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Very Vérité

Movie director and alumnus Robert Pulcini wins an Emmy for Cinema Verite—the newest feather in a cap festooned with memorable films starring famous actors.

Movie Director Robert Pulcini
Alumnus Robert Pulcini has codirected the movies Cinema Verite, The Extra Man, The Nanny Diaries, and his breakthrough film, American Splendor. His newest film, Imogene, starring Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, and Kristen Wiig, will be released this year. Photography by John Emerson

Hope Davis, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Scarlett Johansson, Kevin Kline, and James Gandolfini RC’83: it’s a who’s who of actors with whom Robert Pulcini has worked as director of the movies Cinema Verite, The Extra Man, The Nanny Diaries, and his breakthrough film, American Splendor. His latest, Cinema Verite, garnered raves for its dramatic behind-the-scenes look at the making of the PBS series An American Family, a 1973 documentary considered the forerunner of the reality TV craze. Cinema Verite was up for nine Emmys; Pulcini CCAS’89 won one for editing. Rutgers Magazine caught up with him while he was editing his next film, Imogene, starring Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, and Kristen Wiig.
— Allan Hoffman

Rutgers Magazine: Cinema Verite is a film about the Loud family and the making of An American Family, but it’s also a film about filmmaking. Viewers usually never see editing equipment and cameras.

Robert Pulcini: We wanted to create this feeling that Pat Loud was always being watched and manipulated. We kept framing her with the Steenbeck—the editing machine. We used it as a window, as chapters in the story. But we also wanted to create this feeling of paranoia about “How much am I being manipulated and watched?”

RM: You collaborate with your wife and codirector, Shari Springer Berman. How does that work?

RP: I tend to focus more on the camera and the visuals; Shari tends to work more with the actors. Obviously, we cross paths all the time.

RM: You have worked with so many talented actors. How do you choose actors for roles?

RP: We come up with lists and start to imagine a person in the role. You’re not always right in your first reactions. Sometimes, you’re really shocked by what actors can do that they haven’t done yet. Somehow, the right person ends up in the role. When it works, it’s kind of magic.

RM: How did James Gandolfini RC’83 get the role of Craig Gilbert, the producer of An American Family?

RP: HBO had its own casting department, and we were talking. He suddenly occurred to me because the character was written in a certain way: he was a New Yorker and he was a little rough around the edges. So I just threw it out there: “What do you think of James Gandolfini?” I had seen him in the play God of Carnage, and he was incredible. In The Sopranos, he had played this iconic role, which is always hard to get away from, and he seemed to be capable of so much more. So, there was silence, and then they said: “We love it.”

RM: In the fall, you were at an intense stage with your current project, Imogene.

RP: I was editing. It was my 10-week director’s-cut phase, which is always the best part of filmmaking because everybody leaves you alone.

RM: Is it unusual for a director to do the editing?

RP: It is. Every director is super involved in the process, and some directors basically edit without touching the machine. I like touching the machine. I like sitting down and doing it myself rather than communicating verbally.

RM: When you were at Rutgers–Camden, you took writing classes and workshops with the novelist Lisa Zeidner, a professor in the English department. Have those helped you as a filmmaker?

RP: Yes, definitely. With the workshops, I felt like a veteran when I got to grad school. I studied a variety of writing styles at Rutgers. I studied poetry with Lisa, and she really taught me the value of an original image, and that really carries over into film. She was a stickler for originality and avoiding clichés.

RM: Did you always think you would be a writer or filmmaker?

RP: When I was starting at Rutgers, I had wanted to be a musician, and I’d kind of dropped out. Then I decided to go back to school, believing I was going to be a business major. I had an English teacher who basically told me I had to be an English major. He would hand out my paper every week, anonymously, to the class. I really didn’t know that I was a writer, that it was my thing, until I took that class. It really changed the direction of my life.