Tribeca Film Festival – LEYLAK Director Scott Aharoni “Filming during the pandemic was a whole new experience for us”

We caught up with Director Scott Aharoni to talk about his film LEYLAK and it’s selection at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.

LEYLAK was directed by Scott Aharoni and Dennis Latos, and was filmed during the pandemic. The film shares the struggles that frontline workers were going through at that time. This live action short film has been selected to world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

In present day Queens, New York, a Turkish gravedigger is unable to face a shattering truth, and risks losing the dearest connection left in his life. 

Just three days after the New York Times prepared a powerful front page marking a somber and surreal milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States, the directors were sent the first draft of Leylak. Out of those 100,000 deaths, nearly 25% were derived from New York, the epicenter of the crisis. No cemeteries were available when the movie was shot. To catch the zeitgeist of our time, they found an empty field at Upstate, New York and personally dug the 61 holes to create our own cemetery. 

Scott Aharoni & Dennis Latos are a directing duo based out of New York. The DUO have produced a diversified slate of ad campaigns for international brands and have produced several award winning films that have garnered international success under their budding production company, DUO Entertainment. Scott & Dennis were also recently featured on New York’s CBS News Small Business Spotlight to discuss the growth of their production company, and their upcoming projects and goals in the industry. 

What was it like filming during the pandemic?

Filming during the pandemic was a whole new experience for us. New protocols, new safety measures, and our number one priority was making sure everyone felt safe and excited to work. We were one of the very first productions in New York since the lockdown had begun. We prepared as much as we could before our shoot, and constantly adapted to this new world during it as well. One of our biggest challenges on the shoot was working in our apartment location – small and not much ventilation. Simply, it was a small place for a large crew with equipment. We constantly had to rotate departments to work on the scene, all the meanwhile staying on a very tight schedule. Typically everyone is working at once, but we had to do things differently and create social distancing throughout so everyone felt safe and comfortable. 

We were one of the very first productions in New York since the lockdown had begun.

What inspired you to create Leylak?

I had reached out to Mustafa very early on in the New York lockdown expressing my desire to produce a film that took place during the time in which we were currently living in – the COVID 19 Pandemic. However, with that intention, Mustafa and I agreed that we didn’t want to make a film that was simply about the pandemic. We wanted to make a film about grief, loss, and the power of familial relationships. We wanted to place our characters in a world where they existed at the height of the pandemic in New York. This naturally intensified our subject matter and our intent to tell a story between a father and daughter. We didn’t want the film to remain relevant for this year, or the next, but for many years to come – to remind us all that through loss and hardship, there will always be light at the end of the tunnel. And with that intense task, Mustafa had sent the first draft of Leylak on the 61st day of the New York state lockdown.

We wanted to make a film about grief, loss, and the power of familial relationships

How would you describe the film to someone who hasn’t seen it before?

At its very core, Leylak is a film that takes place over a 24 hour period that allows our audiences to take a deeper look into a father and daughter relationship during a very trying time in their lives. 

You dug most of the graves in the film, how long did it take you?

Creating the cemetery was one of our biggest challenges! We weren’t able to get access to real cemeteries because they were unfortunately overflooded with real burials. And, then whatever access to land we had nearby, was either too small to create something realistic, or wouldn’t allow us to create the amount of holes we wanted. We needed to capture the zeitgeist of our time. It was either we got what we needed, or we wouldn’t shoot the film at all. We were so close to actually calling off the shoot because of this one integral location. Then we finally had the idea of going upstate. We shot one of our other films in Windham, a few years back at a friend’s house so we reached out to them and asked them the million dollar question, “Hey, would you mind if we take over a plot of your backyard and dig up 61 holes to create a cemetery and bring a cast and crew of close to 50 people with us to shoot a scene for our film?” Well, our question was answered with an astounding, “No problem!” A month or so later, we traveled upstate for 2 hours, rented out some heavy duty machinery, got two operators for the machines, and for the next 48 hours, we dug the holes, designed the land, and put up fencing with our production designer, Anna Driftmier. It was at peak summer time too, so it was hot, but as a team, we got it done, and boy oh boy, was it worth it. We knew it was worth it when we finished up on the second day, and it was around 8pm at night, and the sun was setting, and we looked out to our cemetery and the somberness and the eeriness swarmed us. 

Creating the cemetery was one of our biggest challenges!

Congratulations on getting into Tribeca, this is such a wonderful festival. What does it mean to you having your premiere in your home town?

Being a New Yorker and World Premiering our film in our home town at one of the most prestigious festivals in the world after attending the festival for years and dreaming to have one of our films screened there one day, is absolute honor, privilege, and a dream come true. It is also really awesome that our family and friends can actually attend the festival and enjoy the experience with us since it’s in New York which is a blessing in it of itself. 

Being a New Yorker and World Premiering our film in our home town at one of the most prestigious festivals in the world after attending the festival for years and dreaming to have one of our films screened there one day, is absolute honor, privilege, and a dream come true.

How do you collaborate with directing?

Collaborating with directing is such an interesting balance of respect, honesty, and transparency. Executing visions from two different brains, and ultimately having to find the balance of one is not for everyone. However, when you trust the other person you collaborate with, and you create your own silent system of how you execute from directing the camera to directing actors, a symbiotic relationship is possible. Also, having someone by your side to celebrate the ups, and be there with you through the downs, is what creates a stronger bond between both collaborators.

Do you personally know any frontline workers who suffered during the height of the pandemic?

A lot of my friends are actually nurses and suffered from emotional turmoil and working overtime day in and day out. The stories I would hear are bone tingling and helped play a major role in creating the zeitgeist for this film. I actually held a little viewing of the film for my friends who worked on the frontline in my house soon after we had wrapped the post work up. I used them as a test audience. Their responses, reactions, and emotions that were expressed as the movie came to end, filled my heart.  

A lot of my friends are actually nurses and suffered from emotional turmoil and working overtime day in and day out.

What was it like living in NY during the pandemic? 

It was super eerie. Manhattan was dead. No one was on the road. Traffic disappeared. I started seeing stores that have been around for years shut down. Everyone was depressed and phone calls and zooms just opened the door further to seeing how dark the times had gotten for others as well. Lines of people circled massive supermarkets. I had to wait in line for an hour just to get into Costco. It was wild. New York lost its sparkle. However, it’s coming back each and every day. 

It was super eerie. Manhattan was dead.

What advice would you give to filmmakers just starting out? 

Never give up. Don’t let rejection pull you down, only let it make you want to work harder. Don’t be afraid to set high goals for yourself. Let it drive you. Let it inspire you. Never have doubt you won’t “make it” in this industry. Doubt is only removed by action. So, if you are not working at it tirelessly, then that’s where the doubt settles in and will succumb you and prevent you from being successful. Every single day do something to progress your career forward – such as writing an email or even watching and studying a movie. With every step backwards, take two steps forwards. Constantly strategize, constantly network, and constantly reassure yourself that anything is possible. 

Never give up. Don’t let rejection pull you down, only let it make you want to work harder.

How do we keep in touch with your work? 

You can follow me on instagram @scottaharoni or check me out on IMdB and you can also keep in touch from our website duoent.com

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