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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO

 

(May 2004) One of the pleasures that comes from working in the arts is meeting some exceptionally talented people. There’s a spark that bursts through telling you that great things are to come. And when they do come, having been there to make the discovery is all the sweeter.

Every year, the Rhode Island International Film Festival is blessed to not only see the work of some new “voices” in film, but to actually present the work to larger audiences; and in many cases, to meet the artists who come to the festival to see their work screened. RIIFF receives an enormous amount of entries; this year we expect about 1300 entries from all over the world. We also screen a major portion a of the entries; 200 films will be presented in 2004. And significantly, programming will be composed of about 95% of those entries; thus allowing a showcase for student, regional and new artists. While a “regional” festival, RIIFF has become internationally recognized as a launching platform, where the filmmaker can be the proverbial big fish in a small pond.

Several years ago, I made the acquaintance of a remarkable filmmaker who was then starting matriculation at NYU in Film Studies. I found her work in a bag of films as part of my nightly assignment of film reviews for the Festival. Our policy requires that each film be seen by three separate reviewers so that we have a balanced perspective of the film/video submitted. It’s a lot of work, candidly, but for a filmmaker who pays a submission fee, it’s something they should expect and demand. I had ten screeners that evening, the most I could fairly handle, and I felt I had been given a revelation. The work was by Eva Saks and she used the language of film as I had not seen before. I watched the piece twice that evening, emailed her that I was amazed, and told her I wanted her in the Festival. Now in all honesty, this is not usual. I called our Program Director, Heather Bryant told her of my discovery, asked her opinion, and I then broke our usual protocol with her blessings. Call it a very rarely used Executive privilege.

Since that point, Eva has sent us works in progress and kept me personally in the loop with her accomplishments. She’s been to our Festival enough over the years that we have put her to work on many occasions; including being an Assistant Director with our Master Class on Film Production: Take 1-2-3: Filmmaking with the Pros in 2003, run by our Creative Director, John Quackenbush.

As a filmmaker/craftsperson, Eva is a chameleon. She submerges herself in her work and it is always different; always unique. She has played more Festivals that I can recall, won numerous awards and is in constant demand. She won a student Academy Award for a thought-provoking piece called “Family Values.” Her work opened RIIFF last year with Disney’s Academy nominated animation “Destino” and Kenneth Branagh’s lyrical “Listening.”

She recently completed work for PBS’ “Sesame Street.” I thought how she got to this place would be inspirational and a good lesson for aspiring filmmakers in our region.

GTM: Give us some background on yourself. Tell us about the journey you've taken to be a filmmaker.

EVA SAKS: I became an "old movie" maven at about ten years old - I used to torture my parents by setting my alarm clock for 3 am, to watch Fred Astaire in TOP HAT. In college, I majored in Theater Directing, then went on to become a Casting Director for Theater, Film and Television. I moved out of Casting into being an Agent, and woke up one day thinking, "Well, if I'm really going into the Entertainment Business, I might as well go for it." So I ended up going to Yale Law School, with the intention of directing and producing movies. I practiced Entertainment Law briefly, then got back into directing Theater and casting films, and decided I would apply to ONE film school: NYU. They took me and I've never looked back! I've had a great run, with the Student Academy Award and then selling my two most recent shorts (CONFECTION and COLORFORMS) to the Independent Film Channel, and now writing and directing two programs for SESAME STREET.

GTM: You have a law degree from Yale, why the switch to film?

EVA SAKS: As you can see by my chequered history, directing and movies were in my blood long before I went to Yale! Yale Law School was great, though. I studied a lot of American History -- that's where the great stories for movies are! Frankly, I think Yale Law School taught me the single most important quality for a film director: how to work for days on end without sleep.

GTM: How hard was it to make that transition and has it been worth it for you?

EVA SAKS: It was an easy transition since I never really left the Entertainment world - even when I was a lawyer, I was doing Entertainment law. And when I stopped practicing law and went back to directing theater, it was actually kinda easy -- I just called some actors I knew from my casting days and asked them to be in my first show.

GTM: What keeps you going? You work long hours and are constantly on the go.

EVA SAKS: I'm really a project-specific person: what keeps me going is the story I'm in the middle of telling. For example, with the trilogy of films I just completed (CONFECTION, COLORFORMS, and DATE, which I just finished last week!), I wanted to express my admiration for the bloody but unbowed spirit of post-9/11 New York City and America.

GTM: So what do you to relax in your downtime (and do you have any downtime)?

EVA SAKS: Okay, you've caught me. No, I don't!

GTM: Where do you find the inspiration for the work you've undertaken?

EVA SAKS: Everywhere, lately in kids a lot. And I like reading a lot of local newspapers.

GTM: How important has the film festival circuit been for the development of your craft?

EVA SAKS: I think it's been invaluable, because you get to see how your work plays with different audiences, in different cultures. It helps me make choices that make my movies more legible and universal. (I'm going to Italy next week, to a film festival that's hosting me and screening CONFECTION...I'm very curious to see how an Italian audience reacts!) My own goal isn't to make "art" films; I like to make films that you can watch while eating popcorn. I guess it's the influence of all those great old movies I used to wake up to watch in the middle of the night! I'm a populist director - my idea of a great movie is CASABLANCA or ET -- something that moves people of all ages.

GTM: Tell us about some of the experiences you've had attending festivals.

EVA SAKS: At Sundance, where my film FAMILY VALUES plays, I got sick of going to parties and "networking", so I jumped on the shuttle bus to go back to my hotel. And on the bus, I met the producer of my film COLORFORMS!

GTM: You won a student academy award: what did that mean to you and has it helped in your career path?

EVA SAKS: The Student Academy Award really does change your life. Doors open; you just have to generate the work to walk through them. That's why I'm now finishing up a feature script - to send something to the agents and producers I met through the Student Academy Award.

GTM: You just finished work for SESAME STREET. How did that come about?

EVA SAKS: ... They commissioned me to write and direct to "Letters of the Day", with characters I created. I had almost complete creative freedom -- it was fantastic. The shows start airing this month. (In addition, I kept the "festival rights" to my SESAME STREET pieces. They're already in four festivals!)

GTM: What is your ultimate goal as a filmmaker?

EVA SAKS: I'd like to finish making all the movies I've got outlined in my computer. Even though that would require that I live to be 100. But my Uncle Harry lived to be 104, so it could happen! Also, as a personal goal, I'd like to continue to work in different genres - narrative, documentary, drama, comedy, action. I don't like getting typecast!

GTM: Has it been tough for you as a woman making an impact what has been traditionally a male dominated industry? Or does the glass ceiling no longer exist? (or now has cracks).

EVA SAKS:
I don't know. I seem to be doing okay. You can get FAMILY VALUES through NetFlix, and CONFECTION and COLORFORMS through Film Movement. Just Google the companies.

GTM: Many students come in with video backgrounds to film schools today. What was the approach at NYU? What did you learn from that process and is their one format you prefer over another--and why?

EVA SAKS: At NYU, you do NOT start with video. You start with film. I love film - I even chose to shoot my SESAME STREET pieces on film. And CONFECTION, COLORFORMS and DATE are all 35 mm film. So I'm going the opposite direction! I started with film and I will advance to video...

GTM: It seems no matter what the topic of the film you undertake, you get typecast--for the moment -- as having an agenda. Example: FAMILY VALUES had you pegged as a lesbian. With CONFECTION, you're now a family film director. Why do think this has been and how have you reacted to these stereotypes.

EVA SAKS: These stereotypes make me laugh. When FAMILY VALUES came out, everyone thought I was gay. When CONFECTION came out, everyone assumed I had children. Inasmuch as I'm a straight girl with no kids, I can only laugh and throw up my hands. (In fact, I met my boyfriend through making FAMILY VALES -- he's an NYPD lieutenant -- and so I always like to say, "I met my boyfriend through my lesbian documentary.") Actually, it saddens me that people assume that you can only empathize with people who are just like you! Are most people only interested in people just like them? I don't think so....By the way, my short documentary A PIZZA MAN is about a pizza maker from El Salvador, and it was in the NY Latino Film Festival, so I went through a period when everyone thought I was Latina...Telemundo kept calling me for an interview. And my new film DATE features an African-American heroine, so it's clear what's next for me. Call me an American!

GTM: Speaking of values, whom do you credit for giving you such a firm foundation and grounding as an artist and human being?

EVA SAKS: My parents. They are the best. My dad used to be a Civil Rights lawyer; now he's a judge. My mom teaches in the inner city. They really believe in me, and in democracy.

GTM: Who has inspired you in your life?

EVA SAKS: My parents - see above! In the film world, I really admire Frank Capra, the child of Italian immigrants who grew up to make some of the greatest and most inclusive movies ever made -- IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, MEET JOHN DOE. I go back to Capra's autobiography all the time - it's called THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE and I really recommend it! I also really admire Frances Marion - she was a top writer-director in the days of silent movies. (She once famously said, "All my life I've been looking for a man I can look up to without lying down.")

In the bigger picture, I was inspired by my 5th Grade American History teacher, Earl Clemens. He was very odd and funny-looking, a bit like a giraffe, but no kid EVER made fun of Earl Clemens. Because he was just SO smart and committed to perfection. He was a lovable drill sergeant. He was so rigorous and passionate about this country that he just won us all over. He also had a great phrase he would always use, and that I still use. He told us on the first day of class, "If you don't study every day, and study harder than you've ever studied in your life, you will fail this course. That's not a promise and it's not a threat...IT'S A GUARANTEE."

I LOVE that quote. It may come in handy for you, too. "It's not a promise and it's not a threat, it's a guarantee."

GTM: You've been all over the country; what is your assessment of New England as a film location?

EVA SAKS: New England is a great film location - it's got every kind of landscape and natural beauty, as well as all kinds of great urban/industrial locations, too. You've also got an outstanding sound stage up where you are. And you KNOW I've been wanting to shoot on that Providence ice skating rink for years! I love Providence generally: it's got so many different looks, and I love Federal Hill.

 

GTM: Tell us two things: the best experience you've had at a festival and the worst (I know, loaded question, feel free to change the names to protect the guilty).

EVA SAKS: The best experience I've had at a festival was at Clermont-Ferrand, in France, which is known an "the Cannes of Short Films." I could only stay for four days, but the festival gave me "hospitality coupons" for ten days. Now, the key part is that these coupons could be used for fine wines at every restaurant in the city...So every night I would use my extra coupons to buy great bottles of wine for tables of happy filmmaker friends! We had quite the party. And the whole city of Clermont supports the festival - everybody goes. Plus the festival was completely international - I was given lodging in a hotel where my neighbors were French, Egyptian, German, Moroccan, Indian, Thai. It was gloriously fun and I'm still in touch with a lot of the filmmakers.

It's a different universe when you are in a country where there is government support for culture, that's for sure!

Another great experience, I must say, was your Opening Night party last year [at the Rhode Island International Film Festival]. The state house, which I had never seen, was absolutely ravishingly beautiful - it made me want to start filming a movie there immediately! Providence is quite a photogenic place. That state house in the moonlight was unforgettable.

The worst experience was a festival which changed the times of my films, after I'd had all the posters and postcards made. Just awful. They refused to replace them or help in any way. It cost me a fortune and everyone went at the wrong time. Yikes!

GTM: What would you tell an aspiring film student or communications major about preparation for this field: illusions, delusions and reality?

EVA SAKS: Just get out there and start making films. Really. Buy (or borrow) the cheapest camcorder and get a home editing program - you can put it on your desktop. (In fact, I've edited all my films on my desktop. Cost almost nothing.) Incidentally, I shot most of FAMILY VALUES -- which won the Student Academy Award and screened at Sundance, Telluride, etc. -- by myself, because I didn't know any DPs! And I knew absolutely NOTHING about shooting movies. I just bought a cheapo consumer video camera, and got on a train to Philly (where my subjects were) the next day, and started shooting. I didn't even know how to turn the camera on and off when I started the project. It was pretty hilarious. In fact, I'd never owned a camera. I was just so excited about the story of FAMILY VALUES that nothing could stop me. By the way, NYU discouraged me from doing the project, and refused to let me use an NYU video camera - so I ignored them and did it myself. As a friend of mine once told me: "No one makes you a director. That's what MAKES you a director."

GTM: Finally, any comments you'd like to make.

EVA SAKS: Break a leg!



About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and will be presenting his current research paper “Teaching and the Blogosphere” at the Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in August. He can be reached at flicksart@aol.com