Daniel Poliner, an award-winning independent film writer and director, has been making films for over ten years and recently completed his first feature film: Jack, Jules, Esther, and Me. He was kind enough to share it with me and agreed to an in-person interview at a quaint coffee shop in Brooklyn, New York so The Daily Quirk readers and I could get to know a little more about him as a filmmaker.
This NYU Tisch School graduate was incredibly generous with his answers and willing to share with us a glimpse into what trials and tribulations go into creating a film albeit short or feature length. Read on to get to know this filmmaker on the rise…
The Daily Quirk: You went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and have an MFA in Dramatic Writing, but when did you first realize that filmmaking was something you wanted to pursue?
Dan Poliner: I think probably before I went to Tisch, I was pretty serious that I wanted to be a writer/director. I’d been doing community theater – I was a theater major in college actually history major, government major and theater major. I was really passionate about theater and I actually ran a community theater for a year or two with a couple of friends from high school. Around that time I was trying to decide between pursuing theater or pursuing film. At the time, the Dramatic Writing program at Tisch made the most sense because it bridged playwriting and screenwriting. I also got a feeling, having visited Tisch, that I’d be able to move into a lot of production work outside of the program, which I was able to do through TAing and through writing. After one semester at Tisch, I was ready to let go of playwriting and move full scale into independent filmmaking. I say ‘independent’ and I think, I would always be happy at some point [laughing]…to have more institutional support, but I kind of knew that I’d be on my own to a degree and I think my background in community theater got me used to bringing the best group of people around me I can and going forward with it.
TDQ: You’re originally from Connecticut. What made you decide to stay in New York City?
DP: Yeah, well it was an interesting call because the other grad school I got into was USC and it was a real big decision for me. That whole summer, actually I couldn’t decide. I think for a variety of reasons NYU just made more sense at the time. Like I said, I still had my foot in theater so USC was strictly for filmmaking so at the time it was a leap I wasn’t quite ready for; it was a wise move because I think I would’ve struggled for the first year or two. It would’ve been better for someone, if I had been studying filmmaking at a younger age I think it would’ve been a much smarter move but yeah, then I got here and New York’s great. The best part of NYU for me was meeting a group of people that I was friendly with that I could work with so I had a base support here and I also had my hometown which I could go back to and shoot short films, which is what I did consistently. Where locations would be free and people would volunteer their homes and meals. I grew up two hours from here so it made sense to maintain a hometown advantage. Also I lucked out and was able to get paid work supporting my filmmaking so that also kept me here.
I definitely was considering moving to L.A. right when I graduated and I think there are pros and cons to it. I definitely advise friends and students to think really hard about it. My wife and I still talk about moving to LA. It’s such a tough call because the bulk of the industry really is there.
TDQ: I read that you returned to your hometown to film your award winning short film Right Foot, Left Foot. Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like?
DP: I grew up in Durham, Connecticut. It was a pretty agricultural town when I was growing up but now it’s a little bit more suburban, a lot of the farmland has been subdivided. I went to college ten minutes away at Wesleyan. It’s a great community that was very supportive when we were doing community theater and we were doing a lot of plays so it was kind of a built-in situation. Already there were a lot of people used to coming out and showing up for things and we already had skilled people in the area that I collaborated with and that was key.
Right Foot, Left Foot was a crazy script that was very dreamlike where we going to run around and shoot at 22 different locations. You can only get away with that in your hometown. If you had asked me back then I probably would have said that I was more living there in my mind than I was in NYC. I was still dreaming about small town life, whereas now when I’m writing I think about people living in New York.
The main thing about Right Foot, Left Foot was that I really wanted to work with this actor named Adam LeFevre because I had worked with him briefly before. So I wrote that whole thing for him. He and I just clicked and he reminded me of so many dads I knew growing up. So I set the whole story around him.
TDQ: Can you tell our readers a little about the film?
DP:It’s a dream about a man who is reflecting on some decisions he’s made and his subconscious is rolling a little faster than maybe his conscious life is allowing him to process. Dealing a little bit with regret and fear and I think in his case uncertainty about the choices he’s made.
TDQ: What inspired Right Foot, Left Foot?
DP: It was definitely a time in my life where I was like…I wrote it when I was in my late 20’s when I was trying to make sense of my parents’ lives and my own. I was thinking a lot about marriage, divorce and everything in between. I was really thinking carefully about it all because I was thinking of getting married. Within a year or two of making the movie, I moved in with my future wife and we went on a path toward being married. The character at one point says “I’m trying to figure out the difference between building a life and growing apart” and that was one of the things that most resonated for me from the first draft all the way to the final cut.
TDQ: When you submitted Right Foot, Left Foot to the Independent Film Circuit, were you surprised by the response it received?
DP: Yes and no. It was great because at a lot of festivals we won the whole thing. We won in New Orleans, we won in New Haven, Chicago we were nominated for the Gold Hugo. Randomly, at New Orleans we went to one of those industry panels that the festivals have and someone was there from IFC and my wife was like, ‘you gotta go talk to him.’ I’m the most shy person when it comes to the industry. I’m not a great schmoozer and it’s to my own detriment. I would say one thing I could do better is be a better schmoozer and I should absolutely drink booze. Drinking alcohol would be the smartest career move I could ever make [laughing]. So, I had this really awkward talk with this guy from IFC and I gave him a DVD of the movie. He was cool enough to hand it off to his acquisitions department and a few months later, I get an email saying ‘we want to buy your movie and put it on TV.’ That was really cool and allowed me to get a lot more feedback and meet more people in the industry. When that contract ended it moved over to the Sundance Channel where it still is now. It’s great.
TDQ: Let’s talk about one of your most recent projects, the feature length Jack, Jules, Esther, and Me. Can you give a brief plot overview to readers?
DP: It’s a great story about four friends – two are rich and two are poor – the week before leaving for college. It’s a New York City story and it’s a romantic comedy, definitely a lot of zany comedy to it but also a larger story of ‘Are we really friends? Were we ever really friends?’ I think most importantly, it’s about the different futures that await kids on opposite ends of the money spectrum. That was what really inspired me to write it.
It premieres October 24 at the Austin Film Festival. I can’t wait to share it. It’s also been acquired by FilmBuff and will be getting released around the holidays.
TDQ: What other projects, if any, do you have in the works?
DP: I’ve got two that I’m really hoping I can make. I’m finishing one script now that would be a 180 degree turn. I write in this coffee shop everyday and I’ve met a lot of the people that work here that are undocumented immigrants. It is something I think about a lot. Not giving too much of the plot away, it’s a story about an Eastern European barista and a Mexican cook who are given (it’s a thriller) an opportunity to make money but the more people they trust the more trouble they get into. They are really just here trying to lead good lives, but they get themselves into a lot of trouble. For me, it’s a very different experience because I’m more used to writing comedy. This has some of that, it’s a snapshot of their lives, a snapshot of them having drinks after work which is great but…I’ve never done violence before [laughing]. That’s what I’m working on right now.
I also wrote a screenplay that I love that’s kinda similar to Jack, Jules, Esther, and Me in theme , but it’s way more ambitious. It’s about college and financial aid and what all that insanity forces students to do. I would love to shoot that movie and I feel like it’s ready to go but honestly I’m going to need help on that one because that would probably be a budget that approaches $1,000,000. It’s an ambitious story that is so funny and heartfelt – I spent a year and half writing it and took it down from 350 pages to 108. Hopefully, I’ll get some help producing it. So, I’d love to do either of these films.
TDQ: If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers, what would it be?
DP: Be prolific. Be willing to fail often. The more quickly you work the more quickly you’re able to turn it around. Whatever crew you have, whatever actors you have access to, the easier it will be for you to learn. I’m proud of the fact that at different times in my life I’ve been very productive – I’ve written a ton and shot a decent amount. And yet, my biggest critique of myself is that I haven’t done more, particularly short films, which could be done so cheaply. I think that would only make you better, make myself better, and more comfortable with the process, more comfortable with what your skills are and allow for some exploration and allow for mistakes. I’m not sure I have any advice about gaming the system and understanding the industry because I still haven’t figured it out [laughing].
TDQ: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not busy filmmaking?
DP: Without being too cheesy, I’m pretty pumped about my daughter. She’s two and she’s just so funny so that’s exciting to me. I just really like hanging out with her and my wife. That’s really where I’m at right now. I’m also an insanely huge baseball fan and I love Obama – I still do. Otherwise, I’m mainly trying to find time to maintain friendships. I’m struggling with it. It’s so hard because I work at night as a tutor, I work every night so that’s a big challenge.
TDQ: We like to end our interviews with a fun question, so if your life so far was a film, what would its title be?
DP: [Long pause] Untitled Dan Poliner Film Project 2014 – to use the Woody Allen approach. No that’s so bad… I actually have a doc with potential movie titles on my desktop. Actually, this is the one I like best right now and I feel like it fits… What I Think and What I Know. I like that because I feel like I’m constantly thinking about the boundary between those two things.
The Daily Quirk would like to thank Daniel Poliner for taking the time to chat. To find out more information and ticket info for the upcoming screenings of Jack, Jules, Esther & Me at the Austin Film Festival, visit the festival’s Official Site and check out the trailer here. To find out more about Daniel Poliner and his films, visit his Official Site, where many of his films are available for viewing.