Julien Nitzberg

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Julien Nitzberg (born 1965) is a US screenwriter, stage writer, lyricist, theater director and film director, best known in the film world as the director of the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. In the theater world, Nitzberg is best known for his controversial musical The Beastly Bombing or A Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love. Nitzberg wrote the book and lyrics and directed this musical in Los Angeles and New York. The Beastly Bombing won the LA Weekly Theater Award for Best Musical of the Year.

Early life[edit]

Nitzberg was born and raised in the Bronx.[1] His mother was an Austrian Holocaust survivor;[2] his maternal grandfather was conductor and composer Hans Knauer, who had studied under Franz Lehár and who had conducted the premiere of Lehar’s opera Eva before Austrian emperor Franz Josef.

As a child, Nitzberg spent three years living in Great Britain and Vienna. Upon returning to America, he attended the Horace Mann School in New York City.[3]

At age 16, Nitzberg became a founding member and guitarist of the notorious Lower East Side hardcore punk band Artless. They frequently played with Minor Threat, Swans, Flipper and other prominent punk bands. Mykel Board was their lead singer. Darryl Jenifer of the Bad Brains was Artless’ second guitarist. Nitzberg was known for antagonizing and getting into fights with skinhead members of the audience.[4] Artless' self-titled first album was produced by Dr. Know of the Bad Brains.[5] The band broke up when Nitzberg left New York City to attend Vassar College. He took one year off from college during which he drove a New York City yellow cab.

The Wild World of Hasil Adkins (1993)[edit]

After college, Nitzberg moved to the Appalachian Mountains, where he was hired at the media collective Appalshop Films. While working there he directed his first documentary The Wild World of Hasil Adkins, One Man Band And Inventor of the Hunch for PBS’ Headwaters TV Series.

Known for composing songs about decapitation, abnormal sex and commodity meats, Hasil Adkins created in the 1950s a bizarre original form of rockabilly, later dubbed “psychobilly” and was a major influence on punk bands including The Cramps who covered his song “She Said.” During the filming, Adkins suffered a nervous breakdown and threatened to “kill and kick” Nitzberg, delaying the film’s completion for over a year.[6] Nitzberg had to persevere through these death threats and other psychotic episodes from Adkins, in order to finally capture the life story of a performer known just as much for his drunkenness, unpredictability and frequent arrests as for his unique music.

During the filming of the Adkins documentary, Nitzberg encountered the legendary mountain dancing White Family, whom he documented in The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. He met Mamie White in 1989 while shooting an Adkins concerts; during the concert, a three-woman fight broke out which Mamie White broke up while tripping on acid. Mamie insisted that Nitzberg come meet her tap-dancing brother Jesco White at her birthday party where she promised Nitzberg that she would have a birthday cake with an image of woman’s breasts and genitals on it.[7]

He went to her rural trailer and was intrigued by the White family. He returned the following week to film the first footage of Jesco and Mamie White. This footage became the basis of the Emmy Award-winning documentary Dancing Outlaw, on which Nitzberg served as associate producer and sound man. This footage was later released as a bonus track on The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia DVD.

Bury Me in Kern County and Early Work in Hollywood[edit]

After finishing filming The Wild World of Hasil Adkins, Nitzberg moved to California to attend the MFA program of the California Institute of the Arts, studying under Alexander Mackendrick, director of The Ladykillers and Sweet Smell of Success. Nitzberg wrote and filmed his first feature film, Bury Me in Kern County, a “white trash black comedy” set in the mid-eighties, as part of his studies.[8] It featured the debut of Mary Lynn Rajskub; the soundtrack was produced by the Dust Brothers and included songs by The Muffs, Beck, C.C. DeVille, Dub Narcotic Sound System, The Upper Crust and Sukia (band). Bury Me in Kern County debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It was dubbed one of the “buzz films” of the festival by the Austin American-Statesman.[9] Godfrey Cheshire in Variety raved about the film calling it “an impressively assured and pro debut,” as well as declaring that “it’s reassuring that original, fiercely committed indie satires like this one are still emerging.”[10] Bury Me in Kern County toured the festival circuit, receiving acclaim at such varied festivals as Montreal, Palm Springs, New York Underground and Chicago Underground. Entering the world of Hollywood, Nitzberg became a successful screenwriter, writing for HBO, SHOWTIME, TNT, VH1 and NBC.[11]

The Beastly Bombing (2006)[edit]

In 2006, Nitzberg wrote the book and lyrics for the controversial musical The Beastly Bombing or A Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love, which he also directed. The music was written by composer Roger Neill, who also acted as co-producer and music director. The Beastly Bombing was inspired by such works of Gilbert and Sullivan as The Pirates of Penzance, Nitzberg decided to craft a plot revolving around lovable terrorists, portraying them in the same spirit as Gilbert and Sullivan’s lovable pirates. The Beastly Bombing told the story of two Al Qaeda terrorists who show up in New York to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Getting to the bridge they discover two Timothy McVeigh-inspired white supremacists who have shown up at the same time with the same plan. The terrorists despise each other at first but then, in song, eventually discover a mutual hatred of Jews and bond before being forced to disguise themselves as Hasidic Jews to escape capture by the police. On the run, they fall in love with two girls who turn out to be the president’s daughters who have escaped from rehab.[12]

The Beastly Bombing drew comparison to Mel Brooks and was dubbed by The Huffington Post: “the first great work of comedy to emerge from the post-9/11 little planet of horrors.” The play also had its detractors. Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Wicked and Godspell, called The Beastly Bombing “the most offensive and morally unredeemable musical I’ve ever heard.”[13]

The show became a sellout cult hit attracting celebrities including Diane von Furstenberg, John C. Reilly, Spike Jonze, Paul Reiser, Stephen Gaghan and Liev Schreiber.[14] At the prestigious LA Weekly Theater Awards, The Beastly Bombing won the Musical of the Year Award. After playing over a year in Los Angeles, The Beastly Bombing was staged in New York, Chicago and Amsterdam.[15]

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)[edit]

Nitzberg next directed the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia for Dickhouse Productions. This film was the first non-Jackass feature produced by Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine. Knoxville had been a fan of Nitzberg’s documentary about Hasil Adkins, and of The Beastly Bombing. Having seen Nitzberg’s early footage of Jesco White, Knoxville and Nitzberg convinced Nitzberg to return to West Virginia, in order to film a feature around the rest of the White family. Nitzberg spent eighteen months with the notorious family of Jesco White, documenting their history as dancers, criminals and the impact of the coal mining culture upon them. Shot cinéma vérité style, the film followed four generations of the White family as they flowed in and out of prison and scrambled to get by in rural West Virginia. The film also featured sequences featuring Jesco White tap dancing, accompanied by Hank Williams III.[16]

The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and was one of the first films distributed by Tribeca Film's distribution arm. It was an immediate success, knocking Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, from Amazon’s top video-on-demand spot. It also aired on Showtime.[17] Upon release, Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing proclaimed it “a masterpiece.”[18] Chris Morris in Variety said “Drinking, gas-huffing, drug dealing and drug-taking (and rehab), brawling, infidelity, armed robbery, attempted murder, incarceration and parole -- it's all here. The Whites make Faulkner's Snopeses look like the Royal Family.”[19] A.O. Scott in The New York Times reviewed it favorably, noting, “Its governing spirit, captured in the raucous music that punctuates the story (including songs performed live by Hank Williams III), is one of outlaw celebration. An anthology of country standards unfolds in real life and real time: murder ballads, cheating songs and rebel hollers, with an occasional pause for fatalistic spiritual meditation. One thing is certain, and is in a way the whole point of this fascinating and problematic documentary: The Whites don’t care what you or anyone else thinks of them.”[20]

Other Projects[edit]

In 2007, Nitzberg wrote the script Sputnik Monroe for HBO Films.[21] The script was based on his time spent with Monroe, a white professional wrestler who used his popularity to force sporting arenas throughout the South to integrate.

He also sold a pilot to HBO called The Tribe about “a family of contemporary Hasidic and secular Jewish criminals inspired by a number of weird true cases.” This was co-written with The Devil and Daniel Johnston director Jeff Feuerzeig.[22] Feuerzeig and Nitzberg also co-wrote God Bless Tiny Tim. This portrait of the singer and accidental cultural icon was developed for Johnny Depp’s company Infinitum Nihil.[23]

In 2011, Nitzberg sold a pilot to the USA Network based on This American Life contributor David Ellis Dickerson's memoir about working at Hallmark Greeting Cards. It was called House of Cards (no connection with the TV series starring Kevin Spacey).[24]

In 2012 Nitzberg directed the Ashton Kutcher-produced documentary Patton Oswalt: To Be Loved & Understood, which dealt with the struggles of comedian Patton Oswalt with depression, and how that struggle impacted his unique brand of comedy.[25]

Nitzberg has written for a number of magazines. He conducted the first ever interview with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, which was published in the Feral House book Technological Slavery.[26] He also has directed music videos for a number of bands including King Missile, Beat Happening, and Monotonix.[27][28]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Minds Behind the Beastly Bombing". 
  2. ^ Jaffee, Robert David (26 October 2006). "The Operatic Model of a Punk Rock Major Satire". 
  3. ^ "Horace Mann Magazine Fall/Winter 2010". 
  4. ^ "Get to Know Mr. Julien Nitzberg". 
  5. ^ "Albums by Artless". 
  6. ^ Cooper, Tracie. "The Wild World of Hasil Adkins (1993)". 
  7. ^ "The Big Jewcy: Julien Nitzberg, Film Director". 
  8. ^ "The Minds Behind the Beastly Bombing". 
  9. ^ Garcia, Chris (March 10, 1998). "Film Fest Deemed a Success Before Final Credits Roll". Austin-American Statesman. 
  10. ^ Cheshire, Godfrey (4 October 1998). "Bury Me in Kern County". Variety. Retrieved 23 March 2012. 
  11. ^ "The Minds Behind the Beastly Bombing". 
  12. ^ Stanley, Rod (December 2007). "The Bomb Squad". Dazed and Confused. Retrieved 23 March 2013. 
  13. ^ Simmons, Michael (4 October 2006). "The Most Offensive and Morally Unredeemable Musical I've Ever Heard". Huffington Post. 
  14. ^ Lord, M.G. (7 January 2007). "A Very Model of a Modern Meta-Musical". New York Times. 
  15. ^ "Performance History: The Beastly Bombing". 
  16. ^ Wissot, Lauren (June 2012). "Interview: Julien Nitzberg". Slant Magazine. 
  17. ^ "The Big Jewcy: Julien Nitzberg, Film Director". 
  18. ^ "The Wild and Wonderful Whites". 
  19. ^ Morris, Christopher (4 October 1998). "Wild and Wonderful Whites: Redneck Wonderland". Variety. Retrieved 23 March 2013. 
  20. ^ Scott, A.O. (4 October 2010). "From a Clan That Lives by Its Own Rules, a Tale Made for the Movies". New York Times. 
  21. ^ McClintock, Pamela (4 May 2007). "HBO Films taps Julien Nitzberg for "Sputnik Monroe"". Daily Variety. 
  22. ^ "The Big Jewcy: Julien Nitzberg, Film Director". 
  23. ^ "Jeff Feuerzeig- Director/Writer". 
  24. ^ "USA Network Upfronts Reveal Seven Dramas, Five Comedies and One Limited Series". 
  25. ^ "Short Documentary on Patton Oswalt". 
  26. ^ "Technological Slavery". 
  27. ^ "Beat Happening- Crashing Through". 
  28. ^ "Before I Pass Away- Insane Live Monotonix Video". 

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