- NEW YORK
Director Lance Oppenheim’s next project is his thesis film at Harvard. Yet unlike most students, he has already established a substantive foothold in the marketplace at large. For one, he enjoys a working relationship with a notable production company, Tool of North America, which represents him for commercials and branded content--plus, he’s had three documentary shorts make the grade at The New York Times’ Op-Docs. Begun by The New York Times' opinion section in 2011, Op-Docs is a series of short, interactive, and virtual reality documentaries. Each film is produced with wide creative latitude by both renowned and emerging filmmakers, and plays across Times online platforms. The goal of each Op-Doc is to present a unique point of view.
The latest of Oppenheim’s three Op-Docs, The Happiest Guy in the World, made its world premiere at the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival. Tool provided partial financing for the project and considerable support, according to Oppenheim.
The Happiest Guy is Mario Salcedo, who boarded his first cruise ship 20 years ago--and hasn’t returned since. Whereas cruising is an occasional, restful departure from reality for many, it has been an everyday reality for Salcedo. For the past two decades, he has been a full-time resident on Royal Caribbean Cruises, logging more than 7,300 nights at sea--and counting.
Through his grandparents who are avid cruisers, Oppenheim learned about Salcedo and other seniors on different lines who have adopted this oceanic lifestyle. Oppenheim was drawn to Salcedo’s story, which had been chronicled by reporters with such publications as The New York Times, Conde Nast and USA Today. However, Oppenheim wasn’t looking to capture what those publications had covered; rather, he sought to experience first-hand Salcedo’s daily life, bringing viewers along for the ride and as it turns out showing them a person different in key respects from what had been depicted in the news media.
According to Oppenheim, Salcedo was pleased with the final film. However he didn’t see it at Tribeca, declining an invitation to attend the festival screening. Oppenheim received an email in which Salcedo explained that he couldn’t come to Tribeca because he would be sailing every week this year, affirming that “I have to be floating on the ocean to survive.”
Home sweet home
This isn’t the first time Oppenheim has delved into the theme of home with people turning to alternate unconventional places and spaces in which to live. His first Op-Doc, Long Term Parking, also hit the festival circuit, playing at AFI DOCS 2017 in Washington, D.C., introducing audiences to those living in stationary mobile homes in the long-term parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
The theme of home--and what it means to people--has for some time held a fascination for Oppenheim who grew up during the financial meltdown spurred on by the collapse of the housing market. He saw his parents go from real estate attorneys to another specialty--foreclosure defense as they represented people who fought to keep their homes. “Your home is so personal. It got me to thinking about home today in 21st century America,” related Oppenheim. “Who and how and why do people choose not to live in traditional homes.”
The Happiest Guy in the World was one of five films screened at the Tribeca N.O.W. New York Times’ Op-Docs presentation, followed by a conversation featuring the filmmakers behind each short: Samantha Knowles (whose Op-Doc was The Blue Line), Sindha Agha (Birth Control Your Own Adventure), Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (Earthwise), Charlie Tyrell (My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes) and Oppenheim. The panel discussion was moderated by Kathleen Lingo, The New York Times’ Op-Docs executive producer.
Oppenheim felt a connection with the other filmmakers and found it gratifying to have The Happiest Guy in the World sandwiched smack dab in the middle of the screening order. Beyond gaining high-profile exposure for his documentary at Tribeca, Oppenheim noted, “It was amazing to be on a panel with other filmmakers whose films were in part inspired by the same question that my film was: What is the American dream today.”
For Oppenheim, Tool has been a dream come true. He met Oliver Fuselier, Tool’s managing partner, shortly after the release of Long Term Parking. The two struck up a rapport and Oppenheim found it remarkable that a company--with talent he long admired on its directorial roster, ranging from Marc Forster to Robert Richardson and Erich Joiner--would meaningfully commit to helping a young artist like him grow as a filmmaker. Oppenheim described a “family” feel at Tool with Fuselier and company founder Joiner offering him valuable feedback and tangible support for ideas and stories like The Happiest Guy in the World.
In-between Long Term Parking and The Happiest Guy in the World came Oppenheim’s other Op-Doc, No Jail Time: The Movie, which chronicled criminal defense attorneys who make tearjerker documentaries designed to influence the court into granting leniency for or generally rendering verdicts favorable to clients on trial,
Currently in his junior year at Harvard, Oppenheim studies in that Ivy League school’s informal film program--with past alumni including such directors as Darren Aronofsky and Damien Chazelle. “The program prides itself on its documentary roots and is always where I wanted to be,” said Oppenheim who’s hopeful that his short film fare will help translate into opportunities to direct spots and branded entertainment via Tool.