film reporter

Indie champion Lipsky sits in director's chair

Jeff Lipsky, whose second feature film, "Flannel Pajamas," opens Wednesday in New York, insists that he always planned to make movies himself. It's just that he stumbled into the world of independent film acquisition and distribution, and that led to a 30-year detour. His career included stints at New Yorker Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Skouras Pictures. Along the way, he also co-founded two indie distributors, October Films and Lot 47, that allowed him to champion cutting-edge filmmakers.

At age 21, Lipsky happened to meet one of his cinematic heroes, the pioneering American indie John Cassavetes, and helped him devise a national distribution strategy for "A Woman Under the Influence." He later teamed with another of his major influences, Mike Leigh, whose "Life Is Sweet" helped launch October Films.

Lipsky — who also counts Woody Allen "pre-1995" and Ingmar Bergman as his cinematic touchstones — had plenty of time to learn what works commercially and what doesn't in the specialty film arena. But something of a purist, he admits, "I think my favorite films ever are what is often referred to as uncommercial work, even though some of them did turn into commercial successes. That's the kind of filmmaking that changed the way I thought about film. I wouldn't do something unless I felt it was heartfelt, sincere and brutally honest."

Having taken a look at adolescence in the first film he wrote and directed, 1997's "Childhood's End," Lipsky has for his second feature created his own "Scenes From a Marriage," even if the closely observed "Pajamas" might be less harrowing than anything from Bergman or Cassavetes. The movie stars Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson as attractive young New Yorkers who meet, quickly fall in love and marry only to realize that their marriage is slowly dying for the smallest of reasons. "There is no infidelity, no physical abuse, nothing cataclysmic," Lipsky says.

Instead, as he wrote the conversational screenplay, which he turned into a film over a 30-day shoot for just $470,000, Lipsky says: "I started thinking about my own courtship and marriage and reflecting on my relationship with my ex-wife. I went about reliving all the wonderful, marvelous and ingenious ways I went about courting her, and then started thinking about how although you don't realize it at the time, all those things have a cumulative effect on the marriage itself."

The film argues that "the single most crucial factor is not love but complete and total empathy. You can love a stranger, but then submerging your ego and everything that is attendant to that (to really get to know someone), that is quite a tall order," he says.

Not content to wait another 10 years before he makes his next feature, Lipsky already has completed a new script, "Memorabilia," which he is planning to film in the summer in Iceland, Poland and Dallas on a somewhat more substantial budget of $3.5 million.

But first he has agreed to help Gigantic Pictures, which provided the final piece of financing for "Pajamas," to distribute the movie. The plan is that it will move on to Los Angeles on Nov. 24, to Chicago a week later and then bide its time until the new year before opening in other key cities.

"I do love distribution," Lipsky says of his temporary return to shepherding a film to market. "I feel blessed I've been able to represent the films that I've worked with, and that I'm fairly adept at it."

But given that his second career as a filmmaker is picking up its own momentum, he adds, "I am now doing what I want to be doing."
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