independent Film Competition: Dramatic. Lipsky was a co-founder of October Films and Lot 47 and has had a long career in film distribution. This is his second feature film.

“Flannel Pajamas” director Jeff Lipsky. Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Please tell us about yourself and include as much of the following information as you feel comfortable with…

I was born in Queens, New York and grew up in Plainview, New York, on Long Island. I presently live in Manhattan.

What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?

Movies for me were an escape from a financially comfortable but spiritually unhappy childhood. Through movies I felt that anything was possible, including happiness, and that I could achieve anything in life. I didn’t attend film school, I attended films. By the time I was 10 years old I was reading weekly Variety, religiously, and inhaling the Nielsen ratings – then, still closely-guarded and widely unreported-to-the-public weekly statistics indicating what shows I and my peers were glued to on terrestrial television. That year I applied for a job as an usher at my local movie theatre. Told I was too young I wrote a letter of complaint to President Kennedy; a response from the White House directed me to the New York State Department of Labor. On my 16th birthday I reapplied for a job at the same theatre. Two months later I was hired, and my life began.

On Saturday, December 12, 1970 I walked out of the Cinema I theatre in Manhattan in a daze. That’s when my life with films began in earnest. I’d just experienced an epiphany. I was exhilarated. I’d just seen a film that made me think about life – my life, the lives of the people I knew, the people I was related to, and the fictional people in the movie, who seemed more real than anything I’d ever known. The movie was John Cassavetes’ “Husbands.”

It is the cinematic equivalent of Joseph Heller’s novel “Something Happened.” You luxuriate in its rambling nature, feel sadness and pity in equal measures, you laugh at and with its characters. The time is way overdue to celebrate its brilliance and the influence it’s had, now, on two generations. “Husbands” tells the story of three best friends in their early forties whose best friend unexpectedly dies. It is their first taste of mortality and their response is to go on a long weekend bender, to abandon their wives and children for the purpose of celebrating the palpable, inextricable end of the first (second?) stage of their lives. A weekend filled with drunkenness, basketball, bullying strangers, flirting with women, impulsively flying from New York to London, gambling, and singing in the rain. It is about exorcizing demons, facing the uncomfortable truths of life, and finding peace within the temporal fragility of the whole damn thing. The film is honest, frightening, and life-affirming.

I was seventeen years old. I’d already seen John’s previous (independent) film “Faces,” a film about the disintegration of a marriage, this film seen and told much more from the woman’s point-of-view, but, at fifteen, there was no way I could grasp its harrowing and truthful nature. But I was better prepared for “Husbands.” The ad line, and one that actually appears on-screen in the opening credit sequence, calls it “a comedy about life death and freedom.” Seldom has advertising ever been more truthful. And all of this profound personal impact came from sitting in a movie theatre, in the dark, for two and a half hours. If that isn’t magic I don’t know what is! And that’s what all of us deserve from life – magic. If but one person, anywhere in the world, sees my film and is imbued with that same sense of identification, wonder, and…magic, then “Flannel Pajamas” will be a raging success.

What are your biggest creative influences?

The four filmmakers who have most influenced me are John Cassavetes (for whom I worked for five years and was a friend for eighteen), Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Mike Leigh. These four men have consistently demonstrated a love for language, a propensity for exploring the human condition as it can be and is experienced almost anywhere in the world, and are the only filmmakers who conjure up and are inspired by multi-dimensional female characters, strong women, fragile women, fearless women, real women. The films that mean more to me personally than any others, in no particular order, are: “Husbands,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Local Hero,” “Life Is Sweet,” “Manhattan,” “Fanny & Alexander,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “A Night at the Opera,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Casablanca,” “Schindler’s List,” “Night & Fog,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” “The Conversation,” and “O Lucky Man!”

Where did the initial idea for your film come from?

“Flannel Pajamas” is a very personal film, informed by the most passionate relationship in my life that led to an all-too-brief marriage. But then I placed my two protagonists in the environment I live in today, and surrounded them with characters of my own invention, characters who hopefully lend heft, color, and vibrancy to the joys and tragedies that my hero and heroine experience during the course of the story.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?

The biggest challenge I faced in making “Flannel Pajamas” came in the editing room and the unbelievably painful choices I had to make as to which angle, and which equally brilliant take or reaction shot of Julianne Nicholson and Justin Kirk would wind up in the final cut of the film. I want to make a Warhol-esque version of “Flannel Pajamas” someday, merely by stringing together every single close-up of Julianne and Justin from scene to scene. It would be a perfect master class for acting students.

Describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you?

The moment I found out I’d been accepted by Sundance was 8 pm, Thanksgiving Eve, in my apartment, seated beside my eighteen-year-old niece, who I adore, and who had been an intern in our casting office. She’d just returned from her first semester at Syracuse and I was preparing to take her to a screening of “Rent.” We never made it to the screening, but we did sneak her into a tobacco bar downtown for a quiet, intimate celebration with my producer and three of his friends.

What is your definition of “independent film”?

I don’t have a definition of independent film but a few months ago I read an article that contained the most appropriate 2006 definition I can imagine to distinguish a film that isn’t independent: “If you have a release date for your movie while it’s in production, it’s not an independent film.”

What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience? What are a few other films you’re hoping to see at Sundance and why?

I broke open my piggy-bank to finance my film; I also had a little help from my friends (a lot of help from a few of them).

I hope to get a deal for quality distribution for my film out of Sundance and that my investors recoup their monies. I hope people like my film, I hope that my cast gets individual and ensemble acting awards, and I hope I meet a wonderful woman who lives in New York. I also hope it’s the springboard that gives me an opportunity to direct an episode of “The Gilmore Girls,” the best written (and acted) show on TV since Aaron Sorkin left “The West Wing.”

At Sundance I’m hoping to see “The Hawk Is Dying,” because the producer of my film was involved with it, “Old Joy,” because it is repped by my producer rep and because the star of my first feature worked in another Kelly Reichardt project a few years back, “Puccini for Beginners,” because two members of its cast are the extraordinarily talented stars of my own film, “Come Early Morning,” because I distributed Ashley Judd’s first independent film, “Art School Confidential,” because Terry Zwigoff is a genius, and Kirby Dick’s doc about the MPAA because I love great horror films. I’d also love someday to see some of the 1,100 features submitted but not accepted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival because some of them are probably brilliant.

I’d like to meet the aforementioned Kelly Reichardt, Jennifer Aniston, Vince Vaughn, Joey Lauren Adams, Julie Christie (one of the three sexiest women in the history of motion pictures), and anyone who wants to give me $2 million so I can make my next film (“Memorabilia”).

What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2005?

I haven’t seen many films in 2005; when I’m making a film, pre and post production included, I completely shut myself off from outside visual influences. But the best film of the year, in my opinion, is a no-brainer. Far and away, it is Ingmar Bergman’s “Saraband.” Others that I liked were “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Proof,” if only for Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance.

If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?

If I were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking I’d make three wonderful films in three years.

What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?

My New Year’s resolution, more a wish really, is that a very dear friend who is undergoing treatment for a serious illness experiences a full recovery and continues to dazzle us with many more wonderful films.

If you took President Bush’s job, who would you hire/fire and why?

In regard to President Bush, I don’t know nearly enough about politics to even begin to address such questions intelligently. I know as much about politics as I do about putting up dry wall. I wish I did – know how to put up dry wall, that is.

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