I am of indeterminate age, as my life is in a chronic state of re-invention, the whole New York survival shtick, so I would say I am older than I look and younger than I feel. In "The Definition of Insanity" I play a 38-year-old on-the-cusp actor careening toward oblivion so this could give you a ballpark sense. My avocation is filmmaker/writer/actor, order changes depending on current state of affairs. To support my art addictions I have worked at a variety of day jobs including bartender, groundskeeper, psychoanalyst, and building super (my current day job). Also I am halftime single parenting my son Dylan, age 5 (who co-stars in "Insanity") and I consider that to be my ultimate day job and avocation rolled into one. I am a born and raised New Yorker. Born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx. Spent a few years away at college and another year in the Philippines on a Fulbright grant. Transport of choice is feet, subway, bus, taxi in that order. Would like to bike but too paranoid about being crunched by a road-rage tourist gone postal after a really cheesy Broadway show.
Your new film, The Definition of Insanity is a faux documentary following the trials and tribulations of the fictional Robert Margolis, an actor, a pretty bad one at that, living on the fringe, trying to balance the demands and practicalities of every day life with his dream of becoming a successful actor. In the film, you are subject to multiple humiliations in the course of trying to secure work, you are reduced to distributing flyers in Times Square dressed as a pink pig, the stresses of your failed career breaks up your family, and ultimately you end up suffering a mental breakdown. Just how autobiographical is the film?
Well, since I co-created this film with Swiss filmmaker Frank Matter, I can only speak from my experience. That being said, most of the film is not literally autobiographical, probably 95% of the scenes have been invented and about 5% are actual documentary footage we incorporate. However, metaphorically, everything in Insanity is autobiographical for me. Yet in strange ways.
The film involves a failed marriage. My marriage did fail, but after we finished shooting. So I think there was a lot of unconscious pre-awareness going on. I've never been hospitalized for mental illness, but I worked for about five years as a therapist for people who had been committed to a state hospital. Maybe if I hadn't made the film, I would have had a mental breakdown. As part of my training, I had to be in therapy while I was working with patients. I personally think that therapy should be a regular part of life, like going to the dentist (only maybe less painful). You know, fix the tooth before it becomes infected and needs to be pulled.
As for the character being a "bad" actor, one of my early acting teachers used to say, "if it's something worth doing, it's worth doing badly." So this is about a guy who acts because it's essential to his sense of being a whole person. At one point he talks of needing to act as "being born with a bad leg. " And this is one of the basic life situations the film looks at; my own included.
We all have our dream, our defining sense of what gives our life its Me-ness. And we're all buffeted by forces, financial pressures, family pressures, cultural pressures to behave in a certain way, to fit certain norms of what constitutes a successful life. Basically we are usually forced to choose financial survival over the Dream. And this Dream is not about whether we make a ton of money or are even "good" at something. It's about survival of our authentic self. For the character in the film, that means he has to act, although he does subsequently discover that there are other parts of his life, other relationships, that are crucial to him.
And I think that that's true for everyone as well. As for actor humiliations, it’s certainly true that to be an actor is to accept ongoing experiences of humiliation, rejection, and disappointment. And I have had more than my share of these. But to re-phrase my acting teacher's words, anything worth doing is worth suffering for. One of the areas where I differ from the character is that I'm probably less naïve, and less in denial about my situation. Maybe it’s a way of saying that I am probably more prepared for difficulty than the character. But it's only a question of degree.
You used to be a therapist and one of the themes you've touched on when speaking of your film is the notion of art as a healing force. Could you expand on that?
I totally believe that art can be an essential way for people to heal from traumatic events in their lives. One thing that struck me when I worked as a therapist was that it wasn't necessarily the traumatic event itself that caused people to get sick, but it was their inability to process the event. Sexually and physically abused children are a prime example. Not only are they terribly mistreated and wounded, but often their abusers force them to deny the reality of their abuse. They are forced to pretend that "everything is fine."
I think many adults are in the same bind, carrying around terrible experiences that they've never been allowed to express and process. And this takes a very destructive toll on people. The character in "Insanity" says that he uses his acting as a way of dealing with painful experiences in order to move past them. And I think that art serves that purpose both for the artist and the viewer. As I mentioned earlier, I think working on this film was a way for me to have a dialogue with myself and really helped me to work on core issues in my life. Hopefully, it resonates with an audience as well.
The definition of insanity is defined by one of the characters in the film as doing things the same way over and over again expecting a different outcome. Have you had experience with this stuck-in-a-pattern way of being in your own life?
It's one of the essential questions of the film and in my own life. I clearly cannot let go of my dream, which is to continually give expression through writing, acting, directing, parenting, my core beliefs and experiences, in ways that hopefully other people find relevant, helpful, entertaining, etc. I think a lot of people, my family included, probably think I am a bit insane for it, and there are times when I look at my life and feel a sense of futility and hopelessness. That's when I think of myself as having an existential neurosis, a kind of chasing-after-the-horizon-and-never-quite-catching-it syndrome. But, as Robert in the film says, "This is who I am, this is what I have to do." That's definitely an attitude I share with the character.
The characters in your film come across as incredibly naturalistic, yet many of the actors were not even trained. Could you tell us a bit about your creative process?
Since we structured the film as a documentary, Frank and I felt that it was essential that the performances had a quality of "lived moments of experience." We wanted to get under the audience's skin in a way that you often don't find in movies. We wanted to create a confusion in the audience as to whether what they were seeing was real or imagined (recreating for the audience the character's confusion as well). And I think we succeeded in this.
We accomplished this by casting people who seemed comfortable in their own skins; who were immediately palpable. So we were not looking for "talent." Although if you watch the film you will see that everyone is extremely talented. I think casting was probably the most important element in our process. And then when we worked on scenes we would give the actors the scene structure and what needed to be accomplished, and then we would improvise the lines with them so that we were basically in an ongoing shooting of rehearsals.
This was also one of the huge advantages of shooting digitally. Since there was minimal set-up needed and very small crew, we could work very intimately. The other important element was creating an environment where actors felt safe and open so they just could let stuff happen to them. Nobody was hiding behind a character. A lot of this I got from studying with a terrific acting coach named Sande Shurin, who is also the acting coach for the film.
You made The Definition of Insanity on a shoestring budget. Any advice to indie filmmakers on how to make a film on a dollar and a subway token to pin beside your shoe?
Just do it. That's the concise answer. Because if we had thought too much about how hard it was going to be, Frank and I would probably have just invested the money in a few days at the Jersey shore instead. Obviously, shooting with digital format makes it very easy to shoot cheap. We shot with a camera that probably sells for about 1000 bucks now and then we were fortunate enough to get a grant to blow it up to 35mm. The difficult part is that now that we're done, since we shot this completely outside the system, it's a lot harder to plug into the distribution world which has its built-in set of players and who are much more interested in star-driven or sensationalized material. But that being said, we're still optimistic.
The Definition of Insanity has won awards for Best Feature at two of the three film festivals it has entered. We ourselves attended a screening of the film at the Woodstock Film Festival and were witness to the very powerful and positive reaction it received. Yet it didn't make it in to Sundance. Nor has it gained entry in to numerous other festivals. How do you figure that? Any opinion on this year's Sundance selections?
It's partly the nature of film festivals. Each festival gets hundreds or thousands of entries and may not have the time or patience to actually watch through a small, intimate and powerful film. So they often end up programming films that have gone to Sundance or other major festivals because it’s a safer bet for them. So its like a Catch 22. Those films that enter the Sundance Magic School Bus find it a lot easier to take the regional festival ride and get distribution.
Which leads to the Sundance issue.
It’s the marketing platform for films in the US and as it grows it becomes much more market-driven, not unlike the rest of our culture. So you can't exactly blame them. They are under a lot of pressure, and they receive so many submissions, so I think there is a tendency to drift towards recognizable, more polished material. Smaller films like ours have to rely more on a grass roots/guerilla marketing campaign & word-of-mouth. We are grateful whenever we screen the film and see the powerful effect it has on the audience.
Have any interesting trying-to-be-an-actor-in-NYC stories?
I arrived for a 6 PM theater audition and waited until 9 before they saw me. We were given a scene to read and we were in a very small room. After my first line the casting director, who was sitting about three feet away from us, stopped me and told me "can you speak up, this is for the theater." I figured her hearing aid had gone dead. I started again and she immediately threw me out of her office. That was one of those rage-inducing moments.
Then, another time I was shooting a mind-deadening short film about a woman who dreams of beating up her boyfriend in a boxing match. I was the boyfriend. On the third day of shooting, I was called in by a casting director to audition for another film. I started reading a scene with a nice young woman in which we were having a discussion in a park. Suddenly she turned to me, set her feet, and punched me as hard as she could in the jaw, knocking me to the floor. As I looked at her in stunned disbelief, she explained that she went with her "feeling." Here is a case where therapy would have done her, and my jaw, a great deal more good.
You started off studying economics, went from there to therapy, and from there to the arts. That’s an unusual and interesting progression. Could you tell us about it?
Very strange, disturbing and ultimately wonderful permutations went on during those years. In college, I lived in a peculiar hybrid universe of all things economic and political. I was obsessed with Marxism, Imperialism, Fascism; the world of inequality and exploitation. In my senior year, I applied for and received a one year Fulbright Fellowship to study the effect of multinational corporations on third world countries, specifically the Philippines.
After I had been in Manila for about two months, I received a letter from my childhood sweetheart informing me that she had started sleeping with one of her classmates, she now realized that she had never actually loved me, and she was writing to end our relationship. Needless to say, my world crashed. I was twenty-one years old and completely adrift. All the defenses that had defined who I was started to unravel. I went into a kind of regressive swoon from which I am still recovering.
I began having intense and recurrent dreams, which I would then record in journals. I spent hours writing: poems, story fragments, old memories that had started to break through, bits of self-analysis, weird doodles. I felt myself coming unhinged. I was terrified, but also exhilarated, as if I could glimpse something authentic in myself that I had kept hidden all my life.
Through all this I continued to work on my Fulbright thesis in a kind of manic haze. I moved in with a young Filipino woman who was in a chronic state of mourning for her lost baby, and kept the fetus in a jar under her bed. For years, she had worked as a prostitute to help support her parents. A few months later her mother died, and she left me to take care of her father.
Shortly after that, I returned to the States and moved to Philadelphia. I immediately cut off ties with all the people I had ever known, including my family. I got a job as a groundskeeper, and for the next two years I continued my intense self-exploration, spent hours writing in the park, and began psychoanalytic training and therapy. To continue the process, I took acting classes at the Wilma Theatre. Eventually, I moved back to New York City.
At this point in your career do you consider yourself more of a director, a writer or an actor?
I can no longer differentiate those parts of myself. Now that I've co-directed myself, I find it extraordinarily liberating to create material, act it and shape it simultaneously. Frank and I had a very productive collaboration and in an ideal world I would like to continue to collaborate with like-minded souls because I think the end result is often more personal, dynamic and exciting for an audience.
What's next for you?
Well, I have begun working on another screenplay that I would love to direct/act in; I would like to complete the third play of a trilogy of plays I have been working on dealing with a futuristic fragmented America and someday I want to finish the novel that I have been tampering with for a number of years. And, of course, my ongoing project is continuing to let my son teach me how to be a better dad.
Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
I was six blocks away when the WTC was hit, and unfortunately that was an "only in New York" experience that I'm hoping doesn't get to do re-runs. But since NY is basically the center of the universe (and among the few still-sane blue states), it presents the ideal target for extremists ( other than members of the Republican party).
Watching my son being born was one of those "glad I live in NYC moments" even though I realize lots of great kids are born in New Jersey, New Mexico, etc.
Since this is the "city that never sleeps", tell us a good 3am story.
One time my doorbell rang at 3 AM. I opened the door. My downstairs neighbor was lying on the hallway carpet, her hand stuck inside a gigantic fax machine, which she had carried up four flights of stairs. She was crying out "help me, help me.!" It took me about half an hour to liberate her. After that, she stopped talking to me and two months later she moved out.
Who is your favorite New Yorker, dead or alive, and why?
My favorite New York couple is Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. They are both creative, passionate, politically-alive and courageous voices in an increasing wilderness of fear and dissociation.
Who is/are your heroes?
My heroes are everyone who tries to live an authentic, compassionate life. Of course we all fail on some level but it is the struggle that makes for an interesting ride.
You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history would you go back to?
Bob Dylan's first performance in Greenwich Village.
Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
I'm actually a fan of the no-smoking rule. I enjoy non-toxic air. And I figure maybe it will help some people quit. Otherwise, Manhattan is becoming a theme park corporate wilderness and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
Make public transportation free and severely limit cars.
You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
If it's an unlimited Monthly metro card I'd take the A train to 59th Street, sell the card, and wander through Central Park hoping to encounter my soulmate.
What source(s) do you turn to for news?
NY Times and Alternet.
What advice would you give Bush as he embarks on his second term?
Figure out a way to stop the killing.
Bloomberg, another 4 years?
He's done a decent job of working with huge budget problems, but where's the "Vision Thing?" Would like to find someone with a little more inspiration.
It's the year 2024, what do you think will be the hot topic of discussion at the water cooler?
Should we require identity tags to enter Manhattan? What would it cost to place a plastic bubble over the city?
If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?
Interview by Raphie Frank and Mindy Bond