In the News

Adrift in Manhattan

Nick Keppler / Houston Press
February 14, 2008

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston screens the newest by Alfredo De Villa, the next great American drama master

Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson or Atom Egoyan may want to take note of Alfredo De Villa. Like Anderson and Egoyan, the Mexican-born director is putting his own distinct stamp on the American drama genre, focusing on strained familial relationships, determined quests for identity, and emotional isolation in settings bustling with people. De Villa’s latest, Adrift in Manhattan, screening today at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is his first film not to focus on the generational conflicts of Latin American immigrants (key plot points in 2002’s excellent Washington Heights and 2006’s decent Yellow), and to take on a Magnolia-ish intersection of storylines.

In Adrift in Manhattan, Simon (Victor Rasuk) is a socially inept teenager obsessed with photographing strangers from a distance. He notices Rose (Heather Graham), an eye doctor grieving her toddler’s death. One of her patients is Tommaso (Dominic Chianese), an artist whose optical problems have left him stranded in a job at a corporate mailroom, where he tries to spark a relationship with Isabel (Elizabeth Peña), an emotionally cut-off coworker.

With a promising résumé, a vision he doesn’t seem willing to compromise, and a budding reputation, De Villa is an auteur to watch.

Adrift in Manhattan   ( 3 Stars )

Jack Mathews / NY Daily News
Sept 21, 2007

Drama about three New Yorkers in emotional crises. (1:31) Unrated: sexual content. At Village East.

As the title implies, writer-director Alfredo de Villa's indie drama focuses on New Yorkers who are lonely and emotionally lost in the big city. Heather Graham's Rose has separated from her school teacher husband (William Baldwin) and is in deep mourning over the loss of their baby. Dominic Chianese's Tomaso is a painter who has just learned that he's going blind. And Victor Rasuk's Simon is a 20-year-old photo shop clerk living at home with his alcoholic mother.

The three strangers live along the 1/9 subway line and two of them connect in a profound way. Simon, using borrowed cameras, becomes obsessed with Rose's scarf and begins stalking her to take her picture. When she learns what he is doing, her reaction is unexpected, to say the least.

"Adrift" is a small film with great humanity and deserves a broader audience than it's likely to get.

Adrift in Manhattan

Kirk Honeycutt / The Hollywood Reporter
Jan 29, 2007

Washington Square Films

PARK CITY — Three lonely people with a world of hurt inside are ADRIFT IN MANHATTAN, Alfredo de Villa's slice of Midtown life. 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.

Like some short stories though, the need to bring things to a head and forge a quick resolution causes the director, working from a script by Nat Moss, to simplify the issues raised. The main characters are able to move on with their lives a bit too easily thanks to a few change encounters. ADRIFT should perform well in subsequent festivals, but despite the presence of a star in Heather Graham the film has limited theatrical possibilities.

Three lives intersect randomly. Simon (Victor Rasuk), a quiet, late blooming teen with a demanding mother who is overly intimate with her son, has a passion for photography. When his telephoto lens catches sight of Rose (Graham), he is struck by the sadness he recognizes in her body language.

With his camera snapping away, he becomes a benign stalker and the movie enters her life. Since the tragic death of her two-year-old, Rose, an ophthalmologist, has become engulfed in sorrow and estranged from her husband (William Baldwin).

The third lonely person is Rose's patient Tommaso (Dominic Chianese), an aging painter whose work and his mailroom job are threatened by impending blindness. Rose urges him to seek out friends, which in his case means a budding romance with a co-worker (Elizabeth Peña).

The film's most effective moments are its quietest, such as the painter searching for a way to paint with diminished eyesight or the photographer examining photos of his eroticized obsession. The performances capture the ways people build walls around themselves to prevent the intimacy that may actually heal their pain.

De Villa clearly likes all his characters enormously. So perhaps he is too anxious to see everyone happy at the end. In life, some wounds refuse to heal.

Adrift in Manhattan

Lance Mannion / newcritics
January 21, 2008

I wonder what Heather Graham thinks about her eyes.

I wonder if she thinks about how her best feature is her greatest liability as an actress.

Her directors have. They have to.

Graham's eyes, the biggest, roundest in Hollywood since Betty Boop's, aren't lifeless or inexpressive or unfocused. They are just too... beautiful. They are nearly impossible to look into because you can't stop looking at them. Trying to find the emotion in them or read the thoughts behind them seems absurdly reductive, like looking at a sunrise over a mountain lake and spending the time thinking about optics, refraction, and the economic possibilities of solar energy.

For this reason her eyes might as well be as opaque as a doll's eyes, and it's no wonder that some of her best roles have been living dolls—Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Brandy, the roller skating porn star in Boogie Nights, Daisy the bad actress sleeping her way to the top of the filmmaking totem pole in Bowfinger. Ed Burns managed to make her pass as a real, and intelligent, human being in Sidewalks of New York I think by never letting his camera catch her face head on. He only allowed us to see those eyes at an angle.

But in Adrift in Manhattan, director Alfredo De Villa tackles the problem by photographing her head on and close up as often as he can and solves it by making those strange, guarded eyes—guarded by their own beauty—symbols of her character's willed emotional blindness. Instead of their being a wall of blue glass between us and her thoughts, De Villa has turned them into a wall between herself and the outside world. Graham's character, Rose Phipps, an eye doctor—I told you the De Villa uses her eyes symbolically.—is trying to get over the death of her little boy by not letting herself see his absence. She passes the door of her son's bedroom, where presumably everything inside remains just as it was the day he died, pausing long enough to read his name spelled out in quilted calico letters, again and again, but never lets herself peek in, as if whatever's in there belongs to some other family and is none of her business, and she frowns irritably at the child-rearing magazines and toy catalogs that continue to show up in her mail as if she can't think why she's still receiving mail for the people who lived in her apartment before her.

And at work, where she spends her days looking deeply into the eyes of others, she presents her patients with a glacial lack of sympathy. When she tells an old man, a retired art teacher, whose job as a mail room clerk and whose one passion, his painting, depend on his eyes, that he's going blind, he looks to her for some hope, some explanation, some understanding, and finds himself staring into a gorgeous blue blankness. He might just as well have turned to one of her diagnostic devices for sympathy. That's what Rose has made of her own eyes, mere devices for her work. To look at other people, really look, would mean to see what they have and what she has lost.

If Rose allows herself to feel anything at all, it's anger. Rose is furious with her husband, who has moved out of their apartment. It's not clear whether he's left on his own or if Rose has thrown him out. Rose is furious because, she says accusingly, he doesn't care about their son's death, at least he shows no sign that he's grieving, and she's angry because in a terrible moment he blamed her for taking her eyes of their toddler, letting him wander to his death. Of course Rose isn't grieving either. She doesn't want to hear about it from herself. She thinks she has no right to mourn because she's half-convinced she's to blame too.

Mark Phipps (played by the other Baldwin brother who can act, William), a prep school English teacher, has walled his feelings in just as securely as Rose has, only his wall is made of forced cheerfulness. The only release for his feelings, all his feelings, including his grief, comes through his teaching and his students' poetry. There's a moment when one of the pretty girls in his class who are obviously smitten with him explicates a poem and his pleased and excited reaction to what she says seems to be a prelude to a teacher seduces his brightest student subplot. But it turns out that the moment is all about the moment, and we realize that what he's taking pleasure in is not the girl herself but in the honest expression of emotions he won't allow himself to feel. He's keeping his heart alive only through transfusions of warmth from his students.

Into the Phipps, life wanders—well, sneaks—Simon Colon (Victor Rasuk), a young amateur photographer with the talent and the eye, but not the confidence or the courage, to be a professional, even an artist.

Simon is a prisoner of grief too, although it's his mother's grief that has him trapped. His father walked out on the family when he was little and his mother (Marlene Forte) has dealt with her broken heart by attempting to freeze their lives at the moment just before disaster struck, when she was young and beautiful and happy and Simon was her innocent baby boy. It's awful enough for a twenty year old man to be treated like a schoolboy, but Simon's mother's fantasy of family happiness requires her husband to still be in the picture too, so she's forced Simon into the part. When he's not her darling boy, he's the man of the house, and when he's not being made to play either of those roles, he's her lover.

De Villa leaves things ambiguous. It's not clear how far Marta's gone with that. But her behavior is crazy and crazy-making enough even if she hasn't taken Simon into her bed. She's seductive, too physical, jealous, demanding not just of his time and his attention and care but of his appreciation—she encourages him to look at her in a way no son wants to see his mother.

Confused, guilty, with no clear idea how sane men and women behave with one another, he goes out into the world with his head down and his eyes averted, desperately trying not to draw attention to himself because he's afraid anybody who gets a really good look at him will know. The only way he can bring himself to look at life is at a remove, from behind his own glass eye—that is, through the lens of his camera. And it's a telephoto lens. He remains a great distance, he hides in the background, and spies.

One day Simon finds himself spying through his lens on a beautiful young woman sitting alone on a park bench, walled off in her own thoughts, and he catches her starting to cry. It's Rose, naturally, and she doesn't cry. She stops herself as soon as she feels the first tears on her cheek. She brushes them away like soot. Simon is more than smitten, he's enthralled. He needs to know her. He needs to know why she was about to cry and why and how she made herself stop. Rose stands and leaves the park and Simon follows her. He follows her all the way home, photographing her whenever he sees the chance.

That's not the end of it, though. He starts stalking her. Which he knows to be creepy and which he knows won't get him what he wants, which is some sort of normal human conversation.

He arranges for her to see the pictures he's taken of her.

I hate to use the phrase but it's the right one—the photographs are eye-opening for Rose.

Seeing herself as Simon sees her, an isolated stranger locked up inside herself, startles her. She doesn't like what she sees, but she becomes curious about herself. She wants to know more and in order to do so she allows Simon to take more pictures. She catches him following her but she doesn't chase him away. And this sets up a startlingly spooky shot the effectiveness of which depends on our having gotten used to the emotional opacity of Graham's amazing eyes.

De Villa delivers it as the final image of a quick montage of the photographs Simon has just taken. The pictures are in black and white so that Graham's eyes, robbed of their otherworldly blueness, are reduced to a more human scale of prettiness. We see her from behind, then starting to turn, then in profile, then in three quarters, and finally full on, looking straight back into Simon's camera, and we suddenly see her looking back, her eyes intense, focused, full of a strange mix of contempt and appreciation, and it's like looking at a painting and realizing it's looking back.

One thing leads to the other, almost unfortunately. Rose leads Simon home and seduces him, setting up the scene I mentioned the other day that was a brave and risky and foolhardy move by De Villa, and probably an unnecessary one, but somehow he gets away with it.

Rose uses Simon to punish herself and somehow, sort of, get even with her husband, who, she thinks, has moved heartlessly and effortlessly on. Sex absolves her, melts her. Meanwhile, Mark, although he doesn't know about Simon, has come to the conclusion that it's Rose who has moved on. He thinks she has met somebody else and his jealousy breaks the dam of his emotions.

Simon is freed too. I'm not giving anything away that De Villa hasn't fore-ordained for us from the beginning of the film—this is one of those movies where the interest lies not in the ending but in how the characters get themselves to the points we know they are going to have to reach. Adrift in Manhattan begins and ends with a cliches. The story starts with Simon spying on the world, seeing it at a distance in black and white, and finishes with him, still looking at it through his camera, but boldly now, as an artist engaged with his subjects, using a wide-angle lens to take close-ups, in color, of all sorts and conditions of people smiling back at him.

This is a movie full of cliches, actually. But cliches aren't all bad. Cliches are truths that have degenerated into truisms through overuse, and they can be made useful again, their truths can be brought out, through rephrasing. Everything Romeo and Juliet feel about each other is cliched and they speak nothing but cliches to one another. They're young lovers discovering what all young lovers discover, but Shakespeare has made it new for them, and for us, by giving them a poetry all their own. He's rephrased the cliches to make them true again. I'm not saying that De Villa has come up with a visual equivalent of Shakespeare's poetry, but he has gotten his actors and his camera to rephrase the cliches.

I wouldn't call Adrift in Manhattan a great movie either. I liked it, very much, but I think what sold me on the movie and carried me through it was the acting in the subplot.

Dominic Chianese plays another character trapped and isolated by grief, Rose's patient, Tommaso Pensara, the old painter going blind, and he plays him with such a mix of dignity, intelligence, authority, vulnerability, and pain that I was never for a moment reminded of the role I know Chianese best in—Junior Soprano, Tony's feckless, weak but dangerous, and increasingly senile uncle. The contrast Chianese creates between the quiet, restrained, refined, adult Tommasso and the manic, insecure, desperate to be respected, permanently adolescent Junior is so startlingly great that the two characters don't even look remotely alike, although Chianese played both without any special make-up.

But then you know what they say about the art of screen acting.

It's all in the eyes.

The Director Interviews: Alfredo de Villa, Adrift in Manhattan

Nick Dawson / Filmmaker Magazine
Sept 21, 2007

Though he is now living in Los Angeles, Alfredo De Villa can't stop returning to New York City to make his movies. The 35-year-old writer-director was born and raised in Puebla, Mexico, but moved to the U.S. when he was in his teens. He began his film career with shorts, Joe's Egg (1995) and Neto's Run (1999), both of which went on to win him the DGA's Best Latino Director Award. He studied Directing at Columbia University's film program, after which he moved into advertising, and in 2002 he directed his first feature, Washington Heights, about an aspiring comicbook artist who is compelled to look after his ailing father and his bodega. The film won a special mention at the first Tribeca Film Festival, and De Villa followed it up last year with Yellow, a dance movie vehicle for actress Roselyn Sanchez.

Like Washington Heights, Adrift in Manhattan was co-scripted by De Villa, with his writing partner, Nat Moss. Another portrait of life in New York, the film presents a triptych of stories about characters isolated and unfulfilled: Simon (Victor Rasuk), a shy young photographer who has a dangerously intimate relationship with his mother; Rose (Heather Graham), an optometrist consumed by grief after the death her two-year-old son; and Tomasso (Dominic Chianese), a solitary, aging painter who is about to lose his sight. The stories interweave as the three lives bisect, sometimes surprisingly, offering the hope of salvation &mdash or at least closure &mdash for the protagonists. De Villa's film takes a poetic and restrained approach to the material, often using the characters' actions rather than their words to give us insight, and constructs a thoughtful, poignant and ultimately hopeful portrait of urban lives.

Filmmaker spoke to De Villa about his transition into filmmaking, his cinematic homages to William Friedkin and David O. Russell, and how Darth Vader changed his life.

Filmmaker: You left your hometown of Puebla when you were 17. Why was that?

De Villa: It was a very simple decision to leave. Puebla is the fourth or fifth largest city in Mexico, and it's very regional. At the time, it was very isolated and basically the prospects of pursuing something to do with film, or trying to do a film in Puebla, were just daunting. A lot of people were getting into the film school in Mexico, but it was difficult for somebody from Puebla because you needed recommendations &mdash I had nobody.

Filmmaker: How important are your background and heritage to your identity as a filmmaker?

De Villa: Personally, it's very important. I think my work has always been a reaction to what I grew up with as a teenager in Puebla, which has been funky because it's a very specific world and it was a very specific time, so sometimes I ran into trouble finding dramatic equivalents by setting stories in New York, in a completely different country.

Filmmaker: What did you do once you arrived in the U.S., before you got involved in filmmaking?

De Villa: Well, I worked as a dishwasher, a delivery man, I ran a little gas station &mdash things like that. I did some gardening, cleaned people's houses sometimes. I was in Florida when I first came to the States, so I found it was lucrative to clean people's boats; it was a bitch of a job, but it paid better. So I did a few of those, but they were harsh.

Filmmaker: How did you get to the stage of making shorts?

De Villa: Since Mexico, I always had this strong desire to do films. I had the chance to do my first short film when I was in my directing class &mdash it was basically an end-of-semester exercise. Back then [at Columbia], you could do whatever you wanted, nobody cared, use any equipment. So a friend of mine and I wrote this little script which was pretty funny, and it was self-contained so we budgeted out and realized it was going to cost us essentially the cost of film and a couple of more bucks to get it done. $1200 or something like that. So we shot it on 16 [mm].

Filmmaker: How did things progress after your graduation from Columbia?

De Villa: I did all kinds of crazy jobs, anything that came my way and one of those things was that I became a freelance proofreader. In New York, there's a lot of advertising agencies, and they started to like me because I was quiet and I did my work. What I realized was half the time you just sat there waiting, you really didn't do much, so for me it was great because I could bring my own work. I started realizing that somebody had to produce those commercials, so I asked around and finally one agency said, "Well, we don't have an opening, but give us your C.V.," and sure enough, two months later they called me and offered me an entrance position job. So I had a parallel career in advertising, and basically until '04 I worked in that industry &mdash even when I was shooting and cutting Washington Heights, I had a day job producing commercials.

Filmmaker: How close is the comicbook artist in Washington Heights to you, in terms of his drive and ambition?

De Villa: I never thought about it, but I think you're right. I think your observation is very interesting. In Washington Heights, I never thought of him in terms of his ambition, I always understood him in terms of his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father and how it changes him as a person. In Puebla, when my cousins and I were asked what we were going to do and what our ambitions were, nobody ever said, "Oh, I want to run the World Bank," or, "I want to be the next governor of Puebla," [laughs] it was like, "Yeah, I'll go to college and study engineering," or "Maybe I'll study political science and then eventually go to law school." Where emphasis was placed was more on family, on the idea of you staying in the same city, raising your family in the same city, and it was a very close network.

Filmmaker: That closeness of family emerges in a very unusual sense in Adrift in Manhattan, where Simon and his mother have a relationship that borders on incestuous.

De Villa: The first thing I should say is that my mother and I never had any incestuous relationship! [laughs] Let's get rid of that evil rumor before it arises! Actually I'm not that close to my mother: my father is dead, and I essentially grew up without a father. It's a very complicated family history. It was a very conscious decision when we were thinking about that character, to make him have this really complex relationship with his mother.

Filmmaker: There's an echo of David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey in their relationship. You have a great homage to The French Connection in one scene, so was there a conscious awareness of a reference to Russell's film?

De Villa: I was very aware of that film, and I'm a big fan of it. I love the movie, and especially the scene where the mother and son come to make love: they're kinda both drunk and they're actually playing with each other and one thing leads to the next until they kiss. It's fascinating, and incredibly real. It's a beautiful moment. I knew when we made our film we would be referencing that movie in one way or another, but it wasn't that planned per se. In terms of The French Connection, the old title of the movie was 1/9 after the subway lines, and we needed a scene where Heather [Graham]'s character makes a choice to pursue this guy who's essentially stalking her, and we finally came up with the idea to do it in the subway. Then, of course, we thought about the Fernando Rey-Gene Hackman scene in French Connection, the cat and mouse [where they repeatedly move on and off the train as it's about to leave]. We decided to do it our own way, and we hoped that contextually it was different enough. I love that scene in The French Connection.

Filmmaker: I've read that the movie was quite a bit darker in initial drafts of the script, but that it had to be toned down in order for you to get funding. What did you change?

De Villa: The script was a lot darker, to be honest, and it was a really difficult proposition for the financiers. The scenes between the mother and son were a lot more explicit, and we had to stay more at the level of hint and suggestion. What Heather and Victor [Rasuk]'s characters did was a lot darker, as well &ndash more than just the spanking, if you will!

Filmmaker: All of your movies so far have been set in New York. Is that by chance or design?

De Villa: Well, with these two films [Washington Heights and Adrift in Manhattan] it was more by design. When I came to this country, I came to Miami first and then eventually, three of four years later, I made my way to New York. I remember when I first got there, I felt immediately right at home. Coming from a foreign country, America is a very particular place and in many ways you feel very alienated from it, but I think New York, with its cosmopolitan attitude and the attitude of the real native New Yorkers, it's so in-your-face and interesting, and so different from the rest of the country that I felt at home. I remember just walking out of the plane when I first came there and just touching the soil and feeling O.K. about it. And, mind you, when I came to New York, I had $400 in my pocket &mdash I just did it. I was fearless.

Filmmaker: Was there a moment when you were younger when you realized you wanted to become a filmmaker?

De Villa: There were a lot of things that were wrong when I was growing up in and around my family, but the appearance was a different story altogether. Even though I was seven and wasn't very self-aware, I knew there was something very wrong. This is going to sound banal, but I remember going to see The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars movie which marked my generation, and being fascinated when Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker that he's his father. That powerful revelation was so raw to me, and moved me. I came out of the cinema on this main boulevard, and I was so shaken. I could just not [get rid] of that feeling. The fact that this huge emotional connection between these two characters could happen in a movie, whereas in real life we had to hide it and couldn't express those things directly, was very moving to me.

Filmmaker: Which lost overlooked masterpiece would you like to see have a renaissance?

De Villa: The movie that I love, and I'm not sure how much it's been ignored, is a movie I go back to a lot, a lot, one of the early melodramas by Luis Buñuel from Mexico, called El. I love that film. I'm not sure how much it's considered a classic, but I know a lot of people do know it because it's one of the most Buñuelian films from his Mexico years.

Filmmaker: What's the strangest thing that's happened to you during your time as a filmmaker?

De Villa: Well, the one that I can remember most is a very weird story. We were talking to this foreign sales company based in Hollywood to get some projections to raise money, based on actors and whatnot. I had to go in and meet them and hear their notes on the script [of Adrift in Manhattan] (when the script was a lot darker). They sat me down with the president of the company and the development team and were telling me the score and what it is. It was really strange, they went in and said, "The dialogue is good, the situations are good, but there's no political intrigue. Maybe you could write it like Crash, give it a political angle." They suggested that the young photographer could try and assassinate the mayor. What do you do with comments like that? And then they said, "The movie doesn't have enough sex." I managed to dodge the question of politics, and when it comes to the sex, I said, "No, no, no, you're wrong. The movie is like Last Tango In Paris, sans the butter." They actually took notes, nodded to each other, and that was satisfactory. It was just really surreal — I [suddenly] understood a lot of the David Lynch movies after that. [laughs] David Lynch is basically just making documentaries of his surroundings.

Subway makes connections in indie film 'Adrift in Manhattan'

Denis Hamill / NY Daily News
Sept 16, 2007

Three years ago, when I interviewed him about his independent movie "Washington Heights," filmmaker Alfredo de Villa told me he wanted his next project to be about people whose lives intersect on the No. 1 and No. 9 trains.

And so it is. "Adrift in Manhattan" is another tough-love valentine to New York, this time involving a painter (Dominic Chianese of "The Sopranos"), who is going progressively blind; his divorced optometrist (Heather Graham), still traumatized by the loss of her only child, and a young man (newcomer Victor Rasuk), who's searching for his own identity through the lens of a camera.

The film, opening Friday, steers us into the lives of these New Yorkers who travel to and from work by subway through the black veins of the big city. The movie dramatizes how they all connect in poignant, sometimes agonizingly human moments.

"The film was called '1/9' until right before it was accepted into Sundance," says de Villa, who co-wrote the film with Nat Moss. "Then the producers asked us to pick a more mainstream title. You win some battles, you lose some." Additionally, the MTA discontinued the No. 9 "skip-stop" train in 2005.

"But it was victory enough to raise the money to make a small human drama like this," de Villa adds. "After taking my first film to many film festivals, traveling around the country and the world, I watched how audiences would respond most to the quiet moments in that film when seemingly nothing was going on, but of course much was going on emotionally."

Intrigued, de Villa says he wanted to tell his next story almost entirely in those quiet human moments when the biggest emotions stir. De Villa says that on the New York subway, people communicate all the time in unspoken ways, through glances, body language or silences that reveal humor or inner conflict.

"I wanted to find ways of expressing emotion, and inner feelings, with staging,expressions, with the camera," says the Mexican-born director, who studied film at Columbia University. "I talked to Nat about writing a movie about the smaller movements in life. Without sounding pretentious, we wanted to make a tone piece where the challenge was to take plot and put it in the backseat, and make a movie about believable characters and their needs, and make those needs the top priority. Then all of the story, all the drama, all the movement would come out of that. What they need is who they are."

Cutting from character to character until their needs and lives collide below and aboveground, "Adrift in Manhattan" is an actor's dream. Graham ("Boogie Nights," "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me") gets to show her range. You forget that Chianese ever played Uncle Junior. You want to see more of Rasuk, a fine young actor.

"Almost from conception, the film was going to have a slow, small movement," says de Villa, whose idea of a big action scene is a marvelous moment between an elderly couple fumbling for a first kiss. "The story was always going to be as big as the characters. Never bigger than them. It was a challenge to ourselves to see if we could pull it off."

Adrift in Manhattan

Michael Fishman / Ourspace Movieblog
July 20, 2008

This is a beautiful film that unfortunately failed to find the wide audience in theaters it deserved. Directed by Alfred de Villa (WASHINGTON HEIGHTS), screenplay by Nat Moss based on an original story by Alfredo de Villa, the film stars Heather Graham, Dominic Chianese (THE SOPRANOS' Uncle Junior) and Victor Rasuk (RAISING VICTOR VARGAS) as three New Yorkers whose lives are in crisis and whose paths cross in powerful, meaningful ways. The film, which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and won the Grand Prize at the Indianapolis International Film Festival and an Ensemble Award for Best Cast at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, achieves several noteworthy things: portrait of an artist that feels real in both Dominic Chianese as a painter who is going blind and Victor Rasuk's amateur photographer who spots Heather Graham's Rose in a park one day, follows her home and starts photographing her surreptitiously; portrait of a voyeur who is not a creepy pervert; a sex scene that is raw and intimate at the same time; and a look at life in the city that will feel real to anyone who actually rides the 1 train.

Supporting cast members Elizabeth Peña and William Baldwin add considerably to the depth of emotion, in particular Baldwin in a scene as a high school teacher discussing an e.e.cummings poem with his students, a poem, like many by cummings, resonating with meditation on life and death couched in deceptively simple images. Any film that dares to explore an e.e. cummings poem has something to say that is worth hearing and this tender, alive film deserves to be heard and seen.

Speaking of which, the original music by Michael A. Levine is perfectly-suited and some of the most beautiful soundtrack music I've heard. Check out his very interesting website where you will see that Levine is a hugely accomplished film music composer:

Adrift in Manhattan is available from Netflix, which is how I viewed it. Kicking myself for not catching it in the theater but it works fine on the small screen. See it and help spread the word. Nice website devoted to the film at:

Ready for His Close-Up; Thompson speechwriter Nat Moss moonlights as independent film screenwriter

Elie Mystal / City Hall News
November 13, 2007

During business hours, Nat Moss is a speechwriter for New York City Comptroller William Thompson (D). But during nights and evenings, he devotes himself to a different sort of writing.

He has authored three books and the critically acclaimed Washington Heights, a film that won the Austin Film Festival in 2002, as well as a special mention at the Tribeca Film Festival that year. His latest project is Adrift in Manhattan.

Starring Heather Graham, William Baldwin, and Dominic Chianese as three emotionally isolated characters who interact with each other only in passing, the film, Moss said, is about how strangers in a city could ease the pain of others' disconnectedness &mdash though they do not. The film, which had a limited release earlier this fall, was featured at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Moss took a somewhat unconventional path to screenwriting. After graduating from Brown University, Moss took an internship with The Nation in Washington, D.C. But he soon decided that speechwriting was a better fit for his skills and interests in politics and writing.

His first speechwriting job was for then-Rep. Ted Weiss (D-Manhattan). Even though he enjoyed that work, he nurtured his passion for film in his spare time, and after Weiss died unexpectedly right before the 1992 Democratic primary, Moss applied to and matriculated at Columbia University's film school.

There he met Alfredo De Villa, who eventually came to co-write and direct both of Moss' feature length scripts that have been produced. While going to school and working on what would become Washington Heights, Moss also did freelance work for Vanity Fair.

Moss, who lives with his wife and two kids in Brooklyn, said he appreciates the financial stability speechwriting provides.

"I'm getting to make the movies I want to make," he said. But at the same time, he said, speechwriting "is dependable, and I can support my family."

Making Adrift in Manhattan took two-and-a-half years. Moss only started looking for speechwriting positions after the script had been through several drafts. He connected with Thompson's office through Deputy Comptroller Eduardo Castell, an old friend whom he knew from their days together on Weiss' staff.

More than his responsibilities as a speechwriter, Moss said, living in New York City inspires the scripts and stories he writes. Though Moss is a native of Houston, he calls New York a supporting character in his work.

"My sense of the city and the ebb and flow of how people relate to each other and interconnect has been reinforced by my time here," said Moss.

He admitted that putting only his off-hours to screenwriting makes the process harder and longer, though he continues to push ahead on several film projects.

"I write at night," he said, "after I get my kids to bed."

MFAH Films: Interview with Nat Moss

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
February 6, 2008

Nat Moss grew up in Houston, graduated from Brown University, and enrolled in Columbia University«s Graduate Film Division, where he met Alfredo De Villa. They cowrote the 2003 feature Washington Heights, which received multiple awards and critical acclaim. A political speechwriter by day, Moss is the author of three nonfiction books for young adults and has written for Film Comment and Vanity Fair. Adrift in Manhattan made its world premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Listen to the interview >

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