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LAFF ’10 | “Upstate” Directors Katherine Nolfi & Andrew Luis Talk Collaboration

LAFF '10 | "Upstate" Directors Katherine Nolfi & Andrew Luis Talk Collaboration

Coping with the death of her mother, Liz decides to break her self-imposed isolation by visiting Steve, an old friend she has not seen in years who is now married and living in rural New York State. Liz and Steve’s reunion quickly grows complicated as long buried emotions reignite. This does not escape the attention of Sylvia, Steve’s wife, who must protect her marriage from the sparks flying between her husband and Liz.

The traditions of Shaker culture, the novel treasures of an antique shop, the Americana of a county fair, the steadfastness of the lush Catskill Mountains: all these elements inform Liz’s quest to rediscover herself. Katherine Nolfi and Andrew Luis’ portrait of the ever-shifting dynamics of personal relationships, past and present, plays out as a sun-dappled fever dream, its idyllic setting putting everyone’s personal desire in context. Over the course of a long weekend, each member of this uneasy trio must work towards a new understanding of the others, allowing the regrets of the past to give way to the possibility of change. [Synopsis courtesy of LAFF]

Narrative Competition
(USA, 2010, 80 mins, HDCAM – Frame Rate 23.98)
World Premiere
Directed By: Katherine Nolfi, Andrew Luis
Executive Producer: Jennifer Fox
Producer: Melanie Pimentel
Screenwriter: Katherine Nolfi
Cinematographer: Brian Feeney
Editors: Ben Brown, Andrew Luis, Katherine Nolfi
Cast: Iracel Rivero, Max Arnaud, Suzan Mikiel Kennedy

The filmmakers make their introductions…

Andrew Luis: I’ve been working in film now for the past 8 years.  I didn’t study film in college.  I’ve always been obsessed with movies and enjoyed the whole ritual of going to the theater to watch movies.  I started out writing a few short scripts for fun and then decided it only made sense to try and learn how to produce and shoot them myself.  I’ve been shooting ever since and have been fortunate enough to form a number of close collaborative relationships with other filmmakers which have helped me tremendously. 

Katherine Nolfi: I studied film at NYU as an undergraduate.  As a young person, I wasn’t aware that being a film director was something people did.  At age 13, however, the stars aligned and I saw “Citizen Kane” and “The Elephant Man” on late-night TV.  It became immediately obvious to me that these films had authors.  Directing films is the only thing I’ve wanted to do since. 

On the filmmakers’ working process…

So much of our work develops out of long conversations that start out about the films we are watching and then inevitably turn into conversations about the films we want to make.  We had just finished our short, “Unlimited”, which screened last year at SXSW.  “Unlimited” didn’t have a script, it was based on conversations with our friend Ben, the star, who is a Chinese immigrant and around whose life the film is based.  We knew we wanted to do a feature and we knew we wanted it to have a script and be more structured but we also wanted to maintain the looseness and verisimilitude we had established in our short work.

We always start out with character, in this case Liz, and build from there.  We knew Liz would be emerging from a period of self-inflicted isolation following the death of her mother and we knew she would travel to the country to visit an old friend.   From there we spent a lot of time in the area where we would be shooting, just trying to let the story organically grow with the character and the place.

On collaboration…

We’re both strong believers in collaboration, particularly as a means for typically underrepresented people to gain access to the world of filmmaking.  Collaboration is essential to our partnership and we try to carry this over to the production of our films.  We were fortunate enough to have a cast and crew who were willing and able to be full collaborators.  The cast and crew were made up of friends and colleagues, all from diverse backgrounds, whose ideas and experiences informed the film.

On begging, borrowing, stealing…

We both have day jobs as does our producer, Melanie Pimentel.  With all of us working full-time pre-production took a long time.   And of course making a low-budget, truly independent film is such a crazy venture.  We begged, we borrowed, we stole…  We’ll never be able to repay all the favors we incurred while making “Upstate”.   

On bringing the film to LAFF…

We hope LAFF audiences will take to the film’s subtlety and sincerity.  We strove for a certain honesty and genuineness with the performances, the story and the production that we wish we saw more of in American independent films. 

The filmmakers talk inspirations…

There are so many films that inspired us with this film and as filmmakers in general. With “Upstate”, we were inspired by films like Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry”, Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy”, all of Ozu’s films—particularly “Late Spring”, Martin Scorsese’s “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”, John Schlesinger’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and Ivan Passer’s “Intimate Lighting”. 

We’re both quite fond of Ozu and his shooting style – these very quiet and still composed shots that convey this very keen sense of space and place that the characters move through daily.  Then there’s a different kind of intimacy that’s conveyed in the Czech new wave film “Intimate Lighting” that we really love. It’s this kind of small scale production in which actors mingle with non-actors.   It’s the stillness and simplicity of this film and the films of Reichhardt and Van Sant that really speak to us as filmmakers and inspire us.  And by simplicity we don’t necessarily mean style, because the style can be seen as not so simple, but a kind of simplicity of performance and technique that masks the immense human complexities going on.

Alternately, we’re really influenced by Scorsese’s and Schlesinger’s ability to cut into character’s interior worlds and subvert the plot with more personal and emotional moments.

The filmmakers’ new project…

Right now we’re in pre-production for a documentary on the potter’s field in NYC, known as Ward’s Island.  It’s a small island near the Bronx where the city buries all the unclaimed bodies and the poor of New York.  It’s run by the Department of Corrections, so inmates from Rykers work and maintain the island.   

Andrew is in pre-production for a narrative feature, “Winter June”.  It’s about a young Filipino boy growing up on Staten Island, New York during the 90’s.  Staten Island is kind of known as the forgotten borough of New York.  It’s a part of the City that people don’t associate with the City because it’s disconnected by most public transportation, aside from a ferry.  This disconnect is kind of personified in June, the protagonist in the film.  The film mixes elements of magical realism and verite. 

Katherine is working on a story set in the world of Rust Belt light manufacturing and a web series based on the found documents of a lost American revolutionary group.

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