By Amy Bochner
Oliver Pezzano’s voice echoed in the CMFT Building as he reflected on his growth as a filmmaker, and how his struggles and successes have led him to his senior film, “Penny.” Wearing a Kermit the Frog T-shirt and a bright red jacket, Pezzano ended each answer with a smile. While he now works primarily as a director on his film projects, Pezzano has his origins as an actor.
“I’ve always loved acting. I like getting a reaction out of people, making them laugh, making them cry, making them cringe, often, more or less, more often than not,” he said. “I think as complicated as a lot of things are to me, acting feels so easy and feels so simple, which is sad because I don’t do it as often now because I’m trying to be on the more production end of things.”
Between the ages of 12 and 13, Pezzano had a stint as a child actor, including one commercial for a “shitty DJ toy called EZ Pro DJ.” Despite quitting being a child actor because it was “emotionally too much” for him, Pezzano continued acting on his own terms. He developed a YouTube channel where he uploaded humorous skits of him and his friends. Here, Pezzano experimented with directing and editing, opening Pezzano up to a whole new form of creative expression.
“I was always sort of a socially shy, awkward kid. If you get to completely construct a situation, then there’s freedom in that to express yourself creatively, as well as if you incorporate editing, props, and a narrative,” he said. “I always want to make people laugh. I think that was my biggest thing before college, wanting to make people laugh, and if it’s theatrical, people tend to laugh harder at it than if it's just a joke.”
In 2018, Pezzano directed and starred in his film “Westchester,” which follows a man after a nuclear event leads to all of the air in New York becoming toxic. He submitted the film to the Future Filmmakers Film Festival, leading to Pezzano winning the Westchester Young Filmmakers Award for Best Visual Storyteller.
The Purchase Film Department accepted Pezzano in 2019. He brought with him his lighthearted sense of humor, as shown in his directorial approach during his freshman year film about a woman failing to get her dollar accepted at a vending machine.
“He directed his freshman film in a full [Cat in the Hat] costume,” Desta Mutisya, Pezzano’s friend and fellow film major recalled. “He needed extras, and it sure did work. He attracted a lot of people just by saying, ‘I will be directing in a [Cat in the Hat] costume, come and watch and also be an extra.’ It worked like gangbusters.”
Despite the costume successfully attracting extras, Pezzano struggled with maintaining control over the set. After years of primarily working on films alone or with his friends, collaborating with others felt like a completely new frontier.
“I couldn't keep track of anyone. I was talking to too many people. I was very distracted. Often the camera guy would have to bring me back to Earth,” he said. “I had no sense of time. I was just kind of constantly being shouted at.”
The experience showed him the complexity of directing, and the many responsibilities a director must take on.
“Directing is a much more complicated job [than acting]. You have to manage camera equipment, the crew, the lighting, the sound. You have to stage where you want people to stand in the shot,” he said. “You have to talk with the cinematographer about how you want the film to look and how you want the camera to move…It's the responsibility of the actor to embody the spirit of their characters. It's the job of the director to embody the spirit of the situation as a whole.”
A milestone for Pezzano was his junior film, “Honeydew Sexdream,” an ambitious project which plays into his affinity towards the absurd. The film is centered on a mysterious drug called Honeydew Sexdream that led to the disappearance of a 70s disco star and everyone else who took it. Forty years after this incident, a girl obsessed with the disco star and the mystery surrounding her buys the drug, and, as Pezzano puts it, “surreal hijinks ensue.”
Since the Cat in the Hat incident, Pezzano has evolved as a director, as seen by Iris Cahn, a film professor who has known Pezzano since his freshman year.
“I've seen him really take charge of his own films. His junior film is quite an odyssey. It’s many-handed, and has so many characters and plot lines,” she said. “He pulls it off. I never could have seen that complexity and depth in his first year work. He's a very serious filmmaker.”
Esther Carlioz, a senior film major who is working with Pezzano on his senior project, reaffirmed this sentiment.
“I've seen his scripts over the years, and I think he's growing as a writer. The stories he's trying to tell get more and more complex in the sense that creatively, it's more complex to execute,” she said. “The way he directs, I think, is changing too. You can see him getting more and more invested in what he makes.”
For his senior project, “Penny,” Pezzano is taking a more serious tone. The idea for the film came to Pezzano after he witnessed a friend experience tragedy.
“I thought about it in freshman year, a little after a friend of mine's sister died, and he was an actor,” he said. “I saw real intense grief in someone and then seeing them perform in my high school for a play the day after, and seeing them act all jovial. I think just that's a very interesting contrast.”
“Penny” follows Val, an acting professor dealing with a midlife crisis after her sister, Penny, passes away. In dealing with this grief, she gets one of her students to perform a scene as her sister as a form of catharsis.
“To me, it's about how people deal with grief, how toxicity and depression beget greater toxicity and depression,” he said. “And just, I guess, the idea of authenticity and honesty, and performance.”
The theme of depression is one that hits home for Pezzano.
“I’ve struggled with depression throughout my entire life. I think it's something I don't see, portrayed earnestly or honestly very well, especially in student films,” he said. “I think for this film, instead of making something that's just style… or that's just really funny, I want to focus on a person, and the honest pursuit for emotional security.”
When portraying depression on screen, Pezzano believes in the importance of quietness.
“I think depression is very quiet. More often than not, it's not obvious. I think I want to make a point of showing what you present yourself as versus how you are,” he said. “You just see the stark contrast between how confident and assertive [Val] is as an acting professor and how quiet and unsure of herself she is by herself, and then those two worlds collide when she acts out the scene with Penny.”
“Penny” has been in the works since his freshman year, and many of his film major peers have encountered the script at one point or another in their classes together.
“He's been writing it for a while, and it really shows. I've been getting bits and pieces over the years,” Mutisya said. “Last year, I was in the same class as him and got the full picture, and I am very excited. I have nothing but the utmost faith that he can pull off a story like this.”
Although Pezzano has been working on “Penny” for years, he feels that only now is he ready to take on portraying such heavy subject matter.
“When I first thought of it in freshman year, I don't think I could accurately portray it, I think I would have done it in a very gimmicky way, where it's just sort of all tears all the time. I don't want to make a film that is sad for the sake of sad, I want to make a film that feels like it's telling an honest story,” he said. “Portraying genuine emotion in a dramatic film, especially because I mostly did comedic or surreal films, was something I needed to wait till I felt some security within my own emotions to do.”
This security came with time and maturity.
“I just experienced more in general, I tried to reach outside of my own bubble, to be outside my own head," he said. "I really did have a revolutionary emotional shift where I started feeling secure in myself and my emotions. And even if, you know, it gets hard from time to time, I feel like I can bring myself back to being okay. I felt like now I could portray my experience, but not in a way that's so black and white. I think the idea of the plot is very complicated, and has a lot of morally gray elements, but at its core, it's about this woman dealing with grief and yearning for a sense of emotional security or a sense of self-validation.”
That growth in confidence and maturity was noted by Professor Cahn.
“Oliver had a wonderful trajectory through the program. The first year I don't know if he expected so much from himself,” she said. “He didn't present as one of the people that were going to be a leader, and I think he's a leader in the program.”
Pezzano plans to do a festival run with “Penny” upon the film’s completion. Mutisya believes Pezzano will succeed, saying, “I think this is absolutely going to be a festival worthy film.”
As he described his own vision of success, Pezzano smiled.
“If I ever win an Oscar, I'll do it in the Cat in the Hat costume.”