“Nostalgia for New York was not what I was going for,” Gregory Kohn says with a bit of a chuckle about his feature debut “Northeast.” Though I was admiring cinematographer Catherine Goldschmidt’s crisp images of places I used to know, I can concede that if you’re looking for a love letter to the city, this isn’t it. In fact, love is elusive in “Northeast,” a character study of Will (David Call), a man in his twenties who floats around Brooklyn, picking up women and searching for an identity through them that he’s lost while living in a new city amongst old friends who belong to a new context, whether that’s starting families or beginning careers.
Having made the move himself before working on the short-lived MTV sketch comedy series “North Palm Wrestling,” Kohn can clearly relate to Will’s feelings of isolation, and as a filmmaker, he too operates at a distance. Yet Kohn’s observations are made with clear eyes, knowing what Will couldn’t possibly as the Friday nights out and the casual hookups wear thin. On the eve of a one-off screening at the rerun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn and the film’s current run on video-on-demand, Kohn spoke about how he got into filmmaking, how a career in comedy prepared him for such an intimate film and about why quite possibly every film of his will be named after its setting.
Before getting to the film, how did you become interested in filmmaking in the first place?
I was always in theatrical arts, and I was an interesting kid because I was really into sports and I was really into acting, so I got kind of made fun of on both ends. People involved in the acting side thought I was kind of this wannabe jock and people on the sports side thought I was this weird artsy kid, so it’s a bizarre position to be in. But I remember being 11 or 12 when I realized that I didn’t want to act and I actually wanted to be a director. I had my birthday party one year for the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” and I immediately went home and tried to write a sequel, which was not even close to successful. [laughs] It was a good learning experience in how hard writing something is. Then in seventh grade, I was obsessed with Bond movies and tried to write a Bond movie, but I could never come up with the motive for the villain. Obviously, he had a plot to destroy the world, but I couldn’t think of a way to do it creatively, which again was a lesson in how hard writing anything can be. I went through so many phases like a Kubrick phase and wanted to be so many other filmmakers, I just settled into being myself.
That’s actually a great entry point because “Northeast” seems like a really different thing than what the rest of your resume would suggest. So how did the film come about?
If you’re talking about my resume, yeah, I do come from comedy. It’s funny. It makes sense to me, but when I tell other people, it doesn’t make any sense at all. I wanted the comedy in the movie to be that the characters find things funny, but I don’t want it to resonate with the audience. In a lot of ways, my comedy background makes sense because I am familiar with improv and timing. I could do Dave Chappelle’s standup in front of the same audience and say the exact same thing that he’s saying and not get a single laugh because it’s all in how he delivers it and how he times it. That’s what makes comedy go and I think translated really well to me trying to direct.
Also, in a simpler sense, I was editing a show. I had spent eight years, probably since high school just working in comedy, comedy, comedy and it allowed me to direct. I learned all the skills I would need. But the type of comedy that we were doing was pretty dark. A lot of it was about the Bush era and we were combining silly jokes with what we thought were grand political statements and statements about humanity. I think a lot of good comedians are all about the truth. It’s one of biggest truthtelling mediums out there. That’s why people laugh at standup is because they’re hearing something that’s true that maybe they didn’t fully understand or wasn’t coherently expressed in the way that the comedian is expressing it.
Putting yourself out there like that must’ve helped you get over certain things as a filmmaker since this film is so intimate.
It was a lot more personal when it started. The [central] character was different – it was me. And it ended up being somebody else. I find myself in a lot of the characters that I wrote, but I also was writing people that were different than me and people based on real people that I know. [During] the original script, which was probably written at this point like five years ago, I was going through a breakup and how jilted I felt [laughs] and as it progressed, the more mature I became. The less personally affected I became by a breakup, which now seems silly, the more I was able to look at a script more objectively and realized what was good and what wasn’t and I took it from there.
In terms of structuring it, did the supporting characters come to you before Will, the main character? One of my favorite things about the film is how, in particular, the women who come and go in his life bring out his personality.
It’s a hard thing to express in a logline, but the whole reason for the movie is how Will is affected by all the women in his life and how all the women are affected by him. It’s this power play between all these people and it’s not like you see in a play or in most movies. It’s normal people trying to live their lives and trying to find happiness in what they think they want in life and within that there’s this really unbelievably beautiful subtextural conflict. There are some realistic relationships, the relationship with Lauren and Will is very similar to the relationship that I actually had with Lauren, the actual actress who played Lauren, and we had this wonderful month-long dating thing – I don’t know what to call it. And the movie deals with this. It’s just fascinating because there were some amazing things that happened between us, but underneath it all was this knowledge that she and I were never going to be anything serious, even though we liked each other.
So yes, it’s mostly about the other characters in the movie and I used Will as sort of a blank slate. I kept saying to my casting director as we were casting, “I need a face that I can look at who’s a really good actor, but I just need somebody who you’re just drawn to. We’re just going to follow him around in the streets for an hour-and-a-half and he’s not going to change.” The idea of the movie was in some ways like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s an examination of how many people are affected or disaffected by your personal existence and the moral consequences of actions that spread out beyond just what you experience.
Should anything be read into the fact the working title of the film was the more specific “New York” and it changed to the more abstract “Northeast”?
Honestly, there’s a couple of answers. Everybody that was involved with the movie told me “New York” was a bad title. So when everybody’s telling you it’s a bad title, you’ve got to look at it and change the title. But I have an enormous problem with titles. I really, really dislike titles. I realized I hated titles [when I saw] “Good Will Hunting” because at the time I liked the movie, but I thought oh my God, what a stupid title. He’s hunting for good will? His name is Will Hunting? It could not be sillier. Honestly, you could be in grade school and be like that is really cheesy. And it’s a good movie!
So I devised a scheme where every movie I made would just be the title of the city or the town that it takes place in or the area. I don’t know if I’m married to that idea anymore because I’m now in the process of trying to sell more movies and everybody else in the world likes silly titles, so if that’s the one thing I have to do to get someone to read a script is name it like “The Essence of Me”…that’s a good title. “The Essence of Me” is going to be the next Gregory Kohn picture. [laughs]
I thought “Northeast” gives it a good nondescript feel since the characters are a bit adrift.
I think it does work. I had another script, which I’m now trying to get made, which was set in the Pacific Northwest and not because I wanted the two to be linked in any way, but I just was like “Well, I have that good title, I’ll just utilize it for this one.” There’s so much in [this] movie about the weather and it’s so cold and that plays into the characters and their motives. Somehow, they’re affected by weather that everything being specialized to a region in the U.S., it just felt right.
But as you said, you didn’t want nostalgia for a specific place exactly.
It was something I was saying over and over — there cannot be any landmarks of New York. I don’t want anyone to look like Brooklyn hipsters. I wanted it to look like Any City, USA and there are limits to what you can do with that when you’re shooting in a city and you have a small budget. But I wanted it to at least feel like this could happen anywhere because I grew up in Florida and I think people interact the same way in Florida, they just drive a car to each other’s houses to do the same things as opposed to taking the subway.
We actually write a lot about Kickstarter projects on the site, but this is the first time I’ve talked to someone that’s completed a film after having a successful campaign. What was that experience like?
It was great. The budget [for the film] did not come from Kickstarter. We just raised Kickstarter money to finish the movie, to help us out with a preliminary sound mix and color correction and to just pay for some of the festival fees. It’s ridiculous how much festivals charge and I get it because there’s a million different film festivals now, so Sundance and Cannes have to show to the rest of the world how elite they are by charging $200 or $150 to enter that festival, but it’s really not fun when you’re spending the amount that you paid an actor. [laughs] It’s pretty disheartening. But that was what we did with Kickstarter. It also got the movie on the map with some people, like friends and family and just people who were curious why I quit my job to make a movie. Putting a little trailer up online somewhere allows people to show that hey, I was serious about this.