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SXSW ’10 | “Elephant” Meets “West Side Story”: Lipes on His “NY Export”

SXSW '10 | "Elephant" Meets "West Side Story": Lipes on His "NY Export"

Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening in the Narrative Competition, Documentary Competition and Emerging Visions sections at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

Set to air in 2010 on PBS’ Great Performances, Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost’s “NY Export: Opus Jazz” recreates and reflects on a would-be-classic dance piece. “NY Export: Opus Jazz is a scripted adaptation of a 1958 “ballet in sneakers” by Jerome Robbins, a companion piece to his legendary West Side Story, that tells an abstract tale of disaffected urban youth. Shot on location all over New York City on anamorphic 35mm, the film returns the original choreography to the streets that inspired it and stars an ensemble cast of dancers from the New York City Ballet. Following the dance film is a documentary where dance luminaries speak to the extraordinary history of the piece, while stylized screen tests of the cast of young New York City Ballet dancers provide insight into what makes the ballet contemporary.”

“NY Export: Opus Jazz”
Emerging Visions
Directors: Jody Lee Lipes & Henry Joost, Anna Farrell & Matt Wolf
Screenwriter: Jody Lee Lipes
Producers: Ellen Bar & Sean Suozzi
Music: Robert Prince
Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes
Editor: Zac Stuart-Pontier
55 minutes

Lipes on his background and film “NY Export: Opus Jazz”

I ended up going to the NYU film program because it was my reach school, so I felt the responsibility to go when I got in. I had very little interest in becoming a filmmaker, but once I got there I really fell in love with making movies. I started focusing on the camera, and lighting in college, and when I graduated it became clear to me that directing was important to me too. In addition to co-directing NY Export: Opus Jazz (SXSW ’10), I directed Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same (SXSW/Hot Docs ’09), a feature length documentary about an emerging artist in NYC putting together his first major solo show. I was also the DP on Antonio Campos’ “Afterschool” (Cannes ’08), Matt Wolf’s “Wild Combination: Arthur Russell” (Berlin ’08), and Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” (SXSW ’10).

Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, two soloists from the NY City Ballet, were in this particular Jerome Robbins ballet when it was brought back to the stage in 2005. They decided to make a film out of it that would take place off the stage in street clothes starring members of the New York City Ballet, and they went to the Jerome Robbins Trust for permission. The creative spark and drive really started with them, and they’ve carried the film all the way through.

We were really striving to subtly contextualize this rather abstract ballet. To put just enough of a hint of narrative into the film so that the dance sequences seemed a little more grounded in a place and time, but not too much so that we were forcing a story into a dance piece without a clear series of events. It was about reinforcing the ideas and themes which seemed to come from the ballet itself; youth, angst, sexuality etc, and putting them in locations which seemed to organically come out of the movement itself, and the original backdrops from the ballet itself. We also restricted ourselves visually by committing to a specific camera style for each one of the five movements; locked off, steadicam, handheld, crane, and dolly. This approach helped us give each one of the very different movements of the ballet a unique feel cinematically.

The biggest challenges were definitely financial. We were really trying to make something on an epic scale with a shoestring budget. This film would never have been made without Kyle Martin and Melody Roscher’s genius producing skills, and Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi’s ability to promote and sell their idea to the dancers, the trust, people interested in donating, and ultimately PBS. Because the four of them worked together so well, we were able to shoot on Anamorphic 35 and make something with true craft. When I think of a dance film, I don’t think of craft, and this film definitely stands out in that way. “West Side Story” is really the last film made from Jerome Robbins’ work, and we were using that as a benchmark. All throughout the process people were telling us to shoot digital and cut corners, but everyone fought together for years to try and honor the standard that Jerome Robbins has always upheld in his work.

Lipes convinces us to see a dance film…

I would never go see a dance film at a film festival, but I think people will be really surprised by this movie. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I think Mike Tully (Hammer to Nail.com) put it well when he said that this movie is like “‘Elephant’ meets ‘West Side Story.'” It’s just not what you’d expect it to be, it’s a great dance film starring some of the best dancers in the world, but it’s more than that, it’s a movie that stands on it’s own.

Lipes on Jerome Robbins…

“West Side Story,” the only film Jerome Robbins directed, got him fired from for being too much of a perfectionist, and ultimately won two Oscars for. Henry, Sean, Ellen and I were truly inspired by what we all believe to be the best attempt to capture dance on film. It’s the only movie Henry and I watched together before shooting began. This ballet was created by Jerome Robbins right after he was fired from West Side Story, and many consider it be the abstract counterpart. I believe “Opus Jazz” was really his second chance to explore the themes he was after in West Side, but without the pressures of Hollywood inhibiting him.

Lipes on what’s next…

As a DP, I’m finishing Lena Dunham’s feature “Tiny Furniture” (which is in narrative competition at SXSW this year), the narrative feature “Two Gates of Sleep” (which is a Borderline Films production in post right now), and hoping to start prep on Sean Durkin’s Sundance screen writers lab film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” this summer, and Lance Edmands’ Sundance screenwriters lab film “Bluebird” in the near future. As a director, I’m working on releasing my film “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same” with Factory 25 later this year, and I’m hoping to begin my next directing effort shortly.

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