The best part about attending film festivals is you get to see indie gems you normally won’t be able to see on the big screen. Twin Cities Film Fest celebrates indie films and indie filmmakers from all over the globe. And TCFF loves alumni! Ben Zuckert is back to TCFF after he premiered his directorial debut Larchmont a couple of years ago.
For his sophomore feature, Ben has crafted a wonderful music-themed comedy drama Noah Wise that’ll surely made you leave the theater with a big smile. It’s one of my 20 most-anticipated TCFF selections!
As a saxophonist’s quartet comes to an end, he meets a singer-songwriter whose career is just beginning.
Review by Vitali Gueron
Having it’s World Premiere at the Twin Cities Film Festival is the indie drama Noah Wise. The movie stars Mat Vairo and Raffaella Meloni as leads, and is written, directed and scored by Ben Zuckert. The premise seems quite simple — Noah Wise is a saxophonist whose quartet comes to an end. Just as it seems like he is down on his luck, he gets set up on a blind date with singer-songwriter Rachel Byrd. The two hit it off right away and are there to support each other as they go through their own struggles in music and in life. The reason this movie is a must-see is because of its music, especially the delightful guitar and vocal performance by Raffaella Meloni towards the end with a trio of backing musicians.
The movie never feels like it’s trying to preach a message to its audience, although several subjects are brought up through character conversations including young peoples’ life ambitions, their financial responsibilities, and how one becomes civilly-engaged in the political process. The characters are very relatable and easygoing, and the young musicians cast in this movie — some are quite young — are very talented which adds a family-friendly element to the main plot line. Also mentioned in the movie is an average New Yorker’s lack of knowledge about the Midwest and how the fall foliage in Minnesota is far superior to that found in New York City. Maybe writer/director Ben Zuckert might have anticipated a fall trip to the Twin Cities, where audience would appreciate his knowledge of windchill values and the cold temperatures.
Overall, this is the perfect indie drama to watch with your best friend or significant other. You’ll find new appreciation for each other and come out at the end with a big smile. It’s just what is needed for the current politically-charged climate we’re living in. And just how many times can you say: “I just watched the world premiere of a movie in Minnesota!” This film certainly does not disappoint.
Q&A with filmmaker Ben Zuckert
Interview questions courtesy of Vitali Gueron
Q1. You’re returning to the Twin Cities Film Fest after successfully premiering Larchmont in 2016 with your second film Noah Wise – a world premiere! First of all, congratulations! Welcome back. Is there something about Minnesota or the Twin Cities that’s special for you and what have you learned about this state/these cities since premiering your first movie here?
Thank you, excited to be back! I had a great time visiting with my first film and really enjoyed the city. Being a part of the festival two years ago helped give me the momentum to write this new script and put the film together. In terms of Minneapolis, a big takeaway for me was how much the city is invested in the arts. I loved the museums, especially the MIA.
Q2. Your movie stars Mat Vairo as Noah Wise, a struggling musician who’s less than successful in a quartet, living off cans of sardines, and seems to be struggling to find himself career-wise. Is this character based on yourself or someone you know? If so, who is that person and if not, how did you come up with the idea of the character when writing the movie?
The character is fictionalized, but there are definitely aspects of myself. For one, I do tend to eat canned fish. But I also relate to Rachel and her self-doubt. I wanted her to be opposite Noah. She has talent, but questions music’s meaning, and he has less talent, but doesn’t question it.
Q3. I really enjoyed the music in this movie – especially the last song performed by Raffaella Meloni’s character Rachel Byrd. You’re credited as the music creator for the film on IMDb. Can you talk about the process you used to write the music and any struggles you had doing so?
Really glad you enjoyed the songs. I spent countless hours trying to write chord changes and lyrics that could fit both characters’ storylines. I would imagine the scene and try to have the tone match the feeling of the story at that moment.
I had never written lyrics before and I found it to be a good challenge – too on the nose and they fall flat, but too ambiguous and the song has no meaning.
Raffaella actually didn’t know how to play guitar before the movie, so I simplified all the guitar voicing. She learned how play them in only a month. I couldn’t believe it. She really made them her own.
Q4. In the movie when Noah Wise is asked if he’s Jewish by two separate Jewish Orthodox men on the street, he tells them that he’s not and “it’s complicated”. What did you mean by that and did this come from any personal experiences you might have experienced?
In New York, I get approached by Orthodox men during Sukkot and Hanukkah, and I find the conversations really fascinating – I always try to talk to them. Some of them will walk with you for multiple blocks! So it’s definitely from personal experience and also thinking about my own identity, being raised one way, but not currently practicing and sometimes feeling like others can define your identity for you.
Q5. While the movie is set in New York City, one of your characters (Rachel) talks with her roommate about the weather in Minnesota and the foliage this time of year. Is this because you’ve seen the foliage first hand and you can talk about it or is it purely coincidental?
Definitely firsthand – the last time I was here was the fall and the season really struck me. I was also trying to capture how people talk about the weather as a way to get conversation going. I tend to think, are you actually talking about anything?
Q6. There are some fairly young actors and musicians in this movie, and a good number of grade school level children. Talk about the process of working with these young musicians and the challenges (if any) to working with them?
It was one of the best parts of filming, but I had never worked with a group of kids that size before. I started to figure out a few techniques – I stopped saying “Action!” and we did slate after we finished filming. This way, the 5th graders wouldn’t get tense. I would point to Mat, who played Noah, and then he would just start the scene. So they didn’t always know when we were filming a real take. None of them had ever acted before. They were just local musicians in my hometown.
All their playing was recorded live on set. An unexpected challenge was them faking playing badly. I first said, “Ok, just play anything,” but it sounded too ridiculous. Instead, they each played the song in a different key/tempo. For getting the different angles for the performances, I’d have the 5th graders or lead characters play the song again each time we changed camera positions. They all did a great job with keeping tempos consistent between takes – it saved me a lot of time while editing.
Q7. Both main characters Noah and Rachel are set up on a date by mutual acquaintances. Have you ever been set up on date by someone you know and how did that end up? Do you think that Noah and Rachel have a future together or is their relationship just a good friendship?
It was made up for the story. I was trying to weave in a joke about people knowing people through other people and how you can’t keep track of how someone knows someone.
I was thinking that it’s just a friendship – I didn’t intend for it to be a romance. I wanted them both to be focusing on where their music and careers were headed. But it’s definitely up to the viewer to decide.
Q8. At separate times, Noah and Rachel meet a man in the park who is interested in talking/complaining about the elections and politicians, but admits that he didn’t vote himself. This seems timely as the 2018 Midterm elections are just a few days away. Was this on purpose? What has been your experience with the elections and why did you include it in your movie?
After the 2016 election, it was a strange time, and I was thinking a lot about politics and art and how they intersected. I was trying to figure out how art played a role in society under the new government. I was asking myself, could there be better uses of my time besides making films? Should I only be making something political? I was grappling with these questions and tried to explore them through different characters and viewpoints. I always find it interesting when people are opinionated politically, but don’t actually vote.
Q9. What’s next for you and when do we expect your third movie/project? Maybe next year in a few years back here at the Twin Cities Film Fest?
I’ve become more interested in politics in the past few years, so I’m hoping to write a story more in that realm. I find all the Democratic energy for change really inspiring. I’d love to come back in the years to come. It’s a great festival that supports independent filmmakers in a tangible way.
Thanks so much Ben Zuckert for chatting with FlixChatter!