SxSW '10 Interview - "NY Export: Opus Jazz" director Jody Lee Lipes

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/10/10 17:08:57

“NY Export: Opus Jazz is a scripted adaptation of a ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins, which is considered the abstract counterpart to his West Side Story. This narrative/dance film hybrid tells the tale of disaffected urban youth in New York City, and stars dancers from the New York City ballet. Shot on anamorphic 35mm on the streets of New York, it's the most ambitious dance film in recent memory.” Co-Director Jody Lee Lipes on the film "NY Export: Opus Jazz" which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

My feature length documentary Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, premiered at SxSW last year. It's coming out later this year via Factory 25 (Frownland). I also shot Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, in the narrative competition at SxSW this year, so I'll be amongst a large circle of close friends this year.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and I went to a Quaker high school called George School. I took a video class when I was a junior because I didn’t get along with my painting and drawing teacher. Soon after, I started obsessively videotaping everything around me. I applied to the NYU film program because a girl I liked studied drama there. It was a big surprise when I got in, and I met a lot of important collaborators there, including Kyle Martin and Melody Roscher who produced Opus Jazz, Zac Stuart Pontier editor, Ariel Schulman production designer, Micah Bloomberg sound mixer, Janicza Bravo costume designer, Joe Anderson camera operator, David Jacobson 1st AC, and Jeff Peixoto who was the loader.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!


How did this whole project come together?

Two soloists from the New York City Ballet (Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi) were cast in the revival of Jerome Robbins' NY Export: Opus Jazz. They decided it would be a good idea to update Opus Jazz by making a movie on the streets of New York City in street clothes. It's taken about 5 years to complete the film, and it's their film, they made it happen. I'm very proud of Ellen and Sean, and they've taught me so much.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

Fund raising was the hardest part, and Sean and Ellen did an amazing job, especially if you consider the fact that it was their first time. They refused to compromise. No matter how many times people said it was impossible, and that shooting on film was stupid, they forged ahead and made it happen.

Technically speaking, filming dance is a challenge, especially when each one of the five movements of the ballet is in a different camera style (1. locked off, 2. steadicam, 3. handheld, 4. crane, and 5. dolly.) Every time we started shooting a new movement, it was like learning to walk again. I felt like I was flexing my DP muscles for the first time in a while on this project. But with Henry and Zac's help, I got through it.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.]br]

I wrote the screenplay with Henry Joost's help, co-directed and shot the film because I'm a DP by trade, and we decided early on that anamorphic 35mm was the format we were using. “West Side Story”, the only film Jerome Robbins directed, is shot on 70mm, which is cost prohibitive, but we went with the next best thing. Jerome Robbins was a serious perfectionist, and one of the ways we honored the quality he continues to stand for is by shooting on the most beautiful format possible. Ellen, Sean, Kyle and Melody made it possible, and I'm in awe of their effort.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

It's our world premiere, and no one has seen this movie. We didn't even show it to anyone outside the production for notes, which I think is kind of cool, so I have no idea what people will think.

For some reason everyone presupposes that it's a documentary when they first hear about it, that it's just dance being documented, they are very wrong. Because of Ellen and Sean's vision, it's substantially more than that. Even though these are some of the best dancers in the world, and I have become a little bit of a balletomane, I wouldn't go see a dance film at a film festival. This movie stands on it's own, even if you're not into dance.

I think people will be really surprised at how entertaining Opus Jazz is, and it is certainly new ground for me as a filmmaker. Most of the projects I've been involved with to date are pretty challenging for the audience, and I think this project has a more visceral beauty to it. People are just going to enjoy staring at the screen.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

The audience is people who say that they don't like dance, and people who like dance. It's also film nerds, because I'm sort of a formal filmmaker.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

West Side Story is the movie Henry and I studied, and I've really grown to love the idea of Jerome Robbins though I was never able to meet him in person. That's really what got me involved in this project, my fascination with his creative and personal legacy. He's someone who pushed harder than anyone to make everything he touched perfect. Kind of like Warren Beatty or Stanley Kubrick, both people I idolize. Just watch the scenes he directed in West Side Story next to the scenes they shot after he was fired, it's really embarrassing for everyone else who was involved in that production, and it always will be.

People like Jerome Robbins make life worth living, they give us something to strive for, and I think Matt Wolf and Anna Farrell's documentary about him, "A Ballet In Sneakers: Jerome Robbins and Opus Jazz" which is playing with our film, does a good job communicating that idea.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I want to work on every kind of film. I respect people who can move between different worlds.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Real estate, I'd be a partner at Quad Investments in Philly with Nick and Andy.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Warren Beatty, Tom Cruise, Leo, Matt Damon, these are people I really respect, all or nothing people.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Very important, it's like food, or maybe education. I don't read reviews of other films often, just my own.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Film Forum NYC.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I would never tell someone to see my film instead of a blockbuster. I'd say, 'Go see
“Shutter Island”, that movie was bold.' That's sort of the goal, to make “Shutter Island”.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

I think I'm going to end up getting hurt one day because I totally lose control when people behave this way.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

Making movies, and watching them when they're done. Also drinking a beer at the end of a shooting day with friends.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?


And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Barry Lyndon is my favorite movie. Great story about somebody workin' pretty hard to get ahead.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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