By Sabina Mollot
It was in October, 2013, when Jason Stefaniak, an NYU graduate and Stuyvesant Town resident made an appeal, through an article in this newspaper, to get neighbors interested in a musical film he was producing, or rather hoped to produce after raising the funds via Kickstarter.
The campaign for the film, titled “But Not for Me,” which was about the millennial experience of making the rent in New York while also pursuing happiness, wound up raising an impressive $30,000. However, since that amount was far short of Stefaniak and the film director Ryan Carmichael’s goal of $100,000, under Kickstarter’s policy, this meant they ended up with none of the cash.
Not long after the Kickstarter deadline ended, however, Stefaniak got an email from a neighbor, which, after skimming it, he saw mentioned that its author wanted to make a contribution. Since he was busy at the moment, he figured he’d get back to her later to let her know the deadline had passed.
Then, later, Stefaniak took a closer look at the email and what she was offering. The woman, who said she’d read about the project in Town & Village, “wanted to help us cross the finish line,” he said.
“She was saying she wanted to make a significant investment in the film,” said Stefaniak. Soon, after some emails back and forth, the woman, whose identity Stefaniak has declined to reveal, met with him and Carmichael at her apartment. They went over the film, its script and its projected budget.
“She told us to tell her what we needed to make the film,” said Stefaniak, who told her the amount they’d been trying to raise. She then responded, “I want you to tell me exactly what you need.” That’s when he admitted they would have liked more than what they’d asked for in the Kickstarter campaign and to his and Carmichael’s surprise, their new investor wrote the first of what would be several checks.
According to Stefaniak, this was her first time investing in a film, although she did have a history of making donations towards causes important to her.
“She was a modest woman, not a wealthy woman who’s very generous with people and causes,” he said. “She felt a connection to Ryan and wanted to help him. I would not believe the story if I didn’t experience it.”
Carmichael also said it seemed their film’s backer was interested in his background, particularly as a black filmmaker and in his motivation in making the film, which he and Stefaniak have described as a hip-hop musical.
“She wanted to talk to me about what I was trying to achieve with the story and what inspired me to pursue a career in filmmaking,” he said. “Our conversation gradually steered towards me as a minority filmmaker and having a story that shows people a different version of young black manhood they might not have previously seen.”
Specifically, the film’s story focuses on Will, a disillusioned millennial copywriter and his love for a neighbor, Hope, but it’s also about the more universal challenge faced by New Yorkers of trying to pursue happiness while struggling to afford the rent.
Another aspect of the film is how the lead character, Will, is motivated to believe in himself during tough times because of the values instilled in him by his supportive father. Carmichael said the film is dedicated to his own father, who died two years ago. He recalled how his backer seemed to appreciate that the story was somewhat personal to him.
“When she heard that she perked up a little bit,” he said.
Along with directing the film, he also wrote all the lyrics to the songs, the music for which was written by a former NYU roommate of his, Rafael Leloup. The music, Carmichael explained, is the main reason that making the film is a dream come true for him.
“Music was my first love,” said Carmichael. “I fell in love with hip-hop in particular and I wanted to be a rapper when I was in middle school.”
This also ties into the storyline, he explained. “The story is a love story. The love between people and the love for the art that they pursue.”
As for the other aspect of the plot — the struggle to earn enough to live in New York — this is something Stefaniak said he can certainly relate to. After a few years of living in Stuy Town, he will be moving out at the end of June. Stefaniak recently got a rent increase, which he said wasn’t too bad, but it came after a hike of around $250 after his last renewal. Now he’s now planning on moving to more affordable digs in Washington Heights or in Brooklyn, where Carmichael lives.
“We’re just scraping by each month,” said Stefaniak, whose most recent gig besides his film was working as an assistant to director Josh Marston on a so-far untitled film.
As for the production of his own film, “But Not for Me” was completed earlier this year. Having already been mostly cast at the time of the Kickstarter campaign, shooting took place over a period of 18 days, wrapping in April of 2014.
The post-production work was completed in February of this year and on Thursday, June 4 at 9 p.m., it will have its first screening at the Brooklyn Film Festival. The venue is Nitehawk Cinema, which was ironically one of the film’s set locations. It will also have a festival screening at June 7 at 8 p.m. at Windmill Studios.
As for the film’s eleventh hour, surprise financing, Carmichael called it “the dictionary definition of a miracle.” Stefaniak has since come to think of his Stuy Town benefactor as “our angel,” but added that he also wanted to give some credit to this newspaper. “You’re like our secondary angel,” he said.
For tickets to either screening, visit the Brooklyn Film Festival’s website.