OK, when I say "win," I mean "be nominated for," because as Best First Screenplay nominee Jonathan Lisecki puts it, "the nomination is the win!"
Wait! Don't roll your eyes! He is being absolutely sincere, and I totally buy it. (Read his off-the-cuff, inspiring interview below and you'll agree). For writer/director Lisecki (who also made the 2012 Out 100 list), the Spirit Award nomination really is a win; his out-of-the-gate feature Gayby catapulted him from relative East-Village-artist obscurity to dancing with the Hollywood big boys in a matter of months. But success didn't come overnight, he points out, and it happened because he was absolutely open to trying everything until something stuck.
I relate. For me, acting led to playwriting, which led to screenwriting and finally to becoming a novelist, which is, in the words of the awesome Artists Way guru Julia Cameron, my creative "vein of gold."
So what does the ever-feisty (and pretty damn humble) Lisecki mean when he says he tried everything?
Scott Alexander Hess: How the hell did you do it? For writers and screenwriters out there looking for inspiration, share a little about how you went from East Village artist to walking the red carpet. What's the secret?
Jonathan Lisecki: I get asked this a lot, and there is no big secret in my case. I just never stopped working on whatever I was doing creatively at the time, no matter what I was doing to make money. For years I worked pretty consistently on no- to low-budget theater, as a producer, director and actor. I did pretty much everything required to get each show off the ground. When I got my theater degree, they had us try out every backstage role. So I'd hang lights on one show, then sew costumes, or build sets, or serve as stage manager. It's great preparation for the world of downtown NYC theater, where most times you have to take on more than one role.
Also, for years I've been working in the talent division at a production company. I read a ton of scripts, and seeing what gets made makes you realize that there is room for other voices. I was able to make my first shorts because the place where I work is filled with amazingly generous people. They allowed me to borrow their production equipment on the weekends. When I had to make new reels for the clients, I was sent to a few editing courses. I learned from co-workers basic things like how to use the latest camera and how best to record sound. Also, knowing how to cast is incredibly important. I am lucky to know so many talented people from theater and the film world that I was able to cast Gayby myself.
I try to take that "learn a little of everything" experience into the rest of my life. And knowledge from my job and theater background helped me immensely in making the feature. There is no reason to focus on the one thing you eventually want to do when you can be learning every aspect of how it's done instead.
Hess: I see you worked in theater, then film. How was the transition between the two mediums? Did you write for the theater, then switch to screenwriting? Did one medium feed the other in terms of structure, vision, etc.?
Lisecki: I wrote plays in college. In the theater I worked mostly as a director, staging original plays by other writers. I found myself working on rewrites and doing a lot of work directorially that blended with writing. Somewhere along the way I decided to try a new approach and write the material myself. That happened with my first short, Woman in Burka.
Hess: Has your goal always been to both write and direct? Do you prefer one to the other, or are you a combo writer/director man from here on out?
Lisecki: On my two short films and the feature, I've loved the whole creative process: the initial thought, the writing, helping the actors bring it to life. At this point I am not so interested in telling other people's stories. I really don't think I'd direct another writer's work. I am open to writing something for or possibly with someone else. All these opinions may change. I think working in any art form teaches you to be flexible and open to collaboration. But for now I am pretty set on directing material I have written.
Hess: What's the next big step after the Spirit Awards?
Lisecki: The other films nominated in my category are much higher-profile, with big stars and larger budgets, for the most part. This may be a case where the nomination is the win, and I am fine with that. It's mind-blowing and incredibly gratifying that Gayby is still in the conversation when so many amazing films have come out in the past year. I do have some new stuff on the horizon. Right now I am mostly in writing mode. I don't like to talk about things when they are in that phase. I'm slightly superstitious.
Hess: What has been the biggest thrill so far with Gayby?
Lisecki: It always comes back to seeing it with an audience. We had great screenings at South by Southwest, NYC, L.A. and at the historic Castro for Frameline, among other places. Playing for the first time at South by Southwest or to a sold-out house at the Castro are joyful experiences that cannot be replicated. But I love seeing Gayby with any audience. I don't watch the film as much as listen to what people enjoy at each screening. And you quickly find out that no matter where you are, people laugh at a lot of the same things.
Hess: I have to ask: What are you wearing on the red carpet?
Lisecki: I have no idea.