(Photo credit: Paul Mpagi Sepuya)
Full disclosure: Filmmaker Josh Sanchez is not only a talented editor, writer (soon you will be able to check out his short story “A Night Out” in the upcoming début issue of Mary, coming at you like a homosexual missile on December 22) and director, he is also a friend.
A native of Houston, Texas, Josh graduated from Columbia University’s MFA Film Program in 2004. Joshua has won the HBO Films Young Producer’s Development Award, participated in Tribeca All Access at the Tribeca Film Festival, and in the IFC – New York’s No Borders program during Independent Film Week.
His films have screened at festivals internationally including South by Southwest, Telluride Film Festival, Istanbul International Film Festival, and Outfest. His ongoing experimental film project ‘Screentests’ will have its premiere at PS122 Gallery in New York City in February 2010.
Four maps the emotional charged interactions of four interrelated characters over the course of one night on in Hartford, CT: A white male teenager’s rendezvous with a closeted, married, black man he’s met over the internet, and the closeted man’s sixteen-year-old daughter’s date with a low-level drug-dealer.
In a review for The New York Times, critic Margo Jefferson stated that, “the play keeps delivering small shocks and aches that end in a standoff, or maybe in the pause between despair, resignation, and a twinge of hope. Haunting.”
Josh took some time to talk with Mary about acquiring and adapting Shinn’s work, the lack of sentiment in contemporary art films, and the best films of the decade.
So can you tell me a little about when your passion for film began?
Wow, nobody has ever asked me that before. I guess if I could put my finger on it, I remember being a bit of an insomniac as a kid. I would wake up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I’d go watch TV. There would always be a movie on to watch, but often times they would show really edgy stuff because it was late at night. I remember seeing movies like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider. And movies like that really just blew my mind. I just started to think about how movies were made and how they could do more than just entertain. They can really affect people emotionally.
So early on you knew that you wanted to be a film maker?
No, not necessarily. I was actually more obsessive about music at that time in my life, like when I was 10 or 11 years old. I thought for a long time that I wanted to be a musician. When I was a teenager I played in a few punk bands and sort of realized that I was too shy to be in a band. I guess when I really started to consider doing it seriously was my late teen years. I was into the stuff the Richard Linklater was doing at that time in Texas where I grew up; his movies Slacker and Dazed and Confused in particular. Then I went to college in Austin and really moved directly into that scene, which was really vibrant and full of life at that time. I decided I wanted to at least take some classes and try it out to see if I liked it. Then I ended up majoring in film, so that sort of how it started.
Does your love of music still play a part in how you conceive and direct your films or do you sort of separate your passions?
It absolutely does. I actually think most people who get into film making are failed musicians at heart. They kind of use the same set of skills, it’s just that film is visual. But both mediums are very wide in scope and almost illusive, trying to create a sort of structure out of reality. But I constantly think about what music I would put in certain scenes, and in some ways write to whatever music I’m listening to, or what the character would be listening to. I’m still really passionate about music to this day. I’m a big music fan and still collect records. I used to DJ on UT radio, which was really great. I think that was what I was better at…Just being a fan and playing records.
I like the thought of creating a “structure out of reality” and I would assume a directors job really is the composition of that structure. You mentioned both Linklater and “Easy Rider”, and those structures seem to be a more improvisational vibe or relaxed, is that how you would describe your own personal technique or style?
Not really. No. When I started making narrative films I remember being really inspired by all those Dogma filmmakers like Von Trier, and what they were doing with a looser structure and camera work. I’m also a huge Cassavetes fan, so I thought naturally my style would be like that. But I tend to visualize more in composition and atmosphere so the scenes appear very composed. That’s just what comes out of me for some reason, although I have made a few films that were somewhat improvised. What I’ve always admired about Linklater is that he’s made a real variety of films. Some of them are more improvisational, others are very scripted and composed. Even Cassavetes’ work was very thought out, although it appears at times to be improvised. Everyone thought that he just put actors in a room and let them hash it out, but he was actually quite a gifted screenwriter.
I was actually thinking that one of the things I love about your short films is the composition. You have these “beauty moments”, but also a strong sense of naturalism underneath the loveliness. To me you are striving to combine the best of two worlds
Thanks. I tend to be attracted to the more psychological or emotional aspects of character and story, but since I have a background more in the visual aspect, I guess they overlap somewhat.
And now you are working on adapting, Four, Christopher Shinn’s first play into a film. How hard was it to option the work of a high profile playwright like Shinn.
It was a pretty difficult process. Essentially the project came about because I was asked to interview someone for PS122′s artwurl.org web zine. I just happened to see Chris’ play Where Do We Live at the Vineyard Theater around that time and really liked it, so I decided to interview him for the piece. We just hit it off really well from the beginning. We’re around the same age and have a similar sensibility creatively, so we became friends through that. I read all of his plays up to that point to research the interview. But Four popped out at me right off the bat as something I wanted to work on. It has a real visual quality to it which most plays don’t. I also related to the material because it reminded me of the kind of world I saw around me as a teenager. I understood the characters right away.
The optioning of it was really hard. I approached Chris about it originally and another filmmaker had the rights, so I couldn’t do it. A year passed from that point, this was in 2004 I believe, and then Chris approached me about the rights because the other filmmaker didn’t renew the option. I had hooked up with a producer at that time who I’m no longer working with, and we optioned the play together although it took a year to work out the deal. So it was like two years to make it happen.
So Chris had seen some of your work?
Yeah. After we met he asked me to send him some of my films. I sent him my short Kill or Be Killed which I’d just finished and he sent me this really nice note back saying how much he like it. It was a good feeling because I love his work so much and respect him as an artist and a human being. So I think he could see something in my films that connected with Four somewhat.
How do you feel that your visions complement each other?
His work often times deals with the psychological exploration of his characters in an in depth way while placing these characters into the context of contemporary American situations. He’s a very American playwright, which is something I really relate to. I think of myself as an American artist, as unhip as that may sound, but that is my material. My material and his material are sort of the same because of our backgrounds and generations. I grew up in the suburbs, so my world view is really coming from that place. I don’t really have any other stories to tell other than those. His plays also often deal with issues of race, class and gender politics. Not in a political way, but in a dramatic way, which is something I really love about his work. He’s very attentive to the value of storytelling and narrative and how these things are important to the world we live in.
Race. Class. Gender. These are huge, American themes that contemporary “American” art films have a sort of aversion to addressing.
Yes. I mean there is honestly barely an art cinema left in the US. It’s been so marginalized commercially. I think it’s really important for narrative film in America to have voices that are coming from different places. Unfortunately in this country we have a system that appreciates to some extent foreign art cinema and social documentary work, but is mostly driven by Hollywood, So if you don’t fall into those fields you’re sort of left high and dry as a filmmaker. Then internationally unless you’re “big indie” or Hollywood they don’t want to see it. I’ve had so many people in the business tell me that people here and abroad do not want to watch serious films about people of color. It’s really fucked up. I think it’s changing in recent times with films like Precious (which I had mixed feelings about) because people, real moviegoers, are sort of starved to see their lives reflected back to them in the cinema. Sorry that was a bit of a rant.
We are post everything. Post-Race. Post-Gay. Post-Feminism. Post-Post!
That’s what they say, but I don’t necessarily feel like my life is post-anything. I see a lot of intense shit around me all the time and I’ve always tried to deal with that directly in my work without any detachment. I think to some degree a lot of artists can become really successful only if they are totally removed from any real emotional connection to their subject matter. It kind of bothers me because I feel like that attitude doesn’t necessarily speak to me as a person or as a creative person. And it sort of has a strange cultural effect as well. It’s like nobody is allowed to have any sentiment any more.
What do you think changed in film? What killed sentiment in serious cinema?
I don’t think it’s just in film; it’s in culture in general. Truth be told, and this may get me into trouble, I think it’s a rejection of the psychological, which probably has ties to the politics of our day. Anything psychological has become suspect and un-cool. We do not value any kind of internal analysis of why we really do the things we do. It’s seen as some dated Freudian concept to actually get to the heart of why people do what they do. Fassbinder has this quote that I love: “I don’t believe that melodramatic feelings are laughable – they should be taken absolutely seriously.” He’s probably my favorite filmmaker because I think his best work really took the essence of psychology and sentiment and melodrama and placed them into this context of contemporary society. Often times his films were brutal to watch emotionally, but they had so much heart and soul because they were true to their characters lives. I think this is something that is sorely missing in American cinema in particular.
Interesting. There seems to be a desire for the return of “emotion.” And I would say the popularity of Tyler Perry speaks to that, and I know people dislike his work for numerous reasons, but he embraces genuine sentiment (some say melodrama) and topical issues of love, race, class, but it comes down to marrying that sentiment with a substantial, thoughtful technique. Which should be the job of art films, but a lot of indie filmmakers seem to have no interest in doing this. So I am ready for your film to remedy this situation, and basically save the world (laughs).
(laughs). I think Tyler Perry’s work is really interesting. It kind of jumps off from that almost Sirkian melodramatic stance, but it never really goes there in the end. I would love to have seen him make Precious. I wish he would really go into the analytic part of melodrama, because it’s totally untapped territory especially with regards to American people of color. His films are successful, but they are almost seen as novelty for black people. I hope Four will prove to some degree that there can be cinema that deals with a real American perspective, but that is also entertaining and thought-provoking and intelligent as well. I really liked the film Medicine for Melancholy which came out this year. I’m not sure how successful it was, but it was the first movie I’d seen that sort of bridged some of these gaps.
Yes that movie also had my crush Wyatt Cenac. So that leads to my next question. The decade is coming to a close, and there is nothing that film art geeks like better than making lists. Now we have the “End of Decade” lists: the big momma of all list! So what are some of your favorite films of the decade?
Yes, Wyatt is very cute(laughs). Favorite films? Let’s see…Mulholland Dr., Yi-Yi, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, In the Mood for Love, A.I., The Royal Tennenbaums, There Will be Blood, Children of Men, The New World, La Cienega, Talk to Her, Happy-Go-Lucky…God there were so many. Those come to mind as some of the greats of this decade in my humble opinion.
Should I get you into trouble and ask you what were the worst films?
Whoa…that’s a tough one. Gosh…This is really going to get me in trouble with all the indie film people…One that comes to mind is Hannah Takes the Stairs. I really tried to like mumblecore, but that really put me over the edge with it. Of that genre I liked Mutual Appreciation the best. But there was so much dodgy, meaningless banter in that movie. I wanted to slit my wrists.
Hannah should have taken the elevator shaft?
Somebody should have. I wonder if the white, middle-class hipster kids, which they’re supposed to be speaking for, actually like those films? I suppose that wasn’t a film that was made for me, so much as it was made for their friends. But it was such an un-cinematic film to me. Like just bad filmmaking.
Before we close, I know you are entering into the fundraising aspect of your pre-production on Four. Can you tell me a little about the Kickstarter Campaign?
My producer, Christine Giorgio, and I are raising development money for Four through this website Kickstarter that allows people to contribute donations online. They can donate just to donate, or we are offering some pretty amazing pieces of photography from artists around NYC that have generously donated work. We are also hosting a fundraising party on Dec. 18th to raise money for our campaign. It’s going really well so far. We just started and have about $2,500. The link for the page is www.kickstarter.com/projects/fourthemovie/four.
Cool. And is there anything you want to add about the project in general?
There is a bunch of information about the film at www.fourthemovie.com. I would just say that I’m really pleased to be involved with it. I think we have a really solid chance of getting the film off the ground. To me it’s a very important, provocative story that has a universal quality to it. And the team we have assembled is really strong, and hopefully we will get to make the film the way we see it.
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