Interviews

Director Ingrid Veninger Talks Women in Film, the Canadian Identity, and ‘The Animal Project’

“There’s a quote by Cassavetes…”

She trails off for only a split moment, pausing our conversation so she can skim through something (Her personal archives? Her email? I never find out) to locate it. A few shuffles here, a few seconds there, and she’s got it, reading it crisp and clear with the assertion of assurance on her side.

The only thing you need to make a film is to not be afraid of anybody or anything.

I prepare to agree and tell her how much I like the quote; it’s standard interview etiquette to flatter your interviewee, I remind myself. I open my mouth to chime in with my approval, but she continues.

“…and I love John Cassavetes, but I think to myself, ‘that’s just not me.’ I’m afraid and full of doubt. I am uncertain all the time, but I think to live and create and be in the world in spite of that or with that, through that, and being afraid and doing it anyway, being uncertain and plowing through anyway, that’s much more interesting to me.”

It’s dangerous to make assumptions with Ingrid Veninger.

She doesn’t fit into any particular box, but again, assuming she’s obligated to is a colossal misjudgment of her character.

“To me, it’s all about where I feel comfortable, because I feel comfortable on a subway full of misfits and outcasts and people from elsewhere, because people are struggling to belong but are also ok with who they are.”

But, like any filmmaker with a product on the market, Veninger has to tackle the task of making her creative, individualized, highly unique voice heard amidst a sea of what can often seem like audience indifference when the masses are used to their Spidermans and Iron Mans.

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I first saw her latest film The Animal Project, which is readying for a worldwide June 6th release on Vimeo VOD and iTunes Canada, when she brought it here (personally) last November as part of Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Film Festival. I found it odd that such an accomplished international filmmaker would make a mid-sized American city like Pittsburgh a travel priority; after all, she’s helmed (written, produced, directed, or a combination of all three) 18 films, and has shown a few of them at the Toronto International Film Festival (her Modra was named one of the 10 best Canadian films at TIFF a few years back) and elsewhere abroad.

“[Film festivals] are not about the money, but they are about exposure. With each film festival comes, hopefully, a little bit of local press and a live audience that you can exchange with,” she says of her insistence upon traveling with her films from places like Santiago to Ashland. “That exchange with living people happens at film festivals, and for me it’s crucial.”

There were maybe a little over 20 people in the audience when The Animal Project screened here in Pittsburgh, and Veninger made a point to probe us with questions, but I get the sense that she would’ve delighted to speak about her work to only the projectionist and a house full of empty seats if no one at all had shown up. While the goal for anyone working in any business is to earn some sort of revenue, Veninger hopes for something much simpler.

“I just hope some cool adventures come out from all of this,” she says.

It’s clear to see that Veninger cares about her films like they’re living, breathing children that have sprung forth from her flesh and being—and she treats them accordingly, seeing it as her duty to show them off and talk about them to strangers, like a parent with a child on the honor roll every semester.

“Every time I wanted to make [The Animal Project] sparkle and shine, the film said ‘no can do’,” she says of the decision to minimize non-diegetic music within the film. “Music was just getting in the way of [the film’s tone]. Music could have tied a lot of thematic ideas together, aided in transitions, created a bigger emotional impact…but every time I explored putting music in the film, it rejected it. I had to stay out of the way of the simplicity and the bareness and the rawness because that’s the purse essence of the film. The film isn’t always going to do what you want it to do.”

I realized it then at the screening (and even more so now as I speak with her during our interview) that there’s an ever-present urgency with which she speaks about her work, and it comes through whether she’s holding a microphone thirty feet from you at a Q&A session or talking via cell phone some 400 miles away. She sometimes revisits topics we’d covered earlier in our interview, and some she felt like needed to expand upon just a bit more without a second thought. She isn’t being rude when she talks enthusiastically over me, she’s just having trouble keeping the ever-churning, gloriously enthusiastic ideas she has at bay.

When you speak with her, it’s clear that she’s focused on her words, how they’re coming out, indicating how tactfully she’s pulled from the sea of ideas that’s ever-present in her creative brain. These waters are not intimidating or fearsome, uninviting, or unnavigable; Veninger overflows with passion for her subjects, her work, her family, her craft—and at first glance it might look like she’s in over her head. That’s not the case, even in the slightest.

“It’s an exciting time to be an independent filmmaker,” she says. “We can make high quality work for very little money, and it’s really hard if you have no one championing and supporting you. You can’t do it by yourself.”

But, it’s the refined subtleties of Veninger’s films that make the struggle of being an independent filmmaker look like a breeze. She’s involved in all aspects of production on her films. She writes, she directs, and finds herself doing everything in between. She might not be able to do everything herself, but Canadian magazine Maclean’s has dubbed her the “Toronto’s reigning queen of DIY cinema” thanks to her extremely hands-on approach.

“DIY is like, doing it yourself with a village,” she says. “Film really becomes a living organism, and that’s really exciting to me…the push and pull of it, for me, is the essential practice of filmmaking, and it is a practice. You have to keep doing it. You can get out of shape really quickly. It’s a muscle.”

It’s this sort of attitude—facing the world army with a tiny village (usually a crew of 2 to 4 other people) on her side—that makes Veninger such a sensation in the independent film world. Her work feels refreshing in that it features characters you’d never see in a commercial Hollywood release.

She writes characters who are flawed, who are unabashedly themselves, who are real; but, they’re also all the more relatable for those reasons, and with The Animal Project, Veninger chooses to let them speak for themselves without much influence of the director’s hand, and the process of creating the film speaks to that.

The Animal Project is a rarity as a film and as a concept. Veninger says she knew she wanted to make a film in Toronto, where she lives, but she didn’t have any idea for a script when she set out to make the film. She contacted talent agencies throughout the city, met with 100 actors who were willing to blindly donate three months of their time to a project without a script, and whittled that group down to the final eight who appear in the film.  Once she had talent secured, she went off and wrote the script without the actors knowing who they’d be playing or what they’d be doing.

Her background as an actor (she has appeared in over 100 different projects) helped her connect with the group she’d assembled for The Animal Project, and exploring the dynamics of the unknown alongside the film’s talent was very important to her going into the film.

“It was kind of a test of faith. I wanted to take a leap into challenging myself in a different way. I wanted the creators, the actors, and the crew to take [the test] with me. If no one was with me, The Animal Project wouldn’t exist,” she says. “Some of the ideas in the film are about performance and about authenticity. Acting is about being truthful in the moment, but it’s also about lying. Actors are professional liars, and I really wanted this film to be raw in its performance. The actors are really naked up there, and being naked is a really important part of The Animal Project.”

The film is certainly a marvel for its uniqueness. There’s an ever-flowing emotional current running throughout the film, which follows a group of diverse characters as they embark on a new acting project (and bouts with self-discovery as a result) together, but that current is urgent without being pushy. Since the actors, characters, Veninger, and the audience are each jumping into this experiment together, it puts us all on the same plane. Everyone wins when they’re playing on one team, and Veninger has created a film that requires an equal amount of investment from all participants.

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“I took a leap into a process that was kind of irrational, but that I had an instinct about. The actors took a leap also, being full of fear, being quasi-trusting, and had an instinct about it being worthwhile. The characters took a similar leap in becoming part of The Animal Project, but do it and it’s irrational and it could fail and lead nowhere, but they do it. The audience is taking a leap into the film, too, as an audience watching something that’s irregular and odd and unconventional and shouldn’t really work, and hopefully it does in some way. That makes it feel original and fresh and exciting.”

Keeping things fresh and exciting might seem difficult for a director who’s seemingly played every role in front of and behind the camera. Veninger has been many things throughout the course of her career. She’s been a mother, a director, an actor, a producer, a spouse; and there are struggles that come with that. Taking time away from family wasn’t something she wants to do, so she finds ways to incorporate her personal life into her films. Her son, Jacob, has worked with her numerous times, including having a lead role in The Animal Project, while her daughter Hallie (who starred alongside Veninger in the brilliant i am a good person/i am a bad person) works as a costume designer on her mother’s features.

I love working with my family. They trust me. There’s a shorthand between us, whereas working with new people there’s always a process of ‘get to know you’ and resistance,” she says. “I respect [my kids] so much, especially working together, and then we have these amazing experiences of traveling to film festivals around the word, so it contributes to the family. My personal goal, especially as a woman, is to balance being a responsible parent, with holding a long-term relationship, and challenging myself as a filmmaker. There is a limit to how much I can push.”

It’s not like family is automatically a confine, though. Veninger is proof that a strong, creative voice can be the focus of a career. She just finds a way to meld it with her personal life, so her films become extensions of herself, and she’s not afraid to be herself in an industry that so often pretends like she–and her indie colleagues–aren’t there.

“I think [filmmaking] shares elements with being a parent. A director is a parent,” she says of sending her projects, her family, and her vision out into the world in film form. “You know, you have a kid and they want to wear something or they want to do something that is going to make them have a really tough time at school. You know if they just put on the nice little dress and wear the shiny shoes, they’ll be really accepted and loved and celebrated. When I was in Kindergarten there was some drawing assignment, and I can remember painting the sky magenta, and the teacher came by and said the sky has to be blue, and I really wanted to keep it magenta. Basically, my picture didn’t get put on the bulletin board of all the most beautiful pictures, and part of you just [tells yourself to] paint the sky blue and you’ll get on the board.”

Just don’t count on her to condone that perspective any time soon.

“In this age of bigger, stronger, faster, my impulse is to go smaller, simpler, truer,” she says of her work. “In this pace I feel like I want to slow down and retreat a little bit, making films in a very modest way for a little bit of money with a very small and tight creative group of people that I love and respect as opposed to going big or going home. That’s not my philosophy; it’s more about going inside and being as truthful as you can.”

Veninger’s earnesty is valuable. She’s not going against the grain for the sake of countering or subverting mainstream taste. In fact, she wants to connect with more people through her work instead of turning them away. There’s truly something for everyone in Veninger’s films. They’re arty and alternative, but not inaccessible, and with the Vimeo VOD release, the film will be available worldwide for everyone to consume. Casual moviegoers love for things to be easy, but the fact remains that Veninger faces an uphill battle as a female in a male-dominated field. She is proof, however, that great storytellers are women; her films are proof that female-driven narratives (with deep female characters who are agents of their own stories, mind you) exist, it’s just that the studios are reluctant to catch on.

The pUNK Films Femmes Lab

The pUNK Films Femmes Lab

“I feel like in many films I’m seeing slivers of women, but I’m rarely seeing whole women, and women are really complex. I’m interested in the nooks and the cracks and the flaws and the people that are struggling,” she says. “Women who are struggling as mothers, as creators, as partners in their world are so much more interesting to me than seeing some sort of bullshit façade of someone that has their life together and is just kind of quirky and funny and quippy and cute and really hot in bed with flawless skin and isn’t constipated.”

Veninger validates her own stories and characters within herself, so she doesn’t need it from the industry at large. She does hope, however, that English-Canadian filmmakers can one day share a unique identity on the world stage.

“French-Canadian cinema does have its identity. We see what Xavier Dolan is doing in the world, we see what Jean-Marc Vallée has done previous to Dallas Buyer Club, and now he’s exploded. Quebec also has so many incredible women filmmakers,” she says. “English Canada, I think, from the international industry’s point of view is just seen as America. I mean in Cannes I was at a round table with a sales agent and I asked her if there’s any difference from [her] perspective between an English-Canadian film and an American film, and she said no. The challenge for English-Canadian film is if an international institute is going to acquire an English film, they tend to go toward the film with movie stars or names attached as directors, and that’s what Canadian films are competing against in terms of sales. We have to be even more original and even louder about the great films we make, and we have to really start fostering the appetite for our indigenous cinema inside our country.”

These aren’t just empty words merely hoping for advancement of the medium in her country. Aside from making films, she’s also busy putting female filmmakers to work with her pUNK Films Femmes Lab, a collaborative program that involves six female writer/directors from Canada working to create six feature scripts. The program has attracted interest from Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, who ponied up $6,000 for a first look at the scripts as the lab, which has its final meeting later this year, makes headway.

It all sounds like a bit much for one person to do, no? There’s beauty in the seemingly chaotic, overwhelming way of floating from project to project with such intensity, but she finds a way. The sea of ideas might be vast, and the sea of opposition from an industry that wants to set her out in a makeshift raft of sameness or slap labels onto what she does or where she comes from might make the waters a bit choppy, but if there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t need a paddle, it’s Ingrid Veninger.

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The Animal Project will open theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets here: http://tiff.net/programming/new-releases/the-animal-project

On JUNE 6th, 2014, The Animal Project will be on iTunes throughout Canada here: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/movie/the-animal-project/id871991994

….and VIMEO VOD throughout the world, excluding Canada here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theanimalproject

Watch the trailer here: http://theanimalprojectmovie.com/#watchTra

Visit http://www.punkfilms.ca/for more information on Ingrid’s work

Like The Animal Project on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TheAnimalProjectMovie

Follow Ingrid Veninger on Twitter: @punkfilmsnow

Follow Joey Nolfi on Twitter: @joeynolfi

His Name is Baby Tap, and He Doesn’t Know Why

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“Um. My name is Baby Tap. I don’t know why, but, my name is Baby Tap. It’s nice to meet you,” he says in a video message posted to his YouTube account in July.

A more important question might be who is Baby Tap?

But, it’s unfair to the essence of the human behind the art to ask such a question.

After all, it’s not like Avess Arshad isn’t a person in the first place.

With a steady job, full-time hours at a café, and a quaint London apartment he shares with his boyfriend, he’s most humanly human. It’s just that his musical endeavors are unlike anything the patrons he serves within a commercialized London could easily warm up to.

Beats of otherworldy flair. Electronic murmurs. Lyrics some might call crass—the package is chaotic yet calculated; There’s a science to Arshad’s craft. It just takes some getting used to.

Even he struggles a bit to define himself in “normal” terms.

“I feel music, I become music. I don’t sell that shit or ever intend to. It’s far too precious to me,” he says, like a rebel (revolutionary?) defending a countercultural identity as an independent artist. What a dead-on-arrival term in today’s music industry, huh? Independence. For some, it’s synonymous with a lack of grandeur. Of meager means heralded only when recognized by the masses. Is it possible to be an independent artist in today’s world without automatically shoving oneself into a niche with potential for fluke success? We see artists who were once firmly-planted atop the charts of yesteryear (Eve, Radiohead, Bjork) now releasing music independently—free of constraint—to satisfy their artistic craving seemingly stifled years prior.

Indie is synonymous with freedom. With uprising.

How does Arshad explore this freedom?

“I fit into the equation of music as a whole as an enjoyable catharsis through energy and expression, spirituality and dance,” Arshad says of his art. “It’s fire, you know. Music is like fire.”

It’s an elemental likeness that illuminates all the things which make Baby Tap an undeniably radiant spectacle. For Arshad, having conviction in songs like “Gay for the Hip-G Girly Girls,” “Fuck Me With No Rubber,” and “Kill Yourself” transcends mere shock value.

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“I know there are people out there with the same sense of humor as me,” he says of the tracks on his first full-length release, Gem Pop, released earlier this month. “I work hard. I say what I want to say. I am destined to find the most hyphy, insane beats. I am destined to give people the opportunity to release their craziness. Whether that works on a big scale or not, I don’t give a shit. As long as I’m enjoying my own journey I invite others to enjoy theirs.”

For Arshad, it’s a journey nearly ten years in the making. In 2003, a 14-year old Arshad began dabbling in electronic production. Never losing sight of what was once just a fun way to pass the time when nothing else could, he’s amassed hundreds of tracks, ten full-length demos, and a decade of experience. That’s more than most major-label pop stars. For Arshad, however, success has been defined by time spent perfecting his passion after 12-hour shifts at work. Of hours clocked cutting tracks and laying down vocals (with no pay) in a cramped apartment while the rest of the world (or his corner of London) toiled away just outside his window.

“I had to work so long and so hard to manipulate feelings into sounds the way I wanted to. I spend at least an hour on it almost every day,” he says of his process, which still includes balancing a “real” job aside from crafting videos to accompany the tracks in addition to writing and producing music. “I will never appreciate having to work to live under these rules from the government. I would rather just do what I want and take life slower and more freely but I just make sure I kick my own ass into gear and work on that music as much as I can.”

He pauses.

“But, sometimes I am so tired. I don’t know what the outcome is. I will let it be what it turns out to be. I do not know.”

If the amalgamation of pop-culture collage, candy-coated colors, and graphics inspired by the 90s digital era are any indication: does anyone know, really? Do we know how to define art? How to define ourselves? Or do we let a cyber-footprint fill in the empty spaces we’re too lazy to show in waking life? Is there vision in independent expression like the uninhibited beauty which flows forth from artists like Baby Tap? We see a portion of ourselves in this type of art. Perhaps this uninhibited display is what makes independent artists such as Arshad such clear points of interest in this mess of a society where slaving to unseen masters can inspire alternative output.

“At the end of the day we die alone and nobody will really understand us as we understand ourselves, so I’m just following my desires and needs,” he says. “Baby Tap represents the acceptance of confusion and the ability to ride on the flow of life.”

Whether it’s recording into the wee morning hours, filming a video like a pop icon on a London park bench, or merely toying with new sounds—boyfriend and day job tucked at his hip as a reminder that life exists outside of art—we’ll indulge in the flow of life Baby Tap wants us to see, and realize that a separation of the two is mere child’s play.

Download Gem Pop for free (payment optional) here:

Baby Tap will be playing from 10PM-4AM on Sunday, August 25 at:

Star of Bethnal Green
359 Bethnal Green Road
E2 6LG

Directions:

Tube: Bethnal Green
Overground: Shoreditch High Street

Bus: 8, 106, 388, 254, D3
Nightbus: N8, N253

Catching Up with Alex Young: Excerpts from my Interview with her from East End Fashion Magazine

“It was a sweet bird,” she says, fumbling for words in the most endearing way possible. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize birds before this particular photo shoot, but now I know they have a lot of personality. They’re really willing to pose.”

She’s ever a gracious soul, even to feathered co-stars unable to understand a single thing that comes out of her mouth.

It’s a good thing humans easily understand the effects of sweet, sonically seductive musical stylings is as easy as kicking back and switching your brain’s pleasure dial to the tune of “indulge.” It’s the essence of grace that makes indulging in everything about up-and-coming New York City-based pop singer Alex Young so unbelievably satisfying. One day her crystalline voice wafts through a set as the opening act for Cee-Lo Green, the next she’s modeling gorgeous vintage clothing alongside toucans and a python, poise and grace successfully intact for both.

So, let’s give her credit; she has actually far outgrown the generic label of “pop singer.” After all, you don’t make it to MTV’s airwaves without paying your dues, although it helps when talent is imbued at a young age. She says music has been a huge part of her life ever since she was a  child, with memories of her childhood involving parents who filled the house constantly with music, embedding it in her mind and forming a warm relationship that endures to this day.

Sentiment aside, her contemporary career was built upon electronic and pop sounds, but her latest single, “Don’t Play With Me,” threw a funky wrench into the musical machine, complimenting her signature quirkiness and flamboyant performing style.

“The song was just a natural evolution and progression. I’ve always been a lover of old-school Motown and funk music,” she says. “I wanted to incorporate funk somehow… and we took it from there. I’m really excited with the sound.”

The risk paid off. “Don’t Play With Me” garnered Young extensive airtime on MTV-U and the music video for the single (featuring Young in a dazzlingly stylish old-school red jumpsuit) now has over one million views on YouTube.

“You work so hard on putting music together and getting the right sound,” she says of creating the song. “Thankfully the fans were very receptive of the new style. I wanted to go in a slightly different direction, so I don’t think it’s a departure from my sound. It’s derivative of my music, but I always want to push the envelope and keep things new. When you start to concern yourself with what other people are thinking, your music is totally screwed. Your focus is external when it should be internal, and I try my best to concentrate on only that.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear about Young’s career, it’s that she harbors a deep appreciation for the fans that make her work possible. Always a present force on social networking sites, Young never misses an opportunity to interact with her growing set of followers on Twitter and fans on Facebook, 30,000 of which she’s netted on the former. Her page promotes her latest endeavors and projects while Young communicates with her fans, shining a bit of positive light on those who make her career possible.

Along with the new single, Young says she’s currently working on a killer follow-up album to her debut LP, “Amazing,” released in 2009. The album is a return to her roots in electronic pop, while moving in a new direction entirely less traditional than funk.

“Trap” music, as it’s known, is a relatively new stylistic subgenre incorporating elements of dubstep and urban dance, although infinitely “more listenable” than those, Young assures of the new style we can look forward to on the album.

“It’s really an evolution of dubstep. There are a lot of DJ’s playing it right now. It’s very, very new and a lot of people haven’t heard of it yet, especially from a mainstream artist” she says. “I really wanted to bring it to its full scope. It’s relaxed, it’s not as hyped up…it’s that groove that keeps you moving, listening, and involved.”

As for what’s inspiring these slight alterations to her music career, Young says it comes in the form of, well, typical everyday experiences.

“I take a lot of my creative process through ordinary things. The city is constantly inspiring me, and fashion on the street is a huge part of that,” she says. “In New York City you never know what you’re going to see. When you walk on the subway you’ll see someone in a bumblebee outfit or an outfit that’s pop art with a modernistic touch, huge headpieces, leggings and platform shoes… all kinds of style that’s always pushing and inspiring me.”

While we won’t be seeing Young take to the stage in costume as a five-foot insect in stilettos, her appreciation for unabashed confidence and fashion shines through in her clothing line, simply titled A Young Rose.

The line, a collaborative endeavor with her stylist, Arlinda McIntosh, is a minimalistic reinvention of the classic, funky styles of yesteryear.

“The next installment is going to be old Hollywood with a lot more funk,” she says. “I want to throw some fun colors in there and have some fun. Arlinda is in her 50s, I’m in my 20s and it’s an interesting dynamic between the two of us creating a line that speaks to everyone. There’s no age base, it’s style-based.”

Young also cites two very interesting inspirations for fashion and style in general. Audrey Hepburn, the classic film beauty who exudes class and regality. The other? Studio 54 legend Rollerina, a large-and-in-charge drag queen personality straight from the heyday of the club kid scene, whom Young recently had the pleasure of meeting.

Cranking out pieces for a fashion line isn’t the only way Young unleashes her inner fashionista. She creative directs many of her photoshoots, including the aforementioned shoot where she posed with various birds and reptiles.

“I love creating concepts and imagining a scene, whatever it might be, how it relates to my music, and producing it,” she says of the visual creative process. “This photoshoot was always a dream of mine, from the setting to the clothing to animals to the dark and mysterious, yet powerful tone, it’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

But, there are some aspects of her career, found in the most glamorous of places, which test her fearless demeanor.

“Alright, I did have mixed feelings about the snake,” she admits.

Alas, the end result is gorgeous. The snake looks happy. She looks comfortable.

So, Ms. Young does have limits. Luckily for us, she isn’t prone to paying them much attention.

My Interview with “The X-Factor” Contestant Tora Woloshin

“People tell me that the reason they let me go was that they knew they wouldn’t be able to make me into something that I’m not,” says 22-year old Tora Woloshin, singer, performer, and two-time contestant on a pair of the biggest reality competitions on national television.

She speaks candidly about her most recent appearance on (and elimination from) Simon Cowell’s “The X-Factor,” which debuted earlier this Fall. The show is structured similar to “American Idol,” a competition both Cowell and Woloshin have a history with; “Idol” eliminated her as well back in 2005.

“I feel like people on [these shows] really have the talent, but for some reason what they’re being made into is not as appealing as their natural selves,” she says.

Woloshin’s outward appearance can hardly be described as “natural”; a gorgeous array of tattoos (she’s got 17 of them) cascade down her slender frame; a symphony of vintage garb intertwines seamlessly with neon embellishments, dazzling patterns, and just the right amount of girly-girl ornamentation; all nestled comfortably in their dynamic chaos beneath a luscious stream of homemade platinum blonde hair. A Harajuku copycat, some might say; but in the words of the great Coco Rocha, “don’t ever confuse style with gimmick.”

Thankfully Ms. Woloshin’s blood runs thick with style.

It’s funny to see her striking wardrobe so bluntly serve as a metaphor for her demeanor; usually that’s the job of the journalist to lay bare for their reader. With Woloshin, I’m not sure I have to.

“Um, hello, I just got a call from this number?” Woloshin says, returning a phone call I’d placed to her mere minutes after our interview’s scheduled time. It was a quarter to six in the evening.

“Yes, is this Tora? This is Joey, we had an interview for six thirty tonight, so sorry I’m a little late,” I responded.

“Umm…I thought you said six? It’s only three forty-five…”

Time zones don’t translate well in Woloshin’s world. Thankfully she wasn’t up to much.

“Well, right now, I’m extremely broke,” she says. “[After these shows] they just drop you and don’t tell you why. My days consist of pilates, writing music…which takes a long time. I just recently started getting the hang of Garage Band, trying to make all the music myself.” Things clatter in the background. She laughs. Composure maintained.

She then tries to explain one of her tattoos to me, a byproduct of personal experiences she tones down her usually bubbly demeanor to reveal; her amazing style compliments her infectious presence, but it’s also a living testament to the struggles she’s battled her way through.

“My sleeve and my chestpiece are combined. It’s sort of like a map of where my heart’s been,” she says. “It’s about…well…it has biomechanics…it’s kind of my way of saying robots can’t love because they don’t have a heart…kind of like, well, if I was a robot, I wouldn’t have had my heart broken as many times as I have…it’s hard to explain…if you get it, you’ll understand what I mean…you know what I mean?”

Her chest reads “Love vs. Hate.”

Woloshin was a victim of rape at a young age, the effects of which remain with her to this day.

Her voice goes bleak.

“It all started when I was 14,” she says. “He stole my virginity. I wanted to save it until marriage. I had a couple of abusive boyfriends; I deal with a bad wrist because one of them broke it.”

She perks up.

“But I want to be able to change people’s lives with my music and with my words. I feel like I’ve been through so much in my life and millions of other people have been through the same thing,” she says. “I want to be able to bring them hope. That’s why I do [what I do].”

Woloshin has been perfecting her art since she was only two years old. She’s started taking dance and vocal lessons, from California to Arizona, when she was only four. She won a singing competition, Lucky Break, back in Tuscon.

But, while she was tearing it up onstage, a very different side of Tora was burning rubber—literally—on the streets of Tuscon. Woloshin was a drag racer by the time she was sixteen.

“Don’t tell my mom,” she says with laugh.

While her tatted and tanned complexion certainly screams to be framed amidst the backdrop of an underground drag race, Woloshin’s style functions more as a testament to her inner self versus “fitting in” with any subculture she may be associated with. Appearing on “The X-Factor” didn’t help diversify her image any further, she says.

“They didn’t tell my whole story,” she says. “They only said a couple of things; that I like cars and that I like to sing. Obviously that’s not all there is to my life.”

She says she was hoping to showcase her vocal ability even further with a rendition of “Hotel California” at judge Simon Cowell’s house; one final performance to wow him before he selected his final four (which ended up being five) contestants for the live round of shows. She told the camera crews she was nervous about forgetting the lyrics, becoming visibly shaken during a taped interview.

The editors, however, only showed one of her two performances; a rendition of The Rolling Stone’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” “They made me look like an idiot, like I couldn’t remember the lyrics to a ten-word song,” she says. “That was a dick move. [For ‘Hotel California’] I had a mic stand, I had a lot of emotion, and I sang it spot-on. I definitely know for a fact that they did not show that song because they knew I was going to be eliminated. Obviously they’re not going to show the better performance because the audience would have been more pissed off than they already are [at my elimination].”

And so Tora was kicked to the curb once again. Her shine, however, fails to dim, particularly in regards to her “broke-chic” vibrancy exuding from her closet. Consignment shops are a quick fix for those on a budget, she says.

“I mostly go to vintage and thrift stores before I go to the mall,” she tells me. “You can find some of the best things there. I think a person’s style should be able to make a statement of who they are. It should definitely say that.”

When asked if she considers brand names superior to no-name bargains, she pauses.

“Only when it comes to cars!” she says, giggling.

So, will you find a gorgeous menagerie of vintage couture lining the interior of Ms. Woloshin’s closet?

Well, sort of.

“My closet is not…um…very ‘presentable’ right now,” she says with a laugh. ” But I’ll invite you over to my house and you can look it over and explain it to me.”

An Evening with Zee Avi: I Interview One of My Idols (And Take Her Out for Primanti’s And a Beer)

Zee Avi and I (Joey Nolfi), September 28, 2011 at Club Cafe, Pittsburgh

The following is an article I wrote about Zee Avi prior to actually meeting her. We’d spoken on the phone, on Twitter, and through email a few times prior, but nothing can compare to actually meeting her, as I did after her show here in Pittsburgh last week. She’s a genuine sweetheart and is filled with artistic knowledge, insight, and is just an all-around good time. We chatted in the green room of the Club Cafe on Pittsburgh’s SouthSide for hours, I bought her a beer at Primanti’s (a Pittsburgh institution, mind you) after. It was more amazing than I could have ever imagined, truly a perfect night. Thanks for everything, Zee!

Zee Avi

By Joey Nolfi

A renegade moped sped along darkened city streets amidst the shadows of a brisk September eve. The driver had exited the Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville, just north of Pittsburgh, only moments prior. The act had been a rousing one; a laid-back singer-songwriter took over the stage. She unleashed a voice tinged with kisses from another era as if Billie Holliday’s undying cadence seeped through modern day speakers from a sonic limbo, craving center stage once again.

Despite its other-era smokiness, the sophistication of the voice brooded from a pocket-sized frame that was barely a quarter century old.

Said voice was also safely holstered to the back of said moped until its wranglers had the audacity to coerce it (and its containing body) back onto the tour bus. 

 “My tour manager was like ‘We have to go!’,” says Zee Avi, accomplished Malaysian musician, lyrical storyteller, owner of the voice in question and, apparently, rogue musician-gone-wild during tour stops.

She says that night in Pittsburgh, now a hazy mental souvenir from her performance in the city last Fall, is one she’ll never forget. And one year later, with a voice still as timeless as ever, Avi is returning to the Steel City for more.

The seemingly demure brunette says Pittsburgh brings out a much darker side of her; an animal attraction for everything Pittsburgh has to offer, if you will. She’s drawn to the city, having performed here two times since her first appearance at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 2009. So naturally, exploring the city streets with a starstruck fan (Was the name Aaron? Was it Sanjay? She can’t remember, but it’s the experience that counts) was like the gateway drug into the depths of an intoxicating Pennsylvania metropolis.

“I love Pittsburgh because I have so much fun there,” Avi says. “Everyone is just really warm there. I love the grittiness of it. [I’m always there at] the right place at the right time.”

On her third visit to the city on September 28, she’ll be playing songs from her latest LP, “Ghostbird,” which released in August. Drastically different from her eponymous 2009 freshman effort, “Ghostbird” mirrors its creator’s affinity for and the easy breezy, toes-in-the-sand, laid-back stylings of the beach bum mentality with a twist of her signature quirkiness and sophistication.

But then again, one look at the singer’s exotic, calculatedly-ruffled, busy clothing choice (one that she calls “whatever chic,” mind you) will tell you that, too.

Talking to the infectiously relaxing voice that’s usually crooning on sweet studio-produced melodies immediately places one on such beaches, drink in hand, straw hat covering lazy eyes as they rest under the summer sun looming just above the shorefront horizon.

“[“Ghostbird] is inspired by everything and nothing. I create something out of everything or I create something out of nothing,” the 25-year old musician says, charming accent (with hints of coastal origins) in tow. “But it’s not just writing about heartbreaks anymore. Everyone does that.”

Lyrical content on “Ghostbird” ranges from observing personified animals in nature on “The Book of Morris Johnson” to the fear of eviction after a domestic dispute in “Concrete Wall”, with complimentary island-esque production that grounds the album in a natural, earthy sense that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on a late Bob Marley album. One track in particular, “Stay in the Clouds,” even incorporates the sound of rain drops as they lazily kiss the ground in a sonic dream as free flowing as her hair as it lashed her cheeks on her moped excursion.

“I’m always that girl who’s never quite in touch with whatever ‘reality’ is. Sometimes I wish that people would see things how I see them so they don’t think I’m that crazy” she says (with a laugh) of the track’s inspiration. “It’s basically about the chance for me personally to sort of see things sometimes not as a tree but as a forest, [to] never stop being a daydreamer, [to] never stop being a dreamer in general.”

Avi pursued her own lofty dreams in an unconventional manner as far removed from the beachfront mentality as a webcam and an internet connection can be. After posting a video of herself singing –in which only her sharply defined chin and string-strumming, delicate arms were visible– to YouTube back in 2007, she was signed to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, launching her career in the United States and giving her a much larger platform to pursue her craft in Malaysia, where she’s sometimes referred to as KokoKaina.

“I guess back in Malaysia I’m considered like a ‘pop’ singer,” she says, bashfully speaking of her superstardom back home as if it’s a foreign intruder on her subdued musical stylings. “I have hairstylists and makeup artists [there], I’ve never done that before.”

While parts of her image appeal differently to both dedicated American fans and loyal Malaysian ones, Ms. Avi says most Malaysians actually speak English, so the perceived dichotomy between the two  music markets is actually not as deep an opposition as one might assume.

It’s the genuine affection that she craves and relishes, feeling a connection with her fans that brings out her wild side; a side that can sometimes lead to, well, late night gallivanting atop a fan’s moped.

“The appreciation is all the same with everybody,” she says. “The warm welcome is the same kind of feeling as being appreciated. Everyone is equally accommodating. Music touches people the same way, but it might interpret differently to some.”

Still, her roots as a proud Malaysian woman still find their way into the primarily English-language albums she releases. Songs like “Kantoi” and “Siboh Kitak Nangis” are sung almost entirely in her native tongue, and Avi still finds the time to tweet in Standard Malay to some of the over 40,000 fans who follow her on Twitter.

Most of the activity she has with her fans revolves around Twitter, for that matter. Just before the release of “Ghostbird,” Ms. Avi treated fans to a special preview of the new music online. She spent the time proceeding the preview describing her tears over sharing the new music.

“Oh they just mean everything to me,” she says of her fans. “I never fail to meet everybody after a show. I would sit there at the merch table for three hours if I have to, and I have. It’s just like a connection.”

While she’s certainly grown accustomed to bonding with her fans, as for the typically American comparisons to oldies greats like Etta James, Avi says she’ll never quite come to terms with such heavy juxtapositions.

“I tell them there’s something in their water,” she says with a laugh. “It’s incredible to be, you know, in the same sentence as these great artists. I respect and look up to them so much. It’s still surreal to be compared to that but we’re all out to create something new.”

She says “we’re” in reference to other contemporary artists, many of whom fill the sonic space around Avi when she’s not busy birthing (as she calls it) her own harmonies in the studio.  

“I love Andrew Bird, avant-garde artists, tUnE-yArDs…do you know tUnE-yArDs?” she excitedly asks, perking up from her laid-back demeanor to discuss the peers she views as inspiration rather than competition.

“Music is a powerful thing, a universal language. It goes way beyond love sometimes and is a catalyst for love sometimes,” she says of digesting and creating music. “To be able to provide a soundtrack for someone’s life at one moment, even for a mere second, is a true blessing for me. Anybody who appreciates that, I appreciate them.”

But, things aren’t ever going to be strictly business at her show this year. She fully intends to sing her heart out but isn’t planning on traversing the “safe” road (which would entail, you know, sleeping before an eight hour drive to the next city) with her tour managers this time around…well…again.

“I would love to see the city. If I have time would you show me around?” she earnestly asks. “We can get a round of drinks at a local Pittsburgh brew.”

Have all two-wheeled motor vehicles prepped for one extra passenger, Pittsburgh. Zee Avi is coming for you once again.

Tyra Returns with “Top Model”; Does the Fashion Industry Care? Contestants dish on Illegitimacy of Show, Returning for “All-Stars”

Note: Although originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, this started as an idea for this blog. I’ve always been interested in ‘Top Model’, yet the show’s aim at creating a real supermodel has always fascinated me in its absurdly presented (and impossible) format which has no relevance to the fashion industry at all. For this piece, I interviewed Jade Cole, Bre Scullark, Monique Weingart, and a slew of people ranging from Ford Models and Anna Sui booking agents, executive producers, and fans and fellow (non-ANTM, I should add) models alike. I was very proud of the piece (front page of Mag section! Holla!) and even more proud of the fact that I royally pissed off Cycle 10’s Lauren Utter with the nerve I had to dare ask her for an interview. She called me “fraudulent” and told me she’d interview with me if I didn’t betray her by spewing her secrets to everyone. I’m sorry, if my memory serves me properly you blabbed to ANYONE who would ask about ‘Top Model’ and its illegitimacy to anyone who’d ask on the IMDB ‘Top Model’ forums. So, again, thanks for blaming your own big-mouthed antics on me even though you told multiple people heapings more than what you revealed to me. Anyway, on to my article:

Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Joey Nolfi (me)

Despite the popularity of “America’s Next Top Model,” former contestants and fashion industry insiders don’t believe the show is an avenue to supermodel stardom.

One of fashion’s greatest minds, Karl Lagerfeld, describes Tyra Banks’ “Top Model” as “trash that’s funny for 5 minutes” but says its contestants “will never become the next Gemma Ward.”

“Modeling is a phenomenal opportunity, a great job, and a s—-y career,” supermodel and former “America’s Next Top Model” judge Paulina Porizkova says in a Huffington Post article about the cutthroat modeling industry.

So why then, since 2003, have countless model hopefuls scrambled for a chance to compete on Ms. Banks’ wildly popular television show in hopes of walking the same runways as Gisele Bundchen and Agyness Deyn?

An all-stars version of Ms. Banks’ hit show returns for Season 17 (seasons are better known as cycles to fans) at 9 tonight on The CW. The show’s format will remain the same as it has for the past 16 installments — 14 contestants will compete for a contract with IMG models, an Express fashion campaign and a cover of Beauty in Vogue magazine. The “All-Stars” version is chock-full of contestants from past seasons again competing for the coveted title.

Since its first airing, the show has garnered millions of loyal viewers and critics on the Internet. Seas of message boards dedicated to praising and bashing particular contestants can be found on countless websites.

Amanda L’Heureux, a 22-year-old Bangor, Maine, resident and avid “Top Model” fanatic, has been watching the show since its fourth season in 2005, blogging about it on her site, “My ANTM Addiction Starts Here.” Ms. L’Heureux says that “All-Stars” is bound to be great television, but will do little to help raise the show’s credibility as a full-fledged representation of the fashion industry.

“I think ‘Top Model’ succeeds as a reality show in a way that a lot of others don’t,” she says. “Despite seeing the purpose of the show fail time and time again, faithful viewers are invested in the contestants for many different reasons. Some people will always support the best model while some tune in to see the funniest girl or the most tragic story. There’s a nice, healthy mix of trash, absurdity and a prize that makes the show decidedly watchable.”

Returning “All-Stars” include fan favorites such as Allison Harvard (Season 12 in 2009) and Shannon Stewart (Season 1 in 2003), but also some of the most notoriously abrasive girls the show has ever seen, namely Camille McDonald (Season 2 in 2004), Angelea Preston (Season 14 in 2010) and Dominique Reighard (Season 10 in 2008).

No longer newcomers on the modeling scene, each has matured well beyond their initial appearance on “Top Model” according to “All-Stars” and Season 5 alum Bre Scullark.

“It’s amazing to see how everybody’s grown and who they’ve become,” said Ms. Scullark, made famous through her involvement in a granola bar theft incident on the show in 2005. “We all have a little more experience and exposure. This time I’m living in a house with girls that really are models. It’s a lot different from [the first time around] living with girls who don’t know if they want to be models or TV stars.”

The blogosphere is abuzz with speculation about the legitimacy of the show as a “serious” fashion endeavor because of the inclusion of “mature” models — the oldest “All-Star” is 33 years old — in the upcoming cast. A model’s career in an industry that craves young, “fresh,” and often unknown faces usually is over by age 25, let alone 33. This has fans and industry insiders alike echoing Mr. Lagerfeld’s criticisms.

“It’s stupid to watch the show as if it’s like the real world,” 22-year-old longtime fan and British model, Avess Arshad, says. “It’s on television, so it loses credibility. [Tyra] is running a superficial show and trying to give it depth beyond anything it ever could have and that’s why it’s so cheesy.”

Detractors of the show have often been those directly involved with production. Janice Dickinson and Ms. Porizkova publicly criticized Ms. Banks and the show after their tenures as judges. Season 5 cast member Lisa D’Amato shocked fans by returning for the “All-Star” season after a very candid interview in 2010 with Out.com where she slammed the show, calling its contestants “[Tyra’s] little monkeys,” saying that Ms. Banks is “absolutely insane,” and that the show “absolutely does not portray the life of a real model.”

In the show’s initial 16 seasons, it has produced successful actresses. Season 3’s Yaya Dacosta starred in Best Picture nominee “The Kids Are All Right” alongside Julianne Moore and Season 10’s Analeigh Tipton garnered critical acclaim for her turn in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” with Steve Carell.

“Top Model” alums also have gone on to become public speakers, television show hosts and lead singers in rock bands, but the one thing “Top Model” has failed to produce is, well, America’s next top model.
“There are very few traditional supermodels these days and models have evolved into reality stars who can model,” said Laura Fuest, executive producer of “America’s Next Top Model. “‘ANTM All Stars’ takes some of the most successful former participants, who have used their experience and exposure on ‘ANTM’ to expand their modeling careers, and helps them to continue evolving their individual brands and entertainment career choices.”

International versions of the “Top Model” franchise have provided star-making platforms for some of the industry’s most in-demand new faces. Winner of the third season of “Australia’s Next Top Model,” supermodel Alice Burdeu, went on to appear on runways around the world, in campaigns for brands such as Dolce & Gabbana as well as gracing the cover of Vogue Australia twice.

Still, the American audience has come to perceive the U.S. version as somewhat of a joke because its first winner, Adrianne Curry, failed to make much of an impact on the fashion industry, instead opting for a career as a television personality with appearances on “The Surreal Life” and “My Fair Brady” after marrying actor Christopher Knight.

“I think the place where ‘ANTM’ has failed the most is dragging along contestants solely for their Cinderella stories or gimmicks,” Ms. L’Heureux says. “Too many times someone who has ‘overcome’ something wins over someone more deserving. That ‘story’ is what they’re recognizable for, not their modeling potential, and that ultimately doesn’t make them bookable.”

With the exception of Ms. Harvard, none of the “All-Stars” contestants was picked for her modeling skill during her previous season, Ms. L’Heureux says.

“They are most notable for their antics. Every single one of them has a notable incident in the show’s history,” she says. “So, this is a brilliant idea as far as the reality aspect of the show is concerned. As a modeling show? Not so much.”

Former contestants on the show agree.

Monique Weingart, Cycle 16, discusses the unfair stigma ANTM leaves contestants with

“I don’t think you can go on the [American version of the] show and expect to become a supermodel,” says contestant Monique Weingart, who appeared in Season 16. “I went to L.A. Models to meet with their New Faces division [after my season]. They laughed at me. I’ll go on castings and meet every requirement and bond with the client. They’ll say ‘You look really familiar.’ I’ll tell them I was on ‘Top Model’ and I never get a callback.”

Although some former contestants feel being on the show has been detrimental to their modeling careers, Ms. Scullark has enjoyed a career that’s to her liking.

“I think people don’t like rejection. I think that people don’t like to hear ‘No,’ whether it’s for a show or at a casting. Those are the excuses people hear, but it really just has to do with them personally,” she says. “I can only speak for myself. I have a Garnier Fructis campaign, print ad for Ambi Skincare and Dove Chocolate. I’ve worked really well with great clients after [Season] 5.”

Still, some winners, who usually receive a print campaign with CoverGirl cosmetics, a cover of a magazine (winners have graced everything from Seventeen to Elle Girl) and a contract with a prestigious modeling agency (from Wilhelmina to Elite) have trouble working in the industry. More than half of the show’s champions barely lasted two years with their prize agency. Contestants who won seasons three through six received representation by Ford Models, an agency with offices from Los Angeles to New York. But, when asked whether the winners booked a respectable amount of work while with the agency, a Los Angeles representative for Ford Models chuckled.

“Not necessarily,” he said.

“Breaking into the fashion industry and doing a reality television show are two different things,” Season 6 contestant Jade Cole says of the unfair “stigma” that followed her around after her appearance on the show.

Miss Jade, the Ace of Spades, Cycle 6’s notorious fan favorite discusses her time on ANTM

Ms. Cole, one of the most notorious contestants in the history of the show, declined to return for “All-Stars,” citing a “bogus” and “one-sided” contract.

“As much as I would have loved to be back on TV, I felt I possibly would be misrepresented if appearing on [Season] 17,” Ms. Cole says. “[It’s basically] signing your rights and life hypothetically away. … Reality shows frequently portray a modified and highly influenced form of reality. [We’re] often persuaded to act in specific scripted ways by off-screen ‘story editors’ or ‘segment television producers,’ with the portrayal of events and speech manipulated and contrived to create an illusion of reality through direction and post-production editing techniques.”

Still, a faint glimmer of hope remains for past contestants and the upcoming All-Stars. A booking agent for Anna Sui, one of the most successful labels in the fashion industry, said that he would consider booking a model that’d already been exposed to a wide audience on the show.

“It all depends on her look, I guess,” he said. “Anything is possible, but I’m afraid I haven’t been following that program.”

Chatting with Filmmaker/Actress Jillian O’Neil; Pittsburgh native, Cannes honoree

Note: While my original interview with Ms. O’Neil appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I just want to preface it a bit by saying how proud I am of Pittsburgh as it increases its national identity as an artistic, cultural, and altogether more relevant asset to the film industry. The fact that we’re producing such talent is beyond euphoric for me considering all the attention the city has been receiving over the past few years for the vast chunk of Hollywood elite choosing to make Pittsburgh a home away from home for the duration of production. The Dark Knight Rises, Adventureland, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Warrior, One for the Money, Love and Other Drugs, Unstoppable, The Next Three Days…Anne Hathaway, Tom Cruise, Christian Bale, Viola Davis, Marion Cotillard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kristin Wiig, Denzel Washington…the list of esteemed films and those who create them increases ever so greatly and I couldn’t be more proud to call myself a Pittsburgher. I’ve also started an Internship with Warner Brothers, furthering my own pursuits of working in the film industry one day…hopefully as an actor, but for now I’ll stick with the reviewing/writing/screening side of things. I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m so thankful for people like Jillian O’Neil who are helping to pave the way for the rest of us Pittsburghers still working to make Pittsburgh’s star on the cinematic map that much bigger.

Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Joey Nolfi (Me)

 
 
 
Jillian O’Neil portrays Lily in “A Separate Life,” which she also directed.

 

It’s not every day you bump into Jude Law on an elevator.

That’s exactly what happened to local filmmaker and actress Jillian O’Neil as she rubbed elbows with the Hollywood elite at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival with her film “A Separate Life.”

“I didn’t know what to expect other than that I was filled with excitement,” she said. “I was walking around a place I’d only seen on TV or in magazines. It was amazing to be there with my film.”

The Mars native wrote, directed, produced and stars in the short film about a man with terminal cancer and a family reunion filled with tears and final goodbyes.

“I’d been working on the story for quite a few years. I’m drawn to real-life stories that show personal, raw emotions people go through,” Ms. O’Neil, 36, said. “The film deals with recognizable characters. There’s a sister, a brother, a lost love, a current love — relationships that everybody forms in life. There’s so much drama that sometimes you don’t need anything additional other than a good story.”

“A Separate Life,” also starring veteran actor Patrick Gorman (“Gettysburg”), found a home at Shorts International after its screening at Cannes in May. The company will distribute the film to DirecTV users as well as AT&T U-verse subscribers on the West Coast. The film also will be released in 46 countries via satellite.

Ms. O’Neil also impressed audiences at the Action on Film Awards in Los Angeles. She took home the title of “Best New Director” for her work on “A Separate Life” at the ceremony in July.

Her career in performing arts began when she was only 7 years old as a child performer with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Mini Stars before pursuing acting at The Academy of Musical Theater and Point Park University. She didn’t complete her college degree, however; an audition for a part in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Starlight Express” led her to a five-year tenure in Germany instead.

“I figured why go to school for dancing and singing when I already have a contract doing something that I want to do?” she said.

Soon after a string of live international performances onstage, Ms. O’Neil set her sights on Hollywood. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and television, eventually landing acting jobs in advertisements for Burger King, Kmart and Verizon as well as stints on TV shows such as “All My Children,” “Mad Men” and “Accidentally on Purpose.”

The struggle to maintain that career, however, hasn’t always been easy for Ms. O’Neil.

“The largest misconception about actors is that they do one job and then have so much money at their fingertips,” she said. “But, you’re always wondering where the next job is going to come from. Everybody in L.A. is waiting for their next job, too. The person that’s delivering your mail is a [Screen Actors Guild] member. Your dentist is a SAG member. When you go to an audition that calls for a certain type, you walk into a room full of 30 to 40 of ‘you’ and that’s very humbling.”

But it was acting that sparked her interest in taking a step behind the camera.

“As an actress, on set all I would do was study and watch,” she said. “I would learn what everybody behind the camera was doing. Watching all of the pieces put together and how much hard work it takes to get pulled together led me to find my new passion behind the camera.”

Ms. O’Neil has since moved back to Pittsburgh where she teaches industry hopefuls about managing the business end of breaking into the film industry.

She also founded Wright Road Productions in 2009. Her next project with Wright Road is another short film titled “Letters From a Soldier.”

A feature-length adaptation of “A Separate Life” is planned for production in Pittsburgh sometime next spring.

“Marble Hornets” Creators Talk Terrifying Audiences, Future of Digital Media

A feature by Joey Nolfi
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi
Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Web series “Marble Hornets” has given big-budget gloss a run for its money.

Grainy, amateur video filmed by “real” people under the guise of documenting a “real” event — horrifying subjects ranging from the extraterrestrial to the paranormal — has been taking over since “The Blair Witch Project” first horrified audiences 12 years ago. You know what to expect from these kinds of movies by now, right?

Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage, creators of the popular and downright terrifying YouTube series are trying to change that.

In 2009, Mr. Wagner and Mr. DeLage began production on “Marble Hornets,” a Web-based horror series that combines the handheld gimmick of “Quarantine” and “Trollhunter” with the same mysterious storytelling techniques that made “Lost” an international hit.

That “Blair Witch” verite style has grown into an overused phenomenon. It was a novelty in 1999. But, the “shaky cam” gimmick was ultimately an expert scare tactic contributing to the film’s freakish effect. It was good at harnessing audience trust in its authenticity but different from the way audiences were used to seeing a narrative unfold.

“The Blair Witch Project” was a massive hit, making back its production budget, a mere $60,000, almost 4,200 times over in worldwide box office receipts. A revitalization of studios distributing smaller independent productions surfaced.

Without the film that exposed the world to infamous snot-and-tears confessionals, a tongue and teeth wrapped in a handkerchief and a grown man standing in a corner, indie-turned-blockbuster hits like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” never may have found studio-backed distribution. And what would the romantic comedy genre be today without its highest grossing picture of all time?

While verite-style films such as “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity” exploded onto screens around the world after “The Blair Witch Project,” two friends set out with a meager budget, a standard recreational camera and a great idea.

“I see this as a giant experiment that got entirely out of hand. At first it was a thing to keep us busy during the summer,” Mr. Wagner said, fumbling for words and looking to Mr. DeLage to describe the series. “It ballooned into this big phenomenon. … Well, it’s not that big … you want to help me out here?”

The project’s complexity baffles even its creators.

The story revolves around a young man, Jay (Mr. Wagner), trying to uncover the circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of his friend Alex (Mr. DeLage), who’d been working on a student film until he abandoned the project for mysterious reasons. Jay posts archived videos from Alex’s collection on the YouTube account “MarbleHornets” (search the username on the site for the channel) as he comes across them. Sometimes he posts on a weekly basis. Other “entries,” as they’re called, have appeared months apart to coincide with events in the narrative. What Jay uncovers, though, is a tangled web of paranormal occurrences, masked antagonists and terrifying appearances from a mythical creature known affectionately by fans as the Slender Man.

Unlike other studio-backed productions, the Alabama duo’s homespun filmmaking style epitomizes true independent spirit.

“Our budget was 100 percent out of pocket when we first started out,” Mr. DeLage said. “We had no advertising revenue, so we had a budget of maybe $500 for the first 26 videos.”

The first video passed the 1 million mark in total viewership, with subsequent entries garnering just as many.

That’s quite an accomplishment for two University of Alabama students who hold down part-time jobs, attend classes, maintain a social life, and produce one of the biggest Internet hits this side of Ray William Johnson. They’ve achieved a fair amount of Internet fame as actors in the series, and they’re recognized at work or in class as being “from the Internet.”

“Marble Hornets” poses thought-provoking storytelling combined with visceral thrills that set it apart from its competition.

But “Marble Hornets” is still very much a product of the digital age. Its creators say the idea was fostered on a message board where users would create myths surrounding various paranormal/mythical creatures. One in particular, the Slender Man, piqued their interest.

“For whatever reason, I can’t explain, everyone on the forum gravitated toward that one character,” Mr. Wagner said. “I decided to build a narrative video of this. I wrote a quick story up and posted the whole introduction all in text on the thread, I called Joseph, and we decided to make a video.”

Aside from the idea of the Slender Man, the project came out of an ease of access to a media outlet that didn’t require studio backing.

“I think things like Netflix and YouTube are definitely the next final frontier,” Mr. Wagner said. “Assuming the Internet doesn’t become so expensive that no one can afford it, it’s very exciting what it could do and what it’s becoming.”

“Until they can digitally imprint shows on your brain, the Internet has changed everything,” Mr. DeLage concurred, “That is the only direction the media can go into. We’re never going to see anything that really challenges something that can provide what Netflix or YouTube can. Everything else just seems like a step backward.”

While “Marble Hornets” has found a faithful YouTube audience (nearly 100,000 subscribers have viewed each of the 46 entries almost 19 million times), its creators say they’ve been approached by production studios interested in the project. But, they say that the series wouldn’t function as well as a 90-minute film.

“Even though once it’s said and done, [“Marble Hornets”] is about the same length as a movie,” Mr. Wagner said. “But it’s like making a comparison between a movie and a TV show. When you watch a movie you kind of have this unspoken rule that if the movie goes over two hours long it has to be good. In a [series] season, once all said and done, it’s 12 hours. You have much more character development and story arc than a movie at the same time. Each entry is to be its own kind of standalone thing.”

While the thought of a television deal is appealing to them, both say that they are content with continuing to please fans online. While television may provide a much bigger platform, their creative control would significantly decrease. With “Marble Hornets,” Mr. Wagner and Mr. DeLage have placed their work on display and allowed the audience to gravitate to them. It’s even gotten the attention of Roger Ebert, who has called the series “remarkably well done.”

“We were in total shock and awe,” Mr. DeLage said. “We couldn’t really accept that a guy who’s that hard to impress was impressed with what we were doing.”

While “Marble Hornets” — in its second season — has maintained a large following, its creators say they foresee its end after a third season. Although the series may come to a close, its creators will work on other projects.

“I couldn’t even tell you how many Google documents full of ideas we’ve come up with,” Mr. DeLage said. “We consider ourselves more comic than formatic, ‘Marble Hornets’ just happens to be our first foray into serious anything. A lot of our proposed projects aren’t thriller mysteries, but they’re not just silliness either.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

When Art Becomes the Artist; ANTM Winner, Model, Musician, Naima Mora is a Melting Pot of Expression

An Interview with Naima Mora

By Joey Nolfi

She’s a world-class fashion muse and a quirky tomboy; the face of an industry that prides itself on the image of untouchable perfection while still finding time to mentor crowds of young people as a very tangible inspirational speaker. And she’s about as different as she appeared on reality television as the words “Chanel” and “men’s clothing” are from each other.

Naima Mora is a slew of contradictions, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Mora’s catapult to fame as the winner of the fourth season of Tyra Banks’ wildly popular “America’s Next Top Model” is only a blip on the radar of this young artistic maven’s long list of career milestones. From posing on the beaches of the Cayman Islands to rocking out onstage with her band at a gig in New York City, Mora can do (and has done) it all.

Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, Mora’s roots run deep within the realm of artistic expression.

“My parents are musicians, and I remember waking up every morning to some different kind of awesome music from a different part of the world,” she says of her childhood, “They always encouraged my twin sister and I to follow our artistic endeavors.”

After studying art at summer camps and crafting the illegal kind in her free time (she says she enjoyed slumming downtown, tagging and spray painting trucks and abandoned buildings), Mora channeled her interests into the fine art of dance.

“In slight contradiction to my tomboy way of life I was a ballet dancer and I loved it,” she says, “When I moved to New York City I was dancing all day with my ballet company and in the evenings I went to night school for creative writing.”

Soon after, the same girl who was so graceful onstage in ballet slippers was soon gracing the set of “America’s Next Top Model”, a competition Mora says far exceeded her expectations.

“America’s Next Top Model was a very emotional journey,” she says, “When I do build the nerve to watch back a couple of episodes, I look back on a younger me. I think I had a lot of balls going out to win that competition, although I can tell I was really nervous most of the time.”

Mora’s nerves proved for naught, seeing as she was crowned “America’s Next Top Model” by Tyra Banks herself, winning out over runner-up Kahlen Rondot, who has since quit the modeling industry.

For every ounce of fame Mora has garnered since her appearance on the show, now heading into its 17th bi-annual “cycle”, an equal amount of backlash follows. Claims of the show being “fixed” after Cycle 9’s winner, Saleisha Stowers, appeared in countless national print ads (as well as on “The Tyra Banks Show”) prior to her tenure on the show have led to some fans questioning the legitimacy of the show itself as well as Ms. Banks’ investment in the girls.

Mora says those claims, echoed loudly and publicly by other former contestants (namely Lisa D’Amato, Lauren Utter, and Adrianne Curry) are simply not true.

“I do believe Tyra genuinely cares about all the girls on the show and I believe that she wants all of the models to move on to pursue wonderful careers,” she admits, “But we cannot expect Tyra or the network to just drop the jobs and work into our hands. I have had to learn the ropes pretty much on my own since winning the show. ‘America’s Next Top Model’ is not only mentorship between Tyra and the models, it is a business as well. There have been a lot of contestants, and while I do believe Tyra cares, I also know that she is working on not only the show but other facets of her own career.”

While Mora enjoyed her time on “Top Model”, she admits that the pressure of having a crew document her every move over the course of a few months took its toll. The audience, however, responded in a largely positive manner to her onscreen character as the rather subdued “reformed party girl”.

“It all depends on how you portray yourself,” she explains, “It’s sad to see though that with more reality television arising, people feel the need to portray themselves in such a bad or negative light to get attention and the American public feeds this by supporting it.”

Whether she was “edited to look that way” or simply too nervous in the spotlight, Mora’s demeanor on the show has facilitated her fans’ confusion with the next step of her career; hard rocking frontwoman of the band Galaxy of Tar.

“The idea that you can know someone completely from a month’s worth of filming is a bit odd,” Mora says in response to the confusion, “I have always loved rock music and the older I get the more I have matured inside of rock culture. I think people were given a chance to witness the kind of person I am, but not who I am entirely from the filming of ‘America’s Next Top Model’. I have always been a bit dark and I’m intrigued by the more magical side of things.”

“Dark” and “magical” are yet another opposing set of descriptors that perfectly profile Galaxy of Tar’s sound. But her current frontwoman position of the group isn’t Mora’s first foray into the realm of sonic heaven.

“A couple of years ago my best friend invited me to sing for his band,” she says of Chewing Pics, the band in question, “That project broke up last year, but it gave us a chance to do something we really wanted to. [We] were interested in pushing some boundaries while the other musicians wanted to make safer music. After we all agreed that it wasn’t going to work out we moved on.”

Despite the demise of Chewing Pics, Galaxy of Tar has achieved success. The band released their first EP, Pneuma, in May of this year.

Although Mora says that she enjoys crafting music and the artistic outlet it provides, some of the output puzzles her just as much as it has for her fans.

“Galaxy of Tar sounds weird a lot of times to me, but that’s a great thing in my book,” she says, “we constantly aim at creating something new. I love the challenge of making sense out of [bandmate Elias’] creation. Most of the music I love now and that inspires me was difficult to understand at first, but the project is particularly special to me because it is something I have set up in my life that will consistently challenge me and perpetuates my own artistic and humanistic growth.”

And she’s got the fiercest onstage moves this side of Karen O., to boot.

“Performing is an extension of myself. It’s definitely evolved since the days of Chewing Pics,” she says, “I just wrap myself up in the moment and the music and allow myself to go wild for a while. I allow myself to fall desperately in love or become angry with vengeance.”

While she moves like a veteran rocker she also maintains the elegance and grace of a model walking down a Versace runway. Although “My music has one hundred times more of an effect on my modeling than vice versa,” she says.

Whether it’s tearing up the stage in front of a crowd of fans or promoting only the most chic of fashions in an ad campaign, Naima Mora says the one thing that keeps her going is self confidence.

“At least once a week I question whether what I am doing is crazy or not,” she says, “all my heroes are crazy too or at least were perceived as crazy at first. I brush that doubt aside. It only lasts for a moment or so.”

While that goes to show that even the most pristine of faces can crack, Mora says that remaining an independent force amidst an industry of deprecation is key to finding success.

“I have sacrificed jobs for integrity. I have sacrificed sometimes integrity for jobs. But that is the growing process of life and learning,” she says, “I really don’t like the politics of a lot of things in both the music and modeling industry, but I have learned to approach these things on my own terms.”

And those of us that get to admire her beautifully diverse career are genuinely appreciate of that.

Follow Naima on Twitter: @NaimaMora

Follow Joey on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Paris in Pittsburgh; An Interview with Paris Nicholson

The following Interview was written by me and published in East End Fashion Magazine’s June 2011 issue.

Paris NicholsonA coffee shop in the middle of Pittsburgh’s Oakland district is just about the last place you’d expect to run into a world class male model fresh off the runways of Milan. And pokemon stuffed animals are just about the last thing you’d expect to see gracing the interior of any serious model’s bedroom.

But the day I interviewed editorial model and photographer Paris Nicholson, I encountered both.

To describe Nicholson’s approach from across the room as an intimidating experience would be a colossal understatement; to place it into perspective for those of us “normal” people not chiseled from a perfect statuesque mold, it’s probably one of the most intimidating experiences you’ll ever have in your life. His bone structure, towering height, and altogether…well…godlike physicality can’t help but place you into a complete frenzy of self-deprecation. He’s probably going to look down on you in more than just a literal sense. His topical savvy is probably going to make your fashion “knowledge” look rudimentary at best. He probably swaps texts with Anna Wintour about all of the meaningless peons like you who just can’t seem to come close to touching them up on Mt. Couture Olympus. In short, next to Paris, you’re probably going to feel like a three seasons-old Martha Stewart sweater collection being hawked next to Von Furstenberg’s Fall line.

And to be quite honest…I was wrong. And our conversation was easy.
Paris Nicholson
The second Paris begins talking, each and every one of the aforementioned (and altogether unsubstantiated) pretenses melts away. Although he might look like one on the most superficial of levels, you immediately realize you’re not talking to just another vapid, pampered mannequin who uses his good looks to coast through a fashion-related “career”; Paris is, at his core, a quirky photography student with the same relatable qualities that you’ll probably find amongst your own social circle…that is, if you don’t hang out with the fashion elite.

That’s right…Nicholson is almost as ideologically disconnected from the fashion snobs of New York and London as your grandmother who considers tax returns her own personal Spring collection. That’s not to say he doesn’t care about fashion, because he certainly does. It just doesn’t have a pretentious reign over his life. “I definitely think more people should understand fashion in a city like Pittsburgh,” he says, “but I don’t like indulging in it. I like creating it as an art form, but I would never personally buy something ‘designer’ if I could get it cheaper somewhere else.”

It’s this kind of unpretentious, realistic view towards fashion that sets Paris apart from others in his field. He tells me that rubbing elbows with the likes of fashion royalty doesn’t impress him much, rather he enjoys meeting a person versus a fashion “name”. “It’s funny because at a party I could be talking to a really sweet older lady and think nothing of it, walk away, and somebody will be like ‘oh my god that was Donna Karan’. It still doesn’t faze me.”

Even after hearing something like that, you’d still wholeheartedly expect his experience modeling for clients such as Givenchy, Missoni, and Dior to have warped his perception of a city like Pittsburgh for the negative. But that’s not the case, considering he’s in the city building the foundation for a career in fashion related areas.

Paris NicholsonParis is currently a photography student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He focuses primarily on fashion photography, which is entirely unsurprising; however, what got him started in the medium undoubtedly is. “When I first started doing it in sophomore year in high school, I had absolutely no interest in photography whatsoever,” Paris says, “I only took the photography class because the teacher was hot, but while other kids were taking typical pictures of like, a flower or a plant, I was getting inspiration from the shoots on America’s Next Top Mode.l” In essence, he styled and shot his friends in outlandish costumes and elaborate, amateur-couture pieces while the other students continued to play it safe. From then on, Paris’ interest in shooting fashion concepts grew to encompass his career ambitions.

Paris hopes to become a successful fashion photographer and make a decent living, and who wouldn’t? But his ambitions don’t stop there. “I like creating images that stir the pot and force people to reconsider their ideas towards something whether they like it or not,” he says, “I guess I like to be obnoxious and force my own opinions on people.” A playful smirk crosses his face as he says this. I can tell he has something more on his mind. I ask him what he means, and he immediately lunges into a full-on description of his latest concept he was obviously waiting for me to ask about. To describe the concept in family-friendly terms is next to impossible, considering the description I received from Paris. The project is essentially a mock ad campaign for Prada. All the basic elements for a typical Prada ad are there; a gorgeous model, the product perfectly showcased, and perfect fashion lighting and composition dominating the frame. The only thing that keeps the shot from gracing the pages of Vogue as a real advertisement is the presence of a thick white residue that happens to be splattered across the model’s face. I’ll leave it to your own perception to figure out what Paris told me the substance is meant to be, but I have the feeling that if I’d seen the picture first without him explaining anything to me, it’d take me a minute to fully understand what exactly I was looking at. And that’s the beauty of his images; they’re not always thematically intelligible upon first glance, which is undoubtedly a refreshing alternative to the explicitly overstated images photography students typically craft. His outlandish ideas often come from his dreams, a surreal place he often taps into when he’s fresh out of concepts and wants to challenge himself to present an image.

It’s this kind of perspective that gives Paris and his work such an alluring quality. There’s a mischievouParis Nicholson photographys, almost childlike quirkiness about the attitude he possesses as well as work he does, and that truly sets him apart from most of his peers. But that doesn’t mean Paris doesn’t harbor a great appreciation for the skills of others pursuing fashion careers in the city. “If you weed through all the bullshit, as you’d have to do in any field, there are definitely other talented people in fashion in the city,” he says. Specifically he mentions fellow students, photographers, stylists, and local fashion designers he feels all have potential to make a name for themselves within the industry. “There are definitely people in Pittsburgh who do awesome work and are going to make something of themselves” he says, “I really have a great appreciation and admiration for others around me doing the things I can’t do myself.” Paris specifically cites the photographic skills of Danielle Yagodich as well as the fashion-savvy styling prowess of Danny Lutz, both of whom are also students at the Art Institute.

Paris also hasn’t kept his face out of circulation in Pittsburgh fashion publications either. Another local fashion magazine recently recognized and utilized Paris’ skills as a photographer and model when they allowed him to shoot and star in an editorial for a local brand.

But what interested me most about our conversation had to be Paris’ clear favoring of topics concerning his photography versus his modeling. “To be honest, I’d much rather be known for my photography than modeling,” he says, “modeling is definitely more of a job to me than a lifestyle…photography gives me the chance to be creative and express myself by injecting my own personality, and with modeling you can’t fully do that.”

Paris NicholsonDespite his low-key attitude towards the exposure modeling has garnered him, that hasn’t stopped the public from lapping up every tear sheet or runway appearance he can credit to his name. There’s even an online forum dedicated entirely to his modeling work, with various users gushing over his many endearing physical qualities like a lion to fresh meat. “By far my biggest fans would have to be my family,” he says, “my mom goes crazy when she sees me on a runway, but in all honesty I don’t understand why simply working for a designer is much of an accomplishment. It’s just a job to me.”

Despite his humble feelings towards modeling and fashion, it’s undeniable that Paris’ modeling career has thus far been an incredibly diverse one. Jobs have taken him everywhere from New York City to Milan, with agencies like Boss and D’Men. It’s this kind of experience that gives Paris an elite, untouchable quality reminiscent of a true world class fashion model…that is until he shows me pictures of the pokemon toys he has sitting around his room. “I’m a total dork” he says excitedly. And he’s certainly proud of it.

At one point during our interview I paused to gather my thoughts on which direction I should take the conversation next. The silence was broken by an impromptu rendition of Yael Naim’s “New Soul” coming from across the table. I stared at Paris for a second and couldn’t help but laugh. I asked him what made him decide to sing. “Wasn’t that like, the song that was just playing in here?” [side note: It definitely wasn’t]. My interest is entirely piqued at this point, considering I’ve never had anyone burst into song during the middle of an interview. But then again I’ve never interviewed someone quite like Paris Nicholson before. It’s not often you come across a model or photographer as experienced as him, especially in a mid-sized city like Pittsburgh. But it’s even less likely to find someone of Paris’ stature who will freely confess their undying love of video game characters and McDonald’s. Because of his elite background in the fashion industry, Paris (and anyone else of his standing, for that matter) ultimately comes with a slew of preconceived notions unfairly tacked on to his personality simply because of how he looks. But I think I can gather, at least from the short time I spent with him, that Paris would much rather be seen for being a thought provoking visual artist than a pretty face. Someone who idolizes animated characters versus someone who’s attended parties with New York fashion royalty. And ultimately someone who enjoys being the person who can push through such superficial judgments. “I just like doing me,” he says. And as many times as we’ve all heard people say that before, I think with Paris we can all actually believe it.