In this Q&A, Daniel talks with Wesconnect about his new movie, the transition from short film to feature film, and studying at Olin during Spring Fling:
WESCONNECT: Jack, Jules, Esther and Me is going to be released by FilmBuff very soon. How would you describe the movie, in short?
I really like the description the folks at the Austin Film Festival gave it, so let me start with that: “A bit like OCEAN’S ELEVEN as directed by John Hughes, JACK, JULES, ESTHER AND ME is an uplifting stumble through love in the time of awkward.”
I'll add that it's a very funny, warm and romantic story about four high school friends the last weekend before they start college. Two are rich and live on Park Avenue and two are poor and struggling to pay for college. It feels very much like a Wesleyan movie to me. It has a lot of heart and is funny, but at its core, I hope it also has a social spirit.
WC: What inspired you to write it and make the movie?
I wanted to take the audience on a journey between the two worlds my wife and I work within in New York. To support my filmmaking I work as private SAT tutor, mostly with very well-to-do kids in Manhattan. That couldn't be further from her job teaching at PS 172 in Sunset Park, where the majority of her students qualify for free breakfast and lunch and are learning English as a second language. We talk all the time about our students - how wonderful they are and yet how different their futures will be - and from there I began to see the story.
We produced the film together and wrapped production three weeks before she gave birth to our daughter, Alice. The whole shoot we kept our fingers crossed that she wouldn't go into labor early. It was pretty crazy but I also love that one day we'll be able to show Alice the movie and let her see what her mom and dad were doing right before she was born.
WC: Your short film Right Foot, Left Foot was a favorite of many festivals. How are you finding the transition from the short film genre to feature films?
It's exciting and terrifying all at once. I love short films and I'll continue to make them. You can do things cheaply and experiment more. But features no doubt allow for a much greater potential audience. And the longer form allows me to tell a larger story and really give myself and the audience time to get to know the characters and the world they live in.
The hard part about writing and making features comes in the time it requires to make them and, of course, the cost. I'm at a super low level budget-wise, so it's very much about leaning on all of your friends to work for nothing.
Overall with features, the stakes are just higher. I'll take a month or two developing several ideas and then carefully outline a few. I'll pitch the best options to my wife and friends - going all the way from the first scene to the last - to make sure it resonates before I'll decide which story to write.
On top of all this is trying to figure which ideas will work best within the industry. And that for me is so hard to gauge.
WC: How has your relationship with the film industry evolved as you've moved into feature filmmaking?
So far so good. The reactions to the movie have been great. I think it was really important for me to make a good feature film on my own, so that I can show people what I am able to do for basically no money.
And now, hopefully, if the movie does well with its release, I'll be able get some help in the future. I'm at a point where having a manager and a producer to collaborate with would make a world of difference for the next projects.
WC: At Wes, you majored in history, government and theater, and went on to study dramatic writing at Tisch School of the Arts. How did this influence your career in filmmaking? Did you know from the start you wanted to make movies?
I don't think I knew I wanted to pursue film until probably my last semester at Wesleyan. Maybe even the last few weeks! I changed so much in those four years! The main thing was that I had professors and friends at Wes who were supportive of the fact that I kept changing in what I wanted to study and pursue.
Also, the theater department at Wes was very much a community and I found that really inspiring. It felt like every week a new show was going up and everyone pitched in. I loved that. You learned to not be afraid to ask for help or to try a role you hadn't done before. I think that stayed with me most and it really helped me at NYU. When I started at Tisch, I didn't have much background in filmmaking and so I I knew I would only be as good as the team I could build around myself. So I was always looking to collaborate while I was there and was absolutely not afraid to engage new people. All of those collaborations continue through today and have made all my movies possible.
WC: Have you ever collaborated with other Wesleyan alumni?
All the time. Woodwyn Koons '97 is one of the best actors I've ever met and so I always called her to act in my films and do readings. Alek Lev '97 edited almost all of my short films. And Domenica Cameron Scorsese '98 and I were close at Wes and ended up studying at Tisch together too. I've shared every script I've ever written with her and she always in about an hour can tell me how to re-imagine it in a much smarter way.
More recently, I leaned on my good friend Casey Feldman '12 and his brother Ted '10
for much of the music in my movie. They both started bands while at Wesleyan and I really lucked out because their songs are so good and lift the movie. Ted's band Bear Hands is releasing a new album and touring now.
WC: What is your favorite memory of Wes?
One quick funny thing… I have to admit I spent WAY TOO much time in the library while I was there. It took me a long time to learn how to be more efficient with my studying. That leads to my Spring Fling story from frosh year. I was in Olin in the periodicals room - probably the only person there - and P-Funk started playing and I could see the craziness out the window and I finally packed up and went outside. I wandered toward the crowd and just remember feeling like a deer in headlights. It was so funny. I bumped into a few of my friends and stayed. I think they played Give Up the Funk for half an hour. That was so much fun.