In addition to the reviews, various interviews with the filmmakers as well as features on the making of "The Definition of Insanity" have been published in newspapers and on-line.
'Insanity' Claims Battery Park City For a Night
by S.T. VanAirsdale
I also caught up Thursday with Robert Margolis and Frank Matter, the co-directors whose no-budget masterwork The Definition of Insanity enjoyed a fittingly insane reaction at the Regal in Battery Park City. You might remember last summer's Reeler coverage of Insanity, which earned last night's screening as part of its triumph at last year's Virginia Film Festival; the Audience Award winner received a Regal showcase, while the Jury Prize winner got $5,000.
And wouldn't you know it: Insanity claimed both. Alas, after 20-something festival appearances, a Variety rave and a mantelful of awards, Margolis told me that the film is still on the distribution prowl. "It went really well tonight," he said at the packed afterparty. "I'm a little jaded, because the thing is, the screenings always go well. The audience is always very responsive. But we're still waiting for someone to come out of the audience with a checkbook and basically offer to buy the film."
So..... What? That did not happen tonight?
"That didn't happen tonight."
Margolis glanced around the bar. "None that I've seen."
Talk about a crime. While Margolis mentioned that a European deal or two might be in the works, he adds that Insanity--about a struggling New Yorker (Margolis, playing himself, but only sort of) who risks everything he has to establish an acting career--has been an especially tough sell to American distributors. "Right now," he said, "the thing is, we don't have any sex, we don't have any violence and we don't have any stars in the film. So they don't quite know how to market it, despite the fact that audiences come in and love the film. They come back more than once, actually. A distributor looks at it and says, 'How are we going to market it?' And I undertstand--there's a lot of money involved.
"So I have a certain amount of empathy for them. A limited amount of empathy."
And I have less than that, actually, because people really like this movie. They do see it two or three times at festivals or local screenings. It manufactures buzz everywhere it plays. And hell yes, it IS challenging, which makes its word-of-mouth appeal thus far all the more stunning. Basically, everybody but the indie film distribution community seems to get The Definition of Insanity. If we were talking about a $5 million acquisition, it would be one thing. But Jesus Christ--it is an DV comedy/drama that is actually funny and intense and wields audience goodwill to spare. Someone roll the fucking dice, would you?
Speaking of the definiton of insanity--characterized in the film as repeatedly failing at the same thing over and over while hoping that the result will eventually change--I asked Margolis if his experience with the film is starting to resemble anything close to that. "It's exactly the same thing," he quickly replied. "But the definition of insanity is also the definiton of perseverance. If the person who is insane suddenly hits it, and someone picks it up and they become a sensation, they get their film screened, they get their artwork done--they're not insane. It's just the ones who don't quite make it who are considered insane because they keep going.
"But I can't figure the difference," he added. "And that's what we're doing. We're pursuing our dream in a sense."
Beautiful. Now let us just hope that the next audience will bring those checkbooks along.
New EnglandFilm.com, Boston: Fiction In Fact:
Actor/writer/director Robert Margolis bares anywhere from five to 95 percent of his soul in his award-winning mock-documentary "The Definition of Insanity," screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival this month.
By Erin Trahan
"Is your film autobiographical?" Robert Margolis hears this question more than any other from audiences who see "The Definition of Insanity." Margolis plays the filmís main character Robert Margolis, a passionate but aging actor on the brink of either "the big break" or utter ruin. He botches auditions, begs for meetings with agents, and gets himself kicked off sets. Failure looms around every corner but Robert holds on to something any artist would envy -- the drive to act no matter what people think, even if it sends him or those closest to him over the edge.
Real life Margolis is also an actor. He, too, has tested the limitations of friends and family in service of his calling. And while his experiences spurred the creation of "Definition of Insanity," he leaves the mystery of what is and isnít true to the audience. Billed as fiction, the film includes documentary footage. But even when pressed to identify the "real" scenes, Margolis laughs and changes the subject. Itís part of the hook.
"The Definition of Insanity" has accrued more than a dozen festival screenings and awards, including Best Director and Best Actor at the Chicago Independent Film Festival. Part of the 2005 Boston Jewish Film Festival, the Tuesday, November 8 screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre opens with a live performance by Boston-based singer/songwriter Amy Fairchild, whose songs are featured in the film. NEFilm recently talked with Margolis to get the facts, and the fictions.
Erin Trahan: So, how autobiographical is "Definition of Insanity?"
Robert Margolis: The stock answer is -- itís becoming more autobiographical with each passing day. Most is fictional, but some people assume itís a documentary. And in that way, they donít understand how difficult it was to make. We succeeded with acting very naturalistic. The character named Robert Margolis plays with a crossover between reality and fiction. We wanted audience to be in a similar state of uncertainty and anxiety as the main character.
ET: The fact or fiction debate is dogging every aspect of American culture. What do you make of it?
Margolis: Itís an interesting conversation. Since the digital revolution, boundaries between fact and fiction are breaking down. Some are great. Some are dangerous. If you look at a lot of narrative films, theyíre kind of played out. Theyíve run out of ideas. Thereís a constant recycling of remakes, sequels, and new films that use the same generic violence. Theyíre not resonating with people anymore. People are looking to connect regardless of whether itís called narrative fiction or documentary. Documentary as a genre is becoming more and more popular because people are craving something they can connect to that is relevant for them, something thatís not just escapist. I mean, nothing is strictly, objectively, true. The minute youíve observed something youíve changed it.
ET: In one scene youíre on a payphone and the signs behind you read "Eyes Examined" and "Hearing Aids," presumably no coincidence. How often do you think actors need to read the signs theyíre not seeing?
Margolis: To be an artist, you have to be in a certain level of denial. Thereís healthy denial, since the world is so filled with horror, violence, and disease -- you can get lost in your own existential neurosis -- but you wouldnít leave your apartment. And then thereís delusion. One thing we were exploring: whatís the difference between passion, or being driven by a dream, and delusion. Very few people make a full time living as an artist. The people who break through, like Vincent Van Gogh, he cut off his ear and died an unknown. He was validated post mortem.
One of the questions weíre raising is the idea of the American Dream. This guy [Robert] is an everyman. Weíre told itís the American Dream but really itís like the lottery. Is the point that you never realize success or that youíre following out your dream?
ET: One critic calls your film a "clever act of self liberation." Did playing a so-called "bad actor" allow you more freedom or range?
Margolis: It was like putting myself in my worst nightmare but knowing I would wake up. It was liberating on the level of, well, just Frank and I made this film. Nobody stopped us from making it. We had complete control over our artistic future and were not at the whim of anyone else. We worked with 50 actors. All except Peter [Bogdanovich] and Jonas [Mekas] are struggling, so it was exciting to bring them into this project. And whether or not heís a bad actor -- itís kind of an irrelevant issue. Heís trying to lead an authentic life. He has to act. Itís something he needs to do to give him a sense of who he is.
ET: Iím guessing youíre a pretty smart guy. You graduated summa cum laude and youíre a Fulbright scholar. How does being smart factor in to how you assess success or failure as an artist?
Margolis: My being smart hasnít particularly helped me. It helped me get good grades in college but since then Iíd have to say it hasnít factored in. But I go back and forth. I feel successful because I am creating what I want to create and I am finding audiences. That way I know this project is not just a self-involved home movie. But I donít want to end up like Van Gogh. I would love to be free of the financial pressures of daily life, and be able to bring more people in to work with me. Our culture is so much about money and recognition. You try to avoid getting too caught up in it, but if no one is seeing your work, are you an artist? I would feel like a success if I could just make enough money so I could make another movie...
ET: Frank Matter co-directed and shot "The Definition of Insanity." How did your collaboration come about?
Margolis: He cast me in his first feature, "Morocco," in 1997, and we became friends. I loved doing "Morocco," and later "Criminals," but neither was seen by wide audiences. So Frank and I were talking and decided to do our own project from scratch. I am also a writer and itís frustrating to always put myself in other peopleís work. I have very little control. So we solved all these problems: Iíll act, heíll shoot, weíll co-direct and if it doesnít get seen itís our own issue.
The marketing is more exhausting -- itís incredibly time consuming. We shot the film completely outside the system, so therefore no one really has incentive for the film to be successful, except for us. Weíre at the point where weíd love to sell it. We are cautiously optimistic. But itís been a great collaboration because we resolved conflicts in ways we were both happy. Really, itís the best time Iíve ever had both as actor and writer.
ET: Most of the music comes from two artists, jazz musician Paula Atherton and singer/songwriter Amy Fairchild. Did you have them in mind while you were filming?
Margolis: We were trying to find a balance. We didnít want the music to replace the scene or to tell people how to feel. We wanted it to enhance what was going on. Once we finished, and started thinking about music, voice trainer Gerry Janssen (who plays a voice trainer in the film) gave us a whole bunch of CDs from his students. Thatís how we discovered Amy. Sheís Boston-based and sheíll be performing before the screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Paula created original music for the film. Her synchronistic songs were linked so perfectly with what our film is trying to say.
We didn't want the music to replace the scene or to tell people how to feel. We wanted it to enhance what was going on. Once we finished shooting, voice trainer Gerry Janssen (who plays a voice trainer in the film) gave us a whole bunch of CDs from his students. That's how we discovered both Amy and Paula. Amy's music came from a previously written CD, but it was so perfect it was as if she had written it for us.
Paula created original music. She and [fellow musician] Cliff showed up in the studio and improvised, a perfect counterpoint to the film, which also has an improvisational quality. She watched the film, and we would remind her of what scene she'd be playing for. We wanted to get out of her way and let her create. We tried to do that throughout the film. We kept our options open to allow for accidents and moments of inspiration. Then we incorporated Paula and Cliff into the film, as musicians in the subway, which is another way of playing with fiction vs. fact.
ET: Is there a scene that gets better every time you see it?
Margolis: When we were editing, I was going crazy. We watched everything 10 or more times. Now what I notice most is the audienceís reaction. Some people find the movie incredibly sad, other people laugh through the whole thing. Two-thirds through the film in Minneapolis, a woman left, sat down outside the theater and started crying. Then she got up. Two minutes later she came back. It can be quite a dichotomous experience.
Iíve seen it so many times, I get lost in it now. I still enjoy it, but I find it strange. Itís hard to watch myself. Itís as if Iím watching another actor.
The Gothamist, New York City
Interview by Mindy Bond and Raphie Frank
Robert Margolis, Filmmaker
I am of indeterminate age, as my life is in a chronic state of re-invention, the whole New York survival shtick, so I would say I am older than I look and younger than I feel. In "The Definition of Insanity" I play a 38-year-old on-the-cusp actor careening toward oblivion so this could give you a ballpark sense. My avocation is filmmaker/writer/actor, order changes depending on current state of affairs. To support my art addictions I have worked at a variety of day jobs including bartender, groundskeeper, psychoanalyst, and building super (my current day job). Also I am halftime single parenting my son Dylan, age 5 (who co-stars in "Insanity") and I consider that to be my ultimate day job and avocation rolled into one. I am a born and raised New Yorker. Born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx. Spent a few years away at college and another year in the Philippines on a Fulbright grant. Transport of choice is feet, subway, bus, taxi in that order. Would like to bike but too paranoid about being crunched by a road-rage tourist gone postal after a really cheesy Broadway show.
Gothamist: Your new film, The Definition of Insanity is a faux documentary following the trials and tribulations of the fictional Robert Margolis, an actor, a pretty bad on at that, living on the fringe, trying to balance the demands and practicalities of every day life with his dream of becoming a successful actor. In the film, you are subject to multiple humiliations in the course of trying to secure work, you are reduced to distributing flyers in Times Square dressed as a pink bunny, the stresses of your failed career breaks up your family, and ultimately you end up suffering a mental breakdown. Just how autobiographical is the film?
Margolis: Well, since I co-created this film with Swiss filmmaker Frank Matter, I can only speak from my experience. That being said, most of the film is not literally autobiographical, probably 95% of the scenes have been invented and about 5% are actual documentary footage we incorporate. However, metaphorically, everything in Insanity is autobiographical for me. Yet in strange ways.
The film involves a failed marriage. My marriage did fail, but after we finished shooting. So I think there was a lot of unconscious pre-awareness going on. I've never been hospitalized for mental illness, but I worked for about five years as a therapist for people who had been committed to a state hospital. Maybe if I hadn't made the film, I would have had a mental breakdown. As part of my training, I had to be in therapy while I was working with patients. I personally think that therapy should be a regular part of life, like going to the dentist (only maybe less painful). You know, fix the tooth before it becomes infected and needs to be pulled.
As for the character being a "bad" actor, one of my early acting teachers used to say, "if it's something worth doing, it's worth doing badly." So this is about a guy who acts because it's essential to his sense of being a whole person. At one point he talks of needing to act as "being born with a bad leg. " And this is one of the basic life situations the film looks at; my own included.
We all have our dream, our defining sense of what gives our life its Me-ness. And we're all buffeted by forces, financial pressures, family pressures, cultural pressures to behave in a certain way, to fit certain norms of what constitutes a successful life. Basically we are usually forced to choose financial survival over the Dream. And this Dream is not about whether we make a ton of money or are even "good" at something. It's about survival of our authentic self. For the character in the film, that means he has to act, although he does subsequently discover that there are other parts of his life, other relationships, that are crucial to him.
And I think that that's true for everyone as well. As for actor humiliations, itís certainly true that to be an actor is to accept ongoing experiences of humiliation, rejection, and disappointment. And I have had more than my share of these. But to re-phrase my acting teacher's words, anything worth doing is worth suffering for. One of the areas where I differ from the character is that I'm probably less naÔve, and less in denial about my situation. Maybe itís a way of saying that I am probably more prepared for difficulty than the character. But it's only a question of degree.
Gothamist: You used to be a therapist and one of the themes you've touched on when speaking of your film is the notion of art as a healing force. Could you expand on that?
Margolis: I totally believe that art can be an essential way for people to heal from traumatic events in their lives. One thing that struck me when I worked as a therapist was that it wasn't necessarily the traumatic event itself that caused people to get sick, but it was their inability to process the event. Sexually and physically abused children are a prime example. Not only are they terribly mistreated and wounded, but often their abusers force them to deny the reality of their abuse. They are forced to pretend that "everything is fine."
I think many adults are in the same bind, carrying around terrible experiences that they've never been allowed to express and process. And this takes a very destructive toll on people. The character in "Insanity" says that he uses his acting as a way of dealing with painful experiences in order to move past them. And I think that art serves that purpose both for the artist and the viewer. As I mentioned earlier, I think working on this film was a way for me to have a dialogue with myself and really helped me to work on core issues in my life. Hopefully, it resonates with an audience as well.
Gothamist: The definition of insanity is defined by one of the characters in the film as doing things the same way over and over again expecting a different outcome. Have you had experience with this stuck-in-a-pattern way of being in your own life?
Margolis: It's one of the essential questions of the film and in my own life. I clearly cannot let go of my dream, which is to continually give expression through writing, acting, directing, parenting, my core beliefs and experiences, in ways that hopefully other people find relevant, helpful, entertaining, etc. I think a lot of people, my family included, probably think I am a bit insane for it, and there are times when I look at my life and feel a sense of futility and hopelessness. That's when I think of myself as having an existential neurosis, a kind of chasing-after-the-horizon-and-never-quite-catching-it syndrome. But, as Robert in the film says, "This is who I am, this is what I have to do." That's definitely an attitude I share with the character.
Gothamist: The characters in your film come across as incredibly naturalistic, yet many of the actors were not even trained. Could you tell us a bit about your creative process?
Margolis: Since we structured the film as a documentary, Frank and I felt that it was essential that the performances had a quality of "lived moments of experience." We wanted to get under the audience's skin in a way that you often don't find in movies. We wanted to create a confusion in the audience as to whether what they were seeing was real or imagined (recreating for the audience the character's confusion as well). And I think we succeeded in this.
We accomplished this by casting people who seemed comfortable in their own skins; who were immediately palpable. So we were not looking for "talent." Although if you watch the film you will see that everyone is extremely talented. I think casting was probably the most important element in our process. And then when we worked on scenes we would give the actors the scene structure and what needed to be accomplished, and then we would improvise the lines with them so that we were basically in an ongoing shooting of rehearsals.
This was also one of the huge advantages of shooting digitally. Since there was minimal set-up needed and very small crew, we could work very intimately. The other important element was creating an environment where actors felt safe and open so they just could let stuff happen to them. Nobody was hiding behind a character. A lot of this I got from studying with a terrific acting coach named Sande Shurin, who is also the acting coach for the film.
Gothamist: You made The Definition of Insanity on a shoestring budget. Any advice to indie filmmakers on how to make a film on a dollar and a subway token to pin beside your shoe?
Margolis: Just do it. That's the concise answer. Because if we had thought too much about how hard it was going to be, Frank and I would probably have just invested the money in a few days at the Jersey shore instead. Obviously, shooting with digital format makes it very easy to shoot cheap. We shot with a camera that probably sells for about 1000 bucks now and then we were fortunate enough to get a grant to blow it up to 35mm. The difficult part is that now that we're done, since we shot this completely outside the system, it's a lot harder to plug into the distribution world which has its built-in set of players and who are much more interested in star-driven or sensationalized material. But that being said, we're still optimistic.
Gothamist: The Definition of Insanity has won awards for Best Feature at two of the three film festivals it has entered. We ourselves attended a screening of the film at the Woodstock Film Festival and were witness to the very powerful and positive reaction it received. Yet it didn't make it in to Sundance. Nor has it gained entry in to numerous other festivals. How do you figure that? Any opinion on this year's Sundance selections?
Margolis: It's partly the nature of film festivals. Each festival gets hundreds or thousands of entries and may not have the time or patience to actually watch through a small, intimate and powerful film. So they often end up programming films that have gone to Sundance or other major festivals because itís a safer bet for them. So its like a Catch 22. Those films that enter the Sundance Magic School Bus find it a lot easier to take the regional festival ride and get distribution.
Which leads to the Sundance issue.
Itís the marketing platform for films in the US and as it grows it becomes much more market-driven, not unlike the rest of our culture. So you can't exactly blame them. They are under a lot of pressure, and they receive so many submissions, so I think there is a tendency to drift towards recognizable, more polished material. Smaller films like ours have to rely more on a grass roots/guerilla marketing campaign & word-of-mouth. We are grateful whenever we screen the film and see the powerful effect it has on the audience.
Gothamist: Have any interesting trying-to-be-an-actor-in-NYC stories?
Margolis: I arrived for a 6 PM theater audition and waited until 9 before they saw me. We were given a scene to read and we were in a very small room. After my first line the casting director, who was sitting about three feet away from us, stopped me and told me "can you speak up, this is for the theater." I figured her hearing aid had gone dead. I started again and she immediately threw me out of her office. That was one of those rage-inducing moments.
Then, another time I was shooting a mind-deadening short film about a woman who dreams of beating up her boyfriend in a boxing match. I was the boyfriend. On the third day of shooting, I was called in by a casting director to audition for another film. I started reading a scene with a nice young woman in which we were having a discussion in a park. Suddenly she turned to me, set her feet, and punched me as hard as she could in the jaw, knocking me to the floor. As I looked at her in stunned disbelief, she explained that she went with her "feeling." Here is a case where therapy would have done her, and my jaw, a great deal more good.
Gothamist: At this point in your career do you consider yourself more of a director, a writer or an actor?
Margolis: I can no longer differentiate those parts of myself. Now that I've co-directed myself, I find it extraordinarily liberating to create material, act it and shape it simultaneously. Frank and I had a very productive collaboration and in an ideal world I would like to continue to collaborate with like-minded souls because I think the end result is often more personal, dynamic and exciting for an audience.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, Florida (excerpt):
... "For small films without big stars and without big budgets, festivals represent the most cost-effective aspect of a guerrilla marketing campaign," said Robert Margolis, star, director and writer of "The Definition of Insanity".
Margolis, who sounds utterly unlike the obsessive, self-destructive actor he portrays on film, says that while making his movie was "exciting and exhilarating," marketing it "is very much a game."
"The truth is that with today's technology, you can shoot a film for very little money," Margolis said. "But getting it distributed and seen is another proposition entirely."
Margolis would love to have his movie shown on the Independent Film Channel, which funded "Z-Channel: A Magnificent Obsession," made by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of the late independent filmmaker John Cassavetes...
For full article go to For independent filmmakers, it's all about exposure
Weekly Planet, Sarasota:
Actor/director Robert Margolis is often asked: How much does The Definition of Insanity reflect his own life? It is, after all, a mockumentary-style film about a struggling actor (portrayed by Margolis) enduring countless humilliations in hopes of making it big. The audience is taken through an ongoing barrage of embarrassments, from his demeaning part-time jobs to his desperate pleas for his exasperated wifeís understanding of a dream Ė his dream Ė that just wonít die. For a struggling actor/director such as Margolis, this film seems to hit pretty close to home.
ďWe wanted the audience to feel a little uncomfortableĒ, says Margolis, ďlike, ĎHow far are they going to go into this personís life?íĒ Watching this film is a bit like watching reality TV: Though sometimes tough to watch, itís carthartic, and perhaps a little liberating, to see someone else deal with the bullshit for a change.
The Definition of Insanityís protagonist doesnít just give up, though for the sake of his family and personal health he should. He instead resigns himself to his fate. This is where Insanity sidesteps the prototypical Hollywood ending Ė you want this poor loser to succeed, but in the end you know he wonít.
Margolis, the director, however has. Armed with only a tiny budget and a handheld digital camera, Margolis and co-director Frank Matter have shown The Definition of Insanity to audiences in the U.S., Brazil, Switzerland and Germany, along the way winning awards at film fests in New York.
So the question remains Ė how autobiographical is this faux-documentary? Margolis wonít say.
Recently divorced and working part-time as a super at a New York apartment building (he was salting in preparation for last weekendís snowfall just before we spoke), Margolis Ė for the sake of authenticity Ė often incorporated real documentary footage in scenes. ďThe scenes where I was auditioning for plays were realĒ, he says. ďAnd a few other scenes, too. But I donít want to give all of them away.Ē
Interview with Radio SRQ, Sarasota, Florida (hear it)