Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Great Actors Bring Their Own Magic": An EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW With Writer/Director Debra Markowitz

If you have any interest in independent filmmaking, then I guarantee Debra Markowitz is a name you are going to see quite a bit in the near future.  Though once a humble accountant, she's realized her dream of working in film by starting the Nassau County Film Office and becoming an instrumental force behind the Long Island International Film Expo.

Since then, she's worked as a casting director on a number of feature length and short films, and most recently she's written and directed the short films "The Last Taxi Driver" and "Leaving", both of which we reviewed here last month.

Debra and I sat down and exchanged e-mails for this interview, in which we cover her beginnings and the two aforementioned short films, in addition to the feature length Living With the Dead, which is now making its way to festivals around the world.

Without further ado, let's get down to business!

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FCSFR: First of all, thank you for sitting down to discuss your films with Forest City Short Film Review.  You have a background in film, but for those who aren't aware, break down your beginnings with film and lead us through your creating Intention Films and Media.

DEBRA MARKOWITZ: Thank you, Nicholas.  It's been a long process beginning when I was 8 and used to direct all my cousins and friends (and stuffed animals) in little mini films that I would make up on the spot. Of course there wasn't any camera, but, hey, I was directing!  Then I went to Nassau Community College to study acting, but gave it up for a business degree as I thought I'd never make a living in the arts.

While going to Hofstra University at night to study Business Management, I worked full-time in accounting until I was offered a job as a Special Assistant to the County Executive.  I wrote press releases, speeches and worked on special projects, but it really wasn't what I wanted to do long term.

I started researching the various County Departments and discovered Commerce and Industry. At the time, they did two or three film permits a year, and I knew that I could grow that.  I prepared a proposal to the County Executive who thought it was promising, and gave me free reign (though no money but my salary) to start the Nassau County Film Office.  The first year we had 35 production days, we now have way over 1,000 per year.  About ten years into my film office career, I was approached by the Long Island Film/TV Foundation about starting a film festival in Nassau County.

We were supposed to be given all the films and just find a venue.  Well, the person who was supposed to give us the films became non-friendly, and because I had promised the County Executive a film festival, I was determined to deliver.  We had four weeks to get 44 films and put on the first LIIFE (the Long Island International Film Expo) which was then called the Nassau Independent Cinema Expo.  And talk about beginner's luck; we got Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire, then The Sopranos), Kelly Rutherford (Melrose Place) and Karen Allen (Animal House) all to attend out closing night party.  LIIFE is going on 18 years [in action] from July 8 - 16 at the Bellmore Movies, and we now show hundreds of short and feature length independent films from around the world.

About two and a half years ago, I was approached by Director Peter Bongiorno who wanted me to get some name talent for his film, "My Cross to Bear".  Peter knew I was friendly with a few actors.

When I read his script, I told him he was casting all wrong.  I showed him some reels from actors I had met at LIIFE, and he was blown away.  He asked me to become casting director and come on as a producer.  "My Cross to Bear" was based on a true story, and we had Emmy award winners and nominees in our crew -- I knew I'd be crazy to turn it down!  I fell in love -- with casting and producing.

FCSFR: From here, you were the executive producer and casting director on Living With the Dead, a feature shot on a low budget and a strong script.  How did you meet Living With the Dead's writer/director Christine Vartoughian and what made you interested in the project?

DM: After "My Cross to Bear", I wanted to take a break and concentrate on writing my fourth novel, and I had a great agent interested in Damaged, But Not Broken. Don't forgot, all the while, I'm still working full-time running the Nassau County Film Office and LIIFE.

One of the directors of the Queens World Film Festival, Katha Cato, contacted me and said, "I have a friend who wrote a script [Living With the Dead] for a feature, and she needs help with casting and producing.  Oh, and she hardly has any money."  Because I love Katha, I agreed to at least read the script.  It was, hands down, the best script I'd ever read. I contacted Christine Vartoughian and said, "You had me at the first flashback."

What attracts me to any script is usually the roles for actors.  I love great actors and great acting. I could see the movie unfold before my eyes as I was reading it -- always a good sign. I helped raise a good amount of money for the film and put the cast together, with the director's approval, of course.  We discovered newcomer Emily Jackson, who is so amazingly talented, and Craig Kelly and Ben Frankenberg.  Just a stellar cast!  So now, a few months after "My Cross to Bear", I cast my first feature.  There's just nothing like the audition room.  Well, except for [being on] set, of course.

FCSFR: When do you think we will see a DVD release of Living With the Dead?  I know it's making the rounds in the festival circuit right now.  

DM: Living with the Dead is very early on its way through the festival circuit, so I can't really say anything about DVD and distribution yet, but there is some interest! 

FCSFR: But you've been equally prolific on your own -- the short films "The Last Taxi Driver" and "Leaving", both of which were written and directed by you, were shot in quick succession.  What were some of the unique challenges of putting together all these projects with very little time to rest in between?

DM: There was a one year period where I seemed to be making films every three weeks.  "The Last Taxi Driver", "Leaving", Living with the Dead, "Junkie Heaven", "Stuff", "2094", "Man from the City", and I'm sure there were others.  I had such a GREAT time, but I don't recommend it.

After "Leaving", which was such an emotional movie for me, I took off of work and cried for three days.  Because I work full time, I work at night, on weekends, and when most people take vacations, I'm working on writing, directing, producing and casting.  I love it so much I could never give it up, but it left me drained.  I also cast commercials and speak at acting schools and workshops, so it was just crazy. 

Besides the energy level you need, money is always an issue. I raised a good deal of money for "The Last Taxi Driver", "Leaving" and Living with the Dead.  That's not an area I really enjoy, but it was necessary for those.  I'll have to do that soon for "Couple of Guys" and "By Blood".  That's the part that keeps me up at night.  What if I don't raise it?  I always have, but as I said, next time I'd like someone else to take that on!

I used most of the same crew for both "Leaving" and "The Last Taxi Driver", so we knew we would work together well.  That eased a lot of tension.  They care about the projects, so everyone wants them to succeed.

FCSFR: How did you attract the attention of TV talent like Robert Clohessy (Living With the Dead, "The Last Taxi Driver"), Selenis Leyva ("Orange Is The New Black"), and Chris Riggi ("Gossip Girl")? 

DM: I've know Bobby Clohessy for years, and I really adore him.  He is one of the best actors around, and he's finally getting noticed as more than just "that guy."  He loved "The Last Taxi Driver" because he doesn't often get offered comedies and leading roles.  We spoke every day for weeks about Dorman's character.  I'd already cast Bobby in several other films, so he jumped on this.  As far as Selenis Leyva and Chris Riggi, we had a personal contact from another one of our LWTD actors. I spoke with Selenis and Chris and then worked with their agents and, of course, SAG.

FCSFR: One thing that differentiates your films from those of other short filmmakers is the quality of the acting.  In both "The Last Taxi Driver" and "Leaving", the protagonists are played by capable actors.  How do you go about pulling in great performances from your leads as a director, especially in such a stressful environment -- making short films with very low budgets?

DM: One thing I have over many directors is that the fact that I find great talent when I screen films for the Long Island International Film Expo.

I found Joe Halsey in a film that screened at LIIFE in 2008, and auditioned him for another role along the way before "Leaving".  Sal Rendino was the same thing; saw him in a LIIFE feature and auditioned him as well for another film.  The incredible Molly Ryan was in a film that won for Best Film and Best Director at LIIFE, and I knew I had to work with her.  Before "The Last Taxi Driver", I'd already cast Robert Clohessy, Deb Twiss and Emily Jackson in Living with the Dead.  They all wanted to work together again, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to make that happen.

I guess with films, you either become a "film family" or you never talk to each other again. I've been lucky I've only had great experiences.  Because I'm so careful about the actors I choose, they are already seasoned pros.  I can guide them in what I want, but they know what they're doing.  I'm not interested in teaching anyone "how" to act.  I can offer advice, guidance, et cetera, but on my set, I want great actors.  Bobby and I were on the phone every day for weeks talking about Dorman, and who I thought he was.  Joe also would call me and ask, "I see him this way, am I right?" or "This seems more like what he would say, can I say that?"

I also know, without a doubt, that great actors will bring their own magic.  I'm very open to suggestions from my actors.  Like with Bobby Clohessy, I know to let the camera roll.  Bobby is truly one of the funniest people I ever met. After he's said what he was supposed to say, then the gems come out. 

People often ask why I use the same people. I want to work with actors I know can deliver. I'm not interested in making poor quality films, and that's really easy to do on low budgets. I've been lucky so far, but sure, it could happen. You hedge against that with captivating talent and a talented, stable crew.  I have great people I work with who make sure I'm insulated from almost everything except watching my actors and making sure they're giving me exactly what I want.  I can't say enough about that!

FCSFR: Fantasy is a common thread that runs through each of the films made by Intention Films -- we have the dead in various states of being and capability to remember what it was like to be alive. In "Leaving", we have the desires of the mortal characters undermined by the upholding of a cosmic status quo.  What attracts you to themes of the afterlife?

DM: Oh man, how do I answer this without sounding nuts?  This is not something I generally make known publicly, but here I go. 

First, I'm a huge believer in karma and its debt. I also know that there is so much more out there than we can see or that most of us believe.  I "know" there are spirits that surround us, some who won't leave for whatever reason.  I "know" we've lived past lives.  Some of us many more than others.

When I write things that turn out to be true, though I knew nothing about it previously, it came from somewhere.  I've written entire scripts, and when I've read them back to myself, I don't remember writing any of it.  I know I've been guided in almost every area of my life, and when I've been most successful is when I just listen to my inner voice. 

I'm completely fascinated by what happens between our lives, or the people we come back with time and time again. I know several of them in my life today; some realize it, others don't. 

Damaged, But Not Broken, Back to You and several other project ideas I have in my "ideas" document, all deal with these things.

FCSFR: In "The Last Taxi Driver", Robert Clohessy's character is an interesting foil for the zombies -- he's staggering around, albeit quite alive, but he's wandering from place to place doing what he used to do simply because it's all he knows how to do.  That's not far from being a zombie.  Yet, his struggle to not let go of his "previous" life -- that is the life of a taxi driver and small business entrepreneur -- makes him an interesting, almost heroic character.  What were your intentions when writing his character?  

DM: Most of my ideas come either from my dreams or from my life partner when we walk the dog.  One of us will come up with a silly idea, and we both just build on it.  I never intended to make "The Last Taxi Driver", it was just a silly story we made up.  I loved the idea that there was someone who wouldn't give up, no matter what.  So in that way, Dorman is heroic.

He's more badass than the zombies.  I'd like to believe that even in the worst of situations, there's always someone out there who can survive, who can beat the odds, who can get on with life and not get deterred that there are creatures out there that want to eat their brains.  The fact that the people left are crazier than the bloodsuckers was just a funny, added touch to me. I wrote those two characters specifically with Deb Twiss and Emily Jackson in mind.

FCSFR: What did he bring to the character that wasn't necessarily in your script?

John and I discussed lots of great possibilities for "The Last Taxi Driver", but really, Bobby was Dorman.  The character was very well developed, Bobby just delivered it exactly as I needed it to be, and then some. His humor can be way over the top, so he took a funny character and made him funnier than I could have imagined.

FCSFR: Tell us a little bit about working with Director of Photography Marc Riou first on the visually glum "The Last Taxi Driver", and then how your working relationship has evolved into the beautiful imagery on display in "Leaving".

DM: When I decided to make my first short film, I wanted to work with people who knew how to make a film look great.  Marc Riou had won a Best Cinematograper award at LIIFE a few years ago.  He submitted for Best Cinematographer for three different films. When the judges were watching the selections, we couldn't believe these three films were shot by the same person.  They were all visually different.  He was right out of film school -- in fact, a couple of the films had been shot while he was in school.

I trusted Marc to do what I needed.  Marc got exactly what I wanted in "The Last Taxi Driver".  When we got to "Leaving", I wasn't sure if what I had written would be appreciated by a much younger filmmaker, but Marc read it, and loved it.  We met with the production designer, Kory Diskin, and we all knew the look I had in mind. 

There is something so incredibly intoxicating about knowing what you're seeing when you write, and seeing it come to life.  It's crazy wild, and Marc helps me achieve that.  We're very much in sync creatively.

FCSFR: So you've got a new short film, "By Blood", that you're working on right now.  What's the story on this production?

DM: I'm very excited about "By Blood".  I originally wrote this so that Joe Halsey and Russ Camarda could work together, and so that my partner, John Marean, could experiment with a new camera we bought.  It was a simple piece originally called "Brother Code".  It was supposed to be two characters, one location, mostly dialogue, no action.  It may have started out that way, but it got much bigger quickly.  First, Russ said, "The other character needs to have more fun," so I built Joe's role, then it started escalating from there.  John told me it had gotten so big, he wasn't going to "play" with it, to give Marc Riou a call.

Now it's become a sexy suspense about two brothers who were in love with the same woman at different times in their lives, and what they reveal to each other on the day of her burial.  Bring in actress Diana Durango, and you have one hell of a sexy and suspenseful film. 

We start filming this week, and then come back in June to finish it off. And of course, I'll shortly have to begin raising money to make it happen, so people should be on the the look-out for our fundraiser page through (shameless plug). Oh, and about the look of it, I've already met with Marc Riou, and again, he knew what I wanted before I even said it.  The quality needs to be much darker, but with less saturation in the flashback scenes.  I know he sees what I see.

FCSFR: And finally, you're working on a trilogy of short films with "Leaving" and "By Blood" actor Joseph Halsey.  What can we expect from this and any future productions from you? 

DM: First up is a project we're already working on which is the short film trilogy called, Choice. Choice deals with several individuals on the last days of their lives.  Joe Halsey is executive producing and directing this project. He first began with the short promo film, "Mother".  I was casting director and producer on that. Then I've written the one for "Brother", which I will be casting, producing and directing.  Joe is rewriting "Father" and will be directing that as well.   It's currently in development.

We are also producing an original content series called Couple of Guys.  Joe is one of the leads, and we bring back Sal Rendino from "Leaving" as Joe's partner.  Basically, it's a comedy dealing with Richard (Sal) a straight-laced divorce attorney who has met the love of his life in Jon (Joe), a musician/music publisher who is crazy in all the right ways.

The problem is Richard's ex-wife, played by Deb Twiss from "The Last Taxi Driver", keeps interfering in their lives as she's still in love with her husband and thinks that she can win him back despite the fact that he's gay.  Throw in the factor that Jon has decided he wants a baby, and Richard is having none of that.  It's a comedy, but it will deal with some intense situations as well.

We're going to bring in some celebrities as we raise the money, and I know just who I want.  Excited that, just today, I signed Joslyn DeFreece to play Jon's childhood friend who is also his business/band manager.  I love that we're bringing a lot of original music into this series.  This is going to be so much fun.  We have three episodes written with story lines to take us through three seasons. 

My future projects include: Damaged, But Not Broken (novel, feature), Back to You (feature), One Night at Christmas (feature, novella written by Michael Fedele), Behind the Scenes (feature, written with Donna Sirianni), and my very favorite -- Hurting Places.

Joe is involved with Hurting Places as well.  It's about a psychiatrist who is so shut off from everyone around him, that he has become a cutter. The only one who can reach him is a young ex-patient who is more damaged than he is.  Fifty Shades got nothing on this!

Also waiting in the queue is Porter's Way, and I'd like to one day produce/direct my Karmic Wind Trilogy (Naked in the Rain, Sarah and Caleb and Karmic Wind).  So if I live to be 115, I could actually get to all of them.

FCSFR: If you could offer a single piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

DM: Wow.  I don't know that I'd have listened to any of it.

I guess it would be that magic really is all around you.  See it, believe it, be it.

FCSFR: Thank you again Debra for taking the time to answer my questions.

DM: Thank you, Nicholas!  Now I have to get back to writing.

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A huge thanks goes out to Debra Markowitz for being so generous with her time and answers.  If you enjoyed this interview, please do share it and spread the word!

Also, do NOT forget to check out our reviews of "The Last Taxi Driver" and "Leaving", her two most recent short films.  She's a filmmaker to watch, so keep an eye out for her!

Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!