Rooftop Films Helped Launch Lena Dunham and Benh Zeitlin: Who's Next?

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

The program director of New York's beloved outdoor festival points THR to the indie films and filmmakers Hollywood should be watching.

On Friday, a sold-out screening of shorts kicks off Rooftop Films 19th summer film series. The outdoor festival, which bills itself as "underground movies outdoors," is known for staging unique screenings in courtyards, historic buildings and, yes, on rooftops throughout New York City.

This summer’s lineup includes pre-theatrical release screenings of festival hits like Tangerine, The Wolfpack and Digging for Fire, followed by parties where film fans get to hang out with the filmmakers. 

Rooftop’s screenings serve as an effective platform for building word-of-mouth and launching rising talent — once-unknown shorts directors Lena Dunham, Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) all had their short films screened at past fests. And Zeitlin and Robespierre were both recipients of Rooftop Films grants that helped expand their shorts into the features that put them on the map.

With that in mind, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Rooftop program director Dan Nuxoll for a chat about the indie filmmakers Hollywood should be watching.

Were there any trends you saw at the big festivals this year?

I was really excited to see so many films that were expressions of communities and individuals who are often overlooked. These are no longer films Rooftop is digging up and sharing with a small niche audience in East Williamsburg, but films that are getting word-of-mouth and therefore are also getting real distributor support. A good example of this is Tangerine, which is rooted in the lives of two transgender prostitutes. The film isn’t cheapening or glamorizing their lives, but it's humanizing them in an engaging way. It's wildly entertaining and funny. Similarly, on the doc side: The Wolfpack. It's incredible a film like that is getting so much attention.

What overlooked film are you most excited to share with people this summer?

Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens. No one makes movies the way its directors Cedric [Dupire] and Gaspard [Kuentz] do. This film is about a giant carnival and festival in rural India. The way they capture what it is like to be in this carnival is striking — really one of the most extraordinarily shot and edited documentaries in years.

Rooftop has an impressive record of offering grants to filmmakers looking to make the jump from shorts to feature films. Which should we be on the lookout for?

Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea, which just got a really good Hollywood Reporter review out of Cannes. Jonas is building this off his short film, A Chajana, which we presented with a $10,000 grant. It’s an unbelievable short film about African immigrants coming to Italy and the struggles they face, and Mediterranea is an expansion upon that. Jonas is definitely going to break out — he's a really talented filmmaker.

You’re screening a short film on opening night that’s getting a ton of attention. What can you tell us about it?

We'll be showing Kung Fury by a Swedish filmmaker David Sandberg, which is the same night the film will be made available across a whole bunch of VOD platforms. Check out their trailer, which they made for their Kickstarter campaign. The trailer got over 10 million views and they raised over $630,000 of it. It's this crazy, retro, sci-fi action film about a renegade cop who wants to kill Hitler. I know people are worried the 30-minute version will be a disappointment coming off the trailer, but it definitely is not. It’s amazing, trust me. What David does with $700,000 is insane.

Last summer, you were touting Ana Lily Amirpour as being not only talented and having a great film (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), but that you felt she was ready to break out and do something bigger.

[Laughs] I guess I was right on that one.

She’s now making a film for producer Megan Ellison starring Jim Carrey. Who do you now see as being on the verge?

Probably at this point, Benjamin Dickinson. Creative Control showed that he's got what it takes to make some interesting and entertaining films. He clearly has full command of the medium.

Also, I was shocked by Marielle Hunter’s Diary of a Teenage Girl. I'll be honest, when I first was headed to see it at Sundance, I thought it'd be one of those Sundance tweeners — not really indie, not really mainstream — that has ambitions it can't fulfill, but I was floored. The story is f—ed up and really discomforting. You can't be an adult watching that movie and not often feel, "I've never seen teenage female sexuality expressed this way" in an American film. You might see something like this in an art house film, but not something that has the nerve to be this exciting, energetic and entertaining. Marielle is doing things that are really daring, and it's unusual to see them pulled off. Tangerine's the same way, where it's like, "OK, [director] Sean [Baker] is going for it," and you expect half of the movie to be a mess, especially with no budget, but miraculously it's a unified whole. Those are the ones I'm most pumped by. Unfortunately, I couldn't show them all, but I tried.

Rooftop Summer Series begins Friday.