October 28, 2015

Just in Time to Explore Film: Justin Lerner at Cornell Cinema

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If you’re a student you’re probably familiar with the notion that there are no dumb questions. While some might disagree with that, the discussion of which questions are, in fact, important is likely to lead to an important debate. Justin Lerner ’02 invites us to question the way we see love and morality in today’s society through controversial themes in his latest film, The Automatic Hate. He’ll be present at the sneak preview this Thursday 7 p.m. at Cornell Cinema. This is his second feature film following Girlfriend (2011) and his award-winning short film The Replacement Child (2007).

We had the opportunity to talk to him earlier this week so he could tell us about his experiences as an independent filmmaker and a Cornell alumnus.

Born in Pennsylvania to psychology professors as parents, he moved a few times before he arrived at Cornell. He grew up facing the American new wave of independent filmmakers of the ’90s. After being inspired by the works of Linklater, Soderbergh and Tarantino, a cinephile high school teacher introduced him to other classic filmmakers and even encouraged him to do an independent study on Kubrick. “After that,” he says, “I saw films backwards and forwards, I kept watching the new stuff that was out, but I kept discovering old stuff based on the directors that the guys like Tarantino and Linklater got inspiration from, like Kubrick, Bergman [and] Fellini, because that’s what they liked.”

At Cornell, his fiery passion for cinema was still lit so he studied theatre and film and began to direct plays. “Film professor Don Fredericksen took me under his wing. He was a mentor figure. He exposed me to some of the best movies today that I still look at and reference,” he remembers.

After graduation, he moved to Spain, claiming, “I was 22, I didn’t know who the hell I was, or what I wanted to do with my life.” Even though he was planning to go to graduate school for film he said, “I needed some time, I didn’t want to go right back to school, or else I would have made movies in film school about nothing.”

In Spain, he lived in an apartment with people that “didn’t speak a word of English.” He found time to become fluent in Spanish, write, apply to film school and get what he likes to call “the essential experiences for any filmmaker,” which are to fall in love, get your heart broken and get robbed at knifepoint (“in that order,” he stressed). During his process of adapting to the Spanish language, he pointed out that, “Getting to observe a culture without language helps you pick up on visual things so much better,” an observation that has influenced his films.

After that, he went back to the United States, attended UCLA film school and started making short films. His last one, The Replacement Child, which was also his final MFA thesis film, toured the world and won several awards, including two Student Emmys. On the topic of what he thinks of his old films, he says he wouldn’t change a thing in them because his past films are “representative of all of my flaws and who I was back then.”

He describes his most recent film, The Automatic Hate, as a “Family drama mixed with a Hitchcock mystery.” This mix of genres in his latest film shouldn’t be a surprise, as he says, “I’ve built a whole career [on] taking two genres and mixing them together.” He also points out that this film has a relationship with his last film and his next one, which will add up to three films that he likes to call, among some other ideas, “the taboo-love trilogy.”

When questioned about the uncomfortable themes that he likes to include in his films, he says, “Discomfort is important to me. I’m trying to put things on film that you haven’t seen, or at least have not seen in that way.” Justin here sees film as an opportunity to explore what we can’t in the real world; in a fictitious world, there are no social or political boundaries to explore topics about human nature, and he remarks that he likes put this characteristic of film to use. He wants to make movies that stick with you even after you leave the theatre, movies that make you think. Later, he clarified — almost in a defensive way — that you don’t have to be an awful person to talk about awful things. In the same way that you don’t have to suffer to show suffering, a film is not necessarily a description of the filmmaker’s lifestyle.

In terms of difficulties that he has faced, Justin emphasizes the financial aspect of being an independent filmmaker. One has to find contacts, meet new people and keep in touch with them because everyone becomes a potential source of funds. Although he stated that finding money for the film is difficult, he remarks that financial uncertainty is not a problem for him, and it is a necessary characteristic that you need to become a filmmaker. “You also have to enjoy the inconsistency of income and [the] uncertainty of future,” he said. Then he added, “You have to enjoy the mundane and the geeky stuff,” as he opened his laptop and showed me a huge PDF file with every sound effect on The Automatic Hate. “It takes me weeks, if not months, to make,” he said with a smile on his face.
As for his recent success, he comments, “To succeed [in the film industry], some say it’s as hard as hitting a 100-mile-per-hour baseball with a bat, but I think it’s more like trying to hit a 100-mile-per-hour baseball with another baseball.” So when he sees people (actors and cinematographers, for example) in his films get accolades for their work, “It shows that the years you’ve spent on the planet add up to something […] It’s almost like a fight against mortality — long after you’re gone these movies will be here.”

His favorite aspect of being a filmmaker is traveling — “There is nothing that enriches my life more than traveling to other places in the world and experiencing new things and meeting new people […] It makes the world a smaller and more exciting place.” His favorite American movie is The Graduate and he likes Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers, but hates their imitators. If you want to find out more about his story, question his taste in film or learn what he means by “family drama mixed with a Hitchcock mystery,” join him on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Cornell Cinema.

Daniel Fayad is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected].