When Tisch sophomore Tyler Rabinowitz stumbled across a vintage photograph of his grandfather Al swing dancing, he knew he had found the inspiration for his next film, The Swing of Things. In the photo, his grandfather appears as a vibrant young man – not the man that Tyler knew, who suffered from ALS. Tyler was inspired to recreate the movement and spirit of the 1940s.
But bringing the photo to life wasn’t easy. Without funding, he balanced two jobs on top of a full course load to fully cover the cost of the film. He lacked a production crew, so he did every aspect of filmmaking himself. Mother Nature threw him for a loop, too: after a week of uncertainty if the film could even be made thanks to Hurricane Sandy, he was caught in a blizzard while lugging a hundred pounds of costumes. The result is a cheeky romance story of a wallflower attempting to woo a girl with his dance moves. The big band music and 1940s-style costumes lend the film flair.
The Swing of Things premiered last Friday at the Tisch School of the Arts for an audience of eighty. Film screenings for such young filmmakers are rare, but Tyler deserves the recognition. In 2011, he was honored by President Obama as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Read on for Tyler’s full story.
Where did the inspiration for The Swing of Things come from?
One day, I was flipping through channels and saw black and white footage of people swing dancing. I became so fascinated with it and thought it would be really cool to recreate that in a movie. I was talking to my parents about the idea and my dad said my grandfather loved that time period. My grandpa had Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Even though he was totally fine mentally, he just couldn’t move his muscles, smile, laugh, or talk. At Thanksgiving, when we went around the table saying what we were thankful for, he had to say it out of a computer machine. I found a black and white picture of him swing dancing and knew that I was somehow going to recreate it. I wanted to recreate the joy of seeing someone I knew as so immobilized and ill as happy and alive.
Who guided you through the filmmaking process?
I took Sight & Sound Filmmaking with Rick Litvin this past semester. It’s not intermediate or advanced filmmaking where you have a full cast and crew, and you’re not raising thousands and thousands of dollars for these films. This class really isn’t meant for things like that. You’re not really supposed to go over-the-top with thirty people and full production design. But at the same time, I felt if I didn’t make the film now, I wouldn’t be as passionate about it. So, I met with my professor at the beginning of the year privately and gave him a 20 – 25 page proposal. He said, “Okay. If you want to do this, we’re going to go through this process together.” From there, we met all the time and were in constant communication.
How were you able to fund the project?
I worked at the Tisch Production Center and did freelance video editing for an organization called Young Arts (that I’m an alumni of). I raised $4500. I didn’t want to use Kickstarter, because I’m still in the learning stage and didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do. I wanted to not even ask my parents for a penny and just be able to incorporate raising the money as part of the production process. It connected me even more to what I was doing.
What was the filmmaking experience like?
Since you don’t have a full crew at this level, it sort of became this crash course in every aspect of filming. [During the weeks of rehearsal,] I went to a costume warehouse and had to learn how to measure costumes. The actors were showing up at my dorm any time they were free to get measured, including at 1:30 in the morning the night Obama got elected.
I was able to bring together all these young artists from all over New York City, from the NYU jazz studies program, Tisch dancers, a Juilliard dancer, a Tisch actor. There were 35 people involved. We had one day to shoot the movie. It was a twelve hour day. I didn’t want anyone to feel like it was a chore – I wanted them to feel like it was their experience, as well.
Any crazy stories from the production process?
On top of all of the struggle I was going through — doing the costumes, scheduling rehearsals, and getting people to commit to the project — Hurricane Sandy decides to pay a visit. I wasn’t sure if the cast was okay, or if the film would even be able to continue. Then, a couple days later, that weird nor’easter came. That was the day I had to lug a 100 pound bag of costumes with no wheels down Third Avenue in the snow. I was just laughing, because the whole time, I had that little picture I had in my head, and that’s what kept me focused.
On the set.
What were your classmates’ reactions to the scope of The Swing of Things?
I was very self-conscious of what other people might think. But I cared so much about why I was doing it, that I was able to block it out. Being able to screen it for them was one of the most flattering things in the world. After I screened it, one student raised his hand and said, “I just want you to know that this reminded me of why I love to make movies. Thank you for making me remember that.” No matter what happens with the movie, if I’m able to say it made one person remember why they love what they’re doing, I think that’s a really cool thing.
What was your family’s reaction to the project?
I have three younger siblings who will all be attending college soon, and my family will have to struggle to pay for four tuitions. But I think when they saw this movie, it made them feel like there’s a reason they’re working so hard to keep me at NYU. I think they’re really excited that I made it.
How did the screening come about?
The cast and crew put so much time and energy into this film. The thought of simply sending them a Vimeo link really bothered me because that would not be nearly a good enough ‘thank you’ for all they did. I wanted to share it for them on a big screen, so they could all see it for the first time together. Originally, Cantor Film Center told me it would cost $310 to screen my ten minute film. I couldn’t afford that, so I contacted my professor and he made it possible for me to screen at Tisch in one of the classrooms. I seriously cannot thank him enough for everything he’s done. He’s one of those professors you’ll never forget.
Tyler Rabinowitz on set.
Tell us about the screening.
There were 40 seats and about 80 people showed up, so I actually screened the film twice. As people were leaving, I kept hearing people say that the movie felt magical. That’s why I love making movies. They can make people believe in magic again.
How did you feel after the screening?
For ten minutes I felt like I was able to transport a room full of people to a magical place and bring the joy of the swing dance era to life. I think my grandpa would be proud, and that’s the greatest reward I could ever ask for.
Next up, Tyler is planning a collaboration with his friend Blake Krapels, a sophomore dancer at Juilliard, to create a film inspired by dance. With this film under his belt, it’s near-impossible to resist the pun that Rabinowitz now has the swing of things.
[images via Tyler Rabinowitz, Mark Davis, NYU ’15]