Chris Terrio

The director of Heights.

How do you get from Staten Island to the helm of a major independent production at the age of 25? Practice, practice, practice your Latin. Director Chris Terrio, now 28, was here with SIFF's screening of Heights, his sophisticated roundelay of sex and secrets set in New York (see review). With an enviable cast headed by Glenn Close, it also has impeccable production values, the hallmark of its co-producer, Ismail Merchant, whose recent death cast a bittersweet pall over his collaborators. "It was a complete shock," says the slight, boyish Terrio, "and we're all still struggling. . . . Ismail being such a force of nature, charging at the head of the army, I thought he'd outlast all of us, he's so robust. And since he gave me this chance, took me on as a mentor, he's one of the people you most want to be proud of you." Terrio's path began with impressive high-school grades in Staten Island. He explains: "I went to Catholic school for 12 years, where my very good Latin teacher said, 'You don't have to be timid about where you apply.'" So, he became the first from his school at Harvard. Then came Cambridge and a Ph.D. track, until he began to feel "the pressure to be specialized" and applied to USC film school, which was amenable to scholarship in place of a Super-8 background. During Terrio's USC years, James Ivory (an alum) hired him during summer break to do research for The Golden Bowl, "the perfect nerd job for me," he laughs. Broke after finishing film school, he was hired to shoot the electronic press kit for Merchant-Ivory's Le Divorce, where he spent backstage time with Glenn Close. All fell into place when Merchant, who'd optioned Amy Fox's one-act play, began working on it in 2001, expanding it to include "a very successful actress" and hiring Fox and Terrio to write and direct, respectively. Terrio sees Heights' visuals as a tribute to his father. "He wrote manuals for [New York City] corporations and brought us to work one day [from Staten Island]. I remember I was shocked that he was boxed in, in this place." So the view of Heights' upscale lawyer Jonathan is of a man "trapped in the grid that is Manhattan." Asked about the film's affectionate view of its rarefied world, Terrio says, "I think Woody Allen's best films, looking at the high literati, are when he's not condescending. The moment he starts judging, then I can see the filmmaker, and it doesn't feel right. In some of [Heights'] places where people are larger than life, because their acting is so good, I hope you can feel these are real people."

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