Andrew Semans on New York and New Haven


With the Tribeca Film Festival upon us, we pay homage to a first-time nominee. Filmmaking comes as nothing new to Brooklyn-based movie buff Andrew Semans, an associate producer at Magnolia Mae Films and the director of Nancy, Please. But tomorrow, Apr. 21, marks the premiere of his first feature and first produced screenplay.

The drama, which gives way at times to both thriller elements and comedic relief (sometimes simultaneously), was written by both Semans and award-winning novelist Will Heinrich. A tale of tension and resentment, self-destruction and scapegoats, it’s an entirely unique cinematic depiction of making a mountain out of a molehill. The protagonist, a Yale Ph.D. student we love to hate, is fixated on retrieving an old hardcover copy of Dickens’ Little Dorrit from his uncooperative ex-roommate. From this simple premise springs a cautionary tale about what can happen when personal and professional commitments become all but unbearable.

Semans assures us the story isn’t lifted from his life, but shares some other entertaining tidbits straight out of his own reality. From his distaste towards squirrels, to his mixed feelings about indifferent canines, stance on Ryan Gosling, and love for living in the best neighborhood in America, the 35-year-old doesn’t hold anything back.

NELL ALK: How does it feel to have completed your first feature?

ANDREW SEMANS: It feels exhausting. It’s tough. It’s a long road to making something at such a tiny level. It’s a very, very low budget production. I’m incredibly proud that we managed to pull it off. But that has less to do with my ability and tenacity and much more to do with the ability and tenacity of my producers. There’s a hell of a lot of work. It feels like we’re at the end of a long marathon. The fact that we finished it feels like a triumph in itself.

ALK: How long did it take?

SEMANS: From script to screen, maybe two years, not including script. The script, we wrote in little bits and pieces over a while. That was a very gradual process. We took the scenic route.

ALK: How did you originally become interested in filmmaking?

SEMANS: I’ve got this thing where if I see people doing something that I enjoy or admire, I just instinctively want to do it myself. But, most of the time I know, also instinctively, not to do those things, because I’ll probably fuck them up. But with movies, I’ve never been able to resist.

ALK: How did you assemble the cast?

SEMANS: We had this incredibly foreshortened pre-production period. We just had to do everything very fast, which was harrowing to say the least. We had to [cast based on only] one audition and hope for the best. It was a real gamble. Luckily it worked out. The woman who plays Nancy, Eléonore Hendricks, we sought her out specifically. Other than that, it was just us trusting our guts.

ALK: There are some questionable scenes involving animals. I assume none were harmed in the making of this film…

SEMANS: If you watch the credits, it says specifically at the end that no animals were harmed. In fact, the Humane Society are hard-asses about that. We had to have an animal wrangler and a Humane Society representative on set at all times. The restrictions of what we could and couldn’t do with the squirrel were severe. We were very much hemmed in. That whole sequence with the squirrel was supposed to be quite different, much more dramatic. It’s more comic in the movie as it is now. We were told we couldn’t agitate the squirrel mentally or physically, so it turned out to be a much more calm and placid sequence than what we had in mind. We were meticulously observed. Which is probably good, because I hate squirrels and have zero regard for their mental or physical well-being.

ALK: Can you explain your approach to filming in terms of technique?

SEMANS: We chose an intentionally minimal and mundane style. I always thought that, while the main character is going out of his head, the world around him refuses to adhere to his ideas of things. He seems to be thinking that he’s in a genre film or a thriller or a horror movie. Or that this is a grandiose story of persecution. But nothing in his environment confirms that. Everything is banal. Everything is quiet and middle-class and generic. So we chose an intentionally flat style to wrap around this character’s loose-cannon psychology. That is reinforced in the production design, all our locations and in the way we shot. I thought it was a handsome movie, but it’s not stylized in any conspicuous way.

ALK: Why did you set the film in New Haven?

SEMANS: We wanted to contrast the main character’s overheated mental state with a rather banal environment, so we chose not to shoot it in New York, where being agitated and insane and neurotic is just par for the course and seems to be entirely congruent with the environment. We wanted to set his mental state apart from the landscape. We thought, “What’s a relatively bland, mid-sized city that’s in easy driving distance of New York City and someplace where there’s a good university?” New Haven was just a natural fit. We ended up shooting most of it in and around New York, faking New Haven. With a little New Haven thrown in for good measure. Any reasonably keen-eyed New Yorker will be able to notice some New York landmarks, but just ignore those.

ALK: What’s your favorite aspect of this city?

SEMANS: I’ve lived in New York for 16 and a half years, so I’ve lived here almost as long as I’ve lived in Minnesota. I love New York. I love Clinton Hill, where I live. I was walking through my neighborhood, which is beautiful, thinking, “I love Clinton Hill.” It’s just so romantic. It looks like Sesame Street, The Cosby Show. I was walking around thinking, “I think this is my favorite neighborhood in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is my favorite borough in New York. New York is my favorite city in America. I live in the best neighborhood in America.” So, I was feeling pretty good. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m totally ensconced. I’m accustomed to it. There are things I don’t like, naturally.

ALK: Like what?

SEMANS: Tinny, sibilant headphone spill from people listening to earbuds on the subway. You know when you’re riding the subway, sitting next to someone, and they’re blasting music, and you get that really treble-y spill from their headphones? And they’re acting as if, because they’re wearing headphones, they’re not annoying anyone with their music? That drives me fuckin’ nuts. That’s my number one complaint about New York. That and the dogs. I love dogs, but the dogs here are often just so indifferent. Midwestern dogs, all they want to do is love and be loved. They’re usually love machines. Here, you go up to dogs on the street and they’re kind of looking at you like, “Yeah, you’re okay, but who’s over there?” They’re like New York people. They kind of have an attitude problem. This is coming from someone who is very pro-dog. I’m just not pro-squirrel.

ALK: What’s one of your favorite films from last year?

SEMANS: Drive. I felt like that movie was made specifically for me. I totally loved it. Ate it up. He’s a hunk. A hunk and a half.

ALK: Indeed.

SEMANS: Actually, he was my least favorite thing about that movie. I think he’s tremendous, but I think he has the wrong kind of charisma for that role. I feel like that role is a sort of haunted, blank, lone gunman kind of role. Ryan Gosling is so funny. He always has a winking thing, where he seems like he’s having a great time. Ryan Gosling is so funny and hunky!