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Jay DiPietro, “Peter and Vandy”: Theater, Music, and Collaboration

Jay DiPietro, "Peter and Vandy": Theater, Music, and Collaboration

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: “Set in Manhattan, the story shifts back and forth in time, juxtaposing Peter and Vandy’s romantic beginnings with the slow deterioration that follows. The way they bicker while trying to order takeout, or laugh too hard at a bad joke, reveals more about them than they can ever know in the moment. As the film jumps around, the contrast is jarring at times, enlightening at others, but it always enhances the viewing experience. By rearranging the pieces of the puzzle, the film gives each piece a different meaning and offers the viewer a new experience in reflecting on what it means to fall in—and out of—love.”

Peter and Vandy
Dramatic Competition
Director: Jay DiPietro
Screenwriter: Jay DiPietro
Executive Producers: Lawrence Levine, Amanda Gruss
Producers: Peter Sterling, Austin Stark, Benji Kohn, Bingo Gubelmann
Coproducers: Matthew Parker, Carly Hugo
Editor: Geoffrey Richman
Casting: Calleri Casting
Cinematographer: Frank DeMarco
Cast: Jason Ritter, Jess Weixler, Jesse L. Martin, Tracie Thoms
U.S.A., 2008, 85 mins., color

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Jay DiPietro. I live in Manhattan, and grew up in Massachusetts.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

After getting out of acting school, I learned how to write and I wrote “Peter and Vandy” as a play. We did it downtown in NYC. I acted in it, directed it, built the sets, etc. The play was a hit, got some awards, was optioned as a film and…

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

…After being optioned, for two years the movie was not made. Very frustrating. When the two-year option was up, I brought the script to new producers and we hit the ground running.

The best thing we did was secure enough money to shoot it and set a firm date. Our funding wasn’t “cast contingent.” And as a result, we got great people. Sometimes you give a script to an actor and even if they like it, they don’t have to commit. They say, “This is great. Call me when you set a date.” And meanwhile they can get booked on other projects and then you’re back to square one. Having a firm date made it easier for people to commit. And like I said, we got great people as a result. Actors, DP, all the key positions.

Please elaborate on your approach to making the film…

This is my first feature. I had acted and directed before, but until you direct your first feature…you’re a rookie. Going into production I knew a few things… I knew how to block and talk to actors. That helps. I also knew exactly how color would be used in the film. And I knew the story. From there, my job was to execute what I knew, be open, and make sure everyone around me felt like it was their story too.

There’s a big difference between telling people what you want and getting what you want. To get what you want, you need other people to feel like it’s their project.

What other creative outlets do you explore?

I love music. I couldn’t wait to choose the soundtrack and score to the film. The coolest thing I learned about putting music to picture… it’s just like acting. If a moment is sad, for instance, a good actor doesn’t play sad – he plays against it and does something a little unexpected. Same thing with music. In the early editing stages, I brought in temp songs that seemed perfect – songs that reminded me of the scenes. And once we put them to picture it was like… “Huh? This sounds sappy.” The song wasn’t sappy. It’s just that it was matching the feeling of the scene too much. So we would find a new song that did something a little unexpected… like a good actor.

“Peter and Vandy” director Jay DiPietro. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

I wrote a scene with two characters named Peter and Vandy and had some actors read it. When the actors finished, a friend said, “You have to keep writing about these characters,” and before he could finish the sentence I knew exactly what I would write. I would write the story of this couple, but tell it out of sequence… and in doing so, make their story even clearer.

I imagined getting to know this couple intimately… and then seeing their first date. I imagined seeing them falling in love… and then seeing them call each other every name in the book.
And I imagined how all the clues to who they become would be there when they fell in love. It may feel, at first, like they just go from “innocent lovers” to “grizzled / volatile couple.” But the more we get to know them, the more we see that they are setting up who they become, even in the most romantic of scenes. By first seeing their future, we can fully understand what is happening in the past (and vice versa).

But first and foremost, I just wanted to make a truthful, funny love story.

What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?

My favorite films range from Bergman to “Midnight Run.”

Hemmingway’s short stories are a big influence. The way you felt you knew his character’s… The way he could make a single event feel like a character’s entire life.

I love the way Almodovar films look.

How do you define success as a filmmaker?

Creating a working atmosphere that people enjoy… and delivering a really good film.

What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

To do what I stated in the last answer… multiple times.

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