Monday, December 29, 2008

Interview & Film News: Jonathan Blitstein's "Let Them Chirp Awhile"


Although you can still occasionally catch him in a vintage video at two in the morning on public access television in Illinois, filmmaker and NYU graduate Jonathan Blitstein has come a long from rapping in MC Hammer pants to urge his second grade classroom to recycle.

For now-- roughly two decades later, he’s been able to add the title of "award-winning filmmaker" to his resume with Blitstein’s impressive feature-length debut, Let Them Chirp Awhile which is making its way into select cities following a successful run via the film festival circuit.

While the child who grew up longing to explore the heartland like Mark Twain, film an epic like Tim Burton or Steven Spielberg, or journey through New York as though he were a character in song by Bob Dylan still jokes that growing up in the Midwest led to his development of a “really strange imagination,” he knew that given his budget, he wouldn’t be able to film “Close Encounters of 3rd Avenue.”

Moving away from the tradition of the grand, big budget and effects driven films he cherished as a child, he penned a tale that was not only easier to finance and film but also far more personal in his work that centered on three artists (all with varying levels of insecurities and success) struggling to make it in New York City.

Initially opening with a seemingly Woody Allen inspired voice over and fantasy sequence involving people dressed as pigeons, quickly the film evolves into an earnest view at man/woman post-graduate relationships and the fear of what it takes to risk financially and personally to try and craft great art as our main character Bobby (Justin Rice) works himself into a neurotic frenzy constantly comparing his own plight to write a screenplay to the scribes who came before him, his best friend Scott (Brendan Sexton III) finds his love life getting in the way of his music, and the sleazy sell-out Hart (Zach Galligan) tries to cash in on 9/11 in a crude way by plagiarizing others including Bobby.

Although some critics and others have taken a narrow view of the film’s preoccupation with the twentsomething “me generation” and “walk and talk” style as just another work from the Mumblecore movement-- especially considering that it stars Andrew Bujalski’s frequent early leading man Justin Rice (Mutual Appreciation)-- the film is surprisingly humorous and sets a fast pace with a plot-filled structure and wears its literary influences proudly. Additionally, it sounds incredible as it's elevated by an inspired whimsical score from award-winning jazz composer and musician Giulio Carmassi and original pop songs by Bryan Scary.

Likewise, it has a specific and audacious cinematic style for each scene. Whether it’s in the employment of fast motion, odd angles, and an intriguing emphasis on multiple-character voice over that goes perfectly in sync with its tale of characters that primarily live in their minds while struggling to create—it only takes a few scenes to begin realizing that you’re viewing something quite different than run-of-the-mill “Mumblecore.”

Shot in just 18 breakneck days that were so “stressful and filled with anxiety” that Blitstein wound up in the hospital on day 11 where he was shocked to discover he “was born with one kidney,” the filmmaker’s pre-production preparation involving roughly 450 story boards to “pre-edit the film... before shooting” led to an impressive final cut that stayed nearly “95% accurate to what” he had drawn previously.

Tackling his “dream shots” head on which he likened to being a kid “throwing different colored paint on a canvas” by using his “fairly straight forward” script as a jumping off point to work in the type of visual style he admired from masters like Fellini, Hitchcock, Welles and others, with Chrip Blitstein made the decision that he “wanted very much to play in my sandbox” and also “stand out from other talky movies.”

Having cold-called agents of actors he admired, including Rice who was suggested by the professor and film scholar Ray Carney who pointed him the direction of the Mutual Appreciation website and Rice’s photo (which perfectly matched the “Jason Schwartzman” neurotic feel he wanted to incorporate), he also managed to cast an old Illinois acquaintance Anthony Rapp (Adventures in Babysitting, Rent) for a hilarious, understated cameo, inspired a new line of dialogue from Mr. Neil LaBute himself, and incorporated Tchaikovsky’s beautiful “Waltz of the Flowers” in his Fellini-esque expressionist ending.

Juggling $45,000 worth of debt on 8 credit cards following his 47 day period editing the film together on a 12” Mac laptop “that crashed over and over again,” by creating his very “own film studio in my apartment, my own Cine-citta” in the tradition of Herzog, Cassavetes, and Kubrick, Blitstein added yet another hat becoming his “post-production producer” supervising color correction during the lab print process. In the end, he turned a film he’d initially assumed would simply be “a black and white 16mm film shot in my apartment” into a full-fledged “real 35mm motion picture… [that he] could be proud of.”

Although there’s been interest as the film expands wider both nationally and internationally for a DVD release (which will be handled via a distributor, giving Blitstein a much needed break), the young filmmaker isn’t sure exactly what’s next for him creatively, going so far to joke that he’s even uncertain about how he’ll pay for his rent once 2009 hits as the door to becoming a law student has closed by now.

While I’m unsure if he can receive any royalties on that whole Hammer recycling video, this delightfully charming and smart indie that manages to tap right into the mindset of the nervous twentysomethings all striving to find employment and happiness in the economy and contemporary society wouldn’t have been half as authentic, if we didn’t believe that it was coming from a place that was very real—more specifically from Blitstein’s own thoughts and feelings as "one of us."

With an auspicious debut under his belt and a relentless passion for his vocation that overflows from his heart as a recent interview conducted via e-mail left me with my eyes swimming in priceless type-written pages of humble anecdotes. Something tells me that given his self-deprecating humor, scholarly insights, cinematic articulation, along with an underlying thread that he himself is still trying to wrap his head around the work that has consumed him for years-- while Blitstein’s characters need to Chirp Awhile to figure things out, the resourceful and affable filmmaker has only offered us another drop of birdseed of what will come.

Note: In the course of the two-part interview, Blitstein generously listed a great number of films, books, and music that he considered early favorites and influences and since great art shouldn't be ignored, I wanted to include some of these below so spin the carousels and take a look.