Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Auteur Weary

At one time, I basically thought that if my first movie was ever seen, and people appreciated it, I would stop hearing all the things you need, everything you "must have", before you can make one. I didn't understand how anyone would be able to appreciate what we'd done--with practically nothing, with a crew of three, with no gear, no lighting, no catering, no budget--and persist in that line of thought.

Stupidly, I'd imagined never having to deal with that kind of thinking again, having disproved it. So I was pretty surprised at my first festival, where The Way I See Things was spotlighted as a sort of singular accomplishment, and I heard so many directors talking about the Sisyphean struggle they'd had with their very limited budgets of 200, 000 or 500,000--for seven to twenty minute films.

Making the movie, I was determined to keep things simple and flexible. As much as possible, I wanted to create that environment Lynda Barry talks about, that really pure place for creative exploration. All the gear and the people running around and into each other on movie sets seemed so extraneous to me.

How could you be vulnerable, how could you concentrate, with so many strangers ogling at you? When I worked on Forty Shades of Blue in the prop department and I was needed on set, I was instructed not to look the actors in the eye. But it seemed so silly to me. Why should we all have been there in the first place? So a glass needed refilling between scenes; so a lemon needed to be extracted from the glass so that someone in the scene could again squeeze a fresh one. So lights needed to be adjusted or sound needed to be monitored and faces needed to be powdered. That was understandable, given the scale of the production. But why not scale it down?

All of those technical intrusions force the mind into distracting little dead end alleys, and after a while it's hard to get back on track. Why not have your friend hold the boom? An actor can powder his own face. Get all the people off set and you'll hear the sound better, because fewer people will be chattering and it will take no one to keep reminding them to be quiet. Find a setting where you can use natural light. Why do you need a lemon, exactly?

Suggestions like this are heresy among people who consider themselves filmmakers. An image exists in the mind of the auteur and that image has to be cultivated, whatever the obstacle. Anything less is regarded as near to total artistic compromise, as if compromise were the sign of deficient vision.

One of things I enjoyed most was finding places we could walk into and use with very little embellishment, fantasy worlds we could hijack and play-act in. I built the story around those places, rather than look for places which fit some specific, preconceived idea. When we walked into these places they imposed various considerations, presenting us with individual obstacles.

The compromises were liberating because we weren't beholden and could rethink and stay in whatever moment we were inhabiting, responding genuinely to genuinely surprising prompts and challenges, thinking in that moment instead of outside it. Each place determined the tone and direction of the scene at hand in ways which created a strangely compelling sense of authenticity.

This m.o. requires spontaneity and intuition, and I understand how nerve-wracking and fear-inducing those things can be. I spent my own money making The Way I See Things, and I don't have a lot of money to throw around. I understood better than anyone else on set what was at stake and the weight each decision carried. But who better to take those risks?

That's why to some extent the filmmaking process is inherently fucked. You go to other people for money and they want to know what their money is buying them. They want to know they'll get what they're paying for. If they paid for a love story that's what they want. It doesn't matter if a weird chemistry develops between the actors playing the lovers which, if explored, might go in more interesting directions. It doesn't matter what kind of beautiful serendipity might occur on set if you allow it to. If it isn't in the script they approved, it won't happen. Everyone agreed it wouldn't.

That's fine. A movie should have a subject. But there's a lot of room for discovery within any given subject and most of those vistas don't open up until you get to the set and face your limitations. Seizing those limitations as opportunities is a pretty wondrous thing, a specialized kind of high. It keeps the mind working. 300, 000 is so irrelevant in that context. Thinking you need it, then relinquishing that sense of need is totally freeing.

Maya Deren talked about the mindset I experienced at that film festival. If you listen to everything you'll need you'll never make the film, she essentially said. There is no perfect time or place, and the canvas is always wet. You need nothing but a camera. If you think you need tons of money and you don't have it and therefore believe you can't move ahead, what you really don't have enough of is imagination.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Motion Picture as Way Station

Paul Schrader: As we get older - particularly as the whole process of movies and film storytelling gets older - people have different notions of what's necessary dramatically. They start to see a lot of the melodramatic machinery of the past as outdated. Reality television isn't popular for no reason. It's popular because we're tiring of artificial drama, and reality TV seems less artificial.

George Kouvaros: But it also conforms to quite traditional narrative and character arcs. The process of transformation that drives your work seems to be something quite different. I don't know if you could call it melodramatic, but it does seem to be an attempt to represent change - a change in someone's sense of who they are.

Paul Schrader: Like everyone else, I'm becoming less and less interested in the heavy machinery of movies that strike me as being a remnant of the nineteenth century. But that's a whole other subject, one I've been thinking about a lot and trying to write about.

George Kouvaros: This is something that you've spoken about before: the idea that cinema is at a point of change where the kinds of characters that interest you, the existential characters, no longer have a place.

Paul Schrader: Well, I think the point of change is even greater than I thought before. I've been doing a fair amount of research because I agreed to write this book for Faber on the film canon, and I found myself thrown into all this work about the history of the notion of the canon and why it went out of fashion. Film itself, in fact, is one of the things that destroyed the notion of the canon. When people talk about a film canon, it's kind of a contradictory phrase. So, how can you have a film canon? I've been thinking about an argument put forward by Dudley Andrew concerning the transitional nature of cinema. It comes from a seed idea by Walter Benjamin. Andrew's contention is that motion pictures are a way-station in the cavalcade of art history, a stopover en route from nineteenth century written narrative to the twenty-first century world of synthetic images and sound. While this is perhaps a little extreme, it's also very much to the point.

from "Pretending that Life has no Meaning", an interview with Paul Schrader, Sept. 19, 2006

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dream Cast for an Imaginary Movie: Shelley Duvall

Her performance as Millie in Three Women is brilliantly strange and touching, and after seeing behind the scenes footage of the Shining, you know she isn't just playing herself. Now, people like Stephen Soderbergh seem to revere her. If so, how come she gets these trifling little walk ons? See The Underneath: a nurse whose screen time lasts as long as it takes to administer a shot? What a phenomenal, inexcusable waste. Might as well not use her. At least not using her at all doesn't imply an intrinsic ambivalence regarding her abilities.

See Nashville, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Popeye, The Shining, Bernice Bobs her Hair. See the "Making of" documentary on The Shining DVD, where Kubrick and Nicholson act like school boys on set. They get along swimmingly, while Kubrick has nothing but palpable disdain for Duvall, reducing her to a sniveling, painfully insecure mess, as if that were the only way to get a performance out of a woman. A man you can just drink with. A woman you have to terrorize. And yet in the documentary's interviews Duvall's so smart and engaged, totally aware of the game and her part in it, above it in a fascinating way, that Kubrick ends up looking like the ridiculous one.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cut Up: Editing as Sculpture

Whenever I talk to people about the making of my first film, The Way I See Things, I'm amazed at how they think movies come together. If a scene is done well they seem to generally assume it was filmed by multiple cameras from various angles simultaneously. It rarely occurs to them that on a small film like the ones I make there's often only one camera, practically no crew, seemingly insurmountable sound interference, and a dearth of good takes from which to choose.

Editing is the most interesting part of production to me, much more so than the actual shoot itself, which always feels like a disaster and a failure to me in the moment, no matter how good the dailies might end up looking later. Editing can be impossible, or feel that way. You very quickly start to understand why people film on sound stages, where everything but the performance can be controlled or at least regulated.

Planes pass in the middle of sentences, leaf blowers speak to each other throughout the neighborhood. The sun passes or the weather more drastically changes by the time you move on to close-ups which must be made to match the master shot. The broom closet you're shooting in allows one set-up, making close-ups a matter of artful fudging.

I enjoy the challenges imposed by these considerations, and appreciate the trade-off of serendipity in place of predictability, but the challenges are most challenging in the editing room, and that's truly where the film comes together. To truly appreciate any film you would need to have a grasp on how editing factors in.

You can literally make or break a performance through editing. You can make an actor more empathetic or less so by your choices, the ones you make and the ones available to you. I've done it. Say an actor can't remember his lines--ever--and he has long monologues through which his character is understood to be brilliant in a practically useless esoteric way. Say the actor can't get these lines right, even when they're read to him from off-camera.

Say you resort to having him put a book in front of his face so that he will appear to be reading, and dub in his lines later so that he can read them from the script, hoping to assemble this material in such a way as to suggest he is reading and talking at the same time. Say he starts to hate you for requiring the sort of professionalism out of him that typically goes without saying or detects how much you loathe him no matter how you try to conceal it in the name of finishing the thing.

What you might be left with is something very different from what you originally conceived. It might even seem counter-intuitive in almost every conceivable way. You study what you have for months, looking for the right juxtapositions. You can't create the actor's character as indicated in the script. You'll have to do it through more expressive means, more abstractly, with the imposition of a subtlety you hadn't anticipated.

Maybe you've heard of the experiment done with a man's face and various insert shots, an exercise meant to illustrate the power of suggestion through editorial inter-cutting. You put a knife after the shot of the man's expressionless mug and the audience perceives homicidal intent. You substitute a puppy, and it's sadness or affection. Throw in bread and it's extreme hunger on the man's mind.

There's truth in that example but the trick is figuring out what to put in: which expression and which insert, not to mention exactly where. The actor in question has given you tone more than technical precision, and more often than not he isn't the exclusive focus of the scene at hand, so not one shot but many must be considered if you intend to achieve any kind of persuasive harmony.

Acting is so sloppy, so random, and so difficult to modulate and get a proper sense of scale on. Editing has its own moments of unexpected serendipity, but it's much more of a science, however intuitive that might be. You can shave and refine with editing. With acting, at least in my experience, everything you do feels so much bigger or smaller than it will ultimately read. The camera conveys the space so much differently than you canpossibly experience it. Editing is hands on, very sculptural, whereas acting, no matter how technically proficient you might be, is much more liquid, a lot more free form.

People seem to believe that a scene, no matter how many cuts, proceeds with the pace of the original shoot, and that's rarely the case. Part of the editing challenge is to figure out what that pace should be. It's very rarely the pace of the scene as you filmed it. You inevitably cut to close-ups for punctuation, poetic and otherwise, and to either abbreviate or expand.

An actor didn't give you the pause you think a line needs. Or the actor with whom he was performing doesn't say the line very convincingly. You can make it more convincing, to some degree, by cutting to an apparently reflective pause, which might in truth simply be a shot of the actor staring off camera between takes, caught unaware. That's another thing about editing. You use whatever you have; whatever it takes.

Editing is so intentional and so integral a part of the filmmaking process, and yet very few people give it the kind of credit it warrants. Even people who understand how essential its contribution is are at a loss when pressed to say exactly how it works or what contribution a specific series of choices makes within an individual film. Editing awards seem weird to me, partly because of that ambiguity, but also because, more specifically, how can you possibly know how good an edit is unless you've seen the raw material?

A horrible movie can be made pretty good with an imaginative editor and a director who knows how to stay out of the way. An excellent script can be shot well and edited so poorly that the script seems to be the source of the problem. An actor can give you everything you need, and yet you don't know how to use it. Ultimately, it will register as the actor's fault, not yours. It's virtually impossible to give a good editor his due, but a better understanding of how he puts together a scene would go a long way.