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The Troupe - Advanced TV Pilot Shoot

This Fall I executive produced one of two NYU Advanced TV pilots, The Troupe. This was the first year that the Advanced TV class received funding from the Will and Jada Pinkett Smith Foundation. $10,000 for each of the two pilots. While that may sound like a lot, the reality is that after accounting for locations, food, and transportation, this is an extremely tight budget to make a 30 minute pilot with an on-screen troupe of 30 plus, set in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

When it came time for the administration to select which two pilots that would be made, they were very hesitant about The Troupe. It seemed as though the sheer scale of the script might make it too difficult to pull off. On Harry Winer’s request, I wrote an email to the administration outlining creative solutions we could use to tackle the biggest challenges, and asking for them to trust that we students could rise to the challenge.

I am very happy that the administration took the risk to fund The Troupe, allowing us to take on an ambitious script. It was clear from the start that Harry believed that we were capable of pulling it off. It has been a huge logistical challenge not just to create as realistic a “post-apocalyptic” look as possible, but to do so while making sure the on-screen relationships feel real. As a group, we were eager to take on the challenge and prove ourselves capable.

This has been the most memorable and fulfilling set I’ve worked on at NYU. As one would expect, plenty has gone wrong. We had to recast a main character overnight after they booked a gig in LA, when we had already filmed some of their scenes. It hailed overnight while we were filming and camping in the woods, destroying much of the set we needed to shoot on the next day. One of our crew-members even broke her nose at the end of our last day of shooting outdoors. Thankfully, she’s since recovered and even came back to set the next weekend to be part of the team for our last day of filming.

All of the challenges we faced were tremendous reminders that this was a learning environment, where it’s OK to make mistakes. Every obstacle forced us to find a creative solution that ended up improving some aspect of the final product. The mistakes I made on this production ended up being great opportunities for me to learn and grow as a producer. It was a great experience not only to bond with the cast and crew as we weathered the challenges together, but to see my peers grow and improve each day in their respective fields. I am very proud of what we accomplished.

THE BEST MOVIES & TV SHOWS OF 2015

TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2015

10. Creed

Directed by Ryan Coogler, Starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone.

This one surprised me. The sort-of sequel, sort-of remake, passing-the-torch, seventh installment in the Philadelphia-based boxing franchise is a powerful and moving film. Huge praise goes to director Ryan Coogler (2013's tense indie breakout, Fruitvale Station) who gives the film a polish and intensity. Marvel's upcoming Black Panther is in good hands with Coogler at the helm. From the single-take fight scene, to the awesome soundtrack by (Childish Gambino's frequent producer) Ludwig Göransson, to the expert use of an aging Stallone, this film has all the right elements, and it knows how to use them. And of course, the film's biggest asset is its star Michael B. Jordan, who effortlessly embodies the role both physically and emotionally. While the movie hits all the expected beats, its polish and intensity outweighs its predictability, and I found myself tearing up and cheering during the climactic moments.

9. The Overnight

Directed by Patrick Brice, Starring Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, and Adam Scott.

Made for just $200K, this film is a hilarious, uncomfortable, and emotionally honest look at adult relationships. It's directed by Patrick Brice (2014's Creep) and produced by the Duplasse Brothers, who keep churning out excellent independent films. As the title suggests, the film takes place over one eventful night, started off by one couple inviting another to get together for dinner.  What follows is strange, suspenseful, and often hilarious. This movie swings for the fences, and yet for all of the hijinks that ensue, it never loses sight of these characters as real people with real feelings.

8. What We Do in the Shadows

Directed by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waitit (Flight of the Conchords)

A found footage movie about vampires. Hear me out! It's one of the funniest movies of the year. Made by the team behind Flight of the Conchords, this movie is just awesome. It follows a group of vampires sharing an apartment in New Zealand, and dealing with typical roommate issues such as washing the dishes and finding virgins to devour. A lot of goofy, bloody fun to be had. There's already a spin-of film planned about Werewolves ("We're werewolves, not swear-wolves").

7. The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott, Written by Drew Goddard, Starring Matt Damon, Based on the book by Andy Weir.

This movie is just so much fun. Based on the excellent book by Andy Weir, the Ridley Scott makes great use of a hugely talented cast, but the film is carried by the super charismatic performance of Matt Damon. When his team leaves him behind on Mars, the botanist must "science the shit out of this" to survive. The vast martian landscapes are beautiful, the action is thrilling, and the writing by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) is often very funny. This movie is an optimistic, pro-science, roller coaster ride that should appeal to people of all ages. I showed this one to my parents and they loved it as much as I did.

6. Anomalisa

Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, Starring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan.

A melancholy, thought-provoking, meticulously crafted work of art. Written by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson (the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community), this film is unlike anything you have ever seen before. As has always been the case, Kaufman is at his best when accurately capturing the sad, existential details of human relationships. The film is fascinating, moving, and introspective. When I walked out of the theater it immediately left me wanting to see more of that gorgeously hand-crafted world.

5. It Follows

Directed by David Robert Mitchell, Starring Maika Monroe.

The scariest film of the year works on multiple levels: as a straight horror-thriller, and as a metaphor for loss of innocence. It gives a new twist to classic horror tropes and leaves you on-edge, even during day-time dialogue scenes, as you are constantly scanning the background, on the lookout for the slowly approaching "it". The unique, and disturbing atmosphere of this film sticks with you long after the movie ends. And while the movie slightly falters near the end, when it verges on over-explaining the monster, I cannot recommend this movie enough to fans of horror.

4. Inside Out

Directed by Pete Docter, Starring Amy Poehler.

This movie is a sweet, funny, and clever empathy machine. It literally shows the audience that the processes going on in your mind are universal, and we are all dealing with the same basic issues, in a manner that even young kids can understand. It is at once Pixar's most simple and complex concept, and one that hits the emotional highs of its best films (Finding Nemo, Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 3). Each emotion is perfectly cast, and voiced by a different brilliant comedian. The animation is (as expected) beautiful, and brings us in to a completely original world. And importantly, the film knows how to communicate that what's at stake is truly important: one little girl's happiness. This film will make you laugh, cry, and experience every emotion in between.

3. Ex Machina

Directed by Alex Garland, Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac.

This is the ideal of what sci-fi should be! A stellar cast made up of three of the best up-and-coming stars out there, fascinating performances, suspenseful twists, and beautiful, minimalist visual effects. This film keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entire duration, and the climax is truly moving and unnerving at the same time. Although I go back and forth on whether I wish the film ended a few minutes earlier, I am ultimately satisfied with the film as is, and love how the relationships between the three leads change, ulterior motives are revealed, and we are able to simply witness the character's transformations with awe and wonder.

2. Spotlight

Directed by Tom McCarthy, Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams.

This ensemble piece is anything but splashy. Set in 2001, it's about the true-life story of the Boston Globe journalists that uncovered and reported on the Catholic church attempting to cover up countless allegations of molestation by priests. Rather than offering anything visually inventive, this film offers spectacular performances, and some of the best written dialogue scenes of any movie this year. Everything feels real, and the film is able to elicit huge emotional payoff without resorting to overdramatizing the real-life events. It doesn't idealize the protagonists, but rather lets everything play out in the manner that feels the most real. It's a magnificent, nuanced, important film that both entertains and informs.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Directed by George Miller, Starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.

What can I say that hasn't already been said? George Miller's fourth outing in the mad max universe is utterly unique, a non-stop thrill, and a modern masterpiece. The movie is one extended chase sequence, and is the most enjoyable theatrical experience I had this year. The visuals are stunning, including an expert blend of practical stunts and flawlessly integrated visual effects. The story is simple but effective, and the action is visceral and inventive. The best part? The 100% badass, feminist icon, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is the real star of the film. If you haven't seen this film yet, I highly recommend you find the biggest screen you can, turn off the lights, turn up the volume, and get ready to have a blast.

Honorable Mentions: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sicario, The Visit, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Bridge of Spies, and The Big Short.

Movies I Still Need to Watch: The Revenant, Carol, Brooklyn, Son of Saul, The Look of Silence, Amy, and Room.

TOP 8 TELEVISION SHOWS OF 2015

 

8. Unreal (Lifetime)

This is soap opera-level drama at its best. It shows how the producers of bachelor-type reality shows manipulate the contestants to create the drama we see on TV. At times way over the top, this show is endlessly binge-able, dark, twisted, and delightful.

7. Bojack Horseman (Netflix)

Season 2 hugely improved on the interesting but uneven season 1. The show is a hilarious, dark take on Hollywood. The surprising thing is how much you will care about these characters, as the show has real emotional stakes and pathos.

6. Making a Murderer (Netflix)

A important and entertaining indictment of our justice system. It's easy to get wrapped up in whether the main subject is innocent or guilty, but more fascinating is the way this twisted, deliberately-paced documentary series portrays the police force, prosecutors, and judges in Manitowoc County.

5. Jessica Jones (Netflix)

The best superhero story of the year. Season one has a thematic through-line resembling a metaphor for surviving rape that adds a lot of depth to the main character. And the villain, Killgrave, is extremely fascinating and watchable.

4. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

Hilarious and informative. Oliver and his staff put so much effort into each episode, and often pull off elaborate pranks or projects that not only are hilarious to watch play out, but often make a difference in the real world.

3. The Jinx (HBO)

Arguably the best of the recent wave of true-crime shows (including Serial). The Jinx stands above the rest by having a tremendous amount of access to its fascinating, dubious main character, and by paying off with a hugely satisfying and definitive conclusion.

2. Better Call Saul (AMC)

The spin-off of Breaking Bad took a while to get going, but everything payed off exceptionally well and the characters only got more interesting with each episode. The show is a dark character study, at times funny, at times sad, and it stands apart from its predecessor.

1. Nathan for You (Comedy Central)

The most daring, inventive show on TV right now. You need to watch Nathan for You. What started as a simple concept about a socially awkward comedian offering (bad) advice to small businesses, has transformed into hilarious and bizarre performance art that could rival Andy Kaufman. To be honest, Nathan for You is one of the most thought-provoking shows on TV right now. Each episode leaves my mind reeling with thoughts like "How did he get that person to do that?" "Would I react similarly in the same situation?" and
"Is that even Ethical?" If you have not seen Nathan for You, please give it a try!

Still Need to Watch: Fargo

LOOKING AHEAD:

Ready Player One

My favorite novel that I read in 2015 was Ernest Cline's sci-fi adventure book, Ready Player One. It's set in a dystopian future where people spend almost all of their time plugged into a virtual reality game called "The Oasis". The book contains plenty of well-paced action, satire, humor, and 80's pop-culture references. Most importantly, it describes visual worlds unlike anything I have seen or read.

Coming in 2017, Steven Spielberg is on board to adapt the novel into a major action blockbuster. He has already started to put together a great cast, including Olivia Cook (Bates Motel, Me Earl and the Dying Girl), and Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). I am extremely excited to see how Spielberg adapts the unique video game worlds onto the big screen.

UPCOMING MOVIES IN 2016

Here are some original movies I am most excited for (based on their trailers/pre-release buzz):

High-Rise

Directed by Ben Wheatley, Starring Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, and Sienna Miller, In Theaters 2016

The Witch

Hail Ceasar

Directed by the Coen Brothers, starring Josh Brolin and tons of stars, In Theaters February 5.

The Nice Guys

Directed by Robert Eggers, In Theaters February 26, 2016. It looks truly terrifying.

Directed by Shane Black, Starring Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe, In Theaters May 20, 2016.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to let me know in the comments what you think of these picks, and what I left out.

The 10 Best Films of 2014

Marvel dominated again. The box office waned. Sony was hacked. Chris Pratt blew up. Transformers 4 made way too much money. Phil Lord and Chris Miller continued their winning streak. Tom Cruise made an awesome action movie that few saw. The Hobbit Series finally ended. Netflix and Amazon made some great content. Streaming soared. DVD and Blu-Ray Sales plummeted. Some theaters revamped their seats to completely recline in an effort to draw people out of their living rooms. 

2014 was a pretty amazing year for the movies. Here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of 2014:

10. Birdman

That cast, the improvised jazz drum score, those uninterrupted long-takes. OK, I will be the first to admit that the insistence on long-takes (which is what excited me most about the movie) was at times distracting and even unnecessary. Still, the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) made the entire film feel like an off-broadway play, with a sense of immediacy which is broken only when the camera magically flies through a glass window, or floats through times lapses that transition from night into day. Still, Birdman is bold, at times depressing, frequently hilarious. It had a few unnecessary sub plots, but the impressive special effects, the whimsical tone, and the great performances made watching Michael Keaton's descent into madness (or transcendence) a lot of fun to watch.

9. Gone Girl

David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's slightly superior novel is certainly well crafted. Both Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck give nuanced, intriguing performances that show the darkness that can bubble underneath the surface of a seemingly pleasant relationship. Fincher sticks pretty closely to the source material, which makes sense, but the few changes he does make only add to the cleverness of the plot structure and make already dark scenes even more disturbing. The many plot twists are well executed, with the only flaws coming from the film's slightly uneven tone: certain moments near the end that should read as serious come off as slightly awkward and comical. Still, I cannot imagine a director better suited to adapt this than Fincher, and he gets the visuals, the brooding music, and the twisted story very right.

8. Chef

Do not watch this movie on an empty stomach. It is the perfect mix of food porn and family comedy. You can't keep your mouth from watering or your foot from tapping during the many food preparation sequences set to cuban music. Director Jon Favrea also stars as the chef who quits his job at a fancy restaurant to pursue his dream of starting a food truck. It features a great supporting cast that includes Scarlet Johansen, Dustin Hoffman, and a brief cameo by Robert Downey Jr. At the center of it all is a simple story of a man reconnecting with his son, and the film takes this cliched premise and turns it into one of the most satisfying and heartwarming films of the year.

7. The One I love

This movie has an extremely intriguing premise, but I have to be vague for fear of spoiling the surprises that await anyone watching The One I Love. It is a twisted, clever, romantic comedy, but one that will keep you a little bit uneasy throughout, as you try to determine what exactly is going one. It shares a tone with another excellent movie also produced by the Duplass Brothers (Jay directs, and Mark stars), Safety Not Guaranteed. In a movie landscape full of sequels and remakes, it is refreshing to find an independent movie that is so consistently original and unpredictable. You can check it out now on Netflix Instant Play. 

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I know most people would argue that if one Marvel movie deserves to be on this list, it is The Guardians of the Galaxy. I did love that movie, and it was a hard decision to leave it off this list, but hear me out on Cap 2. It was so successful at adopting it's own unique genre and becoming a paranoid political thriller that happens to star an established super hero. If the Russo Brothers keep up the great work they've been doing on Winter Soldier, Community, and Arrested Development, the The Avengers: Infinity War is in good hands. These guys balance action and humor to great effect, and this film had some of the best action scenes of the year. The best part? You could actually see what was going on, none of the choreographed fight scenes were obscured by quick cuts or shaky cameras. The attack scene on Nick Fury's car is nothing less than awesome. This is old school blockbuster movie-making at its best. Also impressive was the bold impact this film had on the Marvel cinematic universe, upsetting the status quo and ensuring more drama and intrigue to come. 

5. Whiplash

This is a film about obsession, featuring two of the very best performances of the year. One by Miles Teller as a man so determined to be the best drummer he loses sight of everything else, and J.K. Simmons his captivating and abusive teacher. When Simmons is on screen you cannot look away, somehow his words cut through the screen and even you want to impress him. Moments in the film are cringeworthy, as in, you can barely stand to keep watching due to the horrifying self inflicted injuries Teller's character is willing to endure to make it. Blood, sweat, and tears literally fall from him as he continues to push himself and be pushed farther than what seemed humanly possible. And then there is that final scene, which contains one of the most spectacularly satisfying moments I have ever sat through in a film. I found myself holding my breath, watching the two performers bounce off each other and letting sounds of the amazing drumming sweep over me.

4. The Lego Movie

The most fun to be had at a movie all year. Whether you were a big lego fan as a child or not (and I certainly was) I cannot imagine anyone walking out of the theater post-lego movie without a huge smile on their face. Part of that can be attributed to the all-star cast: A tongue in cheek Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Charlie Day, Will Arnett as Batman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, etc, but the heart of the movie is a charismatic and hilarious vocal performance by Chris Pratt. I think the most credit, however, belongs to directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). The visual gags are so frequent that they cannot all be appreciated after one viewing, and a surprisingly emotional sequence near the end honestly made my eyes water. What could have been a cynical toy commercial is instead a hilarious, witty, imaginative film (and toy commercial) that delivers a heartfelt message about the need for play and creativity. 

3. The Babadook

More than just the best horror film of the year. This Australian film is terrifying, not only because of the demonic monster threatening this mother and son, but because of the serious psychological questions it raises that some find too taboo to talk about: what if a mother is conflicted by love and hatred for her own child, what does that do to a person? Essie Davis gives a gut wrenching performance as the mother, and the young Noah Wiseman acts well beyond his age, while always maintaining his innocence. The Babadook is introduced while reading the creepiest pop-up 'children's' book ever set to page. The film uses this monster to symbolize the way children deal with traumatic events, and how they cope with adversity; all children have nightmares about the boogeyman. What is so amazing about this film is the way it works on so many different levels. Like a great piece of literature, looking at it through a different lens can completely change its meaning. The Babadook itself can be read as either a supernatural being, a psychological delusion and manifestation of the child's trauma, or a manifestation the mother's conflicted hatred. The child and the mother are nuanced and understandable, and you sympathize for both of them even as they make bad but understandable decisions. Things that seemed horrifying at first become innocent, things that seemed innocent at first become horrifying. If you have a chance to see this, please do. It will stick in your head long after you leave the theater.

2. Boyhood

I find it amazing that this film was ever made, let alone that it ended up being not just good, but one of the very best films of the year. Filmed over 12 years, director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight) just gets so many details about growing up so right. He makes the important choice to skip over the major moments that most movies would focus on, and instead zero in on the small moments that form us into the people that we become. By throwing in current (at the time) events such as the 2008 election and the release of the final Harry Potter Book, as well as time-period appropriate music for a nostalgic soundtrack, Linklater made a film that speaks to the real experience of growing up in the 90's and early 2000's. But it's more than just that. In a span of 3 hours, you feel like you've grown up all over again with Mason (Ellar Coltrane), experienced your first act of rebellion against your parents, been bullied, fallen in love all over again. The scope is expansive and intimate at the same time. What this movie gets right that was so powerful for me is the moment when you start to realize that your parents are not all-knowing, but rather are just as flawed and inherently human as you are. This movie is worth sitting through the long runtime, it is worth seeking out. It will move you.

1. Nightcrawler

"If it bleeds, it leads." Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler, hits it out of the park. The visual style shows the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles at night, reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Jake Gyllenhaal's portrayal of Lou Bloom is nothing short of masterful. He is determined, manipulative, seeking his own version of the American dream in the smarmy business of freelance news videography. For all his quirks, it's surprisingly easy to root for him, and we watch as he crosses line after line, revealing a complete lack of empathy. Yet somehow the audience feels a sense of culpability as we allow, even support, him pushing his ethical boundaries so far to get the best shot. By finding beauty in violence we become accidental accomplices, allowing horrific events to take place in the name of giving the people what they want. Once the plot gets going there is the sense that there is no turning back. The action sequences kept me on the edge of my seat, and I had to hold my breath during a scene when Lou enters a house where a murder has just taken place to film the events before the police arrive. This film is filled with some of the most shocking moments, and they hit hardest because they come from a desire that news programs latch onto, a deep fascination with violence. For me, Nightcrawler was the most disturbing, involving, darkly comical, best film of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy, The Imitation Game, Snowpiercer, Verunga, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes