Jeff Novich could register only surprise when he received notification that his movie had been accepted by an internationally respected film festival. Novich, a Hopkins student double majoring in physics and computer science, had never seriously considered film as more than a hobby.
But apparently a boom mike made out of coat hangers and rubber bands, actors paid with carryout pizza and a screenplay written by a computer engineer proved to be winning ingredients. Novich’s film debuted on Feb. 12 in New York City at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival alongside films with big-name movie stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Noah Taylor.
Jeff Makes a Movie was one of 250 films selected from nearly 2,000 submissions from around the world, said Stuart Alson, founder and president of the event. The festival purposefully combines the works of both experts and amateurs in a single setting, Alson said, thereby providing amateurs with the opportunity to intermingle with established filmmakers and actors.
“[The festival] is a forum that opens doors for a lot of amateurs since the full force of the festival brings people out there,” Alson said. “We mix people that have big-budget movies with college-student films so new people can rub elbows with old people.”
Novich’s film was given a prime venue, the Sutton Theater on 57th and Third.
“I was really excited about going to New York and having non-Hopkins people check out the movie on the big screen,” Novich said. “Seeing it with a lot of people--the theater experience--is a whole different ballgame from downloading it on the computer, since you get to gauge the audience’s reaction.”
He didn’t get to meet any big-name stars, he said, but “someone said Danny Aiello was outside.”
At 76 minutes in length, the movie numbers among the few feature-length films ever completed by a Hopkins student. It relates a film student’s fictitious last-minute struggle to complete a film for graduation after his original work is destroyed by a Hopkins van.
When Novich started the six-month project, he never envisioned its eventual acceptance into a prestigious film festival. Initially, the film was the whim of a few friends, the culmination of a desire to see if they could complete a feature-length film.
“One of the driving forces was the goal,” said Novich, who is from Larchmont, N.Y. “We wanted to see if we could do it.”
Novich had prior experience in the creation of short films, but he sought additional guidance from Jim Trone, digital video lecturer for the Film and Media Studies program at Hopkins. “I have been teaching since 1984, and I don’t know of many student films longer than 20 minutes,” Trone said. “And film and media studies isn’t even his major.”
Novich’s partner in the project, Jesse Himmelstein of Worcester, Mass., possessed even less academic background in filmmaking; Himmelstein, a computer engineering major, eventually plans to design his own computer games. Yet despite his lack of expertise, he wrote the entire 70-page script in only a few days, incorporating actual Hopkins students into the plot.
“The characters were exaggerations, caricatures, of people we know,” Himmelstein said. “The events never happened--that was made up.”
More than 40 people auditioned in February 2001 for the movie’s eight main speaking roles. Wary over casting friends, Novich and Himmelstein sought actors who demonstrated substantial interest and long-term commitment.
“In auditions, we took into account how enthusiastic they were,” Novich explained. “John Choi [who played Jesse] came to the audition with questions about the character. We cast him partly because we knew he would actually follow through.”
In fact, Peabody student Jason Rosoff managed to balance the lead roles in both Jeff Makes a Movie and the Barnstormers’ production of Tommy. Novich estimated that Rosoff spent, on average, eight hours per week shooting parts for him.
“Rosoff could memorize his lines on the walk from his Tommy rehearsal to our house,” Novich said. “He would actually memorize pages of text.” From February to May 2001, Novich and Himmelstein spent 20 to 25 hours a week filming. Shooting generally took place on weekends, although as the semester progressed, Novich was forced to resort to Thursday and Friday evenings as well.
“I guess I didn’t have much of a social life for four months,” Novich said. “It’s hard to go out on a Friday night when you know you have 10 hours of shooting the next day and you need to know exactly how to set up scenes.”
In fact, Novich said a single script page usually required one to one-and-a-half hours to shoot.
After shooting was complete, Novich spent nearly the entire summer editing the movie on a computer.
“I worked around eight to 12 hours per day on average for three months,” Novich said. “I ended up getting tendonitis and mild arthritis in both my hands and wrists from using the computer so much.”
While production costs were minimal and easily handled by Novich, he applied for and received a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award to supply the funds for postproduction and distribution costs. Although the PURA program, which awards stipends up to $2,500, is generally associated with scientific and other academic research, Novich decided to apply when he heard that another student, Brian Udoff, had received a grant the previous year to make a film.
Novich also has submitted his movie to various other film festivals and currently awaits 15 responses. He eventually hopes to apply and gain admittance to film school, depending on the reception of Jeff Makes a Movie.
“It really depends on how this movie plays out and how successful it is,” Novich said. “But I would like to do film.”
For more information or for a downloadable version of Jeff Makes a Movie, go to www.jeffmakesamovie.com.
For additional information on the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, go to www.nyfilmvideo.com.
Jessica Valdez, a freshman in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is double majoring in English and international studies and is a Woodrow Wilson Research Fellow. She is from Monrovia, Md., and interns in the Office of News and Information.