VISIONARY RELEASES FOUR PRODUCTIONS SIMULTANEOUSLY IN FILM FESTIVALS AROUND THE WORLD
AWARD-WINNING FILMMAKER TAKES FILMS GLOBAL
Jeremiah Kipp is a New York City based writer, producer, and director with over ten years of experience creating narrative and commercial films. He holds a B.F.A. in film from New York University, and he graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts with honors. Through his work, he has proven his ability to provide the highest level of visual direction, story development, and work with actors.
His first short film The Christmas Party in 2003 earned warm responses from over 50 international film festivals, including Cannes and Clermont-Ferrand. It also received a five star review from Film Threat (“One of the best, most polished short films of the year!”). He is currently in post-production on his second feature film, the horror Theresa & Allison. In addition, he currently has four productions in film festivals: Pickup, a movie about destructive addiction; short dramas Entanglement and How Do You Type a Broken Heart; and finally, Unvoiced, which is about schizophrenia. We had the pleasure to sit down with this busy filmmaker and get some more details about him and his work.
- Mary Swanson
NIE: Thank you for taking the time to have this interview with us. Congratulations on having four productions in film festivals around the world! What can you tell us about each of the films?
Jeremiah Kipp: As you can tell, I love to work. Slapface is a genre film about a child who forms an unusual bond with a monster in the woods while mourning the loss of his mother. When he goes home, the notion of who is the monster gets turned upside down. The monsters are more human in the other movies. Pickup, starring Mandy Evans and Jim True-Frost (from HBO's The Wire), is about sexual addiction; Entanglement, starring Lukas Hassel & Robin Rose Singer, is a deviant Craig's List hookup; Unvoiced, starring Ilaria Malvezzi, is about schizophrenia; and How Do You Type a Broken Heart, starring Obie award winning actress Emily Donahoe and rising TV ingénue Holly Curran, is a phone call in the middle of the night about a woman desperately trying to save another woman from the throes of addiction.
NIE: What originally attracted you to these projects? How did you get involved?
Jeremiah Kipp: Most of the time, I'm hired because the producer might think my directorial sensibility might be a good fit for the material. Entanglement (written by Joe Fiorillo), How Do You Type a Broken Heart (written by Sooz Nolan) and Pickup (written by Jessica Blank, whose documentary plays are well known nationally—she is one of my heroes) were all written by New York playwrights. I'm always attracted to good writing. Joe's dialogue is so lethal, with damaged characters testing each other sexually and emotionally. He's my kind of writer: dark, unafraid to peer into the uncomfortable corners of the human mind, indirect, haunted.
Sooz Nolan is more earnest, more empathetic to the pain of her characters. In Sooz's world, the domestic female protagonist reminded me of the Gary Cooper character in High Noon, full of grit and resolve masking a deeper underlying hurt. In High Noon, the girlfriend only exists to back up her man. Now, the women back up each other. It's wonderful to read that.
I had written Slapface myself, so that was self-generated and came from my desire to tell a dysfunctional family story using the monster movie as a gateway. I'm deeply attracted to genre stories where the creature is a metaphor for something more personal.
NIE: What have you learned specifically from each production that will help you in your continued profession?
Jeremiah Kipp: On Entanglement, the challenge was how to make two people talking in a room feel cinematic. The emotional inner life of the characters was feverish and large, so we shot super-widescreen in a 2:55 aspect ratio—the same as Lawrence of Arabia. Instead of a desert landscape, the map was the human faces writ large. When in doubt, be bold! How Do You Type a Broken Heart was two sides of a phone call, so we hired great actors and played the scenario as if there was a bomb under the table. You realize that with good writing, two people talking is as dynamic as a fight scene or a chase.
Slapface was something I had written and directed, so it wasn't just a work-for-hire job. Consequently, it felt messy and personal, directing as if intuitively following nerve endings. It felt scary in a good way, and I've taken that approach to my subsequent work-for-hire jobs as well.
NIE: Where did the desire to be a filmmaker stem from?
Jeremiah Kipp: I grew up with my grandparents deep in the woods in rural Rhode Island, and [I] was encouraged to express myself creatively through writing and drawing. When they got a VHS camcorder, I started gathering my friends together to make movies and saw the visual and storytelling possibilities right away. Movies became a way for me to share my feelings and ideas with others, and I never looked back.
Going to film school at New York University was life changing. I responded to the vitality of the city and the artistic community around me, and over time I became a freelance assistant director learning from others. My professional directing career started to take off around 2009, when I was faced with the choice of paying my rent or making a small personal film. I chose the film. It got good reviews, played well at festivals, and most importantly, led to more work. Everything I've done since can be traced back to that movie, and I'm truly grateful to have a career in the profession that I love.
NIE: What message are you trying to get across to the audience through your work?
Jeremiah Kipp: Love is the most important thing there is, but human beings are dangerous and complicated animals. The only way to overcome that is through the power of our imagination, whether it be playing make-believe, creating monsters, or reinventing yourself as something new. That's not so easy and can come at great cost.
NIE: What tips do you use to get your actors in character? Does your technique change depending on the project, and if so, how and why?
Jeremiah Kipp: Every actor is so different. Let's consider the three actors in Slapface by way of example. Lukas Hassel played the monster and has been familiar with the script and character for many years. He's one of my favorite actors; smart, fearless, and uncompromising. We've collaborated many times together and have a shorthand. Most of our collaboration happened in pre-production as we did makeup and wardrobe tests to make our creature specific.
Once on set, I could trust Lukas completely while working with our kid actor Joshua Kaufman, who is bright, precocious, and all over the place in rehearsals—but once the camera rolls, he locks into a frightening intensity. I had directed him before too and knew he could instinctively respond to playable verbs—and he's a bit of a method actor. He carried around a photo of his mother to help him think about if she were no longer here (even though she was on set with us every day).
Finally, Nick Gregory, who plays the dad, can only do something if the world of the movie feels very real for him. He started by basing the father on someone he knew personally who was grappling with loss, and he rehearsed the slapface game endlessly until it felt honest, not just a stunt where we considered safety first. Basically, you just hire wonderful and experienced actors and enjoy playing make-believe with them.
NIE: What aspect of filmmaking tends to be the most challenging for you, and why?
Jeremiah Kipp: I greatly enjoy all aspects of filmmaking, but line producing and budgeting a low budget movie is truly a dark art! Stretching the dollar, negotiating deals with crews and locations, having to say NO to department heads—a great line producer is a kind of artist balancing cold hard reality with artistic needs. They're frequently looked at as if they were Scrooge McDuck, so it’s a thankless but essential job.
“Be kind and professionally courteous to everybody.”
- Jeremiah Kipp
NIE: What do you personally take out of a production when you are a part of it, and what impact does it have on you?
Jeremiah Kipp: Whenever I see the movies at film festivals, it's like reading a diary of where you were at in your life that day. You always carry one job into the next because so much of you goes into the work. I couldn't have made Slapface without what I learned from Pickup. I never knew I could direct comedy until working with Liz Grosinger Samuel on Momtress and Laura Sweeney on Mommy Mafia. From Laura, a great writer and complicated person, I came to understand the anxiety of comedy and how it can mask enormous fear. Not unlike horror movies, really. I'm deeply grateful to her for that. We went on to make a scary movie together called Lost + Found and she wrote terror as powerfully as humor.
NIE: What obstacles do you face as a filmmaker and what do you do to overcome and achieve your goals?
Jeremiah Kipp: Every time you make a film, there's a new challenge. On Slapface, the camera broke down for the first half of day one. A crew of fifty people are standing around, a little kid, a guy in a monster suit, in the middle of the woods—and you have to maintain the feeling that you will persevere. On How Do You Type a Broken Heart, we had to recast one of the lead roles 48 hours beforehand. During Entanglement, our crew was trapped inside a tiny apartment with nowhere to turn doing emotionally complex work, and people got testy and heated with one another. There are many such stories. Everyone looks to the director as the captain of the ship. You could be in the middle of a breakdown and it is still your job to ask the others if they are okay.
You have to trust the process entirely and accept the hurtles as they come, always remembering that all the audience sees is what happens inside that frame of the camera. They don't care about your problems, nor should they. Their job is to watch the film, because it belongs to them now. When the going gets tough on set, I grit my teeth and remember why I wanted to tell this story, and my obligation to share that with an audience. Somehow, through the magic of cinema, we find our way through it, scene by scene, shot by shot, and I love every minute of it.
NIE: What would you say is the biggest asset for any filmmaker in the industry to achieve?
Jeremiah Kipp: There is absolutely no reason to make a film unless you have a strong point-of-view and clarity of purpose as to what you want to say. Then you think about what the point is of every scene, and whose story that scene belongs to. Taking a writing class is a huge benefit; if a director can break down a script the way a writer would, he or she understands storytelling. Taking an acting class would also have tremendous value; speaking to an actor is like learning a new language. Learning how to act in front of a camera creates enormous sympathy for the actor. I also love working with actors who direct, and incidentally, all three of the actors in Slapface had directed their own films—even the kid!
NIE: What are some of your secret tips that help you in this industry to keep grounded and focused?
Jeremiah Kipp: It sounds silly, but some of the best advice I ever received as a director was to always wear comfortable shoes and, when working on a feature, try to take 20 minute power naps at lunchtime. These things help you stay relaxed and focused. Another important piece of advice was to treat my life outside of filmmaking with the same reverence I treat making a movie. Ingmar Bergman said, "I could always live in my films but never in my life." He's a great artist, but you have to treat your life as if you're the star of your own movie and live every moment to the fullest. Frankly, amassing meaningful life experiences makes you a better director.
NIE: Who inspires you to be a better director? And who is a goal to work with?
Jeremiah Kipp: I'm inspired by my contemporaries. You surround yourself with fellow directors, writers, actors, and crew who will tell you how it is when you show them your scripts or various cuts of your movies. I'd love to direct Willem Dafoe, Jared Harris, Rosario Dawson, Samantha Morton...there are so many enormously talented people out there. And there are so many phenomenal local New York actors like Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Danny Burstein, Kathleen Chalfant...working with them would be a privilege.
NIE: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue a career in the field?
Jeremiah Kipp: My advice would be, "Don't do it!" It is a very challenging lifestyle, with periods of intense concentration punctuated by slower periods as you await the next job. You can see why so many actors are famously addicted to drugs; [it’s] because they're medicating their moods. How can one go from being so busy to so free? So if you can find something else to do in your life that gives you purpose, please go do that! If you're unable to NOT make films and have an urgent desire to communicate in this way, treat it as if it is your calling, embrace it with your whole heart, budget your life accordingly, and never look back.
NIE: What are the most impactful words of wisdom someone told you and who was it?
Jeremiah Kipp: A great producer I worked with, named Natasha Straley, decided never to take on a project ever again unless she could affirmatively answer the question, "Does this make my heart sing?" Until that point, I had taken on jobs for passion or love of the material, but also jobs for money or jobs to have something to do. Natasha, who has gone on to an incredible directing career in her own right, helped me gain a vital perspective. You must always ask yourself if this film has real value for you; because making them is so challenging, you should only do what you love. I occasionally still direct for the money (we are all mercenaries and have to draw our wages!), but I try to find a personal way into it that speaks to me. Natasha taught me that, and also the power of gratitude for every opportunity that comes your way.
NIE: What are three things you would say to your younger self that you know now?
Jeremiah Kipp: One: Work begets work, and if you work with good clients, you will attract more good clients. If you work with bad clients, it will attract more bad clients.
Two: Always do the best you can in every situation, and don't be afraid to push the cast and crew for that last punishing mile because that pain is temporary; whereas if you take your eye off the ball of your movie, you'll always recognize the compromise in the finished product and will regret it forever.
Three: Be kind and professionally courteous to everybody. The cast and crew frequently look to the director and lead actor to see how to behave. If you act like a bastard, they will eventually turn on you when you have that shot you desperately need. It's not their problem. But if they feel you've honored their work, they will repay that by honoring yours.
NIE: What's next for you?
Jeremiah Kipp: I am in post-production on the short films Sins, which is a 1960s era murder story within the Italian-American community, and Perfect, which is a 21st century Frankenstein tale with a female protagonist as the creator. I'm in pre-production on the feature length version of Slapface, which came about because I had the script, look book, and short film proof of concept ready to go. Always have that feature length script tucked under your arm.
NIE: Thank you for having this interview with us. Before you have to leave, is there anyone you would like to thank?
Jeremiah Kipp: I had an art teacher in high school named Mariann Callahan. She was really tough and instilled in me the value of learning the rules before I broke them. I was such an unruly student, but she stuck with me, even helping me find grants and scholarships that allowed me to go to NYU. Without her belief in me, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I really owe her everything. Good teachers are never paid enough and help you see that you're following in the footsteps of all who came before. Mrs Callahan, you were one in a million.