Ray Tintori

Filmmaker

Interview: by Marc Santo

In 2007, Ray Tintori took his Wesleyan thesis film to Sundance and returned with a handful of business cards from Hollywood types looking to attach the then 23-year-old director to a feature. Though the offers were enough to raise an eyebrow, Ray ultimately deemed their “mercenary” proposals premature and declined. He released “Death to the Tinman,” his whip smart adaptation of an obscure L. Frank Baum novel on McSweeney’s DVD magazine, “Wholphin,” and spent the next couple years honing his craft directing music videos. 

Ray’s video for MGMT’s “Time to Pretend,” a lo-fi explosion of psychedelic imagery in 3D, picked up a couple MVPA awards and landed him on Partizan’s roster next to music video greats like Michel Gondry. At Partizan the budgets got bigger and the videos got weirder, and with that, more awards followed. His third MGMT video, “Kids,” caught the eye of Spike Jonze, who tapped Ray to direct a feature-length adaptation of the Shane Jones novel, “Light Boxes.” The on-again off-again adaptation was eventually scrapped, but a newer, top-secret project between the two has supposedly taken its place. 

In the next couple years, expect to hear a lot more about Ray. In addition to the Spike collaboration, Ray has been busy finishing up a feature length script for Paramount. There’s another collaboration with Benh Zeitlin, whom Ray co-wrote the award winning “Glory at Sea” with in the works as well. “You’ve caught me at a weird time,” explains Ray. “There’s so much about to drop, but I can’t give anything away. Everything I’ve done in the past has prepared me for what’s coming next. All my short films and videos set the foundation for these new projects, which are going to be really big...and really good.” 

MARC SANTO: How did you get involved in film? 

RAY TINOTRI: I went to LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, and for my senior show I made a short film presented with some of my drawings and sculptures. There was a guy there who was doing a Fulbright with Jan Svankmajer, and after he saw my film he asked me to work with him on one of his projects. I decided not to go to college right away and ended up moving to Prague when I was 17 years old to work with animators and Svankmajer’s people. I was working on a stop motion project and we built a cross section of a 747 in his apartment and all this other crazy stuff that I should have not been allowed to do at that age. The guy who I was working with had a copy of Guy Maddin’s “The Heart of the World,” and it blew me away. It was like hearing The Ramones for the first time because I immediately thought, “Oh, I can do this.” 

MARC: I first saw “Death to the Tin-man” when “Wholphin” released it, and I remember being completely blown away. Did that film’s success at Sundance lead to your video work? 

RAY: I made “Death to the Tin-man” as my thesis film in college. It was an adaptation of a book from the “Oz” series that nobody really knows. Most people don’t like it very much because Baum wrote it when he was very sick, and the story drops off at a certain point. It didn’t get an overwhelming reaction at school, but it did do fairly well at Sundance. After college I tried to get a job in New York, which went nowhere, and the thought of interning somewhere just seemed stupid. My friend Benh Zeitlin was in New Orleans trying to make his film, “Glory at Sea,” so I decided to act like I had a trust fund by getting a bunch of credit cards and moved down there to work on his movie. I was super broke and basically living in a squat house when it got in to Sundance. Around the same time, Andrew and Ben from MGMT got signed to Columbia Records. I’d known them at Wesleyan and we always talked about doing a video together. I had a façade of legitimacy because of Sundance and the budget was so low the label agreed to let me direct. I was someone the band trusted and I wanted to make sure their project got translated accurately to the public. The album wasn’t recorded yet, so I went upstate to Dave Fridmann’s studio. Dave produced Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips so just being up there was mind blowing. I bought a green tablecloth at Kmart, and when Dave left for the night I’d shoot a bunch of green screen stuff that ended up in the “Electric Feel” video. 

MARC: At what point did Spike Jonze approach you about a feature? 

RAY: Spike liked the “Kids” video and started digging around to find my other work. I had reached the end of what I wanted to do with music videos and it was hard for me to get excited about them. He originally contacted me to do an adaptation of a book called “Light Boxes,” but after we met in person we transitioned to working on a feature that I’m currently writing. 

MARC: There’s been a lull between your videos and now. I’m curious to know what you’re working on and why there hasn’t been a feature yet? 

RAY: I’m writing a script for Paramount and another personal script, which I’ve been working on for about five years now. When “Death to the Tinman” went to Sundance, I was 23 years old and all of the sudden I had industry people trying to get me on a feature within six months. I was a real filmmaker to them, but I really only made my film and worked on a couple of my friends’ movies. I didn’t want to take a job knowing I’d be the youngest and least experienced person on set. I have friends that hit on movies that were too big for them and ended up getting their movies taken away from them, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. The music videos have been good practice and I feel like I’m getting to the point where I can actually do it. If I had a story to tell that was a Mumblecore film that could be shot in my friend’s apartment, I might have done it, but what I make are cathartic adventure films. I want to make populist films that are action packed and subversive, and unfortunately, big and expensive to produce.

Ray Tintori's NYC


photo: James Kendi
  • “I grew up across the street from the Brooklyn Museum, and instead of going to summer camp every summer, I would go across the street and take their exceptional art classes for kids. If you go in the back by the elevators and take a left, you’ll come to area that looks like you’re not supposed to be there, but it’s actually totally OK. This is where you’ll find the children’s art show. It’s not cutesy or pretentious. It’s solid work done by 7-9 year olds.”
  • “The ferry is free, and in August, if you don’t have air conditioning and it’s miserably hot and humid, you can go ride the ferry back and forth from Manhattan to Staten Island all night. There’s a really strong breeze and you can sit outside and drink.”
  • “This is a small walk-down establishment on Houston Street that caters primarily to cab drivers. You can get a variety of amazing Indian dishes on rice and a samosa for $2.75, 24 hours a day. You can also buy Indian pop music and motor oil.”
  • “This is my favorite art house theater in the city, and growing up in Brooklyn, I always went to BAM on school trips. When I was 11 years old, I saw ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ in the opera house with a full orchestra playing the score, which was probably the most intense film-going experience of my life. My favorite thing about this theater is that they have an excellent revival series, often with really amazing Q&As. The one that I always remember was Serpico. It said on the calendar ‘Serpico: Q&A with Frank Serpico.’ I just loved that!”
  • “The Ziegfeld is a beautifully ornate old movie theater with a giant screen. I saw ‘Edward Scissorhands’ there when I was eight years old, and the opening sequence, flying through the old mansion, changed my life. They have a lot of movie premieres there and I was lucky enough to go to the one for ‘There Will Be Blood.’ Paul Thomas Anderson came out and announced he had jacked the sound system up to its loudest possible setting. It was a similarly revelatory experience.”
  • “The Ghostbusters fire station is a must-see. I never had the toy firehouse when I was a kid. I had one made from cardboard that my mother made me, but if you grew up in the ’80s you probably had a friend who had this toy. It’s the only real house in America I can think of that’s had a toy made after it, but seeing it in person is otherworldly.”
  • “The Mid-Manhattan Library is catty-corner to the main branch with the lions in front of it. Here you’ll find the picture collection, which is a huge floor full of folders with hundreds of pictures in them. The folders are organized by topics that range from war to dragons. It’s easy to spend hours here, and you can create your own folders and take them home with you. I get a lot of reference images from here that I wouldn’t find on Google or Tumblr.”
  • “Sau Voi is a place I highly recommend. It’s a divey little Banh Mi shop that also sells cool pop CDs and cigarettes, which I always like at restaurants. Their Banh Mi isn’t as elaborate or meaty as some others, but they’re the tastiest and, for my money, the best in the city. The ladies who work there are very nice and I always order the #1.”

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