“Portrait of the Artist” is a series by Claudine Williams, a photographer specializing in portraits for personal and business use. The Q&As are with people in the arts and culture industry—actors, musicians, painters, writers, etc.—with photos to suit each artist.
Todd Komarnicki is a playwright, director, producer, screenwriter, and novelist. He resides in Tribeca with his wife, Jane Bradbury, and their two children.
Tell me about what you do for a living and how did you get started in that business?
Well, I’m a movie screenplay writer and producer and it’s the only job I’ve ever had in my entire life. I had no plans to do it and I was just about to graduate college and I squandered my education completely. I was a baseball player and was going to graduate with no known skills. And my buddy who didn’t have many friends there was a real iconoclast. He had to do a short film to graduate. That’s all he had left. And this is 1986, and so no one was making short films that I knew. There was no film department at our school. And I said, “Well great, you’re going to do a short film. I look forward to seeing it.”
He said, “No, no, you’re going to write it and we’re going to be in it together and I’m going to direct it.” So he asked me to write this two-person short film and hopefully it will never be discovered. It’s the worst thing ever filmed. Truly, truly terrible. A 52-minute short and we were so convinced of its quality that we screened it for all our friends, which was a form of deep punishment to them. We didn’t realize until later how cruel we had been. My cousin attended and I’ll never forget, it’s my favorite bad compliment I’ve ever heard. At the end he shook my hand and he said, “Wow, you wrote all those words.”
So, I’ve been trying to get better at it ever since. False confidence is a big trampoline if you want to break into something, and we thought we were good at something that we weren’t good at yet, but being fearless enough to go try it allowed me the chance to ultimately get good at it. So it was never what I thought my life was going to be, but it’s been such a damn fun life.
Your production company is named Guy Walks into a Bar. How did you come up with the name?
Yes, the name of my production company is Guy Walks into a Bar, so it’s appropriate that we’re meeting at Walker’s. I named my company Guy Walks into a Bar because there’s two places in the world that you can go into a dark room and hear a stranger tell you their story and that’s a bar and a movie theater. I also do a lot of my writing late at night in bars after the kids are down, and I’ve met the finest people I know often in bars. Bartenders and people that make small businesses, and the waitstaff, they become sort of like family and deep friendships can come out of these things. It’s also the start of a thousand bad jokes: Guy walks into a bar…. Obviously, we’ve done some comedies, but the main reason is the storytelling aspect.
What is the most satisfying part of your work?
The most satisfying part is having written. Writing is always a struggle. It’s hard work, it’s not glamorous, and in the movies, it’s filled with deadlines and a lot of outward pressures that if you were anxiety-ridden could be devastating. Fortunately I don’t wrestle with that because I know that I’m not in charge and my faith in God guides me, my pen, and my day, but it’s still hard work and the feeling of satisfaction that comes with having written where once there was a blank page and now there’s a movie people can go see. That’s incredibly satisfying. It’s almost like you build the mountain while you’re climbing it and then other people get to climb on that mountain afterwards. It feels really good.
What has been your favorite project so far?
Well, you don’t want to say which is your favorite kid, so you don’t want to say which is your favorite project, but what jumps out are the two New York movies that I was able to be involved with. I always tell people they both have one word titles. They’re both set in New York and they’re both true stories and that would be Elf and Sully, because of course Elf is a true story. Everybody knows how Santa’s sleigh flies and why our kids get gifts. Elf is essentially just a documentary of how Christmas really works. That’s why people like Elf. But those two movies, and Sully, because it got to show excellence in Sully’s flying and an act of heroism from the entire city of New York—it took only 24 minutes to get everybody off the wings of that plane while they easily could have frozen to death in the water. So that’s deeply resonant for me as a New Yorker and a movie writer. And Elf, it’s the little movie that just stuck somehow like a refrigerator magnet on our culture. We still get letters every year from eight-year-old kids thanking us for the movie. Since the movie has been out 15 years, we’ve got generations that share their enthusiasm for this little movie. That’s deeply gratifying. Having made something that stuck in our culture, that’s a very humbling thing.
An interesting little tidbit—I noticed that your wife makes a cameo in the movie.
I’m married to the mother of Buddy the Elf. That’s pretty profound if you want to know the inside story. Yeah, that’s Jane as Susan Wells.
I love it!
You were one of the writers/producers for Elf. Has the continued popularity been a surprise to you?
Yes. Every project that you work on, you put in the same effort and you have the same high hopes for. In Hollywood, most movies don’t get made. So already 80 percent of the things I’ve worked on have never seen the light of day, things that I love. Then there’s the ones that do come out…. You have something that happens alone in a room writing. And then producing comes on and more people gather and by the time the movie is finished, hundreds and hundreds of people have touched the film, had an impact on it, and you see very clearly that it’s deeply collaborative and it’s a miracle. All these people wind up pulling in the same direction, which almost never happens, so then you wind up with something we believed in. We loved our movie before it came out, but you have no idea if other people are going to love it. You don’t know if people are going to be quoting lines from that movie 15 years later. There’s no way to guess that. So yes, I’m completely shocked and surprised that it stuck around and that it still has legs—long legs in green tights.
Any new projects that you can share with us?
The next one that’s going to shoot is called God’s Spy and it’s about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s a profound and pretty untold story of heroism from World War II. He was the only member of the German church, he’s 24, who stood up against Hitler and he lost everything, including his life. But in the process, he saved many lives, many Jewish lives. He brought to the world’s attention what was happening when no one believed, he was a radical hero who put his faith on the line in a real way every single day. I know we live in a political age where it’s easy to have an opinion, you know, the bar-top argument about something, but very rarely do you see people put their livelihood on the line to stand up against something or for something. So, Bonhoeffer is a timely reminder that it’s more than talk that shapes the world. It’s action.
How did you wind up in Tribeca?
Tribeca remains the greatest neighborhood in the greatest city in the history of the world. And from the beginning, back when Tribeca was tumbleweeds, I would always come down here and spend time here and go to Bubby’s or Puffy’s. When there was nothing else existing in Tribeca, it always had a pull because of its wide streets, its low buildings, and the river. No other neighborhood in the city has those three things. It feels like a secret city within our big city. And, every night when you come home to Tribeca, even if you’ve been in the noise of the rest of Manhattan, you feel this coziness. It’s quieter in our apartment than it is when we go to the country. In fact, when we stay with friends in the country, I have trouble sleeping because of all the crickets. I’ve been here 25 years, watching it grow and change, become this family magnet without losing its character. There are so many young families and kids and opportunities for our kids to thrive down here. It’s just an extraordinary part of New York and I’m deeply blessed to be a Tribecan.
Any favorite local businesses that you’d like to give a shout out to?
Well, you can’t beat Walker’s. Day to day, the places I go every day are Noted on Hudson Street. It’s a fantastic little coffee place, great for writing. They also have cocktails and food and they’re super nice. So, my coffee place is Noted, and my lunch place is Walker’s or Edward’s on W. Broadway. I love Edward’s and Edward himself, a wonderful human being. And then Baked, a great bakery spot, and Girello, which is next to Walker’s. Those are the places that you’ll find me if you need to find me. It’s like the old thing before cell phones: If the house phone would ring up, and my wife needed to find me, she could find me at Walker’s.
Tell me about your family.
My wife is Jane Bradbury and my kids are Remy and Dashiel. They’re very involved in all things Tribeca. Everything from Taste of Tribeca to sports and using Pier 25 and Washington Market Park. They’re regulars there. We have a plot in the garden. Jane and Remy do a great job of maintaining it and they love living here, as much as I do. I try to explain to my kids how cool it is that the rest of their life they’re going to be able to say that they’re New York natives. They don’t understand that yet, but it’s a real badge of honor to be from the greatest city in the world. And I want to underline this—Tribeca has its own charms, but there’s something happening in the city. It happens writ large in Queens, but it’s all over the city and it’s something that has never occurred in the history of the world. People have hundreds, maybe thousands, of languages and hundreds of nations living literally on top of each other with very little land and they live in peace. That has never occurred before. Everything has been so tribal. Everything is so, you know, “You crossed my border,” and everyone is trying to hang onto what they have. But in New York, people gather to share and they gather to share something that seems not enough, but it’s like the loaves and fishes in the Bible. If you share, there will always be enough. And New York City represents that for me.
What is a typical weekend like for you and your family?
Dash plays soccer, and Remy is playing volleyball or swimming. Jane is relaxing, getting a break from the week, and we’re meeting up with friends. We always do date night on Saturday night and often in Tribeca. We love Tamarind and Takahachi—we go to those places a lot. We always think, Let’s go out of the neighborhood, but you start walking around and you look and you see some friends and you see the place that you know, that you love. And we wind up usually staying right here. On Sundays, we go to Lower Manhattan Community Church, which has been a massive blessing for us. I’ve never gone to a church that was so filled with light and love and just ease. I’ve gone to church for many years now, but I can’t ever remember waking up excited to go to church. It used to be something you think you should do, a box to check. But now Sundays have become our favorite day of the week and for the kids, too.
If I can wrap it up, I would just say that it’s such an incredible blessing to be able to tell stories as a job. I take that as a sacred trust that I often get the chance to tell other people’s true stories. Every single person walking around has a story, and the story of their life is vital and important and the characters in their life—spouses, cousins, friends, colleagues—are all huge players in the movie of their life. And I think when you start to look at your life as a story, you get more excited about waking up every day because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is a page-turner and we should wake up wide open and in wonder about what’s going to happen next. Because life is a beautiful thing.