Interview: Dan Nuxoll (Program Director – ‘Rooftop Films’)

The Rooftop Films 2013 Summer Series, the 17th year of “Underground Movies Outdoors,” will run every weekend from May 10 – August 17, 2013 with special events in September.

The 2013 Rooftop Films Summer Series begins on May 10th and continues through the summer, with screenings each weekend in a variety of outdoor locations. Rooftop Films’ full feature film slate includes thrilling documentaries about urban dirt-bikers (“12 O’Clock Boys”), dangerous ex-lovers (“Belleville Baby”), and environmentalist pornographers (“F—- For Forest”); innovative works by daring young filmmakers (“I hate myself :),” “Elena,” “The Dirties,”); and sneak previews of the most exciting festival hits of the year, including wildly unpredictable comedies (“Frances Ha,” “Crystal Fairy,” “Newlyweeds,” “The Kings of Summer”) as well as powerful independent dramas (“Drinking Buddies,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”).

Programming for the 2013 Summer Series includes feature-length films and programs of shorts, all new, all independent. Most of the feature films are either New York, US or World Premieres. Most screenings will include a filmmaker Q & A. Films represent a diverse range of documentaries, fiction, drama, comedy animation and more. We couple films with venues, and connect artists with audiences so that each event is unique and memorable.

We talked with Rooftop Films Programming Director Dan Nuxoll just prior to the annual screening series 2013 kickoff about the history of the unique film festival, the distinction of rooftop culture to NYC, maximizing audience participation and more.  Rooftop Films continues this week in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Industry City with NEW YORK MAYHEM Short Film Block on Saturday, May 18, as well as ‘Brother Hypnotic‘ on Friday, May 17 at Metrotech Commons.

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Can you describe the philosophy behind the kick off weekend of Rooftop?
We always like to kick off the summer program with a selection of short films.  Shorts are a big part of what we do and have always been.  Unlike a lot of festivals, short films really mean a lot to our audience.  Short film screenings outdoors work great and lend themselves to an intimate atmosphere well.

Also, it is a great opportunity because it is a great way to discover the great new talent coming through the system.  If you look at our feature film selection, a god number of them have had short films with us previously.  It is a great way to help the careers of filmmakers making their way out of film school and bring those filmmakers together.  Independent Film is such a collaborative medium it is very important filmmakers starting off their careers find others who is minded.  I think screenings like our opening night is a perfect example of how that fosters community and collaboration. We work really hard on our short film programming and watch absolutely everything we possible can.  Since we get large crowds for our short film programs it is important to us they be of the best quality.

Also that weekend we played Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha‘.  We have never played any of Noah’s films and I am glad this was the first one.  It is a fun film and is a love letter to New York City; maybe a love/hate letter at certain points.  Kicking off the summer with ‘Frances Ha‘ as part of our opening weekend was a great way to highlight that connection.  We believe very strongly in contextualizing films and finding films who’s screenings are augmented by the locations.  I think ‘Frances Ha‘ is a film that really fits.

How do you block short films together into their respective programs?
There are certain programs when we are putting them together it becomes obvious, but in some cases it varies.  We have over 2300 short film submissions each year.  After we comb through them all we widdle it down to a list of 300 films or so.  You carve out programs from there and see what fits together.  We do not want our programs to be a collection of greatest hits, or things we are showcasing individual talent and things.  We want to show things that are distinct and different from what we have seen before.  There are a lot of very good short films out there that do not necessarily go in interesting directions, so we want to steer away from them.  We want to show great stories that pop out to us.

The hard part is figuring out which films work together.  In some cases we have programs we have done year after year.  We always do a romance short film program, but what that program looks like changes from year to year; sometimes it is dark and sometimes it is humorous. This year we have a block of films dealing with themes of destruction in New York, playing this week in Sunset Park.

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By the same token, what criteria do you look for in a feature film that will play Rooftop?
It is different between Fiction and Documentary but a lot of the same impulse hold true across both.  We like personal stories.  We do not do a lot of genre films or “survey” documentaries.  If we are going to show a documentary about an important social issue we are going to try and find those films that talk about the issue in an intimate way.  Similarly with the fiction, there are a few films with “bigger stars” like ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints‘, but it is a very intimate story, told in a personal way with natural performances.  We are also showing the Michael Cera film ‘Crystal Fairy‘ which is a fantastic film.  People will be very surprised when they see it.

Obviously the festival focuses on screening on Rooftop’s of prominent New York City locations, but what is it about the rooftop culture that makes it something distinct to the New York experience?
That is a good question.  There are some logistical reasons, since we have a lot of good rooftops.  It is funny because people will always talk to us about other cities and mention how their roofs are always slanted so they cannot actually hang out on them.  When Mark did the first Rooftop screening in 1997, he chose to do it because roofs are the unofficial back yards of the city.  They are where you can gather a large group of people.  It is a space that is public, yet private.  When on a roof, under any circumstances, you have the opportunity to be by yourself but not be removed from the city.  You can still hear the ambulance going by, but you get enough distance to gain some perspective on things; you can take a moment to think about and understand your environment.  This is something crucial to what Rooftop Films is all about, changing the way people experience their city.  If there is a big building you walk past to work every day for 10 years you may not think twice about it, but if you go up on that roof and have an experience with friends, music and films it changes the way you will look at the building forever.  Since New York City is a place you can find a community, bit also feel isolated, Rooftop is an opportunity bring people to places they would not go to otherwise.  Independent Film works perfectly within this context since our goal is to bring people to screenings for fllms they may not even know about.  Also, letting the audience know they area part of the experience and not just a witness to it.  This is a critical aspect to Rooftop Films.

For 2013, do you have some new rooftops on tap?
Yes, we have a bunch actually. The one we are particularly excited about is the roof of Industry City.  It is a complex of multiple warehouses and industrial spaces in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  It is an amazing series of buildings that overlooks New York harbor; a truly incredible space with a gorgeous view.  For certain logistical reasons we cannot have more than 200 people on each roof so we are going to set up 2 screens on rooftops across the street from each other, playing the films simultaneously.

We are also doing screenings at, what used to be called, the World Financial Center.  We will be doing a special screening there with the organization “Arts> Brookfield” of the film ‘Brasslands‘.  With this screening we will have a host of Balkan style brass bands playing in a big open space leading up to the documentary.

We also have a screening at the waterfront museum, which is on a barge in Red Hook. This is for a documentary called ‘Expedition to the End of the World‘, about a schooner voyage around Greenland.  We thought this would be perfect to show on a boat.

We also have new venue called the Community Art Center in Clinton Hill, which is a great organization.  We will be doing 2 screenings by filmmakers who made their films in that particular area.

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A big part of Rooftop Films is the audience participation element of your program.  What measures do you take to ensure a positive audience participation experience?
Rooftop Films has always been about inclusivity  It is about making everyone know they are part of the entire event.  After each of our screening we have a Q&A, but in addition we also have afterparties, where the filmmaker will be in attendance and everyone at the screening is invited to come down, have some free drinks and enjoy themselves.  Even if we have a movie star there, everyone gets treated the same.

We also have live performances before each of the shows.  As the audience comes in we have live music playing, creating more of an environment to mingle. This breaks down some of the formality of sitting in a chair and watching the movie by yourself.

We also are working with New York Polytechnic Institute to do some interactive art installations on June 12.

When we screen ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints‘ it will be at the Queens County Farm Museum.  It will further out in a neighborhood we have not been before, but we will be out on a farm, with the filmmaker and cast, in a great feel.   think it will be a very fun, intimate, relaxed environment which is very fitting for that film.

What do you find to be the most difficult part in planning and carrying out event to event?
Certainly the weather is a big one.  It is the one variable you can never really control.  The thing about outdoor screenings and the way we do them is that so many things can go wrong.  One loose cable can (theoretically) ruin a screening.  For us, it is about painstakingly going through everything.  We deal with a lot of venues, sometimes venues that have never had events at their space before, so there is a lot of work that has to be done to make sure everything is taken care of.  If we were doing everything at the same space, everytime it would be much easier as you would eventually figure out the ins and outs of the venue.  When you are doing something in a space that does not have screenings of any kind there are some things that could go wrong.  The nice thing is that we have been doing this for a long time so we are prepared for many of the things that could potentially go wrong.  We are rarely totally caught of guard as we usually have 2 back up plans.

One of the big pieces of news regarding this season of Rooftop Films is your partnership with The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences for 2 screenings. Can you tell us about this partnership and how it came to be?
Representatives from The Academy had attended some of our screenings in the past.  Obviously, they have a larger presence in LA than NYC, but they would like to reach out to different audiences.  In LA they threw Oscar Outdoors screenings, which was rather successful.  Originally they wanted to do something similar in NYC, but decided instead to reach out to different audiences and showcase some of the strong independent filmmakers coming up.  ‘20 Ft From Stardom‘ about backup singers in popular music is a crowd pleasing documentary, but also an intimate portrait of talented women who have lived their lives just outside of the spotlight.  We will have Darlene Love out to sing a few songs after the film.  We are also doing ‘Short Term ’12‘ which is a feature debut of Destin Cretton, It is a fantastic film; incredibly emotional that will cross over and reach big audiences.  Justin had received a screenwriting award from The Academy so they were very interested in highlighting his work, especially now that the film has been tremendously well received.

Rooftop Films

Finally, since this is the 17th season of Rooftop Films, how do you continue to grow and challenge yourself year to year?
Our motivation is very much what it always was.  We have not become a different organization, spiritually.  From the start we set out to show movies in cool locations and show audiences things they may have missed otherwise.  The crowds are bigger and our equipment is nicer, some of the films are a little more prominent, but the spirit is the same.  We never want to break from that.  This kind of spirit is what sets us apart from the rest.  That being said, we want to continue to innovate.  When we started there were only a couple of outdoor NYC screenings, now they are all over.  To a degree it is not special just to be showing films outdoors anymore, so adding special elements to make the screenings as special as possible.

About Rooftop Films
Rooftop Films is a non-profit organization whose mission is to engage and inspire the diverse communities of New York City by showcasing the work of emerging filmmakers and musicians. In addition to their annual Summer Series – which takes place in unique outdoor venues every weekend throughout the summer – Rooftop provides grants to filmmakers, teaches media literacy and filmmaking to young people, rents equipment at low-cost to artists and non-profits, and produces new independent films. At Rooftop Films, we bring underground movies outdoors.
Facebook: /Rooftop-Films-Inc
Twitter: @rooftopfilms



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