A joint production

Miki Johnson

When Jon Lefkovitz comes breezing up for our interview he has a bag with his beta tape in his hand and a big smile on his face. He’s just come from Block Cinema where he was viewing his recently completed film, “Movie Boy,” to make sure everything looked OK on the big screen. Judging from the twinkle in his warm but sharply perceptive eyes, I’d say it looked better than OK.

Lefkovitz, a Communication senior, understandably wants to make sure everything goes smoothly at tomorrow’s premier. You would too if the highly autobiographical film you wrote, directed and generally poured your soul into for the past year and a half was about to make its world premier in the theater you’d worked at for the past three years to an audience of family, friends and, with any luck, Chicago reporters and film critics. But I am struck by how, rather than an edge of panic, there is almost a yawn in his voice as he talks about the big night.

“I’ve been through so many of these,” Lefkovitz says. “I’m much more excited than I am nervous.” How is it that a 21-year-old has already become so comfortably nonchalant about debuting his movies? It probably has something to do with the fact that “Movie Boy” is only the most recent piece in his already prolific film career. Since receiving a camcorder for his Bar Mitzvah, the budding director has produced 40 to 50 short films, many of which debuted to small audiences — but none yet in a professional theater.

The making of Lefkovitz’s very first movie, “Zombie,” is the main subject of “Movie Boy,” whose plot basically goes like this: 13-year-old cinephile Frank Pollack (Eastman Presser) begs his mom for a camcorder for his Bar Mitzvah so he can adapt his novella “Zombie” to the screen (which is ironically a murder mystery, not a horror flick). She concedes, and Frank enlists his friends to help and casts his older brother and himself in the leading roles; Frank sacrifices everything for the movie, including his summer vacation, a dream job at rental store “Video Odyssey,” a fledgling romance and his friendship with the film’s “crew;” at the living-room premier of his opus, half the audience falls asleep and almost no one has a genuinely kind comment for the film.

But as we all know, a movie is never just about what happens in it. For Lefkovitz, the moral of “Movie Boy” is that “movies are about collaboration.” Here he quotes the mythic director Stanley Kubrick: “Making a movie is like trying to write ‘War and Peace’ on a rollercoaster.”

“Because you are not just this solitary artist working in his room,” Lefkovitz explains. “You’re working outside, facing a hundred different challenges from lack of line memorization to cicadas in the background … and then you’re also trying to tell this story and make this piece of art — it really can’t be done without valuable collaborators.”

In the movie, Frank’s inability to compromise with or make concessions to his friends precipitates his downfall. Keeping in mind that the story is autobiographical, it’s not surprising that Lefkovitz’s appreciation for collaboration is a relatively recent phenomenon. His first piece he recognizes as a truly joint effort was a trilogy of lengthy short films he wrote with his high school friend Andrew Biliter, who plays the older brother in “Movie Boy.”

From that trilogy Lefkovitz derived the name Long Short Productions for the production company he began last year with “Movie Boy’s” producer, Communication senior Eric Hoyt. And considering how important working with other people has become to Lefkovitz (and that this story is really one of friendship as much as films) I’d better introduce you now to this very vital collaborator and friend.

I know Hoyt through his writing for The Daily and PLAY, but Hoyt and Lefkovitz have known each other since they met at the National High School Institute’s Media Arts program (i.e. Cherubs) where they gravitated to each other’s shared movie knowledge.

“We were both big film geeks, essentially,” Hoyt says. Lefkovitz is less self-deprecating. “We both love movies, and we love to love movies.”

Their freshman year the two roomed together and junior year they joined forces for a class project in film production, the class in which students first get a chance to shoot on 16-millimeter film. As Hoyt puts it, they discovered they had complementary “skill sets.”

So when Hoyt heard Lefkovitz was considering producing a film from his feature film screenwriting class project, he signed on almost immediately. With audible gratefulness in his voice, Lefkovitz describes the absolute support he received from Hoyt as he was working to hammer out the script through an independent study with Prof. Michael Elyanow.

“A lot of things were being criticized by friends and people in the class,” he explains. “My main support was coming from Eric; he would never say a negative thing about the script while I was writing it.” And when Lefkovitz had finally finished his 70-page script? “(Hoyt) looked at it and said, ‘It’s smart, it’s tight, it’s funny, we’re going to do this.'”

And after gathering funds from family and friends (and largely from their own pockets), they did it. But not without the help, both of them are quick and emphatic to point out, of their cinematographer, Communication senior Anthony Kuhnz.

A close friend of Lefkovitz, Kuhnz met Hoyt their first day at NU and all three have worked together at Block Cinema for the past three years. Kuhnz had a summer internship on a Chicago shoot that not only kept him in town during “Movie Boy’s” shooting but also was a source for some cheap equipment. Add to that the fact that Kuhnz already owned the Panasonic 24p digital camera “Movie Boy” was shot on — giving it a rich, professional look without the hassle of shooting on film or the pricey camera rental cost — and it’s not surprising that both Hoyt and Lefkovitz describe him as indispensable to the project. And in keeping with the rest of this story, Kuhnz can’t say enough good things about them either.

“Something I’ve learned to look for before you shoot a film is to see what kind of person the director is and what kind of person the producer is,” he explains. “Because then you know what kind of film it’s going to be.”

So what kind of film was “Movie Boy” going to be? “Ambitious” springs to mind. “Fast” and “cheap” are close behind. As in a 69-minute movie with 90 scenes, shot over 10 August days on a $5,000 budget.

“Mainly it involved me, Anthony (Kuhnz) and Eric (Hoyt) really just sacrificing everything else in terms of time in order to make the movie in that month,” Lefkovitz says.

To give me some idea of how hectic their schedule was, Hoyt explains that the “Movie Boy” crew was sometimes shooting eight to ten pages of script a day. For context, he says that professional independent films usually shoot four to five a day while most Hollywood crews would be lucky to finish two. The time available for shooting was also restricted slightly by the fact that “Movie Boy’s” five main characters are played by actors 12 to 15 years old. So while Lefkovitz, Hoyt and Kuhnz all express absolute admiration and appreciation of the young actors’ dedication, they simply couldn’t expect them to be on set more than 12 hours a day, while other shoots often run to 14 or 16.

The compressed shooting schedule also meant Lefkovitz didn’t have much time to coach his actors, and Kuhnz couldn’t plan out every shot to the last detail as he was accustomed. But Kuhnz says all the on-set shot improvisation required was ultimately a positive digression for him. “That was really freeing, really relaxed,” he says. “It made it more fun.”

Shooting on such a small budget also required Kuhnz to exercise his creative muscles more than usual. While it’s not unheard of for crews to improvise an apparatus for special shots, few cinematographers would need to fashion their camera dolly from plywood and Rollerblade wheels. “But it worked,” Kuhnz says, slight disbelief still evident in his tone
. “And some of my favorite shots are from that dolly.” Hence his motto for the whole experience: “You can make it work.”

Which is not to say things always just worked out. “I don’t know if it could have worked with any other combination of people,” Kuhnz clarifies. And that goes beyond the writer-director-cinematographer triumvirate, all three reiterate. Each of them repeatedly recognizes the contributions of the actors and the actors’ families and their crew and their friends and their donors and, and … well, that’s what credits are for. But take my word for it, if you had heard of “Movie Boy” before this story, chances are they thanked you. Talking with these three gives me the impression that everyone in filmmaking is this appreciative and gracious, but more likely this is one of several things that distinguishes the “Movie Boy” creators from many student production teams.

Hoyt says he has often been disappointed to see students completely devote themselves to making a movie, only to fall short in efforts to get it seen. He and Lefkovitz were determined to sidestep this common pitfall from the outset. Hoyt, especially, as the producer and therefore responsible for publicizing “Movie Boy,” has obviously taken to heart the advice that “you have to work just as hard getting a film seen as you did making it.”

Which is exactly where his recent internship with a movie-marketing firm in Chicago has come in handy. Hoyt early on identified key audiences for the movie, sent out press releases, hounded local reviewers and selected potentially receptive film festivals. Therefore tomorrow’s 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. screenings are hardly the end of Hoyt’s quest to get “Movie Boy” seen. In his eyes it’s instead a great starting point — a place for the community from which the movie stemmed to see it first. To that end, Block Cinema was the obvious and easy choice for “Movie Boy’s” world premier. “It’s a place we’ve … invested a lot of time and energy at,” he explains. “It’s someplace we’re comfortable.”

For Kuhnz, who sadly can’t make the premier because he’s working on another shoot, just the idea “Movie Boy” will show in the theater where he’s worked since arriving at NU makes him visibly giddy. “To have one of my films up there that I’ve worked on really feels great,” he says. “It feels like you’re on your way.”

And Lefkovitz, when I pry further about the premier, does something we must expect anyone directing an autobiographical film to do — he quotes his lead character and alter-ego Frank: “I just want people to like it.”4

Medill senior Miki Johnson is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected].