INTERVIEW: Documentary filmmaker Andy Milkis – Part 1

Last week, we interviewed the writer / director of a film making it’s debut at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park the last weekend in March.  This week, another NJ native, Andy Milkis, talks about his first film “5…6…7…8…” premiering on March 27, 2010 at 12:30 p.m. at the Berkeley Ocean Front Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom.

After publishing last week’s blog post, I received an email from another filmmaker making his debut at the Garden State Film Festival.  As a social media blogger and fan of independent film, I can’t say I was surprised to be contacted by Andy Milkis after the publication of last week’s post.  In his email, Andy described his new film this way:

5…6…7…8 is the inspiring story of Nova Jazz — an elite girls dance company. The dancers, ranging in age from 10 to 18, are based out of The Pulse Performing Arts Studio, in Bedford Hills, NY. The film begins as a “year-in-the life” of Nova Jazz, but quickly evolves into an intimate portrayal of five key members, and the woman who makes it all possible. 5…6…7…8 delicately crafts the story of each character as the year progresses, culminating in the triumph of the final concert performance.

I was intrigued by the movie but hesitated to write another interview.  I also had my hands full writing the final version of the VoxPopNJ business plan.  As I read our mission statement one last time, the phrase “to teach professionals to leverage social media” brought to mind the email I received earlier that morning.  I realized that Andy, as a movie making professional, might have some valuable insight into how independent filmmakers can use social media as a branding and marketing tool.

With reflections regarding the February workshop with ProjectTwenty1 and Justice Productions at The Showroom still fresh in my mind and a screenwriting workshop proposal waiting to be written, I acknowledged that VoxPopNJ’s natural focus in the creative community was filmmakers! Yep, it was a lightbulb moment or a Homer Simpson “dolp!”, so I fired off an email to Andy asking him if he used social media to promote his film. He responded,

My film has a FB fan page (up to 1500 fans so far) and a twitter account, but the best “social” results I’ve had so far has been using Google Maps and email.

Google Maps?  Seriously?  Intrigued I sent him a list of questions regarding his use of social media.  I believe the information Andy provided is worthy of a two part blog post, so today we’ll deal primarily with Andy and his film and on Thursday, delve into his creative use of social media!

VOXPOPNJ: Please expand  upon your background. Have you always worked in film/tv?  You’re from NJ & your documentary is about a school in NY – do you work primarily in the NYC area or elsewhere? Since I’m a teacher I always asked about education – how did you prepare for your career and did you find your preparation helpful?

ANDY MILKIS: I was born and raised in South Jersey – near Cherry Hill … I graduated from NYU in 1995 with a BFA in Film & TV.  I was turned on to CG & 3D animation by a teacher in high school, and right after college I went to work in commercial Post Production in NYC.  For the past 15 years, I have been a Visual Effects Artist and Visual Effects Supervisor, working mostly on commercials … Recent work has included the AT&T Wireless campaign with Luke Wilson … I worked on the redesign of the NFL on CBS and Superbowl 38 (I was in the stadium when the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction happened!) … For the past 11 years, I have been teaching a masters degree course in visual effects at NYU’s Center for Advanced Digital Applications (CADA).

Ever since graduating from NYU, I had wanted to make a movie.  But I started a career and eventually a family, and the realities of that meant that I could not take months off from work to make a film, let alone find a way to pay for it.  5…6…7…8 was a classic case of opportunity meets preparation.

I first became involved with The Pulse Performing Arts Studio 6 years ago. Jennifer Dell, Artistic Director and Owner (and a longtime friend), came to my house for dinner one night, and told me of her plans to open her own dance studio. With my background in TV production, she asked if I would help her out with sales videos and by filming recitals. I said yes, reluctantly, thinking of the stereotypical “dance school” with thousands of little ballerinas and tap dancers. What I found when I walked through the door of The Pulse was nothing short of magic. There was an energy there that was palpable. The kids, the parents, the staff…they were all excited to be there and thrilled to be part of something special.

Standing on the stage of the SUNY Purchase Recital Hall, at the end of the 3rd year of concerts, I turned to Jenn and said, “You know, this would make one hell of a documentary.”

She replied, “You mean the concert?” “No,” I said, “I mean everything.”

I spent a year planning, a year filming, and a year editing. 5…6…7…8 was completely self financed – partly from filming Pulse dance recitals and selling DVDs to the parents. I shot most of the film myself, and edited a good deal – primarily the dancing sequences. It took a while for me to fit in with the group…as much as a 35 year-old man can fit in with an all-girls teenage dance team, I suppose.

I knew that earning everyone’s trust would be the first big hurdle to overcome, so I decided to be proactive – having meetings with the kids and their parents, answering questions, etc., all in a very open and honest way. I let the characters be themselves. I did a lot of observing, and let them do the talking. Everyone came around after a month or two, and before I knew it, the kids became a huge part of the filmmaking process. If there was an event that I could not attend, they offered to take a camera along. They gave me stills and video from family vacations, and before long I became the 42nd member of Nova Jazz – complete with my own embroidered shirt.

VOXPOPNJ: Any advice for our readers who might be daunted by a task like an independent film?

ANDY MILKIS: The secret to success is no secret – find something you love doing, and set out to be the best that you can be.  Always challenge yourself to do better, and good things will come.

Our interview with Andy Milkis and his creative use of social media continues this Thursday.  Andy shares with VoxPopNJ his innovative use of Google Maps and Facebook Ads.  Tickets for the GSFF showing of Andy’s film can be purchased here.

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