Harry Greenberger always knew he wanted to be an artist, and at the age of 9, after watching the original Star Wars, it became clear to him that filmmaking was his art form to pursue.
In July 2018, his feature film "Staring at the Sun" won four awards at the New York Film Awards, including Best Picture, Best Narrative Feature, Best Actress (Taylor Rose) and Best Supporting Actress (Jill Shackner).
We asked Harry to join us for an interview, and met an inspiring & visionary artist, who finds beauty and uniqueness in the smallest details of the human experience and turns them into magic on screen.
Taylor Rose as Tasha in Staring at the Sun (Film Stills photography by cinematographer Karl Kim, Behind the scenes photos by Dolly Faibyshev)
Tell us about your background. Did you always know you want to be a filmmaker?
Ridiculous as it might sound, since I was about 9, yeah. That was my only real goal from the minute I saw the original Star Wars, which I somehow pestered my parents into letting me see 45 times that year. I imagine I must have been so annoying. I was exactly the right age for it. I discovered much later a lot of filmmakers my age got the same idea from Star Wars. Other, increasingly complex films changed my perspective on filmmaking after that as I grew up, but those films just shaped my goal, they never changed it.
What made you decide to go into film?
I always felt like I wanted to go into some kind of art in some way, I drew, painted, sculpted, played music, wrote songs, wrote stories, probably none of it exceptionally and then eventually realized that filmmaking really combines all of those into one art form. The more I learned about it, the more I was hooked.
Staring at the Sun
Do you have a filmmaking role model? Who is your biggest influence?
Well, I obviously have filmmakers I greatly admire, but I wouldn't pretend to compare myself to them in any way. They’re way too far above the pack for that, but I think so many filmmakers are influenced by them that if someone says they’re not, then they’re probably still influenced by filmmakers that they didn’t realize are in turn influenced by them. I mean the giants, to me, like Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Woody Allen when he's good, Robert Altman when he's good, Spike Lee when he's good, Tarantino.
I can’t claim that you’d see any particular influence stylistically in anything I’ve ever done in my fledgling career, other than that all of those guy’s work makes me want to try harder, to not be bound by any genre, and to try to make the choices fit the specific material as precisely as possible.
Taylor Rose (On Monitor) as Tasha Segal
Staring at the Sun deals with a somewhat unusual subject. What inspired you to write and make a film about two Hasidic girls?
Ha, I'll try to make that a short answer. First off, I was an atheist born to agnostic but culturally Jewish parents growing up in a pretty conservative, mostly Christian religious town and so the idea of being an outsider born into a strict religious community always struck me as a rich vein to mine for a film. My parents strongly urged me to think for myself, but still insisted I undergo religious instruction for years and years, ostensibly for my Bar Mitzvah prep, but I suspect largely out of an ingrained sense that it was the right thing to do, giving me a framework understanding of what makes a Jewish life, and instilling a connection to that, but I had zero interest. It just wasn’t compelling to me, no offense to anyone at all.
Then years later, while waiting for another film project to get off the ground I saw a tiny news story in the paper that said two Hasidic girls were missing and the authorities knew no other details yet. That started me extrapolating, thinking about all the different things that could have happened there. Were they lost? Murdered? Kidnapped? Or did they run away? The last one seemed the most interesting to me, as in, what would make them leave? Which led to the thought that someone like me, who strongly didn’t believe, could be born into a fundamentalist sect like this, and then what would one do? It could have been Mormon, Catholic, Muslim, anything, but I felt safest messing around on my home ground. It brought up so many core issues for me, individuality, feminism, human rights, freedom itself as a concept and how that might be perceived by someone who grew up knowing freedom as I defined it as only a seemingly unreachable dream. A dream that would require them to give up everything they'd ever known.
Jill Shackner and Taylor Rose in Staring at the Sun
Your two lead actors, Taylor Rose and Jill Shackner, are also the big winners of our acting categories July. We admire their phenomenal work and emotional life, and couldn’t ignore the rare connection they seem to be having on screen. Can you tell us about your casting and work process with your actors?
I agree. I think they are both phenomenal actors, and I'm so thankful to have worked with them, and that you saw that in them as well. They are terrific talented, hard-working, deeply sensitive actors, and could not have been nicer people, or easier to work with. My casting director Lois Drabkin is simply great at what she does, and she brought in maybe about a hundred young women in to audition, or send reels, and while many of them were also truly phenomenal, I think particularly when you write the material yourself as a director it's different, and I kept trying to find the girls that felt like what I had in my head while I was writing. Taylor and Jill had literally never met each other until they were cast and they're supposed to be playing life-long best friends, but I could see them having exactly that chemistry in my imagination. Once they began working together, it was as if they'd met at birth. I count myself very lucky on that part, since I've worked on other projects in the past where the actors didn't much care for each other off camera, and it makes it rough. What it came down to really is they both broke my heart in their auditions, and felt like they had a certain magic, strength and vulnerability, and felt like they simply could become those two girls, inner life and all. And funnily enough, as people they're really not like their characters at all, which I mention only to get across how impressive their work was.
Behind the Scenes
What was your favorite scene to shoot in Staring at the Sun? Why?
The first thing that comes to mind is what I call the “red wall” scene near the end of the movie. I don’t want to spoil anything story-wise, but it was logistically one of the hardest to shoot, just for production reasons, due to overtime, cold temperature, unpredictable wind gusts, extraneous sound from neighboring shops, and the pressure of still having so much more left to shoot on the final night, not to mention already being into overtime for the only time on this shoot.
With all of that stress, it was still my favorite because it was one of the audition scenes that every young woman who was kind enough to come in to try out for either part had to read, and it was part of how I fell in love with Taylor and Jill in these roles. Knowing how great they both were in this scene just in an empty, cold audition room, I knew we could get magic on set, and then on the actual day of course the hard realities of low-budget filmmaking all stacked up against us like I said. Then it came time to shoot the scene, with no time to do enough takes for the actors, and conditions being uncooperative, I got to watch these two girls bring that moment to life really beautifully. When you write something you believe in and then get to have brilliant actors make it even better than you thought it could be, well, that’s a thrill I’d recommend to anyone who likes thrilling things.
Staring at the Sun
What was the most challenging part in the experience of making this film? How did you solve it?
I'd have to say it was a challenge to shoot in the Hasidic homes, schools, and neighborhood. They were incredibly nice and, frankly, they were unexpectedly accommodating, but it did require making our cast and crew abide by some very strict rules and practices that none of us were used to. We expected some of that, but for instance our crew catering and craft services couldn't be brought into the homes at all since it wasn't practical for us to keep everybody rigidly kosher on set, and of course we couldn't shoot any of the Hasidic scenes on their Sabbath. The women on the crew had to dress modestly by Hasidic standards, and of course, we shot in August. But after that it was relatively smooth sailing, for a low-budget indie, since only certain sections of the film takes place in that world.
We were also incredibly lucky, being that my brilliant producer Carmine Famiglietti and I tried hard to make sure to only hire people we personally knew, people who were kind, easy-going crew members, since one person with a nasty vibe can make the whole shoot turn unpleasant. A good crew feels like summer camp with your friends, and that's what I felt like we had. Who knows what they felt about me, though, I guess? Haha.
Taylor Rose in Staring at the Sun
What would you like your viewers to take from your film?
I hope they like it at all, of course, and I'd say the main thing I'd hope people might get is that feeling movies can sometimes give you where you as the viewer really get to take a walk in the shoes of a person that's nothing at all like yourself. My fondest goal would be that people watched it and felt like the characters were palpably knowable human beings whose feelings maybe they felt personally a little bit.
And thematic message-wise, if that's what you mean, I'd say it's just a plea for the notion that every human being, no matter where they're born and to what culture, should have the fundamental right to decide for themselves who they are and what they believe, that no one should have their identity instilled in them by their community, especially not at birth. If it just feels like it's an attack on religion, or a particular religion, then I'd have failed.
Michael Oberholtzer (behind Slate) as Jeff
Can you give a word of advice to aspiring filmmakers around the world?
Well, I don’t know that I’m remotely the right person to give advice to anyone, but I can say that I’m evidence that nobody should ever give up on even the craziest dream if you can find some way to not give up. It took way too long for me to get to this point, whatever that is, but I can say from experience that there’s never a shortage of people to tell you that your dream cannot be done, and it’s those people who ignore that who maybe, with luck, and the kindness and hard work of others possibly get a chance to get there. I'm still just trying, myself. It's a long and winding road.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I'm just finishing up my second feature as writer-director, and it's called Faraway Eyes, which is really exciting, I gotta admit. We have an amazing cast, and it's a very different film from Staring at the Sun. We have the brilliant Christina Ricci, and three-time Tony nominee Andy Karl (the lead on Broadway in Pretty Woman now, plus Groundhog Day and Rocky) and Tony winner Nikki M James from Book Of Mormon, Oscar Nominee Jeannie Berlin from The Night Of and The Heartbreak Kid, Michael Rispoli from HBO's The Deuce and The Sopranos, Florencia Lozano from Narcos, Jackie Cruz from Orange is the New Black, plus Alex Hurt, who's just amazing on every level, and a wonderful French actress named Nora Arnzeder whom I can't wait for people to get to see in this film. We also got Taylor Rose and Jill Shackner from Staring at the Sun to both come back to appear in it briefly, which is really nice, because I'd work with them anytime, of course, and also it ties the two films together in a sweet and funny way.
Producer Carmine Famiglietti (right) and Production Designer Tara Pavoni (Left)
If you could work with anyone in the world, who would that person be?
Wow, that's a tough one. If I could I would love to invisibly watch certain directors work, but realistically it's actors that I guess you'd mean.
I've been incredibly fortunate to work with the actors I've had in my films and videos so far, like Mary-Louise Parker. As impossible, laughably fantasy choices I think of people that I've just always thought were utterly magical as actors, like David Morse, Jane Alexander, Sam Rockwell, Andrea Riseborough, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, maybe Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, but I think he's possibly the best there is, so him, but he says he's retired. The funny thing is him retiring doesn't change the odds of me getting to work with him one bit.
Staring at the Sun
Please share with us where people can find you on social media, so readers could keep track of your career.
I'm on Facebook and Instagram simply under my own name, Harry Greenberger, and both the movies each have FB and Instagram as @staringatthesunmovie, plus their own websites, like staringatthesunmovie.com and farawayeyesmovie.com.
If I could, I really want to thank Mor Cohen and the whole team at the New York Film Awards. They've been so kind and giving, you can tell they're true film lovers doing all this for that reason, and their support for this film means the world to me. You put something you made out into the world and you really never know what people will think of it, and the awards from this Festival and a few others have been a thrill I never could have anticipated, so, sincerely, thank you.