Brooklyn's Finest: The People Behind Rooftop Films

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When summer rolls around in NYC, everyone comes out of hibernation. They flood to barbecues, street fairs, ferries, gardens, parks … and Industry City for Rooftop Films.

On opening night—Friday, May 29th—the summer festival was packed: crowds filled two roofs of the outdoor venue and the entire space down in the courtyard. One might expect opening night, especially one drawing so many people, to showcase a better-known filmmaker, just as most festivals would around the country. But Rooftop saved Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire and Sean Baker’s festival darling Tangerine for later in the summer. Instead, they featured a compilation of shorts, each pick ranging from documentary to comedy to the over-the-top, impressively executed Kung Fury. In line with the spirit of Rooftop, the night was all about exposing stories New Yorkers might otherwise not see.

The summer will feature both shorts and feature screenings, new highlights such as The Wolfpack, Welcome to Leith, Romeo is Bleeding and Finders Keepers mixed in with a number of classics like Sixteen Candles and Ghost World. For a full line-up, check out their website.

Over the past 18 years, Rooftop Films (a non-profit organization, mind you) has become of the most popular events in NYC. Founded by Dan Nuxoll and Mark Elijah Rosenberg in Brooklyn, the fest has expanded to attract audiences who are so much more than the stereotypical Brooklynites—the hipsters, snobby film buffs and dudes with bowler hats—because the people who flock to see good films are united simply by wanting to hear some music beforehand, to see a movie, and then too enjoy the free booze afterwards. Everyone loves free booze. It’s not just a film screening—it’s a total social event.

The festival now encompasses multiple locations across the City, screening every weekend from May 29th through August 22nd. Not only is Rooftop known for its eclectic mix of shorts, features, big names and new talent, it also takes pride in fostering the filmmaking community. As a registered 501©(3), Rooftop provides grants to filmmakers, aids organizations in producing events centered around film and rents affordable equipment to artists and non-profits

Paste has always been an advocate of the festival and this year got to chat with some of the most anticipated filmmakers featured at Rooftop, as well as founder Dan Nuxoll.

Sean Baker: Tangerine

Sean Baker, an independent filmmaker who first started making films in New York, like the acclaimed Prince of Broadway and Take Out, is back with the riotous feature, Tangerine. With Los Angeles as a backdrop, it follows Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) on Christmas Eve as she hunts for the pimp who broke her heart. It was also shot entirely on an iPhone.

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On bringing his work back to New York

I’m very excited about screening Tangerine at Rooftop. I think Tangerine has an old school New York sensibility. I tried applying the chaos and attitude of the NYC that I grew up in to the films I’ve been making in LA… I think I got it with this one.

On his past with Rooftop

I actually had a short film (that I produced and edited) screen at Rooftop Films years ago. It is entitled Men in Patience and directed by Koorosh Yaraghi. It stars Karren Karagulian. That film was my introduction to Karren as an actor and I’ve worked with him ever since. He is one of the leads of Tangerine.

On the challenge of shooting entirely on an iPhone

Shooting on the iPhone was surprisingly headache free. Moondog Labs created an anamorphic adapter for the lens of the iPhone. It allows you to shoot iPhone footage in true scope (wide accept ratio). We also used a wonderful app called Filmic Pro; it captures the footage at a higher quality compression rate and shoots at 24 frames a second. In post-production, we added filters, grain, and [we] pumped up the colors.

On the New York version of “Donut Time”

There is always a local hangout in any red light district where the sex workers take shelter. I’m just not familiar where that is in 2015… If you asked me this question in 1995, it would have been the McDonald’s on 10th Ave. and 34th street.

On why he’s stoked to screen at the fest and what he’s excited to see

My hope is that the urban setting of the festival will enhance the urban setting of the film… I won’t mind if a real fire truck siren is blaring down the street…it would be appropriate for the soundscape of Tangerine. The film that I’m looking most forward to seeing right now is Goodnight Mommy and it happens to be playing at the festival. I consider Veronika Franz a genius and it’s an honor to be playing in the same line-up as her new film.

Bob Byington: 7 Chinese Brothers

An Austin-based filmmaker, known for Somebody Up There Likes Me and Harmony and Me, brings Rooftop a hilarious take on surviving your day job. Jason Schwartzman plays Larry, who starts working at an auto shop after getting fired from his waiter gig. With his only real friend, his dog Arrow, he attempts to both keep his job and not piss anyone off. Olympia Dukakis and Tunde Adebimpe (of TV on the Radio) also star in this incredibly sincere portrait of a guy who can’t seem to catch a break.

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On the tone of the film

There’s nothing deliberately muted. And while Jason’s character’s life may seem rote, the film itself takes pains to avoid being rote or dull.

On NYC friends in his Austin-based film

I have some friends in the NYC film community and they seem to relate to our Austin sensibility. Alex Karpovsky and Alex Perry are very good friends and we were able to gather a lot of the group organically from that relationship.

On getting TV on the Radio’s Tunde on board

I like working with singers and had seen Tunde in a movie called Rachel Getting Married—he had a lot of presence and charisma, and we were able to keep him in the mix even after the film fell through a couple times.

On the film’s biggest star: Arrow

We were looking for a dog and had considered a couple-few, we just knew we could get an intimacy in the relationship if we hired Jason’s dog—who is very special. Jason is hard to share the screen with, he’s a pro, and he’ll blast you right off if you’re not careful. Arrow always stood his ground. The people who love the movie love Arrow, we’ve certainly noticed.

On why he’s stoked to screen at the fest and what he’s excited to see

I like a drinking audience; I don’t love a drunk audience. I am seeing Sean Baker’s new movie in a couple weeks, and I am a fan of his work. We have both cast nonprofessional dogs in our movies.

Zachary Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil: Men Go To Battle

Treitz has made quite a splash in the indie scene with a directorial feature that is both independent film and an epic, portraying the relationship between two brothers during the Civil War. Co-written by Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards, Sun Don’t Shine), Men Go to Battle takes us back into the everyday lives of such a troubled time period without feeling heavy-handed or manipulative. The two filmmakers are also Rooftop Fund Grantees.

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On making a DIY period piece

Zachary Treitz: The idea for a period piece came from a part of my family’s history in Kentucky. We liked the idea of trying to use the 1860s—this terrible, looming time in American life—as the setting of a story about these two bumbling brothers and their personal problems that have little to do with this seminal moment. And we wanted to do it ourselves, with our friends. We did our own research. Our friend Steven produced it. Our art department was made up of people who took an interest in the project…and even our lead actors. When you watch the movie, there isn’t even an independent production company’s logo before it. It’s just a small group of people coming together to get this one thing done.

On the writing process

Treitz: When Kate and I were writing it, we thought this movie would be a lot easier to make than it was. We figured we would shoot the whole thing in the woods and it would be dirt-cheap. But then the story kept needing these bigger scenes, and the world of the movie kept expanding. The biggest breakthrough—at least for the scale of the story—came when we went to shoot at our first reenactment at Perryville, after embedding ourselves like war correspondents with the soldiers. We got back from that weekend and said, “Holy shit, this is going to feel much bigger than we were originally planning.”

Kate Lyn Sheil: Zach asked me to work on the script with him probably a week after he first told me about the project. We then began researching at local archives and reading lots of first-hand accounts: unpublished letters and diaries. We would compare our notes and create the outline together then go off and write scenes separately. We’d then review and edit one another’s work.

On staying away from Masterpiece Theater

Sheil: It was always important to us to make the film feel present. We thought that by creating a world that looked as accurate to this specific county in 1861 Kentucky as we could but then shooting the film in a democratic, utilitarian way, we could achieve that. So we crammed it full of as many details as we could but then shot it as though there were nothing special about the production design; no sweeping shots, no fetishizing the period-ness of it all: Embrace ugliness and mundanity.

Treitz: Any time something in the dialogue or art felt “old-timey” we threw it out. I like all kinds of period pieces, but for this one we did want to avoid that PBS look, and it was a constantly evolving formula. Brett Jutkiewicz, our DP, was able to give the film a utilitarian sensibility that avoided any preciousness and our production designer Jacob Heustis tried to make everything look both new and honestly used.

On making his first feature and what he’d do differently

Treitz: At first, editing the footage was hard because it was like a flashback into that day of filming, and I would start to think about everything that was going wrong that day and all the stupid stuff I did or said. As I edited I made a list of everything that I should have done differently, and what I should do the next time. There should be thousands but it started taking too much time away from the editing.

We give ourselves a pass on nearly everything that went wrong, though, because we had such a small crew doing a nearly impossibly huge job. And most of the problems we went through are what make the film so special to us. But it was designed to be an experience we could never repeat … and would never want to repeat. One thing I do wish I had with me at all times was a good book of jokes. One of the hardest performances to get is when you just want a quick reaction shot of someone laughing.

On why they’re stoked to screen at the fest and what they’re excited to see

Sheil: I’ve always loved screenings at Rooftop and I’m excited to have our movie show there. We couldn’t have made the movie without a post-production grant that we received from them and while Zach and probably half of our cast and crew are from Kentucky, the other half are from here, so it will be a nice homecoming of sorts. I’m going to try to see as many movies at Rooftop as I can but I’m particularly excited for 7 Chinese Brothers, Tangerine and Digging for Fire.

Treitz: I think there is a general sense that theatrical film audiences are increasingly anemic, and Rooftop has managed to be the antidote to that sinking feeling. When we go to repertory or independent screenings in New York, we expect to see a lot of familiar faces, which is great, but it’s also nice to go to a movie with an audience filled with people you don’t know. I go to Rooftop screenings and think, “Who are all these people and where do they come from?” I’ve been especially looking forward to Tangerine, as well as Welcome to Leith.

Dan Nuxoll: Rooftop Films founder

Nuxoll, a native New Yorker, has been the Program Director at Rooftop Films since 2002. He has fostered the expansion of the festival to encompass more venues and to attract more sponsorship, including partnerships with Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and many other institutions. He has also served as a juror for SXSW, Slamdance and Doc NYC, and in 2014 was included on Brooklyn Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture.

He is currently working on a new documentary feature as a co-director and continues to produce, compose and direct other projects.

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On the underground films Rooftop has showcased over the years

One of the things that we are very proud of is that, despite the fact that we have grown as an organization since our somewhat humble, grass-roots beginning, we have managed to stay very true to our artistic mission. We might have access to a wider array of films than we did when we were just getting started, but the films that we are going to show this year would have fit in well with the films we showed in 1997, in terms of their creative spirit.

Luckily, our audience is an adventurous bunch, so we are lucky enough to be able to program the films that we love whether or not they are by established filmmakers with name recognition. Some examples of more adventurous and niche films that we have showcased that I particularly love include Daniel Levin and Ben Solomon’s documentary Captured (which played to more than 1,000 attendees, including Ed Koch, on a roof in the Lower East Side), Robert Greene’s Fake it So Real (which we screened over a wrestling ring with a battle royale following the movie), Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel’s Darkon (which featured a pre-screening battle between knights in full armor), Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Martin Piersel’s This Ain’t California, Keith Miller’s Five Star and Welcome to Pine Hill, and Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat’s joyous film Living Stars. There are literally hundreds that we have showcased over the years, but those stand out because the screenings themselves were particularly unique and memorable.

On keeping the fest fresh

Every year we look to showcase the most interesting and innovative films we can find, and so each year feels quite fresh to us, but that direction is dictated by the content that we come across. We don’t try to force the programming in one direction or another—we let the films lead the way. But this year I think that one of the things that really stood out was that there were so many very compelling documentaries and fiction films that captured the vibe and nuances of a community or subculture.

On those fresh films

So many of our films this year are able to immerse the viewer in the lives and community that they are depicting, including Men Go to Battle, Field Niggas, Spartacus and Cassandra, Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, Romeo is Bleeding, The Chinese Mayor and many more.
A great example is Sean Baker’s magnificent Tangerine. It’s a wild and fun romp with some amazing comic performances, but the element of the film that really stood out for me was Sean’s ability to capture the energy of Los Angeles street life. In my opinion it is one of the all-time great films about L.A., but the side of the town that it captures isn’t characterized by glitz or ambition or artifice; instead Sean conveys a grittier spirit, and expresses that so well that we get lost in the city and its inhabitants. Welcome to Leith is a very different film—it’s a doc about a tiny North Dakotan town that is thrown into turmoil when a group of neo-Nazis try to buy up land and take over. But, as with Tangerine, filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher Walker genuinely immersed themselves in the community, and as a result we, as viewers, feel transported to a very distinct location and feel enmeshed in the experiences of the town as it goes through a very singular and pivotal moment in their history.

On the most exciting film he found while programming this year

I adore Cedric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz’s documentary, Kings of the Wind and Electric Queens, which captures the frantic atmosphere of the Sonepur Fair, a massive festival in India. Their films are certainly experimental—they aren’t strictly narrative, and are more experiential than they are linear stories. But the dynamism that they bring to their filmmaking and the raw energy and power that they evoke is quite a revelation. They are exceptional cinematographers, with keen awareness of the bizarre and the spectacular, and their editing style is unique and daring, while still being exceptionally impactful. I don’t think that they will ever be popular in a mainstream sort of way—their aesthetic vision is a bit too esoteric for that. But their movies are dazzling, and I couldn’t be happier to be sharing it Kings of the Wind with our audience this summer.

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On balancing well-known with unknown filmmakers

We always show many films that have already been recognized by the industry press, distributors and independent film community, but we always try to balance it out with the work of filmmakers that we feel are just beginning to make waves. And plenty of those lesser-known filmmakers will go on to become much better known over time. Lena Dunham wasn’t yet on HBO when we screened her film Tiny Furniture. When we showed Jordan Vogt Robert’s film, Kings of Summer, he hadn’t yet been chosen to direct the new King Kong movie. But of course we didn’t choose those films because we thought that the directors would eventually become more famous; we selected their films because we loved the films and we thought that they were making interesting movies. Digging for Fire has some well-known actors in it and I am sure that the Orchard will do a good job releasing the film, but even that film isn’t going to have a huge marketing budget to support the release, and for that reason they need to rely on the word of mouth from festivals like ours to help the film to reach a wider audience.

On the future of Rooftop Films

Rooftop is already a much bigger organization than we ever imagined it would become when we were starting off, but we do have ideas for future expansion. I don’t know if we want to do more screenings in New York—we have a jam-packed summer and are working on screenings practically every night from the end of May until the end of August. But every year we try to up the ante and add some new twists to our model, find new locations, and figure out ways to make our events a bit more spectacular than the year before. We are already laying the groundwork for some big shows in 2016, since that will be our 20th anniversary season.

We are also interested in exploring opportunities in other cities, and we have done events all around the U.S. and the world. I think there are a lot of communities that could benefit from an organization like our own. There are options we are looking into, but nothing we are ready to announce just yet. But if anyone has an amazing roof in a far-off place, don’t hesitate to drop us an email.


Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.

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