Yesterday marked the debut online of 2011 Sundance Competition short films, and in that first batch of 4 films we were treated to the World Premiere of New York-based filmmaker Nick Paley’s wonderful Andy and Zach—my favorite short in the program. Nick Paley happens to be a fan of Short of the Week, so we traded emails regarding the film, Sundance, and his thoughts on short films online.
Tell a little about your background, how did you come into filmmaking?
I had a terrible immune system when I was a kid. I’d get sick a lot, stay home from school and watch movies all day. I went through most of the local movie store’s selection, but it wasn’t until middle school that I started playing around with cameras myself. My mom taught journalism at a small college in Vermont and when the photo staff at the school’s newspaper transitioned from film to digital, a bunch of SLR cameras started collecting dust in her office. I got one and started taking photos. In high school, my friends and I heard about a state tobacco settlement that would supply nice video cameras and Final Cut Pro to students who would, in exchange, produce educational anti-smoking videos. Despite many of my friends being smokers themselves, we signed up. I vaguely remember one of them being shot in a Walmart parking lot. They were truly stupid videos, but we got to keep the cameras and I ended up using them to make a narrative movie for my application to NYU film school.
That seems to be something that you’re good at, competitions and grantwriting. Your short film Picture Day was completed with the Warner Brothers Film Fund Award, and you are a current recipient of the Cinereach Film Fellowship, right?
At this early stage my career, I think of grant applications as part of my job as a filmmaker. They’re very time-consuming and demand the development of skills far removed from actual filmmaking, but they can make all the difference in small projects. I always try to have at least one application pending somewhere.
Talk a little bit about some of your previous films. What did you learn from them how did they help you with Andy and Zach?
My first real short film, Picture Day, was my NYU thesis. It’s about a gay school portrait photographer who hires a tough young woman as his assistant. Though I am happy with it, and it did get nominated for a Student Academy Award, I think it would have benefited from a shorter script. I grew up watching feature films—lots of characters! lots of plot! lots of locations!—and it wasn’t really until college that shorts entered my consciousness. By that point, the feature format was haunting my brain, even when I was trying to write a ten minute short film.
Right after college I did a lot of comedy videos with improv performers from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York. It was great training for keeping things concise. In comedy, if it’s not funny, or building to something funny, it’s basically worthless. Nobody cares if it’s a beautiful shot. That was a tough concept after four years of film school, but invaluable to my work going forward. Around this time, I made another short, Strangers, a flat out comedy about two well-meaning people who find a lost toddler in Central Park. The film achieved what it set out to do, but left me wanting to make something with real stakes, where the characters were more dimensional and the humor came from nuanced interactions. Six months later, I started writing Andy and Zach.
Describe the story evolution for Andy and Zach. I feel the beauty of the film was the way in which it identifies and isolates a subtle emotion, and in capturing the specificity of a changing relationship, touches upon truth. Did you have the mood or tenor you were wanting to relate and work backwards? Or perhaps did you have these characters and let them decide where they were going?
The characters were creations based on the actors, Andy Kachor and Zach Woods. Neither of them are truly like the characters they play–Zach is much nicer and Andy is not truly adrift and clueless. Since I knew these characters when I sat down to outline the script, the big challenge was creating a compelling plot. Seeing how these guys were roommates, I thought I would try to describe the strangeness of that relationship, the idea that no matter how long you live with a roommate, no matter how much you come to rely on them, the whole arrangement is explicitly designed to end, right from the beginning. The plot came naturally from there.
Describe the production experience, and some of details regarding the film’s making. I’ve found that indie filmmakers seem to be obsessed with details like equipment used, crew size and budget.
We shot the film in one night and one day. I was the DP for the interior scenes and I got a friend, Terrence Elenteny, to shoot the exteriors in Time Square. There was no other crew besides the sound mixer. We didn’t use a single movie light and I believe the final budget was $500. (Most of that went to sound.)
What was your thinking in going with such a bare bones approach?
I didn’t think we needed any more people on set. I had extensively planned for this shoot, more than any other of my movies. In fact, I’d shot and edited the whole film with myself speaking the lines of both characters to work out pacing and visual transitions. I’d never tried this approach before and though it produced a cache of awkward footage–I’ve deleted it all– it allowed me to flag any technical sticking points that other crew members usually take care of–continuity problems, shots that needed more set decoration in the background, awkward eye lines etc.
Sundance is the biggest fest you’ve been included in so far, but your previous films have played around the country as well. How have your experiences been with festivals so far? Have opportunities/exposure emerged from your participation?
I think the best thing about festivals is getting to watch your movie with an audience of strangers. That is the last step before I consider my movies done, and it’s very hard to orchestrate on your own. As for exposure, I think it’s much easier to garner industry attention by putting your movie online. My friends Andrew Wonder (Undercity), Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate (Marcel the Shell) have gotten a lot of attention this year by simply putting their work on Vimeo.
Sundance hasn’t started yet, so you don’t have a ton to relate about the experience of that, but what has the attention been like ever since the program announcement?
I’ve gotten a few emails from agents and managers asking for screener copies, though I assume they send these emails out to everyone.
The true highlight was when my aunt posted on my Facebook wall that my Sundance acceptance was “unreal news.” I thought that was funny. She’s not a lady who tends towards hyperbole, so when she says “unreal” you know she’s legitimately pumped. That was nice.
How were you approached for participation in Sundance’s online offering? And how do you feel about free online distribution for short films?
If a filmmaker is interested in making features, they should not consider their short films money-making ventures. And to reiterate what I said above, I think putting your work online is a great way to get exposure. I have a few distribution offers for Andy and Zach thanks to Sundance; however, the money these contracts offer does not seem worth the restrictions on where the film would be allowed to live online. I’d rather have a bunch of people see the movie and skip the few hundred dollars.
Your long-time collaborator, Zach Woods career has grown in stature with his role on NBC’s The Office. How excited have you been for him, and do you feel as though it has helped raise the profile of your films together?
The fact that Andy and Zach‘s credit line includes “Starring Zach Woods (Gabe on The Office)” probably grabs some attention for our little movie, but Zach got cast on The Office because he’s unbelievably talented and very, very smart. That’s by far the best asset he brings to our projects.
What’s the next project we’ll see from you?
I’m in post on another short film right now, entitled Open House, which was produced as part of Cinereach’s Reach Film Fellowship. I’m also writing a feature-length script starring Andy and Zach.
Have to ask—who is is more you? Andy or Zach?
I think I feel close to both characters in the film. Lame answer. I do, though.
Thanks to Nick for his time! Check out the short film Andy and Zach for a limited time only in the YouTube Screening Room as part of our coverage of Sundance 2011 Online Short Film Program #3. Learn more about Nick and his work at his website, http://www.nickpaley.com/