Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Academy Award Nominee Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger

Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger, in a Ra cave
Jeffrey Karoff, Academy Award nominated director of CaveDigger

Of all of the Academy Award nominated films I watched last year, none surprised me more than Jeffrey Karoff's CaveDigger, nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.  Prior to watching the film, I was unaware that the art of cavedigging even existed, let alone that there was a practitioner capable of such awe-inspring beauty as what the film's protagonist Ra produces.  Karoff's film is unlike anything I have seen before, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.  CaveDigger can be viewed on Amazon, Vimeo, and iTunes.  Links to all three formats are available here.

Jeffrey Karoff was generous enough to speak with me about CaveDigger and his experience as an Academy Award nominee.  

First, can you briefly tell me a little bit about CaveDigger, how you found out about Ra's work, and why you decided to tell this story?

I met two of the principal characters in the film, Shel and Liz, during the time they'd commissioned a Paulette cave and while Liz was battling cancer. The cave in progress was astonishing and its sheer visual, visceral impact made it seem ripe subject matter for film. But even after I launched into the filmmaking I wasn't sure what story I was telling beyond the glory of Ra's work. It wasn't until I was well into the process that I stumbled upon a recurring theme that included Shel and Liz's consternation with Ra's process, and an age-old artist/patron conflict.

At what point after you started screening CaveDigger did you start to realize that an Academy Award nomination was a real possibility? 

Ra in his cave, from Oscar nominee CaveDigger

Never. I was entering a lot of festivals and completing the Academy qualifications was really a continuation of that festival-entry process.  I knew that CaveDigger was the kind of serious subject matter that the Academy might appreciate, so it wasn't entirely a Hail Mary, but I didn't actually think it would be nominated. But there was a turning point that led me to submit the film: At my very first screening to an invited audience, another filmmaker, Alex Rotaru, told me I should shorten CaveDigger from 47 mins to under 40 and submit it to the Academy as a short because, he said, "...the Academy eats this stuff up." I thought he was smoking crack, and I had no intention of going back into the edit bay after so many months of labor to get it finished. Weeks later, Sandra Ruch, a consultant who was helping me navigate the festival terrain, again suggested I shorten the film to allow it to compete as a short in all festivals. That was the push I needed, and I did so. Shortening the film, obviously, was a terrific idea.

How did you find out you had been nominated for an Oscar?  What was your reaction?

I had a colleague who was at the Academy on the day. She'd told me that she would text me the second she found out, 'yes' or 'no'. The phone buzzed -- my wife looked at the text and broke into tears of joy. I shot it all on my iPhone. It was a stunning day.

Did you attend the pre-Oscar ceremony luncheon for all of the nominees?  This luncheon famously mixes up people from all of the categories at the various tables.  Who did you dine with?  Any good stories from the luncheon?

Just about every nominee, in every category and including me, was at that luncheon. I sat at a table with Jeff Pope, one of the writers from Philomena, and right next to Bradley Cooper, who was kind and funny and interested in my film. He told me a great story about living with his mother, a version of which I heard a few days later on Ellen.

Were you particularly starstruck by anyone at the Oscars?  What was it like to walk the red carpet? 

I'm not starstruck. But I am an admirer and appreciator of talent. I was able to thank personally, for what I consider gifts, Scorsese, Amy Adams, and Roger Deakins. And Bradley Cooper, whose performance in American Hustle was outstanding. I approached all these people at the luncheon, which was more intimate and presented an easy environment in which to interact.

Other than your own film, if you were an Academy member, which of the films in your category would you have voted for?

My favorite was Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal. Important subject matter, sensitively handled. Our culture has a 'throw away the key' mentality about prisoners. Edgar's film humanized even capital criminals. I found the genuine affection amongst the men deeply moving.

What does it mean to you to have the title "Academy Award Nominee" for the rest of your life?

It's not bad. Really not bad.

What's next for you?  Are you working on any films?

I have a couple of doc projects swirling, but for the moment I'm at my day job, directing commercials and fundraising films. I just finished a mini doc for Robin Hood Foundation, a NYC-based philanthropic organization, about New York's immigrant population. They showed it at their annual fundraiser and brought in about $60mil that night.

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