2018-02-28 / Features


Jan Oxenberg

Jan Oxenberg’s genre-busting “Thank You and Good Night” will be seen in a dazzling new 4K restoration by IndieCollect supervised by the filmmaker. The restoration will be unveiled at a special tribute screening on March 20 at the Museum of the Moving Image, when the Queens World Film Festival will honor Oxenberg with its Spirit of Queens award.

Oxenberg grew up in Bell Park Gardens in Bayside, where her neighbors included Richard Dreyfuss and Estelle Getty.

“Thank You and Good Night” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, and won immediate acclaim for its combination of narrative and documentary elements and for its imaginative use of cardboard cutout characters. Upon its theatrical release (by Aries Releasing) in New York City, it was named a Critics’ Choice by The New York Times.

Filmed over 12 years, “Thank You and Good Night” is an innovative blend of cinema verite, drama and comic surrealism, featuring cutout figures of the filmmaker and her grandmother, along with childlike manifestations of metaphysical transformations.

Oxenberg has been a writer-producer on multiple television dramas, including “Chicago Hope,” “Cold Case,” “Once and Again,” “Parenthood,” “Nothing Sacred,” “In Plain Sight,” and “Pretty Little Liars.” She pushes barriers in all her TV scripts, and is particularly known for several groundbreaking episodes.

Jan Oxenberg is the recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships for her film work.

QG: What influence did living in Queens have on your filmmaking?

JO: I grew up in “kids’ paradise”—the garden apartment development Bell Park Gardens, near Alley Pond Park. It was built for veterans from WWII I believe. We roamed in gangs of kids, everyone lived in nearly identical garden apartments, it was egalitarian, rebellious and fun. A spirit of kid anarchy reigned.

How did that affect my work? No idea. But it instilled a great sense of community in me. And I tell stories about community and connection.

QG: What are some favorite films that you’d recommend to our readers?

JO: Recent films? I loved “I, Tonya,” a great social satire. Tonya Harding isn’t a hero. But her life was much more complicated than we knew.

If you want something more obscure, the best film—made for British television—is Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective.” NOT the defective movie remake made here. The original. It’s been a big influence on my work.

QG: What are some of your favorite places in Queens?

JO: Wow. I am not current on Queens. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years, but some favorite places are the Museum of the Moving Image, of course! I worked on a show shot at the Silvercup Studios. And it starred Richard Dreyfuss, who is also from Bell Park Gardens. It was a CBS show, “The Education of Max Bickford” starring Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden. It was the first prime-time show to have a regular transgender character, by the way.

QG: What influence did the personal story of your grandmother’s survival of the Holocaust have on future generations of your family?

JO: My grandmother was not a Holocaust survivor in the sense of having been in a camp, or having to be hidden in Europe. Her family came here in 1900 from Poland. But any Jew who lived through the Holocaust was marked by it, of course. And many relatives back in Europe were never heard from again.

QG: “Thank You and Good Night” is listed as a documentary on family issues of elders, aging, and death—and also a “Comedy of a Woody Allen-ish Sort”—can you explain?

JO: It is a bittersweet comedy about saying goodbye, and asking the unanswerable questions that arise when you are losing someone you love. Everything from “Why Didn’t She Teach My Mother How To Cook?” to “Why Do People Have To Die Anyway?” It’s a movie about a family saying goodbye, and the humor comes from real life, we laugh as well as cry in the course of the most intense, profound moments in life.

QG: What led you to produce “Cold Case” and “Pretty Little Liars”? Any highlights about the experience you can share? Would you rather direct or produce, and what are your preferences?

JO: In television, writers are also producers of the show. So when it says I was Co- Executive Producer of “Cold Case,” for example, that means I was an upper level writer, who also oversaw the production of my episodes. I was a Consulting Producer on “Pretty Little Liars.” TV directors are the hired hands. It is the show’s writer-producers who supervise the set and the editing and the final product.

QG: Do you have any advice for beginner or aspiring filmmakers?

JO: Advice? The Writers Guild in Los Angeles and in New York has great educational programs featuring working writers, open to new and aspiring writers. Get a schedule and go! Keep writing. And write in your own voice. That’s what people want to see—your original voice.

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