After sitting in his drawer for twenty years, Oliver Boltzman decides to finish his play "The Dance" in time for its world premiere. The cast features his wife, Clara, in the role of Kerry – based on his first love – and a leading man young enough to be their son in the role of Oliver's younger self. As rehearsals go into full swing and the opening nears, memory collides with reality and Oliver is plunged into writer's block with no ending to his play in sight. The Dance is a short narrative film directed by A.J. Ciccotelli.
A.J. Ciccotelli was born in Bangkok Thailand, raised in Queens New York and now is a resident of New Jersey. He has been creative since he could walk. He fell in love with cinema during childhood after seeing Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. He soon discovered slasher films and then the art house movie. He enrolled as a theater major at Hillcrest High School under the guidance of Jessica Rothman in New York City and fell in love with the stage as a teenager as well.
Since graduating high school, he received a B.A. in theatre at SUNY Empire State College, M.F.A. in playwriting at the Actors' Studio Drama School at The New School for Social Research under the guidance of Romulus Linney and an M.A. in directing at Roosevelt University in Chicago under many incredible professors and his mentor Jerry Profit. Currently, he is working on a M.F.A. in screenwriting at The David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts at Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa with professors and leaders like Anya Leta, Antonia Ellis, Amine Kouider, Alex Kustanovich and most of all the leadership of Dorothy Rompalske and Erika Richards who has brought him to a deeper more profound way of living life and creating art.
His feature film Ripples of Water won the audience award for Best Feature Film at qFLIX Philadelphia film festival. Ripples is also a finalist at OUT Kansas City and a semi-finalist at Shanghai Film Festival. It is an official selection for My True Colors Film Festival in Brooklyn, New York City (with a screening this month), Depth of Field festival in Rehoboth Beach, DE and received a Cornet selection for Queen Palm Film Festival in California. His short film IWSK will be hitting the film festival circuit this fall and has already started pre-production on his next feature.
It was our pleasure to speak to A.J. Ciccotelli.
What was the inspiration behind the making of "The Dance"?
The Dance is based on a short play I wrote when I was in my early 20s. It was the typical break up play. But it was the first play I had produced in New York City. I, of course, invited the person I broke up with to see it. He brought a date; I played the role of the young man who is dumped by his much older crush. I, of course, wrote the crush as female to disguise the autobiographical nature of it. Ha, ha, fooled everyone. It was a disaster but something about the play and about the experience was truly wonderful for me–I learned a lot about writing and acting but mostly I learned you serve your art; the art doesn’t serve you. Throughout the years I revised the play and in its last production, the story became more about an older playwright who was morphed into his younger self and tries to finish the play he started 20 years earlier. It was this version and this production that was well received. It’s success I owe a lot to Christine Nagy (she is a radio co-host on NYC’s Lite-FM) who appears in the film in the dual role of Clara/Kerry) who championed the play when she performed in it. It was then I decided I wanted to make it into a film. I did not know how to do it since it really was a work that was born of the stage. Then one day I woke up, after months of not knowing how to do the adaptation, and it came to me. When I was getting my MFA in screenwriting at David Lynch School of Cinematic Arts at Maharishi University and David often said, “You have to catch the big fish,” and that morning I went fishing.
What were some of the challenges of making the film?
When you are working on such a limited budget, with things that pop up on set and with limited time everything is a challenge; but nothing is unachievable. I had a professor who called this time crunch ‘exquisite pressure.’ In some ways, I like the challenge of deciding on the spot. I’m a Libra, so if I’m left with too much time, I try to weigh in on everything. Without that I get to choose quickly and effectively. Come in fully prepared, but you also have to allow the muses to dance a bit. The shoot was three days for The Dance, and we were fully ready for those days. My DP Eric Hackler and my AD Devin Dean and I planned very well. It was the easiest of the four films I shot.
When did you realize that you wanted to make films and what was the first film project that you created?
I fell in love with the movies when I saw Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie and I believed a man could fly. It was then that I wanted to make movies. Back in the day, making a movie was impossible. I really started making movies quite recently. It’s much more accessible (not that any of it is easy. My first film I directed was I.W.S.K. then I directed a feature called Ripples of Water (now on Amazon after making the film festival circuit)) then I directed The Dance. I also created student films at School of Visual Arts a long time ago, but they are lost.
Which directors have been influential in your work and why?
Too many to count but I have to say I love Kurosawa (I consider him my favorite filmmaker), I am also a big fan of Fellini, Cassavetes, Lynch, Bergman… I sound like a typical film nerd. I guess I am. I think why love Kurosawa the most is how he stages scenes and his camera–always roaming and probing–and his stories–so strong in its execution. Many shots in The Dance I owe to Kurosawa–including pointing the camera into the sun. Fellini–the freedom he has with experimenting–his ways of reinventing himself with his films, Cassavetes how he works with actors is truly stunning, Lynch because I can’t figure how some of his films work, I love the mystery and how all my senses are engaged in his movies, Bergman works the same way as Lynch–especially Persona. I lately been enthralled and watch a lot of the late Agnès Varda’s work, and filmmakers like Boon Joon-ho, Kelly Reichardt and Barry Jenkins does it for me and the horror mastery of Jordan Peele, Ari Aster and Robert Eggers–I’ll watch anything they direct. Oh yeah, I love the horror masters like John Carpenter, George A. Romero and David Cronenberg–watching their films brings back in a youthful energy for me. I love these filmmakers for many reasons and all impact me.
What genre of filmmaking do you like to work on?
I don’t have a favorite. I really get inspired and then I create. I think about the story and then think about images and ideas for each project I work on. I really want to feel the movie. If I want to get scared, I think about things that get me scared, if I want to fall in love–I think about what attracts me. My tastes are pretty eclectic. Ripples is a rom-com, I.W.S.K is a pure horror/thriller, and The Dance is a fractured narrative about the nature of creation. I’d like to dabble in pure comedy at some point and maybe a musical.
What is the most challenging aspect of making an independent film?
Figuring out how to finance a project is always challenging. Where you are going to borrow, beg and steal to get your movie in the can. I was very lucky, I never had to steal anything (except maybe Kurosawa’s camera to the sun shot), but having an open mind and the resources to figure out how to get what you want from your head to the screen is always important.
What is your plan for further distribution of your film?
We are nearing the end of the film festival circuit run of The Dance. The film won best film adaption at Jersey Shore Film Festival and was a finalist at Flickers in Rhode Island (an Academy Award selection festival) & Show Low Film Festival in Arizona and, of course, at Venice Shorts and other festivals where it’s had a great run. I’d love to have a collection of my shorts out and distributed on Amazon and other platforms at some point.
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
We are living in a great time. Stories that normally don’t get funded are now in production. We need these stories. It’s important as a society to see how other humans live in this every changing world. The world needs empathy right now. What better than seeing narratives on how we are different and how we are the same. It’s my regret growing up half Asian and queer that I lived in a time where most of the images and characters in films were offensive. I think my progression as an artist would have been much quicker if there were more balanced representation of Asian and gay men. We can’t help but be inspired by people who look and feel like us. Identification is crucial. Stories are important–not much has changed since we were gathered by the fire and told stories to each other–stories of survival, loss, success and triumph and how we’ve overcome conflict or succumbed to our worst instincts. We gather around the flicker of our movie screens in our theatres (hopefully opening soon) and our Livingroom. It’s important to see more stories about humanity brought to screen by everyone who normally isn’t heard. We need to learn from each other.
What is your next film project?
I have a short called Something Fishy that is finishing post production and about to make the film festival rounds. I would like to find a producer for my next feature. I wrote a script at David Lynch called Tic-Tac-Toe that won the grand jury prize at Show Low Film Festival, earning a perfect score (the only one in the film festival history). It’s a horror movie, a family drama, a political thriller all wrapped up in one. Yes, you can call it “2020.” It has a female protagonist who writes true crime, and she returns home to discover everything she believed about her past wasn’t true - as she investigates a serial murder from her teen years, she discovers something far worse. I really want to make this film. I’m proud of it. Any producers want to go on a journey with me?
Why do you make films and what draws you to the language of cinema and directing?
I make films to tell stories. I love to weave plots, images, sounds, themes and emotions into a movie – something about the human experience and our ability to process it through our senses and our imagination keeps bringing me back to the cinema. Directing and screenwriting are my number one loves and cinema is the medium I use. A painter has their palate, their canvas and brushes – the sculptor has their clay/marble and hands/chisel – the filmmaker has their camera, their mic, their light, their editing software, their imagination. I love that. I also love the community of people who make the films with me – we are a family, making a shared story.
Here is the link to the trailer of The Dance: