‘When you meet someone and you feel a connection, you want to hold on tight, even if it doesn’t make sense,” says Jessica Provenz, who co-produced and wrote the screenplay for the short film “Nothing Happened,” which screens on Saturday, June 12 at the New Jersey International Film Festival on the Rutgers campus, which runs through Sunday, June 20. “Even just having that connection is something you fight for.”
Indeed, it’s a dicey dating world out there, and when you find someone who makes you feel special, you’re apt to be more accepting of that person’s flaws and foibles. In fact, when you’re in love, you’ll do anything for the object of your affection — even some things that are downright weird. This is part of what drives the plot to “Nothing Happened,” which screens with five other short films the same evening.
In “Nothing Happened,” the character Barb checks in with her best friend, Liza, and shares some interesting information regarding the man she’s crazy about. It’s almost TMI — too much information, in fact. “You might call Barb desperate, but I don’t think so,” says Provenz. “She’s just caught up in this guy who makes her feel something she hasn’t felt for a long time.”
A quirky, funny, sexy story about women and friendship, “Nothing Happened” was written, directed and produced by an all-female team that includes Provenz, a Pennington resident, and Sarah Louise Lilley (who plays Liza), a co-producer/actor, who was raised in Franklin Lakes. The creative foursome also includes Jessica Henson (who plays Barb) and co-producer, actor, and director Julia Kots, who rounds out the team perfectly with her directorial savvy.
The film’s tagline, “Secrets, Sex, and Sushi — All on Your Lunch Hour,” is an apt tease for this smart, sexy little gem. Set in a gallery of erotic art in the upper West side of Manhattan, there’s a bit of “Sex and the City” in “Nothing Happened,” mixed with the downtown flavor of “After Hours.”
Provenz, who has a lengthy background in theater, originally wanted to set the film in a cafe, where the two girlfriends would chat over lattes and chai. However, Kots suggested they move the action to an art gallery adorned with all kinds of erotica.
“Because of my theater background, I was thinking of keeping things easy and cheap, with a single set, but the first thing Julia said was ‘Let’s move it to an art gallery,’” Provenz says. “It took me awhile to understand (the change). In theater, it’s all about language, but the film is the director’s medium, and I think Julia made a lot of great choices.”
“We found this gallery [Gallery of International Naive Art) at 82nd and Columbus,” she says. “We ended up curating an erotic art exhibit. We used Craigslist and some other sites, saying we were looking for erotic artwork, especially large pieces, and in just a few hours, we got more than 50 pieces. The gallery owner was an angel, willing to do everything to help out. She took down an entire show of 90 pieces and put this work up.
“What was really funny was, for the two days we were shooting, people would walk by the gallery, stopping and looking at this wild stuff on the walls — including this one huge piece titled ‘Group Sex,’” Provenz continues. “They wanted to know how they could buy the artwork.” (The gallery closed its Manhattan doors just a few months ago — the film was shot more than a year ago — but lives on in Tel Aviv, Israel.)
In March “Nothing Happened” premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California, and was also screened at the L.A. Women’s International Film Festival in Los Angeles. Next up is the Berkshire Film Festival in Barrington, MA, and a June screening to be announced at the New Fest in Chelsea.
Meanwhile, Provenz continues to write for the stage, television, and film. Her new play, “Better Than Chocolate,” will be workshopped with Berkshire Playwright’s Lab this summer. She is also writing a feature, “One Night in Bergdorf’s” for recording artist Alicia Keys’ Big Pita, Li’l Pita Productions, as well as a musical, “Matchbook,” commissioned by the Araca Group.
Her interest in theater — especially in directing — came around the age of 11, when Provenz realized she was too short to be an actress. She grew up on Long Island with parents who weren’t particularly creative but were supportive and nurturing. “They were both in real estate,” Provenz says. “I expressed an interest in theater because it was kind of the only thing I was good at, so they sent me to every acting class and camp we could find. They took me to so many shows in New York.
“Then, when I decided to major in theater at Northwestern (University), it must have terrified them. My dad kept asking me if I wanted to be a doctor.”
Provenz has been very lucky to have found outstanding mentors at Northwestern (she graduated in 1997) and the Juilliard School, where she earned a fellowship to be playwright-in-residence from 2005 to 2007. One of her professors at Northwestern was John Logan, a playwright and screenwriter known for penning “Any Given Sunday,” “The Last Samurai,” as well as “Gladiator” and “The Aviator,” both of which earned him Academy Award nominations. Currently, Logan’s play “Red,” about American abstract painter Mark Rothko, is on Broadway (and reviewed in the June 2 issue of U.S. 1).
"John’s success came at the same time he was my teacher,” Provenz says. “I remember him coming into class and saying, ‘sorry I missed class last week, but I had to meet with Al Pacino and Oliver Stone’; they were discussing ‘Any Given Sunday.’ It was a very lucky break to have John, and he changed my life in a dramatic way. There are few people in life that can do this for you.
“I had always wanted to be a director, but then I took a course in playwriting, and I loved it,” she continues. “I didn’t care (as much as I did about directing), so I was willing to take a lot of chances. But John believed in me and told me to keep going, and he has a very inspiring personality. Theater is so competitive, so it’s good to have a handful of people like this who believe in you.”
At Julliard she was mentored by Marsha Norman, who wrote the book for the musical version of “The Color Purple,” and prolific stage and screenwriter Christopher Durang, whose play “Miss Witherspoon” was staged at McCarter Theater in 2005.
“I was blessed to be at Juilliard,” Provenz says. “They only take four people a year (in this program) and it’s a thrilling place to be. It’s nice to be around people like Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman, people who have had their kind of success. It shows that it’s not impossible to have a career in the arts.”
In her “low-30s,” Provenz is young enough to remember the ups and downs of dating, which she translates into her smart, dark, sexy comedies. But a few years ago, she met Jeffrey Claburn, a Lawrenceville native, and they felt an instant connection. They married and now divide their time between Claburn’s native New Jersey and an apartment they maintain in New York City. Claburn had had a career as a tax attorney but was so inspired by Provenz’s spirited life, he left his practice to become a professional poker player.
“There was just something immediate when we met,” Provenz says. “I thought, ‘This is a person I could spend a lot of time with.’ I had to learn how to drive when I moved here; I had never had a kitchen, so I’m learning how to cook. It’s very quiet, and we’re always the last ones (in the neighborhood) up at night, with our lights on. It’s flexing a different muscle for me, exploring a different side. But it’s an interesting balance.”
Short Films, New Jersey Film Festival, Voorhees #105, Douglass Campus, New Brunswick. Saturday, June 12, 7 p.m. Screenings of “Nothing Happened,” “Remember Me,” “Milestone,” “Madcap Mabel,” and “Tierra Madre.” In-person appearances by several of the directors and actors. 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.