Director, Producer and Editor Naftali Rutter Has His Hands in All Major Sides of The Film Industry and Epitomises the Creative Entrepreneur
New York based director, producer and editor Naftali Rutter has his hands in all major sides of the film industry and as evidenced by his own production house, Waterbound Pictures, Naftali epitomises the Creative Entrepreneur. In keeping with Waterbound’s focus on socially relevant projects, his upcoming film, Wild Animals, shows two young boys, hiding out in the aftermath of a school shooting. The film’s successful kickstarter campaign features the tagline: “Two boys hide out after a school shooting. Can they learn to trust each other? Who is the wild animal?” With his chameleon directing approach, Naftali’s style adapts to the story he is telling, stories in the from of documentaries for AmfAR, The Wall Street Journal, commercials, music videos, and feature films embed with a realism that edges on the surreal.
“It wasn’t really till I got into film school that I started to learn what a director actually does. At the beginning, it was just something very unconscious, just the word. Director.”–Naftali Rutter
CM: When did you first know you wanted to be a director?
I first started saying I wanted to be a director when I was 10 or 11 years old. I knew that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were directors, and that they were the directors of those movies. But I didn’t even know what a director was. I just started telling people that’s what I wanted to be. And it wasn’t really till I got into film school that I started to learn what a director actually does. At the beginning, it was just something very unconscious, just the word. Director.
CM: Did you go to film school?
Yes. I went to UCLA in Los Angeles. It was a great place to start a life of filmmaking. I had two great teachers. I had a few great classmates. They have an amazing movie theatre where we would watch all these films projected in 35mm. I found out recently that a lot of the prints they’d show in our film classes came directly from the film studios. And then the UCLA Film Archive is right there, and a lot of prints would come from there as well. And the retro houses in Los Angeles were fantastic. It felt like every time a Cassavete’s movie was playing, any cast and crew members that were still alive would come to it. Gena Rowland’s came. And I once saw Seymour Cassel twice one month! That made a young film student feel very lucky.
“I wanted the action to play out with a static frame around it, with a rigidity to it. To have the audience almost feel imprisoned in a way by this lack of movement. When you move the camera there is an unconscious freedom that the audiences feels. […] The less the camera moves, the less the audience feels they are able to move about the world.”– Naftali Rutter
CM: How would you define your style?
It is difficult to define your own style. I’m still discovering my style with each new movie. I think I strive for a rawness and a certain level of realism, even when scenes or stories are surreal or magical.
Generally I love moving the camera. I feel very tied to the steadicam. A lot of the post-1977 films that I love (Raging Bull, Boogie Nights, The Shining) are Steadicam movies. I’m also very fortunate that one of the DPs I use frequently, Iván Cortázar, is a great steadicam operator. I think my love of movement is partly due to the fact that I’m a runner; I naturally see scenes play out through a moving lens. And I talk with my hands- so maybe that’s part of it too?
But I don’t use movement in all my movies. I think there are filmmakers who, no matter what the story, take the same tools with them on each shoot to tell that story. I look at each story and think about what style will be most suitable for that story. The short film I just shot, WILD ANIMALS, has no camera movement except for one small tilt. The whole thing takes place in a bathroom right after a school shooting where two boys are hiding. I wanted the action to play out with a static frame around it, with a rigidity to it. To have the audience almost feel imprisoned in a way by this lack of movement. When you move the camera (which is what I like about moving cameras) there is an unconscious freedom that the audiences feels. The movie has a physicality. The less the camera moves, the less the audience feels they are able to move about the world. In a lot of Michael Haneke’s films the camera isn’t moving much and I think that’s one of the reasons my body feels a certain tightness when I watch a Haneke film.
CM: How do you prepare for your projects? Does the process change depending on the genre?
Every project is different. Exercise is one of the things that’s always there. I find that when I am planning a project, good ideas come to me when I am running or when I’m in the shower after a run. I think of myself as a storyteller/athlete. I can’t have one without the other. And hopefully I won’t ever be at a point where I am unable to exercise in some way, because that will not be good for my work. I’m the opposite of Hitchcock. I don’t know how he did all that without exercising.
It seems the general trend these days is to cast at the last minute, but every movie I do, large or small, I see actors as the heart of the story. And I don’t like to cast at the last minute. This is partly because I find when I’ve written a character I don’t know understand that character fully until I meet the actor who is playing that character. We’ve cast a wonderful actress in my feature film, LA MAREA, Paola Nuñez. And right now I’m going back over every line of her dialogue to make sure that it matches Paola’s energy. For me, writing a character is like making a specific mold, but then the actor who ends up playing that character is the magic metal that we pour into that mold.
“I strive for a rawness and a certain level of realism, even when scenes or stories are surreal or magical.”– Naftali Rutter
CM: What do you consider your first major career defining success?
That’s a tough question. Success is a hard thing to define. Every time I get enough money to make another film, that feels like a success. Every time I’m able to experiment with something I haven’t done before, that feels like a success. But standing in the back of the theater when my first feature length documentary premiered in New York City, and watching people watch it on the bigscreen and seeing and hearing the reaction to it, knowing that I was able to hold an audience’s attention for 67 minutes in a dark room. That maybe was the first time I realized I might be on the right track. Then I left the theater and had to get back to work.
CM: How much of a say do you have in the vision of a project?
When it comes to my own films, thus far I’ve been the one coming up with the script and then directing the movie. I am open to directing other people’s scripts and actually have a great script that a friend of mine wrote that we’re hoping to make. Mostly though the scripts that I want to make are my own. I lean toward the writer/director tradition.
And when it comes to the work I do for clients with Waterbound, I have been fortunate that most of the time, Waterbound also acts as the agency, so usually I come up with the vision for the story, and depending on the client, I pitch several different concepts and if we’re lucky they choose one of them…
CM: Favourite movie?
I don’t have one favourite movie. I love all kinds of movies. I think there are certain movies that are litmus tests for me though. For example, if you don’t at least like Badlands, we might have trouble understanding one another.
I do however have favourite performances. My favourite performance by a woman of all time is Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. My favorite performance by a man is David Thewlis in Naked. That movie should be rated NC25. It’s so serious.
CM: Favourite director?
I don’t have a favourite director. But my favourite living director is the Austrian director Michael Haneke, because I think he has more command over the medium than anyone alive. It’s unfortunate that most of his movies are so devoid of hope that many people miss out on his mastery.
It is essential to be able to make films on a regular basis, experiment and continue plunging into productions of various shapes and sizes.”– Naftali Rutter
CM: Tell us more about Waterbound Pictures? How has having your own production house effected your work as a director?
Having my own production house has influenced my work profoundly as a director. It is essential to be able to make films on a regular basis, experiment and continue plunging into productions of various shapes and sizes. Waterbound has allowed me to do this. And since I direct and produce most of the films at Waterbound, I’ve learned about the business side of the filmmaking. And since we’ve also started doing branding and design, I’ve learned a great deal about advertising, logos, colors, fonts, that is useful in my own films.
CM: What was your most challenging project to work on? why?
My most challenging project to work on was the film I just shot about a school shooting called WILD ANIMALS. Writing the script was very challenging because there were a lot of things I wanted to touch on, but in an indirect, abstract kind of way. It is important to me in stories like this that are about something current and political that a level of abstractness is maintained amidst the realism, and that a degree of mystery is preserved. It takes a lot of fine-tuning to do that—you have to get all those notes right. It was also a challenge to direct the film, because the performances were essential, and the two actors were 17 and 6. My fiancée, who is an actress and a director, helped me greatly through the process of directing the two boys, and in the end, with her as the catalyst, WILD ANIMALS was a total overhaul of the way I direct actors and how I see the place of actors in my films. That was a nerve-wracking but essential process.
CM: What would be your dream collaboration?
I have so many dream collaborations but really the dream collaboration now is to shoot LA MAREA, my feature film in late 2015 or early 2016. My dream collaboration is to collaborate with all the amazing people that are already on that project and all the people that remain to be found to shoot that film. Please come back to me after you see LA MAREA on the big screen and I’ll say something more interesting.
CM: What are you working on right now? and what's next for you?
Right now we’re finishing post on WILD ANIMALS. We’re hoping to premiere it somewhere in France this May 2015! We’re continuing to cast my feature film LA MAREA and still securing some financing for that. I just finished directing a PSA that was shot pretty much entirely on drones. This spring we’re going to finally distribute my feature documentary TODAY. And I’m starting to write another script for a story that will probably take place in Brooklyn.