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COM Alum Wins Place at Sundance Film Festival

Zachary Treitz’s film stars a pet alligator


If you were an aspiring filmmaker trying to get a short film into the Sundance Film Festival this year, your chances were low—just over 1.2 percent, to be exact. Some 6,467 filmmakers from around the world submitted film shorts to the Utah winter festival, the biggest and most buzzed-about showcase for independent filmmakers. Zachary Treitz (COM’07) earned one of just 81 coveted spots with We’re Leaving, his 13-minute movie about a teenage alligator whose owners learn they’re being evicted from their mobile home park.

Shot in Treitz’s hometown of Louisville, Ky., We’re Leaving is a tender glimpse at one couple’s quest for small triumphs in an uncaring world—a movie about “normal people, people people, not heroes or villains or people with superhuman capabilities,” says Treitz, who lives in New York City. “There’s no time travel in this.”

The short started the way a lot of independent films do—with a good dose of serendipity and a filmmaker burning to get an image onto the big screen. “I had written this thing, and I called Brett Jutkiewicz up and said, ‘Oh my God, let’s make a movie—really, really, really soon,’” says Treitz, who has frequently collaborated with cinematographer Jutkiewicz (COM’06). “I feel like I tell that to Brett a lot, and it doesn’t happen. This time, it happened.”

The debut of We’re Leaving marks Treitz’s first recognition by Sundance as a filmmaker, but he has already coproduced two festival-worthy feature-length films since leaving BU: the 2010 Sundance selection Daddy Longlegs and the 2008 movie The Pleasure of Being Robbed, which not only made it to the mother of all film festivals—Cannes—but was the only American film selected that year for the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, the independent-film showcase that over the years has screened debuts by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Sofia Coppola. Both Daddy Longlegs and The Pleasure of Being Robbed were made with up-and-coming filmmakers Josh Safdie (COM’07) and Ben Safdie (COM’08) and their fellow BU alums at Red Bucket Films.

BU Today spoke to Treitz by phone as the budding filmmaker, who hadn’t slept in days, was madly rushing to finish his first-ever press kit. We’re Leaving is set to debut at Sundance this Sunday, January 23.

BU Today: Where did you get the idea for your film?
It kind of came out of this idea that I had for a longer feature-length film. I’d known this guy and his wife who owned an alligator. I’d been out there in Louisville, hanging out with them, taking pictures, and talked vaguely about this larger movie idea that I had, not really based on them, but based on this environment and a lot of other people.

What happened to that project?
Well, it’s just unbelievably difficult to make a movie, and especially a feature film. I don’t recommend it to anybody. I mean, it’s worth it to me, but it’s a lot of time and energy, and the whole point of a movie is to not show that time and energy. Maybe not the whole point, but a lot of times the energy of whatever it is that you’re doing really isn’t conveyed on the screen.

How did the focus on the alligator come about?
I basically realized I wanted to tell this one short story, and it was based on the guy I’d known. So the story was that he owned this alligator, and it lived with him in his house. And every week or so, he would open its gate and it would come stomping down the hallway on its own, and turn into the bathroom and just jump into the tub. It was like this trained Pavlovian response that it had of getting into the bathtub, and I thought, oh, my God, I want to see that. It would be so cool to share that image with somebody.

How did it feel to send a film to Sundance, the biggest stage in the United States for independent films?  
Well, the way it worked for me was, I had a rough decent cut of the movie and I sent it off to them. And I guess my normal ritual is to put it into the mail and convince myself that it doesn’t matter, and that I shouldn’t even care or want to go to Sundance. The ritual of feeling certain defeat. So that’s what I did.

How important are film festivals like Sundance to young filmmakers?
In terms of becoming a professional in your own right, it’s not important at all. People should do what they want to do regardless. In terms of a career, it probably is important. I think at this point people vilify festivals as much as they celebrate them. But most of these film festivals actually do show movies you’re not going to see other places, and the people who are programming them are committed to showing this kind of work. I don’t know what else you could ask for—other than for them to be more accessible and free, which would be nice.

What was the most important lesson you learned about filmmaking at BU?
There’s this built-in delay in the BU film program where you didn’t get to make a movie for your first two years. And I remember when I got there thinking, I’m here, I’m in film school, I want to make movies. Right now. I want to make a movie. And I kind of subversively enrolled through a loophole into the film-producing class a year early. It was Mary Jane Doherty’s Production I class, and when she said, “What year are you in?” I had some stupid George Washington moment where I couldn’t lie. I said, “I’m a sophomore.” So I didn’t get into Production I that year. But I was all the better for that, and I wish I had taken even more classes outside the subject of filmmaking. As someone who wants to actually be the director or the writer, it’s way more important to be a person who tries to understand the world than a person who tries to understand films, or how a piece of 16-mm film moves through the film gate. Formal technique is fantastic, but it doesn’t make a great movie. It only enhances great ideas.

What are you working on next?
Oh, man, there are so many movies I want to make. I’ve got two or three films that I feel very strongly about. But I also know that anytime I start talking about an idea, I lose it. I tell somebody a story about a movie I want to make and then it doesn’t get made because I’ve already told the story. I think that’s one of the reasons this movie got made—because I made myself stop telling these stories and made an effort to realize it as a movie.

Watch the trailer for We’re Leaving here.

Francie Latour can be reached at comiskey@bu.edu.

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