The 1994 Sundance Film Festival may have been immortalized by Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” but Boaz Yakin’s debut “Fresh” made out well enough. After scripting “Punisher” and “The Rookie,” Yakin directed a spry African American crime drama that put his career on a steady upward trajectory. That culminated in 2000 football hit “Remember the Titans,” which grossed $136.7 million and suggested a bright future in the studio system.
Yakin, however, wasn’t sure he wanted that. His latest movie, “Aviva,” marks his most personal movie in 30 years — and only would have been possible with those decades of roadblocks behind him. “I was a super-hot director after ‘Remember the Titans,’ and everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with me,” the 53-year-old New Yorker said in a recent interview. “I was being offered gigantic movies. I just had this moment where I was like, oh no, if I go down this road, I’m not going to remember how to be the creative person I want to be.”
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Over the last 20 years, that struggle has continued. Yakin’s career has followed an uneven trajectory that includes intimate character studies “Death in Love” and “Boarding School,” as well as the Jason Statham genre indulgence “Safe” and the canine military adventure “Max,” all while the filmmaker has juggled work-for-hire screenwriting gigs ranging from “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” to “Now You See Me.”
At long last, Yakin has managed to return to genuine personal filmmaking, by stripping away virtually all potential resources to make a self-financed experimental movie based on his own life. “Aviva” had been scheduled to premiere at last week’s now-canceled SXSW Film Festival, and its still-delayed launch feels oddly appropriate for a movie that speaks to its director’s unsteady path.
A freewheeling blend of dance and surrealist interrogations of gender identity, the movie consolidates Yakin’s various relationship crises and battles with depression into an unclassifiable two-hour odyssey. Littered with fourth-wall breaking indulges and characters played by male and female dancers who switch places throughout, the movie shows what can happen when the floodgates of creativity open wide after decades of pent-up frustration.
“My entire adult creative life has been this very, very upsetting push and pull between trying to succeed in an industry that doesn’t like to do the things I like to do, and trying to find a way to fit myself in that’s sustainable,” Yakin said. “This time, I didn’t want to limit myself at all.”
Yakin teamed up with choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith, whose nimble dance work serves as many of the movie’s high points. At its center, a Yakin stand-in named Eden wrestles with whether or not to marry his French partner Aviva after she moves to New York with him. That scenario stems in part from Yakin’s relationship with ex-wife and “Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el, though Yakin made it clear that much of the ensuing narrative draws from other romances and some of it was pure fiction. “There are elements of my marriage, of course, and experiences with my fiancée, but it really is a work of fiction,” said Yakin. “I’ve always struggled with my own discomfort and frustration with myself and how it’s affected my relationships in general.” (He declined to speak more specifically to Har’el’s role in the project, though sources close to both of them say that he made it with her blessing.)
Among the more unusual twists, “Aviva” finds characters transitioning from male to female at unexpected moments, blurring the nature of a traditional heterosexual romance by transforming it into a stranger meditation on internal battles between masculine and feminine proclivities. Yakin said he was inspired in part by Luis Buñuel’s 1977 “That Obscure Object of Desire,” in which one woman is played at different moments by Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina. “I wanted to take it to this other place where you basically express both sides of the same person between two different people,” Yakin said. The dance element stemmed from a longstanding desire to tip his hat to his parents, who worked as pantomimes. (His father has taught movement at Juilliard for 50 years.) “Untraditional theater has been a part of my life for a long time and I never really got to express it,” he said. “I wanted to make a movie that had dance and movement in a way people hadn’t seen before.”
Enter Smith, a veteran of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, whose work involves a complex agility and dancers putting their full bodies on display. When her choreography takes over, “Aviva” transforms from doleful romance to something more entrancing and strange, from a swirling barroom dance party to a mystical wedding sequence. “I was trying to take mundane gestures and expand them,” Smith said, “playing with those gestures until they became something supernatural or magical. It was all about trying to understand what would serve the story so it wouldn’t just become music videos.”
The device looped back to one aspect of Yakin’s history with Har’el, as Aviva eventually embarks on shooting a documentary about dancers in the desert. That passage refers to her mesmerizing 2011 debut “Bombay Beach,” a boundary-pushing portrait of isolated lives against the backdrop of the Salton Sea. Yakin, who produced the movie, said it pushed him to consider the potential of working on a micro-budget scale. “It was so inspiring to me to see what she was doing with that,” Yakin said. “There was no studio, no financiers. It’s a homegrown movie she made herself. The thing that’s beautiful about it is that it’s made without any support, so it could be anything.”
And “Aviva” certainly embraces an anything-goes attitude. The movie shows less investment in fusing its disparate parts together than in gathering fragments of ideas to represent a complex life. In a staggering musical sequence that stands out from the rest of the story, Yakin flashes back to his childhood, as a trio of kids rap into the camera and march through the city, ride the subway, and end up in Coney Island.
“We just got out on the street and did it,” Yakin said. “Then we shot on the train going to Coney Island, waited for it to get a little empty, and just started dancing.” He laughed. “I might be getting a little too old for this shit, but it was fun.”
Yakin relished the opportunity to explore the possibilities of guerrilla filmmaking, but wasn’t convinced it could overtake his life. “It’s not a sustainable career model,” he said. “How many movies can you pay for? At some point, you’ve gotta fucking eat.” Yakin continues to work on more commercial projects, and recently scripted the African American western “The Harder They Fall,” a Netflix production currently on hold. He sometimes wonders what might have been, if he’d embraced the opportunities that followed “Titans” and become a full-on studio filmmaker. “I’ll never know if I would’ve been able to take ‘X-Men 3’ or whatever the fuck I was offered at the time and just do it,” he said. “Would I have been able to come back from that and explore the things I wanted to explore? I suspect I wouldn’t have.”
Now, of course, he’s left in the same limbo as countless filmmakers, with a new movie in the bag seeking distribution and other projects delayed for the foreseeable future. In spite of everything, Yakin said he’s staying optimistic about whatever comes next.
“Obviously, in the moment of crisis itself, the priority has to be dealing with people’s health and security,” he said. “But the arts and expressiveness of communication has been at the heart of what makes us people. While we’re in the moment, we have to deal with this, but who we are as people and how we express our experiences will always be valid.”
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