LOCKED OUT, LOOKING IN: The origin story behind Casimir Nozkowski’s ‘The Outside Story’ | PTFF

Luciano Marano
Posted 9/22/20

Based on true events.

No four words inspire more powerful feelings of equal parts anticipation and trepidation in a cineaste’s heart.

Adapting reality for movies has given us some of the …

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LOCKED OUT, LOOKING IN: The origin story behind Casimir Nozkowski’s ‘The Outside Story’ | PTFF


Based on true events.

No four words inspire more powerful feelings of equal parts anticipation and trepidation in a cineaste’s heart.

Adapting reality for movies has given us some of the very best offerings in the history of the silver screen, and also been a label used to prop up much middling fare. It’s a badge of honor. It’s a lure. But it’s also undeniably interesting.

Casimir Nozkowski has long mined his own experiences for stories at which to point a camera, and although the award-winning filmmaker’s work has been featured on “The Tonight Show,” MSNBC, PBS, AMC, IFC, and NPR, written about in The New York Times and shown at the Museum of Modern Art, he had yet to helm a full feature.

Then one magical day, he got locked out of his apartment.

“That disruption was really like a slap in the face,” he recalled. “Why aren’t you getting to know your neighbors? Why aren’t you paying attention to the world around you? Why are you taking it for granted?”

All questions Nozkowski hopes to answer, or at least pose, in his first feature film “The Outside Story,” streaming as part of this year’s Port Townsend Film Festival.

It’s a dramatic comedy about a depressed man named Charles (played by Brian Tyree Henry, of “Atlanta” fame) who, in the wake of a breakup, finds himself locked out of his Brooklyn apartment with no shoes, no wallet, a dying phone, and no relationship to speak of with his neighbors.

His increasingly complicated quest to get back inside acquaints the guy with a cavalcade of eccentric Brooklynites, including a swinging upstairs neighbor, a strict parking enforcement officer, the kindly widow next door, and a budding piano prodigy. His zany encounters with his neighbors prompt Charles to reevaluate his life and regret the abrupt end of his relationship.

“It’s the experience I wanted to speak to with this feature; you really can kind of miss out if you don’t pay attention to the details around you,” the director said. “It’s kind of the Ferris Bueller philosophy, to stop and smell the roses.”

That being said, the film is short on schmaltz.

“The thing I was trying to avoid was being sentimental,” Nozkowski said. “I want the film to be about appreciating what’s around you, but I didn’t want to make it like all your neighbors are all wonderful, happy people and that’s why you’re not happy, because you’re not playing with them outside. No, they’re a mixed bag. They’re complex … everyone is complex, but everyone really has something to offer.”

Ironically, as personal as the film’s premise began, the idea of a man trying desperately to get back inside and away from a hostile and potentially dangerous world has only become more relatable, a revelation still giving the director mixed feelings.

“It’s a guy who is desperate to get back inside, so it’s both an echo of our experience and a reverse echo of our experience,” he said. “But I think his quest to get back inside is also about appreciating and finding the beauty and value of the everyday life that’s around him. I think there’s some really interesting parallels to the experience of the pandemic.

“It’s so amazing that it’s so timely in a way that I would never in a million years have expected it to be,” he added. “Obviously, I wanted it to be a film about appreciating the world right around you and appreciating your block, your neighborhood, your community and how easy it is, how human nature instructs us to not appreciate those things. We get used to things so quickly … Now the outside world is such a commodity. The ability to go outside without feeling anxious, without being worried, is so rare right now because everyone has this kind of heightened worried feeling.”

“The Outside Story” was praised by the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, especially Henry, who, in his first on-screen leading role, heads a cast which includes Sonequa Martin-Green (of “The Walking Dead,” “Star Trek: Discovery” and the slated “Space Jam” sequel), Asia Kate Dillon (“Orange is the New Black” and “Billions”), Sunita Mani (“Mr. Robot” and “GLOW”) and Olivia Edward (“Better Things”), among others.

“Filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski’s feature debut is self-assured with a script that is both hilarious and heartfelt, perfectly capturing city life,” officials wrote. “Henry is marvelously adept at physical humor, observational comedy, and moments of quiet reflection.”

A love of New York, where he has lived all his life, runs through Nozkowski’s work.

“A lot of my films look at New York and different corners of New York and you can also live in New York, and I say this from experience, you can live in New York City all your life, be someone who likes to explore and investigate, make films, document your experience, and you still won’t have really understood most of New York City,” he said. “There’s just so much to it. On top of that you’re also just living your life and forget the kind of interesting things that are happening around you and all the real life that’s happening around you.”

For a movie about a man trying to stay home, the film’s first public screening was held at an incongruously public place, one of the few business ventures that has seen a boost during the pandemic.

“I have loved how drive-ins have become this critical feature in a lot of film festivals,” Nozkowski said. “New York City hasn’t had a drive-in for 30 years, 50 years, whatever it is — not in my lifetime — and all of a sudden now, drive-ins are this huge feature and it really did this beautiful thing where all of a sudden people could see it on the big screen but you’re not stressed out about catching COVID because you’re in your car.”

The director said that glad as he is to live in an era when streaming is such a viable option, there is something irreplaceable about the true theatrical experience.

“My film, which is about kind of a small story, I love how it looks on the big screen,” he said. “I love the conflict of this very tight, small little problem that my main character has that kind of slowly blossoms into larger and larger issues, that looks so beautiful and it’s so powerful — I think; just one man’s opinion, biased — but it looks so great on the big screen.

“I’m curious to see how people will respond to a totally virtual experience,”  Nozkowski added. “I think for a lot of people that means they’re watching on their laptop and I bet you there are a lot of people watching it on their phone. And I’m no snob — however you want to watch my film I’m all for it; it’s totally cool — but definitely the smaller you make it the more the experience degrades, it’s just kind of a fact.”

That being said, nobody seems too upset about being forced to adapt.

“I’m not hearing a lot of complaints and anger about ‘How dare you not do the theatrical experience!’ I do think people are adjusting their expectations,” Nozkowski said.

Regardless, Nozkowski expects festivals — in-person, digital, or a mix of both — to remain a part of the entertainment landscape for a very long time.

“I’m so happy to be a part of [the PT festival],” he said. “I do think that film festivals are such a necessary part of the film industry and such a necessary part of the filmgoing experience. That act of discovering new films, I think, is so important. The film festival is such a beautiful method of having that experience of discovery that I think a lot of audiences really love.”