Community ‘Engagement’: Northwestern alumnus Jon Lefkovitz makes second feature film

Megan Patsavas, Current Editor

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When Jon Lefkovitz (Communication ‘05) made his first feature film, he was a senior working on “Movie Boy,” a largely autobiographical story about a young man who wants so badly to become a filmmaker he neglects everything and everyone else in his life. Anthony C. Kuhnz (Communication ’05), who was the first friend Lefkovitz made at Northwestern, worked as the film’s cinematographer, and friend Eric Hoyt (Communication ’05) served as their producer.

Lefkovitz’s second feature film, “Engagement,” is entirely different in genre, though much like “Movie Boy” in other aspects. The unrated, independent psycho-thriller examines devotion, desire and delusion through the twisted tale of Henry and his fiancee Carolyn, played by NU alumni Andrew Perez (Communication ‘05) and Erika Rankin (Communication ‘09).

After Carolyn leaves town to help her mother cope with a death, her never-before-mentioned twin sister Laura visits the couple’s California home, staying with Henry while she begins to pursue a career in acting. Laura’s mysterious appearance and allure cause Henry to question if Carolyn actually has a twin or if she’s making it all up to test his fidelity. As Henry investigates, his emotions escalate, an experience Lefkovitz is also familiar with, but on a different level.

“It was the summer of 2009 and my fiancee at the time, now my wife … went away for six weeks and so I started thinking, I started getting all these different ideas for movies,” Lefkovitz said. “I was kind of alone in the apartment and the loneliness started getting to me, and you know, the imagination just started running wild.”

With the help of a cast and crew made up almost entirely of NU alumni, Lefkovitz was able to make his loneliness- and Hitchcock-inspired idea come to life. Those involved include lead actors Perez and Rankin and supporting actor Bob Turton (Communication ’05), associate producer and Lefkovitz’s wife Talia Stol (Weinberg ‘06), production designer Kyle Smith (Communication ’06), casting director Hannah Flint (Communication ’05), story consultant Ben Gross (Weinberg ’05) and title designer Nate DeYoung (Communication ’05). Even Kuhnz, cinematographer for “Movie Boy,” had the same role in “Engagement.” As the film’s writer, director, editor and scorer, Lefkovitz and his crew worked on a $5,000 microbudget to shoot the feature in just 10 days over the course of a month, filming each weekend in Lefkovitz’s apartment, which doubled as the set.

Although Lefkovitz, who works as a freelance editor by day and an independent writer by night, had a clear vision for “Engagement,” the film definitely does not lack mystery. It shows a dark, obsessive side to romantic relationships.

“It’s all about whether or not he really is crazy,” Lefkovitz said. “It’s really inviting the audience to make their own interpretations, to make their own theories about whether or not Henry is imagining this other person, and of course there is a pretty solid answer, but at the same time, how much of the film is real is up for debate.”

Some who have seen “Engagement” have sent Lefkovitz messages asking about the ambiguous ending or offering their own opinion, which he sometimes passes along to the rest of the cast and crew. But even Perez and Rankin weren’t let in on all of Lefkovitz’s secrets.

“Even when we were filming it and Andrew and I would have opinions as to what was happening, Jon would be like ‘OK, alright,’ — he would just kind of like silently listen to us,” said Rankin, who played both Carolyn and Laura. “He really did not want to tell anyone what he really thought was happening even though he wrote it.”

“Engagement,” which was released this summer online and on video on demand, was inspired by a real-life event, but turned into something much more abstract. “Movie Boy,” however, Lefkovitz said he is embarrassed to admit, is based on events that actually happened to him.

“‘Movie Boy’ is pretty much the polar opposite of ‘Engagement.’ It’s a coming-of-age, bittersweet comedy,” Lefkovitz said.

Regardless, neither film would have happened if it weren’t for Kuhnz. When he and Lefkovitz met at NU, they bonded over their similar tastes in movies and music, practically lived in Block Cinema and worked on many student films together before leaving campus. One of those films, which Lefkovitz co-wrote with Kuhnz for a class, even featured Perez.

Lefkovitz and Kuhnz both said they work so well together because very little needs to be stated between them. Oftentimes, they are already on the same wavelength. Kuhnz also said Lefkovitz’s positive energy and “take no prisoners” attitude not only inspires him, but everyone else they work with.

“His own passion, it all rubs off on everybody else, and you all work together and you feel like you’re a team and we’re all friends,” Kuhnz said.

Although seven years have passed since the premiere of “Movie Boy,” the similarities between it and “Engagement” are striking: Both were inspired to some extent by events in Lefkovitz’s life, both were shot in the same number of days on the same budget, and Kuhnz (as well as Stol, who had just begun dating Lefkovitz during the production of “Movie Boy”) was by Lefkovitz’s side through each of them. Even Smith, the production designer for “Engagement,” was working at Block the night “Movie Boy” debuted.

While Lefkovitz still has plans in the works for “Engagement,” he and Kuhnz are also planning their next film together, an experimental, unconventional biopic about a famous historical figure they plan to shoot in the next few months. Perez is going to play a supporting role in the biopic alongside friend Dillon Porter (Communication ’06), another NU alumnus who is also working with Perez on a screenplay, a dramatic adventure about two brothers who go to Colombia after their father passes away. As Lefkovitz puts it, “the collaboration continues.”

However, just like the stories Lefkovitz tells don’t begin and end on the silver screen, the relationship between these NU alumni isn’t just one of collaboration. It’s hard to keep straight who is doing what in whose movie. There’s “Movie Boy,” “Engagement” and the upcoming biopic — all Lefkovitz’s films — but it doesn’t end there. Turton was in “Engagement,” “Movie Boy” and Smith’s film “Turkey Bowl.” Smith introduced “Movie Boy” at its debut, worked on “Engagement” and is going to come back for the biopic. There’s Porter’s and Perez’s involvement in Lefkovitz’s films, and in their own — and of course, Lefkovitz and Kuhnz’s alliance. Although their interconnectedness is so intricate it’s hard to detail completely, Lefkovitz has only good things to say about everyone he works with and simplifies it to: “There’s a lot of overlap in our projects.”

“The ensemble is such a beautiful thing,” Perez said. “It’s been nice to feel that Jon trusts me with his characters and that I am excited to act in his movies, and then along the way, we get to know other people, some of them went to the same school at the same time and … I think it’s a great way to go about things. The individual way is also something that we all do, but I think that it’s even more powerful to kind of rise up with the people that you love and believe in.”

Although the tagline for “Engagement” boasts “Commitment can be murder,” commitment and collaboration can combine to be something else entirely — community.

April McFadden contributed reporting.

Note: In 2005, a story titled “A joint production” was published as the cover story in PLAY, The Current’s predecessor. The story focuses on “Movie Boy” and Lefkovitz, Kuhnz, and Hoyt’s experience with it. The story can be found here, along with a column partially-inspired by their movie written by PLAY’s then-editor.