Festivals: Rooftop Films Hits New Peaks

Today marks the beginning of the 18th edition of Rooftop Films, a New York-based, non-profit, outdoor screening series that takes the year’s best independent titles to brilliantly diverse venues across the city. We spoke to co-founder Dan Nuxoll about why alternative-location screenings are the best way to watch movies.

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Photograph by Dillon DeWaters

Continuing the retaliation movement against VOD and the rather less, well, epic home viewing experience, Rooftop Films privileges the event, the “making a night of it,” by packaging films with live music, all-inclusive after parties, and thematically-appropriate immersive venues. It’s a movie-viewing experience where you really have to be there. In recent years, Rooftop Films have expanded their outdoor programming to other cities like Los Angeles, Toronto, Sweden, Texas, and Pittsburgh, just to name a few. In the following interview, Nuxoll gives us the full rundown about why exactly this is one of the most fun film events in the country (are we jealous of his job? You bet).

Jason Lam, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This is the 18th year of Rooftop Films. Which venues have been the biggest hits in the past, and why?

Dan Nuxoll: The Old American Can Factory; Industry City on the second rooftop across the street; Roof & Courtyard for afterparties; the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the whole artistic explosion in Bushwick. We like old industrial buildings with big flat roofs – venues where the film and the building connect thematically, like a rural sensibility for rural films.

MM: It sounds like you’re trying to emulate the experience of inhabiting the movie world.

DN: Yeah, absolutely, we love doing that whenever possible. Obviously it’s not always a possibility, but both of our venues and the way we set up our shows we try we creatively immerse in the environment. For instance, we’ll be showing Ping Pong Summer, that’s a movie that’s a throwback to the ’80s set in the 1985, and everything about it feels like it was pulled out of the mid-’80s. After that screening we’ll be having a ping-pong tournament afterwards, but all the music will be ’80s hip-hop and dance music, and a lot of ’80s themed bands playing beforehand. So all that has come together to create a real feel of the movie, and it certainly makes it fun and memorable and brings out all these special little nuances of the film, and it makes it a memorable experience.

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Photograph by Sarah Palmer

MM: It seems like you guys are really catering to each piece you select, which brings me to my next question: what is your selection process like? Your website expresses interest in culturally divergent films, related to the different areas of New York.

DN: We’re a very selective festival, and much less concerned with World Premieres and New York Premieres and things like that from other festivals. We’ll certainly show a lot of World Premieres and New York Premieres, and we’re happy to do so, but often when we’re making our decisions it’s more surrounded around how great the event is going to be than it is just on whether or not it’s been screened in Manhattan before. So everything we show is new and independent, and that’s a given, and that’s core to our mission.

Beyond that, we are honestly picking films that we think are really great and exceptional, and express the filmmaker’s worldview in a way that is creative and original. Pretty much every film festival is doing that, but what sets us apart, I think, is our focus on making the experience and the event really special. So if we have two films that maybe we think our equally good or close enough to one another, the movie we think will create a special experience for the audience that’s the one we’re really going to focus on and choose for our event. It’s a lot of work to put together one of these screenings, so we really want it to be special and something that’s going to be memorable for audiences.

The other thing is we move around to a lot of different spaces and neighborhoods, and we’re looking for different types of films for each of these locations. So we’ve got screenings, for instance, in downtown Brooklyn, and that area’s definitely diverse and we have a lot of different communities coming together there. We thought it would be really great to have one film that’s very Brooklyn, very New York, and that shows a different sort of part of Brooklyn than what you see in all the commercials and New York Times articles, and whatever else—Hipster Brooklyn. So we’re showing a film there at this place called MetroTech Commons. We’ll be showing a free screening of the movie called Five Star that was played earlier this year. We knew what we wanted to show that because it’s pretty much all non-professional actors, it’s all people who grew up and lived around Brooklyn. It shows the Latino and African-American experience in a very real, vivid, visceral, honest, natural way, and to be able to do that a short walking distance from where much of the film was shot in Brooklyn, that really sets that event apart in a way that makes it spectacular.

That’s one example of thinking carefully about the film that we’re choosing and pairing it with a venue in the neighborhood where it will really have an impact. Of course, we don’t show movies that we don’t think are really strong and movies that we really love, but we only show 30-35 feature films a year, and we get thousands of submissions. We’re selecting stuff that really is only those films that we think will not only have an impact on our artists, but also an impact on our audience in that moment when they’re sitting in their chairs in a particular location at a point in time.

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Photograph by Irwin Seow

MM: How does Rooftop Films regulate audience etiquette? Is it more a social thing, or is everyone talking during the movie? How does a screening usually proceed? What is the typical breakdown?

DN: There’s some movie screenings where you might imagine the audiences are chatting or moving around or answering their phones or stuff like that. That doesn’t really happen at Rooftop Films shows. The film is the sole focus of the evening. All this other stuff is organized around that. Even if they’re showing up at the event for the experience of watching the movie outdoors, or even if they haven’t heard of the movie, for instance, prior to showing up at the event they know that the movie is the focus, and people aren’t talking during the movies or checking their phones any more than they do at movie the theaters. That’s the big difference for us. Our events are definitely social events, but people socialize beforehand, and then we usually have a party afterwards at least for our ticketed events. We’ll have free drinks and young ‘uns can just hang out and have a good time. Our events are pretty peaceful, and the people there are quiet and attentive and focus on the film.

MM: What, to you, is different about Rooftop Films, in comparison to other similar outdoor series?

DN: We don’t have a VIP section, we don’t have some exclusive parties that nobody’s invited to. When we have a party everyone’s invited. If you came to the screening, and you bought a ticket, you can all come up and meet the filmmaker. That’s the way we intend for things to be. It’s not about separating one group of people from another. It’s about bringing all these people together. It’s something that we did since the beginning, and we always thought was important, and we hope we never get away from.

MM: What’s the most exciting thing for you this year?

DN: This year we’re showing a documentary called Mateo that’s about this singer-songwriter who has this troubled life, but he performs now, and he performs all these beautiful songs in the style of classic Cuban love songs. They’re really beautiful music, so, of course, for that event we have to fly him in, bring him in for the event, perform beforehand, and following the screening he’ll be working his way through the afterparty and serenading the audience.

MM: It’s all about the movies, right? 

DN: Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes it’s relatively easier to figure it out. In other cases, we’re doing something that we kind of have to knock our heads together a little bit to figure out a way to make it special. And that’s definitely one of the fun parts of programming. Once we’ve picked out the film that job isn’t done yet. We’re s till trying to create or figure out a way to make the event even more special than that.

MM: I love that you’re preceding We Are The Best with an all-girl band performance.

DN: Yes, that’s a film by Lukas Moodysson about a Swedish group of junior high school girls who, in the early ’80s, form a punk bank to rebel against the conformity in their junior high school. We thought that it would be really perfect for that event, since we’re going to have a band anyways, to get a band that was an all-girl junior high school or high school band to play. So we set that up for that screening, and it’s a group called the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a really fantastic organization. We worked with them to pick one of the bands that graduated from their camp to play for the show, which, I think, will really set that event off just right. And we’ll be showing that movie on the rooftop of the Trilok Fusion Center for the Arts, which is an educational facility where there’s a lot of art instructions with kids.

We’ll also be doing a screening of local films by local filmmakers that are shot in the streets of Brooklyn and in line with what the films are about. A couple of examples are Obvious Child, which we’ll be showing on Saturday, and another one is Desiree Akhavan’s film Appropriate Behavior, which will be shown a couple blocks away from where the film was shot. Last year we did a screening of a film called Expedition to the End of the World, which is a documentary about a nautical journey to the North of Iceland. For that screening, we showed it on a boat in Red Hook, and audiences could have that queasy feeling of rocking in a boat while watching a movie about a boat rocking in dangerous waters.

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Appropriate Behavior was shot around Brooklyn, where it will be screened.

MM: Which film did you see upon first viewing and think, “We absolutely have to do this, I already have the perfect idea”? What film was an automatic win?

DN: You know, most years I don’t have an easy answer to that question. Of course, I love all the movies we’re showing this summer, or we wouldn’t be showing them. But this year there actually really is a standout: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s a movie by Ana Lily Amirpour, and that was a film I actually missed at Sundance, and I went to a private screening in New York after Sundance was done. I think, about 15 minutes into that film I had totally made up my mind that it was one of the most distinctive films I’d ever seen. It’s by a first-time feature film director, and you would never know. It’s impeccably produced, but it’s really just such an original vision. It’s fun. It’s got all these fantastic artistic elements. It’s part Western, part romance, part vampire movie, part Iranian. It’s all these things put together, but at no point does it feel like any of these genres are clashing.

MM: For attendees, what preparation would you suggest to maximize their Rooftop Films outdoor screening experience?

DN: I think we make it pretty easy for our audience to enjoy the event. That’s one of the reasons that we set up things the way we do. We are showing films that we think are brilliant movies. Some of them are challenging, and some of them are crowd-pleasing. We pick locations that are beautiful and comfortable places to be. You really don’t need to do much preparation. At the beginning of the summer you might want to bring a sweater [laughs] because it can get a little breezy on the roof. For the most part, it’s an easy way to enjoy yourself. We keep our ticket prices low, it’s not expensive or anything. Some people use our events at date nights, other people use it as opportunities to meet new people. There’s a lot of different ways to enjoy our shows, and even if you don’t like the film you’ll probably like the band, or at least you’ll probably like some free drinks afterwards [laughs] or whatever. It’s a pretty good time, I think. You’d have to work pretty hard to have a bad time, and there’s nothing we can do about that. MM

Rooftop Films starts tonight in New York with a shorts block entitled “This is What We Mean by Short Films.” Check out the rest of their programming at their official website, here.

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