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February 9, 2007

A Conversation With Jeff Lipsky


I watched Jeff Lipsky's Flannel Pajamas twice in a twenty-four hour period. The first time, at home, late at night, I resisted it. I was tired, or I wasn't in the mood for an indie relationship talkathon; I don't exactly remember what the reason was, but I watched it looking for something that would allow me to dismiss it, some evidence of melodrama, or indie quirkiness, or anything except what I actually got, which was a film so honest that it was impossible to deny. After it was over, I turned it off and mulled it over, and then went and found this article online, written by Lipsky himself. More than the movie itself, reading his own thoughts about it really got to me; and the next night I went back to watch it on the big screen, to give it the attention it deserved and see what I might have missed. And I missed a lot; a lot of the beautifully awkward moments, a lot of tender throwaway details; this is a film about little moments in a relationship, the ones that stand out amidst seismic emotional shifts. It's about falling into and out of love, and what it gets so painfully right is how quick and easy that seemingly impossible transition can be.

Almost exactly a year after to the day after Flannel Pajamas premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with Jeff Lipsky to discuss the film. I hadn't seen his previous directorial effort, Childhood's End, but I was certainly already a fan of the work he'd done in a different cinematic arena: he's a bit of an unheralded legend in the distribution field. Together with Bingham Ray, Lipksy founded the venerable October Films, through which he brough Mike Leigh's films to American shores. Before that, he worked for Samuel Goldwyn, and before that - well, he pretty much helped invent American independent film distribtion, under the watchful eye of his mentor, John Cassavetes.

We talked a lot about Cassavetes. Even after the interview was over, we were still talking about him. It was a little hard not to.

* * *

You've packed a lot of personal material into this film, but I've noticed on the film's website that you hesitate from calling it completely autobiographical.

Well, I'm not shying away from that. It is definitely a story that is rooted in autobiography. The writing of the script was inspired by my own short-lived marriage from 1989 to 1992, and in discussing over the ensuing decade with friends who were married or divorced what the circumstance were that lead to the demise or success of their relationships. And it was really ten years after the divorce, and it was as I was looking through an album of photographs from my wedding that I started recognizing how enchanted this relationship seemed to be, from the very first day we met, and I said, "I want to remember these things."

It was years before I could face up to the beginning of the relationship. I was jotting down notes and diary entries, and by the time I was finished it seemed like the outline of a script, especially in context of all that I had learned from my friends. I thought there was enough there to resonate with any audience who had ever been in a relationship. And I wanted to be completely honest. I realized that this was exactly the kind of film that was transformative for me. The four filmmakers in my life who most inspired me - John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman - generally made movies that illuminated the human condition, and that were love stories. My mentor was John Cassavetes - I mean, even his film The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie was a love story! It wasn't a departure from his other work. There was a lot of truth, there was a lot of pain, and a lot of love. And you know, I get off on Back To The Future and Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Eraserhead, but they don't touch me the way these other films do. So I thought if I could do semi-justice to these films through my own life experience, it would be great.

So, I'd say fifty percent of the film is reality, and fifty percent is total fiction, and one of the things I'm really excited about is that audiences respond most powerfully to scenes that are a complete fabrication, which I consider an artistic triumph. But it's all at the service of the heart of the film, which are two beautiful, flawed, imperfect, sexy, bold soulful people. I think that defines most of the people I know in real life, and I wanted to tell their stories. And I wanted to tell my story. I thought that it contained enough commonality to warrant painting a little picture.

You had something personal to say that other people could relate to.

Yeah. We had a mother and daughter in the editing room to see it and comment on it, and as soon as it was over they got in a raging argument over which character was to blame. That was music to my ears! At the lab in New York, where we did all our post produciton work, we had a sound glitch and a guy who had no clue about the movie as our sound technician. We had to reels four and five. He sits there with me in the screening room, and reel four starts, and fifteen minutes in - his fine tune ears are supposed to be discerning what's wrong, but he starts laughing uproariously. He says, "excuse me, I don't mean to laugh, but I've had that conversation with my wife." So you know, these are great moments of validation for me.

Do you know whether or not your ex-wife has seen the film yet?

I said until a couple of months ago that to the best of my knowledge she doesn't know the film exists. I haven't been in touch with her in six years. But I think the jig is up, because a few months ago, there was a screening at UCLA that I attended. As the professor was introducing the film, a guy on the other side of the theater was waving wildly at me. I waved back, thinking to myself "who is he?" After the screening, I was greeting some friends and this guy walked up to me and extended his hand and said, "oh my god, Jeff, it was so good! You should be so proud!" And I'm wracking my brain, and it finally dawned on me that he was the attorney that handled our divorce! His wife was my ex-wife's friend.

So that was the first hint that maybe word would be getting back to her. She now lives in London with her third husband and first child. We're trying to get into a London film festival, the Declaration Of Independence Film Festival. I hope they select the film, because if so it'll be the first opportunity she'll have to see the film. And I hope she comes and I hope she sees it, and I hope she respects what I tried to do, and what I hoped I've accomplished. I'm sure it'll touch a lot of nerves, but I think that in the end it's honesty will resonate with her.

You've said that the film would have failed if it were melodramatic. How do you, as a director, avoid melodrama?

Well, you do several things. One, you talk to your actors about avoiding the pitfalls of doing actorly scenes. There's a pivotal scene late in the movie where the fate of these two people are determined once and for all, and Julianne Nicholson's instinct was to shed tears. I said, "you have to fight that instinct; it is counter to real life, it is counter to your character." And she did it. It became a much more powerful or real moment, a moment you could interpret in any number of ways. It let the audience get into her thought process instead of being told what she was thinking.

Another example is that we have a wedding scene, a funeral, but I never show the couple getting married or the funeral service. One of the ways of avoiding melodrama is to avoid those cliches. I'm not interested in seeing something that we've seen a million time; I want to see what happens behind the scenes. I want to see those moments that we never hear about, that we never see. The unpredictable moments. How their relationship continues to unfold at the most surprising times.

I noticed that you did the same thing with the sex scenes. The film has a lot of nudity, but you always cut around the actual sex and focus on the before and after.

Humping is not in and of itself fabulously cinematic. I can rent porn if I want to see that. To me, what was critical to depicting the arc of a couple's relationship from the day it begins to the day it ends was embuing that relationship with an utter and total sense of honesty and naturalism. What takes me out of a movie is when you have two lovers in bed together with blankets up to their lower lip, and then one of them decides they have to go to the door or answer the telephone, and they take a sheet with them. It just takes me out of the movie. The other day, at a screening in Seattle I had a woman come up to me and say "I just wanted to thank you, because normally when there's nudity in a movie it's objectifying women, but you show penises!" And I said that's because in real life, that's what you see! And in one of the scenes audiences have been responding to, when Stuart coerces Nicole to undress in a near violation of her psyche, she at least tries to turn the tables on him - about an hour later, after we skip over the copulation to a scene that I think is far more revealing. It's far more explicit, and you have to show him in his complete nakedness or else her line won't have the same heft to it.

I understand that the cut which got into Sundance was a good deal longer, and that you then made some trims to it. Was that mandated by the festival, or were you just not finished with the film when you were accepted?

It wasn't a concession to Sundance. I don't think there's a definitive answer to that question. The history of it is...I have final cut, but if I have any respect for my collaborators, in this case my editor, before I even set foot in the editing room, she gets eight days to edit the entire movie. We shot thirty five hours of film. It's a 146 page script, and we shot everything in the script. She goes in from page one to page 146 and basically slams a version of the film together.

And boy, are young film technicians talented! During the shooting of the movie, I would take my script supervisor and whisper into her ear, "what's the running time of the film so far?" And when we finished and I asked her how long the film was, she said three hours and twenty minutes. So my editor finishes her cut, and I go in and ask her how long it is and she says three hours and twenty two minutes. I don't know how they do it! So we sat there and watched it and were both very excited about it. We did our first edit, she and I, and we cut twelve minutes out of it. And I sat there and I said, "well, I don't know what else we can cut out. It looks done to me!"

I had my producers come in - there were three producers and I respect all of them -and they would have a laundry list of suggestions. And I would rant and rave and scream and shout, and I had final cut. But then the next day I'd come into the editing room and say, "you know, let's just try some of these things." And you know, eight percent of those suggestions - either we acted upon, or we tried them and they didn't work, or they were just stupid, but a lot of their input was very valuable in shaping the film. At one time I thought the absolute final running time of the film was going to be between two hours and forty five minutes and three hours, and I saw no problem with that. But as people were getting nervous, I did a very cursory study and demonstrated for my producers that if you go through the top twenty grossing films of all time, the average running time is two hours and seventeen minutes. I said "you're wrong about the fact that Americans are impatient with long films." My philosophy has always been that a bad movie is too long at ninety minutes, and a good movie is too long at three hours.

Anyway, we got it down to two-forty five. We would bring audiences in, complete strangers, and ninety five percent said it was too long, but no one could agree what should come out! It was a very rich, very complex story, and it was wall to wall dialogue, and there was not one scene where there was not some information conveyed that was important, that was new. It was tough. And we got down to two and a half hours, and then we got down to two-seventeen, and each time I thought it was the final cut. Finally , I took a carving knife and got it down to two hours and four minutes. And then it got selected to the dramatic competition at Sundance, and it wasn't until I was sitting at Sundance watching the film for the first time that I thought, you know what? This is the best running time for the movie.

That said, a year after Sundance, I think that two hours and fourteen minutes might have been the perfect running time. Sometimes I look at the scenes we cut out, or describe the scenes we cut out, or talk to people who saw rough cuts and they ask what we cut out...the bottom line is, we cut fifty two scenes out of the movie, and only eleven of them were bad, and that was all my fault. The rest of them contained some of the best acting, the most raw emotional baggage, real insight into the characters...but the biggest most daunting challenge was maintaining a balance of sympathies between the two main characters.

But I'm hugely proud of what we ended up with. Some people have asked me about commerciality. They want me to put my distributor hat back on, and I explain that there's a complete bifurcation as far I'm concerned. I wouldn't be able to make good movies if I allowed any of what I learned in thirty three years of distribution to apply to writing and directing. As a distributor and a businessman, there are more questions I have to address before I make financial commitments, but as a filmmaker, I make movies for two people: me, and this woman in Germany. Nine years ago, when I made my first movie, and it was a low profile movie, a lower budget film, and I was very proud of it. It didn't get conventional distribution. Late in the game, I got a call from the Hamburg Film Film Festival. They flew me over and I introduced the film and everyone seemed to respond to the film. The Q&A went very well, and then they had to clear the theater. So I went out to the lobby with the festival director, and we were chatting, and this young twenty-something German woman came over to us and said to me, "Excuse me. I just wanted to tell you that yesterday I saw the new David Cronenberg movie, and it made me so angry I never wanted to see movies again. And now that I've seen your movie, I want to see movies again."

And if she had been the only human being on the face of the planet who ever saw my first movie, it would have been worth every dime it cost me to make it. How many people through artistic expression of any kind have the ability to influence the lives of a person halfway across the world? That's why I make movies. For me and that woman in Germany.

Do you still watch the film yourself?

Yeah. I've seen it two or three hundred times. We shot it for thirty days, and the principal location was the couple's high rise apartment, which at the time was my apartment, and from the time we were in the editing room, when I would watch the two of them, I would never recognize it as a place I lived. They immediately inhabited that place. It wasn't just the chemistry between them - it was the chemistry of all the people that worked on the film that believed in what we were trying to do. And now, frankly, when I watch the movie, I can't even believe that I wrote it. And I'll credit the actors more than anyone else. There was a remarkable triumvirate of trust from day one between Justin, Julianne and myself. But beyond that, with Rbecca Scholl who was masterful as Julianne's mother....I'm sorry, Julianne Nicholson and Rebecca Scholl give the two best female performances that you will see in a movie all year. Helen Mirren, bite me! Just pure performance. I have to pinch myself that I was the recipient of that kind of talent. Not to denigrate the men in the film!

You said a few minutes ago that you never think about distribution when you're directing, but was it working in distribution for so long what made you want to be a director?

I've wanted to make movies since the age of ten. Listen, we all have shitty childhoods. Mine was, for a variety of largely temporary and tranistory reasons, gruesome Movies were my refuge. It was so easy for me to escape into whatever was on the screen, whether it was a B monster movie or The Legend Of Lila Claire with Kim Novak or The Russians Are Coming by Norman Jewison. To me, that was the real world, and I wanted to be part of it. When I was ten years old, I applied to be an usher at the local theater and was told I was too young, so I wrote a letter to President Kennedy to complain, and got a letter back from the White House, referring me to the New York department of labor. Six years later, I got that job, and two years after that I was assistant manager.

Movies became part of my soul when I was seventeen years old and I saw John Cassavetes' Faces. I walked out of the theater in a daze. The following year, when I was a film critic for my college paper, his next movie came out, Minnie & Moskowitz. I didn't like it nearly as much, but I was determined to meet him. I set up an interview, and he befriended me! We spent two and a half hours together, and he quote me in the New York Times! There was Time Magazine, there was Newsweek, and there was Jeff Lipsky of the Nassau Community College. The day I met him was also the day I was invited to a press screening of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. It was December 11th, 1971. It was an amazing day.

Sounds like it!

I let the correspondence go. I was loving managing movie theaters, and in 1974 I read that a new Cassavetes film, A Woman Under The Influence, was in the New York Film Festival. I bought a ticket and I called him, and was like, "I don't know if you remember me," He was like, "Oh, Jeff, of course I remember you! What are you doing?" I said managing theaters, and as soon as he heard that, his ears perked up. Hollywood hated him and he hated Hollywood, and if they made him offers, they were rejected summarily - by him. So he said, "Come on in, you must know everything about distribution!" I didn't know anything about distribution, but he showed me posters and I met his producer Sam Shaw and he said, "Screw it, let's do it ourselves." I didn't want to be a distributor, but I thought if I could saddle up to John and help him out, it would accelerate the process by which I could make my own films, just like John's. I didn't realize it was going to take another twenty years, but I was determined to do it. And what happened was that a year or two after, we basically invented independent film. There was no independently financed art film that was nationally distributed by the filmmakers before that.

A couple years after I started, people like Michael Barker and Tom Bernard came aboard what was then called United Artists Classics - later Orion Classics, later Sony Pictures Classics - and the idea of getting involved in movies was just an inkling of an idea in the eyes of Bob and Harvey Weinstein. And no one wanted to be distributors; we all wanted to make movies. We all became very successful. Sometimes it was because we had great taste in movies, and sometimes it was because we were willing to humiliate ourselves in order to make sure these film played in every nook and cranny in America. But with success, you''re making a comfortable living, you get married. Some of them have kids, buy a house, have a mortgage, college tuitions...and I think there's a little bit of resentment in their lives. They're financially secure, and I feel badly about it, because there's no reason why they're not willing to do what I've done and take a roll of the dice. Realize that dream. My film school was being able to know and work beside John Cassavetes. Later, the same was true of Mike Leigh and his producer Simon Channing Williams. And even though I spent far less time with people like Fassbinder or Godard, just having met them and being able to work with them was my film school. They went to film school, too. Michael and Tom have been going to the Pedro Almodovar film school for many years now; there's no reason why they shouldn't do it.

It's incomparable. It's a rare privilege. Everyone wants to make movies; very few people get to. I've been able to do it twice, and I do not take lightly the advantages that I've had. I'm determined to do it again, and I'm going to do it no matter how much I have to grovel, beg, borrow, or steal. I have more stories to tell, and I just think of that woman in Germany...

It sounds as if Cassavetes hired you the same way he hired his camera or sound people. People with no experience...

He would say that the only rule with distribution was that whatever the experts suggested to us, do it the opposite way. With The Woman Under The Influence, Peter Falk plays a blue collar worker, so John said there was a huge black audience for this movie. So we booked it at the Apollo Theater. We're the only art film that has ever showed at the Apollo Theater. We only had two shows, because after the first show with only one person in the audience, the film buyer begged us to let him pull the movie. But that's what we did. Leave no stone unturned. I booked it into a drive in theater, and the theater, because they always showed double features, decided that they would book it with John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara in Machine Gun McCain.

I would have loved to see that double feature.

Believe me, they weren't doing it to be clever. They were doing it to be dumb. But you know what? It did eleven thousand dollars worth of cars that week.

From a directing standpoint, what were some of the things you learned in this John Cassavetes film school?

Some very fundamental things. I would ask him how he wrote such vivid but real dialogue, and he explained that it was like a reverse pyramid. You have two people, and you start out with a monosyllabic line of dialogue. He said, you know what? When people are talking to each other, they're never saying what they're thinking. It's your job to figure out what the other person's thinking, and if you start out with utter simplicity, you can create that reverse pyramid, and by the time you're up at that complex level, you've got people in the palm of your end.

On top of that, being on the set of Killing Of A Chinese Bookie...his reverence for actors was such that I don't think in his life he said the word cut. What he would do is they would say the lines, and then John would keep his actors rolling in case they had something interesting to say. It was a love affair. A love affair with the written word. The man wrote hundreds of unproduced scripts. It wasn't that his morning ablution was that he would come in at seven and write until ten and then have breakfast. He would come in in the morning and have to give himself a mind enema of this panoply of ideas that would have entered his head between the time he left his house on Woodrow Wilson Drive and the time he arrived in Beverly Hills at the office. When distribution for John was waning and it was down to me and John and his secretary and one other person, he would come in, drag his secretary into his office and dictate scripts. That's how he wrote, because he never wrote longhand and never typed. And about an hour later, he would come into my office, fervently excited, and say "Jeff, Jeff, we've got some new pages, come on in!" And he'd drag us into his office. She would have ten freshly typed pages, and I'd read everything, the narration, his direction and the dialogue. And he'd be pacing around the room. listening, and if I missed a word, he'd correct me. He'd just dictated this thing out of his head an hour earlier!

What I also learned was that once he befriended you, you'd have to kill his firstborn for him to forsake you. When it came to friendship, he sponged off everyone around him, and that's how he learned how to write real people. He loved people. He loved old people. He saw the beauty in senior citizens and the elderly. I think that's vivified in Opening Night, or in that he'd always cast his mother or Gena's mother in his films. I think he recognized the beauty and wisdom of people of any generation, and it was palpable.

One of the greatest days of my life...there was this guy named Meade Roberts. He was a hanger-on in Los Angeles, he must have known John from when they were in New York together. He let himself go, he was in horrible shape, and people would just eschew him as an intimate. People were just stand-offish about this homunculus of a man, but John just stuck by this guy. One day he comes in and gives John a 400 pages script called The Garden Of Allah. And John, he said "Let's do a reading. I'll get every star in Hollywood. Call Peter Bogdonovich, we'll do a reading at his house on Sunday and I'll cater it." At the end of the day, he comes over to me and says "Jeff, why don't you come to the reading on Sunday?"

So I show up. I walk in. It's me, John, Gena, Peter Bogdonovich, Buck Henry, Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, Ben Gazzarra, Amy Irving...I'm missing one or two. Unbelievable actors. We've all got a copy of a script. John had ordered tons of food. And it was an all-day instructional course for me on acting. A master class on acting. This wasn't going to an acting school where Sydney Pollack comes in and tells you how he directs actors; this was watching the cream of the crop interact with each other in a completely informal but passionate environment. That's what I got out of John Cassavetes. I still to this day don't know why I was invited, why I was there, but it was one of the most informative, inspiring epiphanies I've ever had.

Posted by David Lowery at February 9, 2007 8:21 AM


Very cool to see this posted (I've been waiting for it). I'm too busy in Berlin right now to read the whole thing, but I'm saving it to my hard drive for digestion later on. I caught Flannel Pajamas in November and was able to get a brief chat with the director, but this seems to be waaaay mor thorough (correct spelling?). Looking forward to the read!

Posted by: Karsten at February 9, 2007 3:46 PM

Great interview David.

- Sujewa

Posted by: Sujewa at February 9, 2007 4:11 PM

great interview, david....some very noteworthy anecdotes...
hope the show went well last night....we got delayed...

Posted by: frank at February 10, 2007 7:49 PM

Hey David, really enjoyed the article!

Posted by: JHilliard at February 10, 2007 10:26 PM

I can't wait to hear about Berlin, Karsten. And thorough is spelled correctly!

Posted by: Ghostboy at February 11, 2007 6:11 PM

Berlin is great... though I've only written in Norwegian about it, a video will be online soon.

Posted by: Karsten at February 13, 2007 1:28 PM