Oscar-Nominated Short Looks at Love and Death in New York

From the bitter opening monologue on life and death delivered by writer/actor David Rakoff to the escalating series of confrontations that crank up the tension, short film “The New Tenants” is a wry, sideways look at love and death in New York City. Directed by Joachim Back, best-known for his spot work with Park Pictures in New York, the 21-minute comedy/tragedy is one of five live-action shorts nominated for an Academy Award this year. F&V asked Back, a native of Copenhagen who moved to New York six years ago, about shooting in the famous Chelsea Hotel, working in 35mm, and – of course – life and death. Watch the trailer, below, then read the Q&A.

FILM & VIDEO: How did you find out the film was actually nominated for an Oscar?

Joachim Back: Through my old, dear friend Pawel Edelman, a DP I’ve been working with for 12 years. He did one of Polanski’s movies, The Pianist. He called me that morning, and he has a funny Polish voice. [Adopting thick Eastern European accent.] “Hello. It’s your friend Pawel. Congratulations.”

So you didn’t find out for yourself.

You know how it is on the day of the nominations. It’s 5:30 in L.A. and 8:30 in New York. Do you want to wake up? Do you want to stay in bed? What do you do?

Just relax, pretend nothing’s going on.

Exactly. You’ll either be very happy or pretty much disappointed.

What was the catalyst for making a short film?

I’ve been in advertising for some time now, and the things I do are pretty cinematic. At least, that’s what people tell me. All my friends and colleagues say, “You have to do something longer.” So they actually teased me to do it. At the same time, I’ve always been a disciplined man in search of stories, and I’ve been reading a lot of scripts. I’m fortunate that I was pretty high-ranked for advertising, so the film world was already looking at me. But I couldn’t find a script to express what I wanted to say – and show the twisted person I am. This script came in, and I said, “This is the one.” It just felt right.

How did the story develop? What was [screenwriter] Anders Thomas Jensen’s contribution, and how did David Rakoff expand on it?

David Rakoff is one of the most elegant critics of living, in a very sarcastic, fun, and absurd way. He’s pretty amazing, playing his tunes that way. I saw him in something and thought it was amazing. He acted in “The New Tenants” and helped me with the dialogue. Originally it was a seven-minute film, and it turned into 21 minutes. The script was really a good idea, but it was a younger, teenaged kind of idea. I wanted to bring it into this New York, neurotic presentation of life.

Kind of sardonic, mildly paranoid, blackly humorous.

It is, actually. But if you dare to look at it and take all of your shields down, life is pretty absurd. I just enhanced that.

You enhanced and concentrated the absurdity of life into 21 minutes.

To grow up from being a kid to a grown-up is pretty annoying. And nobody told you! It’s a pretty hard struggle. There are things you have to learn, and there’s an end you have to accept. That’s pretty absurd, to discover that part. My life has always been like that. I’ve been through a lot of drama, even as a small kid. And with the economy turned down and bombs falling all over, I thought it was the perfect moment to tell that story.

It’s a series of morbid occurrences – a series of deaths, essentially.

It is actually one long one. But what can you do? Somehow you have to find a laugh in all that.

You deal with it with a little bit of humor and exaggeration, but at the core it’s a serious topic, right?

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m always trying to break formats because I think it tickles more. I was trying to get poetry, humor, love, and absurdity and make one bucket of mess. You have to balance it, and that’s the fun and difficult part. If you look at the script, it’s pretty banal. There is a drug dealer. There are two gay guys living in an apartment where they just moved in. There is a grandma. There is a husband, and there’s an affair. All these clichà©s of life. What New York had, or used to have, that voice is pretty interesting. Between the neurotic feel and the craziness of the world, I was trying to tease a little bit, I must say. I was trying to mix these things together.

To a certain degree, you’re also dependent on your actors to put the message across. And you had a terrific cast for that.

Thanks to Sam Bisbee, the producer who gave me the secret of New York City.

The secret of New York City?

I call it the key to New York City – of creativity. This city has a heart. You have no idea. On all intellectual levels, the lowest one, the highest one, and the midpart, there are so many beautiful keys to play. Sam Bisbee helped me open these doors. And Pawel Edelman is a well-known DP, and Anders Thomas is already a well-known writer, and on top of that David Rakoff is a very good novelist, and I’m well-known in other areas. It was the efforts of everyone that made everything come together. And I’m really fond of casting – that’s pretty much what I’m known for in my commercial work.

I like people. I’m not afraid for the wrong ones. I like to dance in these rooms with absolutely crazy ones. Vincent is a heavy guy, you know. But in the same way, he’s also so lovely. Kevin Corrigan is very sensitive and so expressive. To be a dope dealer has pretty much been done. So what could we do with it? Probably the first time we’ve had a well-spoken dope dealer with short-term memory loss. And he did it pretty well.

Did you shoot film?

I actually shot 35. My friend in advertising, Jean-Clement [Soret] at MPC in London. He’s a friend of mine, and we did a 2K [DI] version and he did all the grading. That’s the advantage of working a lot and knowing the right people. The musician is from Paris, the color-grader is from London, the editor is in London. Some other parts of the music are from New York. Even the funding and money – most of it is from New York, but then it’s a little bit France and a little bit Canadian.

There’s still a perception that you save a lot of money by shooting HD instead of film. Did you consider shooting HD?

I think David Fincher is the only one who’s got the concept [perfected]. If you show HD enough, people will accept it, and I think that’s what it comes down to. Technically, I don’t think it’s precise enough yet. It’s a hassle to get the sharpness turned into a place where it’s not too blurry. You have all these cables, also, and afterwards you have to play with it a lot to try to make it look like film. It takes the focus away from storytelling. It’s not close enough, but it’s not far away. Any film process has a secret. Film can surprise you a little bit. That’s what I like. It’s chemicals. It has its own life.

And how did you work with Pawel Edelman to set the look in production and post?

I’m a color nightmare. I like colors. They reflect things. You can be a good DP but if you shoot on an orange background with the wrong character, it doesn’t matter. The picture won’t be right. Pawel and I would talk about color, what the brown or green is symbolizing. What’s the feeling of it? It should be a little bit claustrophobic, and it should have the feeling of New York. And then we put the light down as more of a portrait light, to expose more emotion and a certain personality of the whole thing. It’s important to go through different layers. The walls, the color for the big room. What are the panels? It’s a little blue there, and a little white, and the curtain is yellow, which is a sort of schizophrenic reflection. Certain different colors give you these keys. Every color has a history. I was trying to get a claustrophobic feeling.

How did you decide to shoot at the Chelsea Hotel?

I looked around a lot. For some strange reason, when I walked in that place it felt like something was going on. I said, “It smells interesting here.” You can see the people who have the place, who run it, who want to have the low rent. It was just an uneven energy. Sometimes there would be this creative artist, a weirdo, nice, beautiful guy. Everything added up, and I felt this was pretty much the place. We had the tenth floor. On the first floor, the city sound was too high. There was some discussion [of which room would be used] because you have to find realistic choreography for the movements of your actors, and if you don’t do that that can take the focus away from being real. You just have to be flexible for each room.

Shooting your first longer narrative, did you feel a freedom of stretching out a little bit?

I felt complete freedom. It was one of the first times I felt at home in a certain way. With any story of any length, you somehow have to find the first picture to express that scene, to tell the idea of the story. It felt like I was just in a room and traveling. People always say, “Oh, longform is a completely different format from advertising.” It even got me a little bit scared, actually. But what I discovered is it’s pretty much the same. In advertising, you have to be direct and precise. You can transform that into feelings. I think my background helped, but I felt really at home. [When I work] I come to a point where I feel good. “I walked a mile,” as I call it. I go through a thousand ideas to create one expression. I do that every time. It’s the same process, and I”m so happy it worked for that format, too. It’s being disciplined – to keep turning every stone around to see if it’s the right one.

Does it make you want to develop a feature project?

Yeah, a lot. But I actually love advertising. I don’t mind doing both. Who can do 30 seconds of fun and make people laugh, and at the same time get paid? You can’t put that down, for sure. You’re selling things – but if you do a movie, you’re trying to make the most entertaining one, to sell it. I would love to make a feature. I got an agent a long time ago, and I’ve been reading a lot, but I couldn’t find any scripts that tricked me enough. I have four written scripts in my drawers. I’m very productive that way.

To sample Joachim Back’s spot work, visit his Web site: www.joachimback.com