Last September, we wrapped up Bootleg Film Festival once and for all. It had been a long five year journey, covering two continents and six different cities. From Glasgow to NYC, via Toronto and Edinburgh, Bootleg had been a beautiful/mad run from me and everyone involved. In fact, there was a family that came out of it.
Back at Bootleg one, when it was still just me and my one-man-band idea, I got to know some great folks, including Neil Rolland, Cimberly Nesker and her brother, Jeffrey P. Nesker. The fact that five years on, we’d be closing out the festival once and for all, together in New York City, is a fact that none of us could have ever imagined. But there we were, raising one final glass to the hundreds of filmmakers who had been a part of the Bootleg story. It’s incredible how bonds can be built.
But probably even more of a stretch for the imagination is to think that, just a month on, I’d be working alongside Jeff on crafting his debut feature film, Elsewhere, NY.
Truth is, I think the real motivator to this was Neil - our brother in arms as a filmmaker and fellow Bootlegger. Not long before the last Bootleg in NYC, he’d checked in with Jeff, telling him he thought he’d lost his groove. And to be honest, he kind of had. I mean, when we first all hung out, here was a cat who had his stuff so sewn up that he was on a festival burn with his first short proper, Nightclub Story. Back then, if you could have laid money on the next big Hollywood-thing, you could’ve done worse than placing a bet on Jeff Nesker. But the intermediate years, they’d taken their lumps out of him.
Any filmmaker who has ever tried to get a feature greenlit will know this story well, but for the TLDR audience, it sucks. It can be a long, convoluted process of lip-service conversations, networking nights that seem to run into each other, and so many false dawns that you lose all sense of what a real day might actually look like. Basically, as I’ve said before, Development Hell is a real place.
So when I got talking with Jeff post Bootleg NYC, he said that things were still rough, and he was just about done with it. A job had fallen through, and feeling the knock, he knew he had to do something drastic or he was going to drown in his own emotional rut. And this was one that he seemed to have dug himself into over countless years and drafts, trying to get a feature off the ground. But something had changed, and now he wanted into some of what I was doing. He was ready to get into the lowdown and fast filmmaking I’d been doing for a some time, and he was ready to tear up a rulebook he’d been following for longer than might have been healthy. He was coming back to New York.
I wish I could say that the making of Elsewhere, NY was a breeze. I wish I could say it was a walk in the park. It wasn’t. It was tough, brutal and committed work. Did Jeff feel the blows? I think so. But, when he had a camera in his hands, did he bring it? Absolutely.
Before I knew it, we’re at La Guardia, and he’s telling me that he was in my hands to help him get this thing made. We didn’t have a screenplay, just a passing idea - something about a girl meeting a guy, fooling around, and then running into him again a little ways on. As we chewed the idea over that first night, I knew I’d be wanting to get Gillian Leigh Visco onboard.
Gillian, a Brooklyn-based musician, actor and at that point, the veteran of two of features I had made. I knew she could bring the hustle and knew how to work the crazy schedules you have to do when you’re literally shooting for zero. As it was, we’d shot our first feature film together, Vinyl, in just five days, so this was going to be sweatless work. Sort of.
As Jeff and I sat at the bar where Gill worked, we hammered out the beats of a screenplay, figuring out the pattern of a story that we thought would be compelling. We worked out a loose timeframe for shooting, and pretty much hopped to casting and setting up the shoot in the following days. Whatever this was, it was surely different to anything Jeff had done before.
As he hacked away at drawing up casting notices, I funnelled through the screenplay as only I know how; write fast and figure that all the creases will be ironed out in the shoot. By this point, I’d already directed two features of my own that year, and I was in the midsts of lining up a third when Jeff had rolled into town, so moving fast was kind of the rule versus the exception for me by this point.
Soon, we had the script ready to go, and in between, we’d been looking at our male leads for the film. Credit to Jeff on this one - he knew exactly what he was looking for, and when he pulled up the headshots of the actors we ended up casting, everything was sold. Jeff said to me, ‘These are my guys,’ and you know what, he was right. Jeff had been in town less than a week, and we had our cast rounded out; Andrew Ruth, Andrew Leland Rogers and Fiona Graham. Before I knew it, cameras were rolling.
As I say, the shoot, it was tough. Not because it was being made for almost zero, but I think because all of our lives were just so goddamn busy. Then, when you factor in that Jeff was couch-hopping from my apartment in Queens, to that of his friends out in Brooklyn and even crashing with one of the other actors, it was a true cold-water bath for a guy who I’m sure always thought he’d be getting at least a real bed during his first feature shoot. But don’t get me wrong here - Jeff did it. He sucked it all up and just kept rolling with the punches. The days were long (filming after hours in a bar till almost 6am), and the atmosphere tense at times (I’m not afraid to say we crossed words at times), and the subject matter was pushy. But there was fun too. A lot of it. And like any rollercoaster ride, you get off half-scared, half excited, but wholly exhilarated.
And more than just Jeff turning up and doing an incredible job, I must give a huge shout to the actors. They trusted Jeff and me implicitly. From Gillian who was bold and brave, to Andrew Leland Rogers who had to tear himself down emotionally and even Andrew Ruth, humanizing a character that is a deliberate jerk at times, the guys were exemplary. Factor in the talented Fiona Graham, who also brought a humanity to a character that could have been quickly sidelined.
We shot for over a month from before Halloween, right through to Thanksgiving. And in that time, I saw Jeff fall apart, only to rebuild. He became a better filmmaker than I’d ever seen before, and when he left to go back to Toronto, he had the confidence of a filmmaker who was over being screwed time and again. Me? I was exhausted. I’d delayed my own third feature to see this through, but it was worth it. And in fact, it taught me some humility too. Because, a month or so after Elsewhere was wrapped up, when we started working on Let It Go, I was able to really lean on my tag-partner, Maria McIndoo, and allow her to push me to make something I wouldn’t have made if it wasn’t for shooting Elsewhere, NY.
When I look at the film that Jeff and I and all the team produced, I’m extremely proud. It’s good. Like, viscerally real and weighted in rich performances, and I just know that the story bumps in the chest like a boxer’s fist. And that’s a combination of a lot of things. Acting, a little writing, the visual stylings of a film school student picking up the glass for the first time in a long time and running around New York to shoot verite. But more than that, it was about surrendering to the idea of doing something stupid and crazy and just admitting that whatever it was, whatever reasons he’d let the world hold him back from making a feature, it was all done. Jeff was going to shoot a film the lowdown and dirty way, because the opaque conversations and half-promises weren’t cutting it anymore.
It’s funny, because we just did a week of ADR sessions back in the Manhattan in April, and it was the first time I’d seen Jeff since he’d flown back to Toronto, a hard drive full or footage in his suitcase. This time, he reminded me much more of that confident bastard I’d met back in Glasgow in ‘08. Except there was something a little different, he had a healthy amount of humility as well.
I remember riding the subway, deep in our month of shooting, rat-tat-tatting possible titles for this film we were making, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. From terrible names, like ‘Green Light, Red Light’, to almost-but-not-quite names like ‘Big Nothing’, we must have considered at least a hundred. Over and over, we were trying to figure out what we were going to call this damn movie. And then I suggested ‘Elsewhere, NY’ and we both got a sense of, yeah, this is what it needs to be. I guess that’s the thing, you spend forever trying to formulate something to be so goddamn perfect, and yet, if you just go do what you want and only worry about the details when they matter, everything will always come good.