When it was time for Debra Markowitz to decide a college major, she hesitated before choosing business. She even enrolled at first as a drama major, but dropped it quickly. A business degree was sensible. Career choices would be plentiful. Besides, she had a talent for it.
She buried the part of her that longed to study creative writing. Although she’d been writing since she was 6 years old, when she’d penned her first book, a creative life just didn’t seem practical. It was a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, and not something she was willing to bet her future on.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Debra studied business, but life had other plans for her.
Her business degree landed her in the Nassau County Department of Commerce and Industry 26 years ago. There, she recognized an opportunity to develop the stunning landscape in Nassau County into a moneymaker for the county: by creating a Nassau County Film Office. Being so close to Manhattan was a boon for filmmakers who craved a wider swath of locations to choose from. Markowitz got to work streamlining the permit process to make it faster and easier to film television shows, movies, and commercials right here.
Almost from day one, it was a success.
“We have the most production days out of any county, all of the boroughs, except Manhattan,” Markowitz tells the Press. “If we’re tracking 750, there are probably 2,000.”
Nickerson Beach, Point Lookout, Eisenhower Park, the Nassau County Executive building and the historic and opulent Gold Coast mansions are popular spots for filmmakers. Yet so are Long Beach Memorial Hospital and Nassau County Correctional Center. Thus, it can be difficult to get clearance to shoot at these extremely sought-after locations. Markowitz has been instrumental in cutting through the red tape. You can catch some of these locales on Sports Network, Royal Pains, The Good Life, Police State and Running Wild.
This close proximity to the film industry brought Markowitz on a head-on collision course with her dream of a creative life.
Seventeen years ago, the Long Island Film and Television Foundation approached Markowitz at the Nassau County Film Office about creating a film expo. In just 12 weeks, 50 films were screened at the Malverne Cinema. Kicked off with Long Island celebrities including Steve Buscemi, Kelly Rutherford, Karen Allen and Oleg Cassini, the Long Island International Film Expo (LIIFE) was born.
The acclaimed film festival has grown exponentially every year since. Presently in its 17th season, when it opens July 9 at Bellmore Movies it will host 158 independent films from Long Island, across the country, and around the world, including the Philippines, France, Russia, Arab Emirates, Australia, Italy and Spain, to name a few. The LIIFE has partnered with the Long Island Rail Road to give filmgoers staying in Manhattan direct access to downtown Bellmore, where the train stops. They frequent the restaurants and shops, scout locations here on Long Island, and quite simply, fall in love. The festival runs through July 17.
“Besides the cultural aspect, they drop a lot of money here,” says Markowitz, 56, a lifelong North Merrick resident. “It’s great for economic development here.”
That’s the business side talking. The creative side has become deeply immersed in the film industry: from casting films to producing and directing to writing. Since 2001, Markowitz has felt free to indulge her creative life.
She was on vacation in Montauk with her children when an idea for a novel revealed itself to her, fully formed. That night, after she put her children to bed, she felt compelled to write the idea down. That compulsion returned every night thereafter until her first historical fiction novel, Naked in the Rain, was completed. It inspired such a devoted following that she was inspired to write a sequel to quench her readers’ curiosity about the fate of the characters.
And she hasn’t stopped writing since. From novels and novellas to ghost writing and finally to screenwriting, Markowitz spoke of how her nights and weekends are taken up by her creative projects these days.
“Most people relax,” she sighs. “I make movies.”
Her first attempt at a screenplay was inspired by a silly story she imagined while she was taking a walk with her boyfriend. True to form, she put pen to paper and created her first script, even though she’d never written anything like that before. A comedy about zombies, The Last Taxi Driver was met with high praise from everyone she dared to show it to. This February, after a grueling three-day outdoor shoot that saw six different weather patterns, filming was completed on her screenplay debut, starring Robert Clohessy from Blue Bloods and Emily Jackson of TV’s Fringe.
The elation of that film inspired Markowitz to keep going. After the essence of a film came to her in a dream, Markowitz wrote Leaving, an emotional exploration of the human spirit.
Markowitz noted that at different points during the shoot, nearly everyone on set—from the cast to the crew—broke down in tears.
“This film affected everybody differently,” she says. “But it affected everyone deeply.”
It’s safe to say that Markowitz is no longer all business. She has reconciled the two parts of who she is to reveal her complete picture: an artist.
The Long Island International Film Expo (LIIFE) kicks off its 17th season July 9 and runs through July 17 at Bellmore Movies at 222 Pettit Avenue in Bellmore. Go to longislandfilm.com for a complete schedule of films, panels and events.