De Villa began to conceive of a story set in New York City, where he then resided, that would explore the tension between modes of modern living that throw individuals into the company of others while not necessarily breaking down the boundaries that separate them. His idea was to explore the circumstances of three characters who were emotionally isolated in different phases of their lives: youth, middle age, and old age. For de Villa the isolation of these characters was connected on a very basic level to the need for love. "I'm attracted to internal characters and ideas," he says, adding that this approach was a direct response to his first film, which explored the issues of immigration and assimilation in the context of the Latin American diaspora to the U.S., something he knew about first-hand after coming to U.S. from Puebla, Mexico as a teenager.
Says de Villa, "WASHINGTON HEIGHTS sprung from my desire to explore the ways in which parts of New York City feel as much like South or Latin America as they do the United States. That was sort of the general impetus. From there Nat and I just sort of wrote ourselves into the movie. It was very much a first film in the sense that it was very well-structured, with a familiar plot related to the intergenerational clash of fathers and sons that we hoped to explore in a new context. From there on, we sort of followed the characters through the fire to get there." For the new film, de Villa wanted to do a film where you could "sit" with the characters for most of the time, where plot and any external device took a secondary position to just being with the characters.
The first story that came to de Villa dealt with an older man. The iconic image in de Villa's head had been inspired by a recent viewing of Vittorio de Sica's UMBERTO D. Nat hadn't seen the film before. After watching it, Alfredo and Nat agreed that the emotional isolation of an elderly man facing a crisis alone was hugely compelling and worth exploring for the new film. They had worked on another story a few months previously with a character of an elderly gentleman going blind. They hadn't shaken the image of the blind gentleman. How much more interesting, they decided, if he were an artist—better yet an artist who had protected himself from the intimacy of others in a conventional sense.
The second storyline dealt with a teenager/young man. Although Alfredo hadn't fully worked out the circumstances of the man, he wrote in an early email to Nat that he knew that "in one unexpected moment in his life the boy must meet a beautiful woman and pursue her at all costs, whether he understands the reasons or not." Alfredo had met the very talented young actor Victor Rasuk shortly after Victor completed work in his breakout film RAISING VICTOR VARGAS. Alfredo and Nat were huge admirers of Rasuk, who was likewise a big fan of WASHINGTON HEIGHTS. Victor was excited at the possibility of working with de Villa and Alfredo and Nat quickly started developing a character for him to play in the new film.
The idea of young man's pursuit of a beautiful woman was connected initially to the wife of the third character in the new screenplay—a young advertising executive whose lack of emotional engagement with the soul-crushing tasks required of him at work had started to take its toll on his private life, which was marked by a similar kind of emotional disengagement. His neglect of his wife, Iris, made her more open to the boy's attentions. Alfredo and Nat quickly abandoned a focus on the advertising executive in favor of the wife instead, making her the older man's eye doctor and opting to give her the emotional disengagement that had previously been assigned to her husband. She in turn became the subject of the young man's amateur photography.
Alfredo and Nat had almost backed into the theme of "seeing" and "being seen" that underscores the film, but in fact the metaphor of sight as a means of establishing the three characters' emotional dilemmas was a very natural outgrowth of Alfredo's original premise for the movie. He and Nat spent many months working out the details of both the couple's conflict and the circumstances of the boy. The conflict in Iris (who became Rose to avoid the cuteness her new occupation conferred upon her name) and her husband's relationship shifted from the strains inherent in a childless marriage to the strains and complicated grieving of two parents who have recently lost a child.
In the meantime, they began investigating the impact on a young man of a relationship with his mother that is enmeshed to such a degree that incest is a clear danger looming not far off. To push the relationship, Alfredo and Nat deliberately made her a single mother whose overbearing nature would induce both guilt and rage in her son. At the same time, she would be young enough to have a body that could induce genuine confusion in her son as to the nature of his sexual desire—a desire that he would need to both act on and be confronted over in the film in as powerful and dramatic a fashion as Alfredo and Nat could create.
The solution to the young man's dilemma found its opposite in Rose, a woman whose demonstrable competence as a doctor, as a woman and as a mother was not enough to save her two-year-old son from a tragic death for which she will forever blame herself. The circumstance of Rose was very strong and felt right to both Alfredo and Nat. Their immediate challenge became how to present the impact of a child's death on its parents in a way that was original and different from the treatment of this idea in a host of recent films that Alfredo and Nat admired very much, including THE SON'S ROOM, IN THE BEDROOM, LANTANA and ALIAS BETTY.
The result is a story of three characters who play very secondary roles in each others' lives. Says de Villa, "One of the biggest risks I took while making ADRIFT IN MANHATTAN came from the initial conceptualization of the film. From its initial stages, I set a challenge to my writing partner Nat Moss and myself: to write a movie following the rhythm of daily life without imposing any outside strictures and structures. While this may sound heady, it's actually quite simple." De Villa and Moss established three characters around whom conflict developed strictly through the exploration of their lives. Any plot devices would be secondary to their emotional needs.
Adds de Villa, "Sometimes this basic rule led us to confront our deepest fears, whether or not we knew we had touched upon them. We delved into incest, loss, punishment, guilt, grief and falling in love when you least expect it. Normally, when you reach a point in the film that just scares you, you make a million excuses and happily abandon it. But on this film we just plugged along, following our instincts. From there on, the biggest risk through preproduction, production and post was just to keep the initial intent honest. It's like flirting with someone. You remember your first impressions — those that excite and entice you. The rest is secondary."
Both Alfredo and Nat were parents and could appreciate the depth of the pain induced by the loss of a child. Because their hearts found it difficult to imagine their children suffering such a tragedy, they also read books on surviving the death of a child. They followed the postings of devastated parents reaching out for support on internet sites dedicated to this subject. Nat shared an additional connection to Rose that he used in the writing of the script. On the last day of production on WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, his first film with Alfredo, Nat learned that his brother Ben had taken his life after a 20 year battle with depression. "The guilt that survivors of suicide experience in their failure to somehow keep their loved one safe is not far from the guilt Rose experiences in our film. Once I made that substitution, writing the film became easier for me."
Over a 2-year period, the film went through several producers, all of whom tried their best to get the film set up. In May 2005, Alfredo was approached by the producer, Steven J. Brown, who needed a director to take over for a film he was scheduled to shoot in a little over a month. Alfredo took the reins for that film, YELLOW, which was shot in July 2005, with actress Roselyn Sanchez starring alongside Bill Duke and D.B. Sweeney in a film about a young Puerto Rican woman struggling to make it as a dancer in New York. In the process of shooting that film, Alfredo and Steve Brown started to discuss ADRIFT IN MANHATTAN and the possibility of Steve's coming in as a producer. Once Steve committed to the film, the road became a lot easier.
Many of the casting choices occurred as the script was in development. Says de Villa, "I always get inspired by actors and find myself writing for them. I don't necessarily mean writing for big-name actors or stars, but writing for actors I have worked in the past with, or that I have seen in films and plays. That happened to me on ADRIFT with Victor Rasuk; with Marlene Forté, with whom I had the pleasure of working on the stage; with Richard Petrocelli, with whom I had worked in my student short; and with the great Elizabeth Peña. For the rest of the roles, I was extremely open. My agent set me up with meetings with several well-known, very good actresses for the role of Rose. One of them was Heather. I immediately liked her energy and had this hunch about it. That's how casting works. Your first impression is exactly what the camera will discover and show to the audience. This is why I pay very close attention to my impressions when meeting an actor/actress for the first time."
For the role of Tommaso Pensara, de Villa had originally cast the fine Cuban-born actor Tomas Milian, who in his long career in Italy had starred films by Antonioni (IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN) and Bertolucci (LA LUNA), and played the lead in de Villa's first feature, WASHINGTON HEIGHTS. In the weeks leading up to the shoot, Milian worked on the Tommaso role with Nat and Alfredo, providing a multitude of notes and details he hoped to integrate into the character while shooting, as he had done to great effect in WASHINGTON HEIGHTS. Tragically, Milian's wife suffered a heart attack a week before the film was to go into production. As Milian tended to his wife, who would recover, the film searched for a worthy replacement. The day before shooting began, they were able to get the script to the great Italian-American actor Dominic Chianese, star of HBO's THE SOPRANOS, who accepted immediately and went on to leave an indelible mark on the film in his deeply nuanced and touching performance.
Production began in late January, 2006 in Manhattan and Queens and lasted 18 days, with two additional days of 2nd unit shooting. Unable to nail down Lincoln Center to shoot the scenes involving a Henry Moore sculpture that had been the focus of the grieving Rose's attention in the original screenplay, the production turned instead to a sculpture called Masters of the Universe: Screen Version, by the artist Richard Deacon on the southeast corner of Central Park across from the former Plaza Hotel. With its interconnecting sausage-like shapes, the stainless steel sculpture became the object of Simon's photographic study, its adjoining bench area a place of solace for the grieving Rose.
It was in these scenes that one of the film's influences may be seen. With an assortment of colorful characters traveling in and out of Simon's zoom lens, including various pedestrians, homeless persons and, finally, a juggler, the film suggests the surveillance of San Francisco's Union Square in Francis Coppola's proto-indie 1975 film THE CONVERSATION, in which Gene Hackman is hired to record a conversation of a couple constantly moving through out the park. The images also call to mind David Hemmings' roving photographer in the now-classic Michelangelo Antonioni film BLOW-UP, a film that, like ADRIFT, follows a photographer forced to become engaged emotionally with the subject of his art.
Two other moments were "borrowed" from films that Alfredo and Nat felt the film shared a kinship with, whether explicitly through the story or expressively in the style and world they were attempting to create. In the latter case, de Villa enjoyed a bit of whimsy as he recreated a classic moment from what may be the quintessential New York City action film, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, in which Gene Hackman plays a delicate cat and mouse game with Fernando Rey (the hero of so many of the films of De Villa's filmmaking idol, Luis Buñuel) on a subway car, following each other on and off the car and onto the platform until at last the subway door closes and Rey escapes. Rose teases Simon in a similar scene.
The other borrowed moment takes place just after Rose receives the snapshots of her life taken by Simon. Her initial instinct to search the house for signs of entry and then call the police to report the offense gives way in the scene to a kind of frisson of recognition of the unknown soul lurking outside her home who has somehow captured the truth of her loneliness and isolation in his photographs. In that moment, Simon's act inspires investigation on Rose's part. In an action that suggests her openness to the possibility of connection with this stranger who seems to know her in some intangible way, Rose moves to the window and delicately, hesitantly, touches the pane with her hand. A similar moment will be familiar to fans of Krzysztof Kieslowski's A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (DECALOGUE: PART VI).
These so-called borrowings were intended to explore the emotional states of ADRIFT's characters rather than as homage. Though Tommaso may share an essential loneliness and emotional isolation with Hackman's Harry Caul, his circumstances could not be more different. While the sexually innocent Simon shares a kinship with the teenage boy in Kieslowski's A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE, he exists in ADRIFT on his own terms—as original in his creation as is the object of his gaze. In the lovemaking scene that finally brings Simon and Rose together are revealed deeper, darker truths about what drives them than they had any reason to expect at their first point of contact. Those truths are also what ultimately frees them both to move on in their lives—not necessarily with joy or fulfillment, but with the self-knowledge that points toward a way forward.
One of the biggest challenges in making the film was the intense shooting schedule de Villa and his cinematographer John Foster had to contend with. They were assisted in a hundred ways through this process by producer Josh Blum and his Washington Square Arts & Films staff. Foster, who earned Independent Spirit nominations for his lensing on Keane (2004) and Sunday (the narrative competition winner at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival), worked hard with his dedicated crew to meet the demands of the tight schedule without sacrificing the strong color palette and intimate feel de Villa wanted to convey in the film. "Time is always an issue in independent films," says de Villa. "I had made two films in such limited time in the past, so now it just seems part of the process."
When the film was accepted into the Sundance dramatic feature competition in November, de Villa began an intense period of fine-tuning, while bringing in Michael Levine to compose a rich and lyrical score to replace the temp track Alfredo had used for the film's festival submission. In the midst of that process, de Villa's father died in early December. Suddenly he was balancing the death of a man he had grown up without knowing, the imminent birth of his second child and a bruising schedule to complete the film before Sundance. Recalls de Villa, "I was overwhelmed by the timing of everything, especially because with Sundance, once we were accepted, we had to figure out how we were going to get the money to finish it on time—not only for the festival, but before my second child was due. I wanted to be able to be present and participate in the birth."
In that context, the themes of parenthood and mortality have an additional resonance for de Villa now that the film is complete. "The priority was always to be truthful to the world Nat and I established in our premise," says de Villa, "and to convey that honesty to the actors and through the camerawork and the editing. And then just making sure — or maybe hoping — that honesty transcends the film itself. That unspoken quality is something I just cherish with all the events that recently happened, whether it's sad or happy, or just unexpected or strange. The movie just kind of wraps it all around; it's cyclical. I'm still grappling with it."
ADRIFT IN MANHATTAN premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim. Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, reviewer Kurt Honeycutt summed up: "De Villa has a sharp eye for details that articulate unspoken grief and isolation in people. His film is like a good short story, where there are no wasted moments and an economy of expression allows the story to achieve maximum impact." Variety praised the film as a "delicate piece with good performances." Those performances were soon rewarded with a special jury Ensemble Award for best cast at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. The film also took the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the Indianapolis International Film Festival.
ADRIFT IN MANHATTAN will open theatrically in New York City on September 21, 2007.