DSCN0665.jpgA recent transplant to Brooklyn, Director Scott Scoffey spent many years living and working in Hollywood, appearing in such films as Nicholas Kazan’s Dream Lover, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Tank Girl, and is now currently releasing his first directorial debut – Ellie Parker. Set in the acting trenches of Hollywood, the film follows a struggling actress (Naomi Watts) running from one audition to another as she suffers from identity loss and the seemingly disconnected, isolated nature of Los Angeles. Gothamist sat down with Coffey to discuss his film’s intent, why he preferred shooting the film in digital-video, and how he’s happier in New York than he ever was in Los Angeles.

What led you to direct and act in this project?
There used to be a thriving independent film scene. There still is but it seems like Hollywood makes these giant blockbuster movies instead of the movies they made in the 70’s – character driven movies, the ones I was influenced by, which are now the independent movies. But there used to be a thriving independent cinema that truly was independent and you would see unconventional narratives, and there’s much more movies made in Europe that are character studies like this is; they’re not traditional, linear narratives with three act story structures. I felt that the story I was telling and the movie I was making was really about a woman in a certain point in her life, in a city that is formless. Her life is structure-less and she's searching for some kind of gravity and shape to her life. And I wanted the movie to feel like that, to echo and rhyme with her shapeless identity and her struggle for some sort of structure in the universe. That really informed the way I made the film.

One of the standout lines is “maybe what you do is who you are,” – the film spends a good chunk tracing the main character’s identity or loss thereof. Did you decide to follow an actress because her profession is probably the most muddled with identity issues, as it involves people constantly pretending to be someone else?
Totally. The original short was just [Naomi Watts] going from audition to audition, changing in the car and going crazy…and ended with her being in the car and she’s having this breakdown and you get this real sense that there’s this psychic cost to her masquerading as somebody else all the time. And I felt that was really metaphorical to living in Los Angeles, where everybody is pretending to be somebody they’re not and has a fake identity or they’re putting forward something that they want people to think they are. So they’re either limiting themselves in some way by presenting this façade or they’re trying to figure who they are by pretending to be different people all the time. I felt that a really good way to illuminate and illustrate that was to follow an actress, somebody in that sort of identity crisis. That was my basic theme to demonstrate that and hopefully it resonated universally to [everyone].

Interestingly, Ellie Parker insists LA is “suffocating her.” Would you say that’s an accurate description of the city?
In this specific context it is but I know many people who live in LA and like LA and they’re comfortable there. However, I don’t do well there; I don’t like it and I’ve lived there and this movie was an expression of my frustration of living in LA and how it does feel suffocating. If you’re living that kind of life, a purgatory that Ellie Parker is living in, it’s not the greatest life and it can be pretty frustrating. I definitely felt that way.

So you prefer New York?

Yeah. I finished Ellie Parker and I literally couldn’t stand another second. It felt so toxic to me, so evil. So I live in Brooklyn now and I love it. I’m so happy.

Why New York?

There are a million reasons. Geographically, New York has a real density and you’re always having stimulus of other people, people are always doing other things and you’re thriving off of it. The architecture, the history, the weather – I love the weather here as opposed to LA where it’s always 70 degrees. [In LA] it’s the same day for 70 years. There’s no sense of time there. And I think the amount of importance on the way people look and youth is really intense in LA and I don’t feel that nearly as much in NY. I see beautiful old people all the time here – they’re really great and I can feel their characters. Whereas in LA, everyone’s in their underwear and they’re 50 years old and had their face done 20 times.
Also, just living in a car all the time is the worst thing; the unbelievably bright sunshine isolation is really awful to me. I feel like I’m evaporating when I’m there, that I have no margins. New York somewhat holds me in and there’s something great about the density of it…Its cliché but the people here say something and you pretty much know they’re being honest and straightforward with you. In LA, I think people are used to having a passenger seat of car space next to them so when they’re in public they’re like “hi! Ohmygod” and you just don’t know what they’re saying.

Is the plot inspired by your or Naomi Watts’ experiences working in Hollywood?
Most of its totally fictionalized from my imagination. I lived a life like this and Naomi did as well. Neither one of us had such a crazy, out of control, neurotic need for outside approval as much this character does because she’s not getting it from her personal life so she desperately needs through other people and her life is like one big audition, so its based a lot on my experiences of being an actor, but not specifically; much more energetically and emotionally than literally on experiences. They’re not based on any real experiences. They’re based on how I felt about LA and being an actor. It’s fictionalized but universal experiences based on living in LA.

There’s more than a few close-ups and semi-nude scenes of Naomi Watts. We can’t help but assume you’re either a good friend of Watts or terribly good at making actors feel comfortable enough to let you get such shots.
I think I do. Because I’m an actor Id say one my strongest points as a director is that I’m able to watch and detect false moments. I have a hyper-sensitivity to it and because of that, actors are really able to be as real as possible and go as far as they can because they can trust that I’m not going to make them do something that’s dishonest. It might be foolish and it might be risky or embarrassing in a personal, interesting way but maybe they’ll find something out about themselves or their art. So I think because of that, they can trust me but [me and Naomi] are really close friends too. She was really willing, but she’s brave too. A lot of actors hide behind their persona in a role, but she does the opposite – she’ll use her role to break herself open.

The film has a raw, intimate edge, specifically because it was shot in digital video. Why did you decide to shoot in the film in that style?
I feel like LA looks like digital video --the light and the way it looks from above with all the squares and the grid, mostly low and spread out, look like pixels as well as that quality of light where you’re always shielding from the glare. I felt that video really expressed that environment, of what it feels like to be in the flatlands LA. It was a great way to portray the light and a good way to convey the emotional aspect of the movie. I wanted the filming style to be an extension of [Ellie Parker’s] nervous system and I felt video was a good way to do that – to have a handheld in her face. If I was telling a different story, it would be distracting, weird, and inappropriate but this movie felt rather delicate because its really character-driven and only about her character so I felt I needed a frenetic sense of her life to be in video and not film.

In one scene, Ellie Parker and her fellow acting friend compete to see who can make themselves cry first. Ellie draws from her past experiences to push herself to start sobbing, but only seconds later shifts back to her reality when a favorite shopping store is pointed out. Though the scene was humorous, the unnatural manipulation of emotions almost seemed like a criticism of actors.

I don’t know. I definitely didn’t go into to it to make fun of it. I wanted to be satirical but that scene had a lot to do with their friendship. I really wanted to get into friendship between two women which you never or hardly ever see in movies and if you do its like Sex & the City, which seems so cheesy and cliché. I mean, [Sex & the City] is totally addictive but it doesn’t feel real; it feels like the Hollywood version of friendship. [In Ellie Parker], you can tell they really love each other and comfortable around one another but really competitive… and the scene was more about that. But yeah, its absurd what actors have to do and what they do to themselves.

Is the film a hate or love letter to Hollywood? What were you trying to accomplish with this project?

I think both. I didn’t make it to judge Hollywood or for it to be an indictment of any lifestyle. I just wanted to capture a certain kind of life at a very specific time in this character’s life and be really specific about that life. I tried not to make any judgments on it because once I did that, it would’ve been mean or nasty. But I do feel ambivalent about Hollywood; I do love movies but I hate bad movies and hate seeing the squandered potential that Hollywood has. It’s so frustrating when movies can be so great, beautiful, and transcending but for the most part, they’re mediocre or bad, and when they’re bad they’re so bad and I find them offensive when they lie to me about how people are. They just want to make me feel good or about myself or ‘aren’t we all great.” I find that insulting.

Questionnaire:
If you left the industry, what would you do?
Teach.

Best NYC bar? The Brooklyn Inn and The Boat

The soundtrack to the movie of your life would consist primarily of:
Right now, I’m listening to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and I’m obsessed with that record. And the other artist I’m listening to is Keith Jared, whom I love.

Most loathed movie cliché: Those stupid romantic love stories, where the music swells and there’s the whole ‘love of your life, true soulmate and you’ll live happily ever after’ stuff. Those movies just kill me.

Favorite movie scene:
There’s a scene in Shoot the Moon where Diane Keaton’s marriage is falling apart and she’s smoking a joint in a bathtub and singing the Beatles song “If I Fell” in French, and its so heartbreaking and beautiful… I totally stole the scene in Ellie Parker from that movie.

There’s also a scene in Interiors where Keaton is talking to her shrink and she says one the greatest lines in cinema. She’s talking about death and says “the intimacy of it embarrasses me” and I thought it was just so absurd and great and horrifying.

Artistic influences? Joan Didion, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue" record, Woody Allen, and Diane Keaton’s performances.

What's next? I want to shoot something in Brooklyn. I’m writing it right now and I’m hoping to shoot it this winter. I also wrote a movie that’s based on a Haruki Murakami short story that’s shooting in February. Its called K-town Superfrog and takes place in Chinatown.

Ellie Parker is now in theatres. Check local listings for showtimes.