"It felt like everyone believed in this film as much as I did, and that lifts you up"
Harry Greenberger is probably one of the most modest filmmakers on this planet. Never putting himself in the front (or sharing a headshot for this interview), Greenberger would always prefer to promote his colleagues ("Jill and Taylor, aren't they both amazing?"; "Carmine the producer always protects me so I can just direct"; "My editor Sara always makes me look like a better director than I am").
After having worked on hundreds of commercials and several notable films in the camera department, Greenberger's debut feature "Staring at the Sun" won big at LAFA. It has become one of the very few films to win six awards, including Best Picture.
The lead judge, Les Brandt, described it as "a solid winner", giving it the highest rating in July 2018.
Staring at the Sun follows two Hasidic teenage girls who run away from their strict community and travel across America in the hope of finding real freedom.
We asked Harry to join us for an interview, and met an inspiring filmmaker who believes that all of us have the right to determine who we are and what we believe.
Congratulations on winning Best Picture with your debut feature, Staring at the Sun! Absolutely remarkable work - it's almost hard to believe this is your first feature! Tell us about your journey. How did you start out, what were the first steps you took in the industry, and what is your ultimate career goal?
First off, thank you Nami, Roy, and the LAFA Team. I can't thank you enough for the Awards, and for the compliment in your question. How I started out, and the journey through the industry is a long answer, but I always joke that I've done just about every job in film except catering and makeup, even acting a bit, which wasn't the best idea, frankly. While I wouldn't recommend that path to anyone particularly, I can say that I think I learned a lot of valuable insight into the way a film comes together, on set and off. My ultimate career goal? Probably the same as a lot of people in the film world. I'd like to write and direct, with enough success to be able to continue to do so for as long as possible.
You have an impressive list of credits in the camera department... what are some of the main things you've learned from your work as an AC, that became useful when you directed your first feature?
Thank you. yeah, I worked a very long time in the Camera Department, loader (back in the film days) 2nd AC, 1st AC, Operator, DP a bit here and there. I also did literally hundreds of commercials that aren't even reflected on my imdb, and that was valuable,too. I loved the camera department, but I was always working toward the goal of writing and directing, at least in my mind. I will say that I don't think its the fastest route to directing, frankly, to recommend for anyone.
What it did gain for me, though, was an education in filmmaking fundamentals that you can't really buy. I went to film school (Ithaca College) and learned a lot of theory but I really learned more on set. When you're in the Camera Dept, you're right next to the camera, right in the face of the actors, and often privy to what goes on in whispers between the actors and the director, and between the director and the DP. I was always watching and listening, and if your ears and eyes are open to it, it's a fascinating process. I was lucky enough to work with some really talented directors, starting with Glenn Przyborski, a guy who directs big budget commercials in Pittsburgh from whom I learned a lot of technical understanding, and then in features I got to watch some greats at work, like John Landis, Tom Savini, George Romero, Kevin Smith, Allan Arkush, Steven Gyllenhaal, and my pal Matt Bonifacio, who is simply terrific with actors. It eventually all became useful when I wound up directing my own films. Every shoot brings with it all the familiar problems I've watched other directors handle, which you can usually anticipate, but more importantly, I've learned that there will always be new problems no director could ever anticipate, and every director I've ever watched had to solve those their own way.
Photos by: Dolly Faibyshev
Let's talk about the making of Staring at the Sun. How and when did you come up with the story? Where did your inspiration come from?
Well, there was a tiny story in the news about 15 years ago that two Hasidic girls had gone missing in New York, and they didn't know anything more yet at all.
So, I started thinking about all of the different possible things that could have happened. Were they kidnapped? Ran away? Murdered? Lost? Then I added in the ways in which almost any of those would be different and affected by the community they'd left behind. I'd personally grown up feeling like a fish out of water as an Atheist Jew in a small, heavily Christian PA town that was predominately far more religious than I would ever be. I just started to extrapolate from there. What would life be like if you were a non-believer born into an ultra-restrictive religious sect? What would you do? Could you leave? What would the rest of America seem like to that person who'd grown up inside it but never seen it once they freed themselves? I started writing it about 14 years ago, put it aside for years and while waiting to get another film made, I pulled this script out of a virtual drawer and showed it to my producer, who thought we should produce this one first while the other slowly came together. Life's funny that way.
While writing the screenplay, did you conduct any research about Hasidic Judaism? How did you familiarize your cast and crew with that subject, later on?
I did a lot of research, both online, books, newspaper articles, and in the real world. I went out and personally reached out to several different Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects in New York, talking to them, asking questions, and even asking advice. The first sects I found wanted nothing much to do with me, but I eventually found one that was very welcoming, and extremely accommodating. I got advice and information from several Rabbis. They actually let us film in their homes, in their Yeshiva school, and even at times appeared in the film in small parts and as extras (to my surprise and delight!)
It shaped the film, it informed the script, and I think I can say that it also enlightened the actors, who got to interact with people living the lives they were trying to portray onscreen. Since we were shooting in the Hasidic neighborhoods a lot, even the crewmembers had to abide by some of the rules and restrictions as far as food and clothing, out of respect, while we were there. It was an education for all of us, even for those of us who thought we knew a lot already.
What was your casting process like? How did you get the fantastic Jill Shackner and Taylor Rose on board, and what was it like working with them?
Aren't they both amazing? Both Jill and Taylor came in and auditioned. I was lucky enough to work with a terrific casting director who brought in probably about 50 young women for each part, and quite a few of them were extremely good. I felt, even while writing it, that casting was gonna make or break this film and a lot of that would be the chemistry between the two girls, who were supposed to be lifelong best friends. They'd never met each other before they were cast, but something about Taylor and Jill seemed intuitively like they were the combination that felt most like the girls I had in my mind when I wrote it. They became immediate friends, and there's a chemistry that can't be denied when you see them, onscreen or off.
Neither one of them is anything like their characters in real life either, so the friendship you see on screen is the work of two skilled, sensitive, tuned-in actors.
The film is extremely well directed - feels like the work of a seasoned director, really - such detailed and impressive work! How did you make that magic happen, and do you have any tips for young directors?
Thank you. That's a high compliment indeed. That's great to hear, because all of us, everybody, worked incredibly hard, as people do on every tiny Indie movie, but especially on this one, I think.
If I come off well at all as a director, I have to be honest and say everybody from my Producer Carmine Famiglietti (who protects me so I can just direct), my editor Sara Corrigan, and the AD, the DP, the gifted Karl Kim, Sound, the production coordinator, down to every single actor gave everything they could not just to make me look good so that you'd say that about me, but also to serve the film, making that the only prime directive that mattered. Maybe I was delusional from lack of sleep, but it felt like everyone believed in it as much as I did, and that lifts you up.
The only advice I'd have is to first do things the way Carmine and I set out to do, which is stay calm no matter what insanity or pressure happens, surround yourselves with only truly kind, nice people in both cast and crew (that tone is set from the top), and most importantly, try to listen to everyone around you, producer, grip to PA, trust the people you've chosen to work with to know their jobs and don't be afraid of somebody else having a better idea than your original thought. Stay open to surprises on set that may be better than what you wrote or pictured. And get yourself an amazing editor. I've known mine for 33 years and we're friends who love our work together and laugh out loud a lot while doing it. She knows when to push for a different idea, how to miraculously fix a problematic moment, and she, in all truthfulness, always makes me look like a better director than I am. :-)
What was your favorite part of the process, and why?
I love most of it, except the financial stuff, the paperwork, etc, and getting up early.
I love the moments when you've finally finished the pre-production and now you're on set and the movie is becoming real right in front of your eyes. I love directing the actors, hearing their fascinating questions about the characters and the script (it helps that I wrote both of mine, because then usually at least I think I know the answers) and again, the editing is a lot of fun, because the underlying anxiety of the pressure on set is gone and you're getting one more chance to re-write and re-imagine the film.
Tell us about something unexpected that happened on set, and how did you deal with it?
Haha, well, the funniest stuff is the stuff you shouldn't tell anybody that might print it, I guess, but on both of my films we had pretty remarkably smooth sailing 90% of the time, and then on each film we had one unexpected, impossible to predict moment of (eventually, MUCH later, hilarious) catastrophe. On the first film we had a scene in a basement of a bar owned by very good friends of mine, who were kind enough to allow us to shoot there for three days.
On the very last angle of the very last scene on the very last day in that location one of our lights set off the fire alarms, which set off the highly powerful sprinkler system, spraying a massive amount of water everywhere in the bar, throwing an extra to the floor, soaking the equipment, flooding the bar, and bringing five Fire Department vehicles outside, sirens and lights and all, and firemen with axes who had to rip up the furniture to shut off the gushing water.
This even caused one background extra to panic the minute the alarm rang out, shove women extras out of his way, knock over gear, and stampede out the exit, literally never to be seen again by any of us, I swear.
How did I deal with it? I'm told I dealt with it fine, and one friend who was there said that once we got everyone evacuated I was walking around, smiling and joking, saying "Well, so,...I guess I'm not making a movie. It was nice while it lasted"
In the end nothing major was damaged, and though we flooded the bar with about four inches of water it was back in business that night, and it all didn't even cost us that much money, all considered. My extremely sweet, very concerned girlfriend who shot stills for us had just left set right before it happened and asked when I got home "So, how was the rest of the day?", which was funny enough to make it all worth it, I suppose.
What is the main message you are hoping to convey with this film?
To me it's mainly about any individual's most basic right to determine for themselves who they are and what they believe. It's not an attack on anyone or anything. To me it's also about what's really important, like family and friendship, which for me rise above tribalism and traditions.
What's next for Staring at the Sun, and what's next for you? You've been working on a new film called Faraway Eyes, what can you share about that?
For Staring at the Sun, we're screening at festivals and looking for a distributor, just hoping to have as many people as possible be able to see it.
As to Faraway Eyes, well, it's my second feature as Writer-Director, but it's the film I was trying to get made since way back in 2011 when production on it got delayed and that switched us over to making Staring at the Sun. We're finishing it up now, and it's a much bigger film in every way, for better or for worse. We're working on FX, color grading, final editing, and sound to complete it soon.
I'm extremely proud of both of the films, and I can't wait for the people that liked Staring at the Sun to hopefully see this one. We have Christina Ricci in the cast, as well as 3-Time Tony Nominee Andy Karl ( Broadway's male lead in Rocky, Groundhog Day, and Pretty Woman), Tony winner Nikki James ( Book Of Mormon) Oscar Nominee Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid, The Night Of) Michael Rispoli (from HBO's The Deuce and The Sopranos) and a brilliant French actress named Nora Arnezeder who I think will knock people's socks off if they're wearing socks.
It's a bit of a departure from the realism of Staring at the Sun, but it's still character-based and grounded, hopefully.
I'm slightly secretive about plot, but I can say this one is about love, what that is at its core, and what love means to us as humans, if that's not too weird to say.
Is there anyone you wish to thank, and/or anything you wish to add?
I want to thank you for the awards first. Then I'd like to say that obviously my wonderful, kind, parents made both films possible in every way, and they both never, ever stopped believing in me, no matter how much I fucked up.
My dad passed away two years ago, but he saw Staring at the Sun in rough cut form shortly before he died and loved it, which means the world to me. I wish he'd seen this award and recent others happen, but my wonderful mom is not just alive, she's also a huge supporter of the film and couldn't be more of a proud, loving mom. Also, my girlfriend Dolly, a brilliant photographer and artist, inspired a lot of random things in both films, inspires me every day, and we support each other in all our artistic pursuits in a way that makes it all possible, too. And Glen Green, who started the nutty movie dream with me as kids, Jenny MacBeth, Bobby C, Jesse Malin, ALT, Michelle and Bonnie, Keith, Bill, Frankie, Craig, Brother Mike, Jim Shuman and Tom Baker
Where can our readers follow you and your work?
I'm on Facebook and Instagram under my own name, and the movie has its own @staringatthesunmovie page on both that people can follow, as well as a website for each, www.staringatthesunmovie.com. and www.farawayeyesmovie.com, and though neither one has a ton of info yet, there will be more on both soon.
If by chance you'd like to see a cool music video I directed for a Jesse Malin song a few years back, featuring Mary-Louise Parker: