Nick Borenstein in "99"

Tribeca ’19 Interview: Nick Borenstein on the Fancy Footwork Behind “99” and “Sweater”

“Dance has always provided such a safe and powerful experience for me,” says Nick Borenstein, for whom it can also be said that it’s also pushed him out of his comfort zone.

For the filmmaker who’s about to have a breakout moment at the Tribeca Film Festival where not just one, but two of his shorts will premiere as part of the Tribeca N.O.W. program, it was somewhat unthinkable until recently that Borenstein would ever sit in the director’s chair, content to work behind the scenes as a development executive for the likes of Comedy Central and Topic Studios. However, the double feature of “99” and “Sweater” is about to change all that as Borenstein achieves multi-hyphenate status as the writer, director and star of the films, which are moving in any number of ways.

While “Sweater,” which sees an exuberant, full-blown musical number rise from the ashes of a bad blind date, “99” concerns Borenstein’s on-screen alter-ego engage in a delicate dance with his mother (Kathryn Markey) as they prepare for a relative’s bar mitzvah, inevitably bringing them back to the subject of struggles within the family and specifically their own relationship. Whether physically or emotionally, Borenstein gets the rhythm of both films just right, showing compassion for characters at a moment where they’re forced to let go of the pain they’ve been trying to hide, often unburdening themselves in infectiously exuberant fashion.

On the eve of a very busy festival for Borenstein, we spoke about a creatively invigorating 2018, the two all-night shoots that led to his Tribeca premieres and processing emotion through action. [UPDATE: “Sweater” is now available to watch below]

Since barely anybody gets one films into a festival, let alone two, how did you become so prolific in the year leading up to this?

It’s not lost on me how exciting and how unique that is and I’m particularly excited because I think both films are just quite different from each other. They showcase two very different sides of my filmmaking desires and the reason behind the prolificness of last year is I really wanted to challenge myself to make as much as I could. For the past 10 years, I worked as a producer or in development on the business side for studios and production companies. I was always in the position of helping shepherd and nurture other people’s voices and I loved being able to collaborate with really talented filmmakers and also be able to better understand the notes process and better understand how to support and improve a body of work. But I hit this moment at the end of 2017 when I realized that I had a real desire to tell stories – stories about myself, stories about others, stories that were funny, stories that were dark, stories that include dance, and I had a voice. So I really gave myself the permission to make work as a filmmaker, and last year, I made three short films as a writer/director and actor — the third I’m still editing and I hope that’s released this year — but with those two films, I really knew that I wanted to tell personal and interesting stories and hopefully I did that.

How did “99” come about?

“99” is loosely inspired by my relationship with my mother and my mother has been a muse for me creatively as I embarked on this filmmaking journey. Before I made “99,” I made “Trip,” a short-form digital series that traced the road trip of a family on a road trip gone horribly awry, [where] every episode was a different family member’s perspective into how the road trip went horribly awry. I always likened it to “Little Miss Sunshine” meets “Rashomon” and I was always so compelled and interested in the episode of “Trip” that dealt with the mother character. That was in part because the actress Kathryn Markey was so dynamic — she just nailed so many elements that felt really true to my mother in real life, both in terms of her humor and warmth, but also in her lack of self-awareness. All of that contributed to wanting to make “99,” which was really a love letter and portrait of the relationship I had with my mother.

And my mother is an incredibly dynamic woman, [which] I think the film showcases. She’s obsessed with dollar stores, which is one of the many quirks of her charm — my entire life, my mother and I have gone to 99 Cent Stores and she’s always bought the most bizarre accoutrement. Like there’s a scene in the film in “99” where she’s bargaining with them to buy arugula and that is based on real life because my mom would come home from the 99 Cent Store and say, “I got arugula” and my response was always, “Do you need arugula? And [with] the setting being the 99 Cent Store, it’s really bright, colorful, cheerful space, loosely based on the 99 Cent Only Stores in Los Angeles, and the idea is that the film is set in a world that is so belonging and so close to my mother and has all of these cheerful elements to it, but there’s of course this much darker current to the narrative.

This is one of my favorite types of short films where you can extrapolate this entire world from one instance – is that a tricky film to write?

I think the film is meant to show these people at a place in time and even in that short span of time [where] these two people are roaming the aisles within a 99 Cent Store, you get a real window into who they are as people, what their relationship is and what their struggles are. Often you don’t need 90 minutes to tell that story and I really wanted audiences to watch it and get a sense of how much these two people love each other but also how trying even the relationship between mother and son can be and also how trying the cloud of addiction can be over all that, so I thought very deeply about who these people are outside of this dollar store and infuse those moments within it, so as a viewer, you still wanted to know where they were going. You didn’t want to feel their journey ended here.

Was it difficult finding a place to shoot this?

I am New York-based and go figure, it’s actually quite hard to find those types of stores in New York. The New York dollar store is kind of like a grimy bodega, so I had to find the right look and feel, and shooting an overnight in a grocery store is never advised. I do not recommend that experience, production-wise. But we had such an incredible crew and we shot this over one evening, so the people that I worked with were so committed. Kathryn and I have such an incredible dynamic together — we both come from a theater background — and the way that we rehearsed the performance was almost how you would on stage. We rehearsed in a grocery store a few days before and just traversed the aisles and it was a great way to understand the choreography and how we would make it through the aisles and what beats we wanted to hit. Certainly, it is trying to jump between these two different emotions of humor and then also the darkness, but it’s really a testament to Kathryn and her performance that we were really able to go between the two.

This could apply to either “99″ or “Sweater,” but how much do you think about movement in relation to writing these?

I find movement and action such a beautiful way to express emotion, and in “99,” I wanted it to feel like this ride that you couldn’t get off of. You’re traversing with these two people who are desperate to move through the discomfort of the experience that they’re in, so that comes with this rushing through these aisles to get through to where they need to go but they need to be sure that they’re talking about the emotions through what they’re feeling and I think it was also really important to me that we hit various emotional beats in “99” because otherwise it could feel like it just passes you by. I really wanted to be sure that the dynamic between the characters rose and fell and rose and fell when they were venturing through the store.

And I always knew that I wanted to integrate dance into my films, [so for “Sweater”] I was really inspired by what Spike Jonze has done — his HomePod commercial and his Kenzo ad, and this ability to infuse dance into narrative really excited me. So I think that there is this untapped opportunity to include dance and movement into a narrative and that’s really what I wanted “Sweater” to be. I wanted “Sweater” to be a day-in-the-life portrayal of this individual who has an experience and I loved this idea that you could tell a really grounded story and infuse this fantastical element to show how he feels, so it was always somewhere between a music video, a musical and a narrative film.

Where did the idea for “Sweater” initially come from?

I was so inspired by dating and rejection culture that we live in. This character is basically brutally rejected on a first date and not only does that happen, but he loses his sense of worth and his sense of self. His day just goes from bad to worse and I can relate to that – this idea of one minor thing happening to you and then feeling like the whole day has gone to shit and how quickly your mood and your emotion can be changed by the kindness of someone else. We live in scary times and I often times want my work to focus on the more optimistic, more cheerful, more funny, happy experiences, andI wanted “Sweater” to showcase how when someone does something nice for you or something unexpected towards you, you just want to dance. When this character in “Sweater” is just shown a small moment of kindness – in this case, a free coffee because coffee is so expensive — we see exactly how he feels, which is just complete euphoria and [how he] starts to regain his sense of self and the movement he does that with is really powerful.

Did you do the choreography?

I worked with a choreographer named Tiana Hester, and my training is in hip hop or street styles, so I knew that I wanted the dance of “Sweater” to mimic that, so I conceived the movement and the creative direction behind how I wanted the movement to feel, but Tiana is a really talented dancer and choreographer and helped me actualize some of the movement to the formations I saw in my head.

How many takes did you do?

We shot this in one day [also] and the dance section took the longest amount of time. Because I direct, I also put a lot of trust and a lot of faith in my crew because I often don’t have the time to go back and watch playback, so a lot of these takes, we’d go through two or three times and we’d have to move on, just to make sure that we made our day. It’s deceiving that much of this looks like it was done in one take. It’s actually broken down into a couple different takes and it was really exciting once we were actually there and blasting this incredible song that took many weeks to find and dancing full-out. It was exhausting, but so worth it in the end and I’m so grateful to Tiana, our cast and especially my cinematographer, who was really specific in our conversations around how best to shoot this movement. We shot the dance sequence using a steadicam, which was really important to also differentiate between the narrative bits of “Sweater” and the dance bits because part of the idea is that I wanted the audience to question, did that actually happen or not?

There’s a great moment in the film where it looks like you can’t quite believe the moves of an older lady who springs up and practically steals the show. How did you find her?

She is incredible. Her name is Betsy Walkup and she is an incredibly talented dancer who actually used to be a part of the Netsations, this really fantastic senior dance troupe [who danced at halftime during Brooklyn Nets games]. I thought it was really important to showcase that everyone can dance. Everyone has the capacity to move their body and to feel good when they move their body. And when that character Betsy [plays] dances, it’s just meant to put us all on the same playing field. We’re all human. We all have emotions. We all feel things and we all dance. And we all have a really good time when we dance.

“99” will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Tribeca N.O.W. Showcase: Reality Check at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park on April 25th at 9:15 pm and April 30th at 9:45 pm and “Sweater” will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Tribeca N.O.W. Showcase Headspace at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park on April 25th at 6:30 pm and April 30th at 5 pm.

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