What was your first shoot? How did it come about and who gave you the shot?

Well “Descent” was my first feature shoot – I made several shorts and some docs before that. It took about nine years before I got that first shot at a feature. “Descent” I wrote and directed and it came out in theaters in 07. I can’t say someone “gave” me the shot so much as I just grabbed the hell out of it. I’d written this character for Rosario Dawson, specifically because I’d pitched the idea beforehand and asked if she’d be down to do all the crazy stuff that happens in it. When she said yes, I wrote night and day – and then she and I basically shopped it around until someone, somewhere – ultimately Morris Levy and a group of private investors – said they would back the film without ANY changes to the script. That was kind of a miracle, given what’s in it.

Aside from the usual prep, did you have any rituals back then? Do you have any now?

I can’t call them rituals so much as bad habits – but I basically was very dogmatic about how I spent my time. An hour in the morning was always devoted to exclusive concentration on just envisioning the script, and from that hour forward I was pretty religious about not allowing anything else into my life that didn’t concern the movie. By now though my working style has changed a lot in that respect – I’m less of a fascist with myself as I’ve realized that life and art are not mutually exclusive. Don’t live in the painting – it’s not worth it. And it does not make your shit any rosier. I do have some healthy rituals now – such as writing every day, reading a scene with an actor every day, somehow, and making sure that I watch at least three new films a week.

Rosario Dawson produced and starred in your first film. How did you make that happen?

I was kind of nuts when I was 12 years old. I was hell bent on being a film director, but at the time there weren’t any real programs for kids my age. I even went to NYU to ask if I could get in then. My father made the suggestion that I find out what the actors are up to in the meantime, and so I studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. That’s where Rosario nearly tackled me into being friends with her and we’ve been close ever since – we sort of vowed we’d do some great stuff together, and I think we have, which is pretty cool.

What was the best part?

The absolute best part was having an amazing bunch of people come together to realize this thing, to make it real. It’s like a natural high, that kind of creative community. It doesn’t exist in any other part of the process other than shooting, so for that reason – to me at least – shooting is always the best part. Every day I learned a TON – you can’t buy the value of that experience, of being able to go into something creative with a plan and navigate your way through all the surprises, all the new ideas – and see it to the end of its total expression. But the runner-up best part was shooting on 35mm film, which I knew I’d never have the chance to do again.

What was the worst part?

…well. There were some serious disagreements along the way, with our producers, in terms of censorship of the material. I can tell you that the worst moment in all that was when Rosario and I were at the Tribeca Film Festival and at the Q&A we were asked “How do you feel about your NC-17 rating?” At which point we both looked at each other and realized that they’d essentially gone behind our back and gotten a rating – and not even told us! Now that’s just silly. We had all agreed previously to go out unrated, which would ultimately have been much better for the film. It’s a long story.

Is there a lesson you learned that you still carry with you today?

You can’t do it by yourself. I had the insane conviction – and the genuine misunderstanding – that I had to do every goddamn thing myself or it would never get done. I drove people crazy. I made people think I didn’t value them, their role in it. I was acting like an absolute loner when in fact I had talented people on all sides, rooting for the film. Short story long, no one does it alone. Now when I find people I have fun collaborating with, I hold onto them like the gift from god that they are.

What do you think of the current state of the independent film industry?

I think Soderbergh nailed it pretty much in that “State of Cinema” keynote in San Francisco. There’s nothing in that I disagree with, unfortunately. But – I do have every reason to hope and to believe, in my heart at least, that there will be a new kind of – what would you call it – more LOCAL, more personal approach to making smaller films. I think intimacy, true down-to-earth intimacy is sorely lacking in most films right now, and when and if it comes around, people really will respond. It doesn’t take much – just the willingness to go there. Anyway, content for indie film is going to have to take a turn. It’s just being gobbled up by great-quality cable. Either indie film is going to find a way to revive and embrace the theatrical experience, or it’s going to hand itself over to HBO.

Is there someone you can’t thank enough?

Christopher Lavasseur, my DP. He had my back one hundred percent of the time, and he found the most perfect – and fast – and gorgeous – means of expressing ALL of the crazy stuff that I had envisioned for the film. He was just always saying “fuck yes we can do that” It was dynamite. We were entirely in sync, and in circumstances that were far from ideal. At one point, the producers were being real – shysters – and the crew was about to walk. Chris put all his passion on the line and inspired them to stay and it was awesome. This was while we were shooting the ending and the poor actors were going through all this emotional trauma. Chris like – carries magic around with him, he just gave his heart to the movie.

Do you think first time filmmakers have to have a crazy faith in what they are doing because if they looked rationally at the odds they would never try?

Well – I think that way about life. I mean, if you woke up and took a long hard look at death before you started your day, you wouldn’t get too far – IF you’re living under some delusion that you might have life without death. You can’t have success without failure. Why think on those terms? It doesn’t make you a better filmmaker, it makes you neurotic. You’ve got to do your work for yourself, because you love it. Success and failure are concepts that you engage in or not, but they’re outside of you. Pay attention to what you have to give, know what you’re good at, and keep getting better at it. What else? I really believe that your way of working should be evolving not because the world has called you “successful” but because you yourself know what you love and what you’re striving for. Then you know something more akin to satisfaction. Which can totally come from what the world might call a failure, just as much as from what it might call a success. Sorry if I’m going on and on. But if on no bullshit terms you really DO love the work, then you’re not concerned with the odds of “succeeding” cause if you find a way just to DO it, then you HAVE succeeded. And as they say – love finds a way… Know what you’re aiming at, and approach it in a sensitive and methodical way – and then give it all the energy you got.

Can you tell us a little about your latest project?

Absolutely. I’m working with Tom Noonan at the Paradise Factory Theater, in the east village, in new york city. We develop original dramatic works – we stage them as intimate plays, theatrical performance or you might call them “films live” – where the audience sits on the set, with you. The development and performance of the play is actually a comprehensive rehearsal process for the making of the film. I’ve never had enough rehearsal time, so this thrills me. And to be able to rehearse a film in front of an audience before you shoot it is a ridiculous advantage. Anyway, I have one script that I developed at the Actor’s Studio and another that Tom and I wrote together. Either of these might be our re-launching of the Paradise Factory Theater this September – we won an enormous grant from the City of New York to renovate our theaters and have a totally new facility.

What are some of the challenges of being an untested film director with regards to securing financing?

You mean how do you get people to trust you? I dunno. Do anything you can think of. For one thing don’t be artsy-fartsy when it comes to money. Directing and producing are not separate tasks, especially when you’re starting out. Knowing I had gotten forty percent of my locations for free and knowing their production value was how I afforded myself the chance to do other things creatively within my budget. Money is a language and if you have a healthy respect for it, even if you’re not a known quantity, there’s a basic level of trust there you can work with. I don’t think I answered your question.

Were there any surprises that came with making the feature?

The whole thing was a non-stop surprise. I thought I was a genius – I was surprised. I thought I could control actors – I was surprised to discover I did not WANT to. Although I did keep trying. For some reason I was deeply surprised when insisting that I do everything myself resulted in my being a very lonely person.

What did you take away from this one that will inform the next one.

Well how much time do you have? I mean, look – the main thing is that I found out what I really loved about this stuff and what I could do without. I don’t know. I used to have a sort of – shot out of the cannon idea about filmmaking – but making “Descent” I realized that no, if you’re lucky – and hard-working – it’s a long journey where you endlessly refine your relationship to this craft you love. And to that extent, if you’re really going deep, you’re probably making the same film over and over again, whatever it happens to be “about.” Which is great.

What’s the most important role of a director on set?

Ironically – it’s to be direct. I’ve seen directors talk to hear themselves talk, or talk in circles just to avoid being impolite. You’ve got to BE direct. It’s harder than it sounds. At every turn people need that from you – and you’ve got to deliver it, succinctly, sincerely, and preferably without a temper. It has to do with how you relate to people. Cause at the end of the day, how much time do you really have to guide the actor’s performance. A keen director will know just what his word choice should be in that moment to communicate that specific something to the actor, and get that result. It all adds up to a matter of seconds, really, and the key is to be skilled at being direct with each individual person. Always be wary of someone who tells you what the “key” is to something

Do you have any advice for up and coming directors?

Know what you love and stop looking around. You’re never going to get satisfaction from the outside. No matter how badly you want Sundance to validate your movie, that kind of thing only goes so far. I know I sound idealistic. But I don’t think of it that way. If your sense of yourself is constantly in relation to the industry, you will never know where the hell you are, and before you know it, it’ll be over. You’ve got to carve your own path, feel your own way through the dark, and find satisfaction in yourself. Think of it like golf – don’t think of it like football.

What’s your favorite movie?

Oh thank god. That’s an easy one. Wild Strawberries, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Double Indemnity, A Clockwork Orange, Faces, Sweet Smell of Success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Streetcar Named Desire, Rosemary’s Baby, and Manhattan. But the goddamn best thing I’ve seen recently is Nobody Knows, by Hirokazu Koreeda. That and Birth, Jonathan Glazer. Sorry. I’m a dork. Also did I say In the Mood for Love?

What is your greatest acheivement to date?

You’d have to be a pompous ass to answer that question. All right let me try. You might call an “achievement” the fact that I knew what I wanted really early in life and I went after it. I started film school at NYU when I was 15. That was when I made a documentary about the Holocaust in collaboration with a survivor and lied to everyone about my age and actually pulled off making the movie. But I also had no friends and was a total weirdo. So.


Talia Lugacy

Place of Birth

Brooklyn New York


Director / Writer / Paradise Factory Theater