by Len Lear
We often tend to think that movie makers ply their craft either in New York or Hollywood, but Chestnut Hill native Andrew Repasky McElhinney, a movie director whose fifth feature film, “Christmas Dreams,” screens Tuesday, Dec. 10, 7:30 p.m., at the Woodmere Art Museum, is an exception to the rule. (“Christmas Dreams” is a holiday kids dance fantasia that mashes up the stories of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “The Nutcracker.”)
McElhinney, 41, the film programmer who administers the non-profit screening series The Chestnut Hill Film Group at Woodmere, is also a multi-media video installation performance artist and director specializing in burlesque and cabaret in addition to cinema and theater.
His previous feature films include “Magdalen” (1998), “A Chronicle of Corpses” (2000), which was named one of the top 10 films of that year by New York Times film critic Dave Kehr, who called Andrew’s film “the debut of a genuinely original sensibility;” “Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye” (2003) and “Animal Husbandry” (2008). McElhinney also has a film in post-production, “Casual Encounters: Philadelphia True Crime Confessions,” that connects several famous Philadelphia true crime stories from the last 25 years.
McElhinney told us last week, “In ‘Christmas Dreams,’ sharp-eyed viewers will spot cameos by Ralph and Natalie Hirshorn as well as Chestnut Hill Film Group member Judith Buten and former Chestnut Hill Library security guard John Terry Jones in the film’s Christmas Fair sequence. The movie features over 180 performers in the cast and to date is the largest independent movie ever made in Philadelphia.
“I found the young performers in ‘Christmas Dreams’ very easy to work with. I think it is because I started making movies when I was 15, and often I was directing actors who were mostly older than myself, but I was also sometimes working with actors my age or a little younger. So I guess from the start I’ve known how to communicate with all ages. I think the trick is to listen and to be direct and make eye contact, smile and laugh.”
How did McElhinney happen to direct this film? The producers – Michael Rapp, Kim Lenny and Nancy and Gene Fohel – were looking for a director, and Lou Bluver, who produced two of Andrew’s previous films, put the parties in touch with each other.
“Rapp had a seven-page concept summary that we whipped into a shooting script along with the choreographer Jenn Rose … There is an epic Busby Berkeley snowball fight that opens ‘Christmas Dreams’ that was associate producer Nicole Elizabeth Cook’s idea. I loved shooting that sequence; we had a giant crane!
“Movie musicals, when they are done right – Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ ‘Monterey Pop,’ ‘Tommy,’ ‘Cabaret,’ ‘All That Jazz,’ ‘Pennies From Heaven,’ etc. – are gloriously and totally cinematic. So ‘Christmas Dreams’ was a chance to do something I had not done before, which is always of interest. As a film director, I am interested in working in all genres…
“Furthermore, I’ve always made movies set around holidays – Halloween, Christmas, Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July. They tend to enter the culture because they are perennial and part of this greater, inescapable social ritual. And re-watching these perennial movies each holiday is like catching up with an old friend.”
The producer brought McElhinney on in late April 2012. They wrote the script, partnered with a CGI firm and started shooting July 6 of that year, all on sound stages, and wrapped up by the end of August. McElhinney and his team then spent 33 months in post-production because every shot of this movie involves some level of CGI.
“The CGI was a great experience,” said McElhinney. “I am excited that CGI is now a relatively affordable technology, even to independent filmmakers. It’s been exciting to watch the technology evolve. It gets smaller and more lightweight and cheaper … What is possible now with an iPhone or a GoPro is unbelievable!”
In “Christmas Dreams,” there is a Nativity scene that includes Andrew’s mother, Suzanne Repasky (as St. Anne, Jesus’ grandmother), his writing partner, Greg Giovanni (as one of the Wise Men), and his lawyer, Mike Zaleski (as Joseph), as well as an entire biblical petting zoo complete with a camel.
McElhinney holds advance degrees from The New School for Social Research in New York City and the European Graduate School in Switzerland. In 2011, McElhinney defended his PhD dissertation, “Second Takes – Remaking America: A Psychoanalytic Reading of English Language Cinema, 1931–1998,” which was subsequently published by McFarland and Company as “Second Takes: Remaking Film, Remaking America.”
He has been an instructor at Rutgers, Rowan and Temple Universities, among others, teaching Screenwriting, Cinema and American Studies. His cinema work is in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
For more information, visit ARMcinema25.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal. com