This interview has been edited and condensed.
Adam Cecil: First off, do you want to just explain what you do as an artist?
Jake Fertig: That’s a question that I’ve been trying to figure out for myself for a while. The way to formulate my interests and the work that I do into one collective unit has been something that I’ve been thinking about consciously a lot, especially in the last few months.
Jake Fertig is an independent filmmaker.
Jake Fertig is a musician.
Jake Fertig is a writer.
Jake Fertig is an actor.
Jake Fertig is an artist, living and working in Brooklyn, New York.
Jake: The biggest project I’m working on, that I spend every day working on, is a feature film called Howeds.
I’m working on it with my girlfriend, Emily Dalmas. Frankly, she’s the best person I’ve ever met. We wrote it together, we’re producing it together, we both act in it. I’m directing it, I play the main character in it, and its semi-autobiographical.
Howeds is about my high school experience. It’s about a group of Jewish-American teenage guys who are very sheltered and a little bit teased in their community. It’s kind of an anti-Coming-of-Age movie.
That’s the main project we’re working on. We’re anticipating releasing it towards the end of next year.
Jake Fertig graduated from NYU Tisch with a BFA in Film in 2013. Since then, his day job has been producing video content for various companies and organizations. He currently works at Mashable. Howeds will be his first feature film.
He met Emily during his second year at NYU. Emily is also a graduate of the film program. Since graduating from NYU in 2013, she has worked as an NBC Page and is currently a Field Production Assistant for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
They live together in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Jake: There’s this slate of projects that I’ve tried to put in one linear order. Our production company is called Perestroika, and Howeds is the first project. The second project that I want to work on is an album that I’ve been writing for the last two years.
My other main interests are singing and songwriting and music production. I’ve been in a band for the last five years called Marguerito. We just released our latest album in May. Basically, we’re an indie rock band. I’m in it with three other guys that I met in high school.
I’ve been trying to formulate — How do I not do these two separate things at the same time?, especially when I’m working a full-time job. How do I put it together into one thing?
What I’ve settled on is music videos. We shot two music videos for the last album. From there, I started to formulate this idea of creating videos that support the music in a very specific and concrete way. Most music videos that I see don’t really relate to the source material very strongly. They’re a completely separate idea from the music itself.
So, the next project I’m working on is an album, that I want to release under my own name, called Essential Problem. I have all the songs written, and right after we finish shooting Howeds, while it’s in editing, I’m going to record them. Then, I’m going to shoot music videos for each song on the record so that it’ll play as a movie or as a straight-forward narrative. They’ll all fit within the same narrative of what this record is about, which is a very personal record about my experience over the past two or three years, mostly in my personal life:
- the start of my relationship with my girlfriend (we’ve been dating for about two and a half years)
- the complications at the beginning of our relationship:
- just being able to get to that point of vulnerability with someone and
- really trusting them.
For me, the whole idea of Essential Problem was this question of, like, Do I have some kind of problem that’s going to prohibit me from being able to fully invest in this relationship? and trying to process that. That’s what this record is about, and the film version of it.
I know that was a very lengthy answer.
Adam: When I watched Honored by the Sign at the Cinema, I noticed that exact thing you were just describing, where the music video really concretely backs up the lyrics in the song. How do you make that work? What I thought was really striking was that the family in the video, it seemed like, I don’t know if that was your family…
Jake: The parents were my parents. The little sister in the song is inspired by the little sister of one of my best friends, and she’s in the video.
It’s supposed to be representative of the culture of the people that I grew up with in Wayne, New Jersey. I was born in Queens and my family moved to suburban New Jersey when I was eight years old. It was only about a half-hour before you came that I really started to fully realize that I really felt like an outsider a lot of my time growing up in Wayne. I think it’s partially because I’m Jewish and from Queens, but I didn’t even realize that I felt a little bit like an outsider by being Jewish in New Jersey because, you know, it’s not Wyoming.
Basically, I saw this sign, and it said, “Happy Birthday Michelle” on it, and I was like, “This is so representative of the culture of this town, that’s such a depressing way to have your birthday celebrated." In reality, it’s kind of a nice thing.
Adam: I felt that from the song and the video, that duality of, oh, that’s really sweet but also really fucking depressing.
Jake: Exactly! So the first half of the song is every shitty thing I felt and could think of, and the second half is totally inspired by my friend’s little sister and their relationship. I could see the joy on his face whenever she would enter a room. She’s the light of the family. So I was trying to find a little bit of beauty, God, light in that world.
Adam: I feel like I haven’t seen a music video quite like this, and I’m wondering if you have a specific inspiration for it. Where, exactly, did the genesis of this idea come from? Why did you want to do this?
Jake: It felt intuitive. I’m sure there are a million reference points. But I don’t really know. I was happy with how Honored came out and I feel like this is a good idea. Most albums that I love have a sense of narrative, even if it’s not so obvious or linear, it’s just that… you know what it’s about. There’s a clear story and development to it. And this idea, I have a strong sense that it’s going to work. It’s tailored to my skill set. I can do A and B so why not try to do it all in one? This is a unique piece of work just because of the unity of vision throughout the whole thing.
Adam: Were you happy with the way people responded to Honored? Did you feel like you got a good reaction from that?
Jake: Definitely. Truthfully, all the stuff we put out… I’m still figuring out how to get it beyond the social media that I know.
The commute from their full-time jobs back to their Park Slope apartment is one of the only breaks that Jake and Emily get in the day. When they arrive back home, they are greeted by their second job: producing a motion picture. Off of the bedroom is a small office. This is where their shelves of camera and sound equipment live. Propped up on the desk behind their computer is a large poster for Civil Servant, the web series written, directed, and edited by Jake (he also starred in it). Emily produced the majority of the series, co-wrote episodes with Jake, and played a supporting character. When I saw the poster, it was still wrapped in loose plastic, presumably from their move one-and-a-half weeks prior.
Jake: This poster, to me, is a testament… this is the thing that we worked on, harder than anything. It took three years of work… the last episode was seen by like, 200 people — less than that, actually.
Civil Servant debuted in late November of 2014. The sixth and final episode was posted in late December. It has, as of writing, 163 views on YouTube.
Jake: Freshman year of college, I didn’t have that many film friends. But sophomore year of film school, I immediately met Emily, Martin Pohl — some of my best friends, and the funniest and smartest people that I feel like I’ve met at school. It was like an explosion. That’s the first thing about Civil Servant, is that it’s all friends. It was Emily, Marty, Paul Head, Kristen Laffey, Jake Lindeman, Trevor Silverstein, Joe Gallo, Chloe Jury-Fogel, Paul Head… I’m sure I’m forgetting people.
I wanted to do something outside of class. Civil Servant was that thing.
The thing I was most excited about was creating plot and narrative. My favorite stuff is The Sopranos, Mad Men; I love the way that really amazing Golden Age of TV type stuff uses misdirection to create seasonal arcs. They do these things where they’re planning these stories, and you don’t even realize that these stories are being developed and by the end you’re like, “Oh, it’s been all about this the whole time and actually it’s been present.” It feels true to life.
The other thing that I was excited about was working with these people who I thought were really funny. It was just so hard to do. We were doing it all guerrilla, after hours. The production value, it started to get really difficult to maintain towards the end of it. If you look at the poster, there are four directors of photography. It was just absurd.
We started filming in February of 2012. We shot it for a year and a half. Editing took a year. I was doing it, for the most part, by myself, although a few people worked on different episodes on their own. It just took a while. It became a good lesson for Howeds. I learned from my old roommate, Jason Moss, this idea of trying to preserve that feeling of a first listen or a first viewing, that feeling of immediacy when you’re responding to something, because that’s the only thing that will connect you to what a first time viewer will see. I lost that with Civil Servant. It was really hard to get it back. So I’m not editing Howeds. Joe Gallo, who edited one of the episodes of Civil Servant, is editing the whole thing.
Long form stuff… it’s hard, it’s different, when you don’t have the resources to do long form stuff. And it’s like… it’s hard not to judge things on the merit of how many Facebook Likes it gets, which is such a ridiculous, non-demonstrative way of seeing whether it’s good or not. And Civil Servant, it’s supposed to be straight narrative, and yet, it didn’t even get seen. But I don’t feel like it was unsuccessful. I don’t feel like I could really evaluate based on how many people saw it or loved it.
If it weren’t for Civil Servant, I couldn’t do Howeds.
Adam: Like you said, it’s hard to have the resources at this stage, and I wonder, in your head, what do you feel resource cramped about, and in what ways do you feel like that hampers your abilities? There are, especially with filmmaking, a lot of tools out there. I know a lot of people who do film and video stuff and they get frustrated because they think, “Oh, if I just had this camera,” or another tool, then the art would be better.
Jake: I know what you mean. Well, preface this by saying that I definitely believe that limitations set you free. In the worst case, just make whatever you’re doing a document of where you’re at. Compared to thirty or forty years ago, we have so much access to resources. You can always have more. Everybody always wants more. You just have to make it work, with whatever you have, and make the best of it. Those constraints will be a document.
The most important resource, without compare, is people. Before even going into anything else, I’m just going to harp on this for a second: Emily (and I think she can hear me right now) is God’s gift to me. Besides being my best friend and the best person I know, working with Emily has changed everything for me. Working on Howeds with Emily… we both work incredibly hard on it. It’s like we’re two heads that are constantly bouncing back and forth on all of the creative and all of the product elements. It’s amazing to be able to have that conversation outside of your own brain and to be met with someone who has a ton of their own ideas. That’s the best thing.
Jake has reason to appreciate people as a resource; right now, none of the cast or crew of Howeds is getting paid (including Jake and Emily). All of the money is going into the production, food, transportation, etc. And all of that is very, very expensive. Jake was uncomfortable when we talked about paying people. It was obvious that he wished he had enough money to give them the salaries they deserved.
The money for Howeds has come from two sources: Jake’s own savings (it took him two years to save enough to fund one quarter of Howeds’ production) and from soliciting family and friends. When Jake and I talked, he and Emily were in the beginning stages of planning a crowdfunding campaign, which will, by the time this is published, be on Indiegogo.
Jake: Art is such a funny thing. Emily and I had gone to a session on fundraising in the arts, and this guy was basically saying that being nervous about asking for money is – if you go down the line – related to questioning the value of your work.
I’m definitely a believer that art should be functional. I like channeling that feeling of What is this for? What is the purpose of this?
For Howeds, I want my message to reach people who are in suburban communities. And, to sum up what the movie is about: Howeds is about how oppressed groups tend to revisit, through this “us vs. them” mentality, some of the same persecution that that they faced and project it onto others. It’s through the lens of the Jewish-American experience. Jewish kids who are teased can be xenophobic and don’t even really realize how they’re prejudiced against women or minorities. And they suffer for it. My hope is to, through this lens, create a sense of empathy for these characters and position some kind of thesis as to why this behavior goes on.
Emily and I went to Israel a month ago. I had felt for a while that Jewish-American culture was something that I didn’t feel comfortable touching with a ten-foot pole. And then I realized that, you know, I always knew that Howeds was a Jewish movie, but I sometimes felt uncomfortable, because, for me, I feel like there’s a golden rule of not writing about characters that I don’t love. Howeds is cultural criticism. After we went on Birthright (which has its own share of propaganda, but it was amazing to be in Israel), I felt more comfortable with Howeds being a Jewish movie. Cultural criticism is what Judaism is about. This is one voice moving forward Judaism. I’m not an extremely religious person, but I feel like I’m culturally Jewish and I’m proud to be culturally Jewish. I feel like being Jewish connects me to the world rather than separates me. I think, whether you’re atheist or religious, everybody believes that the world is bigger than themselves. So, to me, it gave me this sense of purpose. Howeds is a Jewish movie, it’s a criticism, it’s one voice in this movement, and hopefully that will have a functional effect.
I’ve been working on a song called “I Belong,” and it’s about my realization that, for me, I don’t feel anymore that art is a vanity project. I used to feel bad when I thought, “All I want to do is make my own projects.” But I know that I belong, I know that my ideas and my messages, even if people are not clamoring for them, need to come out, because I deem them important. Even if it’s just my voice in a crowd of voices.
With some of the same friends who helped make Civil Servant and are helping make Howeds, Jake and Emily made Key Party, a short comedic film, for the 2013 Tisch 48-Hour Film Festival. Key Party is not only funny: the character beats feel sincere even when they’re completely absurd. It was, to put it in Jake’s words, “lightning in a bottle,” a complete amalgamation of the talents of those involved.
Jake has a complicated relationship with comedy. “When I was in elementary school, I felt like my way of getting in with people who didn’t really care about the real me was through making jokes.” That feeling hasn’t really left. Whenever he posts a new What’s Good? video – a series of shorts where he asks various people “What’s good?” – people seem “more responsive to [him] playing a character that makes a fool of myself" than to his more serious work.
And yet, he keeps coming back to it, posting new What’s Good? videos frequently enough to keep the series active. Howeds will have humor as well, as did Civil Servant before it. Humor, Jake tells me, is just another human emotion. For a young filmmaker struggling to make people care about his art, it may also be an easy way to connect to people, to make his work accessible. What I imagine keeps the elementary school boy inside of Jake awake at night is the idea that they won’t stick around to care about anything else.
Adam: I want to go back, all the way to Shofar Away, which I really enjoyed. Knowing what you just said about Howeds and the Jewish-American experience, how did you think about Shofar Away at the time? And now that you have the further realization of what you understand about yourself and how the Jewish-American experience affects your film output, what do you feel about that? Give me a before and after.
Jake: Well, I didn’t want to make that movie. It was for my Intermediate Class, at Tisch, and I wanted to do the final episode of Civil Servant as my project. Emily and I, we had the same professor. His name is Boris Frumin, and I feel like I learned more from him than any other teacher I’ve ever had. It wasn’t fun being in his class… he was very aggressive. He’s Latvian, always said, “No, no, no.” At the time, I could do a much better Boris impression.
He would talk through your movies while they showed, and to some degree, I felt like he was a little detached. But for the most part, he was ridiculously incisive with his criticism. He could immediately diagnose the problems that you had on set by looking at your final footage. He was just really thoughtful. He connected me to the history of cinema. There are just some truths that are eternal. This dude changed my conception of thinking about film. Before Boris, I thought film was about interesting dialogue, character beats, and story things. Boris taught me that everything is blocking and staging and everything else in the film is an extension of that. I’m forever indebted to him for that.
Boris was preaching, “Do things that are original, do things that are based on a specific type of experience,” he preached cultural stuff and interesting props. So that was it. Let’s track this shofar.
I don’t like doing things for class. Whatever your heart desires, it’s being warped by this craft exercise. I’m a big believer in learning by doing. But if you set up a craft exercise as a craft exercise, immediately there’s some separation. You don’t have truly full stakes. I feel like I need to have completely full stakes in it for me to get the lesson learned, even if it ends up being a failure. That’s the only way I’m going to try to my hardest, if I really feel like it’s full stakes. When I fail, it will still be a craft exercise, so why just make it a craft exercise? I know I’m going to fail at some point and learn something for the future, so why not do it with my whole heart?
It was based on my friend Jake’s story — they were both at my Rosh Hashanah dinner and Jake, the whole time, hid upstairs watching football on his computer and my other friend, Jason, jokingly flirted with one of my cousins the entire time. I thought it would be funny to combine it all into one thing. And, to me, connected to your question, I think Shofar Away was about feeling like an outsider in my own culture. I feel conflicted about Judaism, but I feel proud to be culturally Jewish and I don’t feel like my beliefs as a Jew are much different from anyone else’s beliefs in any other religion. I like the idea of connecting to everyone and everything, or striving to, rather than focusing on points where we’re different. Jewish just happens to be my identity. And I’m proud of it. That’s how I feel now, at least, but looking back… a lot of it was like, yeah, it was kind of growing pains.
I had a sixteen minute cut of it, originally, and I was I thought it was an opus. I was like, “This is amazing!” I brought it into class and thought, “I’m going to blow minds.” And then Boris shit on it. He told me to cut half the scenes and he told me that most of the scenes were undershot. I shot every scene in one take. I thought it was going to be a cool conceit, and it worked sometimes but it didn’t work as the whole thing.
Then I edited it too much, according to his notes. I got obsessed about it. I would send a cut to him after class was over and he would send me ten notes and I would do all of them and I did that over and over again. There’s a moment, in one of the cuts, it’s like a Psycho moment, a kind of Hitchcock or Kubrick thing, when he picks up the shofar, the film goes into slow motion and it gets really serious and dramatic, like he’s doing something really awful. When I showed it to the class, that was the part where everybody laughed. I wished I’d kept it in, but Boris said it was stylistically inconsistent. Marty gave me the note that I should’ve just listened to the laughter — if an audience is reacting, go for it! I wish I had done that differently. I feel like the climax of it is very downplayed.
Adam: To me, actually, that was one of the strengths of it.
Jake: Aaaah, that’s interesting.
Adam: I feel like the entire story was incredibly downplayed, and yet at the end of it, you feel, watching it, like the outsider. You feel like you are not of this world. I felt vaguely uncomfortable the entire time I was watching it, in a good way. I felt that I supposed to feel that way.
Jake: Yeah. *laughs* All my mom’s Jewish friends, when they saw it, were like, “Oh, we like Jakey’s stuff but I didn’t get Shofar Away.” I mean, I’m happy that you liked it. I felt, I guess, looking back, I don’t think that fondly on it. Some of the jokes are just convoluted. I’m happy I made it. Personally, I think Howeds is a step above. Not that there is a better or worse, but those were just different times.
Adam: It’s a document of the moment.
Adam: You should look at it with fresh eyes, though.
Jake: Yeah. *laughs* Yeah, yeah.
You can view all of Jake’s films and keep up with new projects, including Howeds, on his website.