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The New American Realism

Backed by producer Paul Mezey, a group of like-minded filmmakers work outside of the indie machine

They're not exactly a cinematic new wave. A clique, maybe? No, too fashionable. A band of outsiders? Too self-conscious. Maybe the best way to describe them is a filmmaking family—a group of closely affiliated directors and producers, revolving around Paul Mezey's Journeyman Pictures, with a steadfast dedication to a handcrafted, humanist cinema. As writer-director Azazel Jacobs says, "If you put all of Paul's films together, it would say one clear, intelligent statement about humanity and the need to stay vital and sensitive."

At last month's Sundance Film Festival, Mezey backed two of the most critically heralded films: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Sugar, the story of a Dominican immigrant in the minor leagues of American baseball, and Jacobs's Momma's Man, about a new father who refuses to leave his parents' womb-like New York loft and return to his own family. Neither film, as of press time, has been acquired for theatrical distribution.

The slow road to success—rather than an overnight Weinsteinian bidding war—is the usual route for the likeminded, socially conscious filmmakers that Mezey has emboldened over the years, many of whom happen to hail from Brooklyn: Boden and Fleck (Half Nelson), Jim McKay (Our Song), Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace), as well as the Wisconsin-based Chris Smith (American Movie) and David Riker (La Ciudad), who lives in Mexico.

"We're like a little mini-studio," says the soft-spoken Mezey, 41, who is actually based in Pennsylvania ("I would have sunk long ago if I had to raise a family in New York," he says).

When we spoke, Mezey was days away from heading to Russia for a new project called Cold Souls, directed by first-timer Sophie Barthes. Her husband Andrij Parekh was the cinematographer on Half Nelson and Sugar, and Cold Souls shares much of the same crews as those films—all working for little money, but sharing the same passion, says Mezey. "We have an innocent infatuation with the process, and it's much less about personal ego and much more about the collaborative work."

Mezey, who entered Yale with a focus in physics and left with a fine-arts degree and a love for photography, eventually found his way to New York University's film school. (Marston, Riker, and Fleck are alumni as well). Never a cinephile, Mezey says he discovered at NYU that he wasn't a writer, either. "But I had articulate conversations about things that I did read," he says. "So I could serve the person who was writing and be their editor."

His collaborators agree: "He showed me the value in my own words and ideas," says Jacobs, whose film was financed through a nonprofit called Artists Public Domain, of which Mezey sits on the board, along with Half Nelson and Momma's Man producer Alex Orlovsky. In one scene from Momma's Man, for example, Jacobs's mother (played by his real mother) says that she is going "to check on the pudding." "I was ready to lose it," recalls Jacobs, "but Paul brought up the importance of it being 'pudding'—what it represents in terms of a kid's dessert and that she is still serving it. It's a small thing, but it stuck with me."

Mezey's directors also applaud his even-keeled personality. "He can spend longer eating a sandwich than anyone I know," says Jim McKay. "That's got to say something about his patience or his pacing. He can really make a sandwich last."

While their films often outline social problems, Mezey and his colleagues are not ideologues. If politics are present, it's to serve a story about people's lives. "We don't have explicit conversations about how we are going to handle themes," says Fleck, whose Half Nelson script was brought to Mezey's attention by McKay. (Recalls Mezey: "He had stamped a little heart on it.")

However, Mezey's most formative filmmaking experience reveals his political nature. The five years he spent on Riker's 1997 feature debut, La Ciudad, which evolved out of workshops with Latin American immigrants, has defined his work more than anything else, he says. "Making the film wasn't about the final product—it was about bringing together and empowering this community."

While Riker co-wrote another as-yet-unbought Sundance '08 original, the Spanish-language sci-fi Sleep Dealer, he hasn't directed another dramatic film since La Ciudad. And while Riker's The Girl, another immigrant drama produced by Mezey, finally looks to be moving forward, Mezey says it's more difficult to make the second film, "because you want to reach higher. But you have to go in and recapture some of that go-for-broke naive spirit you had the first time out." Otherwise, the roadblocks will prove demoralizing. "Maybe that's why I'm attracted to first-time filmmakers," he adds. "There's a certain energy and spirit where they're up for everything."

Four years since Maria Full of Grace won Sundance's Audience Award, Joshua Marston is also struggling to make his sophomore effort. Warner Independent Pictures scrapped a film about an American truck driver in Iraq, and an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude is currently in the works, but "the challenge always remains financing," says Marston. "Paul doesn't have some investor that's backing him. So every time we go out, you start from scratch."

Marston admits that he's been frustrated with the industry. "Ultimately, I realized that I was trying to make something too risky," he says of the "Iraqi Convoy Project," as it was known. "That is to say, I was trying to make a realist movie for Hollywood. And realist movies, I realized, can't be made above a certain budget level."

McKay, whose intimate Brooklyn-based dramas haven't played much beyond HBO, agrees. "That whole genre of filmmaking—neorealist, humanist, whatever you want to call it—it's a tough nut to crack. We're making anti-epics, you know, and it's a challenge." Indeed, Chris Smith, who credits Mezey for bettering all of his films, is still awaiting a release of his 2007 Sundance Special Prize winner, the Satyajit Ray–inflected The Pool.

Mezey, too, feels the frustrations of an indie industry that increasingly demands more box office. "A hit nowadays is considered Little Miss Sunshine or Juno," he says. "That's what has ridiculously changed." According to Mezey, Maria's Oscar nomination, $6.5 million in U.S. ticket receipts, and plenty of DVD sales no longer add up to a viable plan: "They're really looking for movies that are going to gross $30 million," he says. "But we have to exist outside of that reality. And you can pull power away from the studios. If you keep making these films and they're getting the ink on the editorial and review pages, it's going to draw attention."

But Mezey can't work on shoestring budgets forever. "There's this survival thing," he says. And many of the filmmakers will move beyond a budget in the single-digit millions: McKay would like to tackle a range of projects, Marston is bound to find another studio division, and Boden and Fleck are currently adapting Special Topics in Calamity Physics for producer Scott Rudin and Miramax Films.

"I would say that Paul wants to make bigger films," says McKay, "but he's taking his time so he can make those bigger films on his own terms. Hopefully, the projects will get bigger and branch out—but made with the same care and humility that the other ones have."

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