Filmmakers on Film: Amanda Lipitz

In order for us as humans to advance, we need to look to the past. This is something that we as a people have had trouble with, and it is astonishing how few film students have any knowledge of what came before, despite having a limitless amount of films at their fingertips. Thus, I reached out to notable industry members and asked them to recommend one film to film students and young filmmakers and explain their choice.

Amanda Lipitz is a Tony-winning theatre producer and film director. Her feature debut, STEP, debuted at Sundance 2017 and won a Special Jury Prize for Inspirational Filmmaking. Her theatre credits include THE HUMANS (Tony Award), A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (Tony Award), and LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL, among many others.

Here are Amanda's recommendations:

Amanda Lipitz: I would say the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker, the movie that made me realize because I came from a place of loving musicals that a movie could be musical without being a musical was DIRTY DANCING. I was seven years old and in the movie theater, and it probably wasn't the most appropriate movie to take me to, but my parents knew I loved dancing, and there was this movie out, and I loved that it captured a period of time that I was unfamiliar with. I thought that what they did with that film with the dancing and using it to tell story through dance without ever saying a word was something I had never seen before, and in a way, obviously the romance in all of it swept me away, and I thought Patrick Swayze was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen, but I just remember the dancing was saying something and was telling you the story without ever saying a word. What's been interesting in my career is that movie was directed by Emile Ardolino, and his first film was also a documentary about dance.

JH: I didn't know that!

AL: It's weird, I actually think somehow he speaks to me in some weird way, but his first film was HE MAKES ME FEEL LIKE DANCIN', and it was a documentary in 1983, and Scott Rudin produced that documentary, and he produced STEP as well, but it's about Jacques d'Amboise, the American ballet star, and he was a New York City dance instructor. So that was his first film, and his second film was DIRTY DANCING, so he kind of made this leap from documentary to feature film, and you could see it. You could see who he was through his films, and how he wanted to speak to people through his films, and he didn't just use words. That was a seminal film in my life.

I would say any film by Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers was on repeat in my house all the time. I just showed my kids BABY BOOM with Diane Keaton, and it's so interesting - not much has changed for women in the workplace! I'm watching her juggle this baby, and some of it's just preposterous, like there's no way that someone would be handed a baby in an airport, and they're like, "Okay, bye!" but the films that she made are the films I grew up with because they stay with you. It's also interesting because Emile also did SISTER ACT, and the other movie he did that I love is CHANCES ARE. 

Another movie that's one of my favorites is DEFENDING YOUR LIFE. I love that you know that the director wrote it and you can see the vision in it. I think you see that in the very first scene when he dies, and he goes to heaven, and the three old people in the connected wheelchairs, and they're being pushed down the hall - only someone who wrote this and dreamed this up in their brain would have that vision as a director, to have it look exactly like that. I loved that you could feel it coming out of every part of his brain, and it wasn't just on the page, it was on the screen and was such a seamless integration, and that to me is just storytelling. For me, it doesn't matter where I am, whether it's theatre or film or TV or I'm doing a scripted podcast now, it's just telling great stories. That's how I feel about filmmaking. That's my not-film school answer.

Our conversation continued onto the works of Nancy Meyers.

AL: PRIVATE BENJAMIN was one of the first films that Nancy Meyers produced, and you can see her aesthetic, you can see her putting her direction into it but not having it be fully- realized. I love starting at the beginning and watching through that - I always find that really fun.

Nora Ephron is the same. When you see WHEN HARRY MET SALLY..., and you watch JULIE & JULIA, you know it's a Nora Ephron movie. You know it's a Nancy Meyers movie, and you know it's an Albert Brooks movie. And again, Emilio. When I realized a couple of years ago that he had done both of those films [HE MAKES ME FEEL LIKE DANCIN' and DIRTY DANCING], my heart stopped. "Oh my God, it's his language," and he's using it to do a documentary, but he's also using it to do a scripted musical. 

JH: I love that you mention musicals because they so often get left by the wayside. They're among the hardest kinds of films to make. 

AL: And then when you're doing a movie that's not a musical, so like a DIRTY DANCING, the soundtrack becomes so important, and the director ends up becoming like a musical director too in a sense, and so with STEP, I know that every piece of music I chose in that, I was crazy about it. Not only was it the cherry on top of the creative experience for me to be able to put the music in and use stems and have original songs composed to picture, but when you look at something like DIRTY DANCING, that score, that is so hard to do what he did, to match that music, and then integrate it whether they're lip-syncing on the floor in the practice room to "Romeo", all of that, that is somebody who's firing on all cylinders, that's somebody who's looking at "how do I tell this story not just in words, how do I capture a time through music and dance and film and then using the camera to capture it?" Kenny Ortega did the choreography, and I feel it was the beginning of a lot of people's careers. Unfortunately, Emilio died a while ago. I feel like we would've seen other amazing musicals from him. Films that integrate music are the films that I gravitate towards.