One of the most anticipated movies of the fall, New York, I Love You is made up of several short films revolving around the elusive concept of love. The movie is the second in a planned series called “Cities of Love”—the first being the 2006 international hit, Paris je ta’ime. Like Paris, New York brings together an eclectic, international group of moviemakers (the Hughes Brothers, Yvan Attal, Shunji Iwai, Shekhar Kapur) and actors (Natalie Portman, Ethan Hawke, Shia LaBeouf, Robin Wright Penn, Chris Cooper, Julie Christie, Irrfan Khan) for a collection of introspective tales about finding love in the city that never sleeps.

Just before the movie’s release on October 16, MM spoke with the series’ hands-on producer, Emmanuel Benbihy.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): You are credited with devising the Cities of Love concept behind these anthology films. How did the idea initially come about? Did you always envision the concept as a series of films, or did the worldwide success of Paris, je t’aime prove this could be a viable franchise?

Emmanuel Benbihy (EB): I always envisioned an ongoing series of Cities of Love features. Paris, je t’aime didn’t follow the original concept though. It was basically an anthology of 18 individual segments tied together with beauty shots of the city. New York, I Love You went to a different level, and actually realized the original concept. We are exploring new models of narration for a “collective” film, with 11 segments and characters reappearing as “bridges” between episodes. The idea was to tie them together as components of a unified feature. In recent years, classic narrative styles have been questioned. The bonds of place and action have been shattered, points of view multiplied, chronology fragmented then interwoven, realities broken apart and reshaped into characters’ individual perceptions. Audiences have reacted strongly to this form of storytelling; Magnolia, Crash, Amores Perros’ Requiem for a Dream and others have been very successful.

MM: New York, I Love You, like Paris, je t’aime, gathers together an eclectic group of international moviemakers–from Fatih Akin to Wen Jiang to Mira Nair to Brett Ratner. How does the pre-production process work on an anthology like this? Do writers pitch you story ideas, and then directors come aboard, or do you seek out directors/screenwriters you think would be interesting for the film?

EB: It begins with the story or the idea generated by the director. We begin a project only when it is fully financed. That way we can approach the creative talent with a firm commitment and an extremely attractive opportunity for creative carte blanche. Once they have formulated a concept and they present it to us as a pitch, they have the freedom to bring in the writer, DP, editor and on-camera talent for their segments. The only prerequisites are that they work within the overall subject matter for the film: A love story.

We discuss the area of the city where it will take place, and we let them go to work. Of course, there are occasions when this creative freedom can lead to a problem. Sometimes a director will come up with a terrific segment which changes and evolves during the course of their production. Unfortunately, they don’t always work within the context of the film. Scarlett Johansson, for example, shot her film in black and white, and emphasized the element of fear that affects the characters’ love of the city. We had a similar situation with Andrei Zvyagintsev, another extraordinarily talented director. While these segments are great short films, we were unable to integrate them into the picture for our theatrical release, but they will definitely be part of the DVD. And, we are also exploring ways of making the film available on the Internet at some point in the future.

MM: The editing process on these films must be difficult, since you have to juggle 10 or more vignettes. How do you decide the order of the segments—from which comes first to which comes last?

EB: We planned a total of 11 vignettes for New York, I Love You, but we always knew their sequence could not be predetermined. All were shot on the same basic schedule over a quite intense period of approximately eight weeks, with two and sometimes three segments being produced simultaneously: While one director was shooting, others were prepping, casting, editing, etc. While we did have a general idea of how the film should play out, there was a tremendous amount of creative flexibility both in the formatting of the individual segments and in the final cut. We tried to avoid preconceived notions, and to make room for ideas that materialized like little surprise gifts. It wasn’t until all the segments were complete that we truly began the job of shaping them into a cohesive story.

MM: How spread out, in regards to location, was the post-production on this movie? I know you did some of it at Mega Playground in New York City. Why did you choose them as the post-production facility for the movie? What did it have to offer?
EB: We had a 10-month residency at Mega Playground, a large and extremely comfortable West Village production/post-production complex. Mega was a fortunate find and an important asset to the production. One of our DPs suggested we tour the facility. We met with company principal Eitan Hakami and chief technical officer Terry Brown, early in January 2008. We found literally every amenity and necessity we needed within a comfortable 45,000 square-foot complex in the heart of New York’s independent film scene: Production offices, Avid editing suites, DI color-correction, HD suites, telecine and dubbing capabilities plus a spectacular view of the Hudson River. We felt completely at home, and we had the added benefit of on site technical gurus like Terry Brown, who were able to help us iron out problems and solve those peculiar little glitches than can waste such an extraordinary amount of time.

Also, the intensity of our production schedule ebbed and flowed, overlapping one week, slacking off the next as some segments wrapped and other directors began their assignments. Eitan was very helpful in accommodating our needs for flexibility. We are also indebted to Pat Swinney Kaufman, Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture & Television Development. I first met Pat at Cannes 2006; she is the first meeting I took on this film. She was amazingly helpful in opening the city to our production, and was completely supportive throughout our stay in New York. Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting, was another invaluable asset to our work. New York is a terrific place to shoot a film. This was an amazing experience for everyone involved.

MM: Looking back on New York, I Love You, is there a specific story in the film you’re particularly fond of?

EB: It’s really difficult to answer this question. You’re already enamored by all of them because you were there at their conception. And then, you spend such an incredible amount of time screening, editing, re-screening, re-cutting… both the individual segments and the overall film. I have probably watched the film 150 times in real time. Not just for story continuity, but for issues of color correction and sound, all the countless creative details and decisions that make up a film. I am still honestly moved by all of the segments. Not only because of their dramatic or humorous or romantic elements, but as the producer, each moment of the film calls up a memory of the production. Decisions that had to be made, suggestions that came from nowhere and made valuable contributions back stories… Great memories, some of which are quite painful, but the pain is part of the joy. One of the saddest was the loss of Anthony Minghella. He was kind and wonderful man to work with, an amazing artist with very clear ideas and very open to suggestions. Anthony was at our very first production meeting at Mega Playground. It is very sad to think that the segment he created and directed for New York, I Love You marks the last short script he wrote.

MM: What do you hope the movie conveys to foreigners about New York?

EB: It’s interesting that the people who live in the cities profiled in our Cities Of Love are probably the toughest audience for the films. I saw that with the reactions to Paris, je t’aime, and I am a Parisian. Our film cannot compete with the daily relationship of a New Yorker with their city, but I can guarantee that it is very “New York” for everyone else. I believe that people from other countries have no expectations of what they will see or feel when they go to our films. They are there for the adventure and the mystery and the emotional experience. I am certain that the international audience will fall in love with New York and want to go there and see it for themselves.

MM: The next City of Love in the anthology series will be Shanghai. Can you reveal any moviemakers who might have already joined the project?

EB: Actually, the next City of Love will be Rio, and then Shanghai and then Jerusalem. It is premature to mention the directors or stars for any of these productions. Our first priority is financing. We are committed to being fully financed for each film before we approach any artist. All I can tell you is that we have an exclusive deal within CAA on that film and the feedback we have from directors and talent is very promising. Shanghai fascinates people. We are asking them to take a huge leap of faith by trusting and contributing to the format we have devised. So far, we have worked with 35 major directors and 60 of the finest actors working in film today. The reality of this business is that it can take years for even a well-established director to get a greenlight for a project. We are offering an opportunity for them to create a genuine work of cinema without restriction or compromise, and we guarantee them the final cut of their segment. By waiting until we have all of our financing in place they have the added security of knowing the production will be completed.

MM: Anything else to add?

EB: We are beginning to licensing the City of Love to a select group of cities around the world, and we have great hopes for this franchise to have a long and successful creative life. Our next step is allow young filmmakers to post a short film on-line based on our concept and illustrating their city, whatever it is: we want to build an international city-driven community of directors.