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Tribeca Film Festival: Jody Lee Lipes on Directing ‘Ballet 422’ and Working with Lena Dunham

Tribeca Film Festival: Jody Lee Lipes on Directing 'Ballet 422' and Working with Lena Dunham

Though he has worked as a screenwriter, cinematographer, producer, director and even actor (he had a tiny part in “Tiny Furniture”), Jody Lee Lipes is reluctant to pigeonhole himself. He’d prefer to be known as just a “filmmaker.” 

“The way I think of it is anybody who is really great at their job who
works in the film business is a filmmaker – it doesn’t matter if they’re
a PA or a director. I think of someone who is a great PA who
understands the story and understands what they need to do as a
filmmaker. I aspire to be a filmmaker whatever I’m doing,” Lipes, who alternates between fiction and nonfiction projects, recently told Indiewire.

Lipes recently directed his third film, the verite documentary “Ballet 422,” which will screen in competition at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, but he is perhaps better known as a cinematographer, having served as DP on Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” Antonio Campos’ “Afterschool,” Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and episodes of “Girls.” 

He then served as both cinematographer and director on “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same” and “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” which was an audience award winner at SXSW in 2010. It was there that he met another fledgling filmmaker, Lena Dunham, who asked him to shoot “Tiny Furniture.” Next up, Lipes will shoot Judd Apatow’s latest film, “Trainwreck.”

As if all of that weren’t impressive enough, Lipes is also developing several feature length screenplays (one was selected for the 2012 Sundance Directors Lab) and has several documentary ideas percolating.

In “Ballet 422,” Lipes creates an intimate and gripping look at the world of professional ballet and the creative process that goes into the company’s 422nd original piece, choreographed by wunderkind Justin Peck.

What interested you in Ballet 422?

This film isn’t really about ballet. It could be about any creative undertaking. I think of myself less as a ballet fan and more interested in how people are really good at what they do and are really focused on what they go through in the process of making what they make. That’s how I came to this project.

I recently watched “Running Fence,” the Maysles film. That kind of film for me is a huge influence, as well as Frederick Wiseman. I think the difference with Wiseman is that I’ve never seen an example of his work where he’s focusing on a specific person as a character. It’s usually an institution. This (“Ballet 422”) was sort of in his style and trying to emulate his style.

The ending (of “Ballet 422”) is really important. That’s my favorite part of the film. I think it took me a little while to understand this idea that you can do really great work in whatever artistic pursuit you’re going after, and you can be recognized, but you have to keep doing it. You can never stop. You go back to zero and start all over again. You can’t rest on your laurels. It may get easier in some ways and harder in other ways. The fact that Justin went back to dancing after all of this was really something.

How did you get your start in the film business?

My dad is a painter and I got into a fight with my painting and drawing teacher in high school, so to piss her off I quit the class and took a brand new video class at school. I started to feel like I had a natural ability at it. I was getting positive reinforcement and I felt good doing it. I don’t think I ever “decided” to do it. Then I ended up applying to NYU, which was my reach school, but I don’t think I thought of myself as wanting to be a director. I met a lot of great people there who I still work with: Kyle Martin (who produced “NY Export: Opus Jazz”), Matt Wolf (“Teenage”), Lance Edmonds (“Bluebird”). I met the Borderline film guys (Tisch film school alums Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond) right when I finished NYU.

You are a cinematographer, a writer, producer and director. How do you manage your time and prioritize projects?

At the end of the day, if I had to pick one, I’d pick director, which is where I feel most comfortable. But being a DP comes easiest to me. It’s something I’ve been really lucky about in the projects I’ve gotten to work on. It’s easier for me to work as a DP and make money as a DP, but my focus over the past few years after going to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, making this film and directing “Girls” has been to get more towards my career as a director. 

Even when I shoot, part of the process is learning how other people direct, which in a way is what the film is about. Learning what someone else’s process is so it can inform my own process makes me better at what I want to do. I am shooting Judd Apatow’s movie right now (“Train Wreck.”) Judd is a great filmmaker and he has a very different process and priorities than I do. For me to go through that boot camp and having that perspective and getting to work on a film that’s on a much larger scale is an educational process for me and prepares me for when, if I’m lucky enough, I can step into that role some day.

How did you first connect with Lena Dunham?

Lena and I both had our first movies at SXSW in 2009. I had this documentary, “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never be the Same” and she had “Creative Nonfiction,” and Janet Pierson (SXSW festival director) did an interview and said our two films were her favorite films at the festival. Then Lena and I met at a party and she met Kyle (Martin), and asked him to produce her film and asked Lance (Edmands), who edited my documentary, to edit “Tiny Furniture.” She wanted to make this really small movie and we had just finished making a bigger film, which was “NY Export: Opus Jazz.”

We just wanted to make something small and fun, which would not necessarily amount to much, but it was all material we cared about. It turned out that was probably the biggest thing that has happened to me career-wise. When Lena asked me to shoot the pilot for “Girls,” I didn’t really believe it was happening. It sounded too good to be true. I was shooting “Martha Marcy May Marlene” at the time. I thought there’s no way that will happen and there’s no way they’ll let me shoot it. Then I got back from shooting “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and (Lena) was like “this is happening now.” The second day of shooting the pilot, (showrunner) Jenni Konner asked me if I would like to direct episodes of the show if it got picked up. Lena is so collaborative and so easy to work with. Jenni and Judd (Apatow) noticed that we were helping each other out.

Are you more comfortable with fiction or nonfiction?

I approach them in different ways. My good friend Micah Bloomberg is a screenwriter and sound mixer. We’ve done a lot of projects together. He once pointed out to me that when I shoot narrative films, I try to limit the editing options and when I shoot documentaries, I do the opposite. Both of those things inform each other. I like the idea of going back and forth between scripted films and documentary; I think it makes you better at both. With narrative a lot of the time, I want it to feel like the way it’s edited is decided beforehand. It’s very clearly a director’s hand and a very thought out formal process that works really well for me a lot of the time. 

With documentary, it’s so hard to make it feel polished and feel like cinema and like you’re watching a movie. I like to shoot as much as I can so it gets away from how documentaries often feel and gets into how cinema feels. In general, it frustrates me that there are different expectations for documentary and narrative. Documentary is basically just shit upon all the time and nobody thinks it’s as important as narrative film. Nobody gives it the weight of narrative film and, because of that, documentaries get away with being sloppier and less focused on craft and aesthetic and storytelling. So I try to avoid that.

What were the biggest challenges with “Ballet 422?” How did you manage to get the access?

Access wasn’t a problem. We were allowed to shoot whatever we wanted to shoot. Even though we were allowed to shoot everything, physically, where we could put the camera was hard. There are people whose job it is to protect the dancers and protect the orchestra and make sure a camera would never get in the way. So there was a little bit of having to be careful about where you are and being limited as to where you could be shooting from. Overall, there was no drama about getting the film done or doing what we wanted to do. Ellen did a really good job of setting it up so it all happened the way it needed to happen. We were shooting for a little over 3 months.

You clearly made a conscious decision to be more of a fly-on-the-wall, verite documentary than talking heads. How did you come to that decision and were you concerned about creating an overarching narrative thread?

Up to this point in my life, there are plenty of documentaries that I love that have talking heads in them, like “The Crash Reel,” which is great and makes me cry. Stylistically, for me, I’ve always veered towards things happening rather than people talking about things happening. For me, I’m always looking at stories that play out physically. Visual storytelling is what excites my brain more. I was just watching this great documentary – it was half verite and half talking heads. I found myself looking at my watch when it was talking heads. That’s how my brain works. There’s something more engaging to me about not getting everything right away and having to figure it out a little bit and the way information comes slowly sometimes. That keeps me engaged. It’s not an intentional thing where I want to keep people in the dark, but it’s a little more about allowing the audience to think for themselves when you shoot in the vérité style.

What’s your advice for budding filmmakers?

Make things and work really hard and don’t stop making them. I think that’s really the best you can do. If you look at Justin in this film, he’s a great example to follow. He works really hard and doesn’t spend time basking in the attention he’s receiving. He just does the work and the work is ultimately the most important thing. It’s not about meeting people and making connections. That stuff fades away. The most important thing is what you produce and how you treat people. Work hard.

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