During a conversation with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper, Lia Martirsyan and actress Christina Cannarella, Novicki spoke passionately about this year’s Film Challenge, his origins in the entertainment industry, and why we don’t see more people with disabilities in films.
…Continued from previous issue
Cannarella: What do you like better, stand-up or acting?
Novicki: I like doing everything. Sometimes it’s a split focus, but I really enjoy doing multiple things, not just acting, not just stand-up, and not just being on-camera. I like being behind-camera, too. I’ve begun to enjoy producing and creating content almost as much as being in front of the camera. I still make the majority of my living acting, but I love to write—there’s something so gratifying when you write and create something, and you can get it made. It’s like, “Wow!” I feel so proud of it. A lot of times I don’t even care if I’m in it. I’m usually thinking about the shot or the l location or negotiating or talking to someone about a permit, or figuring out the next day’s call time.
A lot of times I act in my own projects, because sometimes I’ll write for myself, and it just ends up that I’m writing for that character, and when I’m writing it, it ends up being me, and my voice comes through, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, this is for me!” But I was a writer for the CBS Diversity Showcase, and that was a great experience for me. I wrote 55 sketches from August to February. We were writing for a cast, and I wasn’t in that cast. So it forced me to write not just for me but for other people as well. It was a great creative learning curve to learn how to write for the cast.
Cannarella: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Novicki: I dreamed of playing sports. I thought I’d be a big NBA player. I loved playing basketball. I enjoyed it as a kid. I knew I wasn’t really going to be a professional athlete, but there was that moment when I was a little kid, throwing the football to myself, running, singing Notre Dame’s fight song, like, “I’m gonna play in the NFL some day, after I play at Notre Dame, after I become the only person under four feet tall to do this.” That wasn’t the case. But that transition got me into the arts. I was a pretty good athlete, but once I reached 12 years old, everyone else got so much taller than me that I couldn’t compete. So I got kind of down, and I was like, “What am I gonna do?” I was always good at doing accents and impersonating people, so my English teacher was like, “You should sign up for this play.” So I started doing plays. I was in a ton of plays in New Haven, where I’m from, and also in my school.
I went to college, and I thought, “I’m done with entertainment, that was fun.” At the time, I wanted to open up a Hard Rock Cafe, but it was going to be the Short Door café, and there’d be little people things everywhere, and I was going to franchise this out. I had a whole crazy map planned out. “I’m going to have these crazy franchises of little people-themed restaurants.” Within my first week of college, at the time, this is how I entered stand-up: I went with my girlfriend at the time to a comedy club. We walked in and everyone turn their focus on us, because this is Philadelphia, and it’s kind of a tough crowd. The comic also looked at us, and he was like, “Oh, look at Willow and his wife!” He was just doggin’ us, and it really upset her. It didn’t upset me. I was like, “I want to do this. I want to go back and tell my story.” It had nothing to do with that, but I broke up with that girl that week.
So I went back the following week, and my act was complaining about her. “She’s mad at me for this. I get no respect.” It was kind of like a weird Rodney Dangerfield act. But I got a couple paid gigs from my first time ever doing stand-up, and I just got into the scene from there.
Cannarella: Do you have any footage from that first gig?
Novicki: No, I’m old. This was 15 years ago. It wasn’t like now where you can just shoot it on an iPhone. You had to bring a dump truck and get a camera. “Let’s take a picture, VHS!”
Cooper: Do you know Dylan and Ryan? They live in Philly.
Novicki: (laughs) Oh, yeah!
Cooper: Just checking. They’re my nephews.
Novicki: I just was in Philly. You know Geno’s Steaks?
Martirosyan: Yeah, it’s just across from that other steak house.
Cooper: We’ve been there.
Novicki: It’s the best cheesesteak in the world. I’m friends with Geno, so I did all these shout-out videos where I was like, “You want to be on camera?” I’d just go up to people and be like, and we’ll come up with a funny little tag line in front or the end or different scenarios. But I did one inside Geno’s, at the grill, and I’m so proud of that. I’m like, “Oh, my God, I was in Geno’s! I was on the grill!”
Cooper: You didn’t get burned?
Cannarella: You have that footage, right?
Cooper: So, you weren’t on the grill?
Novicki: I’m a good dancer. Hey, look at me go.
Martirosyan: What’s Novicki?
Novicki: It’s Polish.
Martiroysan: Do you speak?
Novicki: No, but I’ve been there. I was in a play with Mark Povinelli. We were in A Doll’s House. It’s a classic Ibsen play. All the lead male characters were played by little people, because it’s a show about belittling women. So we kept to the text.
Novicki: Belittle. That’s the play.
Martirsyan: Is that what they were trying to do?
Novicki: I don’t know. You guys have stumped me here. I’m like, “Wait a minute, why did I not pay attention in English?”
Martirosyan: What’s your go-to impression?
Cooper: This is great for print. Go ahead.
Novicki: I don’t know. I do Jack Nicholson, different things. “If I want to ask you a question, I’ll ask for the answer. I just want to have a good time and relax here.” I’ll usually just think of someone and then specifically work that.
Cooper: But you don’t know Ryan or Dylan?
Novicki: (laughs) I don’t do Ryan or Dylan. I’m not allowed to. I signed an NDA. Dylan was like, “Look, I’m going to sue you.”
Cooper: They’re both attorneys.
Novicki: I could go back and meet them and come back and give a different answer.
Cooper: Do you go back to Philly often?
Novicki: I got a scholarship, and that’s why I went there. I don’t go there enough. It’s a great city.
Cooper: We’re from South Jersey.
Cannarella: We? Speak for yourself.
Novicki: Are you guys involved with the Media Access Awards?
Cooper: For over twenty years we’ve been connected with Media Access.
Novicki: I’m finally meeting with them. The last two weeks I’ve never responded to more emails in my life.
Next year I’ll have more help for the challenge. As it’s growing, I have a tech guy, but I want to have more help. I’ve had people help with some stuff, but because a lot of people want to ask for things that are not part of the rules, so I’ve got to figure all that out.
Cooper: Thank you for the treats. When did you start baking cookies?
Novicki: In my Keebler days.
We got a whole bunch. [All look in the direction of Nic’s suit] I’ve been getting all these different crazy kinds of suits.
Cannarella: I love it.
Novicki: I’ve got a gold one now and a red one.
Cannarella: You had a nice one on the other night at the screening of CinemAbility.
Novicki: Yeah, that was the gold one. I’m bringing them out. I got them when I went to Singapore and Thailand, where I get them custom made.
Cannarella: We created a show called “On the Boulevard.”
Novicki: Oh, really?
Cannarella: In 2008 with Dotti my character.
Novicki: We got really close. Alec Baldwin and NBC were behind it, and Reels was going to buy it. I just met with Mosaic Films, and they’re interested in it now. It’s a show that never ends. More of a workplace comedy about four guys, but the backdrop is the boulevard. Hence, the Broken Dreams Boulevard.
Martirosyan: Do you just walk around on the boulevard?
Novicki: Kind of. We filmed it literally right out there. I used to have a production company office right across the street. Then Marshalls came in and took us away.
Cooper: The police?
Novicki: Yeah, that, too.
Novicki: Yeah. At the bottom, there used to be all these little shops, and my executive producer had a café there, and we had a little office in the back.
Martirosyan: Oh, that’s nice.
Cooper: So when you sit there in Marshalls, it’s not the same?
Novicki: There used to be a giant warehouse in the back that we used to be able to use to film. It was like a giant sound stage in the middle of Hollywood.
Cannarella: I want to ask you about your parents. Are they living, and what do they think about what you do?
Novicki: My parents are living. They have been trying to get me to stop doing entertainment. They’re supportive. They’re happy with what I do. They know I like acting and stand-up. With the Challenge they’ve been supportive. I think now that they’re seeing articles in Variety and other publications, they’re like, “Oh, wow!” They kind of see more about it, because they just don’t know. My parents are not on social media, so they can’t see people excited about the Challenge. For me, as an actor, it’s instant gratification, because they’re like, “We just saw you on HBO!” They’re finding out about the Film Challenge now. They’ve always been excited and happy that it’s something I’m passionate about.
Cannarella: Do you have siblings? How old are they? What do they do?
Novicki: I have two brothers, both older. I’m the baby. I’m the only non-little person. It was cool. My parents were not overprotective at all about me. Yes, they were. No.
Martirosyan: Did you say the only non-little person?
Novicki: (laughs) I was the only little person. I’m hanging out with them this weekend, going back to the East Coast. We’re close. They just have regular jobs. They work in utilities and stuff like that.
Cannarella: Where do they live, here?
Novicki: One in New York and one in Connecticut.
Cannarella: What about your wife? How did you guys meet? What does she think about all of this?
Novicki: My wife is awesome. We met at a little people convention. She was about to leave. It just wasn’t for her. She wasn’t having a good time. She was an actress. My best friend, who’s a little person, met her, and she was like, “Yeah, I’m going to go. It’s not for me.” She’d never been to a little people’s convention before. She was like, “I was just here to meet actors,” and he was like, “My best friend Nic is an actor.” So she met me. I was working on Boardwalk Empire at the time, so I was in New York for an extended period. We started to date and now we’re married.
Cannarella: Where’d you take her?
Novicki: To get sushi in Greenwich Village.
Martirosyan: Just read on NPR about the writers’ strike, not spending money on things like sushi.
Novicki: Yeah. And then they all got sushi.
Cooper: In your Challenge, one of the things you mentioned was to be sure not to have any logos, etc. How detailed was that? We were looking at some of the videos, and there was a guy who was in a motocross outfit, and he had a bunch of logos, because that’s what motocross clothing does. How do you deal with that?
Novicki: That ends up being a factor for our winners. But, in general, I try to put people through a professional filmmaking course, in a sense. If you want to own your own content, you can’t put Nike on stuff, because you need Nike’s permission. That’s why I say the content has to be stuff that would be able to air on network TV, no explicits, because I want to make this welcoming for sponsors and get more sponsors, which I’ve been able to do. So obviously it’s something to be sensitive about.
Martirosyan: So you were double-dinged.
Cooper: We can get permission. We noticed after the fact that we had logos in ours, but we know the people.
Novicki: And that’s the thing. It becomes more of an issue when it’s front and center, and looks like an Adidas commercial.
Cooper: Oh, so you did see our film?
Cannarella: Because you are dealing with teams with all abilities on them, it does take more time, in my experience, working with people with disabilities, to have the content created for film, just the logistics of things. We have such a short amount of time.
Novicki: 55 hours.
Cannarella: I know you said there were some people who didn’t get their films in on time or get them done.
Novicki: Everyone needs to learn how to work on deadline.
Novicki: The biggest problem is, we’re trying to get people to reach a professional level. There’s no CBS to say, “Hey, sorry, we’re going to let you come for four days.”
You have one hour to film. And everyone can accommodate. It becomes a planning issue. You start writing too long. In your next film, when you get cut off, and you’re not allowed to be in this film, then in your next film, you’re like, “OK, I know I’m going to be done with my writing a little earlier, and if my actor is in a chair, it’s going to take him two hours to do this scene,” you’ve got to build that into your schedule. It’s all part of the process. And we’ve had films turned in on time with the entire cast, everybody deaf. They’ve got to subtitle completely. Now we’re offering subtitles. When I need to make exceptions, I will, but as a whole, I think that, as myself being a little person, sometimes we play our cards with disabilities, where I’m like, “Sorry! Couldn’t reach that over there, that’s why I didn’t get it.” You learn how to do that. But I think with people with disabilities, you need to—
Cooper: You played the reach card?
Novicki: Yeah, the reach card.
Cannarella: Is that why you wouldn’t turn the light on?
Cannarella: But, you’re right. We’ve had a conversation before about what is it exactly—why is the entertainment industry not employing people with disabilities as much as it should be? Between 17 and 20 percent of our population has some sort of disability. That is absolutely not represented in the industry. Why is that?
Novicki: I’ll be 100 percent honest. Some of it is because we don’t have the experience. As somebody who’s been a comedian for many years, I put the work and the time in. We need more programs so people with disabilities can enter the party, get more experience. But it becomes an experience issue ultimately. That’s why there’s not a lot of writers or producers with disabilities, because you can’t just go into NBC, CBS or Fox, and say, “I’m going to be the star of a show,” or the writer if you’ve never written anything.
Cooper: If you were to be 75 percent honest, what would your answer be?
Novicki: Because the times are changing and they’re getting closer, but they’re not there yet. We’re seeing things like Speechless come on. We’re seeing changes in the industry. CBS is hosting panels, they’re sponsoring the Film Challenge. People are trying to include us, but it’s not just up to the studios and the networks, it’s up to us, creating our own content and saying if you’re not stepping up to the plate, too, then it’s not the fault of others.
Cannarella: You create an opportunity. That’s what I feel being in the industry has not been giving to people with disabilities. So that’s one reason why we wanted to interview you as well, because you’ve created an opportunity for people to do this. It’s a platform. People with disabilities experience what it’s like to do a film in front of a live camera. It’s not as crazy as when you get to work on a set.
Novicki: Yeah. What’s cool is, you get to see all these stories being told. I’m so proud of the films that have been made over the course of the Film Challenge over the last four years—amazing, beautiful stories that are interesting, funny, and touching. I like to look at it like the disabilities add another layer. It doesn’t have to be in the storyline, but it’s more interesting when it’s somebody who’s deaf, someone in a wheelchair, someone with cerebral palsy, or a little person doing something that’s not related to that issue. Since the nature of the Film Challenge of each team is to have one person with a disability in front of or behind the camera, the stories are unique. You can tell this is not somebody without disabilities trying to put people with disabilities in a box and say, “This is how they react.” These are usually stories that are organic to people with disabilities.
Cooper: But in the call sheet, you had some requirements. For example, they had to have hats.
Novicki: Yeah. Why I think there’s not a lot of content for people with disabilities are the deadlines. Several people from the Film Challenge this year who have been in the business for a long time thanked me because they really appreciated the process and felt like they were in control. They’d been wanting to do something for a while, but I’m like, “Look, you can’t talk about it. Just sign up for the Challenge and do it. It’s got to be done in this time period.” We give a prompt where everyone gets the same genre, whether it be romantic comedy or drama, and the films all have to be three to five minutes, follow a certain theme, and they have to include little props which don’t have to be in the story line, they just have to be in the film, like, two out of five things. Just so we know it was done that weekend and not 10 years ago.
Cooper: You had a kitchen, a hat—
Cannarella: —a living room—
Cooper: —a dead, stinky fish, which I thought was interesting.
Novicki: I’ve had people try to bribe me. People are giving me cigars and stuff, ‘cause I like smoking cigars.
Martirosyan: You went to Cuba. Tell us about that.
Novicki: Personally, I love traveling. That’s my favorite thing. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world to act and do stand-up. But when I’m not working, that’s what I want to do. My wife is the same way. So we went to Thailand for our honeymoon last year, and this year we wanted to go to Cuba before it becomes—before Starbuck’s comes in. So we went, and one of the best things about the Film Challenge is I can be anywhere in the world and find people with disabilities who are interested. So I contacted the Film Festival and said, “This is my namesake. I founded this Disability Film Challenge. I’m looking at possibly talking with you guys and screening some of our films.” Because film festivals all around the world have been screening our films.
So I get an email back and they say, “Oh, we can’t,” because it’s government, and it’s still a communist country, so it was going to be tough for them to screen our films. But they connected me with a tetraplegic filmmaker, so I had a meeting with him, and he wanted to enter the Challenge. Unfortunately for him, it became a little challenging, though.
Cooper: The Challenge was too big of a challenge?
Novicki: Yeah. The internet didn’t work properly, and then he needed a grant to pay people.
Cooper: Do you think he’ll be able to do something next year?
Novicki: The problem is the internet isn’t fast enough. It would have to give him an extension, and it just became too difficult.
Cooper: Telecommunications, I think, is one of the first things that we’re going to help with in Cuba.
Novicki: It’s not there. But we loved it.
Cooper: Especially if you like old cars.
Novicki: And cigars.
Cannarella: How did the collaboration with Easterseals occur?
Novicki: I know Judd Apatow from comedy. We’re not friends, but we’ll see each other and talk. I was telling him about the Film Challenge, and he put me in touch with his head of development, Josh Church, and Josh connected me with CK&D, which is a social cause marketing company. They represent Easterseals, and they were like, “This is a perfect fit.” So, last year, they set up a meeting with Easterseals Southern California. Easterseals’ national office was helping market by sending out retweets from last year’s Challenge. This year, we had a formal meeting, and we decided it was the right fit. The Challenge had grown a lot, but they saw where I wanted to go with it, and they were able to help bring it to the next level through their marketing team and by helping get more advertising. It was amazing. Easterseals Southern California helped me bring on more sponsors, widen the net for people with disabilities, too, because they offer so many amazing programs and services for people with disabilities. So they were able to get it in front of a lot more people with disabilities who weren’t necessarily just actors or people in front of the camera.
I always tell people, too, “You don’t have to be a professional.” And if you watch all the films, there’s definitely varying levels of filmmakers. Some are shot with less expensive cameras, and there are drones, technocranes and actors, as well as others who were maybe shot on an iPhone. But, ultimately, a story, and if it’s a good story, it doesn’t really matter. If it’s heartwarming, if it’s funny, it doesn’t matter what you shoot on.
Cooper: We shot ours on a landline.
Cannarella: One of the things we’re doing is “Find Your Calling” workshops to teach people behind the scenes all the different jobs in the industry.
Novicki: I do these workshops. I’m in the Producers Guild, too, and my main asset as a producer is that I’m good at bringing people together. That’s how I got into producing. I can get the locations. I’m not necessarily going to bring in the money, but I can bring in a lot of different camera people, I can get equipment cheaper, and I know how to use my own resources to put a crew together, even when there’s no money. Sending out emails, typing up a release on what the film is about and all the people who are attached. And sometimes if I was the biggest person or part of it, I would use myself. If there was a bigger actor or bigger producer who was connected, I would start with them and the different projects they’re associated with and tell people, “We just need you for a couple hours. Whether it’s not paid, I guarantee you I’ll get you paid on another job.” I’m good at doing that because I’ll hear that this guy’s looking for a camera guy. “Hey, Matt, you did a great job. You helped me. Matt would be great.” And now Matt’s working. It’s always trading. And then Matt wants to hire me for something.
It’s putting yourself out there. Even people just announcing themselves, “Hey, I’m an actor. I’m a writer. I’m a director. I want to enter this Challenge. I’m looking for help.” Some people may end up only able to give you a location. Sometimes you say, “Hey, who wants to make me dinner?” It’s not even for the Challenge, but I’d just like something for dinner. People have these resources.
Cannarella: You’re right. It is. We’re all connected. It’s about sharing resources and helping each other on our journeys however we can.
Novicki: And it’s a learning process. You get better at camera work. I’ve done these workshops at YouTube and the Producers Guild of America, teaching more skills, including editing skills. It’s trial and error. You can’t learn everything in a day. You just keep learning.
Cannarella: So for people who are interested, do you usually do the Challenge in the springtime?
Novicki: It’s in the spring every year. We’ll usually announce our big mentor in January on the website [below]. I try to figure out what the genre is and what I think about the genre or whoever the big mentor is, and from there we announce everything.
Cannarella: It’ll be interesting. Last year you had a mystery. The year before that was a romantic comedy. What was the first year?
Novicki: It was dramedy. This becomes like a special event for some people every year, where they’re looking forward to the announcement, the families of people with disabilities say. I’ll start getting emails in December, “Just checking in to see.” And all throughout the year I’ll get people interested, they don’t realize it’s just once a year. It’d be impossible for me to do this more than once a year, not just the workload, which would be crazy, but the amount—including all the submissions would be like a split focus.
The other main thing about the Challenge is an awareness campaign, which I started two years ago. Everybody has two weeks to come up with the most views, likes, and shares for their films. It used to be just on YouTube, but now it’s on Facebook too. Some of these movies are like viral videos. Since Thursday, when it started and only four days later, films have over 16,000 views, 600 shares.
Cooper: It’s the same guy viewing it over and over.
Novicki: (laughs) We’re uploading all the films, so I can go in and look at all the analytics. “I know what you’re doing!” But that’s the whole thing for the Challenge. It’s putting yourself out there and saying, “Hey, I’m an actor.” And it’s showing disability. You’re sharing with all your friends, all your colleagues. We’ve had a lot of jobs come out of the Challenge, both in front of and behind the camera, also during the awareness campaign. Sending the films all out, and somebody will be like, “Wow, that actor was really good in that one scene,” or “This is a pretty good storyline,” and they’ll request a spec script from the people, or the real one. Numerous TV shows, guest stars—it’s been really cool.