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By Caroline Cao · February 23, 2017
Evan Oppenheimer is a native New Yorker who has written and directed six feature films, from satire, to indie drama, sci-fic thriller.
His story begins in the classroom.
What’s your origin story getting into the film business?
In my senior college year, I thought it would be good to learn about movies. There was the Monday Afternoon At The Movies class. Every Monday you watch a classic film. So I really enjoyed the class and read a lot about movies.
The requirement at the end of the class is to write a paper. I decided I didn’t want to write a paper. With a buddy of mine, I went up to my professor, a well-known film critic, and asked if we could make a movie instead. She gave us the go ahead. So we made a satirical film that played with all the movies we watched in class. I stayed up all night editing it on a Super 8.
And I remembered sitting on the stage in the dark with my head on my lap because I was exhausted. And then the movie turned on with a hundred people in the audience. And they started to laugh, which thankfully, was how they supposed to respond. It was intoxicating, the pleasure of creating something people really enjoyed.
That started me on the long road toward becoming a filmmaker. Went to graduate school. I spent four years at NYU learning how to make better films. To this day, I still try to improve, try to make better films, try not to make the same mistakes, try to new mistakes.
What filmmakers and writers inspired you?
Oh boy. I was initially inspired by classic filmmakers in that class: Ingrid Berman, Fellini, Orson Welles, and all the classics that everyone admires.
When it came time to make my own movies, you have to step out on your own. You can borrow ideas and shots, but you can’t wholesale borrow somebody’s style. On my first movie, if I was stealing from anyone predominantly, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, using these interesting camera angles and trying not to be too conventional. You don’t want to be interesting for the sake of being interesting. You have to be right for the story. That’s something you can learn from the masters. In today’s world, people want to be noticed you see things that’s there to be noticed. If you’re saying, wow, that’s a great shot, then you’re probably being taken out of the story.
So you recently directed Lost in Florence, which you also wrote. Seeing your IMDB page, I know you directed films you wrote. Now in production stage, the final product does not always align with the original preproduction plan. What changed from the script as the movie went into production?
Things change so much from the creation of it to the final product. You never end up exactly shooting the movie you expect. When you end up in the editing room, it doesn’t matter what you wanted from the beginning, you have to make the best possible footage you have. It’s tricky if you’re writer and director because writers get very attached to their dialogue. That can be a risk. That works against doing what’s right for the movie. You have to cut a scene you love. Sometimes, you have to cut a scene you consider your best writing, if it’s not serving the story. It’s much easier if you’re not the writer and director, cause you’re not attached to it.
I found on almost all of my movies, my favorite scenes are the scenes you have to cut. You can tell yourself it will be on DVD on the deleted scenes.
There was a scene inspired by my life when I lived in Florence, a bunch of students playing guitar, playing cards, sitting on a piazza. It was so personally resonate that I was desperate to keep it in the movie, but there was no reason for it. I kept on putting it back and taking it out. But finally, I had to let it go. It didn’t serve the movie we already have.
Even after six movies, I still have an attachment to certain scenes I take out.
I know how that is, that’s called “killing your darlings” in writing class. How you work with filming on Florence? I read that you considered filming in locations outside of Florence?
We wanted to shoot in Florence because it takes place there. We knew certain scenes had to be shot there. But we did consider, for budgetary reasons, about shooting elsewhere. You have to do what’s right for your project. Money is at a premium. But it wasn’t really very realistic to shoot this movie that was so very Florentine anywhere else.
The Florence authorities were really cooperative and let us shoot almost anywhere. It wasn’t a too expensive proposition. We were able to get these amazing locations.
There isn’t any other place like Florence. If we had to fake certain scenes, people would have noticed.
The crew was fantastic. The crew came from Rome and Milan and some local Florentine. That was a real pleasure.
Film is a difficult network of critiques. How do you react to critics and their input? When you’re planning and making a film in the preproduction and production stage, how do you weight out post-release critics with the input of the preproduction and production?
At that point, the movie’s finished, you hope people like it. Inevitably, some people will like it and some won’t. Someone might say this actor is amazing and another will say this actor is terrible. Everyone is entitled to their response.
Seeking feedback in the writing, every movie I write, I’m not a good writer that I can’t turn out an amazing first draft. I got to do lots of drafts. The first two or three drafts I do myself. But after that, I lose a little of my freshness and objectivity, so I turn to people I trust, then I get other people to read it and get their feedback.
If someone said something and it doesn’t resonate with me, like if someone said, well I didn’t like that scene, I would then listen to that criticism and reexamine the scene. But if I still think it’s a good scene, chances are, I’ll leave it in.
Now if three and four people all have a negative response, I really look at that scene carefully. If everyone is against me, better change that they’re right and I’m wrong. I listen to the feedback to the people I trust and respect.
My brother is a writer. He writes movies in Hollywood. He’s somebody I turn to for his feedback. Then the producers, I trust all of them. I knew all of them quite well. They really knew the story and knew what was right for it. That part of the process is critical for me. You need these people to bounce ideas off.
Film is a collaborative medium. It really bugs when I see a “film by…” so-and-so who happened to direct it. You directed it, that’s important. But as a director, you get a lot of blame for things that go wrong and credit for things that go right, sometimes undeservedly. As a book editor, a book is by one person, an author wrote the book. As a book editor, I help it give input here and there, but a book is by one person. A movie is not that at all. I’m really offended by the authorial credit [reserved solely for the director].
The lead actor, the writer, the cinematographer, their input is important.
That’s a good point. I do think scriptwriters get the short end of the stick when it comes to crediting. Do you have any tips to give to aspiring screenplay writers and directors out there?
The tip that I give, people come to me and they’re thinking about making a movie. Inevitably, there’s something that stands in their way. Their situation is imperfect. My advice is the same: If you can make the movie, make the movie. It’s never going to be a perfect storm. There’re opportunities that don’t come around that often.
I made a movie in LA. I got a job reading scripts. I made the low-budget movie called the Auteur series and we shot it in two weeks. But I had a chance to make my movie. I would read scripts during the day and overnight, and during the day, I would work on my own day. It was not a perfect scenario. But things went well. The movie did well enough. You can’t wait for the perfect opportunity.
That said, I’m going to contradict myself by doing this so soon. A lot of people get antsy at the beginning of their career. If you’re 23, you gotta do this before you’re 25. Life is long, and you don’t want to blow your shot.
Don’t compromise on the quality of the story.
Make the movie if you can, but don’t rush it.
Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When she’s not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she’s doing cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, or hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. Her columns and poems have popped up on The Cougar, Mosaics: The Independent Women Anthology, Glass Mountain, OutLoud Culture, and Aletheia. Her flash fiction recently earned an Honorable Mention title in Sweater Weather magazine. She has her own Weebly portfolio and lends her voice to Birth.Movies.Death.