Interview by Barcelona International Film Festival – Spain
Director Biography – Paul Schwartz
Paul Schwartz is a writer, director and composer. His work is in the field of dramatic story-telling in all its forms, and encompasses projects in film, theatre, opera and dance. He is a member of ASCAP, the Dramatists Guild, and the Playwrights and Directors Unit of the Actors Studio.
His most recent film, A NEW YORK STORY, was completed in January of 2021. The film addresses the tumultuous summer of 2020, as four entwined New Yorkers tell stories of how their lives have been shaped by the protests, the pandemic, and the unforeseen consequences of both.
Interview with the Director Paul Schwartz.
Hi, Paul! Thank you for granting this interview and sincere congratulations on your ‘Outstanding Performance’ and Achievements at Barcelona International Film Festival!
You wrote, produced and directed the film ‘A NEW YORK STORY’. What should the audience expect to see?
This film was my reaction to the events in the USA last year: the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and the atmosphere around the presidential election. It was written right before the election, and filmed in November and December. Despite the inspiration of the film being somewhat political, the story is not political at all. The intention was to take a snapshot of what America was experiencing, present several different facets and points of view, and tell a human story: honestly and without judgement.
2. Tell us a bit about your background. When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Most of my career has been in music. I am classically trained as a conductor and composer, and worked with symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies etc… In the late 1990s I began to produce records, and had some international success… actually: notably in Spain with the three ARIA cds that were released on the Cafe Del Mar label. At the same time I had the opportunity to compose the scores for a couple of films, and that was my introduction into this world. Starting around 10 years ago I began to move out of music as a profession and more into writing scripts and directing, initially for the theater, and then, as a natural progression, for film. I believe that my training as a composer and my experience with making records turned out to be a pretty good background for filmmaking. Musical composition is all about manipulating material in time, and the process of recording and then mixing music is in some ways very similar to shooting and editing.
3. What are the directors that inspire you the most?
There are the ones who I admire but am not similar too, such as David Lean, Kubrick, Kurosawa… directors with an epic sensibility. It’s impossible not to have the utmost respect for Spielberg, whose versatility is unmatched. But I think of myself as a writer-director, not just a director, and of the greats who fit that bill I think Billy Wilder is one of the finest. From a purely directorial perspective, I just saw MANK, and clearly Fincher is operating a level that is several rungs higher than most anyone else working today. And from a pictorial point of view, specifically color and composition, I have a huge soft spot for the two musicals of Jacques Demy: LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG and LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT.
4. Where did you get the inspiration from for creating your story? What about your characters?
The events of last summer in the USA dominated everyone’s headspace, and I felt I had to react. The characters are not based on anyone in particular, but rather were a conglomeration of little snippets I either heard or read about. It would have been impossible to get everything into a film like this: less than an hour long, so I tried to come up with a way to capture the mood and issues of the moment within the very limited framework of four characters’ stories. And honestly, the way this film was conceived and written largely had to do with what I felt I could actually accomplish under the strictures of very limited funding, and mindfulness of the pandemic.
5. We know you also produced ‘A NEW YORK STORY’. What did you enjoy the most about working the film? What did you find more challenging?
The answer to both questions is the fact that I was a one-man band. In order to mitigate as much as possible the chance of someone getting infected, I was the only crew member for the shoot, with the exception of the one day of exterior shooting for which I had a sound man. So I was the cameraman, the sound recordist, the director, lighting, driving… pretty much everything except cooking lunch. My wife did help me with wardrobe, as she has a very good eye. So it was immensely challenging for me to take on the responsibility of ten different crew positions, and also very exciting.
6. Do you have any on set stories you would like to share?
When we shot Mitzi’s scene we were in a park at the north end of Manhattan, and as is often the case with exterior shoots, it felt as though every plane, car and bus in the city chose that day to pass by as noisily as possible. At one point in the middle of the most emotional shot in her scene, an ambulance started wailing and went on for about a minute. When it came to editing, that particular take was clearly the best. But what to do about the ambulance? I was going to reject it and put in a less good take, until my wife, the real brains of the operation, said: “why not make use of it?”. And that inspired me to create the sound design that subtly underpins that entire moment. Making lemonade out of lemons is a key skill, I think.
7. How did you choose your Cast? Was this your first time working with them? How was it to work with strict Covid protocols?
All four of the actors and I are connected to the Actors Studio here in New York. I had worked on other projects with all but one of them prior to this film, and the fourth, Ivy Omere, came unequivocally recommended by the Studio’s director. Since I knew all of them, and got to know Ivy early on in the process, I wrote the four scenes with them specifically in mind. The Covid protocols were not too hard because the size of the shoot was so small.
8. When you’re working with your actors, do you like to leave room for improvisation or do you prefer to stick to the script?
I am a bit of a stickler for sticking to the script. I do take great care in choosing the language of each character, the rhythm and pacing etc… Ivy, being British, did make a couple of suggestions when we rehearsed (on Zoom), and I found ways to incorporate those. Joan Porter, who plays the mother, wanted to add one word at a particularly emotional moment, and she was right. It’s perfect. Other than that, what you hear is what I wrote.
9. What is the message that ‘A NEW YORK STORY’ conveys?
I don’t know that there is a specific message. Each of these characters is caught up in historical currents that they have no control over. None of them is a major player in the history, but they are all significantly affected by it. The pandemic, the protests, the way the news has reported it all can seem like a kind of sterile recitation of facts and numbers. But at the end of each of those numbers, there are individual people, and I’ve tried to bring four of them to life, four different experiences and points of view, to humanize something that can be made to feel remote and impersonal.
10. What’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment?
I only just finished this film at the beginning of February, and have been mostly occupied with rolling it out to festivals such as this one. I’m beginning to think about a few projects that I can start work on in the coming weeks. In the long term I have two scripts that I’m pitching. The first is a feature based on a true story called ESCAPE THE NIGHT, about a young girl who finds herself forced by circumstances into walking the streets to survive, and how she escapes from a life in prostitution to become an award-winning journalist. The second is a pilot script for a dramatic series titled INFERNO, about the manager of the hottest nightclub in New York in 1976 (think Studio 54), whose prior military career in Vietnam comes back to haunt him.
A New York Story – Overview
In the tumultuous summer of 2020, four entwined New Yorkers tell stories of how their lives have been shaped by the protests, the pandemic, and the unforeseen consequences of both.
Connecting to Paul Schwartz.:
Official Website: www.paulschwartz.com