The IFP/West’s eighth annual Someone to Watch Award recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received much recognition; the award includes a $20,000 unrestricted grant. Here’s a look at this year’s finalists:
Debra Eisenstadt: Actress finds more choices behind lens
Favorite directors: John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Todd Solondz
Worst professional advice: “I had this editor tell me, ‘Listen I’ve worked on a lot of professional films, I don’t think you should finish this. I wouldn’t spend any more money on this if I were you.'”
Debra Eisenstadt had a meteoric rise to fame — it just happened to be in the wrong profession. Auditioning for an understudy in David Mamet’s “Oleanna” not only got her the role in the national company of the play but also the movie version opposite William H. Macy.
Work in theater and television followed but what Eisenstadt really wanted to do was direct.
“I couldn’t get anyone to read my plays — no one was taking me seriously,” she says. “So I decided to learn film.”
At the New School, she learned the technical skills to make “Daydream Believer,” an uncomfortably funny feature about an amateur thespian (Sybil Kempson) who leaves Bennington, Vt., to become a big star on Broadway.
“I was always fascinated by people who came to New York to act,” says Eisenstadt. “Like it’s just so absurd in a way. I took a cliched story and tried to make it true. Because I think cliches are real.”
Eisenstadt shot the film guerilla-style on digital video. “There was no crew and the shooting took a year because we didn’t have anyone doing continuity,” she says. “It was just me and Sybil. I enlisted her in this crazy thing. I don’t even think she knew what she was in until I finally brought her into the editing room.”
The no-frills approach paid off; “Daydream Believer” won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance last year and caught the attention of writer Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”). Now Kaufman and Good Machine are in negotiations to produce her next project.
“It’s going to be my sister Jill’s book ‘From Rockaway,'” she says. “We’re adapting it as a screenplay. I’m a little nervous talking about it because these things are so precarious. But we have a contract.”
David Maquiling: New Jersey native returns to his roots
Birthplace: Holmdel, N.J.
Favorite directors: Federico Fellini, Zhang Yimou, Woody Allen
Worst professional advice: “I don’t know how many times people told me to show the film before it was finished. Every time I did, it was a disaster.”
David Maquiling’s debut feature is “Too Much Sleep,” but the filmmaker probably lost a lot of sleep during the seven-year struggle to find a distributor.
The wry misadventures of a 24-year-old slacker security guard who wanders around suburban New Jersey trying to retrieve a stolen gun was shot back in 1995.
“It was a long and complicated journey,” says Maquiling. “We premiered it in ’97 and had it on the festival circuit. But even though every distribution company was polite and encouraging, no one expressed interest in picking it up.”
Refusing to give up, the helmer began volunteering at New York’s Anthology of Film Archives and over the course of four years became the festival director for new filmmakers. Finally, in 2000, he screened “Too Much Sleep” for a successful two-week run, attracting the attention of critics, indie film audiences, and the Shooting Gallery, which picked the film up for a 30-city run.
Maquiling is at work on his second feature, “Another Deep Breath,”also set in new Jersey; only this time he’s dealing specifically with his own Filipino-American roots.
“I think a lot of people think it’s all chemical factories,” he says, “but the suburbs are beautiful and mysterious and offer all kinds of insidious mysteries.”
Maquiling’s best advice for fledgling filmmakers: “The life of the film is in the screening. You just have to keep screening it and keep it out there.”
DeMane Davis & Khari Streeter: Blurb artists start a new campaign
Ages: 30, 33
Favorite directors: John Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick, Elia Kazan
Worst professional advice: Davis: “Make everything fast. You’re going too slow. Make this character a designer instead of working in a department store. Have a crackhead show up at the fashion show. Bam! That was pretty bad. I call that the ‘New York Undercover’ advice because that’s pretty much what it was.”
DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter first met in 1994 while working at an advertising agency and eventually they started their own company, Two Potato, where they designed spots for clients like Reebok and Anheuser-Busch.
“Advertising was easily translatable to filmmaking,” says Davis. “Khari would go work on the visuals, I would go work on the copy. This was just a really nice evolution.”
Davis wrote a first draft of “Lift” and submitted it to the Sundance labs where industry bigwigs like Agnieszka Holland and Denzel Washington critiqued their work. While at the labs, they also bunked with “Boys Don’t Cry” director Kimberly Peirce, who introduced them to her producers John Hart and Jeffrey Sharp.
Armed with a budget of just under $3 million and a 24-day shooting schedule, they shot “Lift” in their hometown of Boston. The result is a tense, absorbing melodrama about a young black woman (Kerry Washington) who works in an exclusive department store and is also a booster, a professional shoplifter trying desperately to win the attention of her emotionally distant mother (Lonette McKee).
The inspiration for “Lift” came out of personal experience. Davis recalls a 14-year-old classmate who “wore Ferrangamo shoes to school. It was freezing in their house and they had tuna fish sandwiches for dinner but I remember her family digging through garbage bags of stolen designer clothing.”
Streeter had his own personal obsessions. “I had this revolving collection of 30 pairs of sneakers,” he says. “When I got into advertising I found out my target market was young black men who spend all their income on sneakers and it kind of threw me back. I think that’s what really manifests itself into boosting and into the inspiration of what the film is about.”
Showtime will premiere “Lift” on June 26 after the season premiere of “Soul Food.” The film will also air on BET in the fall.
Mike Gilio: Slacker road pic launches a career
Favorite director: Albert Brooks, John Cassavetes, Walt Disney
Worst professional advice: “Don’t worry about post-production funds, we’ll get it later.”
Actor Mike Gilio (“To Sir With Love 2,” “Chicago Hope”) wrote “Kwik Stop,” a road movie that quixotically goes nowhere, while holed up in his furniture-free North Hollywood apartment.
“I was writing, sitting on the toilet with my laptop on top of the sink,” he says.
Living off odd jobs like delivering pizzas, Gilio finally got his big Hollywood break in his native Chicago. “A friend of mine, a local casting director who wanted to be a producer told me she could raise the money,” he says.
Several Chicago fundraiser parties and maxed-out credit cards later, Gilio finished his movie, in which he also stars as Lucky, an aspiring actor bent on driving out to L.A. if he can work out his relationships with the opposite sex.
Although “Kwik Stop” has no distribution, the film was included in Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. “It’s official,” jokes Gilio. “We’re overlooked and underappreciated but that’s cool.”
He’s also taking it to upcoming film festivals. Gilio plans to continue acting and just signed with “Monster’s Ball” producer Lee Daniels for management and John Sloss (“Boys Don’t Cry” ) as his producer’s rep.
And for the record, he’s moved back to Los Angeles. “Yeah, I got suckered right back into it. But I’ve only been back a few months and this time I have plenty of ammunition,” he says.