By Mark Saldana
I was given the opportunity to review Mad Women through an independent film publicist based in New York. When a screener was offered to me, the publicist also offered me a few of Jeff Lipsky’s previous films. As much of a film buff as I am, I actually had not seen any of Lipsky’s work prior to this week. As a proponent of independent filmmaking, it always gives me great pleasure to review films from indie directors the mainstream public have often yet to discover.
At the beginning of the week, I sat and watched Lipsky’s fourth film, Twelve Thirty. Now, after continuing with his fifth, Molly’s Theory of Relativity and his latest, Mad Women, I can honestly say that in the course of a few days, I became a fan of Jeff Lipsky and his brand of bold and courageous filmmaking. As I watched in awe of his extraordinary writing, skillful direction and the outstanding performances of his cast, I could easily see the influences of his film “forefathers” Jean Luc Godard and John Cassavettes.
Funny thing is, I then perused the press notes only to discover that Lipsky actually knew and worked with THE godfather of American Independent film–Cassavettes himself! Then everything all made sense after that. I can easily see that Lipsky may has well have been an adopted son of Cassavettes. He has taken all that he’s learned from the legend and has taken it to a whole new level–challenging convention, breaking barriers, taking independent film to place most people would fear to tread.
After watching Mad Women and learning more about Jeff Lipsky, I just had to interview this filmmaker when it was offered to me. I sat only for half an hour on the phone with the director, but sat enthralled by what he had to say. I had time constraints of my own, but could have easily stayed on the phone with the gracious gentleman for hours.
Mark Saldana: What initially drew you to the art of film?
Jeff Lipsky: When I was a kid I had a really crappy childhood, but then again, I think so many kids do. As soon as I discovered the transformative qualities of movies, they were an essential and indelible escape from all the trials and tribulations of a young person’s life, and it was easy to escape into the ultimate reality of film. I think that anyone who makes a career for themself in film can point to one film which completely alters the way that they look at pictures. For me, it was John Cassavetes’ film Husbands when I was seventeen years old. I went to theater by myself, and I’m seventeen and the three characters in the film are forty year-old and dealing with their first brush with mortality in their lives. Their close friend suddenly dies. And even though there was nothing directly connecting my life with their lives, I could still see myself experiencing a lot of the same qualities they experience during this movie which takes place over a long weekend, and the relationships that are going on between the three friends, and I walked out of the theater in a daze. That was the day that I decided that John Cassavetes, is a genius and that I had to make movies. I was fortunate enough to meet John the following year.
Mark Saldana: Well, it’s funny that you should mention him, because my next questions regard your relationship with him and his influence on your filmmaking.
Jeff: I was a college film critic who interviewed him and he immediately befriended me. We became pen pals for a year and a half. I let him go a year and a half after that, I read Variety that he had a new movie, A Woman Under the Influence, and it was premiering at the New York Film Festival. The day before the movie I called his hotel and he said, “Come on over!” I didn’t realize that he self-financed the movie with Peter Falk, and that he didn’t have any distribution and I volunteered my services twice a week when I was off from work. The movie opened. It broke the house record in New York. The following week it broke the house record in L.A. He (Cassavetes) had befriended me three years prior and now he was taking me under his wing. I would have days where I would learn more from him about writing dialogue for film, or directing actors than I would have learned going to film school for four years. He was my mentor, my hero, my idol, my inspiration, my friend, and I was blessed to have known him for the last, all too short, eighteen years of his life.
Mark: I watched Twelve Thirty and Molly’s Theory of Relativity prior to viewing Mad Women. You have captured some incredible and transcendent performances full of rich dialogue that feels natural and genuine. How much of the dialogue is scripted and how much is improvised by your actors?
Jeff: In all five of the films I have written, one hundred percent of the dialogue I wrote. There is zero percent improvisation. People think John (Cassavetes) improvised his movies. Except for his first movie Shadows, his films were very tightly scripted. He had the habit of letting the camera keep rolling at the end of the scene in case that the actors had something to say or do, or some inspiration they wanted to commit to the party. A great script has always been and still is the foundation of any good movie.
Mark: Now having seen a couple of your previous movies, I pretty much expected a bold, raw and unflinching portrayal of intimate relationships in Mad Women. This movie takes your approach to a level that some people would consider quite taboo and disturbing. What inspired this very bold direction for your characters?
Jeff: As taboo or as graphic or shocking as this shift is dramatically, I feel strongly that it comes about in a very organic fashion. This subplot that occurs in the course of the film ends. What happens is shocking. It is about a woman in her late forties who becomes radicalized after serving nine months in prison for committing a crime of conscience. She decides she’s going to change the world and becomes the most idealistic person imaginable. Then, all of a sudden the world plays whack-a-mole with her. This particular shocking development that involves her is shocking, but for her, she almost sees herself as a heroine for being complicit with it going on. It’s just something else that is going on that she has to deal with to get to her endgame. It’s something else that she says is “necessary, I’m going to deal with it, it’s not going to stand in my way, I’m not going to obsess about it like so many of us do when we’re faced with shocking situations in our life.”
Mark: I consider you to be one of the most courageous and fearless directors in film. Are there any subjects that are too taboo for you? What would Jeff Lipsky shy away from?
Jeff: It’s so easy to brave in your artistic life than it is in your private life. No. I don’t think there is any subject that I’ve contemplated writing or directing that I’ve suddenly became timid about. I try to write my scripts organically. I think the most difficult thing to achieve in film is to direct a sense of eroticism. I think eroticism is impossible to achieve in film–real true eroticism. I strive for a sense of naturalism and if I do that properly, I think that anybody should able to identify with large swaths of my characters’ lives. I believe it because I see myself in that person up there (on the big screen). So many of their flaws, strengths, and frailties–I’ve experienced those same things. The characters are able to quell anybody’s timidity of what the characters do. If they’re natural, what they are doing on screen will almost always be acceptable. I am fearless when it comes to subject matter.
I most certainly do applaud that fearlessness when it comes to filmmaking. Thanks to the help of an awesome publicist, I have discovered yet another extraordinary filmmaker in Jeff Lipsky. Cassavetes would be proud.
PHOTO SOURCE: IMDB.com