CURTIS is a documentary that follows the final three years in the life of Curtis Wheeler, an African-American artist battling AIDS. Curtis lives at Rivington House, a health care facility for AIDS patients on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. While he appreciates the care he receives at Rivington, Curtis dreams of returning home to his 17-room mansion in the historic area of Washington Heights, to live an independent life and continue to paint.
The film follows Curtis at Rivington House for two years as his disease progresses to the point where he becomes legally blind and must undergo dialysis three times a week due to kidney failure. Despite all these physical trials, Curtis returns home and paints again. But nothing about him is ordinary. What he paints are angels in the style of the Italian Renaissance masters on the walls, ceiling, and floor of his living room.
Curtis relates with great humor and humanity how AIDS has affected his life physically and spiritually. We cannot but marvel at the courage of this man as he acknowledges his family’s roots, the importance of sharing his home with others, the healing impact of art, and its lasting triumph over death.
Jacob Okada graduated in 2002 from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts with a B.F.A. in film production. He received the Warner Bros. Pictures Production Award for his documentary, CURTIS. He was also awarded NYU's Russell Hexter Filmmaker Grant, in recognition by his peers for artistic merit and collaborative spirit. Jacob recently worked as an associate editor on NEW YEAR BABY, which won the Amnesty International Movies That Matter award. Jacob is currently writing a screenplay for a feature film as well as helping his friends on their projects.
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What inspired you to make this piece?
I was inspired by Curtis Wheeler's energy in the face of death, his will to create art, and his sense of humor. Curtis was once likened to an army general. The way he marshaled his resources to work on our
movie supports this statement.
I began working on CURTIS as a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. I quickly realized that filming Curtis's story was more dramatic and meaningful than anything I could write in a screenplay.
Briefly tell us how you made your film or video: what camera and format did you use to shoot your piece, and what system did you use to edit it? What is your working process? Did you use any special techniques to make this work?
Curtis was shot with a Canon XL-1 and edited with Final Cut Pro. Video cameras come in and out of vogue, so I feel the particular camera is irrelevant. One makes an aesthetic concession by shooting on
DV but gains time and money in the bargain.
Do you have any interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the making of this particular work?
Curtis was my first serious project. I began working on it in 2000 and finished one year after graduation in 2003. I could not have completed it without the help of my editor, Alex Berger, and various mentors who gave their advice and wisdom along the way, including Sam Pollard, George Stoney, and in particular, my editor Jean Tsien. The sound designer Anne Pope also did a wonderful job, as did the pianist Tim Mueller.
What is the relationship between your work as a video/filmmaker and life in the New York metropolitan area?
I freelance all year round. I have never had a nine-to-five job. This has afforded me the time and opportunity to work on many wonderful projects, both in documentary and fiction. Of course as a freelancer I am constantly looking for the next job, and the pressure can be difficult. However, I have learned to shamelessly self-promote my skills as an editor, DP, writer and soon-to-be feature film director!
What films/videos and makers have inspired you or influenced your work? And why?
My parents gave me the middle name Akira because of their love of Akira Kurosawa. I also love Bergman, Ophuls, Spielberg and countless others; there are literally too many to mention.
If viewers are interested in obtaining copies of your work for rental or purchase, whom should they contact and at what address and phone number?
I encourage you to email me at JacobOkada1@gmail.com