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First Look: Culture Clash in Julia Solomonoff's 'Nobody's Watching'

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday May 18, 2017
Guillermo Pfening in "Nobody's Watching."
Guillermo Pfening in "Nobody's Watching."  

What does a gay, bilingual actor from Argentina do when he comes to New York for work, but must take odd jobs while he waits for the project he is to star in to secure financing? Should he assimilate into the foreign (and often oppressive) culture? Should he change himself into what agents and producers want him to be? And can he leave a very dysfunctional relationship with a married man in his past where it belongs?

These are just some of the fascinating questions posed in Julia Solomonoff's narrative feature "Nobody's Watching," which had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. (It opens in Argentina this week; a U.S. release date is tentatively scheduled for the fall.)

The co-writer-director has made two previous features ("Hermanas" and "The Last Summer of la Boyita"), a slew of shorts as well as directed docs for TV.

Originally from Argentina, Solomonoff moved to New York seven years ago and has taught at both Columbia and New York Universities.

"Nobody's Watching" (co-written by Solomonoff and Christina Lazaridi) centers on Nico (Guillermo Pfening), an openly gay actor, quite famous in Argentina, who gets lost in the dynamic insanity of living life in New York City.

For his performance Pfening was named Best Actor in an International Narrative Feature Film at Tribeca. "For a performance of extraordinary vulnerability and commitment that anchored the film, the Best Actor Award goes to Guillermo Pfening for 'Nobody's Watching,'" read the jury's citation.

EDGE chatted with Solomonoff on the eve of the Tribeca premiere.


Likes to Observe
Julia Solomonoff  

Likes to Observe

EDGE: Where did the idea for "Nobody's Watching" originate?

Julia Solomonoff: Well, to be honest, I'm not a very inventive person. I'm somebody who likes to observe. And a lot of what happens in the film has come from either personal experience or observations of people close to me, of course with a certain amount of fictionalizing. But it comes from life and many years of living between two cultures and trying to adapt to different ways.

One of the things about having to change your environment is become more aware of how certain things get lost in translation... You become very aware of how other people perceive you and how you look at a society or culture. You start understanding who you are in contrast to who the others around you are. And things that seem natural, you start questioning.

Even though I'm fluent in English and I teach in English -- I've been teaching for seven years almost -- I always feel this risk of being misread or misinterpreting the subtleties of a culture. And my character (Nico) is at a bigger disadvantage because his English is worse, but it's also probably one of the reasons he can relate to the baby in such a pure way... because it's a communication that is more physical and less language-based. And that's where he finds his emotional shelter.

EDGE: I had an immigrant mother, and the things she said were always being misinterpreted because she learned a certain harsh way to say them in English.

Julia Solomonoff: Exactly. For instance, Americans have a very precise way of being polite. They may be very cold, but they will not lose their "please" and their "thank you"s. Very aggressively, like it hurts you when you hear them... When I was in Italy for the first time, I thought everybody was shouting at each other!

Now, with the shifting government... I had a friend who was speaking Spanish to her daughter in the park, and somebody shouted, "Speak English!" And that is something that is scary. There's an openness, but also a very backwards undercurrent going on right now.


Timely Subject
A still from  

Timely Subject

EDGE: And speaking to that, with Trump now in office, Nico's immigration troubles are timelier than ever.

Julia Solomonoff: Yes, absolutely. The film does deal with immigration from a different perspective. It's not your immigrant crossing the frontier. His problems are not as extreme, but... more than 40 percent of the immigrants in this country do overstay visas. They're not necessarily crossing borders or walls. They're flying in. Their problems are less about survival, less about a green card and more about finding your place.

I have a lot of respect for the more urgent problems of immigration, but by removing myself a step from things that are very primary I can have the luxury of really delving more into what it means to an identity when you switch places. How it changes you. How it changes the way you see yourself and how others see you... I really wanted to talk about immigration from the point of identity... what price are you willing to pay in order to be part of a society and if it's too big a sacrifice?

New York has become so expensive, so exclusive, so directed to the tourism and development market that it has expelled a lot of people that are more creative... Actors in this city struggle too much. I have a lot of sympathy for them.

EDGE: The theme of belonging is explored significantly in the film. Nico flees his homeland but never seems to belong in New York. That balance was done very well.

Julia Solomonoff: Yes, because it's not about blaming the city either. Nico's problem is more internal but the city reflects on that. His inability to find a place here has to do with his past too... he's somebody who is trying to belong but cannot give up who he is. I think one of the reasons he can't make it here is that he's not ready to give up things that, emotionally, are very important for him. He comes here with an idea of proving his worth, being successful... but he's doing things for the wrong reasons...time passes and he's still running on empty and running in circles. And the way to end this is to finally fall as low as you can, to see who you really are. And try to work from your own needs and not other people's expectations.


Casting Guillermo Pfening
A still from  

Casting Guillermo Pfening

EDGE: What was the journey from page to screen like and collaborating with Christina Lazaridi?

Julia Solomonoff: I wrote the very first draft in 2013 and we won a development award that was very helpful... I was hoping to shoot in 2014 but we were not ready financially and I was also a little stuck with the script. And I was very lucky to be invited to a writer's lab in Mexico.

I know Christina, we both went to Columbia University, we both taught at Columbia University but we never really spent more than 10 minutes talking. Then in Mexico we were thinking of other people's stories, thinking of our stories in a very creative environment by a lake and I realized she would be the ideal partner. That's when we started working together and it was a very incredible process... although I've been writing scripts for a while I feel like it's the hardest part of filmmaking.

EDGE: Can you speak about casting Guillermo Pfening in the role Nico? He's the heart of the film.

Julia Solomonoff: Yes, he is the heart of the film. I'm super happy with the kind of collaboration we developed. I worked with him on my previous film, "The Last Summer of la Boyita" (available on Amazon Prime). He played a very small role. Because I was working with a lot of non-actors, I wanted an actor that I could trust to help me... so I wouldn't have to cut too much. If he saw that the ball wasn't rolling, he could pick it up. So I worked with him and really like him.

When I started thinking about ("Nobody's Watching"), I knew he would be the actor for this and he was very committed to this project. He came to New York for five months. He loved living in New York... He's very comfortable with his sexuality...
A lot of what happens to the character happened to him. The movie was pushed for a year. And in that year he decided to have a kid with his friend. So the first baby in the movie is his own baby!... Reality started mimicking the film... He really got into the skin of the character.


Casting Guillermo Pfening
A still from  

Casting Guillermo Pfening

EDGE: What was the journey from page to screen like and collaborating with Christina Lazaridi?

Julia Solomonoff: I wrote the very first draft in 2013 and we won a development award that was very helpful... I was hoping to shoot in 2014, but we were not ready financially and I was also a little stuck with the script. And I was very lucky to be invited to a writer's lab in Mexico.

I know Christina, we both went to Columbia University, we both taught at Columbia University, but we never really spent more than 10 minutes talking. Then, in Mexico, we were thinking of other people's stories, thinking of our stories in a very creative environment by a lake, and I realized she would be the ideal partner. That's when we started working together, and it was a very incredible process... although I've been writing scripts for a while I feel like it's the hardest part of filmmaking.


Enhancing the Process
A still from  

Enhancing the Process

EDGE: You've worked with some of the best directors, like Salles and Puenzo. What do you feel you've taken from them and learned from them that works for you and enhances your process?

Julia Solomonoff: I learned a lot from the directors I've worked with. Walter Salles was the (best) possible learning experience because it was a very challenging film and his approach to the scenes were so organic. He was always aware of the world around him... He's a lot about incorporating life and accidents... that was a great learning experience for this film because we had so many happy accidents... when you have a small crew that are flexible and smart and passionate, it's amazing! And I learned that from Walter. "Motorcycle Diaries" was a much bigger film. The budget was 15 times bigger than mine...

Carlos Sorin also has a very intuitive way of filmmaking. These (directors) know how to incorporate the unexpected.

With Puenzo I was a lot younger, so it was more about (learning) the architecture of production. I was a third AD, not the first AD, so I didn't get to witness the creative decisions. I was just following orders working with him. I understood the organization of a shoot. But with Carlos and Walter I was able to see how they think.

The other thing that happened between "Boyita" and this is that seven years passed. In those years I raised two kids, I moved from Buenos Aires to New York. And I've also been teaching at Columbia University and NYU, and that gives me a perspective on how others approach filmmaking.


"Nobody's Watching" is scheduled for a U.S. release in the fall.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for Edge. His film column can be read at newyorkcool.com. Frank is also a proud Dramatists Guild member having written a slew of plays including "Consent," which confronts bullying and homophobia and was a 2012 semifinalist for the 2012 O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, "Vatican Falls," a play set against the backdrop of the Catholic sex abuse scandal which received Special Mention at the 2013 O'Neill (and will be produced next season) and his latest, "Orville Station." Ten of his plays have been produced (seven in NYC). Frank is the recipient of a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts for his play, CONSENT.


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