Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Master Says 285

I've lost all my money on these films. They are not commercial. But I'm glad to lose it this way. To have for a souvenir of my life pictures like Umberto D. and The Bicycle Thief.

Vittorio De Sica

The Master Says 284

How will you dream if you don't sleep?
How will you hear yourself?

Michael Dorris

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Woodshedding Hijinx

We had some laughs tonight. One actor couldn't make it at the last minute, so we did what we could without her. No big deal. My goal is simply to have a camera between me and actors every week. Mission accomplished.
I took advantage of the short evening to get off me duff and offload and review the footage in a timely manner. I'm going to try to make it a habit. I also confirmed my suspicions regarding the audio settings. Nice, rich audio is possible without a lot of heartache or money out of pocket. I thought as much. The point of a sound man is that I don't have to think about it, but I can't afford not to think about things right now.
Blah, blah, blah ...

Having a good time,
Signore Direttore

How did he know that?

These "film of tomorrow" quotes are really hitting me these days. I've had these tucked away for the past year and a half. I liked the way they sounded instantly, but they didn't make sense until now. Truffaut (much like Fellini) was so open-hearted and uncynical - certainly a font of his wisdom. If this pursuit is not an act of love; what is it? It's along the lines of the spiritual life not being a theory but a life we must lead. There's no intellectualizing it. We can't think ourselves into right action. We act our way into right thinking. We must walk the walk. And if we're going to walk nolens volens, we might as well keep our hearts open as best we can along the way.

Signore Direttore

The Master Says 283

The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure.

Francois Truffaut

Now Hear This (fingers crossed)

I'm gaining some momentum in terms of getting my eyes on the things I've shot. Then once I do it I'm like, have you seriously not watched the footage from something you shot a month, year, decade ago? I'm like one of those women that has a closet full of clothes they've never worn. I believe it's called compulsive. There's always something beneath an affliction like compulsion and I think in this case it's called hubris. I'm either overly confident about what I have or I'm afraid that it won't be representative of how I would like others to see me. It's the skinny jeans correlative. It's time to confront this insidious dishonesty.
I'm going to really get on the couch now. What if this is yet another form of self-abnegation? Self-sabotage? Last night I went about logging all the footage of Tara and David we shot over the holidays when both were in town. The audio levels on much of it was muddy. Almost all usable, but not without some work in post. Work that I didn't know how to do very well before I forgot how to do it entirely, but I'll get to that later in the post. There are two little scenes with David, one of which I recall as being a real gem when shooting it, that are inaudible. It makes me ill. Here I was feeling really good about Made Crooked and the bottom dropped out on me again. Albeit temporarily. There was no hair-pulling or name calling. I'm in it to the end with that project. So why didn't I sit down and make sure the footage was good before they left town? Pride, again. Disorganization. Inexperience! Which falls under pride. I didn't take the precaution because I hadn't been sufficiently burned. I can take my hand off the stove now.
It does raise many questions however. Number one; why are all the levels so low? I think the person that's been operating the camera has mistaken the halfway mark for the peak mark on the audio meter. Then when I can't hear it on set, he jacks up the headphone volume. My inspection of the camera has all but confirmed this probability. I've sent my concerns along to the appropriate party acknowledging that he isn't a sound man and isn't ultimately responsible for the audio, but that we need to address this error. Which brings us to question 1A; should I be using a sound tech more often? Nowhere have I experienced the adage you get what you pay for more than in regard to sound. With the possible exception of But A Dream where we paid about 15% of our total budget for sound. The levels are there, but Heath and Joey sound like they were on different planets instead of ten feet away from one another on Day 2. He also provided no handles, so syncing was a time-consuming issue during the transfer. I digress. I want to run and gun. I don't want to spend the money, especially now when I don't have any. I don't want to pay someone who expands our crew, slows us down and doesn't always deliver. On the flipside, if I have to reshoot Tara or David I have to wait for them to come back to town or go the prohibitive expense of doing an ISDN ADR patch with actors that are inexperienced at looping.
I've worked with a sound guy that has done a good job, is pleasant to be around and gives me a smoking rate. I might just need to make that a given on anything I hope to present to the world in a format bigger than Quicktime. I also need to learn/relearn about sound, both production and post-. Before I add the harmonica to my one-man band, I'm going to remind myself that my primary goal right now is to improve as a director. I want to see performance better with my eyes and help the audience to see it better by improving my shot selection. I'm going to say that getting good sound is a job for the producer. I wear that hat as well, but I'm not giving it my focus at present. I need to pound this home. The idea that I can do it all has to be smashed.
Then again, not denying the veracity of any of the aforementioned, I have to acknowledge that if I'm working in a fingers crossed manner, I have to expect some shortfalls. This element has to be embraced to a certain extent if I'm going to persist in no-budget filmmaking. If I ask your dad and my dentist for seventy-five grand or if the Germans back a million dollar project of mine, then expectations should rise considerably. But two or three guys in a room with an amateur actor or two is a crap shoot. Sometimes you roll fours and tens, sometimes you crap out. I'm going to do the best I can and when I come up short, I'm going to try to let myself off the hook. Forget all the psycho-therapy mumble jumble and accept the reality of my situation as a DIY filmmaker. In the immortal words of Billy, Johnny and Din: Lighten up and have a good time!

Ain't No Thing,
Signore Direttore

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Master Says 282

The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.

Francois Truffaut

Better Directing

I took note of my last post concerning preparation and trust for this week. I've prepared in a more conventional manner. Once I knew which actors I was working with I came up with a scene. I then summarized it in an email, realizing as i was about to send it that I could and should write it in script form. I suggested that the actors look for that in the coming days. As I tend to do, I wrote it almost immediately. Then while watching my son and his friends play video games during his sleepover, I started drawing storyboards. Then I broke the script into beats. And now I'm making some crib notes.
There's something very reassuring about doing these things. And they don't take much effort because I've done it so many times. Still it was good to go through the process. I know where to put the camera. I know what I want to see. I even broke the habit of seeing it in bits. I made myself storyboard coverage. I realized a critical flaw in my perception of shooting masters. I erroneously believed that the entire scene had to be shot in a master. I realized that you can just shoot masters of the major beats and then do a little overlapping. It made so much sense finally.
There is a catch. I need to make sure that my preparation is a blueprint, not the finished product. I need to let the actors build upon the foundation and live in the house we build together. I need to do just what I tell actor-students: do the prep and then forget it.
I'll let you know how it goes.

Signroe Direttore

The "Most Desire" Award

In the summer between the eighth grade and high school I went to some basketball camps. At one I was awarded "Most Desire". I was so disappointed. I wanted to be "Most Valuable Player" or "Best Jump Shooter". It felt like a real booby prize, as if they couldn't come up with anything good to say about any of my skills. I don't remember how I altered it or what I changed it to, but I did change it, rendering my prize counterfeit. An early instance of being blind to and subverting my estimable qualities.
It wasn't until many years later that I realized how powerful that award was. That even if I wasn't as talented a ball player as some of the other kids, and I wasn't, my zeal for the game was wholly manifest.
As a director, I rarely have the chance to work with actors that are sublimely talented. The people I work with that demonstrate a sense of integrity about the work are much more attractive than those who have talent but lack passion. Maybe my work suffers for it, I don't know as yet, but I'm sticking with the passionate until persuaded otherwise.

Signore Direttore

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Master Says 281

The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has.

Francois Truffaut

Sunday, January 27, 2008

8 Years

My son turns eight today. It's another of life's ordinary yet profound triumphs. I don't know if it's because he's our first child or he's a boy or if it has something to do with my own childhood never quite being realized, but he's always seemed huge to me. He certainly has a willful personality. His teacher says its a good thing there are passionate and opinionated people like Henry in the world, otherwise nothing would ever change. He's been like that since birth. He never learned to crawl and went straight to walking. He's always known what he's wanted. There's a sweetness to him that comes out as well. I've long suffered trying to let the strong willed side of him coexist with his sweet and tender side. My own expectations of how he should behave have been challenged every step of the way. I don't have a favorite amongst my three children, but I will say I've learned more about communication and my own limitations to do so effectively from Henry than from any one else in my entire life. Which makes him a different kind of special to me. As I've come to understand him on his own terms rather than in relation to my own boyhood or my expectations, my love has grown from the prosaic love obligation a father feels for a son to something much more profound. He will continue to challenge me. That I know.
When he was born, many people asked if I was going to get serious about a career. At that point I was about a year into transitioning from working as a full-time club promoter and band manager to a filmmaker. I was tired of managing the dreams of others and wanted to pursue my own. I was writing screenplays and working in the art department on films and commercials. And I was doing some acting. I was very unfocused looking back. Yet I was clear that I wanted to write and direct films. I guess because I had been so successful at my previous career and I hung around a lot of famous industry folk combined with my tendency to "look the part" and talk a good game, all conspired to give me an air of confidence in my new endeavor that I hadn't really earned. Even when I was working as a PA people came up to me at craft services thinking I was the director. But it didn't translate into wealth and fame. I thought both were imminent. I had this great script and a million other ideas. People hired me to shoot stuff for them without seeing a reel. I sat around with accomplished actors talking as if we were on the same level. As far as I was concerned, my career as a filmmaker was well established.
But the people who didn't see all the elbow rubbing, people like our accountant and our lawyer, the grown-ups in our lives, they wanted to know what I was going to do for a living. I thought about going to law school. What underemployed thirty-two year old doesn't? I thought about going back to teaching. I thought about a career as a set technician -- the union art department guys were on me to take the Local 52 test. My friend and boss Happy Massee simply said, I don't see you wearing a tool belt. He was also very excited to hear me take over as director on a short film that I had originally planned only to write. Happy's votes of confidence helped, but they weren't the deciding factor. What it really came down to, and I remember the exact moment of clarity, I was sitting at my first Mac G4 teaching myself Final Cut Pro 1.2 and I realized that I didn't want to tell my kid what I could have been or what I always wanted to be. I wanted to tell him I became what I was through hard work, sacrifice and believing in my dreams. Or that failure came only after I had exhausted every last resource. I figured that would be a better example than a stable career doing something conventional that didn't have my heart.
Henry asked me about a year ago why my movies aren't in theaters. There are a lot of reasonable responses to that question, but before I could offer one I experienced a deep feeling of shame. I felt like a fraud and a failure. The last person I want to subject to any smoke and mirrors is my son, but I wasn't ready to admit defeat and I didn't want to make excuses so I just told him a takes a long time to get to that point and I was working on it. A few months later, he made a comment about how I was trying to get into Hollywood because isn't that the point of making movies. Oddly enough it coincided with my homeschooling him and my complete absorption into caring for him and my family. That experience underscored my reluctance and disinterest in leaving my family for weeks at a time to make movies. I was in the process of embracing making small films, of being a regional DIY filmmaker for the rest of my days. So without any shame at all I let him know that not everyone wants to make Hollywood movies, that some people are perfectly happy making movies that only their friends and family see. I didn't care too much if he understood or if he thought I was making excuses. He'll get it or he won't. The important thing is that I get it.
In a very real sense, Henry has been a key factor in my sticking with things. I've never done anything consistently for eight years before he came along. Sometimes I like to fantasize that if I didn't have a family my career would be much further along. But I know that's not true, without the grounding center that they serve in my life who knows what I'd be doing. So not only has Henry helped me grow as person and heal some of the wounds from my own childhood, he's helped me to become what I was always wanted to be - a father and a filmmaker.

Signore Direttore

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Master Says 280

I never did anything because I thought it was different. I did it because I liked it.

Gordon Willis

Friday, January 25, 2008

Week in Review - oo8/4


Freaky Friday - The original with Jodie Foster. The kids liked it and I found myself laughing at times as well.

All the President's Men - Yep. Good stuff. One thing bothered me though, there were like twenty super long tracking shots following Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford or Jason Robards around the Washington Post set. I never noticed that before and it seemed strange. Another of Soderbergh's faves. It doesn't make my top ten of all time, but I'm glad to have seen it again. I read that Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford took great care not to take on or develop character for their portrayals of Woodward and Bernstein as much as the things that drove the men internally. They wanted to preserve the deeds of the men rather than a biography.

The Underneath - Soderbergh's fourth film. A remake of Criss Cross, the Burt Lancaster noir classic. It's a clear early example of the time shifts that Soderbergh played with so successfully a few years later in The Limey and Out of Sight. I've read that Soderbergh doesn't really like the crime genre in and of itself, but that he's very into it being a plot structure within which to explore relationships. I think he does that in an interesting way in this film. It definitely represents the transition between sex, lies and videotape and Out of Sight.

Gilda - Va va vavoom! Rita Hayworth is ... mmmm she can sing (or at least lip sync convincingly), she can dance, and on top of that, she's very, very talented. A young Glenn Ford starts out wonderfully sebaceous and transitions into a shrewd then paranoid then sentimental man. He nor the story quite achieves the tragedy of the Thane of Cawdor and Glamis, but it's an impressive performance and the chemistry between he and Rita is wonderful. The rest of the cast is mostly high camp. The plot convoluted. The sets beautiful art deco creations.

A Generation - A Polish Neo-Realist film by Andrzej Wajda about the Marxist underground during the Nazi occupation. Made in 1954, it was both a celebration of those that resisted the Nazis as well as an indictment of the corrupt policies of the Soviets. They used live ammunition to achieve ultra realism on a low budget. It's a beautiful film. A very young Roman Polanski is in it.

Wet Hot American Summer - I had heard it was hilarious. I guess I'm too old or something. I don't think I laughed once. Why I watched the whole thing, is a good question.

The Manchurian Candidate - Wonderfully abstract. I tried to watch this film several years ago and didn't have the patience. My patience rewarded me this time around. The scene where Sinatra meets Janet Leigh on the train is masterful. I transcribed it and am going to assign it in my class.
I found it interesting that they were able to make a film so incredibly anomalous. Apparently Sinatra's involvement and belief in the project kept the studio at bay.

George Washington - Another film I tried to watch six or seven years ago and failed to stick with it. I was again rewarded. It's very beautifully filmed. Which gives the raw and naive performances a certain grace.

Oliver Twist - David Lean 1948. In the opening scene I immediately recalled seeing it before in the ASC Art of Cinematography DVD. Ernest Dickerson talks about its profound impact on him. Watched it with my son. He never once called it a gray movie as he tends to do when I watch a black and white film. It's a masterpiece - gorgeous, timeless and fully articulated.

The Steel Helmet - One of Samuel Fuller's first films. A Korean War film made in 1951, during the war. He combines melodrama and realism. Some of it was shot on a stage and a few shots on location, mixed with newsreel footage for the battle sequences. It's an odd combination of very fine filmmaking with naive B movie techniques. There are some political ideas that have since become at best cliche and at worst offensive. I don't know enough about film history to cite exactly how it was new and inventive in relation to its era, but it seems very ahead of its time. They must have moved fast pretty fast. The cinematographer, Ernest Miller ASC, shot fifteen films released that year.

Akeelah and the Bee - I found the idea that someone that has the courage to be true to themselves can accomplish great things very powerful and moving. She did a lot more than win a spelling bee - she brought her community and her family together not in the winning as much as in the journey.


The Rest is Noise - I mentioned it last week. I really like the historical aspects of the book, but I can't let go of my lack of knowledge of music theory. I'm trying to understand things that make no sense to me and shouldn't based on my total ignorance. I think there are some interesting parallels between classical musicians in the early 20th century and independent or artistic filmmakers of the early 21st century. Popular audiences didn't readily appreciate Schoenberg or Webern, preferring newer forms of music like ragtime and eventually jazz. Classical devotees wanted to see concerts of 17th and 18th century composers. In the current era, popular film audiences want to see National Treasure and Clovenhoof or whatever it's called. And film aficionados would rather see repertory films than contemporary unknowns. Before you argue that, what's going to get a better turnout over a weekend at Cinema 21 or Film Forum? A new Park Chan-wook film or a restored print of Days of Heaven? There will be a line around the block for the thirty year old Malick film. I've stood in it. And I've had my choice of seats for all of Park's films. Certainly ragtime and jazz are more rigorous art forms than Hollywood blockbusters, but that's beside the point I'm trying to make.

The Art of the Storyboard by John Hart - I have such mixed feelings about storyboards. And I'm a damn perfectionist. So a lot of the time, I won't draw them if I'm not creating impressive little cartoons. Then I'm not sure I like the idea of assuming how it's all going to work out. And then again, it seems most cameramen need the picture because they're very visual. And I want to have a coherent and productive conversation with the man behind the camera.
It's a decent book. He emphasizes the importance of using the boards to previsualize rather than to be good drawings in themselves. I need that kind of affirmation. As I need to further explore the use of storyboards. This book helps.

I need to get into some fiction. I've got plenty of novels within arm's reach. I don't know...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

From the Mouth of Ali G: Respeck

I was dashing off a quick email to an actor this morning about getting together next Wednesday for some woodshedding. I gave him some news about a short that we worked on last year. I saw a cut of it the other day with the guy that's cutting it. I wrote some smart-assed thing about its completion date coinciding with the year anniversary of shooting it. Then I hit delete. I thought, why shit on it? Respect the process. It's not an easy thing to make films. It's obvious that the entirety of the process has been something I'm coming to terms with. Making excuses, acting flippantly apologetic or being ashamed isn't going to change anything. It takes a long time to learn how to make a film. I've often been quick to gently remind others how relatively short a time they've been acting or making films. Where's my compassion for moi?
There's certainly more money to be made in writing books on making films than there is making films. Maybe I've found a topic that hasn't been covered: Kill The Poseur Within - How to stop acting like a filmmaker and start doing the work to become a filmmaker. A whole line of self-help books for the wannabe artist that can't let go of his ego. The beginner series could be sold with book jackets with fake titles like, Aesthetic Semiosis in Post-Caeusescu Romanian Cinema. Or it could just be a podcast.

Signore Direttore

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Gun Shy ... again

I posted the cut I made of partners on YouTube over the weekend, but it didn't upload correctly. It took a lot of time and fuss. I uploaded the clip on the blog just fine. So rather than send out a mass email linking to it on YouTube, I linked instead to my blog. A lot of folks checked in and said some kind words, about partners and the blog itself. I appreciate it, yet I haven't been too keen to write much since for fear that I'll be branded a pedantic fool.
One of the friends that I've corresponded with since then is a very talented, accomplished and disciplined artist. We spoke briefly about the most important thing being to get out of the way of the work. I don't want to be reliant on the opinions of others, yet I need to make sure the story I'm trying to tell is coming across. Not to everyone in my case, as I'm not looking to create mass entertainment. As my friend shared, "Some judge too harshly and do too little themselves, others are too complimentary and tend to make mush."
I do notice that my conversations after sharing something I've done, whether it's successful or not, take on more humility and grace. I feel like I'm participating in a dialogue with another artist rather than operating from a place of arrogant insecurity. Whether I'm responding to putting myself out there in the "right" way also doesn't matter that much. I just need to experience it. I am not in a position at the moment to be sure of my motives or anything of the sort. I just have to be where I'm at with putting my work out there as well as my process, which are likely one in the same.
So this is where I'm at. Looks like the office is going to work out. And class as well. There's been a good response. I like all six of the people that have signed up. I don't think I'm going to take on any more until after the first month. Well, I probably won't turn somebody interesting away, but I'm not going to do any soliciting. And since I'm teaching a class again rather than reopening the studio, I can say no to anybody that I don't feel good about working with.
I've done a little editing on partners. I need to do the sound and the color and then that's done. I spent the day Sunday with one of the principals in London Calling. He was in town and we did some ADR. It went as well as can be expected considering he played the part almost three years ago and I wasn't very prepared for him as he came to town last minute. But we did our best and it's definitely something to work with. For all my heel dragging in getting it finished, he was surprised to see that it's actually pretty good. Like most strong personality traits, perfectionism is a double-edged sword. It's pretty good as is, but I think I can make it better. And I owe it to the film to try. Who cares how long it takes? I'm working on it, however slowly.
I shot a little exercise with Oct. on Monday. Just some one on one work. Operating the camera makes it difficult for me to watch performance very closely. I think it's a good exercise once in awhile. Let's me experience the camera more directly if not what it sees. I look at light and movement in a different way. It also makes me appreciate how important having someone else worry about all that stuff is. I had someone lined up to operate the camera, but I decided it would be better to build on my relationship with the actor and allow her to experience a more profound sense of intimacy with camera and director. It develops my trust as well. I thought we got what we needed for the scene. Now when I look at it I'll find out if that's true. I'm doing a lot of that lately. It's scary. It feels as if I'm disconnecting from the work somehow, like I'm suddenly tossing caution to the wind and I'll soon be subject to the law of diminishing returns. But if I really look at it and learn to look at it ever more closely and then put it out to friends and colleagues, I'm sure to discover that I need to go deeper or that my senses are in fact pretty sharp. Or somewhere in between. It's getting out of the way of the work. Letting the work speak for itself. Fucking terrifying. Yet the more I show up in this way, the more the bogeyman is exposed as being but a fantasy.
Something else occurs to me about working this fast. I haven't prepared enough to know what it is that I'm looking for. All that I've mused on above remains valid, however I think it wise to be aware of this factor. One thing I could do is subject the scenes to my own preparation routine, if only in a condensed version. I think I'm doing that on a subconscious level as a matter of experience, but I'm not entirely sure. That's an easy one to convince oneself of out of pride.
I'm looking forward to having an office away from home again. Somehow I think it might be a shorter journey to 10th and Ankeny than it's been down the back stairs. I'm, as ever, looking forward to shooting more scenes. I'm even beginning to look forward to editing.
One of my friends in NY asked if the woodshed I refer to at the end of partners is "where I keep my dogma tied up." I responded, "Yeah, while my dogma is tied up out back I let my dogme run wild." To which he replied, "Truly, you are the king of indepedantic cinema." Gotta love people that know how to take the piss out of their friends.

Signore Direttore

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Truly a Shame

Heath Ledger is dead at 28. I really can't believe it. I met him once and had a short chat. He was incredibly sweet and down to earth. I was looking forward to seeing him progress through a long career.
My heart goes out to his family and friends. He will definitely be missed.

The Master Says 279

If it is art, it is not for all and if it is for all, it's not art.
The serious artist should stop flailing his arms in a bid for attention and instead withdraw into a principled solitude.

Arnold Schoenberg

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Master Says 278

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


The Master Says 277

To relax our attention into the present moment is extraordinarily simple, but, for most of us, it demands a lifetime of practice.

Ruth Zaporah

Better Directing

My attention has awakened to learning to see performance ever more specifically. Whether it's the demands of being on set as a director or the demands of running the business of an acting studio, it's very easy to get caught up in logistics and egotistical concern with competence.
But competence isn't the goal. Excellence is.
Competence is achieved via showing up and paying attention to getting things done. Important to be sure, but not an end in itself. I'm trying to think of an analogy. I want to say something related to painting. Like stretching and priming canvases. It's important, but just about anybody can be taught how to do it well. Painting is another story. The field gets narrower, but there are still a large number of people that can be taught to paint competently. But learning to see, that's another thing entirely.
Music provides an even more apt metaphor. If you can talk, you can sing. If you can count, you can play an instrument. With training and practice, competence is easily attainable. Advancing technology makes the means of production ever more democratic. But just because you can produce a slick CD in your bedroom it doesn't make you Mozart. Mozart reputedly composed his first symphony at the age of eight without instruction. That's genius, a much more rare combination of ability and perception.
I have some natural talents. Nothing on the level of genius and nothing that can be left without nurture and development. There's something in me that wants to hold onto technical competence. Doing so is an obstacle to developing whatever talent I possess. Perhaps I need more practical experience to feel more comfort with the logistics and technical necessities of filmmaking. I accept that. And I'm doing my best to work with actors and camera more regularly. As I do so, I want to remind myself that I'm not trying to get better at lighting or producing or providing snacks. I'm working in fast little three and four hour bursts so as to eliminate the need for breaks or meals and using as little equipment as possible. Once the performances and storytelling are at a consistent level of excellence I can explore making things look prettier in terms of lighting. Right now I just want enough light to learn to see performance better. It may be in the long run that the immediacy of working faster runs counter to the time it takes to light things competently. When I get to that point I'll have a better idea how much I'm able and willing to compromise. I think one of hte biggest accomplishments in my development is to know that I'm not yet there. I can posture all I want about being a complete filmmaker, but it ain't gonna make it so.
I've been thinking a lot about mask work. How it frees actors from their faces and the stories they hold in their bodies. The thing about film work is people assume it's a matter of naturalism and realism. Which are really just mannerisms most of the time. Mannerisms are generalities, even the personal ones. Because they come out of neuroses and second-guessing. They lack a connection to the universal. When actors use a mask, they tap into those things in themselves that are universal. Their work becomes more essential and that's where the connection happens. I want to see freedom of expression from head to toe in actors whether it's in the theater or in film. Perhaps it's naive of me, but when actors are able to work at a certain level, I don't see a lot of difference between the two. Unless we put a hidden camera in your bedroom, it's all artificial if your concern is realism.
In my class descriptions I wrote some years ago that one of the the goals is "to get beyond realism" in the On-Camera class. I was looking at that the other day, reflecting on its meaning. I guess what I mean is this, what we do as storytellers is real. If, and it's a huge gigantic IF, we're connected to what we're doing in the moment. Whether I'm on stage or in a real location. If in front of a green screen wearing a winter coat in the middle of summer I don't need to act cold. I don't need to trick myself into feeling cold. I don't need a lot of technique. I just need to listen and act according to what's going on. I'm wearing a big coat. Presumably they're going to put a picture of winter behind me. Even if I start to sweat, it's truthful. For one, because it's happening. And I've gotten sweaty in the winter plenty of times. If the production doesn't want me to sweat, it's on them to cool me down or accept it. But I digress.
So let's say I'm "walking in the snow" toward a cabin in the woods where my lover has been waiting for me all day. I'm going to be thinking about what's next while doing what I'm doing to get to what's next. That's the key difference between film and theater, in my opinion, theater most often is about presenting ideas in the moment and film is about what's going to happen next. Thinking about what's next is what we do in life. Whether your Zen monk, purist self likes it or not, it is being in the moment. Especially when we're in transit. And let's not forget film is a moving picture.
What I'm thinking depends on a lot of things. Am I still in love with my lover? Are my feet wet? Am I hungry? Do I need a drink? What happened before I left? Where did I go? Was my objective for leaving fulfilled? Did I have an idea or see something while I was out that I can't wait to share? Or keep to myself? If I know what I've been doing, what I am doing, and what I would like to do -- being aware of the given circumstances -- and I'm experiencing that freely, I don't have to do a lot connecting the dots of how cold I am or how I'm feeling emotionally. To say I'm thinking about all these things is misleading. I'm doing all the while - walking in the snow and experiencing my inner life in relation to my outer world. I don't have to create that external world for the audience, I just have to experience some outer world truthfully. The audience will respond to my truth and accept the scenic designer's or the CGI artist's work as if it's reality based on the deeper reality of my truth.
As much as I might like to experiment with quality neutral masks in my upcoming on-camera classes and my weekly filming, there's some factors that make that unlikely. One is they're expensive and my experience is that most actor-students don't like to spend money on tools for their acting. My not wanting to get into that is important to maintaining the necessary boundaries in order to keep my focus on directing rather than mentoring. I don't want to be a mentor to actor-students anymore. I get caught up in it in unhealthy ways. A related factor of neutral mask work is that the mask can be seen as goofy, I don't want to put myself in the position of instructing people that the mask demands respect to be effective. I'm not very good at being authoritative without relying on force. It's something I'm working on and I'm choosing my battles. A way that I can be more of a communicating guide is to be more playful, so I'm planning on experimenting with hooded sweatshirts and eventually wigs and wild makeup as a quasi-substitute for neutral masks. I know they're different, but I want to break away from realism and I want to do it in a playful manner.
Just giving Tara and October hats and guns took things to another level the other night. Thy were still themselves, but they were able to get out of their more finite selves and play. Play always happens on a more universal level - like laughter. When we did a more realistic scene this week, there was a sinking feeling in my stomach when I didn't feel like the realism was truthful. It made it more like work than play. I did the work to get it moving towards truth, but really now that I've gotten a taste of taking ourselves a little less seriously, I want to play. Who doesn't?
I didn't plan on this needing to be so long of a post. Anyway, what I'm getting at is I want and need to let go of technique, both acting and filmmaking, in order to tune into the actors' bodies to make sure they're experiencing the given circumstances fully. Letting go of technique is also known as trusting what you know. Trust what I know and trust what the crew knows and trust what the actors know. And start from there.

Camminare la strada,
Signore Direttore

Friday, January 18, 2008

Week in Review - oo8/3


Margot at the Wedding - Thumbs down. Already said enough about it here.

No Blood For Oil - You can read my earlier review here. When I picked my wife up from the airport this morning she asked how it was. I said, "Good. I'll see it again with you. It doesn't really pay off on all its promise."

The Scar - Kieslowski's first film is about a factory being built in a Polish town. It's very good. The beginning of his hybrid of documentary and narrative techniques. I was very interested in the party politics and its intersection with the main character's family. Kieslowski is such the master of interweaving the external world and the personal.

Control - I've gushed about this film before. I found myself a little bored in some of the relationship scenes the second time through. I wouldn't say that's a fault of the film, but my own lack of patience. Otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed it nearly as much as the first time.

Treasure Island - Charming. Watched it with my son. The actor playing Long John Silver was awesome.

Young Mr. Lincoln - For as stilted and formal as this John Ford historical biography was, it was captivating. I got a little caught up in the courtroom drama. Henry Fonda really looked like Abe Lincoln and was charming.

Return of the Secaucus Seven - The acting in this film as so incredibly mannered. The actors shouted and talked at each other relentlessly. I liked the look of it. The DVD was damaged and kept skipping so I gave up on it after awhile.

The War Photographer - It's a doc about acclaimed war photographer James Nachtwey. The two really annoying things about it in the first ten minutes are the cheesy composite effect where they put his camera and finger in front of the movie camera and the coverage of the German news magazine editors that are essentially marketing the war coverage. Both are pretty appalling and make the film almost impossible for me to watch at first. But I stayed with it and went on the journey from Kosovo to Rwanda, on to Indonesia, to Palestine and to the US.
He claims that many of his strongest images don't make it into mainstream publications because advertisers don't like their products appearing to such grim images.
Nachtwey seems more interested in the effects of war on civilian: famine, catastrophe, brutality, poverty. I appreciate that perspective. Overall the film is an intimate portrait of a storyteller that's been on the front lines for twenty years capturing both the story he tells and the effect on his psyche.

One-Eyed Jacks - Marlon Brando stars in the only film he ever directed. It's long. And yet incomplete. It has its moments of brilliance. It has many more moments of mediocrity. You can't go wrong watching the performances of Brando and Karl Malden. The DVD transfer was awful, making for a washed-out, grainy picture.

The Good German - I heard this was a stinker and if it weren't directed by Soderbergh, I wouldn't have bothered. My overall impression was like, Oh look Soderbergh does Classic Hollywood style, too! He's such the film geek pasticher. And that's about it, a style exercise. That said, I love Cate Blanchett. I'm totally hot for in her in a lusty way, yet she eludes my crush by disappearing into role after role. Maybe its her artistry that turns me on. Clooney, on the other hand, is blessed and cursed with that voice and that manner. I like him, but I almost always know he's George Clooney. (I think that's why I loved Michael Clayton so much.) And Tobey Maguire. Ugh. Unless I'm taking my son to see SpiderMan, I don't want to see that guy.


I didn't read much this past week as I had my hands and head full of parenting. I started The Rest Is Noise - Listening to the 20th century by Alex Ross. It's a very good music history book with lots of political and cultural history. I appreciate the explanations of music theory.

Clip from Rough Cut of Partners

Thursday, January 17, 2008

3 4 3 in oo8

I set a goal for this year that I would like to work with actors with a camera between us at least once a week. In truth I've shot three little shorts. That's great, but I might be setting my expectations too high. Maybe to slow myself down I should just do an on-camera rehearsal next week. I'm doing a pretty good job of not getting precious.
Last night we shot a little short with Eric Stevens, Michael Smolski, October Moore and Jen Ha. It was all exteriors. We used the ambient light from a card-lock fueling station behind my old studio. Our only light was a tiny battery powered LED LitePanel that we placed wherever we needed to keep things from getting totally muddy. I think the cameraman I was using last night was skeptical of mixing color temps and the motivation of the source, but he understood that it was primarily an exercise. Brian was excellent to work with. I did notice that I missed the ease with which Jordan and I work together. For me, I know we're doing a five minute short that's going to end up on Youtube at best. We're spending zero dollars and cents, using a location without permission and we have only three hours to shoot fifteen shots. I want to see the subject and the key elements in the shot. I don't really care if a soft light or an abstract reflection appears illogically. I've never heard a civilian go, "Well, the story was really good, but I couldn't understand why the color temp on the car in the background was so much cooler than the foreground." Never going to happen. Try telling that to a cameraman or lighting tech.
It was clear and very crisp last night. I didn't dress very warmly for some reason. It could be that my wife has been in Thailand on a job for a week and I'm ragged from being a single dad to three kids, one of whom is two and wants to nurse in the middle of the night and screams or sobs for most of the night when she can't. After a couple of hours of working in freezing temperatures I was pretty disconnected. But anything that happens at all happens exactly as it should; right? I responded by focusing on the basics, letting go of things that were sources of tension and, above all, maintaining a kind and patient attitude toward the actors and cameraman.
I couldn't exactly articulate or direct the physical actions of the actors to maximize cutting continuity. I asked for a general adjustment that would get us in the ballpark and let it go. I assured myself that that was the point of the exercise -- to make lots of mistakes, gain experience and get closer to mastery through doing. I realize already that I could have done a master of the sequence which would have helped with the continuity and covered the scene better. I have a habit of seeing and shooting things in pieces. I did this originally to save film back in the day. It also saves time and keeps things fresh. It prevents less experienced actors from robotically going through their motions in coverage while disconnecting from their inner objects. Even so, a little master run through of the last sequence last night would have been helpful all around. The awesome thing is I have a record of my work that I can review.

Signore Direttore

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

No Way

Brad Renfro died of unknown causes at the age of 25.
He had something special, but like a lot of us he was either afraid of it or he found drugs and alcohol more appealing than real life.
My heart goes out to him.

Signore Direttore

The Master Says 276

The greatest scientists are artists as well. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.

Albert Einstein

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Office Space

I've been offered office space at a local film related place of business. It's a good sized office that could be sectioned off to accommodate my equipment, my editing suite, a conference table as well as a much-desired small private, for my eyes only workspace for writing and other creative contemplation in the back.
The rent is very reasonable and includes utilities and an alarm system. It's very centrally located on Ankeny and SE 9th, just off of Burnside.
There's also an adjacent open space that could work well for rehearsals, casting and perhaps classes. Yes, I'm thinking of teaching class again. But rather than backslide into the habits that I've shed from coaching acting I think I want to teach an on-camera class that's structured so that I'm teaching actor-students how to prepare, but when it comes time to be on camera I'm going to be very hands off. Just give people the opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment and the opportunity to review them. I don't want to teach technique beyond breaking down a script and learning how to rehearse. The basics will come through the doing -- "Oh look, you're out of focus. You must not have hit your mark." I don't want to offer critiques until the shooting is done. I want to preserve the flow of working with actors from behind the camera.
I'm thinking about doing it because A, nobody else in town in offering what I have in mind. B, a couple of extra bucks a month would be welcome. C, I miss teaching. And D, I miss meeting and developing relationships with actor-students in that context. The cool thing is that if it doesn't work out the way I'm hoping, I can still afford the office without the teaching income. So spread the word that I'm interviewing potential actor-students.

Signore Direttore

Monday, January 14, 2008

There Will Be Postmodernism

It seems to me that our culture has become far too self-conscious to allow itself to be absorbed by an operatic film like There Will Be Blood. We're more comfortable skimming surfaces. To be sure the surfaces are stunning and without flaw. In terms of picture, Robert Elswit does the West even better than Roger Deakins. There are of course other aspects of the film that remain in light or in plain view as it were. There were so many laughs during the matinee at Cinema 21 yesterday. Really they should be cracking up at the absurdity of most of the reality-based crap on television, including Fox News. This self-aware need to let everyone else know that we get it, is a real handicap when watching someone like Daniel Day Lewis, whose pyrotechnics are from another era. His flinty firebrand Daniel Plainview is more like the portrayals by Orson Welles, Charles Laughton or early Jack Nicholson than any of the icebergs toplining contemporary movies.
Or maybe it's not that at all. Maybe the audience senses a postmodern comedy in the grins and growls of Day Lewis's scenery chewing. It's as if he's channeling John Huston's insinuating snarl, not Huston the filmmaker but the actor playing Noah Cross in Chinatown. Some sort of meta-commentary on the pioneer spirit as depicted in epic Westerns. Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson simply doesn't give Day Lewis anywhere to go. David Mamet cautions against the epic, asserting that the sprawling scope undermines story. Anderson blatantly disregards such perspectives as There Will Be Blood is plainly nihilistic. Daniel Plainview is driven by more than greed, he just wants to come out on top. This seems to be an egregious example of what historians call mentalite -- imparting a modern conception of psychology onto an historical figure or event. Anderson leans heavily on the contemporary idea and metaphor of "No Blood For Oil" without regard for framing ambition in the traditional context of industry and the Protestant work ethic. His argument isn't very conspicuous or cogent on the screen. Perhaps it's too soon to tell -- subversion is often viral and a mere twelve hours could be too soon to tell just how powerful his ideas are.
My see-sawing might be annoying you by now -- so many "perhaps's" and "maybe's". You might want me to be clearly on one side or the other of this film. Maybe I've been infected by Anderson's dissidence after all. For all of Anderson's praise of the simple story, he never gives us one. In the first act of the film I was close to dozing off. It wasn't boring per se, more hypnotic. At the exact moment I became aware of this, I noticed the oil pump pumping up and down in steady rhythm, the camera sweeping around it, the score's syncopated beat (the music, by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, is amazing and as anachronistically bombastic as Daniel Day Lewis's performance). And then, BOOM! Oil and personal catastrophe strike.
It's quite possible that the postmodernism of Anderson's films, this one in particular, is troublesome to traditional critics like Armond White or professors of History at Reed College. Maybe he is a great pretender, a thinking man's Tarantino, sampling classics, even classics that sample classics like Chinatown. Though with the confidence and assurance to know that there is no unifying classic to be made in our times. A nod to the abundance of information and content mixing the black hats and white hats into hats of the infinite shades of gray of the red and blue states - we like to think there's polarity, but the spectrum of today's world is muddy. If so, he manages to do this without winking at us. Maybe, like his mentor and dedicatee Robert Altman, he doesn't care how we feel about his films, acknowledging that in our various judgments we are all culpable and that we no longer need, nor deserve, Transcendence.
As much as I would like to sign off with that last turn of phrase I need to gush about Paul Dano for a moment. He's the real deal, able to stand toe to toe with Evil incarnate and wrestle with his own ambitious demons in the same breath. Daniel Day Lewis was at his greatest in the scenes that he shared the screen with Paul Dano.
I need to see this film again.

Signore Direttore

The Clintons Eat High on the Hog

While the rest of us eat what's left. That's an old saying distinguishing the differences between house negroes and field negroes. Nevermind that both were enslaved and powerless however their owners may have fed and dressed them. Why perpetuate divisive stigmas on the oppressed? To keep them and the rest of America oppressed of course. Just ask the Clintons. Do the Clinton's really want what's best for America? Or do they just want to prolong and expand their power at any cost? Read this and the latter gets pretty loud and clear.

Enjoy your chitlins,
Signore Direttore

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Guest Blogger: Henry


What Wedding?

Rarely do I jump out of my seat and bolt for the exit when the credits roll. I don't recall ever being the first person to leave the theater. After enduring ninety minutes of what felt more like a case study on borderline personality disorder than a dramatic film, I did indeed leap out of my seat and made it to the exit well before anyone else. It was a reaction. I didn't even have to use the bathroom.
I suppose one could say Margot at the Wedding is a very truthful rendering of cruelty and mental illness. But without much of a story, it just feels mean and crazy. Nicole Kidman gives a good turn as Margot, playing her character to full effect. An effect not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard. I suppose what Noah Baumbach is trying to do is render all of his characters with subtle flipsides to their most glaring character defects. But it just ends up being messy and psychotic. There's nowhere to go. It's an unraveling that hints at things not really ever changing that much. Baumbach lacks the chops of a Micheal Haneke or a Paul Thomas Anderson to reveal the characters' inner lives to make hinting at things being in stasis dramatic. He substitutes little details that you find in short stories in the New Yorker, i.e. a dead mouse at the bottom of the rich author's pool, for real dramatic action. Literary devices rarely translate directly into cinematic devices.
I must have liked something, right? The handheld camera work had a nice feel. Though most of the framing was frontal and boring. Okay, right, stuff I liked. Jennifer Jason Leigh. And the kid that plays Claude, Margot's pubescent son. That's about it for the likes. My biggest dislike was Jack Black. He was completely out of his element. His summertime B-movie schtick does not work in a serious film.
I really liked Baumbach's Squid and the Whale. I look forward to his next effort while I try to forget this one.

Better Luck Next Time,
Signore Direttore

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Contemplate This With Me, Please:

Week in Review - oo8/2


Where the Red Fern Grows - For the kids on family movie night. Simple and touching.

Ghostworld - I fell asleep the first two times I tried to watch this film. I'm glad I finally stayed awake. One of Steve Buscemi's best performances. I wanted it to be more magical visually than it managed to be. I love Thora Birch.

Sing-along Grease - Very fun and lively afternoon. That movie doesn't get old for me. Singing along with a theater full of people was pretty special.

Mysterious Skin - This film made me very uncomfortable. I considered turning it off. I can't say I'm entirely glad I stayed with it. I don't really like Greg Araki's films. I will say this was much better filmmaking than I've seen from him before.

Schizopolis - Not quite as straightforward as Grease, to say the least. If it wasn't Soderbergh, I would have bailed on a very unique film watching experience.

Wal-Mart - The High Cost of Low Prices - Yep, Wal-mart sucks. So does the filmmaking, especially the ending.

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T - One of Soderbergh's ten favorite films of all time. I happened to find it in the children's section at the library yesterday afternoon. It's amazing looking. Timeless. I didn't connect to it to a top-ten extent, but I liked it and so did the kids.

The Edukators - Fuck yeah. I've been meaning to watch this for a long time. Excellent. Sexy, smart, suspenseful. Very good acting. Articulate idealism, huzzah!


Candygirl - Confessions of an unlikely stripper by Diablo Cody - Yeah, I don't know. Good for her for writing it down and launching a career. She might be skeevy, but she's no dummy. It had a distinct, I tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past, vibe to it. Glad I got it from the library rather than a bookstore, that's for sure.

The Resistance - Ten years of pop culture that shook the world - Pretty dry so far for being about a period of pop culture that I was in the middle of.

If You've Got 3 Bucks

And you've ever thought you were punk rock, you better get over to the Laurelhurst and see Control.
You have been warned!

Signore Direttore

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Master Says 275

Tell the story! Tell the story! That's what I saw in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The films that I love are very straightforward stories, like really old-fashioned stuff. I've never been a fan of whimsical or confusing storytelling.

Paul Thomas Anderson

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Couldn't Agree More

This from Reverse Shot's Eleven Offenses of 2007:

What, exactly, is Juno about? It’s not about teenage pregnancy—unless that means the subset of pregnant (white) teenage girls whose parents respond to the big news by joking about the potency (or lack thereof) of the father-to-be, or who conveniently give their babies to (rich, white) childless couples. It’s not about abortion, to be sure, despite its “abortion scene”—a parade of stereotypes that hinges on the intervention of a pro-life Asian girl with bad grammar (of course she has bad grammar, silly . . . she’s Asian!). It’s not about motherhood, excepting its contrivance that the arrival of an infant can transform a stiff, cold, deadeningly boring yuppie into a glowing beacon of feminine warmth. And if this movie is supposed to be about love, well, you’d think it would spend more time—or any time, really—developing its ostensible love interest, beyond turning him into a walking visual gag (Track suit. Got it. Yes, I am familiar with The Royal Tenenbaums). No, Juno is really about hype: the packaging of a smug, self-satisfied, faux-edgy, faux-quirky, faux-indie studio film into the cross-over story of the year, complete with its stripper-makes-good, soon-to-be-Oscar-winning screenwriter as star. So what if it makes buckets of money? In ten years, no one will care. You can bet your hamburger phone on it, home skillet. —CW

The Master Says 274

My cinema makes it pretty self-evident that I would rather spend more time with my cinematographer and my art department than with my actors.

Peter Greenaway

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

In The Zone

We shot our second woodshed scene tonight. One of the actors had to be out of here by 9:30. We had 14 shots to do in three hours. No rehearsal. No fiddle- faddling with the lights or the camera. Just go. All I said when we were getting started was, We have a lot of ground to cover. I don't want things to feel rushed. So I'm going to push the tempo and I'm going to ask everyone to stay focused and keep your energy up. And so it went. I was just sitting there and I was out of breath. October and Tara were great. They really kept the energy going and had a good time. It makes my job(s) so much easier when people are having fun.
The plan was to shot the interiors in three hours, release Tara then spend an hour doing exteriors. We did the whole thing in less than three hours. It was great to be in the zone like that.
I read an article the other day about the glut of independent films and how distribution is becoming more and more impossible. How there needs to be a new model for theatrical distribution. Pretty dismal outlook. I've been thinking about it for a few days. The main conclusion I came to is that filmmakers are going to have to find a way to make compelling films inexpensively so that they can survive when only seen by a niche audience.
After the last couple of exercises I feel like I'm on the right track -- working fast with limited resources. Thinking on my feet and utilizing all that's available, making the most of the actors and locations. All the while coming up with stories that the actors are making better than I imagined. I think it's a turning point in my work. For so long it was such a challenge to get it off the page. What I was directing was never quite as good as I'd imagined it when writing or previsualizing. Now things are consistently better than I imagined. It's magic. I really feel like I'm not doing anything. It's an effortless effort.

Signore Direttore

The Master Says 273

If you want your children to be brilliant tell them fairy tales. If you want them to very brilliant, tell them even more fairy tales.

Albert Einstein

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Master Says 272

You are confusing two concepts: answering questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.

Anton Chekhov

Monday, January 07, 2008

Embracing Editing - Into Action

Today was the day. I had no reason or excuse at the ready not to cut the stuff we shot on Saturday. My idea is to cut some of these exercises to get back in the groove rather than add the pressure of my hopes for the success of other projects to the already daunting practice of editing. The weird thing is that when I started filmmaking, editing was one of the things I most readily embraced. I don't know why I I disconnected from it.
I do know that once I get all the footage in, I'm kind of eager to get cutting without really getting cozy with the footage. In short, I want to get ahead of myself. That usually typifies naivete or insecurity. I wish I could claim naivete, but I'm going to have to cop to the latter. Then there's laziness. It's a lot of effort to expend for nothing in return. No direct material compensation that is.
I fought off some minor anxiety and kept at it. It's especially tough to track improvisational footage. Eventually it started to take shape, though not until I went upstairs and washed some dishes. Maira Kalman's antidote for confusion.
For those of you that aren't regular readers of Finding Fellini, I theorized recently that editing could be another antidote for confusion. I wouldn't say that's happened right out of the gate. Hence the actual dishwashing break. Lo and behold, it was immediately after washing dishes that I was able to begin laying down an assembly. It was sunny today so I said just start the assembly and work at it for an hour and then go for a walk. Next thing you know two hours had passed.
There were several points that really made me laugh watching the footage. Both actresses are really there for each other. Christy did a wonderful job of externalizing her inner life, both with making her native language foreign and staying true to her objective. October listens so well as if what she's hearing is truly for the first time. We didn't slate and often I can't tell what the order of the takes was based on her performance. She externalizes the internal shift of making a life-changing decision well. I'm not entirely sure I was able to preserve it in the edit. Which might be a clue to go back and make that a priority if I did indeed sacrifice emotion for rhythm and, or continuity. Fresh eyes, both mine and someone else's will help.
In the end I found that covering improv is difficult, especially in a two-hander that you can't do much overlapping dialogue to motivate cuts. There isn't enough movement in the table scene to make all of the cuts as seemless as I'd like. I can't think of anything at present to remedy the problem in the future so I've created a wonderful example to show people and get some imput on how to improve my shot selection. What I did was frame a nice over the shoulder composition and then matched it when we turned around. It gives me no eye trace or graphic match when cutting back and forth.
I will try to post all or at least some of the Happy New Year exercise on the blog in the next few days.

A River Dertchee,
Signore Direttore

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Master Says 271

Well, for under $10,000 you can buy everything you need (to make movies). So now we have to undo the brainwashing of the past fifty years about what a movie can be: that it must be commercial, it must go down easy, it must be structured so that it appeals to the widest possible audience. Even people that read sophisticated books expect that when they go and see a movie it won't involve any thinking. They're willing to give more to a work of literature. A movie is supposed to be something light that you go to, and you have a good time, and you don't think too much, and you laugh, or you get scared, or you're in awe of the violence, and you go home, and you forget it. And that has to be broken.

Francis Ford Coppola

Good Morning

Yesterday was a big day. It started with speaking to a large group of about eighty people, about a third of whom in turn spoke about me. They had very kind things to say. I've known some of them for ten years or more and they mentioned things that I had said to them many years ago and that had remained poignant to them. It was very touching. I had to dry my eyes several times.
I came home from that to find Christy and October in my dining room ready to work on our first on-camera scene of the year. We jumped into that and it was great fun. Christy played a Chechen woman. Her accent seemed very good to me and she really had fun with her broken English. We ruined quite a few takes with our laughter. I had written a brief outline of a scene based on an article in the NY Times. There was a line in the article that really spoke to me. I wrote it down and by the end of the week a scene grew around it. I like that it can be that simple. That if we pay attention to what grabs us, often something will grow out of it.
I've heard it described as seeing the blinks - where most people go round not seeing much in the first place coupled with a tendency to blink when nothing but ordinary life is happening. Artists see what happens in those blinks and render it for the rest of society.
Anyway it was a fun and challenging morning. It's difficult to improvise a scene and then turn around and cover it from the other side. We didn't have a scripty or time to watch playback. We relied on our memories and we'll soon see how good they are. Both actresses did good work and the vibe in the room was awesome. One of the things I'm trying to work on is developing my instincts. I turn on the camera and say, Ok. They start talking to each other. I watch until I'm not interested and say, Ok or Cut. I give them some quick notes and we go again. It almost seems too simple. Like, shouldn't I be doing more? I guess I've been doing this for a long time and the ease is the fruit of my past labors. I've never really stuck with something long enough to experience this sort of, dare I say, mastery. When I say mastery, I don't mean the all-time great filmmakers as much as say a master carpenter -- someone that does a specialized job well. I think I'll stick with skilled journeyman for now.
After being praised and then working for a brisk three hours behind the camera, I was knackered. A nap just made me feel jelly-brained. We went to a cocktail party and to a late supper. No movie.
I'm really tired of Fox Tower and Regal Cinemas. By the time prints get to Portland they're pretty tired anyway so it's kind of a misnomer to call Regal first-run theaters. The bulbs in the projectors at Laurelhurst and McMenamin's are pretty weak but they're cozier and they don't ask you a bunch of promotional questions when you buy tickets or popcorn. They had this sign at the Fox Tower concession counter that urged customers to see a manager if the employees didn't offer a certain promotion. I told them that I was going to steal the sign and throw it in the trash. Their eyes got smiley but they didn't dare say a word. I was like, Okay guys look the other way. They did and I took the sign and trashed it. It hasn't returned. Lately there's been a truly awful video of Three Doors Down singing some rock ballad about the National Guard during the First Look. It's painful. I remember back in the day going to see Patti Ricks at the Fifth Avenue up by PSU. There was a Pontiac commercial played before the previews and everybody booed and hissed. Twenty years later we sit and take it. If I'm by myself I just put my headphones on and listen to music. But even then I feel a little polluted. So it's kind of a resolution for me to avoid Regal Cinemas from now on. If I go I want it to be a sneaky double-feature or some other subversive act. I always try to time it so I ask a question when they're about to ask me if I have a Regal card. It's often successful and I feel like a Jedi for a brief moment.
I checked into the Regal Card thing. For a guy that goes to the movies as much as I do, I would get a free movie every six months or so. I don't want another piece of plastic in my wallet and some corporation tracking my movie viewing and concession habits in exchange for $18/year.
At the Laurelhurst theater, they run local ads before the films. They're stills that are very lo-fi in design. They even throw up some random photographs and paintings. Last time I was there they were playing Elliot Smith very quietly over the sound system. And it's three bucks and walking distance from my house. Cinemagic, Clinton Street and The Bagdad are cheap and walkable as well. So long Regal!
We all got tickets to Sing-along Grease at Cinema 21 in our stockings. We're off to do that in a couple of hours. Should be fun fun fun.

A big pizza pie,
signore direttore

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Master Says 270

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.

E. L. Doctorow

Friday, January 04, 2008

Week in Review - oo8/1

Movies viewed this last week:

Lars and the Real Girl - Yes. Turned all of my expectations but one upside down. The exception going in was that I absolutely knew Ryan Gosling was going to be good. He was better than good. Otherwise I thought it was going to be creepy and prurient. Instead it was about getting past the surface of things, especially things creepy and prurient, to find hope, empathy and community. Wonderful film.

Capturing the Friedman's - Much more interesting than the first time I saw it. Still don't like the b-roll. I'd see it again.

Charlie Wilson's War - see yesterday's post.

Yi Yi - Very good film. Long. Too long really. I think the story could have been told in the same patient way and been much shorter. Great story, it captured the beauty of ordinary human needs. The acting was amazing. At one point I was like, Oh, these people in Taiwan feel like I've felt. Emotion at a certain depth transcends culture and they achieved those depths consistently and expertly. The efforts toward naturalistic cinematography became mannered after a while. Edward Yang won some very prestigious awards for this 1999 directorial debut - National Board of Review's Best Film of '99, something at Cannes. Yet he hasn't made another film. Makes me curious.

Pasolini's Oedipus Rex - Strangely beautiful. At once clumsy and elegant. The thing about Pasolini is that it really goes beyond opinion. Like and dislike don't really matter. It's like saying you like or dislike the Mona Lisa. It's art. It informs you and makes an impression on you. It doesn't matter if you like it or not. I'm glad I saw it and I'll watch it again when something led me back to it.

Away From Her - I really wanted to like this film. I adore Sarah Polley and I wanted her to succeed in her move to directing. And she may well do so. However, her film didn't do it for me. It does get better as it goes along if you can stay with it, though I'm not sure I did for any other reason than I did so want to like it. It looks boring - like TV from the 70s - frontal and conventional. It deals with Alzheimer's, which is interesting, and the ever beautiful Julie Christie does a fine job portraying a victim of the disease. Based on a short story by the Canadian author Alice Munro. Polley is also Canadian. And as much as Canada doesn't seem to have a very distinctive culture in my arrogant opinion, this film does seem very Canadian. For whatever that's worth.

Books read in the last week:

The Power of Play by David Elkind - Not nearly as good as his classic, The Hurried Child. A reiteration of the problems and little talk of the solutions.

The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman - Wonderful. It's an illustrated journal filled with poignant observations of the ordinary. It made me want to paint the hallway, do the dishes and pay attention to the backs of people's heads. My daughter was looking over my shoulder when I brought it home from the library and I just started reading it aloud to her. She stayed with it until I was about halfway into the book. I read the rest to myself all in one sitting. Which I relate in hopes of saying more about its charisma than my stamina.

Steven Soderbergh Interviews - Like all of the books in the Conversations with Filmmakers series put out by The University of Mississippi Press there's quite a bit of repetition in the interviews. While it can be irritating, the nuances that emerge are worth it. Much of the book deals with the early years of his career and the rest stops after Traffic and Erin Brockovich. I read it backwards, thinking I didn't want to revisit the whole sex, lies ... hooha. If I could only read one interview it would be Emotion, Truth and Solitude by Michael Sragow in Salon. But it's all good stuff. My admiration for him really grows.

Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry - I can't believe I hadn't read this book before now. I loved it and I don't romanticize that part of the country or that era anywhere near as much as I did in my past. Original Glory is all about nostalgia for that time and place. McMurty gets it a little better than I do. It's quite different than Hud, the movie based on the novel. Each stands on its own. I look forward to seeing the film again.

Adaptions - From Short Story to Big Screen by Stephanie Harrison - This is an amazing collection of thirty-five short stories that have been adapted into films. I love reading and rereading the stories. And I really get a lot out of the introduction to each section that connects the stories to the films and the authors to the directors. It's a fresh perspective on some of the greats.

The Master Says 269

The idea that you can make a movie about an ordinary person is almost gone.

Steven Soderbergh

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Charlie Wilson's Whitewash

Oh, Mike Nichols, where have you gone? Let's just say that after taking the long way round to walk along the river esplanade to get from our house to Lloyd Cinemas on New Year's Day, a large popcorn seemed to be in order.
The popcorn at the movies has this weird palm oil aftertaste even without the butter flavoring -- it's a guilty pleasure nonetheless. As is Charlie Wilson's War. The political or historical aspects of the film are about as accurate as Hairspray. A pleasant, art-directed general telling of some events in the recent past. Let's just enjoy the show.
It is impossible not to be charmed by Tom Hanks in this film. He's truly wonderful. Alas he's Forrest Gump, so he's only going to get so sebaceous, but a little slimier might have worked to his and the film's favor. The real Charlie Wilson was guilty of a DUI hit-and-run. Throwing that in might have added a bit of gravitas to his early morning drinking treated with a wink and a nudge in the film. The scenes with Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are terrific, especially the high farce where Hoffman dances in and out of Hanks' office while the congressman tries to juggle a personal crisis with a global one. Hoffman has timing like nobody of the past thirty years.
Just as the door opening and closing scene is a joy it's also the thing that keeps this a movie and prevents it from being a film. Nichols and Sorkin consistently choose the facile over the incisive. Which is exactly where Julia Roberts dwells in the narrative. Talk about a missed opportunity. She shows a glimmer in her first scene of the driving force she could be, but that's it. I know many of you are saying, Yeah but she's Julia Roberts, come on! I give her more credit than that. So does Soderbergh. Too bad Nichols doesn't.
The other minor tragedy of this film is that Ned Beatty is treated like a buffoon. Another thing that underscores just how wrong this movie goes once you get beyond its veneer. In the end it almost becomes some sort of mash-up of Top Gun, Springtime for Hitler and a Unicef commercial.

Signore Direttore

Analogous Propostion

The great Maira Kalman asserts that, "Washing dishes is the antidote to confusion. I know that for a fact." I wonder if editing could also be an antidote to confusion. A task that one does to clean up after the meal. One could say there isn't much art to washing dishes. Certainly it might even be an affront to the art of editing to suggest such an analogy. Perhaps it's wrong-headed to even consider editing a task at all.
However I've slated a few resolutions for the coming year. One is to embrace editing. Which really means finish some god damn films. But I want to be gentle with myself and take some baby steps to overcome my deep fear about finishing things. I don't want to conflate the processes of post-production and my neuroses, so I'm aiming to 'embrace editing'.
We don't have a dishwasher in our home. We have three kids and we're a five small meals type a day of family. There's a lot of dishwashing that goes on around here. I have to say that when I'm standing there at the sink, my hands soapy, things are all right in the world. In fact the more I do it, it's not just something to get through. I start by saying to myself, I'm just going to do a few. Next thing you know I'm drying the ones on the rack, putting them away and going for another round. I'll often wipe down the counters and scrub the stove when I'm finished. If I happen to look at the time, it isn't unusual for the better part of an hour to have passed. There's something to be said for being unaware of time. It's what I've always loved about writing.
For me the writing of the films is the cooking, the shooting the meal. And for now the editing is going to be the cleaning up. In my restaurant working days I always liked the dishwashers more than the chefs. Besides, we all need clean plates. And we all need an antidote for confusion.
If I'm wrong, I'm already covered by my first resolution: to make loads of mistakes.

Signore Direttore

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

1988. One Night.

Spot on silk. Blot with finger. Rub with thumb. Press tightly against lapel. Slump against low wall surrounding dance floor. Drinks line up on wall. Wait for people dancing. Spot. Remove tie. Roll it up. Put in pocket. Turn. Reach for drink. Rocks glass. Empty. Look around. Take fruity drink. Down it. Take another drink. Knock it back. Stand tall.
Two women. From dance floor. Laugh. Glisten. Reach for drinks. Empty glasses. Look around. Pick point across the room. Walk. Two women follow. Look for M. At bar. Hold on. Rub neck. M. at bar. Walk straight . Bar. Stop next to M. M. kisses cheek. Smile. Money clip. Hundreds. Bartender listens. “Makers neat. Double.” Two women step up. “And a fuzzy navel. Stole our drinks. Vodka soda.” M. turns to look. Shrug. Smile. Pay with c-note for three drinks. Turn to women. Raise glass. Grin. Gulp. Empty glass on change. Walk away. Two women giggle. Sip drinks. Behind M. Tall. Curvy. Thick curly hair. Dark. Pull hair off neck. Kiss. Whisper. “Home.” M. turns. “Having fun.” Long kiss. Pull away. Nod. Hold hands. Smile. Peel note from money clip. “At home.” “At home.”

Sidewalk. Doormen. Nod. Cold air. Stop. Turn to look in window. M. laughing. Chatting. Breathe deep. Take step. Button jacket. Double-breasted. Rub neck. Pick a point. Walk. Hands in trouser pockets. Keys. Car door. Red. German. Two seats. Soft top. Knees buckle. Stand tall. Shiver. Key hovers over lock. Look up. Down the block. Fuzzy Navel and Vodka Soda arm in arm. Go into neon. Rub neck. Keys in pocket. Rub face. Knot tie. Car window reflection. Tuck tie into jacket. Smooth hair. Shrug shoulders. Open eyes wide. Yawn. Pucker. Walk.
Dragon on back. Tail over hip. Down leg. Dollar bills. High heels. Pole. Step up. Drop bill between fuzzy navel and vodka soda on bar. “Lager.” Switch to beer. Two women giggle. Glasses and bottle touch. Giggle. Drink. Turn. Watch dragon. Fuzzy Navel picks up five from change on bar. Waves it. Dragon Lady. Eyes on Deep Pockets. Grab ten with tits. Vodka Soda. A ten. From bar change. Dragon Lady arches back. Five disappears. Slide down to floor. Hello Dragon Lady. Vodka Soda slides ten up thigh. Eyes on Deep Pockets. Benjamin. Hold it out. Look away. Take it. Dance away. Fuzzy navel and Vodka Soda laugh. Drink. Touch Deep Pockets. Laugh. Flirt.
Vodka Soda gone. Ladies. Another round. Kiss Fuzzy Navel. Pull away. Giggle. Deeper. Sloppy. Giggle. Vodka Soda returns. “What’s so funny?” Another round. Cheers. Clink. Laugh. Drink. Smoke. Kiss Fuzzy Navel. No tongue. Laugh. Turn. Vodka Soda. Smile. Smooth eyebrows. Grin. Vodka Soda. Fuzzy Navel. Ladies. Kiss. Sloppy. Stand. Into bar stool. Vodka Soda. Dance between trouser legs. Turn. Lap dance. Dragon Lady in corner. Wears dress. Sips drink. Lights cigarette. Smiles. Lift Vodka Soda hair. Bite neck. Watch Dragon Lady. Fuzzy Navel. Dance. Grab hand. Kiss cheek. Muss hair. Bye.
Dragon Lady. “Maker’s neat.” Smile. Bartender. “Two Makers' neat.” Another hundred. Raise glasses. Nod. Drink. “Thank you.” Coat. Faux fur. Leopard. Cigarettes. Pocketbook. “Have a good night.” Gone.
Pick up change. Sidewalk. Cold air. Look around. Dragon Lady. Smile. Turns onto Fulton. Vintage car. Buick. Run to car. Top down. Zero to forty. Fulton. Wind in hair. Tie over shoulder. Buick ahead. Downshift. Next to her. Eyes front. Smile. Give it gas. Likewise. Cat and mouse. Buick turns right. Into Quickmart. Double back. Inside. Flourescent. Cigarettes. Outside. Next to Buick. Take off tie. Smile. Dragon Lady click click click. Heels. Parking lot. Into Buick. Start engine. Shake head. No smile. Two fingers to lips. Puff. Nods. Open pack. Out of red car. Buick window down. Cigarette. Lean for light. Fire. Reverse.

Open road. Zero to sixty. Sixty to eighty. Downshift. Sub-division. Split-levels. Blue. Green. Brown. Gray. Yellow. Ticky-tacks. Slow. Pass brown split-level. Park gray ticky-tack. Engine off. Top up. Tie back on. Smooth hair. Walk back to brown. Front door. Locked. Look around. Go around back. Locked. Climb up deck. Listen. Look sliding glass door. Dark. Open. Quiet. Slide. Inside. Kitchen. Tip toe. Fridge. Orange juice. From carton. Wash face and hands. Dry on towel. Bring towel to hall. Open door. Power Rangers. Little brother. Next door. Bathroom. Across hall. Slip in. Tip toe to bed. Sit. Wipe hands. Brush hair aside. Lean. “A.” Nothing. “A.” Louder. Eyes open. Scared. “Shhh.” Kick off shoes. Remove jacket. Get under covers. “No.” “Shhh.” Kiss. Pull away. Kiss. “No.” Light in the hall. Door open. A crack. “A.?” “It’s okay, mom. Bad dream.” Hall light off. Giggle. “Have to go. Have school tomorrow.” Kiss again. Pull away. “Smell like bar.” Undo belt. “No.” Lift hips. Drop trousers. “No.” Lean to kiss. Push back. Take hand. “No.” Pull away. Pull hand under covers. “Then leave?” Nod. “Promise?” Nod. Lay down. Closer. Reach under. Move hand. Covers pull tight. Press mouth to mouth. Tongues. Collapse. Kitchen towel. “Go.”
Through garage. Tennis racket. “Mom’s.” Hold tight. “Bring it back.” Nod. Grab can of balls. Kiss. Good night. Lock door. Lights out. Back to city. Push button. Garage gate open. Garage gate close. Find spot. Upstairs. Key in door. Open. Stop. Chain on door. Light on. M. closes door. Removes chain. Opens door. “Where?” “Tennis.” Racket. Balls. “Where?” “Tennis.” Step out of way. "Tennis?" Nod. Step inside. Close door. Light out.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2oo8 Resolutions

+ Make lots of mistakes

+ Direct actors on-camera once weekly

+ Shoot and edit a five-minute abstract short monthly

+ Embrace editing

+ Acknowledge, accept and embrace fear and resistance directly

+ Read fiction

+ Explore classical music

+ Daily Exercise - Not if, but what

+ Daily Meditation

+ Look at more paintings

+ Practice seeing the invisible

+ Listen actively - Don't interrupt or talk over people

+ Get out and explore

+ Monthly budgets

+ Don't expect pure states