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I happen to like New York. Cole Porter and Judy Garland explained some of the many reasons why and Jane Rosenthal explains the rest below. She is everything I love about New York and New Yorkers — fascinating and fascinated, engaged and engaging, passionate and stylish. She creates in New York — as the producer of films like Meet the Parents, A Bronx Tale, Wag the Dog, and so many more — and she creates New York — as co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival. She has utterly reshaped the face of the post-9/11 city. With each project, she continues to strengthen her commitment to community-building, inclusion in the arts, and telling stories that matter. She also knows how to pull off a simple black cashmere sweater like no one else I know. What could be more New York than that?
We sat down and covered fashion (find out the reason she always wears pockets), what she sees as the next great frontier in storytelling, New York’s film industry in the age of #MeToo, and why creating gender equality isn’t all that hard after all.
Also in this issue: what I’m currently obsessed with and more!
Let’s dig in!
I have learned so much already from my 2-year-old, but this one is particularly eye-opening. I used to think going to a museum had to be an exhaustive 4-hour-plus process of ingesting every piece in every exhibit. As a result, I couldn’t go that often. We live right near the Whitney Museum so we can regularly pop in to, as Levi calls it, “see art.” He tells us when he’s seen enough, and rather than thinking of a half hour as falling short, I now understand it as the perfect bite-sized meal. Making art part of our every day.
Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us “The earth laughs in flowers.” Jane Rosenthal taught me about laughter yoga in our conversation below. As soon as I heard those two words together, I wanted in. Maybe yoga really is the best medicine!
Chelsea Clinton’s High Road
If ever there were a person who would be justified in camping out on the low road, it’s Chelsea Clinton. And yet, every day she responds to the vitriol, lies and abuse that is hurled at her in the Twittersphere not just by taking the high road, but by driving it in circles around her unwitting twit-foes. You know you’ve won the High Road Olympics when you sign off with “Have a blessed night.”
Sometimes you can feel the world changing while you’re watching a performance. This is Alex Newell honoring Andrew Lloyd Webber at the American Theatre Wing Gala, redefining not just Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but what will forever be possible for him and for us. New ways to dream, indeed.
If you count yourself a fan of any area of popular culture over the last 60 years, Quincy Jones has touched your life in one way or another. The new Netflix documentary, Quincy, directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Al Hicks, and produced by none other than Jane Rosenthal herself recounts, in thrilling detail one of the most astonishing success stories the world has ever known. In the film he tells us “You only live 26,000 days — I’m gonna wear them all out.” Amen.
In Conversation With Jane Rosenthal has been a dominant force in New York’s media landscape for decades. (I’ve known her for almost as long!) As she was launching this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, she sent me an impossible-to-ignore email that I just had to come down and see what she was so excited about. She then proceeded to blow my mind with a brand-new form of storytelling. We recently sat down at her iconic Tribeca offices to talk about all that, and so much more.
Jordan So I came in and the first thing you said was —
Jane “Look at you!”
Jordan Because we do love each other’s clothes, but you were talking about how you had put on your “costume” today and what that was projecting.
Jane I had to get dressed for you.
Jordan Well, I appreciate that!
Jane I had to wear, like — these instead of my sneakers. I was pointing to my patent leather Row off-white shoes.
These are the shoes.Photo by Jenny Anderson
Jordan Chic as hell. Chic as hell.
Jane Thank you. I love them. I was just saying, for those of us who wear so many different hats — there can be days where I’m in a corporate board meeting, days where I’m running around on set — I have to dress the way I feel or think I’m being perceived. It’s almost like when you get dressed in the morning, you’re putting on your costume for who you’re going to be that day or how you want to be perceived that day. But then again, it’s important to be who you really are. Sometimes I just have to get dressed up but I really just want to keep my sweats on and stay in bed and throw the covers over my head.
Jordan But those are all real parts of your true self. It’s not that you are pretending, it’s that you are bringing a piece of yourself to the fore with each costume.
If I dress in a way that makes me feel good and feel like I look the part, then it serves as an armor, serves as a protection of the shy me inside.
Jane Correct. There are days you’re perceived as a business person and, you know, dress accordingly. But I think there are times for me that — You know, I don’t like public speaking and I don’t like doing interviews —
Jordan Other than this one.
Jane Well, this one —
Jordan This is just chatting.
Jane I’m so lucky to be asked to do this because I get to sit and talk to you and have you all to myself. I’m thrilled! But there are times I don’t like to do certain things. So if I dress in a way that makes me feel good and feel like I look the part, then it serves as an armor, serves as a protection of the shy me inside.
The costume gives the actor’s body motion, courage, a sense of self in the same way that our clothes do for us.
Jordan It really does feel though that it is functioning in the exact same way that we talk about costume in theater and film. The costume is both working internally and externally. It is, yes, telling the audience — telling those who are perceiving us in the world — who we are or who we want to be received as. But it’s also telling ourselves. The costume gives the actor’s body motion, courage, a sense of self in the same way that our clothes do for us.
Jane Yes. It’s changed over the years because now I just put on jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt or another black sweater and go. It’s like, that’s the uniform. But years ago, especially because I started in the business so young, I felt that I had to dress up. There I was at 22-years-old working for CBS in California as a buyer for television, movies and miniseries. I didn’t have any “yes” power, but I definitely had “no” power. I felt like I had to dress the part because I had to look older than I was. I had to look like I was the person in charge. I dressed in my Donna Karan suits, in a power suit, because that’s what you were supposed to do.
I taught my daughters those things but I hadn’t taught myself. Or I hadn’t embodied it. I hadn’t embodied my own lessons.
Jordan Those power suits!
Jane Those power suits. I don’t even think I could afford Donna Karan. It was whatever the line was below that, but I felt I had to be respectful of the chair that I was sitting in and of the people who were older than me who were going to come in and meet me. I had to be respectful of that, so I dressed a certain part. Recently I was getting dressed to go to a board meeting and I said, Okay, board meeting, take out a suit — And I was like, Why am I wearing this suit? I thought to myself, You know what? They wanted me there for me, and I should wear what I’m comfortable in. So off went the suit and on went my black sweater. But it was a moment where, even at my age and with my experience, I was still that 22-year-old dressing for who I thought they wanted. All of a sudden it was like, Shit, I can dress any way I want. It’s just, in this time and day and age, it was a weird thought process to go through to find yourself in your closet at 7:00 in the morning having this epiphany.
Sometimes we are the last to be able to fully digest our own wisdom.
Jordan Existential fashion.
Jane By the way, I’ve always taught my daughters to be who they are and dress how they want to dress. I taught my daughters those things but I hadn’t taught myself. Or I hadn’t embodied it. I hadn’t embodied my own lessons.
Jordan Sometimes we are the last to be able to fully digest our own wisdom. What you’re saying really resonates for me because I had almost exactly the same experience when I started. I was really young, everybody working for me on these shows was older than I was, and I put on my Prada suit armor and that was the uniform for 10, 15 years. And it’s only just recently really that I have felt that I — I guess that I had earned the right to be my version of me.
Jane and her daughters, Juliana and Isabella.Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage
Jane Thank God!
Jordan And out came —
Jane Some of the best outfits! The best jackets. That Met outfit was spectacular. It was so great.
Me at the Met. I call this Jewish Givenchy Cardinal.Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Jordan The way costume reflects inward as well as outward, that Met look, as soon as I put it on, my whole body changed. And it wasn’t not me. It was me. But it was a very specific part of me that those clothes accessed.
Jane We’re very fortunate and lucky that we have the ability to be able to express ourselves in different dress — to express our moods, our feelings. It’s a real luxury. I also think it’s a luxury once you get comfortable enough that you’re almost wearing a uniform. How many black cashmere sweaters do I have and Manolo Blahnik boots? But I keep buying the same thing.
Jordan I’m always intrigued by the number of designers who have a uniform. Michael Kors, I think of, has a very specific, very beautiful, elegant uniform for himself. And then, season after season, will continue to create these extraordinary looks for other people. But his own look is a uniform. And there are many artists who are the same. I just now started thinking about Mark Zuckerberg and Obama, and they had the same thing. It was about decision fatigue, not having the morning be sucked up by What am I going to wear?
Michael Kors, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Obama in their chosen uniforms.Kors photo by JP Yim/Getty Images; Zuckerberg photo by Chesnot/Getty Images; Obama photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
Jane Yes, but also, if you have a silhouette that you know works, then go for it. There are certain things for me that I know work, and then I’ll have it in six colors, and at least two in black.
Jordan Do you take that to be uniform or do the colors then offer you a pallet of different moods and different expressions?
Jane The colors will offer that change, but it’s still a uniform because, ultimately, I’m putting on the same damn dress. It’s just what I’m comfortable in. I have pockets, you know. I’ve got to have pockets.
Jordan What do you put in your pockets every day? Or do you just like having them to put your hands in?
Jane I’m basically very shy and I need some place to hide, like if I have to go talk, you know? A breath mint, my phone — I don’t like carrying pocketbooks, I don’t like carrying bags much.
Jane I don’t know. Because I like to slip out the door fast.
Jordan This all really connects!
Jane I like to slip out the door. See my iPhone cover over there?
Jordan Mirror. Credit card. That’s all you need.
Jane That’s all I need. I can put it in my pocket and I can slip out.
Jane’s fabulous phone.Photo by me
Jordan So you’ve really come up with all of these tools and fashion choices that are allowing you to function despite your shyness.
Jane Yes, to function. To function through my shyness and to allow me to feel good in what I’m wearing. It’s also that I don’t have to think about it because sometimes I get up at 6:00 in the morning, I get dressed and I won’t be home until 10:00 at night. And it’s like, “Okay, how am I doing that today?”
Jordan That takes us back to the hats. On that day, from 6:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night, you’re probably functioning with three or four hats. So in those cases, are you costuming for one of them? Are you bringing changes? Are you just working through that discomfort?
Jane I’ll bring another jacket or a sweater and a necklace or another pair of earrings and I’m gone.
Jordan A change of hat.
Jane Yeah. Look, there are so many things in life to be concerned about and it’s just a matter of what’s going to help you get through the day. I’m really lucky that I get to go in and out of so many different worlds sometimes. Although it can be schizophrenic to go from one thing to the other, it’s exhilarating and I’m really fortunate.
VR is really an empathic machine.
Jordan That’s why we love it. So, this last Tribeca Film Festival, you called me and said, “You have to come see what we’re doing in virtual reality.” And of course, I came because whatever you’re excited about, I want to see. But I was skeptical because my perception of virtual reality had been that it was kind of the anti-human, right? That it was computers, not people. That it was distance, not connection. But the experiences that I had with Jack and with Hero, were the exact opposite of that. It was actually more profoundly human, more connected, more empathetic. Partly, I think that was because there were real people — actors and artists, technicians — who were handcrafting this experience for me, different from the one you had and the one the guy after me had. And it occurred to me that I felt like I was witnessing the true convergence of theater and film, which I assume is why you called.
Behind the scenes at Jack. What I was seeing in these moments was literally magic.
Jane Yes, yes, yes. You got it. Exactly. Well, with virtual reality, there are so many different types of content, shows, ways of using VR and AR, that we’re really in that nascent period, that discovery period. But it’s extraordinary for those of us who tell stories and are in the arts, in terms of how we can open up a story, how we can tell a story in 360. VR is really an empathic machine. It becomes more personal than almost anything that’s out there because of how you have to interact with it. Now, there’s good VR, there’s —
Jordan As there is good theater and bad theater. And good film and bad film. We don’t blame it on the form.
Jane We don’t blame it on the form. But what we try to do at Tribeca, and have been doing for the past six years, is curate the best display of where the creatives are today in that space. I got so excited about wanting you to come see Baobab’s Jack because it immerses you into this animated environment of Jack and the Beanstalk and you act with another actor and it is live theater, in this virtual world. I got so excited about it.
Jordan It’s thrilling!
Jane It’s so thrilling. And you know, I’m working with Baobab now, and Maureen Fan and Eric Darnell, and the creators from France, to see if you can put multiple people in at the same time.
Jordan Multiple audience members?
Jane Multiple audience members in at the same time and see where that can go, because eventually I’d like to do that with you as —
Jordan I’m in.
Jane Our next chapter.
Jordan I’m in. Do you think it scales or is the beauty of it that it’s the reverse? It’s sort of couture storytelling.
It absolutely felt like we were present for the beginning, the germinating moment, and we will look back in 20 years and say this whole world cracked open at Tribeca in 2018 with these few pieces.
Jane Therein lies the problem because right now those experiences don’t scale. I was actually talking to somebody last night who is looking to scale that so you can have multiple audience members in an experience at the same time.
Jordan In the same story or just going concurrently?
Jane Going concurrently, but how they interact is still a question. I’m getting way ahead of myself because people are working all of that out. But this was the beginning of it and your imagination just goes in terms of — certainly the technology’s there — but what you can do with it and the kind of experiences you can have that take theater and storytelling to another realm.
With Jane in the vibrant Tribeca offices.Photo by Jenny Anderson
Jordan It absolutely feels like we are present for the beginning, the germinating moment, and we will look back in 20 years and say the whole world cracked open at Tribeca in 2018 with these few pieces. You talked about an empathic machine and I love that as an image because those are two things that we think are polar opposites: empathy and machine. One of the things I was so moved by was, after I took the journey and was the audience member/actor, you took me around to see the backstage as the next audience member came in. We could see all of the people who were creating this for this one audience member and it felt like this profound act of generosity, of personal generosity, to create something just for this person — how everyone was focused on that one person’s journey. It actually, only at this minute as I’m saying this, reminds me a little of medicine at its best, right? Where all of these people have devoted their lives and training to come to this one moment, with this one person, with this one thing that they need to be cured of or helped with. And all of their experiences are brought to bear for that person.
It does feel like VR is one of those watershed inventions that then allows every person of creativity and interest to think “How do I use that? How does this apply to my piece of the world?”
Jane Well, you do that in theater every night. You give the audiences that walk into a theater joy, laughter, and the endorphins — how you feel afterwards. You give them a sense of empathy and understanding of different people and cultures and ways of life and take them on these incredible journeys. People have been going to theater for, you know, millennia. People would sit around the campfire and tell stories and we would sit back and listen to stories, and you learned so many things from stories. But for VR, AR — again, we’re at the very beginning of where all of that’s going to go. You know, when you talk about medicine, some of the more extraordinary uses of VR have been in the medical world.
Jane Yes. Imagine you’re a doctor and you’re in a third world country and you have to do a certain kind of operation and you don’t know how to do it. You can do that operation in VR, in a virtual world with another doctor guiding you, while seeing the patient.
Jordan That’s extraordinary.
Medical VR techniques. Astounding.Photo by Markus Matzel/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Jane You can practice surgeries as a student in VR. They’ve used VR for people who are paraplegic to actually get back the use of their bladders. I don’t know if it’s gotten to the walking stages yet, but there have been some extraordinary experiments and lab work done with VR. And actually, getting off of medicine and going into human rights, Ban Ki-Moon, very early on, started to use VR. He had Chris Milk and Gabo Arora do a piece on the refugee crisis. It was called “Clouds over Sidra,” and it allowed you to walk into this massive camp in Jordan and understand how people were living: how the children were living, what the schools were like, how a mother cooks and where everybody slept, so that people at the UN who were making decisions about refugee issues could actually be there without everyone traveling.
Experience “Clouds over Sidra”, the 360° immersive film about the Syrian refugee crisis. Video via youtube.com
Jordan It’s not just the “be there,” it’s the “feel it.” It’s the “feel it as yourself” definition of empathy.
Jane And your sound is heightened too. It’s kind of spectacular. There’ve been other pieces we’ve had here. There’s one piece, “Notes on Blindness,” about what that feels like. They’re also using VR for people who have been incarcerated for many, many years so they can start to learn how to deal with the new world they’re going to walk into. You think about what’s happened over 10 years — the iPhone, how pressing an elevator button is different, getting into a car and having it talk back to you — the whole world’s different. So they’re using VR to help former prisoners acclimate back to society. Jordan It’s extraordinary. It does feel like it is one of those watershed inventions that then allows every person of creativity and interest to think “How do I use that? How does this apply to my piece of the world?”
Jane Real estate.
Jordan Of course! Who’s going to go around and look at houses and apartments? You’re just going to sit on your computer and have the experience.
Jane You’re going to walk through it. Doing a hotel project, a building project, a theater project —
Jordan I love those moments where our minds can just go big canvas.
You can’t replace live theater. We all crave that kind of connectivity, that human experience. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience and hearing people laugh at the same thing or cry at the same thing. That’s really what reminds us of our own humanity.
Jane It’s exciting to go big canvas, but as much as I love VR and the different ways you can tell a story, there is still nothing like eye contact and personal interaction. And that is something that will never — you can’t replace live theater. We all crave that kind of connectivity, that human experience. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience and hearing people laugh at the same thing or cry at the same thing. That’s really what reminds us of our own humanity.
Jordan Truly. That makes me think of something I read that you said about dinner conversation as a really meaningful ritual for you. One of the first things post-9/11 that you brought to Tribeca, before the film festival, was this downtown dinner series of bringing large groups of people together regularly. And then, of course, the festival. So it occurs to me those two things that are so deeply important to you — the ritual of communing at dinner and the ritual of storytelling on film — were your two big responses post-9/11. How do those two things link for you?
Jane Well, Dinner Downtown was less about eating than it was about saving communities. In downtown neighborhoods, there were restaurants in places like Little Italy or Chinatown, that were going to go out of business because nobody was coming downtown. So for me, it was have a meal, save a job. How could you get people who were afraid to come downtown into the neighborhoods? I remember one friend called me and I said, “Just come and we’re all going to spread out in the neighborhood and I’ll give you the name of a restaurant.” And he said, “Is my restaurant in Zagats?” I said, “I don’t have a clue, bring cash.” You know, you’re going to all these different local places, some of which have disappeared post-9/11. But it was also about the restaurant workers and the people who are part of our city and they’re so important for the infrastructure in our city. If we stopped going out and doing things, they were going to lose their jobs. I just became obsessed with how to bring more and more people back downtown. I probably was a little crazy at the time.
Jordan A little crazy is good.
Jane and her Tribeca Co-Founder and long-time collaborator, Robert DeNiro.Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Jane Well, it was this obsession with If more people come down, then it will be normal again. It’s like, “Let’s do a family festival.” Because, you know, independent film isn’t really about families. So, we had a street festival. We called on our friends on Broadway, we had street performances happening from whatever shows. It was just about how to bring the community together. People came out, certainly at the Dinner Downtowns, because they felt it was okay to come out again. It was permission. The first festival felt like that. It was right at the time when they finally opened up West Street because we were still in a mess down here. The first year of the festival Nelson Mandela spoke, because we needed something — we couldn’t just go from the disaster we were all in and the grieving. So how do you get permission to do that? Through Bob [De Niro] and our friend, the late Richard Holbrooke, we got President Mandela to come in to speak and he talked about the unifying power of film. When he was in Robben Island, the one night that both he and his jailers looked forward to was movie night because then they could talk about their kids together. They all had the same issues. They had the same joys, the same woes, when they talked about it through the movies. So he came and then Hugh Grant had to speak afterwards. Hugh didn’t want to speak, but he did. And he said that “a film festival was a great shot of Vitamin B 12 to the arse” and with that we all went to watch.
President Nelson Mandela visiting his prison cell on Robben Island where he spent 18 years of his life.Photo by Louise Gubb/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images
Jordan It’s interesting that it, of course, starts as a kind of economic jumpstart, economic revitalization. I remember when Mayor Giuliani told everybody, “Please come see a Broadway show.” Same impulse of the economic impact. But it also has the effect of healing us, right? You’re coming to a Dinner Downtown. Yes, you are helping the economy and the people in that restaurant, but you’re also starting to heal yourself by returning to a community. That ritual. The same as seeing a film together, telling a story, experiencing theater. It is a way of healing ourselves.
Jane There’s nothing more ritualistic and bonding as sitting around a table with friends, and new friends, to have a good meal. You think about what it is in your family, what it is to sit with your family, and that bonds you, and you take that out into the world.
Jordan We’ve talked a lot about the communalness of storytelling, but mostly relative to live experience. How does that manifest in film, which is where you make most of your storytelling?
That’s my answer for now. Maybe I’ll disagree with myself in a minute.
Jane Right now we’re at another inflection point where our audiences are becoming platform-agnostic, so there’s less desire to go out immediately to see movies that will pull you out of your house — even though there are certainly examples like Black Panther or Jurassic World that do pull you out of your house. But for the most part, an audience has more control now than they ever had. They want to watch when they want to watch, what they want to watch, on whatever screen they want to watch it on. So finding those stories can sometimes be more challenging on different platforms. That said, as a producer, it’s never been a more exciting time. If I want to, I can make a short film and have that on Apple, on iTunes, and I can release it myself. I mean, look at the projects you’re working on. You can just go do it now. And you have more places to sell and distribute your project. So it’s a very exciting time. But going back to the initial question, you don’t necessarily hear the audience the same way you used to. I think back to the Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers films, and one of my favorite things was to be in an audience and watch the laughter. Jay Roach used to say, “Is it a knee slapper? A head bobber and an elbow?” You would just wait for those moments where somebody was slapping their knee and elbowing the next person — the dynamics of the laughter. You don’t get to see that as much. So I have to go see Mean Girls.
Meet the Mean Girls.
Jordan Speaking of which, I actually posed this exact question to Tina Fey that I also need to ask you, because I’ve always been confounded by the fact that the same line in a play could get a laugh, but in a film it would not. It feels like we laugh out loud much more in live theater than we do in film, or said another way, something has to be that much funnier in film to laugh out loud. Do you disagree?
Jane In film, it’s the director’s choice of how they cut it and where you’re looking. So you make a joke and the joke is a closeup and you’re making —
Jordan So the director doesn’t want you to laugh at that moment?
Jane No, the director wants you to laugh. But it’s what the director thinks is funny. That kind of a close up. In theater you, as a viewer, you’re looking at the whole frame. That’s my answer for now. Maybe I’ll disagree with myself in a minute. I do think in theatre you get to see the whole experience and why something is funny. Where in film sometimes if you cut it a certain way, it might not be as funny to me as it is to you.
Jordan Interesting, interesting.
Jane I don’t know. What do you think?
Jordan I think there’s something about the collective, the roll of the audience. Actually, I meant roll r-o-l-l, but also r-o-l-e; you feel more of what other people are reacting to and it sort of makes you react.
It feels like we laugh out loud much more in live theater than we do in film, which is, said another way, something has to be that much funnier in film to laugh out loud.
Jane But that happens in film too.
Jordan But that would happen when we’re all in the audience, not when we’re sitting on our couch. Tina’s suggestion on this was partly that it was about our awareness, subconscious in the moment as it may be, that they can hear us. And so there’s something about the exchange between actors on stage and audience that we are playing our part. We’re sort of bouncing the ball back to them when they hit it to us. Different from when we know we’re not impacting what’s happening on the screen.
Jane Also certainly when you think about standup comedians, they’re sensing the room. You know, Okay, they didn’t laugh at this. They might not laugh at that. You’re going to change your timing for that moment. You might give the look a little bit longer because you know you’ve got that audience there.
Jordan I think that’s where we’re going. There’s something Tony Kushner said — separate from this — when we were talking about actors with comic timing. He said, “You know in the first couple of lines what you’re up against.” You can hear what the audience is responding to and what they’re not. Are they missing the jokes that are way up there? Are they connecting? And then you suit up accordingly. So I think you’ve nailed it with Tony with those subtle little changes to the performance in reaction to the audience. I feel like this takes us back to VR.
Me and Tony Kushner post-Tonys. Photo by Ali Wonderly
Jane But also, you talk to a jazz musician — how they feel about what an audience is taking in as they’re playing and then may go in a different direction. It’s similar to a certain extent with doing standup.
Jordan Is there ever a time in which you regret not having the ability to do that in film? Like if you watch a film with a group of people, do you think, Oh, if I could just stretch that moment. I could elicit the response emotionally that I want.
Jane Yes. And some directors that you work with — I think of Jay Roach and comedies — he would film the audience so he could hear the laughter. He wanted to get those rolling laughs, and then cut for it. It was like Okay, do I toss out something that’s just a knee slapper?
Jordan Go for the elbow jab.
Jane Right. Go for the whole thing. So certain directors do that. Others have other —
Jordan I’m telling my story, and this is my story.
You need artists, more than ever, for their songs and their stories to kind of reach above the crazy fray in our society. Artists are the change agents.
Jane Yeah, but I’ve been fascinated with nonlinear storytelling that you, as the audience, can experience — it becomes more novelistic of where you can go with this story and what you can choose to follow. And that becomes exciting.
Jordan Things like Sleep No More and those experiences? Or are you talking about film?
At Sleep No More
, those masks are audience members who are free to roam the space following whichever characters they find most compelling. Photo by @themckittrick
Jane I’m talking more about shorter form. I mean, clearly Sleep No More’s not quite “choose your own adventure.” There’s a new company called Echo that let’s you decide, you know, not just to take a right or take a left, but whether somebody is going to propose or not. Again, it’s new, but you get to choose how the character is going to interact with another character.
Jordan Are you excited by the power that’s bestowed on the audience or do you feel like that takes away from an artist’s vision and the artist’s ability to tell us a story that we may not be ahead of?
Sometimes I feel like Yes, what we’re doing matters. And other times I think, Oh God, I don’t know.
Jane I think that there is room to have both and that the artist, and the artist’s voice and vision, is always something that we as a culture need. You need artists, more than ever, for their songs and their stories to kind of reach above the crazy fray in our society. Artists are the change agents. So you always want that, but people have appropriated and have done mashups of lots of different types of stories. So is there room for both?
Jordan I say “Yes.” Let’s say, “Big canvas.”
Jane Yes. Why not? And by the way, it’s not like you’re going to take Gone with the Wind and do it as a nonlinear story, although maybe —
A non-linear retelling of Gone with the Wind? Maybe...
Jordan I don’t know, that sounds kind of amazing as you say it.
Jane Yeah, exactly. That one might be. But anyway —
Jordan I’m interested in what you just talked about: artists as change agents and particularly in our crazy fray. You’ve said that you think storytelling is our best American export. It seems, particularly at this moment, that that is the antidote to the Trump isolationist rhetoric that we're in — not just rhetoric, but policy that we have. Is that our best ambassador?
We have to get out of just being in the circle of those already converted. Sometimes in New York — in our wonderful, amazing, creative bubble that we are blessed to work in and live in, with how lucky and fortunate we are — we have to get out of it.
Jane There are stories that show our differences as well as our similarities. No matter who or what you believe, you’re not going to leave your nine-month-old alone. If that nine-month-old was alone in a car, in a parking lot, the parent would be arrested in our society. Civil society doesn’t take children away from their parents. We have a recent history in this country of doing that and hopefully we can learn from it. But these are dark days, and it is the artists, the stories. It’s what you do, whether it’s Warmly Jordan here or Birds and the BS — it’s what I do, whether as the curator of a film festival or working with Ava DuVernay and doing the Central Park Five story as a narrative docudrama that will hopefully be out for the 30th anniversary of that case, where innocent young men were accused of a brutal crime and incarcerated and their lives were changed. I can now tell that story and people will look at it a bit differently, both from a historical point of view and because of where we are today. I don’t know. I’m rambling, Jordan.
Ava DuVernay and Jane are collaborating on a docudrama telling the story of the Central Park Five.Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Jordan No you’re not. That’s what we’re grasping for.
Jane But that’s what we have to do. And also through songs! What did Bruce [Springsteen] sing in reaction to family's being separated at the border?
Jordan “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
Jane Okay, hello! He had his audience. He changed it for them. That’s going back to reading an audience. If you have a moment, you’re going to change something. You can’t do that if you’re putting out a film.
Bruce added “The Ghost of Tom Joad” to his Broadway show in reaction to families being separated at our borders. Watching it was an extraordinary moment of collective humanity.Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Jordan Yeah, but does it work? I really ask myself this. Sometimes I feel like Yes, what we’re doing matters. And other times I think, Oh God, I don’t know.
Jane Well, yeah, we all ask ourselves that because people might’ve thought it would be bad, but I don’t think any of us thought it would get this bad. It’s just not my country. I can’t believe it. But that said, we have to keep pushing and I think we have to get out of just being in the circle of those already converted. Sometimes in New York — in our wonderful, amazing, creative bubble that we are blessed to work in and live in, with how lucky and fortunate we are — we have to get out of it. So what do we do? What are we taking on the road? We have to get out of our own neighborhoods, going back to my communities.
Children are the best natural resources. They’re cutting out all of these programs that nourish a kid.
Jordan That’s it! That actually makes me think of something that we’re both very passionate about, which is public funding for the arts. Yes?
Jane Yes, yes, yes.
Jordan At this minute it occurs to me, Well, if you don’t want things to change then you don’t want storytelling and you don’t want art, because that’s how people will connect and will understand each other. But the NEA is such a relatively infinitesimal budget line in the federal budget and yet it seems to always be on the chopping block. And I wonder — speaking of storytelling — what is missing in the storytelling of why the arts matter or why publicly funded arts matter that causes us to keep having this debate?
Jane We have the debate because, and I may be uninformed about what I’m about to say —
Jordan I bet not, but continue.
Jane With the arts, you can’t say that if I’m showing kids from an underserved population, let’s say I’m showing them a play, that it’s going to do much for them. We’ll instead cut the arts because now we’re going to give them, you know, lunch. But they need both. They need nourishment for both their body and their mind, okay? Children are the best natural resources. They’re cutting out all of these programs that nourish a kid. We have done these programs in underserved populations at the Tribeca Film Institute here in New York for a kid who might be homeless, for a kid for whom English is a second language, and they’re suddenly learning how to tell a story. They’re learning how to make a little film, tell their stories about their neighborhoods and what it’s like for them. What’s interesting is that the kid who’s musically inclined can do the music, the kid who likes to dress up can do the costumes — there’s something for everybody. It becomes, again, that sense of community and everyone has a place. Everybody has a place, and when you find your best self, what you’re good at and the opportunity to experiment, then you’re coming together and watching something. We’ve been doing this in schools, we’ve done them with the juvenile population at Rikers, and it’s extraordinary how everyone reacts and communicates with each other through the arts, through storytelling. So it becomes up to private citizens to fund the arts. But again, there are so many things to fund that you start saying, Okay, what fire do I — You know, What is it that I fund? And there are so many appeals and it feels like the arts are always the first to go. Did I answer your question?
Tribeca All Access (TAA)
is an extraordinary program which provides filmmakers from communities largely underserved in the industry with guidance and resources to complete their projects.Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Jordan Yes, absolutely. I’m interested in what you said about everyone has a place. It is one of the things that I think you’ve done here in Tribeca — the company, the festival, and the neighborhood — is that you have demonstrated the power of the arts to place-make, to make place. I wonder what the rest of us can learn from the process you’ve gone through here.
Jane Well, you know, we were far from the first. Look at the neighborhoods. Let’s just take the New York grid and look at the neighborhoods. Soho was where the artists could find cheap space and they moved in and you could get a cheap place to put on a play, to —
Jordan But also space that facilitated art. Great ceilings, great light.
It’s really just: follow the artists.
Jane Yes and then as soon as the artists were there and fixed everything up, the real estate developers moved in and, boom, they couldn’t afford that anymore.
Jordan It’s really just: follow the artists.
Jane It’s follow the artists. Absolutely.
Jordan In all ways.
Jane In all ways.
Jordan In placemaking and in empathy and in understanding.
Jane I worry, Jordan, that New York will no longer be a place for artists to live.
Jordan I worry about that too.
Jane I worry that there are no neighborhoods anymore. I think about when I moved to New York to go to NYU in ‘78 and there were neighborhoods. Even here in Tribeca, years ago, you wouldn’t walk a few blocks up, but everything is now being gentrified to such a point — I don’t know where artists live. I don’t know who can afford to live in New York. So what are you going to do?
Jordan What do we do?
Jane What do we do? Start a great theater company in Newark?
I don’t know how you become an artist without the luxury of the fumble.
Jordan Wow. So that’s interesting. That’s the other way. That’s the create artists’ community elsewhere. In the same breath, I think we talk about how do we keep artists’ communities here in the city. And I don’t know yet. You know, it’s funny, this just made me think of when I first moved back to the city, after college —
Jane We met then. Do you know that we met then?
Jordan Yes, completely! It’s been a long road, my dearest. And I was very aware that I was uniquely lucky to get to come back to the city after college and fumble around for a year. It was really kind of level-setting, figuring out who I was at that moment outside of school. I eventually found my way to The Donkey Show, which was my first show. And that ended up happening quicker than I thought, but there was still a good year of, I don’t know where this is going. And I don’t know how you become an artist without the luxury of the fumble. I was very lucky to be supported to be able to do that. But this is a city where that is almost impossible now.
Being allowed to fail is crucially important in anybody’s life. To fail proudly and honorably, and to be able to let that help build your art.
Jordan And so, my fantasy then — I remember sharing this with my friend Susie who I went to college with — was that I really wanted to create a program, a building, where it’s basically that. You’d get to come and live here for a year or two while you’re figuring it out. While you’re getting your feet on the ground, and not have the pressure of supporting yourself through the day to day. Which is, yes, partially the money, but also just how you live in the city. To not let that get in the way of figuring out your canvas. I think it’s ironic that I live right near West Beth now because that was what that was originally. But I don’t know what the answer is, ultimately.
Jane I mean, there is no place. I drive down the West Side and I don’t recognize it. I drive around here, I walk around and it’s like I don’t —
Jordan And yet, there’s also a certain level of progress, change, forward. Yes, it’s not always going to be where we want to go, but we do have to go. We do have to keep changing. That’s the message of Angels in America, or one of them — one of the many ones. But I don’t know, sometimes I wonder.
“The world only spins forward” as Tony Kushner teaches us in Angels in America.Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenbur
Jane Well, wondering is good and wandering is good. Supporting the artists and supporting young artists who need the time to figure out what their canvas is, what their medium is, and being allowed to fail — is crucially important in anybody’s life. To fail proudly and honorably, and to be able to let that help build your art.
Jordan What was your proudest?
Jane Proudest failure? Oh God. I have a different lesson on that. I do have plenty of “proud failures.” First of all, I’ve learned more from my failures than any of my successes. But it’s so interesting that when something fails, when you’ve done a big movie and it just tanks, nobody calls.
Jordan As you’re looking at your phone — as you’re literally grabbing for your phone.
Jane In the old days you’re calling the phone company, “Is something the matter with this phone?” It is so interesting.
Jordan I love that because that’s actually a lesson, not for the person who failed, but for everybody around them. For the rest of us, it’s an opportunity to see that when somebody has failed, it’s a chance to reach out and say, “Let’s go to our communal dinner rituals.”
Jane Yes! You put just as much hard work into something that you don’t necessarily know is going to fail. You put in the same hard work, and then all of a sudden, it’s out there in the world and people go, “Ugh.” And you still have to go to the creators and everyone and they need a hug and “Good work,” because certainly when you’re successful at it —
Jordan Everybody’s calling then. Okay, I pledge to you, I will call when you fail and please do the same.
Jane How about we can just call anytime? It doesn’t just have to be —
Jordan Yes Yes! I’ve been looking over your shoulder at this piece behind you that says, “Between us, culture exists. Alone, we are stardust.” That feels like a really good metaphor for our conversation.
Between us, culture exists. Alone we are stardust.Photo by Jordan Roth
Jane I think so.
Jordan I love it. I read that the festival this year had 50 percent women directors.
Jane 46 percent.
I question whether the Weinstein-type payouts would have happened if there was more than one woman on the board.
Jordan That’s extraordinary. That was obviously deliberate.
Jane The company is 80 percent women. And we tasked ourselves in the #TimesUp of it all to really try to create a program that would have 50 percent women directors, and we got to 46 and we’re very proud of that. We have, through the Tribeca Film Institute, for years had a program called Tribeca All Access. We support underrepresented filmmakers. We have worked with Chanel for five years already doing a program called Through Her Lens. We are all about inclusion, having every different voice, a diversity in storytelling, and clearly we need more women’s voices to be heard. So I’m very proud of what we did.
Jane’s company is 80% women and tasked itself with showing an equal number of female and male directors at this year’s festival.Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Jordan What did you learn from that experience that you would offer to all other companies and industries that say “It’s so hard. I don’t know how to do that?”
Jane Well, first of all —
Jordan It’s not so hard.
Jane It’s not that hard. For us, it really wasn’t that hard because we were already doing it. We were really already doing it. We had already put out the call for those submissions. But that said, what we need to do is make sure that the crews, the productions, etc, look like the world that we’re in. Sometimes it means you’re going to hire somebody who might be a little less experienced, and you might have to pull a consultant in to help them and mentor them and bring them up through the system. It is really about mentoring people too, no matter what side of the business they’re on. There are plenty of women who are remarkable at all kinds of jobs who just haven’t had the opportunity. Or that boys club where you don’t have enough women on corporate boards. I question whether the Weinstein-type payouts would have happened if there was more than one woman on the board.
What we need to do is make sure that the crews, the productions, etc, look like the world that we’re in.
Jordan Nailed that.
Jane So there’s no question that there needs to be more women on corporate boards and more women CEOs.
Jordan And where do you think we are right now in your industry on that journey?
Jane In that sense, I think that everybody is trying and is on alert. You feel like our industry — the film and television industry — is on red hot alert.
Jane with the seven participants of the inaugural Through Her Lens program: Kat Coiro, Anna Martemucci, Roja Gashtili, Julia Lerman, Christina Voros, Vera Miao and Numa Perrier.Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage
Jordan Is that sustainable or do you think we will backslide after the headlines and alerts go down?
Jane I think that those of us who are leaders in our business need to make sure that now that the window is open, it stays open and that nothing slams shut. We can’t slide backwards. We can’t. Nor can our country slide backwards. That’s where we’re going and that’s scary to me. It’s frightening that we could. I just saw John Lewis on “Morning Joe” yesterday use the Martin Luther King quote about silence. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We can’t silence our communities. We can’t silence our voices. People need to vote. And you can’t silence the artists — we need to give platforms to the artists, no matter where they live, for them to be able to tell these amazing stories and afford tickets at movie theatres, and —
Jordan And Broadway theatres! We’ve got work to do. We’ve got work to do. You brought up #TimesUp and Harvey, and of course he was a big figure down here in Tribeca filmmaking. How is your industry different without him now? Is it?
John Lewis with Dr. and Mrs. King at the podium before the Montgomery March rally in 1965.Photo by Charles Shaw/Getty Images
Jane No, it’s not. Now I think everyone is clearly more aware of certain things that were going on. Harvey had an office in this building. I think what strikes me personally is Who is this stranger that was living here? Like, not knowing the degree to which certain things were happening — where you know certain things went on, but didn’t know the kind of alleged criminal activity that was going on for years. But that said, you start to look at the amount of money and buyers in the system, it doesn’t feel like there’s — there’s not a hole because of Weinstein. There are people who are passionate about stories and making movies. Ted Sarandos is a passionate storyteller and loves, loves movies. He’s at Netflix and to sit and talk to Ted about story is fantastic.
It’s a really exciting time to be a storyteller because of all the ways in which stories can reach audiences. It’s also an excruciatingly vital time to be a storyteller.
Jordan As I listen to you, I realize it’s a really exciting time to be a storyteller because of all the ways in which stories can reach audiences. It’s also an excruciatingly vital time to be a storyteller.
Jane We have become so polarized, so extreme on both sides. So what are the stories in between that are going to get through to people that will change them or make them change their minds?
Jordan The culture is between us.
Jordan Are those the stories you’re looking for now?
Jane I think so. That, and also I’d love a good comedy. We need to laugh. Have you ever heard about laugh yoga?
Jane Laugh yoga. Okay, google that. I just heard about it yesterday from David O’Russell. You go to this yoga class and you laugh. I have to go.
Jordan Do you just laugh or do they tell you something funny?
Jane I don’t know. I haven’t done it yet.
Jordan Let’s go!
Jane Let’s go. I am so excited about it, but we need to laugh because that keeps you in a good mood and it’s hard to laugh at anything. I think I’m in a constant state of anxiety.
Laugh yoga? Hysterical!Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis
Jordan I am with you on that. Actually, it’s genius that you brought that up because I was going to say that one of the features in this email magazine is an Obsessed List of things I’m obsessed with or my friends are obsessed with that I want to know about, and I was going to say, “What would you put on the list?” and now we will put laugh yoga.
Jane Laugh yoga. I haven’t been there, but I am obsessed with going.
Jordan We’re obsessed with the idea of it.
Jane We’re obsessed with the idea of it.
Jordan I love it. Well, let’s go.
Jane Okay, perfect.
Jordan I’m so grateful for you. This was extraordinary. Extraordinary time.
Jane Well thank you. I hope I didn’t bore you.
Jordan Are you kidding?I leave illuminated and optimistic.
Jane Yes. And then I look at that, and that actually makes me optimistic. There is a picture of Quincy Jones from 1956 in France and he is in a studio conducting and you just see his passion, and he’s still like that today at almost 85. I have a documentary that just came out on Netflix with Rashida Jones and Al Hicks on Quincy and his life.
The picture of Quincy Jones in Jane’s office. Photo by Jordan Roth Jordan
Oh fun! That’s going on the list! Jane
Going on the list. Jordan
I love it. I’m going to take a picture of that, if I may. Jane
Thank you, my dear friend.Photo by Jenny Anderson
| In 1987, my husband Richie became Harvey Fierstein’s assistant on his new play Safe Sex. Now, Richie is producing the Broadway revival of Harvey’s landmark play, Torch Song. The 30 years in between have been filled with their collaboration and friendship. The world has changed, and it hasn’t. How we love, how we laugh, how we make our families. Richie always says, “If you had asked me when I was a teenager if I would one day be married and a father, I would have said yes — because Harvey Fierstein taught me I could in Torch Song.”|
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”