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Director Jack C. Newell: A Feature Film at 28

May 20, 2011 | By | 3 Comments

Jordan Poast

From Newell's "Stages of Emily"

Jack C. Newell may not yet be a household name, but, given time, the determined Chicago director surely will be.  On the heels of his successful short, Typing’s, recently inclusion in a short list of films considered for the Cannes Film Festival, Newell has completed production on a highly ambitious feature starring the cream of the crop of the Chicago improv scene.  But what makes Jack’s success so much more impressive, though, is the fact that he is not a seasoned veteran film general with 30 years of experience in his back pocket, but is only 28 with a bachelor’s degree in directing.

How has someone so young without advanced collegiate education come so far, already directing Chicago celebrities like T.J. Jagodowski, Dave Pasquesi and Tim Kazurinsky on his first feature?  Splitting his time as an adjunct professor at Columbia College, Jack is asked that question more than any other. “I don’t know if what I did is what I would recommend for everyone. It’s an individual experience.”

Jack’s individual experience has taken him on a unique journey, beginning when the Glen Ellyn native was an undergraduate student at Columbia.  After his sophomore year, the headstrong Newell was all but set on dropping out of college, insistent that college couldn’t teach him any more than he could learn on his own.  A fortuitous change of heart overcame Jack when he was accepted into a ‘Directing One’ class.  Under the tutelage of mentor and eventual creative partner Ron Falzone, Jack realized he in fact “knew nothing about film.”  Diving headfirst into all available opportunities, Newell began serving as a TA for nearly every professor in the film department.

Upon graduating in 2004, Newell found himself with a golden opportunity to cut his teeth as a lock-down Production Assistant on the blockbuster, Batman Begins.  Unfortunately, though, Newell’s avenue into cinema proved to be a dead end, as the PA job amounted to little more than, “standing on the street during car chases while making sure people don’t walk on set and get hit.”

With nothing but a few shorts in his portfolio, Newell made a bold move; he began turning away opportunities. “I had this epiphany that if I was going to spend time on films, I was going to spend it on MY films.”  When fellow filmmakers would call Jack with paying gigs to assistant direct, Jack would simply reply “I’m not an AD anymore, I’m a director.”

This risky move began to pay off, though, as Jack started producing shorts at a furious pace.  All of his diligent work culminated towards an auspicious partnership with former professor, Ron Falzone.  Knowing that Falzone, an accomplished screenwriter, had stacks of unproduced quality screenplays, which Newell refers to as the most “precious commodity” in independent filmmaking, the 26-year old built up the courage to propose beginning a production company together , but not before weeks of waffling.

From Newell's "Bill Weiner: High School Guidance Counselor"

The two eventually partnered and created Zaxie films, a non-profit company.  In order to finance their first collaboration, Typing, Jack began soliciting donations that people could write off on their taxes rather than seek investments from corporations.  The union proved to be fruitful, as Typing was exhibited at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival and is in the process of being considered for Cannes.

Jack’s fortune continued as the executive producer of Typing, Joe Rosengarten, agreed to fund and produce his first feature film, tentatively titled Strange Attractors.  Working with Falzone on original material, Jack decided to make a film that would celebrate and embrace the unique resource that distinguishes Chicago from the monolithic cinema markets of LA and New York, the improv comedy community.  “I think it will be unlike anything people have seen.  It’s an improv/scripted hybrid.”

But, how does someone lasso lightning by making a structured film that honors the chaos of improv?  The answer, Jack found, was through diligence.   Falzone and Newell began by first identifying the core concept of the film, which was that it should be a “romantic comedy about missed connections.”  Aware of the futility of writing a full script for improv actors, the two collaborators completed a 40-page skeleton of the film, charting the plot’s trajectory.

From Newell's "Stages of Emily"

From there, Jack gave the acting groups a general idea of the scene and how it should progress before letting them go off.  With three cameras, Jack would then film their performances for ten minute segments, followed by brief breaks.  Afterwards, Newell would provide direction and notes, and almost immediately after would continue with another ten minute improv round.  Each of these sequences would typically develop into 90 minutes worth of content.  When all was said and done, the 40-page script expanded into 500 pages of additional material which unbelievably yielded over forty hours of footage, which now Jack and Editor Jill Dibaise have the unenviable task of whittling into a cohesive hour and a half feature.

If the glut of footage or the humbling experience of directing Chicago celebrities weren’t enough for a first-time feature filmmaker, Jack’s prolific work ethic provides more challenges.  In addition to Strange Attractors, Newell is currently in production on six projects at the moment, including directing a pilot for a web series, Buck Rydell, a comedy taking place in the world of Mixed Martial Arts.

Despite only being 28, this director with direction has the wisdom of a seasoned vet.  Rather than resting on his laurels, Jack’s focus is on improving and challenging himself to ensure a long career in cinema.  “Ask any young filmmaker and they’ll all want to be Orson Welles.  He made Citizen Kane at 24.  But he was also selling peas at 40.  I know one thing for sure; I don’t want to sell peas.”

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Comments (3)

  1. …small correction on the article, what I meant to say is, “… I don’t want to shell peas…” because my fingers are clumsy and sausage-like…

  2. John Michaels
  3. If anyone’s interested – here’s the facebook page:

    http://www.facebook.com/CloseQuartersMovie

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