Conn. natives have films chosen by Tribeca Film Festival
What began 16 years ago as an attempt to bring people back to downtown Manhattan during the aftershocks of 9/11 has grown into one of the country’s most important movie festivals.
The Tribeca Film Festival, which opens Wednesday, April 18, and runs through Sunday, April 29, has become a mammoth annual event, with dozens of screenings of new movies carefully curated by the selection committee, and a host of panel discussions and special events for movie lovers.
Four Connecticut filmmakers are basking in the glow of having their movies chosen for this year’s festival. Fairfield native Peter Nickowitz co-wrote the Ansel Elgort vehicle, “Jonathan.” Luke Daniels, who grew up in Stamford, has “Untogether,” starring Jamie Dornan (of “Fifty Shades of Grey”), premiering at the fest. Easton native Jill Magid has a film she directed, “The Proposal,” being screened and Paul Lieberstein from Westport produced and stars in “Song of Back and Neck.”
I had a chance to talk with Nickowitz and Daniels about their films, which will have several screenings during the 11-day event.
For Nickowitz, the unveiling of “Jonathan” marks his emergence as a produced screenwriter after working on several projects than never came to fruition. He is a poet and playwright who has taught at New York University for several years. The writer has learned the truth of critic Pauline Kael’s famous assertion that Hollywood is one of the few places where “you can die of encouragement.”
Nickowitz has gone through a number of near misses on film projects, including an adaptation of a play that attracted “two great actors” just before it died when the playwright was unhappy with the transfer of his story from stage to screen. It was in 2015 that Nickowitz and his longtime writing partner Bill Oliver came up with the idea for “Jonathan” — a science-fiction-tinged drama about two brothers who are very close until one of them falls in love and begins to neglect the other, which got a strong response at the annual Independent Feature Project conference in New York.
“That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” the writer says of the IFP. “The people were friendly and supportive and we were able to practice pitching the movie together. They had a session that was like speed dating with (potential) producers and we just happened to meet a guy who responded to the idea. We continued to talk with him and he became our producer.”
Nickowitz and Oliver worked on the script for another year, but after it went to the Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles — which represents many of the best actors in show business — “Jonathan” began gathering momentum. The script soon had Academy Award nominee Patricia Clarkson and rising star Elgort (who broke out in the 2017 summer hit “Baby Driver”) attached.
“When Patricia Clarkson was cast we were more than thrilled,” Nickowitz says of the veteran stage and screen dynamo. “I’m sure she is on most people’s lists. ...We were incredibly lucky.”
Nickowitz grew up loving movies and theater, but never believed it was a world he could enter. “I used to teach a class on dramatic writing (at NYU) and I would wonder, ‘Who are these 18 or 19 year olds who already know what they want creatively and know they want to be dramatic writers?’ When I was 18 it didn’t occur to me that somebody could just say, ‘I want to do this.’”
Daniels’ moviemaking story is very different. He is a former actor who has had great success as a producer, with 54 credits since he made the career transition a decade ago. Daniels, who underwent a name change during his acting days (he was born Photios Kyriakoudis), got tired of waiting for other people to give him acting jobs. Inspired by the success of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with “Good Will Hunting,” Daniels decided to put together a project he could act in.
Instead, the Stamford High School graduate learned he liked being behind the scenes much more than being in front of a camera. “I knew that I was way better at this,” he says of producing. “This feels 100 percent right to me. ... An actor’s life can be maddening because you don’t feel in control of your career.
“Of course, now I’m waiting for some actor to say yes (to a project),” he adds, laughing.
While he prefers intense cop dramas in the vein of “Training Day,” he is happy that people are responding so strongly to the Dornan love story that will be unveiled at the Manhattan festival.
“I’m thrilled to be at Tribeca. The movie is great. Everybody delivered,” he says of a cast that also includes Billy Crystal, Lola Kirke (of Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle”) and Jemima Kirke (of HBO’s “Girls”).
While the movie press recently has been filled with reports that it is getting harder to attract audiences to the multiplexes with non-franchise movies, and home entertainment is taking a terrible toll on the theatrical business in general, Daniels is an optimist.
“It has gotten harder, but the way I look at it is I love the fact that it’s harder. I’m OK with the survival of the fittest. You just have to be better now,” he says.
The producer thinks the clock is ticking on the Marvel and DC Comics movies that suck up so much of Hollywood’s attention. “Everything is a trend. People will eventually get bored with the Marvel movies. (Big action movies) will always be there, but you can’t expect people to eat the same thing every day.
“The key is, if you make a great film the audience will find it,” he says.
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