Peter Sollett is not Victor Vargas. “He’s who I would have liked to have been at that age—handsome and cool,” says first-time director Sollett. “I was not all that confident.” But this soft-spoken 27-year-old has every reason to strut like his teenage protagonist. His feature debut, Raising Victor Vargas, has taken an enviable path: a premiere at Cannes, a quick sale to Samuel Goldwyn, kudos at the Toronto and Sundance festivals, and opening night at New Directors/New Films.
“I knew very early on I wanted to make films for a living,” says the Bensonhurst native, who was barely out of diapers when he had his first film epiphany at Star Wars. He spent his early teens haunting video stores and quickly graduated from George Lucas to Woody Allen. “Allen’s movies said, ‘There’s something else that can be done,’ ” Sollett recalls. What’s more, the films’ profuse cultural references led the aspiring director to Bergman, Fellini, Cassavetes, Kafka, and Kierkegaard. By age 16, this son of a newspaper photographer had his hands on a Super-8 camera.
Despite this propitious start, Sollett was twice rejected by NYU’s film school. He got in on his third try and graduated during the height of Tarantino fever. But his thesis film, Five Feet High and Rising, was a far cry from Tarantino’s hyper-violent pulp world. Instead, Sollett crafted a subtle, intimate, autobiographical script about a 14-year-old from Bensonhurst. He noticed during auditions that “these kids were much more interesting before ‘action’ and after ‘cut.’ ” So Sollett and producer Eva Vives rethought their process and started the short over. Vives posted signs in their East Village neighborhood, and the most talented teens at that audition happened to be Latino. Sollett transposed the script to the Lower East Side and shot the film using improvised dialogue.
Raising Victor Vargas picks up where Five Feet High leaves off, but this time it’s actor Victor Rasuk’s life that provides the protagonist’s outline. Sollett’s life, in turn, is better glimpsed through the photo series that he shot during Victor Vargas, currently on display at the Walter Reade. “It’s everything from casting at the Puerto Rican Day Parade, to recording music in an East Village apartment, to standing on the roof with the cast on September 11 watching the towers fall,” Sollett says. Two weeks later, cast and crew returned to work. “There was such a positivity about the film, people were happy to get back to it.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Raising Victor Vargas