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Art : Interview

Girl Walk: Jacob Krupnick talks the talk

by Rachel Signer

Jacob Krupnick’s new film, Girl Walk // All Day, has an audience both in the street and in the theater.

Rollerblading through the streets of New York City as a teenager in the ’90s, Jacob Krupnick relished living in a vibrant metropolis where he had access to culture at all levels. As a college student at Vassar, he wrote a thesis on the decline of public space in American cities, and the rise of shopping mall complex construction.

In Krupnick’s 71-minute “epic dance music video,” Girl Walk // All Day, which is showing in select venues in and around New York (and which you can see for free by clicking here!), three dancers resurrect Krupnick’s adolescent experience of moving freely throughout the city, busting out pirouettes, shimmying, grooving, hip-pumping, and freestyle-walking as they go. Their soundtrack is a mash-up of pop songs ranging from “Single Ladies” to “Get Your Freak On” to “Can I Get a What-What.” The main character, Girl, is a frumpy and loveable Every-Woman played by Anne Marsen, who, after ditching ballet class in the opening scene, irreverently combines moves from every genre of dance imaginable. And once she’s out, nothing can stop Girl: she grooves with buildings, Hasidic Jews, Wall Street women, and the film’s other stars, John Doyle and Dai Omiya, both of whom are pining (in vain) for her affections.

The film extends beyond the screen as it engages the public and gets audiences on their feet to move and dance; Krupnick hopes that it will help people think more creatively about public space. We met recently to discuss the process of scripting and filming Girl Walk.

Rachel Signer Where do your interests in cities and public space come from?

Jacob Krupnick Growing up in New York in the mid-to-late-’90s, there were still a lot of all-age venues in the city. And they were never particularly expensive. It was possible to participate in a lot of different forms of entertainment life, as a kid, in a way that it’s not now in New York, because the profit motive is too high. There’s the concern for litigation, for underage drinking. It’s so expensive to do business in New York that you can’t risk losing your shirt over some 17-year-old sneaking a beer. But I had a lot of freedom, and it made for a childhood with a lot of colorful experiences—I’d roller-blade to museums, check in my blades, walk around. To do that as a young person is an empowering thing.

I’ve taken pictures in the street from the time I was fifteen or so. There were still a lot of seedy neighborhoods and variation in Manhattan. When I finished college I knew I wanted to be a photographer, and I found myself doing commercial work, assisting wedding photographers. But for the most part my entrance into photography was through assisting other photographers. I assisted a German art photographer named Thomas Struth. I was a huge admirer of his work and happened to become his intern in Dusseldorf, where I lived for awhile.

RS What’s Dusseldorf like?

JK It’s a small city, about half a million people, and it’s quite posh. And it’s kind of a dull town. I was riding my bike a lot and I found the cycling there really exciting because roads and sidewalks connect pretty much indefinitely and you can move from town to town, city to city, park to park, seamlessly. One of the things I felt really strongly in Dusseldorf, and it was reinforced by spending time in Berlin, is that there’ s a freedom to public life in Germany that is dramatically greater than anywhere in America. The regulation on what you can do outside, in a park or on the street, is much less. You can walk around and have a beer and listen to music and dance.

RS But people hang out in parks in the States, and play music.

JK Legally, you’re not allowed to have amplification in any format. It’s something we pushed a little with the film. There are so many rules in America. And part of the reason is that we’re such a diverse society, we’re fragmented, and ultimately we’re not very good at policing ourselves.

Anne Marsen as Girl, who rejects formal dance in favor of free-form, spontaneous movement. All images courtesy of Jacob Krupnick.

RS It seems like in American culture we prioritize private space and property over public space.

JK We have a contradictory desire—on the one hand we hold freedom of personal behavior paramount, but at the same time we defend that by creating laws that are often not enforced. There are all these rules to protect your individual freedom but they limit it, too. I’m thinking about in my life, as an angry cyclist, all the bike lanes that aren’t policed. Germans couldn’t be more different in terms of self-regulating.

RS I remember when I was in Munich how nobody would cross the streets when the lights were red. New Yorkers have almost made jay-walking a normal part of daily life.

JK And there’s a righteousness to it. So, in Germany I was thinking a lot about what people do in public space. It’s presumed that you’ll make the right choices and be responsible. And in America, so much of the public space is not really public. It’s leased by private entities.

RS That’s something Occupy Wall Street has called attention to.

JK Yes, because Zuccotti is a park owned by a private corporation. And one might ask what value it has. Part of Girl Walk is about taking a stance about what we can do in public space, and what should be allowed, and what should be considered a public space. The synopsis of the film says that it’s shot entirely in public spaces in new York city, but there are some spaces that are unequivocally private—Bloomingdale’s, Yankee Stadium—not technically public spaces, but I think they should be. We film in the cemetery—that’s a place where I felt skeptical about whether it was appropriate. And yet I feel that open space is so fucking limited in New York that I personally want to campaign for any open patch it to be a place for public behavior.

RS I think what got me so excited about the film was the parallel between fantasy and reality. There’s the fantasy of this character—Girl—who is breaking free of her formal training, and she’s performing beautifully to music, and the music is just like a movie soundtrack and sometimes people notice her and sometimes they don’t. But everyone who’s watching it is like, Yes, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do on the subway, when I’m listening to music on headphones! Or in Union Square, people perform, but if you show interest, they ask you for money. She’s broken free of all these limitations. And then there’s the reality that you’re filming in public, trying to engage regular people on the street, and dealing with all these complications.

JK When you’re watching the film you know that what you’re watching did actually happen. But maybe the fantasy-reality parallel has to do with the question of what side you’re on, as a viewer. A lot of people react to the film with a bouncy exuberance and insist that, if they’d been there, they would’ve joined in, or they would’ve smiled, and they can’t believe how stone-faced all these zombie-ish New Yorkers are. I like to point out that it’s quite incredible to me how restrained people are, but here’s something wonderful it draws out in you as a viewer—most of us would look at this crazy dancer, this guy in a yellow jacket with a small camera on a steady cam, and a PA trailing with a rinky-dink film boom box, and say, Who cares?

Dai Omiya in front of the red cube, pre-Occupy Wall Street.

RS I’d think, NYU film students. Or, you see this, but you’re texting, or you’re late, and you just smile and walk quickly by.

JK But I love screening the film because it does reawaken people a bit. I love hearing people say, I’d totally join. And I say, actually, you probably wouldn’t, because there are so many things in daily life in New York that are trying to grab your attention. It’s really a coping mechanism that we tune out and deaden ourselves a little bit.

RS I remember when I first moved to New York and how enthralled I was by everything—Chinatown, the subway, coffee shops. But it’s so easy to become jaded or overwhelmed.

JK New York has changed so dramatically for the more predictable and the more homogenized, especially in Manhattan. The degree to which storefronts have been filled by banks and franchises is astonishing to me. Gentrification has been so strong that there are no neighborhoods that are undiscovered in Manhattan and that trickles down to elements like what kind of surprises you get.

RS When you went to film in Zuccotti Park, were the Occupiers more receptive than other parts of the city?

JK We had been filming all around Downtown Manhattan earlier that spring, during May and June, when we shot almost the entire film. We would often meet at a Starbucks near Zuccotti Park and then go to the park, where we’d stretch, I’d prepare my film. In July I started editing and figuring out what was missing. I was producing the film and I was calling people and wrangling, and I sort of fatigued, so the last twenty percent of the film took a long time. We’d do a day here and a day there. We’d already filmed a short scene with – tap-dancing in the shadow of the big red cube across from Zuccotti Park. And it was our home base, sort of. So it was fascinating to see it change shape entirely when Occupy came in.

RS It was the perfect finale to the shopping scene.

JK The part we filmed in Bloomingdale’s was really daunting. We were trying to figure out what the moral of the story was. I worked with Anne a lot to figure out that portion of the story, and we knew that we wanted Anne’s character to basically go in the wrong direction, for the audience to lament her decisions. So she goes on a shopping spree and is braceleted with bags. At that point it was early October and Occupy Wall Street had been going for a few months. And it was like a little lightning bolt—I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me earlier. So, I scoped it out on a Friday, and then we went back on Saturday to film. And on a nice Saturday, you couldn’t get into the park, there were so many people. It was so packed. And like a lot of things, we just improvised.

Girl shimmies down the escalator after leaving the Staten Island Ferry.

RS So you filmed on the border of the park?

JK Yes, and people regarded her as basically a clown. It was clear to pretty much everyone that she was lampooning the idea of hyper-consumption. The reaction to that scene has been positive, and I’m glad. I was concerned that it might be polarizing or tie the film in too much to a certain point and time.

RS Why was it hard to film in Bloomingdale’s?

JK This was the only place we fought pretty hard to get permits. I sent e-mails to their press department and reached out through friends I have in the fashion world—but nothing got us a response. So we just talked to the make-up artist there, and found a way to get around it.

RS Why didn’t you just go to another store?

JK My first apartment was on 56th and 2nd and there’s something about going to Bloomingdale’s with my mother that seemed like a funny thing to connect to. But it didn’t match my childhood memories at all—the stores a little junky now, it seemed rough on the edges.

For the most part it was my timidness and Anne’s timidness that kept those scenes from being too engaging. We kept going back and filming more.

RS How did you navigate the responsibilities of producing the film, since it was your first major film project?

JK It’s always been in my nature to take on an assignment that feels insurmountable in order to learn how to do something. With the film, the idea came at a time when I’d spent the better part of a year starting a start-up, a text-message-to-buy platform. The business basically folded and in the process, screwed me out of a lot of money, just before my wedding. So I had a dramatic end to 2010. But then I got married, and I was on an incredible high after that fallout. It was the right time to make Girl Walk because I was thinking about getting a job job, but this got me working with other people and gave me an excuse to continue being freelance. My wife Youngna Park, who’s a web strategist and photographer, has been unbelievably helpful throughout this whole process, and when our test video went viral, she said, “We gotta get this up on Kickstarter and keep working on this.” She’s handled all of our social media outreach.

RS Where did you first hear the soundtrack that you used to film Girl Walk?

JK I was down in Miami photographing the art fairs right after it came out, in 2010. And about a third of the way through, during this Portishead and Big Boi mash-up, I thought, this is totally the soundtrack to use for that project that I’ve been thinking about on and off over the last few years.

RS I’ve been listening to the mash-up compulsively since I saw your film. But who is Girl Talk anyway?

JK Girl Talk is a Pittsburgh-based DJ named Gregg Gilles. He’s a major figure in the Fair Use debate. He has released three albums of mash-up music. This one is the most polished and the most complicated. It was released for free and only available online, for free, through the Creative Commons license. The mash-up contains 373 unlicensed samples.

I listened to it an insane amount for months, while writing, sharing ideas with the dancers, watching them dance. I met Anne and John the same day [when I was auditioning for a commercial I was shooting] and they had collaborated before, and Anne and Dai were dating at the beginning of the film.

RS So she rejects him in real life, and in the film!

JK Eh, I’ll leave it there.

RS How did you write the script to go along with the music?

JK It was a highly collaborative project. We started with a script that I wrote, which was very specific to beats and melodies. The writing process was listening to it a zillion times, while riding my bike, and then trying to come up with an overall arc, a set of relationships between characters. I’d never written a script before.

Either the way the beats made me feel, or the way the lyrical content guided certain movements in my mind, or something about the general emotion of the melody would guide my imagination to pull us along the storyline. And I’d share my thoughts regularly with the dancers and get feedback. Some portions of the music were incredibly difficult for me to figure out—some of the music is uninspiring, or repetitive, or harsh—including the very beginning. And I thought, we really have to step up the narrative at these moments.

Creep, played by John Doyle, moves haltingly to a staccato rhythm.

RS It looks like you improvised quite a bit while filming.

JK The script was about thirty pages long. And it responded to very precise shifts in the music, so it was scripted to the second. But as we filmed, it would get massaged, or rearranged, according to what happens in the street, or a new character who appears. And we would have to stop and think, does this affect continuity, or require an outfit changed? I’m still, now, utterly astonished that it worked. John, Anne and I have had an incredible amount of time communicating about the characters—what kinds of movements reveal which emotions. It was very collaborative.

RS So, what’s next?

JK Everybody’s asking me that. I’m in the hole from making this film. So, I’m freelancing again.

RS Girl Walk // Buenos Aires? Girl Walk // Tokyo?

JK Yes, I want to make another one. But it’s absolutely got to bring in some money this time.

To see Girl Walk in full, please click here.

Rachel Signer is a Brooklyn-based writer, focused primarily on nonfiction. Her reportage, essays, and memoir have appeared in the n+1 “Occupy!” gazettes and in magazines like Killing the Buddha and Guernica, and she has reported on Occupy Wall Street for The Nation. Rachel is a frequent contributor to Dowser.org, a website about social entrepreneurship. Currently, she is working on a memoir about doing cultural anthropology research in seven different countries.