Feb 4, 2022
Meet the New York filmmakers you need to know at Slamdance this weekend
Three truly independent (and low-fi) films that grapple with intimacy, family and early adulthood you can stream from home for just $10
Filmmaker Kit Zauhar had a wild 2021. She made her movie “Actual People” in 2019 before the pandemic pushed everyone inside. Zauhar had no expectations where the film would go, but after sending a cold email to the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, “Actual People” was accepted into the 2021 festival. The Locarno experience gave the movie the jolt it needed that led to the Slamdance Film Festival.
Slamdance is the ultimate American film festival—by filmmakers, for filmmakers. Not to be confused with its “indie” neighbor Sundance, also based in Park City, Utah, Slamdance was formed in 1995 to help independent filmmakers make movies on their own terms.
Zauhar and other New York filmmakers, like Brooklyn Heights resident Roger Mancusi, are showing their movies at Slamdance through Sunday, February 6. We spoke with Zauhar for “Actual People,” and Mancusi and his co-star Hannah Lee Thompson for “Hannah Ha Ha,” which picked up the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature and the Slamdance Acting Award for Thompson on Friday. We also chatted with director Justin Zuckerman and producer Ryan Martin Brown for their film “Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater.”
Movies at Slamdance are available to stream nationwide through the weekend. For a flat $10 fee, you can see every single movie at the festival. I’m not sure how that works but it sounds like a steal—pick up a ticket here.
Our interviews with the filmmakers were edited for concision and clarity.
Director: Kit Zauhar
The story: “Actual People” is about a bi-racial girl struggling to find intimacy, connection, and the accountability she needs to grow during her last week of college. Her journey leads her to chase a boy from her hometown of Philly as the solution for her malaise, indecision, and irresponsibility.
You made the movie before the pandemic. Were you ever under the impression the movie may never be seen?
Kit Zauhar: Yeah, totally. I had no expectations for this film. Not that I don’t believe in myself, but I don’t have enough faith to assume random people that don’t know me will believe in me. I submitted to the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland without any connections, just cold emailing them for a fee waiver (swiss franc to usd is not great). They accepted the movie so I went to the festival. It was really remarkable, and from there it just had momentum. Mmostly in Europe. I don’t think Americans like me as much.
What comes next for “Actual People?”
It’s good to not have high expectations or ideas for what will happen. In general, I am cynical, which is different from self-deprecating. I like myself a lot, but I don’t rely on others to achieve that inner peace, though it’s obviously very helpful. Also, this film was made for so little money, so for it to see any kind of substantial audience is insane. How the movie was made feels very early 2000’s. Hopefully that kind of trajectory for filmmakers like me is coming back in style.
People in the industry tell indie filmmakers to make movies based on what they know, but you’ve said that after the experience of making “Actual People” you don’t want to make movies based on real life experiences anymore. Why is that?
I just don’t think my life is that interesting. Like, I love it, but I don’t necessarily think where I am now makes for juicy narrative material. I’ve also just put many of the people I love in insane situations for the sake of “my art.” Will I continue to do so? Probably, hopefully with more layers between my reality and the world I want to create on screen so it doesn’t feel like the ones I hold dear are recreating past traumas.
In a way, I think filmmakers always write from what they know. I will always be exploring intimacy, sex and love, how people connect through conversation, but I just don’t want it to be a distorted mirror of my memories, of my past selves. You can take from your life and distill it a little more artfully, which is what’s coming next for me with my second feature.
“Hannah Ha Ha”
Producer and actor: Roger Mancusi
Actor: Hannah Lee Thompson
The story: “Hannah Ha Ha” is a hyper-realistic slice of life family dramedy that questions the story American society tells millennials about what constitutes success. The 30,000 foot view is full of cynicism, but the heart of the film is the relationships and connections to one’s immediate surroundings that bring comfort and fulfillment to our daily lives.
Hannah, how did you get involved with the movie? Was your character named after you on purpose?
Hannah Lee Thompson: I’ve been friends with Jordan Tetewsky for nine years now and we’ve worked together on a number of projects mostly related to my musical endeavors. He’s a mad genius and someone I would follow into war any day but also be arguing with the entire time. As a director/actor partnership, Jordan, Josh and I had a blast making a short film a few months before we filmed “Hannah Ha Ha.” It was my first time acting, and we wanted to use the chemistry/workflow we established for a feature length project. The character was written for me, so that’s where the name comes from, but our similarities are more superficial than most people assume. I share a sense of humor and vernacular with her, but our personalities are very different.
Hannah, you’re from Brooklyn but moved away, and Roger you live there now. Did you ever cross paths?
Roger: No, we met on day one of the shoot if you don’t count our pre-production Zoom meetings! However, Hannah is a musician and one of the venues she’s played at, Jalopy, is located on one of my favorite Brooklyn bike routes (Joralemon to Henry, down to the BQE, then up Columbia to the waterfront, and back down at the top of Henry). So each time I pass it I think, oh that’s the bar Hannah’s played at! We have plans to have a screening and party there one of these days.
Hannah: Yeah, Jordan introduced us on this film! I grew up in Brooklyn (and playing music Jalopy), so I’m really excited about showing the film there. It’s the first place I go whenever I’m home.
Roger, how do you handle acting in the movie and producing it?
Roger: It was a lot! And all I’ll say is thank god for our co-producer Emily Freire. She was originally brought on as a PA, but when the male lead dropped the day before production due to Covid, I replaced him and she got an on-the-spot promotion. Emily inherited a lot of the minutiae which allowed me to hone in on the script and work with Hannah on our scenes. I had to balance what the production needed as well as what my character needed, which was a fun challenge, bouncing back and forth between skill sets depending on what scene we were shooting.
Tell us more about Emily Freire and how you met in Brooklyn.
Roger: ReelWorks is a great nonprofit here in Brooklyn that trains NYC highschoolers and college aged students the art of filmmaking. They offer free after school programs for students to be prepared to enter their desired filmmaking profession after graduation. I met Emily through their producing fellows mentorship program, and we’ve struck up a great partnership over the last year and a half. She’s the type of young professional that people say “we’ll all work for one day,” and I’m really excited for her future as an amazing producer.
“Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater”
Director and writer: Justin Zuckerman
Producer and actor: Ryan Martin Brown
The story: “Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater” follows a recent college grad, Lisa, as she starts her new adult life in New York City. She begins her journey by moving in with an eccentric couple but it doesn’t take long for her to become a wedge in their already strained relationship.
Things only get worse from there; as the days, weeks, and months go by, Lisa forges ahead with her plan to experience the romanticized New York that’s been burned into the cultural landscape. But no matter how tenacious she is, she continues to bump up against people who are too focused on trying to forge their own paths—and aren’t afraid to undermine hers to get what they’re after. The movie shows what it’s like to move to New York City and end up with more than you bargained for.
Why was the movie shot on MiniDV? It has an early 2000s visual quality.
Justin Zuckerman: I just love the aesthetic of it. I used to make silly YouTube sketches on MiniDV when I was younger. And shooting on it today gives it a feeling of playfulness. It also immediately helps the film stand out with a very specific look. Whenever I see something shot on an old video camera, I’m always more interested, not less.
I couldn’t afford a nice camera or the lights, lenses, and gear that you need to rent when you have a nice camera. The only gear we had was the camera, tapes, and a small sound kit. By not setting up lights and switching out lenses, you save a ton of time on set. This gave us the freedom to experiment and shoot however, whenever, and wherever we wanted.
Ryan, tell me about your Brooklyn-based production company 5th Floor.
Ryan Martin Brown: 5th Floor is a loose concept, but it’s essentially an umbrella under which we’ve made films with friends and other collaborators. We moved up to Brooklyn from Florida some years back and 5th Floor gave us a kind footing to come together with people and re-build a sense of community.
Justin, tell me about your experience working in Hollywood and how your film is a reaction to that experience.
Justin: After graduating from college, I worked in the film industry in Los Angeles. Some of that experience was fun but a lot of it was not. Many of the professional productions I worked on were very stressful and the finished product was never that interesting.
My last job in Hollywood was as a production assistant at “Family Guy.” I was hoping to move up to a writer’s assistant and then eventually become a writer. However, when I got there, I found that “Family Guy” already had three writer’s assistants, some of whom had been there for nearly a decade, waiting all that time to be promoted to actual writers. It seemed a bizarre and frustrating path to me. Yet it was one of those common examples of the “pay your dues” mentality that I kept seeing in Hollywood.
I got fed up and moved to New York. Immediately after moving, I decided I was going to make a feature film. I was no longer interested in waiting around for someone to give me permission to make a movie. This film would be made for no money and no purpose other than to simply make a movie. The movie was the purpose. Nothing more. And now that I think about it, I guess I’m grateful to Hollywood, because I never would have had such a strong urge to make a film without those experiences.
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