Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Time Out For A Talk: Jeremiah Kipp and Dominick Sivilli

Time Out For A Talk: Jeremiah Kipp and Dominick Sivilli

When working in independent film, it requires a certain quality of person. Certain abilities to work with a budget that couldn't buy you a moped. To work with, and teach, lesser experience individuals who are most likely friends, or that girl who did a commercial for a local hot tub company. Sometimes even filling extras with that homeless guy for your horror film just because he actually lives ON Elm Street. None the less, all these things put together and they still manage to pull everything together and give the audience a beautiful spectacle of intense imagery. Not everyone can do it, in fact, most can't. These people are special. These people are Gods among the little men in film. They give inspiration to starting filmmakers everywhere like myself and everyone else. These people are bad ass mother fuckers! That being said, it could actually go without saying these two men I have interviewed, Jeremiah Kipp and Dominick Sivilli are indeed bad ass mother fuckers!

Dominick Sivilli
Jeremiah Kipp

This has to be one of the best interviews I have ever read, and it is so hilarious interviewing the both of them at the same time. This interview cracks me up on multiple occasions. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

R.D. Penning - First off, where and when did you begin your film making career? I want to know a little bit of your past, and how you got started in film.

Kipp: Film making for me emerged out of my interests as a kid. From an early age, my family saw I preferred drawing to coloring books, so they always made sure I had pencils and crayons available. My grandfather used to read me stories, so I started imagining and writing my own. I also noticed an ad in the newspaper looking for children to be in a play, so that started me on being a child actor. When my family got a camcorder just to record weddings, I saw it combined the visual arts, storytelling and performance, and I knew from age twelve what I wanted to do with my life. By the time I was applying for colleges, I had made something like 300 terrible zombie movies in my backyard, but it was enough to cut together a reel and apply to NYU film school, which I got accepted for based on the strength of my grades, a ton of scholarships and grants, and my reel.

Sivilli: Fuck. How can I top that? (thinks) I emerged as a filmmaker from the day I was born… (laughs) This is a hard question to answer, Russ. I guess if film making deals with images, then when you first start to become a filmmaker, it’s when you first start imagining. Just like Jeremiah, I always drew and colored. I was never good at history or math. My grades were always high in art, and I remember every Friday my father would take me to rent a movie. It would usually be one of the Godzilla movies, and we must have seen all of them. It was later that he introduced me to movies like Gremlins and my all time favorite, Robocop. Watching these movies was a big inspiration. Having no idea how movies are made, though, you never pursue trying to make a career out of it.
It wasn’t until high school that I was introduced to my English teacher and later my mentor Bart Mastronardi, who had a film club established. It was there that I realized that making movies was fairly simple. In film club, I made my first few backyard movies. I would later go on to learn at the prestigious New York Film Academy, where I realized making movies isn’t as simple as just pressing record. And now I help teach there.

R.D.Penning - What was your first film making experience like? Were you nervous?

Kipp: I think on every movie you need to do at least one thing that scares you. You need to continually push yourself. But I never remember what the experience is like because I throw myself into it totally. Trying to remember the experience is like trying to remember a dream after you wake up. I don’t care about that. I prefer making movies to talking about it and telling stories about it.

Sivilli: Nervous? No, never nervous. I’m anxious. I can never sleep at night knowing I have a film shoot in the morning. Yes, making movies is hard work and you deal with a lot of stress. But the reality is, we’re filmmakers. We’re not soldiers taking bullets for our country. It’s not brain surgery. However, it is difficult, because it is a craft that one must practice every day until you find yourself, breaking new boundaries in that craft. And if you’re nervous, you’re only nervous once, probably because it’s your first time doing it.

R.D. Penning - When did you two first meet each other? What was the first project you worked on together?

Kipp: We first met on the set of Alan Rowe Kelly’s backwoods inbred cannibal horror romp THE BLOOD SHED, back when he was a high school student. He was basically doing grip work and being a production assistant.

Sivilli: Kipp, that was you? I could have sworn it was a Hobbit from one of the Lord of the Ring movies or one of Santa’s little elves.

Kipp: Go fuck yourself! I swear to God, I thought Sivilli was the least likely to succeed out of all of those kids. A nice guy, funny as hell, but no discipline and hyperactive, but that kid grew into a man, and he spent some serious years learning the art of cinematography. Eventually, I needed a shooter for this talking head segment of a documentary I was co-producing, where we interviewed Frederic Tuten, the screenwriter of Andrzej Zulawski’s cult classic Possession for its re-release on DVD. I’d seen Dominick’s reel and was really impressed by how much he had grown. We decided to work together on Contact and it was a great collaboration. It led to a series of other projects and opportunities.

Sivilli: After working with Jeremiah on The Blood Shed and seeing he knew what the 180 degree rule was, I saw he was a professional and knew what a true movie set was like. After seeing The Pod and The Christmas Party, I knew I needed to work for him in order for me to grow as a filmmaker. I learn from his every day and am proud to call him my partner, associate, collaborator and brother. I will work with him until the day he does not have a budget. (laughs)

R.D. Penning - Jeremiah- The Christmas Party was your second opportunity to write/direct your own material. What on earth gave you inspiration to write such a deranged movie?

Kipp: I made maybe six to twelve bad student films at NYU, then was involved in a film collective after college where I made maybe another half-dozen or more bad movies, so The Christmas Party came along after I had been doing this for a while. Thank God nobody will ever see my earlier work. In 2001, I made a film called Snapshot that could be considered the first movie I actually wanted people to see, so in that sense The Christmas Party is my second film.

The inspiration came from growing up in a rural backwoods area where Christians would throw parties such as the one depicted in the film, trying to reel in unsuspecting kids and convert them. I was curious about them, and for one of my high school papers I brought a tape recorder and interviewed a Christian proselytizer and asked her to save me. She indeed brought me into a dark room, with a small sliver of light from the hallway, and got me to repeat a chant while pouring water on me. The experience was powerful, but the epiphany I had was not the same one she was having; we impose ideas on children as adults in a way that is almost like a cult, and by that I mean Big We, instead of allowing them to ask questions and make discoveries.

R.D. Penning - Dominick, you are to film, as Peter North is for porn. What drives you to be a cinematographer? Do you plan on making Jeremiah trade you roles some day? I think that would be interesting.

Sivilli: Peter North… (laughs) I can’t really tell you what drives me. Cinematography comes from the heart. I am a truly passionate person that needs to express myself in images. I still pick up a book every day. When I have trouble with something, I read about it and keep up with the latest technology. The industry is changing every day. Ten years ago, it was really something special to say that you are a part of the film business. Today, because of the YouTube generation, it’s very easy to say you are a filmmaker. It’s easy for anyone to make a movie. Now, I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with are the movies that are being made!

People are not pushing themselves. The technology is there. It’s quite incredible that I am shooting a werewolf feature with a digital DSLR Canon 7d camera, and the images look astonishing. But, like I always say…it isn’t the car, it’s the driver. I’ve been told before by numerous directors that I have to deal with the “technical side” because they don’t know how! I feel like that’s bullshit. Every filmmaker should know the technical side in every way. It’s not enough to say it’s too technical. We live in a very technical world. For example, you can now order movies from your iPod. You can now play video games from your iPod. You can start your car engine with the press of a button. You can take a trip to Manhattan with the swipe of a card. I can go on forever. We live in a world where we have to know the technical aspect of life.

Heck, just the other day, I was over my aunt’s house, who is 45 years old, and she pulled out her laptop and showed me pictures of where she and my mother grew up in Italy. I was amazed how this woman was trying to keep up with the times. Yes, it took her 45 minutes to open the home page, but she still tried. I think she would make an excellent filmmaker. That being said, the technology is there for everyone to use. Film, as far as a chemical based media—some will say it is dying, compared to digital, which is growing and becoming what film is, which is a mature medium,

But if you ask any cinematographer, whether they are shooting with film, the Canon 7d, the RED camera or the iPhone, they are still going to light and frame and tell the story the exact same way. There is no such thing as exclusively dealing with “the technical side”. Being at the age I am, an example of my generation with all this power in my hands, I am going to push the boundaries of this new technology just as my kids will push the boundaries of their technology in their generation.

To say you don’t know the technical side is being nervous. I didn’t know the technical side once. I was very nervous about touching the camera. I was afraid of breaking it or of doing something wrong and someone would call me out on it. But that is a part of learning. You should never be afraid. You should always do. Make your mistakes. Anyone who is a filmmaker will see themselves grow over time, if they push.

As far as trading places with Jeremiah, he does his thing, I do my thing, no questions asked. But one thing I do appreciate about Jeremiah: he opens himself as a filmmaker, and every day we come home from the shoot, look at dailies, and he would ask me why I did something versus how I did something. He embraces this from a cinematographer, which makes him a better director. I also learn from him every day. He knows how to work with actors, how to keep the spirit up on the set, but he especially knows what he wants, and when he smiles and jumps up and down like a little boy, I can see he is happy. To me Jeremiah is not a director. He is, plain and simple, a filmmaker. It just so happens he directs when it is time for him to, but just like me, he bleeds and sweats for what he loves to do. It is never too technical for him.

Kipp: What’s technical for both of us is neither of us knows how to drive.

(Kipp and Sivilli laugh)

Sivilli: We know how to buy a metro card!

R.D. Penning - The two of you have been referred to as the Louis and Clark of film, and by that, I mean I just made it up. Do you feel like you are discovering new territories of film ever time you make a movie? I don’t think you can continue with your job if you don’t feel like you learn something new each day.

Sivilli: There is an infinite amount of possibilities of ways to make movies, and they are happening right now, whether it is shooting with the RED camera, 35mm, James Cameron fusion camera, green screen—it’s all there. Kipp and I are not discovering, we’re just catching up.

Kipp: You listen to the movie. The movie tells you what it needs. You don’t make the movie, because the movie makes you.

R.D. Penning - Jeremiah – Is there a story behind Contact (2009)? If there is I need to hear about this, as that movie is crazy!

Kipp: I was originally going to shoot something else, but that project fell apart, so I took out a napkin and wrote five images on it. That became Contact. I had ideas from my previous film The Pod, which I made with screenwriter Carl Kelsch, that I wanted to continue to explore, specifically the image of the kiss that morphs two faces together, which reminded me of an Edvard Munch painting, and of bringing the family into the story, since that key ingredient only seemed touched on in The Pod. The parents create a sense of morality, and they bookend Contact in a way I felt the movie needed.

R.D. Penning - Dominick – Do you make movies specifically for the women? I’m just saying. I haven’t seen a movie on your list that doesn’t include 5-10 beautiful women.

Sivilli: Well, Russ, that’s very nice of you to say. I am very pretty. (pause) Oh, the women? Oh, yes! The women are gorgeous! But I don’t know how to answer this. All I can say is that beautiful women are cast in the roles of movies that I work on. Usually, on the day we arrive on set, the actresses want to make my acquaintance. Knowing I am the one photographing them, they make friends with me. Plus, it’s a very important thing for a cinematographer to know how to shoot a beautiful woman. I think a few actresses in Hollywood are contracted to work with certain cinematographers to shoot the movies they are starring in. But as far as the women being beautiful, this just comes with the story. I am sure someday I will work with a woman in a story who is not so “beautiful”, but sometimes it is not necessary to shoot something that way—there is a certain beauty behind “ugly” and I mean this with regard to women, men, locations, etc. We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

R.D. Penning - Jeremiah – According to the handy dandy IMDB, most of the work you put in is as an Assistant Director. What does an Assistant Director do exactly?

Kipp: Babysits, usually. I have had the opportunity to assist some great directors, most recently Michael Di Jiacomo on Somewhere Tonight where I saw his brilliant work working with John Turturro, and Daniel Garcia on various commercials and music videos. Working with a strong director is inspiring and your job of assisting is to help create a total environment around them where they can do their work. Good directors are usually unpretentious and don’t ramble on about their vision or themselves; they know what they want and articulate it in a constructive way. The crew will follow them anywhere. But a lot of the time, the directors don’t know one lens from another. Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, bravely acknowledged that on his first feature as a director, he pretty much said he hired an assistant director and director of photography who could do his job better than he could. He humbly admitted that on his first go round, he knew nothing, and he used it as a learning experience. I wish more first-time directors were as honest, open and receptive.

R.D. Penning - Dominick – Is there anything you can tell us about the highly anticipated Don’t Look In The Basement? – written and directed by the amazing Alan Rowe Kelly (who you know is going to be in the movie too)?

Sivilli: What can I say, Russ? I am very much looking forward to working with Alan again. One thing I like about working with him is he knows what he wants, he has a great smile every day on set, and he gives me a lot of freedom, which allows the cinematographer to come up with and create a look from his heart and the story. But I promised Alan that I would fight the urge to always use the smoke machine—even though that is the secret to great cinematography. Look at movies like Blade Runner and Minority Report and Aliens. Smoke is the key, and unless the smoke machine breaks on set, then I will use smoke. (laughs) But I will do anything for Alan. There has been some commotion on the other side of the country about this remake, and I am a soldier ready to go for my commander, Alan Rowe Kelly. I am ready to make this movie kick-ass, and there are numerous members of the cast that I am looking forward to working with. I will break my balls for the remake of Don’t Look In The Basement and I’m not just going to show up and press record.

R.D. Penning - Chucky VS Leprechaun - Who wins in a fight?

Sivilli: Chucky.

Kipp: Jerry Murdock.

R.D. Penning - Dominick VS Jeremiah – Who wins in a fight?

Sivilli: We have fought many times. The score is 3-3.

Kipp: I’m too old for this shit.

R.D. Penning - is your all time favorite movie? If you had to pick one.

Kipp & Sivilli: Robocop.

Sivilli: Hands down, this is the one thing that draws Jeremiah and I together—the fact that we both love Robocop. It’s brilliant. It’s the exact opposite of what a superhero movie is. It’s a revenge movie, sure, but it’s about a superhero discovering his identity as a human being, as opposed to a human being discovering his identity as a superhero. It’s a perfect movie. Perfect.

Kipp: “Bitches leave!”

Sivilli: “Guns! Guns! Guns!”

Kipp: “Nice shooting, son! What’s your name?”

Sivilli: “Murphy!”

Kipp: Roll credits.

R.D. Penning - What can we expect from the two of you in the future, as far as film goes? More movies I hope.

Kipp: We’ve got two features in the works, one monster movie and one slasher movie. Also, we have a production company and rental house in the works, which will be renting out the brand new RED cameras.

Sivilli: When the time is right, we’ll make an official announcement.

R.D. Penning - Last, but not least, if there were one actor any time period you would give anything to work with, who would it be?

Sivilli: There are a lot of actors that a cinematographer would love to work with. I’m looking forward to working with Deneen Melody, who I highly respect. She knows the deal about artists supporting each other, which is very important in this business. But if I had to pick one actor, it would be either Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery. Both of them make love to the camera and know how to give a hell of a performance. In their prestige, these great actors know how to play to the lighting, but that said, they are also not afraid to play scenes in the shadows.

Kipp: My favorite actor is James Cagney—he was unlike any other actor of his generation. Some of his death scenes in those early gangster pictures are so powerful, so completely intense. Apparently, when he was asked how he was able to pull off his eight-minute death scene in THE ROARING TWENTIES he said he saw a documentary of a gorilla who was shot and dying, and the creature lumbered along refusing to accept what was happening; a kind of raging indignation. Cagney was also a song-and-dance man, so he had great physicality that he brought to those tough guy roles, and it was so punk rock when he mashed a grapefruit into the woman’s face in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Audiences had never seen anything like that. He was not occasionally surprising, but continually surprising, dynamic and full of fire. That’s my kind of actor.

Great interview guys! I had so much fun doing it. You guys a riot, and you fight like brothers for sure. What these guys do for independent film is amazing. I look forward to everything they are going to do, and I hope everyone gives them a chance, and checks out their stuff. If anyone gets the chance, look them up, and tell them great job, or thank you, or just say hi. You can find a list of their films at IMDB if you just type in their names, and you can find a couple of them on youtube, and other video streaming sites. I would post them if I had the room, but the interview was so long! and great!

1 comment:

venoms5 said...

Nice one, RD! I'm not familiar with these gentlemen, but this was still a good read. Interesting about the BASEMENT remake.