Click big arrow to view 'Flannel Pajamas' trailer It would be easy to assume that director-writer Jeff Lipsky, whose "Flannel Pajamas" intimately chronicles the arduous rise and tragic fall of a Jewish man's marriage to a Catholic woman, is a relative newcomer to independent film. After all, this is but his second movie. His first, 1997's "Childhood's End," was a little-seen coming-of-age story about several young people in Minneapolis.
But Lipsky actually is one of the most important names in the indie world. Just not as a director. Not yet, anyway.
As a distributor expert for such art- and independent-film companies as New Yorker, Samuel Goldwyn and Skouras Pictures, he was a key force in broadening the audience for such movies in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. Among the landmarks he worked on were John Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence," Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre," Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog," Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," and Mike Leigh's "High Hopes."
He and partner Bingham Ray started October Films on a shoestring budget in 1990, and went on to rival Miramax Films as the most influential indie film company of the decade by releasing Leigh's "Life Is Sweet" and "Secrets & Lies," Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," John Dahl's "The Last Seduction" and more.
Lipsky left October in the mid-1990s to make "Childhood's End" and then to start and fold another company, Lot 47 Films. October, meanwhile, eventually morphed into what is now Universal Focus Films ("Brokeback Mountain").
"It was something I began in my Sherman Oaks living room, and it ends up being owned by General Electric," Lipsky says, during a breakfast omelet and fruit cup at the Le Meridien hotel. "I don't have a dime of it, but it's a great legacy."
Lipsky, 53, now lives in New York -- where he is from. But he spent many years in Los Angeles working in the distribution business. He still primarily earns his living as an independent-distributor-for-hire on "service deals," in which the producer pays for the release. In fact, during this breakfast, he walks to a nearby table when he sees actor Ned Beatty, who is starring in one of those films -- director Ali Selim's "Sweet Land" -- which opened in Los Angeles last week.
But he isn't distributing "Flannel Pajamas," the movie that has brought him to Los Angeles and which opens Friday. This is his attempt to make a mature, erotic, confessional American movie about marriage that can measure up to such influences as Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman and Eric Rohmer. And it's a tale of Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) that borrows about half of its material from his own life experience. Set in New York, it is the story of Stuart, who is outwardly confident but strangely without close friends and is intensely in love with the more insecure Nicole, but struggling to show empathy toward her desires to have a child.
"I think above all else, the foundation of the script was my own failed marriage," Lipsky says, speaking quickly and enthusiastically at the table. Thin and youthful, despite or maybe because of his completely shaved head, he wears wire rims and has on an elegantly striped purple shirt.
He met his ex-wife when they worked together at a Los Angeles-based film distributor. After living together for 18 months, they married in 1989. But they separated in 1991, as he was launching October, and divorced the next year. Lipsky was raised Jewish, although he considers himself agnostic now, and his ex-wife was from a Catholic background.
"Ten years after the divorce, I was moving and came upon the photograph album of the wedding, and I began reflecting back about the early days of the courtship and relationship," he says. "It all seemed idyllic, singular, positive, thrilling, sexy and permanent. As I wrote [memories] down, I realized things were going wrong right from the start in a certain way. I thought, 'I don't know if I'd seen a relationship in films characterized that way.'"
Lipsky has stayed single since that marriage.
"I'm on my own now, out there looking. I don't necessarily believe in the oft-stated notion that women in their 40s or 50s -- divorced women, single women, quality women -- are just out there for the picking. It just isn't true."
Lipsky grew up in a traditional Jewish family on Long Island with two brothers and a sister. His father, now retired, was an advertising executive specializing in market research. His mother, now deceased, was a homemaker. His father used to bring home Variety and the Nielsen ratings and introduced Lipsky early to showbiz.
And on his own, he took an interest in writing.
"I wrote my first script when I was 12, a two-part episode for 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,'" he says, laughing. "I wrote longhand in a composition book while in class, and I timed it out so that with commercials the two episodes ran exactly two hours."
He never submitted it, although he did get to visit the show's set on a trip to Los Angeles through his father's connections. At age 16, he started working as an usher at a Long Island theater. He also went to Nassau Community College for two years, where he was film critic and cultural arts editor for the paper.
During this period, he started seeing the exciting art and indie movies of the era. For some reason, he responded strongly to Cassavetes' mature, adult-oriented studies of married men and women in crisis, 1968's "Faces" and 1970's "Husbands." "I don't know why," Lipsky says, "but I got it."
When Cassavetes came to New York to promote 1971's "Minnie and Moskowitz," Lipsky interviewed him. "It was one of the 10 greatest days of my life," he says. "I had a 6:30 p.m. interview, and it went for two and a half hours, until he was dragged away to go to a screening."
As the years passed, Lipsky settled into being a manager for a regional theater chain. "I loved it. I loved changing the marquee; I loved putting the new posters on," he says. But when he noticed that Cassavetes was presenting his latest film, 1974's masterful "A Woman Under the Influence," at the New York Film Festival, he bought a ticket and went. And he called the director at his hotel.
Cassavetes, preparing to self-distribute the film, was quick to ask for help. "I said, 'I don't know if you remember me, it's Jeff Lipsky.' He said, 'Oh Jeff, how you doing? What you doing? I just got these posters in.'"
Eventually, Lipsky wound up working on distribution at Cassavetes' office above the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles. He also got involved in the creative end -- as did everyone who worked for the amazingly industrious Cassavetes.
"There was a bookshelf behind his desk containing 100 original screenplays he had written and had never been produced," Lipsky says with awe. "He would come in every morning and with great discipline go into his office with the secretary and spit out 10 pages in an hour of a new screenplay.
"Then we'd read those 10 pages every morning. There'd be one copy and he'd be pacing as I'd be reading and if I missed one word he'd correct me. I don't know how that man's mind worked. Remarkable."
Lipsky hopes, in his own way, to carry on the legacy.