Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. I had grown up in Bayonne. When I was 14 years old, my family and I moved to Rhode Island, where we had family on my father’s side. I ended up going to high school and college there. Currently, I reside in Massachusetts.
At what age were the Arts introduced to you?
I can’t exactly recall what age the arts came into my life. I can say, however, that for as long as I can remember, I had a fascination with movies and actors. I’ve told this story many times before, but when I was ten years old, I attempted to write a script and send it to a studio in Hollywood. At the time, I had just seen Ghostbusters for the first time and loved it. I read one of the producer’s names off the credits and attempted to send my 30-something page script to this person. Eventually, it was sent back to me. So, I would say that the arts were kind of in my blood.
On top of that, my sister has always been very creative. She would draw a lot of the time. She’s a jewelry designer now. Both my parents also have a creative gene in them. Their careers are not in the arts, but they do have that gene as well.
Do you remember what your first movie experience was?
I’ve been told that I was taken to see 101 Dalmations when it was re-released in 1991. I would have been two years old, so I don’t remember the experience at all. I do, however, have vague memories of seeing The Lion King in the theater in 1994. Most of my initial movie experiences were on television, at least what I can remember fully. I also lived not too far from a video store where I would frequently rent and, in a lot of cases, discover movies of all kinds. This was especially true as I grew up.
What was the “moment” you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I was probably 17-18 years old when I knew I wanted to make films. By that point, I had tried all sorts of things in the arts before settling on filmmaking. I think the main driving force for choosing filmmaking was because I found that I could combine everything I loved in the arts into this one powerful medium. Beyond that, I was becoming quite a movie buff at that point in my life. I had, for the first time, seen Raging Bull. The movie heavily engrossed me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was. It was listening to Martin Scorsese speak about his inspirations, his choices in the artistry of the film, what different moments or shots meant, etc. that I truly fell in love with filmmaking. It opened my eyes to what could be done. From that point on, I never looked at movies the same way again. It helped me to analyze and understand techniques that the director employed to convey a theme or tell a story. I think it was that desire that made me want to make movies.
Did you have formal training?
Yes. I attended the New England Institute of Technology, where I got my Bachelor’s Degree in video and film production. During that time, I also learned a lot by working on independent film sets in different departments before I went forth in directing films. Before that, at 17-18 years old, I taught myself a lot by making small films on my own with no actors or crew. It was just myself and my camera. A lot of the films, I can’t say, were very good, but they taught me a lot. By the time I graduated from NEIT, my skills were honed. Yet, even today, I feel as though I’m still learning. That’s what excites me as well.
Did you have a support group embarking on a career in the arts?
I did, yes. Both my family and friends were very supportive of my decision to embark in filmmaking. Many were not very surprised, given my interests going as far back as childhood.
What was the spark within you that ignited your journey for YESTERYEAR?
Before the pandemic, I was in pre-production on the next short film that I was to be directing in New Jersey/New York. My team and I made the decision, however, to postpone once a national emergency was declared. From there, I was looking for something to do. I had no work, there were no films to be made, and everything was put on hold. I was looking for something creative to do. I started playing around with super 8mm film for the first time and teaching myself that as I had not shot on film before then. I also went back to basics in experimenting with VHS and videotape technology as a means of experimentation with digital technology. It was when I was capturing the VHS footage and seeing the results of the super 8mm film that I got inspired to see my family’s home movies.
I found a bunch of VHS and Video 8 cassettes of memories and moments I had not seen in a very long time. I started converting them. As I’m watching the footage, I was not only hit with the nostalgia, but it also dawned on me that I was seeing a story unfold. From there, I reached out to friends who were kind enough to provide their home movies to this project. I then started watching hours and hours of footage, selecting specific moments, and putting them together as one full piece. So, in essence, the film came about merely because I was looking for a project to do during self-quarantine.
I was also very much fascinated by the simplicity of using existing footage to tell the story rather than filming anything, write a script, or hire actors. What also excited me was the rawness of the footage of these home movies. None of the folks who filmed these were filmmakers, but yet they’re all storytellers. They captured all the details as though it was meant to be edited. It reminded me of cinema verite documentaries of the 1960s where filmmakers would simply be a fly on the wall. I love that kind of pure, raw, and almost voyeuristic filmmaking. So, it was an exciting chance to do something different and experimental but still manage to get the emotions out.
YESTERYEAR is a short-documentary that explores the past, existence, ‘simpler times’ and mortality through home movies. It’s a poignant piece of storytelling – especially in the age of COVID19. Was the film a representation of that?
Very much so. I realized very quickly that our world was in a state where we needed a reminder of what life is about and the positives it has to offer. It’s about the little things that we may take for granted or forget. On the surface, it’s a trip down memory lane and is nostalgic, but it’s a story about existence and mortality. The older footage, in particular, was like watching ghosts as a lot of folks may no longer be with us from those specific moments. Yet, the footage shows a joyous existence, at least in the front of the camera. I think that idea still exists today with the advent of cell phone videos. The difference, however, is that a lot of these videos on our phones are dispensable versus something like film or tape, which is indispensable. Film and tape are forever imprinted upon, whereas, on a cell phone, they can easily be deleted. Still, though, the same idea exists.
You are the Director and Editor of the film. Where did you get the film footage from and how difficult was it choosing which moments would go into the film?
As I mentioned before, the footage came from a combination of my family’s archives, friends, and also stock footage I found online. It was challenging to edit down. I had started with a little over 10 hours of footage. From there, I would make selections of particular moments I knew I wanted in the film. That resulted in roughly 2-3 hours of footage. I then took those selections and edited it further and further down to its current running time of 14 minutes. The difficulty came in trying to create a flow or order to the story. I then decided that the best approach was to let it play out as if the viewer is dusting off that old film reel or tape and watching it for the first time in a long time. Just a series of moments, but the story comes from the people within the footage.
In essence, I saw each scene as their own little movie or vignette with a beginning, middle, and an end. It was a lot of fun to be able to take similar moments from each piece of raw material and cut back and forth between the different periods. The idea was to create a parallel between all these people by showing that a lot of us have a lot more in common than we may realize.
Is Chris Esper somewhere within the home movie footage?
Yes, I am in two scenes. I’m the Christmas scene where I’m getting out bed and another moment where I got a Sega Genesis. I’m also near the end at the theme park scene where I’m probably a year old or so. I’m on a ride with my mother and also waving to the camera.
How long did the editing process take?
The editing process, in total, took about two months to do. The very first cut was 20 minutes long, but the feedback I was getting was that it could be too long. So, I kept editing it further and further down. The challenge was to be able to engage the audience in seeing people no one knew. I realized early on that it could easily drag on too long if I lingered too much on moments. So, I opted to keep the scenes as short as I could while also having a story told.
The score is beautifully layered in the film. Did you work closely with Steven Lanning-Cafaro to perfect the sound and where it should be placed?
Yes, I did. Steven and I have worked together on numerous films over the years. I enjoy his sensibilities as a musician. He and I seem to think the same when it comes to scoring a film. In this case, we had a couple of Zoom meetings where we would view the film and talk about how to approach the music. I knew I wanted something that would reflect the theme, but I didn’t want it to be sappy or overly sentimental either. It had to be a perfect balance. I would send him a cut of the film where I would dictate where I would want music. Of course, Steven would also have suggestions and ideas of his own that always helped. He would then put together a score, I would place it into the film timed as discussed, and I would watch it all the way through. At times, I found closing my eyes and listening helped in seeing how it made me feel as a viewer. If I felt emotion, then I knew we were heading in the right direction.
The film is personally reflective. What is the message you hope audience members walk away with after viewing your film?
The message is several things. For me, I hope that the audience walks away reflective about life and embrace simplicity again, especially in a time where things are scary and unpredictable. That is not to say that life is easy, but that it does offer glimmers of positivity.
With COVID19 still affecting our normal routines, what does the Festival Circuit look like for the film?
As of right now, the film was selected for the Feel the Reel International Film Festival in Glasgow, Scotland. I have yet to hear from others. That said, a lot of the festivals are now online being live-streamed given the circumstances and there’s also a lot less room for films because of that. It can make it difficult now to be selected as it is for many filmmakers.
You had a short film – IMPOSTER – that was a meditative piece – a silent drama about anxiety. Tell us a little bit about this film and why you wanted to tell this story.
Much like Yesteryear, Imposter came from a place of wanting to do something different that I had not done before. I wanted to make a visually driven piece with actors. The story came from my personal experience of dealing with anxiety as well as my belief that every person in the world has some form of anxiety, be it minor or major. The thing is we don’t know what others around us are thinking and feeling. Only we can see it and feel it. It’s silent but deadly. The idea was to show this visually while also having a theme that anxiety can control us. I was interested in this psychology as well as the phenomenon of the Imposter Syndrome, which is the feeling that one can feel like a fraud or be fearful of being “found out” for being a fake despite any successes one may have. I have certainly felt this many times.
Your IMDb page lists you as writer, producer, director, cinematographer, editor – to name a few. How do you balance these roles when you have the responsibility of a few of these titles in one film?
It is always dependent on the project. On some projects, I write, direct, and produce. Then there are others where I am only directing. When I first started, I would perform all the roles, but these days I tend to focus more on directing. I find that if I perform multiple roles, one of them will suffer in quality because my attention is divided. If I am performing multiple roles, I try to make sure I put on that “cap” and perform the job before doing the next.
How do you go about casting?
With casting, I have done auditions, and I have also handpicked actors if I knew who I wanted for a role. Often, I like the audition process because you discover new people you would not have known before. I also enjoy meeting actors on sets where I may be shooting, or if I’m editing, I’ll get a sense of how actors work even if I was not on the set. It’s sort of like I’m auditioning from a distance and kept them in mind for something I may write or direct.
How do you like to work with your actors – both in pre-production and during shooting?
Working with actors is such a joy. I try to direct them in such a way where I have a clear idea in my head as to what the characters are, but I try to get both myself and actors on the same page as much as I could. Yet, at the same time, I try to give freedom to the actors to play with it and make it their own. For example, I’m always interested in seeing a biography of the characters from the actors. There are times when I don’t always have a grasp of the character, and seeing a biography often helps me understand them. It also helps the actor in making the character fully fleshed out and alive.
During the pre-production process is when I do most of my directing with the actors. In addition to the biographies, I also like to improvise with the actors by having them play scenes that are not in the script but to see how they would respond in certain situations that exist outside the story. For me, the story in the script is a specific moment and time of the character, but surely they exist outside of the story and live a life. What is that life? What makes them tick? What do they believe or not believe in? Where and how did they grow up? These are the questions we try to answer in pre-production while also rehearsing the material.
During shooting, I try to lay back on the actors and let them do their thing based on what was already discussed and rehearsed. If I see something that needs to adjusted, I’ll approach the actors privately and try to give direction or ask questions about where it could go. In most cases, the actors usually suggest trying something different if they don’t feel it’s working. So, we’ll do a few takes, but always try to keep the primary intent of the scenes the same.
Do you like rehearsals?
I love rehearsals. It’s the perfect time to get to know the actors, how they work, and their characters. I don’t like to over-rehearse as I find that it can get stale very quickly. This is partly why I try to get the actors to go outside the script to explore what else character does in other situations.
Tell us about STORIES IN MOTION – in which you are the Owner and Head of Production. What is your vision with the types of stories you want to tell through your company?
To answer your question: I started Stories in Motion in 2016. The idea was to give my work a banner under which it can be represented. I suppose the name and identity of the company is to put the story first whether I‘m making a film, documentary, music video, commercial, etc. The medium just happens to be film. For me, that is precisely what cinema means: to bring into motion a story. My goal is to tell stories that are deeply personal no matter the genre. My philosophy is if I’m not in love with the story, then it may not be worth pursuing.
The elephant in the room for most indie filmmakers is budget. Where – and how – do you go about raising funds for your films?
This is always a tricky thing. In the past, I have raised a little money from crowdfunding, but I can’t say it’s something I enjoy using because of the difficulties that come with it. These days, I tend to self-fund my work from producing commercials, event videos, etc. for clients. It’s challenging as well, and it can be a dangerous game to play if you’re not careful with your money. That said, it’s a method where I found I had the most control of the funds and could raise as much as I needed without worrying about the middle man not giving money.
What’s next for you?
I have several things in the works. I’m still hoping to shoot that short film I was going to do before the pandemic. During this period, I have also written several other short scripts. Ultimately, my goal is to keep experimenting with the medium in different ways. I also have a feature film that I’m now trying to hone in and create a trailer for funding purposes.
Who inspired you in the filmmaking world along the way?
There as many people who inspire me. I have very close friends who inspire me or push me to continue. A lot of them are close collaborators. Of course, some directors inspire me, such as Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, Darren Aronofsky, and so many others.
Which actor/director is on your bucket list to work with in the future?
I haven’t really thought about this, surprisingly. Aside from some of my favorite ‘classic’ actors such as Robert DeNiro, Jeff Bridges, Jim Carrey, Marisa Tomei, Meryl Streep, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, etc., I would like to work with Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniel Kaluuya, Catherine Kenner, etc.
Lastly, of all the hats you wear which one is your favorite and why?
I enjoy directing the most because I love being able to conceptualize the story visually, designing shots, the flow of the editing, and also working with the actors. It’s a perfect happy medium of all the things I enjoy.