Wednesday, January 9, 2013

From Film Critic to Filmmaker: The Journey of Jeremiah Kipp

Some time ago, my former colleague at, Jeremiah Kipp (pictured), reached out on Facebook, asking if I could review some of his short films. Expressing uncertainty how to incorporate that into the blog--plus, I was afraid I couldn't be objective given our past--I offered him an alternative:

"How about writing about what it's like to transition from being film critic to being a filmmaker?"

Jeremiah, always a gentleman, agreed and he delivered big-time. It makes me wish he was still writing. But I think he made the right decision. 

For those who want to learn more about Jeremiah's films, you can find his IMDB page here. And, of course, there's his Website,

For now, Jeremiah, the space is yours. 


The relationship between a film critic and filmmaker is not necessarily adversarial. A good critic, whether they like the film or not, has the ability to open a door for the audience, a way of reading the film -- or even simply just getting the word out and sharing. A casual dismissal or a bad notice can be illuminating too, allowing the artists to re-examine the work in a new light.  Filmmakers who read reviews often say they learn more from a well written pan than they do from glimmering praise, which is not to say it doesn't sting.

It was my joy to write movie reviews and interview filmmakers for various print magazines and Web sites, starting around 1999. Being a starving artist, it afforded me the chance to see a lot of films without having to pay the exorbitant ticket price.  he publications included Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Shock Cinema, Moviemaker, and the popular horror mag Fangoria. I didn't separate the notion of writing for a genre magazine from the other publications; I don't necessarily like differentiating between high art and low art. Often, the B-movies are more subversive than the A-movies, and yet when the A-movie hits the zeitgeist it's immensely satisfying.  

By watching a lot of movies, and analyzing them, you become a sort of third eye. You're a midwife between the filmmakers and the audience. From how you interpret these works, you develop a sense of taste and aesthetics. I wound up learning a good deal about what I enjoyed seeing.

But all throughout, there's that nagging feeling I had in the back of my mind. Being a critic is arguably a passive art. You sit in a dark room, and that is where you spend a good deal of your time. In some ways, it is a lonely profession. You are alone with the cinema, you are alone with your computer, and all you have is the strength of your opinion to carry you.  I persist in believing it is noble and useful.  But if you talk to critics, some indeed say that is their one true love and they have zero interest in making a movie ever, while others say this was a detour along the way and that one of these days they're going to get back to their true love, which is making films.

I produced a short film for Matt Zoller Seitz. He used to write for the NY Press and his work can be seen all over the place (Film Comment, NY Times). I love his essays, so personal and yet so attuned to the dynamic nature of a shot's construction, or it's place within an edit, or the composition of a frame, or the rawness of an actor's performance.  You also feel his enthusiasm for the very medium.  He knows his business.  And yet what I didn't know was Matt is also a filmmaker, and I enjoyed his first feature film HOME, which was made as a labor of love.  When he made his short THE BED THING (on 35mm, no less), I got the chance to watch him work on set and all those skills he embodied as a critic came to life in film production. I loved the way he used the camera; when he set up a frame he always had a strong concept or reason; when he moved the camera it said something.  

This is common sense to any film director, of course, but with Matt, having read so much of his criticism, to see him in action was dazzling.  And the way he spoke to the actors was as personal and as sincere as his writing; he didn't over-direct but got into something that seemed to go right into the heart and guts. I guess the soul resides there. Matt was angry sometimes, he was a selfish pain in the ass, he was like Kubrick: when you're in his orbit you're very present and when he's used you up you're out of the picture, and all of those things are annoying. But he is only human. And his humanity and his ugliness show up onscreen powerfully. He's a complex man who made a rich film about grief, loss, love, friendship, rage at God and perhaps a mini-catharsis, or catharsis as stepping stone. Did his film criticism inform that? It didn't hurt.  t gave him tools for his toolbox.  But also life is a hard teacher, and if you can get that into your movie work, that's a powerful thing.  I'd love to work with Matt again someday.

I can't remember when I decided to phase out being a film critic. Maybe it has to do with the fact that writing reviews is a little bit like keeping a diary. It reflects where you're at. Making movies does that, too (just look at Ingmar Bergman). But for some reason I felt like I was going to explode, just like Matt exploded when he made his film. I had to get out of the movie theater. It was too dark in there, I felt too alone, I was sick of watching movies. You're interpreting someone else's view of the world.  It came to the point where I felt I had more to share, and wanted to express it through this visual medium.

When I was a child, I used to draw. My grandparents always made sure there was pen and paper handy. And they always used to read to me. So there were visual and narrative elements that were an important part of my life. I answered an ad in the newspaper to be in a play, and was a child actor for a spell, so I caught the bug of performing. When my folks got a VHS camcorder to record weddings, I knew this art form combined all those other things I was so passionate about, and I knew from age 12 where I was going. I defined myself as a filmmaker and never looked back.

A scene from Contact
In 2009, I had almost no money left. I could have spent $600 on rent or on making a film. For some insane reason, I made the film. (I borrowed $600 to pay the rent and had to pay it back eventually.) It wasn't my first film, but it had been a few years since my previous one. I was used to spending $20,000 to make a short film, which is kind of insane if you really think about it.  Other people are buying furniture, setting up their nest eggs, building a life for themselves; I was building a portfolio. When I made CONTACT, I had $600 and sheer force of will. It felt like a maniacal leap off a cliff.  I was filled with melancholy and excitement. I wanted to make the film very badly, it was saying something I needed to say at the time, and it was a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" moment. 

I had essentially stopped being a film critic by that point. It had phased out in the years earlier, when I transitioned into film production as a 1st Assistant Director on movies like I SELL THE DEAD starring Ron Perlman. The producer of the film, Larry Fessenden, was a mentor and friend.  I liked the way he made films. I liked his attitude toward low budget filmmaking, which was like Roger Corman in its incisive use of spending money for production value, but also with a strong sense of artistry. His films, like Matt's, are very personal.  (I always give short thrift to Glenn McQuaid, the wonderful director of I SELL THE DEAD, because Fessenden was someone I look up to so much. It's unfair, because Glenn took his chance and made his movie and the best thing I can say was the crew thought he had been doing this for 10 years...) I loved and hated being a 1st AD; it's an impossible job because you're a stage manager balancing between the director's vision and the producer's wallet, all the while motivating a crew to move forward. On that job, you had to keep track of union rules, overtime, meal penalties; it taught me some of the harsher realities of making movies. And yet I remain grateful to Larry and Glenn for allowing me to participate. I learned more on that job than any other, and it allowed me to be a better 1st AD on subsequent features on comparable budgets (SOMEWHERE TONIGHT starring John Turturro, THE AWAKENING starring Robert Picardo, and others) and it also helped me understand how to pace yourself when directing a feature, or directing anything for that matter.

There were moments after leaving the profession of film criticism when I thought about coming back. Andrzej Zulawski, the great Polish filmmaker who made POSSESSION with Isabelle Adjani, was screening many of his films at BAM in Brooklyn, and I thought about interviewing him. I even tried to set it up. But I was too busy making my own films, and it had to get punted to the sidelines. It's a pity; I'd love to hear what Zulawski has to say. But I'd prefer to follow in his footsteps. I've heard it said that all artists are walking this same trail, following each other's footsteps toward some glimmering city far off in the distance, and those previous filmmakers have paved the way for you. It feels that way sometimes.

1 comment:

Nathanael Smith said...

Hey there, found this really inspiring. I've wanted to make films for years and years (although I'm only 22), but as I don't really know how, I sorta became a critic instead. So now I've written for a number of different websites, pursued criticism jobs all over the place and I'm currently working for a daily publication at a film festival. Things are going well. But I can't get rid of that feeling that you describe so well, that I'm being passive and I'm analysing other people's world views. I want to get out there and MAKE films. So how do you do that? What's the next step?

I feel that being a critic has really helped me understand the language of cinema, but where do I go from here?