AN INTERVIEW WITH A FILMMAKER WHO SAYS HE’S BETTER THAN WOODY ALLEN
“There’s a part of me that is surprised, of course,” Stu Mandlebaum said picking suspiciously around the croutons of his chicken caesar, “but as a filmmaker, there’s got to be a gut level self-confidence that my work is going to connect with people, and obviously this piece did.” As his eyes try to connect with our waitress, who looks like a young Meredith Baxter Birney, you can’t help but notice that this short nebbishy guy bares a too-close-for-comfort likeness to his stated “Moriarty”, Woody. But don’t tell him that. “I got into this business to prove that the Woody Allens of this world, by which I mean, Woody Allen, aren’t the only ones with talent.” This might have seemed a lonely blasphemous declaration if wasn’t immediately seconded by the ever present nodding of Stu’s co- producer and his friend since Shibley Day Camp days, Seth Schwartz (or Schwartzy as his plum bordered business card says). “Stu has studied Woody for years just so he wouldn’t make the same mistakes, that’s how good Stu is.” Schwartzy inhaled another mozzarella stick.
Sensing they were headed off into familiar anti-Woodman ranting territory, I steered back to the story of their “baby” as Stu’s parents (who freed up some investments in invisible braces to help fund the film) call it. Although they’re excited that Stu worked so hard on it, truthfully neither of them have actually seen the film because, according to Schwartzy, they don’t know how to get online.
The “baby,” born from Stu’s mind, and backed by an orthodontic largess, not only survived its internet slap on the butt, but is thriving. One of the first true viral hits that doesn’t rely on cat masturbation, innocent fence destruction or presidential faux pas, Stu and Schwartzy have touched a nerve. Global fame came first; the requisite 3-picture deal at New Line came trailing after the mob had already signed up Stu with their social media love on instagram, snapchat, twitter and even Facebook.
“It was tough at first,” Stu opined over the unusually large onion rings, “Sure we had some money, but that just meant we could get better talent, a better location, better plates.” If it weren’t true, you might want to make it up for a laugh, but Stu insists that he came up with the idea while sitting on the can checking out the ironic cartoons in an old issue of the New Yorker. “Inspiration has many fathers,” Stu likes to say as if he’s quoting someone else. He remembers e-mailing Schwartzy that night with three simple words — “i got it” (stu never capitalizes in e-mails, he says it wastes time that could otherwise be devoted to creation). They had been talking about how they both loved movies and didn’t have jobs, so they should try to think of a job where they could make a movie. Stu was a big fan of YouTube, the granddaddy of all vlogs, where he had always hoped to post something great. Before I could get a diet coke refill, the backstory on the shoot came pouring out from these guys and there was no way to stop it.
The script took almost no time, even by youtube standards. Stu started banging it out the next morning and finished it just in time to watch Oprah give away a vasectomy. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot of dialogue, but Stu’s idea was steeped in production notes on texture, character and context. He knew he needed some help and asked Schwartzy to give up the time he spent J-dating and come help him with his vision. It was an easy sell and two days later they were having a preliminary production meeting at Boston Market.
Stu was determined to find just the right high-end home for the piece. “Someplace that screamed ‘old money,’ because I wanted to add pop culture pieces for irony.” They reached out to some of Stu’s parents’ friends from Temple Hakol Mishpuca. The Gutenbergs (no relation) finally volunteered their monster colonial with what Arleen Gutenberg called, “neo-baroque detailing.” Stu contacted his ex-girlfriend’s sister to do the art direction, but she turned him down out of, what Stu still labels a “mis-placed loyalty.” Instead, Schwartzy brought in a design guy, Bryce, that he met clubbing one night. They thought Bryce was gay, but it turned out he was just from the North Shore. Bryce’s non-queer eye was perfect though and he seemed to buy into Stu’s vision for the table settings.
Then came the fun part. Casting. As Stu tells the story, I guess he and his nemesis Woody do share one thing in common: they sure can get the girl. Schwartzy laughs; “Although he’s never met his soul mate, Stu has a way of getting hot women to do what he wants. “ Stu put an ad on Craigslist looking for actresses willing to be in a “potentially incredibly popular video for a lot of money.” Because of Stu’s dynamic personality and the money offer, they had to turn away women from auditioning. Stu’s high standards were apparently “too high” according to Schwartzy, but then at about 4 pm it all came together. Stu remembered; “when I first saw Shelly, I knew she was the one — she had a great audition…she just ‘went for it’ as they say in the industry.” A lot of actresses might have shied away from working with a first time director on such edgy material, but Shelly seemed to be the kind of adventurous girl that you could have met in high school getting high with the stoners. They sent Shelly home that first day with a script and a box full of bran.
According to both of them the day of the shoot was a typical mix of creative energy and stage fright. Would they be able to pull it off? What could go wrong? Would America, and the world, “get it?” They agreed not to worry too much — hey, it was just a two-minute video, what’s the big deal? Well, it’s a big deal when you’ve got your reputation on the line. Shelly showed up a little late, a little high, but still seemed game. Stu remembers her “trouper attitude.” Shelly had been coherent enough to bring some choices of clothing and after taking a look with her coloration and the mix of colorful tchotckes that he brought for the set, Bryce chose a simple long canary yellow sweater that came down just below Shelly’s butt. Sexy, but not dirty. Kind of swingin’ 60s London. Stu couldn’t have been happier.
Then came the crucial selection of the tableware. Bryce had gone to Target, got four different settings and presented them to Stu, who chose a simple bone white with a neo-grecian trim surround. Crisis averted. Schwartzy says; “we didn’t want to rehearse because we really needed to have a sense of urgency in the performance.” His main job he said, was standing over Shelly as she stuffed her mouth full of as much food as possible — including some fresh corn niblets.
Finally the time came for the shoot and as Stu tells it; “I swear to God it was like I was getting bar mitzvah’d again I was so excited! I was about to direct my first film!” And just like one of his heroes, Robert Rodriguez, Stu was going to do it all. He had done the storyboard and memorized his shots. He was doing all the camera work himself. Cliché as it may seem, his goal was to do the whole piece in one long handheld tracking shot. Visually inviting the audience into this “privileged universe” would allow him to make the statement he needed.
He called out for Shelly to finish her burritos. Everyone was anxious, ready to explode with excitement. Shelly especially seemed primed to go and was shifting her weight back and forth on each leg, begging Stu to start. Stu set Shelly on her mark in the middle of the foyer under the grand chandelier, pulled his camera back under the arch, kept the shot wide. Schwartzy took the black and white clapboard and stood in front of a nervous Shelly and then just after he closed it, Stu yelled; “Action!”
It only took 2 minutes and 37 seconds to shoot, but it seemed like a day. Stu yelled “cut!” and stepped back, looked at Schwartzy who had a huge smile on his face and gave him the big thumbs up. Shelly said she was absolutely relieved.
As they excitedly fidget in their booth, the “Two Ss” explain that later that night they laid on some music and titles — they talked about branding all their future films with the same Garamond font, ignoring the irony of the Woody Allen aesthetic. They were excited.
Finally after what seemed like an all-nighter, they posted their opus on YouTube.com. Then they sent out the link to all their friends — “everyone we ever met ever,” Schwartzy said laughing over his espresso (or “expresso” as he called it). They woke up the next day and immediately went to check out their hit count and read some of the comments. They were stunned. Could this be true? Overnight they had gotten over 250,000 views! They already had 342 comments! Holy Crap! Long story short about two minutes: two weeks later they had over 13 million views, 8,300 comments and were booked on Kimmel.
At this point in the story, Schwartzy pulls out a three ring binder filled with print outs of the posts about their film. Like the clippings of a proud parent, he carries this binder around with him and will show it to you at the drop of a hat.
“Wow! I was blown away! Totally hot chick! Great action!” — RJGRUNTER
“Congrats… I can’t wait to see what you guys do next — I fixated on the blond threwout until the end — great ending dudes” — DIRTSMUGGLER
“I’ve never seen a chick that hot take a shit on a plate before! And those corn niblets worked perfectly! More! More!”-LOVEDOC
“It was gross AND engrossing! Seriously, when she lifted her dress and we saw that 3-foot turd in a swirl, I nearly lost IT. Good job.” — DUDESTER
“The best crapping on a plate video I’ve seen except for that German one” — RUDY4U2008
Lunch was definitely over. I didn’t eat much, but I got a little taste of how hot it is sitting next to two meteors. Stu and Schwartzy had to run to a script meeting for their next project. We all shook hands and the last I saw of them, their beamer peeled away from the valet stand. Postscript. I tried to talk to New Line about the latest stars in their stable and all I got was a statement from a flak; “New Line is excited to be working with the creators of one of the most popular videos to sweep around the globe. There’s no doubt that if Stu Mandlebaum’s next project for us attracts even half the attention of “HOT PLATE,” then this will be a relationship we can all be proud of.” Eat that Woody.