NJ Discover Spotlight: The Bright Light of KEITH ARMONAITIS: Writer, Actor, Comedian, Filmmaker, IT, Jersey Guy, Rutgers Grad. By Calvin Schwartz February 1, 2019
What a special interview with Keith Armonaitis. Chemistry. Connectivity. Fascination. Synchronicity, History. We started Sunday morning. The sun had long set when goodbyes were deposited. Where do I begin? I need to go quirky, irreverent, with a definitive stream of consciousness which mirror images our time together. A few hours into the interview, I quipped to Keith, “I’m doing injustice, you need a novella written about you.” He was modest, low key with an effervescent brilliance and incandescence. Several times, he mentioned being bullied throughout his school years, “I was a smart kid, a geek; everyone knew it including me, so I was bullied, but you get used to it.”
Before going on, I need to mention that Keith has three short films showing in the Garden State Film Festival, March 27th through March 31st, 2019. (GSFF.org) Our first few hours, we were all over the place, downstream, streams of consciousness, no organization to thoughts, just exuberance in finally sitting down together after several years of planning. When I demonstrated an imaginary fishing rod, about to reel him in to get substantive and chronological, Keith prepared his computer for viewing his short film, ‘Be Home Soon.’ “You need to see this before we go on. Grab headphones.”
Then I drifted into a new world of ‘Be Home Soon.’ The viewing was riveting, cerebral, foreboding, ominous, haunting. The music, composed by an arriving, accomplished Jesper Ankarfeldt, actually became like a character in the film. The only other character is played by brilliant Heather Brittain O’Scanlon. Borrowing a line from a dessert company, just seeing this short film is worth the trip. Analytically, there are some contemporary gender considerations and aspects to make you think. Thinking is good. The filmmaking/story telling- magical in its detail, imagery and messaging.
Keith wanted Jesper to do the music. “He told me that he was swamped with work at a large studio…. I asked him if I could just send the script. It was eight pages…. He got back to me saying, I need to do this, to work these feelings out.”
Keith said to Heather, “It’s yours but I want to be there when you read the script. So, we met at a coffee shop,” A few quiet seconds, then, “I had faith it would all come together even though I had no money.”
A lot of reasons for me to anticipate Keith’s interview. During the summer, he enlisted me on a Facebook project, listing movies which influenced me, one a day for ten days. As soon as we sat down officially, I mentioned, jokingly, that, “We have a failure to communicate.” He laughed, knowing that ‘Cool Hand Luke’ was one of his favorites. Then I said, “I could’ve been a contender.” A line from ‘On the Waterfront.’ He smiled coyly, “My father saw them filming the movie.” Keith mentioned a scene when Eva Marie Saint drops a glove accidently. “Marlon Brando picks it up. Then he ad libs. Elia Kazan, the great director, allows them to ad lib to an extent.” As a director, Keith agreed with the technique when actors creatively ad lib, as long as they don’t drive the story off track.
Keith and I are both Rutgers alums; part of our special bonding. “The year I started Rutgers, 1986, AIDS hit. Therefore, no sex or at least it was difficult. James Callahan drank himself to death on campus. Tough times to be on campus.” A few moments of deep thought for the both of us. “I always wanted to go to Yale Acting or Rutgers Mason Gross. My parents couldn’t afford Yale. My father rode me. What if I don’t get into Rutgers? My smartass response, “I’ll join the Air Force.” He brought me an application that weekend when he returned from McGuire Air Force Base. I had to audition for Mason Gross. 1500 kids auditioned for 30 spots. I got in. When my father finally saw me act, he said I did the right thing.” Keith wrote plays and directed. Sophomore year he left Mason Gross and transferred to Cook campus for economics. Third and fourth year he was on Livingston campus. “The only place with housing and a Theater Arts Major.”
I asked about his father; always wanting to compare notes about my father; an ongoing project. “It was hard for him to express the love…. Once he called me and told me there were a lot of cops on the road…. It was a way for him to show love…. When he was dying from cancer, he told me, “I wasn’t a good father.” I told him you did your best and I know you loved me.” Keith’s eyes filled with moisture. I got up for more coffee.
Keith added, “Love is more powerful than hate. In order to love you have to expose yourself.” His father was a professional bowler, Air Force Sergeant, Union train engineer. After his passing, Keith heard all these stories about him that he didn’t know. “What I did hear was that he always stuck-up for you…. He was a protector of people.”
“When did you want to become an actor?” “Going back to grade school…. I was a geek, smart, always reading a book so I got my ass kicked…. My father told me that a stronger man knows when to walk away and he was a street fighter. He didn’t want me to have the life he had.”
I explained my great affinity to the independent artist movement, filmmakers, musicians, writers, actors. By this time, we had left the kitchen table, bagels, cream cheese, tuna, still sitting, being nibbled at, and re-convened in the den, on a low uncomfortable sofa, while my wife watched ‘Be Home Soon’ at the table. Keith smiled and said her impressions, because of gender, would be completely different than mine. He was right.
“Comments on the Independent Film Movement?” A deep breath. “The rise of inexpensive technology has fueled independence…. It’s a community that cares for each other…. My focus has been on original stories…. Looking at the slate of superhero films, they’re not rich and deep stories, actually boring…. Story suffers…. Independent films fill that void of original stories.” Keith agreed that there is more opportunity today with Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple. The other nice thing about Independent Films, is around 35% of the directors are women, as opposed to 3 or 4% in the studio world. “Independent film is the ability to create.”
After Keith graduated from Rutgers, he began the unpleasurable process of auditioning. Once he waited two hours and they couldn’t give a damn. He accosted them, “I don’t need this.” And he left deciding to do stand-up comedy which lasted two years. Along the way, he did improv with CBGB and did some emceeing. “The community of comics were very supportive. My day job was doing computer programming. I’d get up at 9 AM for real work and do comedy until 2 AM. I was invited to become part of a troupe and I asked how much does it pay? “The pay is nothing.” So, I went to Stevens Institute and got my Masters in Information Systems and computers. I actually invented some computer software for grass roots campaigning.”
His computer acumen intrigued me. “When did liking computers begin?” “I built my first computer at nine years old and bought my first Apple at 14. “And the writing, Keith?” “My first screenplay was in 1999. Everything was original. And I wrote by hand.” He showed me his writing book, notes on the road, thoughts popping into consciousness. That first screenplay had a German title, “Fur Elise.” About a guy whose fiancé dies and lives with guilt. Part of his writing education came from a night course at Rutgers. “I needed learning in a smaller class setting so I went at night. Took creative writing.”
Keith interjected as if I signaled him, “I do have a day job career. I lead the Innovation Lab at The Port Authority. I help people with getting around New York and New Jersey. One project was to get TSA and PATH wait times.”
With the world of writing screenplays, he was successful to an extent. He’d go to pitch fests, see 20 people and get 17 requests to submit. Some were optioned. And Keith was made President of the New Jersey Screenwriters Association. “There were two things I wanted from this process. My stories to be heard and not having to hand the mantle of my immortality over to my kids.”
His first film (2017) was ‘Missed’ also showing in the Garden State Film Festival (GSFF). I was fortunate to see it last summer, in a Scotch Plains den, while folks partied upstairs. Keith has this innate skill of riveting, timely, cerebral, poignant story telling. Haunting is also a good descriptive word.
As mentioned, ‘Be Home Soon,’ his second film, is also showing at the GSFF. And his third film showing is ‘Swung,’ an irreverent off-beat comedy.
I wondered why we both seemed to be slowing down. A third cup of coffee next, but it was really the vanishing of the sun out the window which signaled we had talked beyond. “Just a few finishing touches. You know, so people (readers) can solidify conclusions with smiles.”
“Your favorite movies and directors?” “Cool Hand Luke, The Player, Touch of Evil, Ridley Scott, Coen Brothers, Spielberg, Nora Ephron, Coppola, Scorsese, Miller’s Crossing (Calvin you need to watch this) and Hudsucker Proxy, All the President’s Men, Blade Runner.”
“Living or Dead, who would you like to have dinner with?” A few moments of pondering. “Bobby Kennedy.”
“Five things in life you can’t live without?” A big smile. “My family, computers, good books, libraries, access to good movies.”
“And last, Before I leave this earth, I won’t be satisfied until I blank.” “See one of my movies made. But I’ve done that.”
Saying goodbye in the hallway, with a prodigious hug, I looked up at the hall light, “Gosh, I never realized it was so bright.” Then I looked at Keith, “I think it’s a bright light nova, because you’ve been here.”
Keith Armonaitis Links: https://www.facebook.com/karmonaitis
Garden State Film Festival: https://2019.gsff.org/