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Real to Reel

Just 14 minutes long, "Nick and Stacey" is one of 36 short films being screened in the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs April 19 through May 1. As such, it is automatically entered in the festival's Short Film Competition, co-sponsored by, which will ask audiences to rate the films, with the top five choices battling it out for a $50,000 prize.

Yet, in a much greater sense (and all clichés aside), Michael Knowles—an actor-turned-playwright, playwright-turned-screenwriter, and screenwriter-turned-director—already looks like a winner. He took a chance by eschewing the traditional route for aspiring filmmakers—earning a graduate school MFA—and chose to pursue his artistic ambitions directly.

Based on his play "Room 314: Six Stories, One Room," the film (and the play inspiring it) is by Knowles' own admission the result of several years of studying acting, writing, and directing under actor-writer-filmmaker Tom Noonan. Known for his intense, superrealistic style, Noonan's stage and screen work has often been acclaimed: He won a 1993-94 Obie Award for "Wifey" and his 1994 film "What Happened Was…" captured the grand jury prize at Sundance.

Knowles initially wrote, developed, and presented "Room 314" at the Paradise Theatre, Noonan's East 4th Street home and a true East Village greenhouse for developing the tightly-coiled, ensemble-based stage works for which he is renowned. (Jay DiPietro's Drama Desk–nominated "Peter and Vandy," for example, was developed and had an extended run there.) Even after Knowles and a group of fellow Noonan acolytes left the nest to form the Bottle Factory Theater Company a few blocks away, the aesthetic ties that bound them remained unbroken: Plays such as "Territory," and "Room 314" itself, continued to hew closely to Noonan's no-nonsense nostrums.

In a 2003 Back Stage interview, Noonan called for a return to "actor-centric writing," adding, "I believe the main job of the writing is to allow the actor to 'be' there, for without that there is no play. The writing should be active; it should give the actors the munitions they need to get what they need out of the scene. Plot and story are important but [are] secondary to the scene; the story is a framework on which you hang the drama. Contrary to popular perception, the play is not the thing; it's the actor. If the audience only wants a story, let them read a book." Knowles and his colleagues not only seek to advance this theory, but during the short period the Bottle Factory was in existence, they could boast a raft of positive reviews for their efforts.

Even as the theatre was enjoying its success, Knowles was already thinking bigger. "At first I thought, let's see if 'Room 314' could be a series—all these things happening in a hotel room—on perhaps HBO or Showtime," he said. "In fact, I wasn't planning on making the play into a film at all." Then Knowles met Laura Knight—head of development for John Leguizamo's company, Rebel Films—who immediately took to the piece. "When we said we wanted to pitch 'Room 314' to HBO, something in me said no—I'm not pitching anything relying on someone else's imagination to see what I want to see. So then I thought, let me shoot one or two of these stories to find my own aesthetic."

By his own admission, Knowles' first efforts were unsatisfying: "I had shot a little before on film and kind of knew what I wanted, but it was still trial and error. The first time I tried to shoot something from 'Room 314,' it didn't go well at all. I was shooting 'Nick and Stacey,' the first of the six stories, and I played Nick opposite another actress, and the director of photography didn't get the movement—the feeling—I was going for. Plus, my own communication skills weren't that good: I couldn't articulate exactly what I wanted."

Internally, though, Knowles knew: "I wrote 'Room 314' before asking my girlfriend to marry me. It was all about fear of commitment and relationships—how to be close to someone, what that means, and what happens next." He credits Noonan with helping him "go to that fearful place—to face fears about things you don't have answers to."

A second mentor also helped Knowles, for he soon recalled advice he'd received from the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler—a man with whom he was, at the time, utterly unfamiliar. "It was years ago. I was acting in a bank commercial and Haskell was the director. He'd won an Oscar, but I thought he was just some old guy directing a commercial. So I said, 'You're the director?,' and he said, 'Yeah,' and I asked him for advice. I said I was thinking of going to film school but that I had a resistance to formal education. 'Well,' he said, 'they didn't have film schools when I started out. If you want to tell a story, get a camera and shoot what you think you want people to see. After you're done, watch it. If it tells the story, you've done it. You've done your job.' "

Which is, Knowles says, terrifically hard to do: "I tried to shoot 'Nick and Stacey' again—now I was both director and director of photography, and two other actors played Nick and Stacey. We went to a hotel, rehearsed it—and again it wasn't happening. It just didn't feel right. I just couldn't get my actors to get the story to another level. Maybe it was because I'm an actor. Maybe it was because I just consider this kind of work true realism—I wanted it to seem real."

On his third try, Knowles shot what became the final version of "Nick and Stacey." Now featuring new actors Joelle Carter and Matthew Del Negro, the scene not only satisfied him but gave him the impetus to move on to the full feature version of "Room 314." And, he adds, he learned how to stay "true to the idea of what is real: There's no extra lighting, no extra sound, just what we captured on camera."

And that, he concludes, "is probably because I think a lot of product that goes out to the general public perpetuates disillusionment—people have lost touch with what life is really like. Some might say, 'I don't want to be reminded of real life,' and to them I say, 'Don't see my movie.' "

Just as he was finishing editing the feature, the submission deadline for the Tribeca Film Festival loomed, so Knowles quickly recut "Nick and Stacey" and entered it as a short. Now that it is poised to go before audiences, Knowles is back at work, "sweetening" the postproduction audio, learning about color correction, and hoping to meet sales agents interested in all of "Room 314." One suspects he will.

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