Kryssa Schemmerling and “The West Begins at Fifth Avenue”

24 Nov

I connected with Kryssa through Donald Gray, a close friend and college buddy of mine who was co-creator of this project. I was thrilled when Kryssa agreed to do this interview because she was the first creator I had reached out to. It’s fair to say I may not have created if Kryssa had not said yes, or at least not as quickly. And I particularly like the tips Kryssa shares for shooting on a shoestring budget. Take it away, Kryssa!

Briefly tell us your name and background.

I received an MFA in film from Columbia University. I currently teach screenwriting in the the undergraduate film department at NYU. I’ve made two dramatic shorts and am currently shooting my third. I have also made a feature-length documentary and written several screenplays, a couple of which have been optioned but never filmed.

What current or recent project are you working on, and what is your role? 

I just finished up principal photography on a dramatic short called “The West Begins at Fifth Avenue.” It is a period drama that imagines the 19th-century childhood of one of America’s most notorious criminals.

What are some of the things you had to do to personally prepare for this role, especially as it relates to getting the project off the ground?

After working for what seemed like forever on a documentary, I had the itch to make a fiction film again. Partly, I think, because I had begun teaching screenwriting at NYU. In my class sophomores were writing short scripts and I was screening and analyzing short films every week. Suddenly, the idea of making a short again didn’t seem so foreign. And now with the internet, there are ways besides festivals to get a short seen. Another factor was that I had recently inherited a very small chunk of money. I knew we would have to raise more through grants and donations, but I had enough to get started.

So I called up my old friend Donald Gray and suggested we do an idea we had for a feature as a 15-minute short, since, realistically, the chances of us ever being able to make it as a feature were pretty much nil. “The West Begins at Fifth Avenue” is a story we had conceived years ago, but life and other projects had intervened and we never got beyond the research stage. We dug up all the old material we had gathered and from that we were able to write the script pretty quickly. One of the things that attracted me to it again was that the film involves a lot of children. I thought, I have an 8-year-old who is taking acting classes, knows other kids who are into acting. I figured I could round up a bunch of kids pretty easily, which I certainly couldn’t have done years ago. And because the film doesn’t have sync sound, we didn’t need to worry about the kids learning lines or that they weren’t professional actors.

How much time would you estimate you have devoted to this project? 

Between pre-production and production, about a year so far. We haven’t started editing yet.

What was the most difficult challenge you had in bringing this project to fruition?

Well, initially I think it was finding people to work on it. When I was in film school it was easy. Your classmates were your crew. Then the second short I made after graduating from film school was commissioned by a producer and completely financed by him. So we were able to hire crew. But now I was in a situation where I couldn’t pay people and I didn’t have a lot of classmates who owed me favors because I had worked on their films. I was still in touch with, Ben Wolf, the cinematographer who had shot my other films, and I was hoping to work with him again. But other than Ben I was mostly out touch with the film world.

Luckily, my producer Claire Beckman came on board. I met her when my son was in Dreama, an acting program she runs for kids. She is also the director of a Brooklyn-based, grown-up theater company called Brave New World and so had access to actors and other artists we needed, such as a costume designer, art director, fight choreographer, and production assistants. She became our casting director and brought in almost all of the actors. Don and I could not have gotten this film off the ground without Ben and Claire’s involvement.

What was the best part of the project for you personally?

Watching the actors, cinematographer, costume designer and set designer bring the characters and images in my head to life. Also, being able, even in a tiny way, to recreate the lost world of 19th-century New York in all its beauty, horror and strangeness. It’s really hard to do period films on a micro-budget and it’s easy to get discouraged by the limitations, but I also enjoy the challenge of it. It forces you to be creative and resourceful in ways that big budget films don’t have to be. One of the solutions we came up with was to use as a locations living history museums like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Historic Richmond Town in Staten Island. This gave us fully dressed sets we could just walk into and shoot. We didn’t have to build sets from scratch or rent a massive amounts of period-correct props, which would have been impossible on our budget and with our tiny crew. Those locations weren’t cheap, but not having to rent trucks (except once), work space, or feed a large art department made it cost effective and way less labor intensive.

What’s the biggest thing or things you learned from doing this project?

That props and locations are a lot cheaper in New Jersey than they are in New York City even after you factor in travel costs! Also, more importantly, that during every project there are periods when everything seems to be going to hell. And that in those moments you have to keep it together and just keep doggedly going forward because only then do you have a chance of coming out the other side. Actually, that is something I re-learn every time I make a film.

What’s one piece of advice would you give to someone considering a project like this and/or a career like yours?

Making is a film can be so punishing on so many levels that you need to make sure you are really passionate about and totally committed to your idea and the material. That is what will carry you through when you feel like giving up. You should be making the film that you want to see. If you truly love it, chances are someone else will too. But you have to also be realistic about what you can achieve given your resources. For us, not having sync sound except in one scene made the shoot doable. We didn’t have to worry about the noise factor on location or deal with sound equipment. It made us able to shoot a lot faster, and time in filmmaking is money.

Will we get a chance to see this project on screen? How and where?

We just finished shooting and will probably start editing in January. Late spring or summer of 2013 is probably the earliest we can get it ready to premier. We hope to have screenings around New York, maybe at some of the places we filmed, like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum or in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I like the idea of an art/life connection.

What’s next for you after this project?

I’m not sure. Last year I wrote a feature-length screenplay about surfers in Rockaway Beach, Queens circa 1970 that is loosely based on the surf documentary I did. I would love to direct that.

Related links for “The West Begins at Fifth Avenue”


2 Responses to “Kryssa Schemmerling and “The West Begins at Fifth Avenue””

  1. Karen Elam November 25, 2012 at 4:03 am #

    Although I’m a good friend of Kryssa’s and the mother of three kids that appeared in the film, The West Begins at Fifth Avenue, I was unaware of many of the details that came out in this interview. It was great to get these insights into Kryssa’s thinking on this project and film-making in general. Thanks!

  2. anthonyferreri December 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    I’m really impressed by Kryssa’s dedication and passion regarding the short, especially considering that it’s so stylized and may only have a limited audience. A year spent on a short is impressive, and that’s only for pre-production and production.

    Having the passion and determination to do this is a chief trait, and it sounds like Kryssa definitely has it.

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