Success in an industry now pretty much reduced to producing moving pictures for people to watch on their phones involved taking on a bit of everything, THEO PANAYIDES is told
I’ve known Minos Papas slightly for years – mostly in the 90s when he worked at the Acropole, the Nicosia cinema owned by his parents. He was then in his very early 20s (he’s now 43), with slightly vague but nonetheless settled plans to become a film director, like his father Michael. “I knew I wanted to be in the film industry,” he recalls, speaking on Zoom from his home in Brooklyn. “I knew I couldn’t get to that in Cyprus”. The Acropole is no more – derelict for years, shuttered since the early 10s, the building was finally demolished two months ago – but Minos has been making movies in New York for the past two decades, most recently the recipient of a New York Emmy for producing Slow Down: River to River, a short film directed by his wife and creative partner Liz Sargent. “Minos is into Kubrick, Tarkovsky, soccer, death metal and kittens,” says his bio at the Internet Movie Database. Sounds relatable.
He shows me round the apartment, “a typical New York railroad apartment” – one long corridor of rooms, like a railroad carriage. The front room leads into the bedroom, then an office (he works from home) decked out with film equipment; he likes to have “the basics” – a computer and a state-of-the-art camera – readily to hand, though they’re not quite sufficient to shoot a movie, even in the digital age. There’s a poster on the wall from the Cannes festival, which he attended a couple of years ago with his short Tango on the Balcony. ‘So your short played Cannes?’ I ask – but he instantly clarifies (not everyone would) that it merely screened in the Short Film Market, a paid slot for filmmakers trying to hawk their wares.
We move into the kitchen, which has been “transformed into a mask-making station”. Liz – who joins us later – apparently has mad seamstress skills, and has been sewing handmade masks since the coronavirus hit a woefully unprepared city. One mask was a special order for her football-mad husband, adorned with the Tottenham Hotspur cockerel. Another, less light-hearted one reads BLM (Black Lives Matter), a reminder that Covid hasn’t been the only excitement on the streets of New York these past few weeks.
When it comes to politics, he’s exactly as you might expect from a youngish creative residing in Brooklyn (actually the Greenpoint neighbourhood on the northern tip of Brooklyn, where it shades into Queens): “I’m a big believer in socialism – democratic socialism – and the more I live here [in the US] the more I become that kind of person,” he tells me. He was radicalised – if that’s the word – years ago, right after film school (he graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York), when he was hired to shoot a film in Mississippi and was absolutely poleaxed by the poverty and segregation he saw there. Then again, radical politics in Greenpoint – described on Google as “a residential area with hipster appeal” – comes with caveats. He and Liz attended a protest recently, in McCarren Park down the road, and not only was it peaceful, it was also described as “a safe-social-distance protest”. Hundreds of people sat in a circle, many holding signs like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Defund the Police’ – but that’s all they did, “taking a knee and sitting in silence”, most of them following the organisers’ advice to wear masks and sit six feet apart. It was, he admits, quite a middle-class protest.
We’re not mocking, just being honest. This, after all, is how the world works, striking a compromise between people trying to do the right thing and people trying not to endanger themselves in the hardest-hit place on the planet (if New York state were a country, it would have a higher Covid-19 death rate than any other country in the world). Minos’ whole career, you might say, has been marked by that kind of honesty – a realistic sense of who he is, and how to balance his creative quest with the need to survive in the world. A hustler might’ve lied that his short did indeed play at Cannes, to make himself look good (would I really have checked?) – but hustlers eventually get rumbled, while honesty is always appreciated. You don’t spend 20 years in the biz unless people trust you, and are willing to work with you.
This is all he’s ever wanted to do, having grown up around his parents’ cinematic exploits and enormous home-video collection. “He said, ‘I’m either going to be a filmmaker or make umbrellas’,” says Liz, quoting Minos’ mother Susan on her son’s childhood dreams. (Umbrellas might’ve been a safer bet; but let’s not go there.) Yet the plan was never very concrete, and making it happen was a matter of being realistic – and just working hard – more than anything. “I got a directing gig as soon as I got out of film school,” he recalls. “Shooting two music videos on 35mm [film], it was kind of crazy.” Minos shrugs: “I shot them. They were never finished, they never got out. Y’know?”. Big breaks often turn out to be false starts. The notion of overnight success only exists in the movies.
Instead he started working as a camera assistant, meanwhile trying to attract his own clients as producer-director for hire; he set up a company called Cyprian Films, and took it from there. One of his first big clients was a real-estate media company, “they hired me to shoot 20 neighbourhoods in New York” (the point was to try and convey the essential flavour of each neighbourhood; it was quite artistic). Another big client was Oxfam, for whom he directed A Short Film About Guns in 2012, an eight-minute short about the international arms trade that won a prize at Tribeca. “In order to survive here, I kind of took every opportunity that came my way,” he admits – and that’s the point, he’s done everything: music videos, shorts, two feature films as director, various gigs as editor or cinematographer. “Everything legit, let’s put it that way.”
It’s not just Minos, it’s the business in general. Making a film, “what we’d recognise as a 90-minute movie” – as opposed to making a commercial, or a TV show, or a web series – doesn’t command the prestige it once did. It’s all just moving pictures for people to watch on their phones now. We talk about Sarah Cooper, the actress who’s gone viral through a series of short videos where she lip-syncs to Trump’s speeches (it’s very funny). Cooper has been signed by the William Morris Agency, one of the biggest in Hollywood – but she’s not a film actress in any traditional sense; the videos appeared on TikTok and Twitter.
In the end, it’s important to be honest about it. Having a career as an independent filmmaker is a bit like that safe-social-distance protest in McCarren Park: it can still be done – but you can’t be too reckless, nor expect other people to take risks for you. Being a purist is almost as unhelpful as being a hustler, when it comes to long-term success. “On the creative side, I wish I was just making films full-time,” sighs Minos. “But nobody does that anymore.” It was different in the old days, when his dad was growing up in a Cyprus where every village had its own cinema (film was prestigious then), building a homemade projector in his basement with a lamp and a mirror, dreaming of someday directing his own films and running his own cinema. Michael Papas did eventually fulfil both those dreams – though Minos recalls the struggles involved in running the Acropole, and gives only a rather perfunctory nod when I mention my affection for the old place. I suspect he may have tired of the project, especially seeing what it did to his parents; it was too impractical.
He does come across as a practical sort. It’s instructive seeing him next to Liz, who has her own complicated story (adopted, middle child of 11, background in dance and experimental theatre) and brings a different energy to the table – more sardonic, more turbulent. ‘Do you ever lose your temper when directing?’ I ask Minos, and he claims that he does get angry, “when I have to” – but his wife just smiles and shakes her head: “No. He thinks he does! He’s like the calmest, coolest guy”.
He appears to be a steadying force in the relationship, both professionally – as the seasoned veteran who’s “been doing this forever” – and even emotionally. Liz is more intense in general (“I’m not really good at moderating myself”), Minos is better at decompressing, and maintaining an art/life balance. She started making masks as a hobby, during lockdown, but plunged in so deep that she’s now thinking of turning it into a business. He, on the other hand, once joined a workshop for war veterans with PTSD (it was research for Tango on the Balcony, which involves one such veteran) and heard such awful stories he nearly fell into depression – but found a simple way of regaining his equilibrium: “My meditation was playing football”. What the Yanks call ‘soccer’ is one of his pastimes, and he’s also a regular at a couple of local drinking establishments. “We used to have this joke,” offers Liz – “and maybe this is what keeps us married – that I’m happy to be in Minos’ top five, and I respect that film, soccer, metal and cats all come before me!”. Speaking of which, there are currently two cats living in the house – Lula and Louki – and Saint Vitus Bar, one of New York’s premier death-metal venues, is just down the road.
One shouldn’t oversell the ‘regular guy’ persona, or allow the laddish hobbies to obscure the serious cineaste. Note, after all, that the couple’s courtship included watching The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick’s poetic masterpiece about love, faith and family – three times in the space of one week, then “just talking about it for hours and hours”. (Minos was living in a kind of commune at the time, sharing a big warehouse loft with nine other artists; talk about a classic bohemian love story.) Still, I suspect it all helps – playing football, hanging out with the “bar crowd” – if only on the basis that the best way to feel comfortable inside your head is knowing how to get out of it. Minos has an easy-going, unselfconscious vibe that must’ve come in handy during all these years of stubborn freelancing, playing it by ear, seeking little landmarks “that led to the next step, and the next step and the next step”.
Winning at Tribeca was one such landmark, and of course the recent Emmy is another. His first TV award, muses Minos, who doesn’t like television as a rule – then again, Slow Down: River to River isn’t most people’s idea of television (it’s licensed by a streaming platform called AllArts), an experimental documentary that ironically anticipates the lockdown by calling on viewers to slow down, “as an antidote to our rushed contemporary reality”. Recent events may have conspired to make the film (which I haven’t seen) both more and less relevant. The thought of stillness seems especially appealing now, given the combined conflagration of pandemic and protests – yet it also seems important to speed up, grasp the nettle, plunge into this dizzying reality. It’s a weird moment.
So much for the present; what about the future? “I don’t even know what to write about, really,” sighs Minos Papas, trying to adjust as he’s done for the past 20 years; how, after all, do you stage a film when no-one knows what the world’s going to look like next year? He does have a short coming out (shot in Cyprus and New York) called The Harvester Generation, “about a future where there’s a pandemic caused by plastic pollution” – a plausible scenario, just in case you wanted more bad news; micro-plastics are in our drinking water, and will surely start making people sick soon – and there’s also an eight-part commission coming up about visual artists in Brooklyn, people with lives much like his own. It’s a good life, or at least a coherent one: he set out to forge a career in a tricky business, and made a success of it – not a Hollywood-type success, then again that was never the idea. Kubrick, Tarkovsky, soccer, death metal and kittens. Who could ask for more?
MINOS PAPAS’ 10 FILMS OLD AND NEW “THAT I LOVE AND COULD WATCH AGAIN AND AGAIN”
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968)
THE MIRROR (Tarkovsky, 1975)
FAUST (Murnau, 1926)
THE RIDER (Zhao, 2017)
FIRE AT SEA (Rosi, 2016)
HONEYLAND (Kotevska & Stefanov, 2019)
THE ISLE (Kim Ki-Duk, 2000)
A HIDDEN LIFE (Malick, 2019)
THE CAPTAIN (Schwentke, 2017)
LA HAINE (Kassovitz, 1995)