“In my experience the rock ’n’ roll world parties harder and stays up later, while the film people dress better, have better parties and better food.”
PJ (Paul) Letofsky ought to know. As leader and pianist of the Minneapolis-based rock band the Specimens, he toured the country in the late ’80s and ’90s. He recalls riding in a van with unreliable tires — four band members, a roadie and a sound guy — from New Orleans to Anchorage to play a rock club for 500 bucks plus free beer.
By the early ’90s, realizing he needed a decent night’s sleep, Letofsky stopped touring, then went to work for a record company in Minneapolis and spent five years hosting and producing a local cable access entertainment show called “TV Party” that took him all the way to Prague. He was learning, he said, “how to put things together,” absorbing bits of know-how that have come in handy in the 15 or so years that he has devoted to the other obsession of his life, directing films for which he has also served as writer, producer, promoter, fundraiser, editor and cameraman.
There was more than a hint of all this back in the eighth grade when PJ recruited five neighborhood kids to play tough guys — card sharks — in a parody of “The Sting,” shot on 8-millimeter film, that comes across today with the wry aura of an “Our Gang” comedy. PJ himself recorded the soundtrack on the family piano, a ragtime number by Scott Joplin.
(PJ’s father, Irv Letofsky, a revered writer and editor at the Minneapolis Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and one of the founders of the Brave New Workshop, died in 2007.)
By now, though fortune and fame have eluded him so far, the 59-year-old Letofsky, who moved to Los Angeles in 2003, has produced a small but substantial series of uncommon films: “Summer Solstice,” a rock ’n’ roll love story, as its auteur describes it, much of it shot in 2002 at the Turf Club in St. Paul; “Polly’s Global Walk,” released in 2009, a chronicle of a five-year trek around the world; a profile of the Russian film director Andrei Tartovsky titled “Time Within Time,” completed in 2015; a brief personal narrative finished a year later of the director seeking his ethnic roots in Russia titled “To Understand the Poet, Go to the Poet’s Land”; and his latest, titled “Neutra: Survival Through Design,” a portrait of the Vienna-born architect Richard Neutra, completed in February 2019.
“Neutra” will be shown Friday at 4:15 p.m. and Saturday at 2:10 p.m. at St. Anthony Main Theatre 3 as part of the 38th annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. When it was shown in Berlin two months ago, Susan Smoluchowski, the festival’s executive director, was in the audience. Impressed, she booked the film for her own festival.
“I’ve always been an admirer of Neutra’s work, so that in and of itself made the film intriguing,” Smoluchowski said in an email. “It spans his life, introducing us to Neutra’s early work in Europe and Berlin in particular and following his career in the U.S. Anyone curious about the mood and movements of the early- to mid-20th century and any fan of mid-century architecture, will be enthralled.”
Neutra on cover of Time in ’49
In 1949 Time Magazine put Neutra on its cover, ranking him second only to Frank Lloyd Wright in American architects. The two worked together briefly in the 1920s during Neutra’s first visit to the U.S., and they remained friendly. (Their initial meeting in 1924, at Louis Sullivan’s funeral in Chicago, was oddly symbolic. Here were these two vital figures of modernist design coming together at a ceremony honoring the passing of Sullivan, who represented a pre-modernist and, at that time, outmoded, style.)
Neutra, who died in 1970, designed more than 500 projects around the world, most of them in the U.S. — libraries, homes, schools, and at least one cemetery. He is known for his simple conceptual and practical steel and glass designs that show a sensitivity to environmental and ecological concerns that was considerably ahead of its time, as was his notion that our immediate environment is a key factor in our mental health.
Letofsky met Neutra’s son, Dion, in April 2015, at an art gallery in Los Angeles that Dion, then 90, had fashioned from his father’s office building. Father and son had been business partners in the last decades of the father’s life. Letofsky asked Dion if anyone had done the Neutra story on film. “A lot of people have talked about it, but no one’s ever done it,” Dion said. Letofsky at that time was finishing his documentary on Tarkovsky, much of it shot in Russia and later that year premiered in Sao Paolo, Brazil. He began researching a similar project on Neutra.
Over the years Letofsky has developed a creative team he relies on. He thinks of them as the members of a band. There’s his music director, for instance, Kubilay Uner, who lives in Chicago, to whom he sends the final mix of his films. Uner writes the music, then sends it back. Letofsky reserves the editing job for himself. “I love to edit,” he says. “The editor really shapes the story.”
What he hadn’t counted on, before moving to the Film Capital, was how much time he would have to spend simply waiting, waiting for an interview or – the eternal quest – waiting for funding. “I’ll ask for money for a while,” he said, “pounding on doors, but eventually I just have to commit to doing it, even if all the money isn’t in place. So, like, for the Neutra film, when I got a chunk of money — $50,000 from a friend — which wasn’t going to cover everything, I figured I’ll just organize it and do it. I can do the camera work in Europe myself.”
He tenses up talking about budgets. The Tartovsky budget was around $180,000, he says; the Neutra film, for which Christopher Ball, another Minneapolitan, acted as executive producer, came in at $283,000. “Hollywood accounting is mysterious,” he said. “The problem is when you’re trying to finance a film and you say, ‘Oh, I made the last one for $10. But I want a million for the next one.’”
He has pretty much given up on grants. With the “Polly’s GlobeWalk” movie, a documentary about his sister Polly’s jaunt around the world between 1999 and 2004, a benefit for breast cancer treatment and awareness that eventually aired on PBS in 2010, he spent six months applying to foundations related to every country his sister walked through and every woman’s organization and breast cancer group he could find and was turned down by all of them except, back home, the Ted Mann Foundation, which coughed up $1,000.
And like most aspiring actors and directors, to keep food on the table, he has worked numerous “day jobs,” like assisting on film and commercial productions, editing reality show pilots and audition tapes.
“The thing I hated most,” he said, “was job interviews for editing or tech positions I wasn’t really interested in, and there would be 50 people going for the same low pay, temporary work. And I was, like, ‘I don’t even want this job. Why am I here?’ I did a couple of interesting things, though: a Porsche commercial and a film of the Rembrandt collection at the Getty Museum, just me and the cameraman surrounded by this extraordinary collection of Rembrandt’s work.”
Biggest influence: Ken Burns
Letofsky names Ken Burns as his biggest influence. Burns’ painstaking probing of his subjects through letters and diaries and his use of appropriate music are what gives his documentaries their aura of depth, Letofsky thinks, and it’s a practice he emulates.
It’s what gives Letofsky’s portrait of Andrei Tarkovsky its feeling of authenticity — the director’s diary. “That was the key to the project,” he said, getting the rights to Tarkovsky’s diary in 2012. “There had been films done on Tarkovsky before,” Letofsky said. “But with the diary I have Tartovsky’s own voice, not just a bunch of other people talking to him. With the diary, it becomes his story.”
(Tartovsky, who died in 1986 at the age of 54, either from natural causes or, as some allege, with the aid of the KGB, is best known in this country for his surreal science fiction film “Solaris,” remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002 in a version starring George Clooney.)
Diary in hand and his camera in his suitcase, Letofsky took off for Europe in 2012. He photographed Tartovsky’s grave in the Russian cemetery just outside Paris, then moved on to Rome and Moscow, where he interviewed the director’s sister and neighbors. The film, which was screened at the Twin Cities Film Fest (the area’s other major film festival) in 2016, is beautifully photographed. Its scenes and locations held special resonance for its director, whose grandparents came from Russia. “Though my grandmother never talked about Russia, I’ve always felt an attachment to that country’s people and culture,” Letofsky said.
Letofsky has other documentary subjects in mind, such as the sculptor Constantin Brancusi and the photographer Edward S. Curtis, admired for his portraits of Native Americans. He thinks of documentaries as training ground in the film business.
“You can produce work with a relatively small budget and without a lot of people,” he said. “I’ve crossed the minefields — technical, legal — and I now have people who will support me. I’m getting ready now to delve into narrative films.”
The fact that his recent films on Tarkovsky and Neutra have been relatively highbrow is an advantage, he thinks, in an industry geared toward the mass market. “In the long run,” Letofsky said, “it’s more valuable if you have a reputation for taking on serious projects instead of, let’s say, cat videos. Besides, you’ve got to pick a subject that you find interesting because you’re going to live with these films for three, four or five years.”
Asked what he would do if someone knocked on the door and handed him a million dollars, Letofsky said he would start right away on his next film, but he would also give some of it to other filmmakers. “I’m evolving into a producer’s role. I’m actually helping a lot of people right now,” he said. “I know what it’s like. A little money can go a long way.”
And what if the person knocking was the ghost of Richard Neutra? What would he ask the famous architect?
“I’d say, ‘Hey, I found this piece of land, and I was wondering if you could design a house for me.’”