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Greg Kohn Muses on Gen Y in Northeast

Skating away? The director discusses his film for the millennial generation. Available now on nationwide VOD.

Featuring honest performances from a talented ensemble cast, including David Call (Tiny Furniture), Eleonore Hendricks (Daddy Longlegs), Tate Ellington (Remember Me) and more, Northeast is a vividly naturalistic portrayal of the pressures of impending adulthood.

The film follows Will (David Call), an unemployed and aimless playboy living in Brooklyn, who has spent his 20s skating by on easy charm from one casual, distant affair to the next with no real consequence. However, as he begins to notice his friends’ happiness as they gradually settle into steady jobs and committed relationships, Will finds himself dissatisfied with his endless cycle of one-night stands and related disappointments. Inspired by his friends' progression into maturity, Will decides to make an effort to take control and find someone with whom he can start the next chapter of his life.

Director Gregory Kohn recently took the time to speak to us about storytelling, the filmmakers who influenced him, and the real events that inspired Northeast, his film for the millennial generation.

Tribeca: Northeast zeroes in on this new breed of 20-somethings who are taking longer to achieve some traditional milestones of adulthood—a home, a job, a steady relationshipthan the generations before them. What inspired the film and the character Will?

Greg Kohn: I just saw Mike Mills movie, Beginners, which was one of the best movies this year. It’s about the past—it goes back to the 50s, and talks about how [the characters’] parents had to struggle: the Civil Rights Movement hadn't happened yet; people weren't completely free.

This is something I was subconsciously dealing with as I was writing and making Northeast, how we are sort of the first adult generation—us in our 20s and 30s—who grew up relatively free, and we are kind of creating our own problems rather than dealing with problems oppressed down upon us. (Now some of that is starting to turn around with Occupy Wall Street, but I still think most people my age didn't really have to struggle in their adolescence.)

So I wanted to tell the story of these people who really never had to do anything with their lives, and how they're sort of floating, because they have either no drive or no will. We're not kids anymore. We're supposed to be wearing suits and ties and solving the world's problems, [but] it's kind of this interesting social dynamic where nobody seems to be where they actually want to be or doing what they want to be doing. And nobody seems necessarily happy in their relationships, because there's always another option [out there].

Courtesy of Tribeca Film/Credit: JM Houle

Tribeca: There's actually an argument in science right now, that this generation is possibly creating a new stage of human development, an “emerging adulthood” for 20-somethings. Do you believe in this?

Greg Kohn: It depends on what day you ask me. On a day when I am thinking about the universe and the great beyond, I’d probably say that nothing really matters. [laughs] But as a director and a writer, you become all of these different people as you write them, and you empathize. The most empathetic place you can be in is writing a movie: you just feel for all of these people you're creating.

But I do think there are certain people's lives that are somewhat falling by the wayside. Like Will, who’s clearly educated and obviously not struggling with his rent. He says he's trying to get a job, but hasn't really—I wanted it to be a gray area, how this guy makes money. Maybe he's independently wealthy, but I didn't want to specifically tell the audience; I wanted them to think about it. It should be bizarre, because I think it is bizarre in real life when you meet someone and you don't know how they're surviving when they've had no job for 10 years, and yet they're always doing projects or some unclear thing. They're getting involved politically, perhaps, but no one seems to be giving them a paycheck, and you wonder, "How do they make money?"

At the same time, if you caught me on another day, I could just say it's how we're evolving, and the price to pay is that this is the result of giving people their freedom. The next movie that I'm making involves divorce and affairs. The divorce rate's so high, which is another result of people having increased freedom. Increased freedom means more options, which can become more chaotic. I think a lot of people are less willing to work through marriages and problems in relationship because there's nothing hindering them from moving on to the next. There's always another guy or another girl waiting in the wings. Another thing I wanted to write about is how we've dealt with mating in this new era, which is incredibly fascinating to me.

Tribeca: And you definitely pick up on that in the film.

Greg Kohn: Yeah, at some point I'd really like to write something that involves a gun, but I don't know how to do that yet.

Courtesy of Tribeca Film/Credit: JM Houle

Tribeca: But this hits a lot closer to home. Were these characters based on your peers and your experience?

Greg Kohn: Well, Jason is very close to home because the actor, Jason Selvig, is playing a re-imagined character of himself: this very charming, funny guy who has been my best friend since sophomore year of high school. I kind of bullied him and made him screen test, but he ended up being easily the right fit because they are essentially his words that I wrote. And same with Lauren, the character written for the actress, Lauren Shannon. She and I dated very briefly when I was going through what ultimately is the story of the movie. It's funny because it's a fake story, but it all comes from real experiences.

A lot of guys have approached me and said that they related to the movie, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that I wrote it when I was in between serious relationships. I wanted to tell a story about how you weave through people in order to find that one person that you do like, and do really want to get to know. It's not always like you see in the movies—really comical like it is in Sex and the City, or really awkward like it is on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Sometimes relationships can be poignant, and you find someone you want to remember for the rest of your life, even though [the relationship] never amounted to anything. So I think it's resonated with people because dating is not always pleasant.

Tribeca: Definitely. There was barely any music in the film. What your thought was behind that choice?

Greg Kohn: There's not a note. There's not a single note. Well, first of all, we couldn't afford it. [Laughs] But it was originally going to be pretty silent, and without music. There was an original draft that had two songs from a band that I really like in Brooklyn called The Sundelles. But once we started casting and things started feeling like a movie—as opposed to just a script—I realized that it didn't need any music.

Part of it is the subtlety: there's not a line of dialogue in the movie that means anything at all. I can't stress that enough. There's a movement with some young filmmakers who are trying to tell the stories of the subtext of real life, and letting characters talk as real human beings. I'd rather show that there is tension and conflict in the subtext. You have to search for it, and I didn't want to provide music that would clue the audience into that; I want the audience to have to work. I believe that audiences are smarter than we give them credit for. And if they're not now, they will evolve.

You think about the first movies ever made, about The Lumiere Brothers' Arrival of a Train, and how people ran out of the theater screaming, thinking a train was coming at them. We've obviously evolved beyond that. And if you look at Hitchcock movies and the way that those were acted, as great as he was, the acting wouldn't work today; we've evolved beyond it.

Where's will we be 50 years from now? Well, imagine if you took the way the dialogue is set in Northeast and put it in an action movie—I think it could work, if people were actually talking like real people in an alien movie. [laughs] I just think that would be exciting, and I think it will happen, because all the young directors today who are kind of implementing this half-improv, well-acted style are going to ultimately be making the 100 million dollar—at that point, it'll probably be billion dollar—movies. And it'll be in 4D or something.

Tribeca: This is definitely a passion genre for you. Do you have particular influences from films you watched growing up or directors that inspired you?

Greg Kohn: I was the biggest Bond fan growing up. And I had a great English teacher who started showing me movies by Terry Gilliam and Stanley KubrickKubrick is absolutely one of the biggest influences I will ever have in everything, in everyday life. And it's funny because I don't see a single similarity between his movies and mine. And then Paul Thomas Anderson, because I really liked his style. And obviously, Scorsese. And then I started getting into some foreign stuff around that time too, Eric Rohmer and some Eastern filmmakers, like Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. They just seem to be more attuned to the subtler conflicts in everyday society.

I remember as a 17/18-year-old trying to write Stanley Kubrick. And they were horrible, just awful. And as I got to college I kept writing. As I became more comfortable with myself as a person—when all the bullshit of high school and those insecurities fall off—I realized, "Oh, wait, I do like myself. And I wouldn't want to be anyone else." So as you get older and you get more comfortable with yourself, the same thing happens to you as a writer; you slowly realize that you don’t want to be Stanley Kubrick anymore. Stanley Kubrick is Stanley Kubrick. I'm Greg Kohn.

Northeast will debut on nationwide on VOD via Tribeca Film on December 26. It will also have a one-day theatrical screening at reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn on Wednesday, January 11; both Greg Kohn and David Call will be on hand for a Q&A. Join us!

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