Sunday, May 25, 2008

Good Company

I've spent most of the past two days in my hotel room. I know what that might signify to one of my readers in particular, but I assure you this isolation has been very productive and social. First off, my hotel room is on the beach in Santa Monica and has a wonderful vista North up the beach to where it meets Pacific Palisades. Secondly, I've had some wonderful guests. I spent a lot of money on a nice hotel room and passed on renting a car while here. (The first night I was here, I stayed with a friend in the legendary El Royale Apartments.) Being in LA without a car works for me. There's not a central plan to Los Angeles, its proprietors and residents rely on people getting in their cars and driving everywhere. When I was younger I enjoyed racing around the city, but when I come here now I like to plant myself somewhere and keep a small footprint. The people that I want to see don't seem to mind coming to me and then they take me where they like to go. Los Angeles is full of hidden treasures that are impossible to stumble upon while driving on its major arterials. More than almost any city you have to go native. Which is impossible driving around by yourself in a rental car.
I brought my camera package along on this trip. No particular plan in mind. Maybe some roadside shooting on the drive down. I should clarify the drive down - my friend drove his car and I paid for gas and manned the ipod. I actually drove for only about three of the fifteen hour drive. (As soon as my kids are old enough to drive, I'm never getting behind the wheel again!) Anyway a possibility arose to shoot something with an actor friend and his wife. Sort of last minute. He's not super inclined toward improvisation so I wanted to come up with a script. My archives contained nothing that seemed appropriate. I made some notes but with the trip soon upon me I found no time to get something down on paper. I woke up early Thursday under the soaring ornate ceiling of my bedroom at the El Royale and being somewhat influenced by the previous night's Mamet experience, I was able to knock out a fourteen page screenplay in about an hour and a half.
Upon arriving at The Huntley Santa Monica that afternoon I was feeling very good about shooting this short film while here. There was never a firm commitment on the part of the actors I wrote it for, so the thought was growing in my mind that if they couldn't make it I would do it. An hour later he let me know that it wasn't going to work with their schedule this weekend. I would have liked to work with him again and with his wife for the first time, but I wasn't disappointed. I sent some emails to some actresses I know down here. Since I hadn't spoken to many of them for quite some time and with little time to spare I posted on Craigslist for the role as well.
The first person that responded was love at first sight - pretty in a simple and down to earth way. I wrote her a very candid message telling her of the Spartan way in which I often work. Which was going to be the leanest yet of all my films - cameraman and director-actor. We also shot it in a hotel room, which is one of those no-no red flag things for actors. I didn't hear back from her that night. All the other submissions were the typical shiny, breast-enhanced LA actress-model types. One of whom is somewhat famous. I tried to stress how tiny our production was going to be in a correspondence with her personal assistant, but I could tell that until I spelled it out for her that tiny meant like a crew of fifteen. Somewhat Famous couldn't meet me until Saturday morning, the day of her scene so I passed. I woke up Friday feeling a little like maybe it wasn't meant to be. I questioned how willful I wanted to get. i didn't have to wonder long before I heard from Naomi, the first one to respond. We met for coffee and decided to work together. It rained here on Friday, really just a few drizzles, but everyone was running around with umbrellas. The coffee shop where we met had put away all its outside tables so our meeting took place in a doorway in the rain. It was less than ideal, but being with her felt instantly comfortable and any awkwardness of venue went entirely unnoticed.
Brian was able to come up with a 35mm adapter for our shoot. It proved to be essential as shooting a ten plus minute film in one small room without shallow focus would have had grave limitations. When showing some of the footage last night to a friend that knows my work well, he said it's the prettiest film I've ever made. I've always been a it skeptical about those lens adapters. Until now. Working with the discipline of the fixed focal length and shallow depth of field of prime lenses was a welcome adjustment and challenge. I've done a fair share of working with cine lenses on my projects shot on film, but I've always had a few weeks to prepare and plan the shots. For this short, I had to write, cast, prepare to direct and play the lead role in less than twenty four hours. And I didn't have a chance to print the script out so I had to read and memorize my lines from the computer. Good thing I love a challenge.
I really enjoyed making the film. I like acting. I like working with Brian. We started shooting Friday afternoon, stopped shooting and went to sleep at 1am, woke up at 7:30 and got our first shot off by 8. Took a breakfast break from 10 to noon and wrapped at 7. During all of this there was but a moment of tension. We were shooting a scene wherein I was coming back to the room from a swim and dropped my swimming trunks to the floor before sitting at the desk to make a phone call. I was dripping wet in one of the hotel robes, becoming naked under the robe every few minutes. Not a big deal except that the actress whose trust I earned to come shoot in a hotel room with total strangers was due to arrive any minute. I really didn't want to greet her soaking wet and naked in a robe. Brian calmly stated in the most generous of tones that he didn't feel we were communicated very well. To which I admitted my mounting stress of the aforementioned circumstances. He understood. I reined in my stress and its attendant bitter tone and all was simpatico once more.
I was able to get some clothes on just as Naomi arrived. Our scene went great and as I walked her down to the lobby I was sad our new friendship seemed to be over so soon.
When we wrapped a little while later, I commented to Brian that it was somewhat odd that we would come to LA and work on a film in the way that we did. I said one of the main benefits was the elimination of distractions. He sagely remarked on the irony of that.
For my last evening in Los Angeles I was invited to a dinner party at the home of an old friend. I worked closely with Alexa for a little over a year in New York. First as her acting classmate and sometimes scene partner and then as her acting coach. I also cast her in a film and the strangest play I ever directed. I heard so much about her family that I was surprised there was but mom, dad and a sister. However it didn't take long to understand why her family loomed large in my imagination. They are perhaps the warmest, most interesting and talented families I've ever met. Their home was full of art curators, actors, a French director, writers, a prominent political activist, a film editor and a couple of eager dogs for the dinner party. Jordan was my date. We were made to feel instantly welcome. There's no joy like having a truly interesting person take an interest in you. It brings me to tears.
I'll tell you how good the company was - and if you know what a goddamn yakker I can be, this will say a lot - I sat for the first three hours of the party listening. I can't remember the last time that happened without feeling left out.
Later in the evening I was having a chat with Alexa's brother-in-law. We spoke of Portland and he told me an interesting story about a large scale environmental installation art project in Arizona. After openly and actively listening to his stories, I was able to answer his questions about my work with an easy articulation of my deepest values as a filmmaker. I wasn't trying to impress him in the least. I became almost self-conscious about my candor. Then he said, I also curate a film festival and your work sounds like the kind of stuff I love. I knew there were other film people out there that were interested, I just don't meet them very often. It seems that most independent filmmakers I know personally are trying to emulate Hollywood and break in or they make films about seaweed and kitchen appliances on Super8 which they develop and process in their bathroom.
Who would have thought that I would come to Los Angeles to work in privacy and socialize with people that inspire me to be myself? It's almost as surprising as the amazing week I once spent in Cleveland.

Gratefully Yours,
Signore Direttore

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