Production of “Tiger Within” is expected to start this coming fall in New York City.
Independent filmmaker Rafal Zielinski is best known for directing edgy, guerrilla-style projects such as “Hey Babe,” “Ginger Ale Afternoon,” and “Fun.” The latter was the winner of a Special Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival with a meager production budget under $25,000 and a shooting schedule of just eight days. “Tiger Within,” his newest feature project, is set to be the most daring yet as it aims to raise $100,000 on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com. “Tiger Within” will be Zielinski’s second collaboration with Gina Wendkos, screenwriter of “Jersey Girl,” “Coyote Ugly,” and both of “The Princess Diaries” films. This feature project has been long-awaited for both filmmakers since their initial collaboration on Wendkos’ brilliant script for “Ginger Ale Afternoon.”
We sat down with Zielinski for an exclusive Q&A session to learn more about this amazing project and what forgiveness means to him.
The pair’s timely new production venture spans a highly emotional narrative about the human capacity for compassion and forgiveness explored through the formation of an unlikely friendship between an adrift, homeless skinhead named Casey and an embittered Holocaust survivor, Samuel. Wendkos’ teenage character Casey was inspired by a young woman she passed sleeping in a New York City cemetery and grew into a real lightning rod of a female lead. Zielinski has a multitude of experience with emboldened, unconventional female leads– such as Yasmine Bleeth in “Hey Babe”– and he couldn’t be more excited to tackle the casting and formation of Casey’s character.
Film Art Planet, a nonprofit, independent production company founded in August of 2012, has focused on creating thought-provoking films that highlight current global and social issues. In the spirit of building a community around an artistic concept that the filmmakers fervently believe to be of significant and timely social value, the funding of “Tiger Within” will take place entirely on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com. Independent filmmaking has been the spirit of Rafal’s inspiration since the inception of his career and Rafal has personally supported close to a hundred projects on the site. Although Kickstarter has recently come under-fire for highlighting projects from well-known and arguably anti-indie filmmakers (here’s looking at you, Spike Lee), Zielinski firmly believes in the power of the crowdfunding community to bring some of the most interesting artistic projects to fruition.
Project Lena: Please explain the inspiration behind your Kickstarter project and its goals.
Rafal Zielinski: As an artist, I find myself to be incredibly inspired by creative communities of all kinds and the creativity present in crowdfunding is undeniably stellar. Funding projects with hundreds of interested parties instead of one or two ‘cool’ cats sitting behind a desk on Sunset signing checks really speaks to the spirit of independent filmmaking.
The supreme goal for the funding of our film “Tiger Within,” is to award every donor of a single dollar or more with an Associate Producer title for the film’s end credits. This isn’t a ‘typical’ donor reward for a site like Kickstarter but we’d love a massive wall of something like one million Associate Producers– they’d all be credited ambassadors of the film’s healing message– and we as filmmakers feel that could be really quite cool.
Could you tell us a little more about your research for the film project itself?
RZ: Yes, yes of course. The script itself is the product of the incredible Gina Wendkos. She has donated the screenplay to our passion project because she, like us, believes that the film will speak to an incredibly wide audience in a very timely manner. The script’s themes revolve around forgiveness and how such a complex human emotion can possibly be accessed between two highly dissimilar human beings –such as our characters Casey and Samuel.
In preparing for the weighty themes of this project, I assumed the role of ‘researcher’ in a deliberately thoughtful manner. I traveled with a very small production team throughout the streets of New York City and Los Angeles as well asking all the everyday folks I encountered ‘Why forgive?’ The answers I received served to flesh out our two main characters and inspire more thoughtful discussion on the film’s pull as a social statement. I feel as though it is my job as a filmmaker to act as a sort of mirror for society the way it stands – rather than to preach from atop a director’s box. I slept on my sister’s couch in New York for two weeks and couldn’t have enjoyed myself more. Honestly, it was exhilarating.
What do you hope for “Tiger Within” as a film?
RZ: It is our hope to touch all who have been personally affected by issues of forgiveness and the never-ending search for the truest sort of human compassion. I, personally, believe this to be each and every one of us. “Tiger Within” narrates the search for personal redemption and healing through the story of one friendship spawned by a chance encounter. Two really powerful main characters– a reclusive Holocaust survivor and a punky, female teenager– learn to love themselves only by learning to find compassion for one another in the midst of what seems like impossible circumstance. Although the storyline is highly specific, the narrative speaks to personal relationships that I believe we have all encountered and larger social we cannot even hope to avoid.
What experience do you have dealing with characters like Casey and what do you think her presence means to the film?
RZ: I’ve always dealt with characters on the fringes– outsiders who weren’t quite positive where they fit in to the bigger picture. These females who undeniably function as heroines but remain immensely vulnerable are, to me, the absolute most interesting characters in filmmaking. Their endearing vulnerability makes the audience open up to their presence in a very special way and I find them so very much more interesting than the ‘hero’ you find in many tent-pole Hollywood productions.
The first film I did was “Hey Babe” which featured Yasmine Bleeth in her debut role– I believe she was about 11 when we discovered her. Her character was an orphan living on the streets of New York, very, very much like Casey, actually. No matter the grime of the city before her, she believed in herself so strongly. She comes to befriend a homeless man living in an abandoned movie theater (played wonderfully by Buddy Hackett) who sees in her the talent he once had; their friendship ultimately makes her career. It is interesting, in a way, Samuel and Casey in “Tiger Within” are a near reverse parallel to this story.
When I met Leighton Meester, she was entirely new to Hollywood. I immediately knew she was perfect for the role of Elisha in the film adaptation of Frank Peretti’s book, “Hangman’s Curse.” She was a young, displaced girl who traveled the country with her family in a mobile home– an experience that I related to greatly as I spent my childhood rapidly traveling around the world feeling rather disenfranchised. She feared nothing, no matter her family’s confusion. Her curiosity drives the film and her character is incredibly strong.
“Fun” was based on a true-story of two girls who commit a truly incredible crime of senseless violence. Both girls came from broken homes experiencing extensive abuse and violence in their own personal lives and upon meeting one another, become immediately enthralled by each other’s pain. The development of their characters is stunning when after becoming inseparably bonded over the course of a single day, they senselessly ‘thrill kill’ a defenseless older woman to effectively exorcise the violence present within them both. I was thrilled when the two actresses we gave the roles to Alicia Witt and Renee Humphrey were awarded the Special Jury Award for Acting at Sundance which led to their mainstream Hollywood careers. Through shocking characters like this, I believe the real psyche of humanity is best, and most artistically, explored; it is women like this that I feel make films realistically live and breathe.
We hear Grimes, a Canadian Musician who has taken the fashion world by storm, is part of your project; can you tell us how she will be involved?
RZ: I have been inspired by Claire’s music for many, many years. We’ve had a chance to get together backstage at a few of her shows in the past and were excited to discuss working together on a few upcoming projects. She has graciously donated her music for use in our trailer which is part of our Kickstarter campaign for “Tiger Within.” She has also become very excited about being involved in a few other upcoming projects including a feature length sci-fi film– which I’m hoping she might compose an entirely original score for.
Will you explain your independent production house, Film Art Planet, in a few words? What do you guys have coming up next?
RZ: Film Art Planet is a nonprofit organization I and a few friends created to produce educational, motivational and spiritually enlightening films that address fundamental elements of pressing global social issues. It is our hope to inspire discussion among audiences on the topics we, as artists, attempt to portray beautifully and– above all– sensitively. We keep compassion in the forefront of our hearts and minds.
At the moment, we have three more projects in their infant stages of development. One, which I am particularly excited about, was inspired by Mother Teresa– a personal friend of my mother during our time spent living in Calcutta. We can’t wait to unleash that one on the world!