Sollett uses short-film success as stepping stone | AspenTimes.com

Sollett uses short-film success as stepping stone

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Among the filmmakers gathering in Aspen as guests at Aspen Filmfest’s Shortsfest, Peter Sollett figures to draw a large share of the attention.

For Sollett, a 27-year-old Brooklyn native, has accomplished the feat that many creators of short films would like to emulate: turning success in the short-film world into a budding career as a feature-length filmmaker.

“Raising Victor Vargas,” Sollett’s first feature film, tops Shortsfest’s opening-day program today. The 88-minute film will be screened at the Wheeler Opera House at 9 p.m., with Sollett scheduled to be in attendance to introduce the film and engage in a question-and-answer session with the audience.

Sollett’s early goal was simply to make a short film. As a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Sollett crafted a script out of his teenage experiences in his native Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, neighborhood, a story about romance on the streets of New York.

When he went to cast the film, however, he and his classmate and partner, Eva Vives, weren’t satisfied with the professional child actors that auditioned. So the two went into the ‘hood, to the Spanish-speaking areas of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to find fresh talent. There they found Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte and Melonie Diaz, teenagers with little acting experience. Sollett adapted his script some to fit the backgrounds of his Latino actors; the result was the short film “Five Feet High and Rising.”

Sollett’s piece earned praise in the world of short films, including a prize for Best Student Short at Aspen Shortsfest 2000. That success, though, wasn’t the impetus to turn “Five Feet High and Rising” into a feature-length film.

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Instead, the expansion came out of the bonds between Sollett and Vives and their young cast, and the desire the filmmakers had to continue working with the actors. A measure of the friendship is seen in the methodology of the film: although Sollett wrote a proper screenplay, he didn’t give it to the actors, and had them improvise their dialogue.

“We were completely enamored of the cast and thought they had a great deal more to offer,” said Sollett. “They were becoming our friends, and we were becoming part of each other’s lives. Trust developed there, and that’s what made `Raising Victor Vargas’ possible.”

“Raising Victor Vargas” is not a lengthened version of “Five Feet High and Rising,” but more an expansion of its characters and ideas. The film is centered around Victor (Victor Rasuk) and his stumbling efforts to strike a relationship with the ‘hood hottie, “Juicy” Judy (Judy Marte). It’s a romance film, but one that keeps intact the grittiness and difficulties of ghetto life, and never settles for the cliches of either romantic comedies or ‘hood dramas.

Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, “Raising Victor Vargas” has been screened at the Sundance Festival, the Toronto Film Festival, and at the Deauville Film Festival, where it earned the grand prize. More recently, the film opened the New Directors/New Films series at New York’s Lincoln Center last week.

Sollett isn’t certain what will come next in his career. Getting word out about “Raising Victor Vargas,” he said, is a full-time job at the moment. Sollett will always have a fondness for short films, but whether he makes another may depend on the financial incentives. He is not too confident.

“I wish there were more room for short filmmaking in and of itself,” he said. “But there aren’t enough people with enough to gain financially, unfortunately.”

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]

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