Review Fix chats with director Lanie Zipoy, who discusses her directorial debut, The Subject. Discussing her influences in film and life, as well as the cast and film, Zipoy lets us know exactly why she’s a special young creator.
About Lanie and The Subject:
Lanie’s feature film directorial debut, The Subject, stars Jason Biggs, Emmy Award nominee Aunjanue Ellis, Anabelle Acosta, Carra Patterson, Nile Bullock and Caleb Eberhardt. The film won three awards of The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival: Outstanding Narrative Feature, Outstanding Narrative Director, Outstanding Feature Performance (Aunjanue Ellis). The awards were handed out by Annabella Sciorra on June 12, 2020. The Subject was awarded Best Narrative Feature by the Lighthouse International Film Festival. To learn more about Lanie and the film please check out her website: http://laniezipoy.com
Review Fix: Why film? You’re interested in so many other things. Why make a career out of it?
Lanie Zipoy: I fell in love with a former boyfriend while at the movies. I cried my eyes out while watching a film shortly after my brother died. I tangoed in the streets inspired by a dance film. I enjoyed the debate of my life after seeing a controversial film with a friend. I attended my first march for justice after seeing Norma Rae. While I love many forms of storytelling (theater, music, dance, poetry, opera), film has the strongest hold on my heart because our relationship is the longest, the most fervent. While I’ve enjoyed films as an audience member, I adore creating them even more. It reminds me of playing team sports, another thing I love. You collaborate and brainstorm with other artists to create the most impactful, glorious piece of art you can. What a thrill and a challenge.
Review Fix: What’s a film that had a big effect on you that people wouldn’t expect by watching this film?
Zipoy: I saw God’s Own Country the year before I started work on The Subject. The British gay romantic drama seems worlds away from my film. The night I saw it at the IFC Center in New York City, it was sold out. After the film, two women in the bathroom asked me if I had just seen God’s Own Country. They loved it so much they wanted to talk to me, a complete stranger, about it in the restroom! It’s incredibly moving, beautifully shot and directed with such deft touch by a first-time writer-director in his 40s. The performances are gorgeous. This film inspired me endlessly as I headed into production on The Subject. I hoped to do as much justice to my film as Francis Lee did to his.
Review Fix: How did the cast make you a better director?
Zipoy: Working with this incredible, thoughtful cast strengthened my textual analysis muscles in myriad ways. We drilled into every granular detail of the text–every sentence, every word, every syllable, and every beat. I had to know the script better than I know myself.
We also explored what every action in the script meant. For example, do people take front-facing showers? Will that action read to audiences? I look forward to taking this knowledge and practice with me from now on.
Review Fix: What directors do you borrow from the most?
Zipoy: There are so many directors whose work has seeped into my muscle memory. Martha Coolidge, Marlon Riggs, Curtis Hanson, Wong Kar-Wai, Gina Prince-Bythewood–I watch their films over and over again. For The Subject, though, DP Darren Joe and I were particularly influenced by two things: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a morality movie of the highest order, and Mindhunter, David Fincher’s Netflix series. First Reformed offered a peek into a man dealing with a crisis of conscience, which speaks directly to the themes of my film. There’s a three-character office scene in Mindhunter where over 11 different shots were used to tell the story. That scene served as inspiration for the big showdown in The Subject.
Review Fix: Now let’s talk about your latest movie, “The Subject.” How was it born?
Zipoy: I produced a collaboratively-created play about a decade ago, and screenwriter Chisa Hutchinson was one of the playwrights who worked on that project. Around that time, she also wrote The Subject. She was inspired by a few things, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from 1993 Starving Child and Vulture, and how photographer Kevin Carter took the photo of the young, emaciated Sudanese child with a waiting vulture in the background. He reportedly shooed the vulture away after snapping the picture, but didn’t help the child to safety. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for the photo the following year, Carter committed suicide. The ethical dilemma was one of many inspirations for the film.
A few years ago, Chisa and I reconnected. As soon as I read The Subject, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The script unpacked such a dynamic, heartbreaking story. I was thrilled to direct it.
Review Fix: What do you think makes it special?
Zipoy: Thanks to our amazing crew, the set was joyous and allowed for the best work. That shows on screen in the dynamic performances, the costumes, the production design, sound and everything else. The cast had perfect chemistry too.
One of the characters in the film uses the phrase “make your movie more than just a movie,” and that was the ethos of everyone involved. The Subject resonates deeply with everyone who made it, and thus far, it has done the same with audiences.
Review Fix: What was it like to work with Jason Biggs, Anabelle Acosta and Aunjanue Ellis? Any fun stories?
Zipoy: I won the lottery with this cast! They are all incredibly talented and thoughtful. I went home from set every day with gratitude that I was able to work with them.
Jason Biggs is as delightful and warm as you can possibly imagine. With his extensive comedic background, his skill and precision are awe-inspiring. And, in the role of Phil, he brought layers of depth that continue to amaze. Anabelle Acosta works intuitively. She is funny and smart. With Jess, she also breaks your heart. Aunjanue Ellis is very grounded, yet magnetic. She dazzles on screen and off. It’s easy to marvel at everything she does, including her riveting portrayal of Leslie.
We enjoyed many fun times during the The Subject’s production. While filming in Harlem, a young man approached me and said he wanted to ask Jason if he looked like Eugene Levy because everyone always told him that he did. Unfortunately, Jason had just left the set, and couldn’t confirm to the guy that he actually did look like Eugene Levy. It’s amazing the enduring power of Jason’s first big comedy film from 20 years ago. Everyone on the street wants to meet him!
Review Fix: What did you learn from working with such a cast?
Zipoy: I learned how to balance structure and improv with this cast. For the most part, our shoot was structured. At certain moments, though, they freely improvised. Though improv may not always work, it brings such fresh energy to a scene. There are a few moments in the film that sing precisely because the actors were free to create. When I watch the film, I’m as proud of those moments as the ones that were meticulously planned.
Review Fix: How do you want this film to be remembered in a few years?
Zipoy: It would be wonderful if folks refer to this film as one that helped them to have open dialogues about race in America. I hope the performances and the characters–Phil, Malcolm, Leslie, Jess, Marley and Kwame–stick with audiences.
Ultimately, it would be great if the film seemed quaint in a few years, that we, as a country, were moving in a better direction where everyone recognizes that Black lives matter. I welcome the day when what happens in the film seems less like reality and more like the past.
Review Fix: How do you want it to affect the audience?
Zipoy: I hope audience members see themselves in these characters and situations. I would also love for Malcolm’s story to touch people’s hearts and minds. May the film strike a chord with audiences and open them up to having nuanced conversations with family members, with friends and with themselves about racial justice.
Review Fix: How have the last few months affected it? Is it more timely now or not?
Zipoy: Chisa wrote the script a decade ago, but she could have written it today. Its themes of Black Lives Matter and the interrogation of white saviorhood are more timely than ever. What I love about the film is that it grapples with these issues, yet provides a dynamic story to suss things out. It’s complicated and nuanced.
We made the film a year ago, and thought, at that time, it offered a mirror for Americans to explore our country’s racial biases and racial injustice. In 2020, we’ve found that audiences are hungry for stories like The Subject, and that it resonates more deeply at this moment.
Review Fix: Any fun moments you can share on set?
Zipoy: We were scheduled to shoot very emotional scenes on a street in Harlem. As we began filming, large bulldozers arrived to violently tear up that very street while power company employees began jackhammering. This construction took New York City’s already vibrant soundscape to new heights.
After a delay, we resumed shooting, but a neighbor disrupted us even further by drumming loudly every time we called “Action” on set. Every time. It’s understandable that New Yorkers are annoyed by filming and having sets on their block. We tried to be respectful, but the drummer’s apartment was just above where we were shooting. For the rest of the day, we whispered “Action” to avoid further interruption. Luckily it was a light dialogue day. The actors were champs working through those conditions, especially given the emotional nature of the scenes.
Review Fix: What are your goals for it?
Zipoy: My goal for the film is for as many folks to see it as possible in festivals and hopefully in more ways in the near future. We are working to partner with various organizations for talk backs and discussions around the film. I would also love to see it shown in film schools and high schools to discuss the ethics it explores. What is the responsibility of the artist? Who gets to tell which stories? With all of our camera phones, should you record incidents of injustice or jump in to prevent them from happening?
Review Fix: What’s next?
Zipoy: We’re announcing our next festivals soon, so please tune in to our website and our social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) for the latest information. In addition to getting The Subject out in the world, I’m working on my next feature film as a director. It’s a horror film that I’m very excited about.