Thursday, December 16, 2010

Busy Being Busy

I've been looking back at the experience of my first film a lot lately, not just because it's been offered distribution but because it was a vastly different endeavor than the one I'm working on now. We edited that first film, THE WAY I SEE THINGS, over the course of several years, then I started taking it around to festivals. The music we used consisted of tracks already recorded by Harlan T. Bobo. There really wasn't much to the process besides a lot of reflection and attention. It was stressful, particularly when I engaged in the festival experience, but it was pretty manageable.

WOMAN'S PICTURE has been something else entirely. A bigger cast, for one thing, some of whom have management. That's a new one for me. A bigger crew, too. There are more people to organize when something needs to be done, and still, a year later, much needs to be done. Music issues, edit issues, legal issues, sound issues, marketing, contracts, a thousand niggling details, little stray threads it takes forever to get woven into the larger tapestry.

These are all long term relationships; each one a marriage. You're not always the best people for each other. You got involved because of this child you had together, the film. You try to work around your partner's personality to raise the kid the best you can. It can be kind of combustible. Not everyone speaks the same language. I spend a lot of time trying to express myself as clearly as possible with a pathetically inept vocabulary.

A few weeks ago, we recorded piano cues for the middle section of WOMAN'S PICTURE. It was frustrating, trying to get what I wanted. I had no facility for the instrument and no real idea how to communicate about it. I'd worked with the engineer once before, but not with anyone else in the room. I felt the same way in the sound studio, where over the course of a week and a half I worked 10-15 hour days, one on one, with a succession of three very different personalities.

Ultimately, THE WAY I SEE THINGS was housed on one hard drive, with another as a back up. WOMAN'S PICTURE is spread across four drives, and just keeping track of those can be a major ordeal.

I'm tired and I find myself wanting to move on. I remain incredibly committed to the film, but every other relationship in my personal life has suffered for it. On the rare occasion I do speak to my family these days, I imagine they must think I have a drug problem. It's as if I've disappeared off the face of the earth. My behavior doesn't seem to make sense to them. It doesn't make sense to me. Making a film, not just shooting it but producing it, finishing it, isn't a real time, real life enterprise, especially when working outside of a context most people could understand (Los Angeles, for example). No one wants to hear about someone else's job, especially when it bears little recognizable relation to your own. And this one never seem to end. It's been very difficult to cut it off at the end of the day and to make myself available emotionally or even just on a casual, conversational level.

THE WAY I SEE THINGS was shot over a month and a week. WOMAN'S PICTURE was basically a twenty day affair. Maybe I'm romanticizing the past. I don't know. The shoot for WOMAN'S PICTURE was chaotic and ambitious, though it didn't feel that way to most of the people involved, I don't think. It was a madness I kept private and contained, the way you do on set, trying to inspire everyone with confidence, as if what you're all endeavoring to do is the simplest of things and you have everything you need to accomplish it. At the same time, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I finally felt like I understood, viscerally, what it means to fit in. I felt for that twenty day period that I was a fully functional, fully feeling social being. There wasn't a problem I couldn't solve. There wasn't a piece of that process I didn't find a way to authentically own. A 10 thousand dollar garage door broke, leaving all the equipment exposed. We got a flat tire on the light truck. People didn't show up on any given day. None of it mattered much to me. I was beatifically happy.

I look at other filmmakers who've worked this way and study them with a new scrutiny. What kind of cost comes from this independence? Doing it yourself is great but I'm now trying to build a team of trusted collaborators, not just for that exciting two or three week shoot period but for the long haul, when, during the months following the recording of footage, it all has to be assembled and carried forward. I'm trying to build a better vocabulary and a support group of translators ahead of time, so that as this gets more complicated I can be more of a person off set as well as on.

(Above is a picture of our homemade sound booth, made of sleeping blankets and mike stands, during post work on THE WAY I SEE THINGS, 2007-8)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

WOMAN'S PICTURE Alphabet: R for Rooms

Building sets was a big part of making WOMAN'S PICTURE for me. So many of the characters are trying to create and control their own spaces, spaces which vary in degrees from total constructions to practical locations, just like on a movie shoot. What makes each space real has more to do with powers of imagination than anything else, and the level of vigilance used to enforce certain desired impressions. I wanted as much as possible for the cast and crew of WOMAN'S PICTURE to be just as engaged and invested in the spaces we were creating, everyone working hard to cultivate and sustain a collective sense of reality. I'd never built sets before. I'd never really wanted to. But WOMAN'S PICTURE had a lot to do with a certain kind of movie and a certain kind of fantasy-making, and things like shooting on a sound stage, with a truck of lights and dressing rooms and sets we'd built from scratch using materials out of the local Home Depot seemed a necessary step towards understanding the characters we were creating.

Miriam Masterson's QET Home Shopping Network set is a total fabrication, but for her and for a lot of her viewers it takes on varying degrees of reality. It's the fantasy of a room which broadcasts nationwide, becoming other rooms in other people's homes, one room among many inhabited by thousands of individuals, mostly women. Miriam goes into a different headspace when her show goes live. The camera filming her and the individual TVs broadcasting her show frame Miriam's set, creating the illusion not only that the set is real but that it extends indefinitely, intimately attached to additional, unseen rooms. Miriam's set works like a movie set; it's presented selectively through mis en scene and performance. The strength of Miriam's personality invites people in, as if she's sitting in her den. Her viewers join her, sharing the room. She speaks to callers on a telephone, though they're connected through the studio's hidden technology. Miriam's show pipes into the other women's stories in WOMAN'S PICTURE, making her a narrative convention in more ways than one. She serves to connect the segments of the movie the way she connects her viewers, enforcing the illusion of interrelationship.

The studio brass feels locked out of this space she's created and they engage in a struggle to gain access and control over what goes on during her show, in her room. Miriam fights to maintain her sovereignty, essentially trying to lock them out. All of the women in WOMAN'S PICTURE are involved in trying to keep someone out of the room. You see people locking doors a lot. You see them barring other people's entrance. Loretta talks to Joan, her boss, through a chain lock. When she does let Joan into the room, the two stand awkwardly, several feet apart. Loretta doesn't invite Joan to sit down. She starts when Joan makes a move toward her, as if wary, treating Joan like an unwanted intruder. For Loretta, the motel rooms she cleans are as much fantasy spaces as Miriam's TV show. When Loretta does fantasize, she pictures herself on TV, in black and white, the way she experiences Miriam in the maids' break room. She doesn't imagine herself as Miriam but as someone in the old movies Miriam describes having watched with her mother as a girl. Loretta's injury occurs when someone returns to one of the rooms she's supposed to be cleaning. She's deep inside an ongoing fantasy and the room's real occupant comes back unexpectedly. I liked the idea that a motel's rooms keep changing occupants. The rooms keep getting inhabited by different people, each enacting some specialized fantasy of escape or isolation. I liked the idea of using one motel room to serve as all the motel rooms we show. We changed the furniture around but the basics stayed the same, increasing a sense of interchangeability and deja vu.

Ingrid I think has figured out a way to keep this idea of a room with her at all times, making it portable, a state of mind rather than a place of being. She makes whatever space she inhabits that "room", the place she can live out her fantasy self in. She could walk into your room and in that sense it becomes her own, because she leaves you trying to make your way around in it. She changes the furniture around and commands the space according to her own tastes. I feel a lot of empathy for her mother, Gladys, because Gladys isn't really there yet. She might never get there. Gladys has her house, and she tries to control all the rooms in it, so that she can maintain a fantasy she's been enacting for years, since she was a child. She grew up in the house; it belonged to her mother; and when she was a girl her mother controlled the house and excluded her in various ways from feeling ownership of the rooms the way she controls it and wields that power herself now. She tries to wield it over Ingrid when Ingrid and Mackie come home for a visit. She makes Ingrid stay upstairs in her old attic bedroom. She won't let her stay downstairs in her grandmother's old room. Gladys has changed the room anyway, making it her own. But Ingrid is used to being told where she can be and who she can be there and has evolved past that to a degree her mother wouldn't begin to understand. Her visit ends abruptly on bad terms and Ingrid moves to a hotel room with Mackie. Gladys has the house to herself. One thing we never showed was Gladys' bedroom. You feel you see every room in the house but her own. I wanted it to be the one place the viewer doesn't have access to, so that you'd wonder what it must be like and want to get in.

Monday, June 14, 2010

WOMAN'S PICTURE Alphabet: C for Childhood

When Ingrid and Mackie arrive at Ingrid's childhood home, they park outside with the windows open. Ingrid stares hard at the house as Mackie struggles with the tie she's made him wear. He complains, wondering what they're doing there. Ingrid hasn't spoken to her mother in a decade. The woman is obviously a bore. Why is Ingrid, who seems so independent, subjecting herself to the scrutiny, Mackie wonders. Mackie himself is like a kid, squirming before he gets dragged into church. You can hear children throughout the neighborhood, laughing, screaming, or crying. The noise they make is pretty ambiguous. Childhood as raw energy.

Ingrid wants to stay in her grandmother's room, but her mother takes her up to the attic, where she lived as a boy. Ingrid's character is a different person than she was as a kid, something most people can relate to, if not to such an extreme. As an adult, you're a different being altogether; not physically necessarily, but in almost every other conceivable way. For a lot of people I know, adulthood becomes a mission to actualize the sense someone had of him- or herself as a child, impressions typically contradicted or denied by parents. Ingrid's mother preserved her boyhood room like a museum. "I didn't decorate that room; SHE did," Ingrid tells Mackie, when they sneak into the bathroom together to gossip conspiratorially. That's pretty childish, too. They're even dressed in their PJs. As a boy, Ingrid felt like her mother's doll.

You're a different being but that kid is still in there, and Woman's Picture is preoccupied with viewing that strange phenomenon where childhood becomes the ghost town resided in by adults. Loretta, another one of the movie's protagonists, is probably going to lose her children. "She neglected them," she says, pretending to talk about someone besides herself. "She was neglectful." They got into rat poison when she wasn't looking. She was probably never looking, unless she happened to be playing with them, but if she played with them it was as an equal. Loretta is a child, too; like Ingrid, she's a totally different being. She's a grown woman but she has the mind of a little girl. Her body ages but her mind stays put. She repeats what other people say--the women she works with; the things she hears from Miriam Masterson, on TV--the way a child explains grown-up concepts to her dolls at a tea party in her bedroom. Loretta hears children wherever she goes. In a few dissociative moments she goes off somewhere in her head and you lose touch with her, but the sound of a child in distress gives some indication where she's gone.

Miriam's TV show set comes across like something out of her childhood. She painted it girly pink. She plays dress-up on set, basically, wearing clothes that make no sense the second she steps off camera. There's a lot of dressing up in Woman's Picture. Clothes are the step you take toward becoming that other person. A lot of the clothes in the movie don't fit perfectly: Mackie's pajamas are at least a size too big; Loretta's maid uniform seems like a hand me down from an older girl; Miriam's trademark on-set gown is the right size but the cut has a lot of sweep and some extra length, reinforcing the impression that she might not have grown into it yet. "I'm going to find my pink belt. You will not upstage me again," Ingrid tells Mackie in their hotel room. A big part of their relationship is dress-up and play-acting.

Miriam talks incessantly about her childhood on camera and you hear it piped into everyone else's home and consciousness, but childhood is off limits for the characters in the movie--even for Miriam. The only kids you see might be a mirage. Loretta sneaks into one of the rooms at the motel where she works. She's hiding from someone, listening at the door. When she turns around, she sees a boy and a girl sitting on the bed, staring at her. The boy is chewing on his fingernails, the way Loretta does. She doesn't speak to the kids and they don't speak to her. They stare at each other like a long distance separates them. Ingrid's mother can preserve her son's room but the son she remembers is gone forever, unless she's willing to admit that he was a figment of her imagination to begin with. At one point, Ingrid plays the piano in the den, stumbling through "Power in the Blood" from memory. Her mother hears it from the kitchen, and gets as close as she ever will to her son, who as a boy must have rehearsed while she cooked dinner.

Friday, May 28, 2010

WOMAN'S PICTURE Sources: My Grandmother's Violet Perfume

The last third of Woman's Picture involves an incident with a bottle of perfume.

The bottle sits out on Miriam Masterson's dresser, away from everything else. It belonged to her mother. Miriam doesn't seem to wear it, but at night, sitting there alone, she sniffs from it, stepping into some parallel dimension of stillness beyond regret, self-doubt, and the hamster wheel of ceaseless daily thoughts which keep her outside herself. During these private moments--the only time you see her alone--she gets a faraway look on her face; later, when you watch her selling perfume on TV, you believe in her sincerity, because she goes to the same faraway place, and you see that she finds ways to genuinely relate her own solitary experience to her viewers, however heightened and well-rehearsed the delivery.

She visits her mother in a nursing home every day. She sits on the edge of the bed, staring at her. Mentally, her mother has left the building. She's in her own distant place, and you know on some level that the perfume allows Miriam to go there, too, looking for her. Later, when her stoner boyfriend of five years breaks the bottle, Miriam flips. It's a trigger. A portal to another world closes. There's no getting back through. Russell can't understand why she's so upset. A pothead has his own parallel universe and the door is always a bong hit away.

Miriam wakes him up on the couch. You could hear him snoring when she came in, right before she discovered the broken bottle in the bathroom sink. Miriam spilled what was left of the perfume--mere drops--as she picked up the pieces of glass, and as she and Russell fight she keeps thrusting her hands into his face. You get the idea the perfume is evaporating as they speak. He'll buy her another bottle, Russell keeps saying. There was a little bit left: did she see? He doesn't get it. That was her, Miriam says. That was her in a bottle. There will never be another bottle like that. Your mother? says Russell. What are you talking about? The house is full of her shit. You never even liked that woman, he says. All she ever did was tell you what a fuck up you were.

The bottle I picked out for the scene at an antique store was totally different than the one I remember. It had a cut-glass stopper, shaped like a dagger. The stopper was bigger than the bottle. The bottle I remember was a tiny thing. It fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. My grandmother kept it in her medicine cabinet, hidden between pill bottles, ointments, band-aids, bobby pins. I used to lock myself in the bathroom to smell it. I never put it on. I couldn't risk being discovered smelling of it. But for years I enjoyed it behind closed doors. It smelled of violets and faint aldehydes, powdery and sweet, and reminded me not of my grandmother exactly, but of fantasies I entertained about her.

Toward the end she was frail. She seemed to have always suffered from arthritis but by her seventies her hands were so disfigured that she couldn't button her own shirts. She managed to light her cigarettes but it took her several minutes. You didn't dare offer to help. She spent the year before her stroke in a brace. She was so weak she couldn't hold her head up, and the doctors worried she'd break her neck. She never wore perfume. I have no idea where she got the bottle in the bathroom, but I know it must have meant something to her because it was very old, maybe older than she was, and whatever else changed in her house, whatever else moved around, that bottle was always in her cabinet, in precisely the same place.

I imagined she probably locked herself in the bathroom to smell it, the way I did, afraid that if she wore it some secret part of her self would incriminate her. My grandmother was a tough woman--always wise-cracking, always a wry smirk, a chain smoker. I never saw her in anything but pants and shirts--save for the times she square danced, and that was more theatrical than persuasive. It was as if she would be mistreated, like a woman, were she to act and dress like one. She was mistreated anyway, but at least in male clothing she could pretend, like a man, not to be bothered.

I like to believe she had hidden reserves of sensitivity she couldn't afford to declare. She was surrounded mostly by men, with only her daughters and the wives of male friends to give her away. The year before she died, I stole the bottle. I knew no one would give it to me, and I couldn't let her know it meant something to me. I think it would have been thrown out when my mother and her sisters took inventory. I was willed a stuffed coyote instead (also in WOMAN'S PICTURE); a more masculine legacy. I brought the violet perfume home and put it in my own bathroom cabinet. I want to say it was about an inch and a half tall, but practically full. I kept it there after she died.

Early one morning, she had a stroke. She was alone, in the bathroom, of all places. My mother arrived and found her on the floor. She wasn't wearing her neck brace and couldn't keep her head up. She was lucid for moments at a time but mostly disappearing into nonsense or silence. She was rushed to the hospital and put on life support for several days. Seeing her in the hospital was horrifying, because it wasn't her anymore. It wasn't anybody. I was glad I'd taken the perfume.

We were cleaning house one day and I heard glass break. It had a weird sound of finality to it. I rushed into the bathroom and my boyfriend was already making excuses. The bottle had fallen out of the cabinet, shattering on the sink. He'd saved what was left, he kept telling me. I can't explain how I was feeling, other than to say it was like someone had killed my grandmother. I don't think I've ever gotten any nearer to what people mean when they say they flew into a rage. I was essentially possessed. The bottle hadn't even been labelled. I still don't know what the perfume was called.

Ten years later, as we filmed the confrontation between Miriam and Russell, I kept taking Ann Magnuson, the actress who played Miriam, into an adjoining room. It was near the end of the shoot and I was exhausted. Various resentments had been stuffed to get through the thing, but I let them out in the controlled environment of that room, trying to free her up into some irrational anger, some response or place beyond justification, cause and effect. It had to be primal. It wasn't about the relationship. It was about losing someone. I wanted her to fly into the room, to poke Russell awake as though she were stabbing him. I wanted the camera to linger on the broken bottle, the spilled perfume, the finality of it never being whole again. The bottle I found was perfect; only the stopper remained intact, shaped like a weapon to drive home the injury.

I wanted a special kind of cluelessness to Russell's response. How can anyone be prepared for that--or truly be blamed? How can anyone know what the bottle held for you? It's the curse of trying to maintain some sense of significance in a world full of stupid spinning collisions, where flimsy things are broken on impact, their parts flying off in opposite directions. I remember my grandmother's body jerking from the life support machine, as fragile as that stupid bottle, no more or less impermanent, certainly just as tiny in the larger scheme of the universe. I relate to the smile on Miriam's face as she sells some other bottle of perfume on a TV show which offers that fantasy of attachment and personal investment to anonymous viewers. There was a running dialog as we filmed, questioning whether Miriam was for real. It was such a non issue for me, ultimately. She seems to be locked in a bathroom of her own making, and you could just as easily ask how real the world outside the door is. Who's to say the film we were shooting wasn't real, invested with those ghosts?

(Photo: Ann Magnuson in WOMAN'S PICTURE. Hair and make-up by Alicia Boldreghini George)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cassavette's Gloria as Hot Mess

It's exhilarating to watch Tilda Swinton in JULIA. The director says their film was inspired by Gena Rowlands in GLORIA. I would say the inspiration is a lot more expansive than that, because while Julia, like Gloria, is selfish and tough, she's also channeling a certain alcoholic dishevelment that Gloria doesn't share. True, there's the uneasy relationship with a child. Both Gloria and Julia are forced into the position of caretaker, and their stories explore issues of maternal instinct through the manipulations of the thriller genre; violence, risk, pursuit, forced separation, charged reunion.

Gloria is a much more commercial film, so that, when ex-moll Rowlands assumes responsibility for the son of neighbors who've been taken out by the mob, the story involves itself with chipping away at her tough guy facade, showing a softie underneath. Julia's ward needs more protection from her than from anyone else. It's Julia's bright idea to kidnap the kid, and she treats her hostage pretty horribly, tying him up with phone cord at night, secretly drugging him, locking him in the bathroom, abandoning him in the desert to collect ransom money.

Audiences responded to JULIA unfavorably during its festival run, and no wonder; the comparison to GLORIA sets up a series of expectations which are never fulfilled. Anyone familiar with GLORIA will bring to JULIA the need to see a traditional transformation in the protagonist, a motherly denouement. Julia will need to atone for her involvement in the kid's reckless endangerment; however grudgingly, she'll need to accept her rightful role as mama figure, curing her directionless alcoholism by awakening latent instincts. It's easy to see why people jeered. It isn't just that JULIA ends abruptly, with no real indication what Julia will do with the child, now that they've escaped from their pursuers. It really boils down to Julia never making amends.

The film is messy this way. Rather than work toward the kind of redemptive resolution audiences have come to recognize, Julia keeps getting in deeper. Like a real alcoholic, as opposed to a movie alcoholic, she persists in viewing her behavior through various self-righteous, self-pitying filters. The film practically cuts her off, mid-sentence, in the middle of what might be yet another in a long line of excuses, prevarications, or series of lies. Julia is never forced to tell the truth to anyone. You can see the wheels of that addict mindset spinning right into the credits, the same bewildered look on her face that you see in the beginning, as if like most alcoholics she only fleetingly recognizes the deep shit she's in, at which point she's dog-paddling her way out of it. Nearest exit will do.

I've loved Tilda Swinton since Sally Potter's ORLANDO, but I'd grown disenchanted with her. Seeing her in MICHAEL CLAYTON recently felt like a step in the right direction. That film uses Swinton's reserve, her mannered, controlled screen presence, in useful ways, harnessing that rigidity to a character you would expect to possess those qualities. The moment of collapse at the end of the movie, brief as it is, was a pay-off, one I realized I'd been wanting for years. It gave a detailed presence to Swinton's reserve. It showed seismic activity underneath the surface, and provided a sense of contrast. Often, Swinton's edge feels smoothed out, divested of shading and contours. Her performances can end up feeling flat for me; they're too preoccupied with the kind of slow burn she does so well, and you never see the cinders.

JULIA'S so called messiness allowed Swinton a lot of freedom, it seems to me. It's a character study in the truest sense of the term, someone caught in a series of moments. The focus isn't on arc necessarily--though one is there and can be determined by each indivual viewer--but on texture and depth. It's the closest Swinton has come to feeling like an American on screen, full of contradictions, unfocused energy, abrupt moments of inspiration and despair, possessed of a free-wheeling, hubristically makeshift sense of agency. I would say JULIA'S inspiration has more to do with the various iterations of her persona Gena Rowlands detailed on film for Cassavetes, with nods to OPENING NIGHT's restless pacing and WOMAN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN's blackout narrative sensibility among other things. It's hard to say whether JULIA would have been better served by these atlas points of comparison, but those films share with JULIA, more than GLORIA, a vivid sense of keyhole voyeurism, implicating their viewers in the random sloppiness and improvisational hazards of less commercial views of identity.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Get Real: The Bullshit Artist As Hipster Historian

Several years ago, when my novel Troublemaker was published, I was inevitably asked by people whether it was autobiographical or not. They wanted to know how much of it was real. That seemed like such a bizarre line of questioning to me. It wasn't something I'd heard much, or asked of the books I'd liked. This was 2000. It's worse now. Back then, already, everything had to be memoir. Everything had to have "really happened." You had to watch it live on TV, as it happened, like breaking news. Story and narrative were only relevant, only interesting, if they had basis in fact, in which case they ceased to be story and narrative, really. This was the framework through which you approached creative material and assessed its validity and worth. How could you relate to it if it hadn't happened? How could you value it if it was nothing more than a lowly entertainment?

What I'd always appreciated about the work I loved was sensibility, the feeling that, whatever the piece happened to be about, it presented a distillation, however abstract, of the artist's world view. I didn't need the experiences to be "real" in order to make something real of them for myself. I didn't need for them to have happened. I had no problem negotiating those illusions. My imagination was evolved enough to make all the necessary distinctions. I was just the opposite: I tuned things out which didn't go to a place that let my mind roam freely. There's something beautiful and terrifying about the fiction of Jean Rhys, one of my favorite authors. Some of what she describes might have happened. A lot of it didn't. What matters is the way her characters, her surrogates, navigate the world as she saw it. What matters is the mood, the feeling the work gives you. Rhys was faithful to her vision and carried it out to its logical conclusions--arriving at something close to dreams. Her work alters your mood like a drug, freeing you to view things differently.

Who cares what Ford Maddox Ford, her early benefactor and lover, and Sybille Bedford, his wife, thought of their time with Rhys? Each wrote about her. Neither made any of it sound as compelling as anything their subject produced. Rhys got beyond reality, touching on archetype. Bedford and Ford fell into the trap of trying to "recreate" their experiences faithfully. Ultimately I sided with Jean, and her indirect accounts, because Bedford and Ford, insistent that they could report their time with her as it happened, without embellishment, without bias, reinforced the impression Rhys gave that they were pompous, self-satisfied prigs, unwilling or unable to admit that in telling a story, even recounting real life events, they were presenting a point of view as subjective as any fiction Rhys had written, and far more manipulative.

You get the same kind of egotistical over-estimation of the "real" from filmmakers every now and then, as if the reality they present were anything more than their own perspectives. Along comes Director A, who insists, with the stupid purism of someone who hasn't reconciled himself to the subtle enormity and predictable consistency of the lies artists tell themselves, that story, script, preparation, et al. obstruct you from arriving at reality on film. Story is manipulative, this argument goes, but the simple presence of the camera never lies. Set a camera up on a tripod and you will get unadorned, unbiased reality. You'll get at something real. The moment you start "thinking" (i.e. preparing, deciding, performing, shaping) you've started to lie. You're dealing in fantasy. You might as well be Walt Disney.

You usually get this from people in their twenties--from guys more often than not. Guys have less pressure exerted on them to view things from different points of view, and can easily start to believe that what they see is what everyone else does, rather than their own perspectives, that what they see is what is happening, as opposed to one facet of what is happening, a facet with which they unconsciously identify and therefore have zeroed in on. Typically these guys have very little sense of history and how the camera starts to distort by the mere fact of its presence. They don't know much about Vietnam and how it was presented to the viewing public. Their awareness doesn't even stretch back as far as Desert Storm. Bush might have been a liar but the news presented fact. They don't examine the content too much. They would probably insist that what is false about network television news, for instance, is its insistence on salacious presentation. They don't go deeper than that, into the editorial aspects of reportage--where the camera is pointed, what gets in, what's left out, juxtaposition, point of view.

These filmmakers are just documenting their lives and the lives of their friends, their argument goes. They're just telling the truth. They're stripping film of all the pretense and fraudulence it's accrued for decades now. That might be true, if they and their friends lived their lives in front of cameras. This stuff is so obvious, when you start looking at it and breaking it down. To avoid breaking it down is a bigger lie than any science fiction film or Hollywood melodrama. It's more manipulative, and lazy.

Walk it through. So you set up a camera and you record people. There's no script. Maybe there's a few lines of theoretical description which place these people in a certain scenario, a real life setting with real life circumstances:

"Tom and Allie visit a soul food restaurant, where they discuss their relationship."

Presumably, you hand-wrote this description because to use a typewriter shows forethought. It means that you planned something, which makes you dishonest. To think is to overthink. To plan is to assault reality and have your way with it.

Because you don't view Tom and Allie as actors, they're using their real names. They aren't told where they're going. That way, you can count on realism from their reactions. They will be realistically confused and their attempts not to acknowledge the camera will be real. Do you instruct the people at the restaurant not to look at the camera--or is this something they simply understand not to do? Do Tom and Allie look at the camera, addressing its presence as casually as they would in a documentary? You've told them nothing--are they on the same page with you? Do they know you're all making a movie which is not a movie?

Are you recording with a boom or off the camera? Where does the camera get set up? What's the backdrop for this ostensible slice of life? Don't think that these issues don't matter simply because you refuse to acknowledge them. That's not being very honest with yourself.

In post, are you adding the sound of crickets to hide some of the imperfections and inconsistencies of the dialogue tracks? Color correction? How are you editing? I'm just trying to break this down. Reality--according to these filmmakers--doesn't get edited. So how is this approached on your film? How do you edit reality? Isn't that contradictory? To approach the issue is to make decisions. Those decisions are hidden within the look and fabric of the film. You can pretend not to see them but you can't deny their existence.

You appear in this film yourself, as a character who is just being himself, even though that self doesn't acknowledge being filmed or directing or prompting. You edit yourself, and title the film, and give it some kind of structure. The same way you arranged those allegedly random lines of description on a page which set the creative agenda for this project, you give your film some kind of shape. How do you decide which take to use? If all takes are reality, and you want to get at what's real, what's to decide? Why more than one take in the first place, given that whatever happens in front of your camera is inevitably real?

Say the actors are people you didn't know before this all started. Did you cast them? How did you avoid making those decisions feel like decisions? Was one person more real than the others--less like an actor? How did they decide not to decide what to wear? Why didn't they just wear what they were born in? Clothes are to the person what lights, music, and props are to a film.

You see how this starts to sound. It's silly to think that by adhering to some pristine avoidance of traditional filmmaking givens (lighting, music, characterization, screenplay, etc.) you are arriving at something more pure, more authentic, more honest, less...filmic? But I've been hearing this from filmmakers for years now, and it sounds as stupid coming from them as it did coming out the mouths of writers, politicians and other liars in slightly different contexts.

I have some suggestions. You can trust them because they come right off the top of my head! It's like Turrets--they're flying right out of my mouth. When someone with Turrets calls you an asshole, it must be true--you really are an asshole--because there's no preparation there.

First, embrace the fact that you have a point of view. Embrace the reality that to film anything is to isolate it in fantasy. Fess up to the fact that conveying a point of view is a manipulation to some degree, and that to pretend otherwise is miles more deceitful than any outright propaganda. Get over it.

Next: if you don't like film, stop making films. The experience of watching one has nothing to do with reality. People who want to avoid fantasy do not go to movies. They abstain from them the way a recovering addict avoids the corner his former coke dealer haunts. People who like movies generally understand that something happens in a theater or in front of a screen which isn't about reality but alchemy.

You think reporting reality is possible? Watch the news: that's not reality either. It's put together the same way you make "films". Like you the news pretends to have no point of view. Like you, it pretends not to frame.

If you want to show me something approaching the "real" you, and you insist on documenting it, film yourself on the toilet. You know that look on a dog's face when he's taking a dump--that primal, awkward abjection? That's closer to real than hipsters slumming in a crowded restaurant. Your idea of reality is a camera focused intently on you; everything else is background, but one person's background is another's front and center. I'm not trying to confuse you. I'm not trying to create Escher patterns which will run circles of your mind. This is reality. Reality is pretty trippy. It's all over the place. Pointing your camera in one perhaps random area of a bigger picture is like showing someone the corner of a Dali painting.

Finally, if what you want is to document the lives of the people you know, put the camera away and watch your friends. We're all acting, all the time. Don't believe me? Read Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman:

"Goffman treated this book as a kind of report in which he frames out the theatrical performance that applies to face-to-face interactions. He believed that when an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner. At the same time, the person that the individual is interacting with is trying to form and obtain information about the individual. Goffman also believed that all participants in social interactions are engaged in certain practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others. This led to Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis. Goffman saw a connection between the kinds of acts that people put on in their daily life and theatrical performances." (from Wikipedia)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Dinosaur Carries on Viewing the Leaf as the Tree

A few weeks ago, I attended the Film Finance Summit in Los Angeles. I could probably stop there. People who think they know me ask what the hell I was thinking. I like to see how things work. I like to observe people. I love film and what's happening excites me, the democratization of means, the sound of all those doors flying off their hinges. A thing like the Film Finance Summit declares its intentions by virtue of its name alone, implying that financing a film is the same across the board--still--that there is such a thing anymore as an indutry standard at a time when the industry is much more amorphously constellated and controlled. The word 'summit' indicates that this state of affairs can be discussed in some focused, bullet-pointed manner, at the top, where it all allegedly happens. There's a lot of unintended pathos in that combination of words, Film Finance Summit. It's Shakespearean in a way, indicating a disconnect between perception and reality. You get to the top of the thing and there's no one there. All the action's at the bottom now, and it's nigh impossible to make out from there.

I'm glad I was born when I was. I think about this a lot lately. When I was a teenager, you had to go to New York to do what I wanted. You went to New York or you went to LA, and the decision defined your character and something like the purity of your intent. I did go to New York, and the experience shaped me in ways I can't detail: it helped me clarify my ambitions, at least. But I left and I've lived in Memphis ever since, and I know that I wouldn't have finished two films in New York or LA, and I'm thankful I don't have to live anywhere else but here to work on one. You can make a film anywhere now and if you know what you're doing or even simply have a strong sense of vision most people will not be able to make the distinctions they once did between amateur and professional. Amateur is often an advantage, if anything. Words like amateur and professional don't mean what they once did, either, for that matter. Much of this is lost on the people up at the summit.

You can get your film out to an audience; you can communicate with that audience directly. You can start your own studio the way many filmmakers have attempted in the past, and succeed where they failed, mainly because the gatekeepers no longer stand where they once did (i.e. in the way, more often than not) and because everything you need is something you can obtain with relative ease and persistence. You can cast your movie with interesting, talented actors and get unique performances out of them in this unusually uncluttered environment. There's a direct link between artistic intent and expression, or at least the potential is there, where before you had many many people in the way, some of them serving the process, if not always the material, many more of them not. Everything has changed.

And nothing has. It was fascinating to hear studio executives speaking about the state of the industry. They recognize the reality to some degree. They're making fewer films. Salaries have dropped. Profit participation has changed--more is offered, with the caveat that less is ultimately expected. Development is for the time being a thing of the past. I forget the exact numbers but the studio execs seem to have them memorized. Something like, what, three thousand films released in the last year? Something like 500 with theatrical distribution? Numbers don't deal in exception, and the current climate of filmmaking is exception as rule. I loved these guys in a way I wouldn't have been capable of loving them even four years ago. I wanted to bake them cookies and fix them a glass of warm milk. I wanted to help them cross the street. All those cars, all of them moving so fast. So smart but so simultaneously clueless; they can't be expected to announce or acknowledge their own impending obsolescence, though it might help them create a renewed sense of relevance, a different kind of relationship within the industry, such as it is. They're paid to be informed and impervious, which is always tricky and in this kind of economy probably doomed. How do you finance a film these days? That was the question put to them. They could only answer how they finance one, which is increasingly beside the point. You can shoot a wonderful looking film on a still camera now. What's the cost of that camera? You mow some lawns. That's the financing. The rest--catering, cast, crew, sets, et al--is negotiable.

Far more interesting were the content creators, analysts, and conduits. The publicity guys and the marketing whizzes. Their job is to know the numbers, too, and to figure out a way to multiply them for the studios. Henry Jenkins talked about circulation, how media gets passed around these days. It's possible to make a film and advertise it and promote it in ways you once needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to do. Now you can do it for next to nothing. It's about relationships, as opposed to hierarchies, the old model. These guys were energetic, full of ideas and buzz words: they'll need buzz words to get the people in suits on board with ideas which will be perceived as radical if not heretical. Transmedia was one of these buzz words. I still don't know exactly what the term means, though I suspect it essentially means everything is circulated all over the place, by turns diffusely and precisely. There is no real word for that but I suppose one comes in handy. I heard the term Vet more than I cared to. Vet the budget, vet the cast and crew. Make sure everything is vetted. The use of this word is comforting, like an opiate. It implies a common sense approach to the massive risks involved in filmmaking and film distribution for people with as much at stake as these guys, all the way up there on the summit. A bomb makes a lot more stink and commotion where they are. So then. If you fail, you probably didn't vet enough. That's all. Pretty straightforward. You can't say you weren't warned. Sizzle was another key word. You want more sizzle than steak, one exec declared. Once the project is completed, there's just the steak. The sizzle gets things done. That excitement, the potential involved. One of the demo reels we saw was titled, Sizzle Reel. Someone scribbled it onto the DVD with a red Sharpie. Permanent ink is one way of insuring prolonged sizzle, surely. Strong material might be another form of permanent ink, but who can focus on that with all those numbers to memorize?

The content guys understood what has to happen, or at least what could. It seemed Dickensian that they were working in the same arena as the suits; more so that no one was addressing the obvious sum of all these parts. If the studios can use all these handy tools to get a film out there, so can you, without them. Some of the content guys and the suits were bed buddies. One guy works with Michael Bay on commercials. Again, I can probably stop there. It could be argued that, as a filmmaker, Bay is a content guy, so they're in the same boat. It could also be argued that Bay is a content guy in the guise of a suit. You make your bedfellows everywhere, but it seems to me that in LA you're expected to put out a lot more and for longer periods of time. And who you end up in bed with is a little more far removed from your experience. Bay's partner seemed smart and engaged. He kept talking about story. That's what we're all here for, he said. You've got to have that story, that narrative content. It's all that matters. Then he put his Sizzle reel in, bombarding the conference room with impressive explosions, flying objects, bosomy this and thats, any number of bells and whistles. The story of the reel was all subtext, the subtext being, Who needs story when you've got CGI? At least most of the content guys (there's a better name for them but this is the one I choose) understand that the sky is the limit, that the various gadgets people use now are opportunities to connect with them directly. You need no intermediary in quite the way you used to. You need a phone. You need a computer. Facility with the computer. You need ideas and imagination, whereas in the world of the suits ideas can be a real liability. Ideas lead you away from the numbers, unless they resemble other ideas.

Listening to the content guys was thrilling--the possibilities do seem endless--as long as you know when to tune them out. They have their numbers as well. After a while I felt I was hearing about not much else. Then I stepped outside and the sky was so gorgeous, like nothing on film, so much more compelling than the headspace I'd been in, so much more inspiring. I'd reached saturation point by the middle of the second day. Everything is hopeless, the execs seemed to be saying. Everything is possible, said the others. I wouldn't expect anything less schizophrenic from an industry built on contradictions. But I felt energized and affirmed too. It's helpful to know that wanting to make films is increasingly one's biggest asset in getting them done. The asteroid is coming and the dinosaurs are speaking about it as if it were a trend to be watched. This is sad for the dinosaurs. Good news for the rest of us, maybe. If a dinosaur doesn't know who Godard is--Jean Luc or Paulette--then he might deserve extinction.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Musical Steroids

"Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There's no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music--just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it's unhealthy for the organism in the long run."

I might have agreed with editor Walter Murch at some point. It's a way of looking at film, having to do with willing suspension of disbelief. I love some of the things he says about film sound. Record the desert and you get practically nothing. The desert is an experience, and recreating it with sound is more expressive than literal. There's a sound to that silence. A thousand details go into making it register. Things you wouldn't hear in reality, but the sounds make you feel. It's also a complete manipulation, and what Murch seems to be saying is that all of those mechanics must be invisible; the end result is that you feel the place was in fact recorded faithfully, along with the image. The objective is to fuse them together. I happen to like looking at those mechanics. I don't mind them announcing themselves. Some amount of separation doesn't bother me. It can be just as effective, depending on your interests and objectives, to use sound in a more openly manipulative way. An awareness of how you're being played isn't a lack of engagement with the film at hand. It's just a different form of engagement.

Roman Polanski talked about looking for "authenticity" in film sound. A dripping faucet tells you a lot about a character. A lawnmower does, too. You'd find the former in the character's house, the other in his yard. By Polanski's logic, putting the lawnmower in the house and the faucet outside is inauthentic. But music is often made to serve where a lawnmower can't. In Rosemary's Baby, composer Krzysztof Komeda uses music to signal Rosemary's discordant state of mind in and out of the Bramford/Dakota building. The music was permissible, presumably because it could be authentically linked to Rosemary's inner state of mind. This is a logic deeply ingrained in the thinking of modern sound design, the idea being that sound shouldn't draw attention to itself in the wrong way.

Editing my first film, I followed these rules without even being conscious of them. I used a dripping faucet myself. Nothing feels or sounds as lonely as that arrhythmic percussion. Every sound I used was logically sourced. My choices were imaginative in the sense that I thought exhaustively about any given environment and what might conceivably be found there. In the protagonist's house, the dripping faucet, the distant sound of airplanes, a dog barking relentlessly. All conspired toward a mood. None were original to the location. The character is a hermit. People arrive to conduct an intervention. I thought a lot about the sound of their footsteps, and chose a location to record them where the floors settled from disuse and creaked as if startled when walked on. Through various events, all with their own sound considerations, the character ends up at a wooded commune. The character lives with loss like a ghost who follows him places. The idea was that his own memories superimpose themselves on anything he looks at and hears. I wanted specific textures, and looked for wind chimes, trains, insects, dogs. Disrupting this tyrannical idyll involved sudden punctuation: a lawnmower which sounded like a growl or a wail, owls, hawks, dogs.

Editing Woman's Picture I find myself re-evaluating all these codes. While there are times I want to encourage the viewer to sink into the material unquestioningly, there are also places I'd like to remove that scrim and invite her in to play with the mechanics. The movie, for me, is a way of looking at the movies I've seen, how they're constructed, why they follow certain patterns, and how seductive they can be, a seduction I often love. Starting to think about sound design, I compiled a list of sounds organic to each setting. A week later, the list seemed naive to me.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Indie Filmmaker Bullshit Detector: On Sale, Super Low Price, Quarter of a Mill point Ninety-Nine!

When contemporary filmmakers start talking about beating the system, I tend to put them on mute. It's like the creeping realization that the once-familiar lady you're talking to at the supermarket is the latest to have been grabbed, lobotomized, and made over in a silly shade of lipstick by the Stepford contingent.

Beating the system used to be a pretty noble idea. The thing is, there is no system anymore. You are where that system once was. What I'm telling you now is something I would have needed help from various publishers to do even several years ago. Years ago, in high school, the prospect of making a movie on anything but a VHS camcorder seemed pretty unlikely. Even once technical innovations put filming in the hands of the filmmaker, getting the material edited was still a major hurdle. Today I edit in my own house. I filmed WOMAN'S PICTURE, my second film, with a group of friends, a crew of somewhere around ten, and a cast I truly loved. Ten is a generous estimate. Often there were four or five of us, tops. I served as my own producer, raising the money, casting, assembling the crew, drafting contracts, booking plane tickets, finding locations, coordinating the building of sets, et al. Three years ago, when I made my first film, I secretly prayed, as I imagine many filmmakers do, that it would be picked up for distribution. Distributing it myself was such a radical and remote idea that it seemed foolish. Three years later, I'm in a position to hold onto and profit from my own work, if only I acknowledge my advantage in the changing marketplace. WOMAN'S PICTURE seems as good a juncture as any to initiate that process.

Every filmmaker stands at that fork in the road. So the overwhelming insistence on doing things the way they've typically been done continues to baffle me. Paramount didn't develop a division to produce movies budgeted under 50k recently because they want to help smaller filmmakers realize their dreams. Curve ball success stories like Paranormal Activity have convinced them that there is money to be made in no budget filmmaking, and watching filmmakers market their own material, I would imagine, makes one-time gatekeepers more than a little nervous. It's the dinosaur trying to make friends with the cause of his own impending extinction. See a flood, make friends with a paddle. See a fire, make friends with water. I'm not opposed to utilizing wider distribution channels, and I'm certainly not naive about the importance of mass media in marketing a film, but the writing is on the wall. It's a very different dynamic these days. It has the potential to be much more of a partnership, but you have to make yourself an executive partner.

When I was putting WOMAN'S PICTURE together, my biggest obstacles were people who had a little experience producing indie movies. I've often found that people with no experience are much more creative in their approach to achieving goals. There's no same old fixed idea gripping them. Why should I spend six months trying to deal with an actress' management, when the actress I really want, who happens to have a real connection to her fan base, can be reached directly through Facebook? This is one of the things I went through. The argument was made that the actress I couldn't reach on Facebook, whose management I would have to deal with for months, complicating if not permanently stalling the process, was a draw to investors and distributors, therefore, worth the wait. With so many films starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Anniston, Bill Murray and other much bigger names than the actress in question going straight to DVD, where they get buried in racks without the necessary marketing to direct you to them, why would I want to play that waiting game? I would rather acknowledge from inception that casting is a different kind of strategy these days.

As is financing. People kept telling me I should say my movie cost hundreds of thousands when it was budgeted nowhere near that. The argument went that when I start shopping the finished movie to distributors, they will only want to pay me what they know I spent. This flimsy excuse for a strategy is a ridiculous waste of time. It misleads its mastermind more than its recipient. A distribution "deal" for most vaguely commercial indie films is somewhere under 100k. More often, a film my size, whatever the budget, is considered fortunate to get less than half of that. This puts you in a screwy situation. You lose ownership of your film during a crucial time, its so called launch, and the people charged with marketing it have next to no idea where to aim the rocket. The truth is, they won't really try, unless there's a very good reason in it for them. I leave it to you to decide what that reason might be, or whether it's worth it to you to spend time figuring it out. Whole films have been written, budgeted, and shot in such efforts.

The gamble isn't just that in conceiving your film you will have guessed the wrong "reason" they might care, the wrong incentive for a distributor to become involved advantageously. The bigger risk is that you alienate the people who might invest in the project, allowing you to make your film, to be a working filmmaker. Why should they invest big bucks in a film which is out of touch with what it needs and how it might go about spending it? Why should anyone give big bucks to any film at this point? Filmmakers are no help. Many honestly believe they need hundreds of thousands of dollars and a posse of producers to make a film full of talking heads. Their films are not getting made, so they have a lot of time on their hands, all the time in the world to plan that acceptance speech. I'm guessing that in their minds, you aren't really a filmmaker unless you operate recognizably as one. In my mind, you're a filmmaker if you're making a movie. I had two producers tell me, after we sat around waiting for someone to drop a bunch of money in our laps and I announced my intention to make the film for less, now, not later, that I obviously didn't want to advance a step up from the circumstances of my first film. I told them getting a film made is an advance from not getting it made. Then I told them good-bye.

The popular concept of a movie budget is something which is still living in the dark ages, the romantic past of the "indie moment", whatever that was. You need a whole host of things for no other reason than the fact you've been conditioned to believe you do. Maybe you went to film school. Your professors have to teach you something, I suppose. At the end of the day, they can discuss what makes a movie great, they can introduce you to resources, and they can impart to you some sense of what it takes to get a movie like those you intend to make written, financed, budgeted, organized, and screened. Having paid a lot for this information doesn't exempt you from exploring alternative options, unless what you need more than anything is the confidence that as long as you do certain things and think certain ways you will be that much closer to being regarded as a legitimate moviemaker. From my point of view, the contemporary filmmaker's own worst enemy is often his- or herself. The biggest asset you have as a filmmaker is the ability, the flexibility, to regroup and rethink. My parents told me Santa Claus delivered presents. I'm not still blaming them for it, nor am I still putting out a plate of cookies on Christmas Eve, and at the approach of the giving season I make sure I get myself what I would want from someone who might end up giving me a candle they pulled out of a closet instead.

People are much more likely to invest small amounts in a film than large, especially if they know the filmmaker is committed to steering the project not toward his own lofty ideals, for which he answers to no one, but toward an audience. You don't have to have a plan, but you better have some ideas. Holding onto your film in the long run is a big responsibility if your intention is to figure out how to get it seen. A small investor stands to gain from this the same way Paramount does by producing a no budget movie. Paramount knows this. So should you. Every investor is aware, or should be, that the likelihood of payback is iffy at best. A smaller investment, if everything is being done to rethink and keep costs down, and every effort is being made to market the film wisely and for the long run, is that much likelier to be recouped.

From this point of view, actors become investors too. If getting the right actors is jacking up your budget, you have the wrong actors. Work with actors who want to do something interesting. Lying to actors about your budget in an effort to impress them only makes them wonder why you're not offering them more. Make them participants. By staying small with large ideas, you're offering them something which is in itself fairly valuable. You are in a position, as are they, to negotiate these things. In the industry at large, royalties, as many actors will tell you, are a thing of the past. Studios used to build films creatively around percentages all the time. Owning your material gives you that wherewithal. If you think points are worthless and you don't believe in them then it seems to me you're not very committed to making things happen, not just now but in the long run. It certainly makes it seem as if you don't believe in what you're doing. Why should anyone else? Another producer told me these percentages don't mean anything anymore to anybody. No one expects to see anything from them, he said. They're worthless. Good to know, I said. Guess that means the 15% you requested on the back end is freed up now.

Talk is cheap. Movies can be a lot cheaper too. You'd be amazed how steadily you can build up a body of work when you decide work is what you really want to do.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


A heated boardroom exchange between characters played by Ann Magnuson and Gerald L'Ecuyer is one of several set pieces in WOMAN'S PICTURE which have required a special kind of attention in the editing room.

The exchange is scripted at fourteen pages, much of which is delivered by Ann. The segment she appears in as Miriam Masterson is seen through the eyes of her character, a woman who recalls various classic women's film archetypes. Miriam's boss, played by L'Ecuyer, has called the meeting in question for reasons unknown to Miriam, causing her a lot of anxiety and self doubt. She enters the room wearing a mask of confidence and leaves totally shattered.

From inception I viewed the board room scene as a composite of various iconic film stills. You have a woman sitting somewhat stoically and defensively at a long table, surrounded by men. The wall behind her seems to dwarf her, yet she's shot from below, so she looms a little too. That doesn't empower her, but it does somehow ennoble her. She has an edge about her. She seems hard, or brittle, and there's a slight mania to her presence, an element of barely controlled delusion which elicits contradictory responses of empathy and rejection from her audience. She's reached an age where age is more of an issue.

Before and during the shoot, Ann and I engaged in trying to determine whether or not Miriam is likable, or whether she needs to be. Editing, I face the issue alone, and hope to see clearly. Ann has played many roles which build on this career woman template, capitalizing on the desire to see her punished or put in place. How we developed and presented Miriam was very important to her. She didn't want to make another contribution to the stereotype. I was sensitive to that. At the same time, I'm fascinated by that stereotype; specifically, where it comes from and what drives it. I wanted to create a character who embodies the qualities of that stereotype but places them within different contexts. The older films seem to be about satisfying an audience's urge to see a woman suffer and be punished; particularly a woman in some position of control or power. Mildred Pierce comes to mind, although it isn't the same kind of career woman.

A TV personality, Miriam has appeared throughout the film on the television sets of other characters, selling feminine lifestyle product. Her set is uber feminine. Chrome and white lacquer touches reference the Hollywood style of the films she once watched with her mother. She talks a lot on TV about their close bond. She seems to be holding herself up as an example of the dutiful daughter, the have-it-all career woman. She's an arbiter of taste and femininity in the eyes of her viewers, many of whom she takes calls from every day.

The moment she steps off camera, you realize what a construction this persona is. The home shopping studio which houses her set and produces her show is a sleek, modern facility, and Miriam seems out of place in it. It's as if the building has been renovated or she's never really gotten the hang of the place. She has trouble finding her way around in it. She gets lost in the halls. Her fancy, flowing silver dress looks almost ridiculous in this environment, especially compared to the attire of the mostly male staff, knit shirts and casual slacks. However close Miriam and her mother might have been at one time--and the implication is that they never were--her mother is now in a nursing home, suffering from late stage Alzheimers. "I talk to my mother every day," Miriam tells her viewers. What she doesn't say is that her mother never talks back and probably can't hear her. When we see her at her mother's bedside, she's staring off into space, like her mother. They stare in opposite directions.

The discrepancies between her on screen persona and her real life are so numerous and so glaring that you're immediately inclined to start seeing Miriam as a fraud. By the time she enters the boardroom, the stage is set to sit back and judge her, to feel a distance from her, a sense of disdain. The challenge for me is to present those discrepancies in ways which can be reviewed and reassessed as the story moves on. The boardroom meeting is a turning point and involves subtle turnabouts and peaks. Grant and Miriam are both playing roles--the affable boss, the team-playing employee. More than anything, each is pretending to understand the other's point of view. What I hope to create is a sense for how hard Miriam has to work in this scenario, how carefully she has to word everything, how much simpler she must pretend to be. Her ideas have to seem to be his ideas. Her opinion must appear to affirm his. It's an impossible situation--for both of them, but particularly for her. All Grant really has to do is remain friendly, and even that has ostensibly justifiable limits.

Miriam is surrounded on all sides by men. You never see her in the frame alone. Every reaction she has is visibly public. Grant is often shown in close up. His lines are edited so that he interrupts her. Several times, Miriam's body language telegraphs assurance--she has all the various poses down pat--but words fail her. Ultimately, she is so under attack that you'd have to be pretty heartless not to empathize with her. Her biggest illusion might be that her show, like her fantasy life, is her own domain. She feels confident in everyone's awareness that she understands her demographic, this world she's cultivated and nurtured, better than anyone could; certainly better than any man. The meeting quickly disobliges her of this idea, and she sees that the compromises she's made have bought her nothing. Just about anyone can relate to that fear and disappointment. If Miriam is delusional, we all essentially are. Hopefully, by the end of the meeting, a viewer switches sides at the table.

There are many takes where Miriam comes across a little too forcefully, upsetting a delicate balance of power in the room. I've tried to avoid those moments. While they're funny, and very good--some of Ann's best work in the piece, really--they also reinforce the impression that the men in Miriam's life are victims to her will, and they seem to confirm some of the stereotypes Ann and I want to avoid. We tried different readings; the lines could go different ways. I suspect part of the reason this forcefulness appealed to us at the time has to do with exactly the kind of expectations I'm talking about and trying to examine through the movie. Finding alternate inflections requires patience and some rethinking, but the core of the story is about taking the time to see things differently, and that involves looking harder.

My interest in Miriam and in the challenge is very personal. Miriam's character is inspired by my grandmothers, both of whom were strong, independent women whose strength was typically viewed as weakness. The judgment of the men in their lives (and even often the women) produced a distinctly steely disposition which only served to reinforce the sense that their problems were brought on by themselves, by their "difficult" personalities. Every success was a failure; every advance an hostility. Eventually, they stopped trying not to be difficult.

As a child I read their stories very differently. My impressions contradicted the things I heard. After their deaths they continued to be judged. To me, a philandering husband explained a lot. Alcoholism explained even more. To others, these served as some kind of proof that my grandmothers were impossible--to love, to live with. It was unfortunate enough to see them struggle in life; worse to watch them go up against popular opinion. I've always had tremendous admiration for them and have tried to balance my impressions, but I continue to be fascinated with our need to see strong women punished and picked apart, and it comes as no surprise to me that filming and editing this story has involved dealing with my own unconscious biases and tendencies.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cutting Gore

I've been watching other movies to see how they handle gore, accidents, violence, hysteria. A crucial scene of WOMAN'S PICTURE concerns a woman who lives inside her head, and the whole segment, her story, is very insular, ultimately concluding in an act of trauma.

The woman works as a maid in an out of the way motel. She's a very repressed character and if you go by critic Mary Ann Doane's general categories of "Weepy" film thematics (these are: medical discourse, love story, maternal conflict, paranoid heroine), this character would fall under paranoid. She's somewhere between Hitchcock's Rebecca, Cukor's Gaslight and, using a much later example, Altman's Images.

Images interests me because in many ways it updates the paranoid woman of those earlier films. In movies like Rebecca and Gaslight, hysteria has a legitimate cause in some external source. Someone is driving the heroine mad. Her craziness stems essentially from her inability to convince herself and others that it isn't all in her head. Images dispenses with those theatrical devices. Susannah York truly is mad and her madness is never explained or justified. It represents a wall between her and everyone else.

At the same time, the older template is observed in the sense the Images narrative is viewed through the heroine's perceptions. In Rebecca and Gaslight, you can never be sure whether or not the protagonist is "seeing" things. In Images, you know very early on that she is; you're seeing them too. The film isn't a process of parsing through these visions to distinguish between fact and fantasy. The visions are presented without distinction, grouping the film among conspiracy narratives of the sixties and seventies, where the source of threat was impossible to define or pin down.

I always pictured the maid's story with noir overtones, so it helped to find the following in Women's Film and Female Experience by Andrea S. Walsh: "Film noir left its mark on all Hollywood cinema, including the women's film. Mildred Pierce [for instance] represents a tenuous marriage of the women's film and the film noir. Another uniquely feminine variant of film noir arose, simultaneous with the emergence of the classic noir narrative. Featuring victimized, mad, or terrified women, and usually set in ornate, claustrophobic interiors, these films express distrust in love and family relationships."

In WOMAN'S PICTURE, violence breaks open that claustrophobia, but in doing so, permanently ruptures any possible connection with anyone else's reality. Images, too, erupts in violence, but many times over. York is always going there, imagining blood, calamity, rape, or otherwise. What I want is slightly different. The maid dreams of escape, of getting in a fast car, tearing out. Everything about her existence at the motel is routine. Every guest brings the possibility of change. Her accident is unexpected for the viewer, and a surprise to her, but it also has an inevitability to it that she's been anticipating from the beginning.

I want it to be chaotic. It should have that sense accidents do, where everything happens too quickly to fully apprehend. And I want to show just enough. Much of the incident takes place on screen but through the distortion of a pebbled glass partition which leads into the bathroom, an architectural feature which provides an early cue that the things the maid sees are often ascertained through various filters. The accident itself occurs in full view. The room's guest returns unexpectedly. She rushes into the room when she sees what's happened. We did most of it in one take, from a distance, with a single close-up of the wound. Cutting this together is a challenge involving what to show and when. Show too much and you lessen the impact. Show too little and there is none.

(Production stills by Tommy Kha feature Gia Mora on the left, Amy Lavere on the right)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

From Reginald Marsh to Agnes Martin

I appreciate what Joel and Ethan Coen do much of the time but as a whole their work can leave me cold. It's too airtight in a certain way. It tends to be a little smug. I respond to about one in three of their films, which seems generous, given how prolific they are. I'd never really paid much attention to their editing, though I know it's a huge part of what they do. These days, I'm watching movies very critically, from a distance, first as a spectator, caught up in their effects, then, as much as possible, as an impartial observer, trying to dissect how they made me feel the way I did. I was surprised by my reaction to Burn After Reading. I really liked it; really responded to it, not just intellectually but emotionally, which is odd for something so ostensibly farcical. I found myself watching the edits pretty closely in several scenes.

The Coens' work is pretty measured, everything happening just so. They keep a tight rein on things, so it's interesting that their films typically deal with a need for and a loss of control. Like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading concerns itself primarily with powerless people who imagine they're in charge. That's more of a subtext in Fargo and Country. Petty criminals get in over their heads. In both there is some larger, malignant force steering things, shifting the focus so that people like William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, however central, register as periphery, Keystone Kops running in and out of doors behind the driving action. Much of Country is focused on Javier Bardem, who carries out his mercenary directives with the efficiency and remorselessness of a pre-programmed machine. Javier is God by default, meaning there isn't anything else to take his place. Fargo is more hopeful, balancing good and evil with Frances Macdormand's perky imperviousness on the one hand and Peter Stormare's superficially placid sociopath on the other. Everyone else bumbles around somewhere between them.

Burn After Reading has no real moral center. There is no Marge Gunderson. And it has no existential figurehead, no Grim Reaper, calling to collect. Even the people who should be in control, the CIA, are clueless and amoral. The hand of the director is always palpable in a Coen film. There's a stylist behind every style, a director directing what is clearly a movie. In Burn, there's more of a free for all feel, lessening that sense of directorial presence. Standing in for director, moral center, and the grim reaper are CIA officials, and the joke is that they aren't in control of their own film. The inmates are running the asylum. The energy of Burn is chaotic; the thru-lines more complicated than the simple narrative threads of Country and Fargo. Both Fargo and Country are set against wide open vistas. The characters look out into them the way some people look at the ocean, as something easily navigated, whereas what's really there, the Coens seem to be saying, is unfathomably vast, an unnavigable nightmare abyss.

Burn's characters are urban dwellers. Clooney's retired CIA analyst jogs not through the country or even on a track but through the heart of DC, a town where unseen forces can be said to run the show. Outdoor scenes are crowded with people. Indoor scenes are openly inhospitable. Macdormand and Pitt, the film's petty thieves, are fitness instructors at a gym. These scenes are handled in ways that emphasize the transience of the environment; it's a place through which hundreds of people pass, and while there they go into private zones, tuning out PA announcements, the sounds of spinning wheels, music, TVs, weights dropping on the floor. The characters have none of the methodical reflection allowed in the other films. Nevermind that space for reflection only allowed for bigger mistakes in Country and Fargo. The crowded cast of characters in Burn After Reading are forced to think on their feet, and the assurances they make to themselves and each other about sovereignty over their decisions and lives have a noisy, childlike ring to them which makes Pitt's death that much more abrupt, shocking, and affecting, more so than anything I can remember in a Coen film.

I rewound it several times. Like all good editing the scene, simply constructed, feels dense and complex, and its placement within the story reinforces everything that came before it and colors everything that happens after. Before novice blackmailer Pitt sneaks into Clooney's house to hunt for more incriminating evidence (which turns out to be abundantly worthless, natch) he sits in his car singing loudly to the music on his headphones, slurping from a straw. He dances in his seat. Inside, things get quieter, but that sense of unbridled mania has been so well established with his character that Pitt's felonious presence in a still place creates an unbearable tension, however much he tones down. Clooney returns unexpectedly, sweating from his jog. Pitt hides in the closet, watching through the slats as homeowner showers, dresses, heads his way.

Clooney, too, is a petty thief, a scam artist juggling several women at once. Like Pitt and Macdormand he exaggerates. Earlier, he'd bragged about his gun. "It's no big deal. Never discharged it, twenty years of service. Security blanket now. I don't think about it--of course, you're not supposed to think about it; in a situation where your man is threatened the training kicks in. Muscle memory. Reflex." He wears a holster, keeping the gun with him at all times. He's just picked the gun up and is going for the holster in the closet when Pitt, standing there with a stupid smile on his face, startles him. The gun goes off reflexively, spraying the closet wall with blood and brain matter. The incident reduces Clooney to a babbling idiot, showing just how similar he and Pitt were underneath his more polished surface. The aftermath of the shooting features Clooney crawling around on the floor, half scampering, half stumbling.

Nothing in Country or Fargo is as effective in quite this way. Careless deaths are routine in Coen films, as is abrupt, dispassionate violence. Things often go wrong and someone gets hurt. Buscemi is shot by the man he's blackmailing when he goes to collect, leaving much of his jaw exposed. Elsewhere, Woody Harrelson is dispatched point blank with a sawed off shotgun. What differs most blatantly are tone and backdrop. The Coens frequently do slapstick, sometimes punctuated by violence or the threat of it. But Burn blends comedy and suspense in ways I haven't seen in many Coen movies. Everything is antic, as busy as a Reginald Marsh crowd scene, until Pitt's shooting, giving the scene and the rest of the film an unusual gravity and resonance. By contrast, everything in Fargo and Country takes place within a context of relative silence and repose. Quiet is followed by gunshot is followed by more silence, so that even when the violence is a surprise, it isn't entirely unexpected, the silent backdrop by then having created a pervasive feeling of dread.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I've been reading Fine Cuts and First Cut, two anthologies of interviews with film editors, as I edit WOMAN'S PICTURE. I can't remember where I got First Cut, back in 1992, but I guess I've probably read it a dozen times or so since then. I gave it away at some point, thinking I'd internalized the information and could do without it. Someone else seemed to need it more than I did at the time. I bought it again a few years later. Few books have been as pivotal for me. Hitchcock/Truffuat comes to mind. Definitely Masters of Light.

I pulled a long weekend, working full days with a head cold. People seem to hate editing. Friends who wish to be considered "filmmakers" complain about it as though it were a formality, a necessary evil. They see it as grunt work. Shooting, directing: that, I guess, is what they consider the creative part. Or maybe the responsibility makes them nervous. I understand the fear you bring to the raw material, that big blank nothing, but I love the editing process. Filming, the shoot, that's great--it can be--WOMAN'S PICTURE was like an extended, simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating slumber party--but what it produces is so vague, ultimately. It is by itself.

What I'm learning about editing is that it really creates the story. No one wants you to know that. Maybe because it assigns the editor too much authorship. Things you shot don't work the way they did in your head. That happens when you're filming, too: the script, however fantastic, however watertight, is suddenly redundant in certain ways which couldn't have been predicted. One of the most unnerving parts of filming is knowing you need to deviate from the script, and worrying you'll deviate in a way which screws you later on. So filmmaking isn't pristine in exactly the way people think, nor is it messy in quite the way they imagine, though of course it is a form of chaos most of the time.

Editing deals with what you have, essentially, and what you have is always all over the place. The performances in WOMAN'S PICTURE are the best I've ever gotten. One of the actors, the most experienced in the cast, performed each take with precisely the same gestures as the last, and just as much authenticity, meaning that now, editing, I can cut to him at any point I like. His hand will always be consistent. His head will always be turned the right way. It always matches. But the light changes, the sound is different, the tone fluctuates in various infinitesimal ways. A word is forgotten. A boom plays peek-a-boo. There are abundantly more subtle issues. The emotional tenor or feel of one shot is just irreconcilable with its counterparts.

What fascinates me about the interviews in First Cut is how often they confirm my experience. These are much more talented editors than I am, much more skilled. They work with fantastic directors. Anyway, they work with experienced directors, with big budgets, professional cast and crew. The obstacles that face me during the edit are the same they meet doing this year after year, and they use the same tricks, extending shots, changing the order of a story or a scene, abbreviating, eliding, amplifying, collapsing, faking out with the use of sound design. It dawns on me, reading these interviews now, that the challenges of editing are pretty universal. Even a movie with everything going for it can be doomed by an unsuccessful edit. Even a pretty mediocre one can be made more persuasive.

I feel totally energized by editing. Film editing is like nothing else I've done. Writers I know like to start telling me, the second I bring it up, that they know exactly what I'm talking about. Editing a film is the same as what they do. I'm a writer and I can tell you that's absolute bullshit. They'd be embarrassed to say it after putting a movie together. They'd find the process of storytelling on film about a million times more mercurial than the process of storytelling through the written word. I keep hoping I can explain the differences, because they seem important to me. That's hopeless, for the time being. Editing film and words are the same the way jogging and swimming are. They're all exercises. Writing is more like jogging, I would say.

I've made a lot of headway in the past week. The movie has gotten to a place, even this early, where it feels full. You can do this thing editing. Again, I don't know how to describe it. You abridge with sound or with image or even with a movement in a way which suddenly pops the material out. It's like those thin pieces of foam that explode into sponges when you submerge them under water. You're feeling around until you get there, so you don't always know exactly what made the difference. It's a house of cards, editing. When it isn't working, you're looking at a series of schematics. When it starts coming together, you're almost scared to touch it, afraid you'll knock it down. Whatever it is that makes the difference, what was inert becomes dimensional, it fattens up. You feel you're watching this thing that extends in all directions beyond the frame you're viewing. Already, WOMAN'S PICTURE has that quality in places, so I keep stacking, very carefully. I find it difficult to imagine how these editors worked without computers. I can save my house of cards in a folder. I can copy it, and to the copy I can add or remove a card here and there. When the thing collapses, I can go back to the original. I click a button and it's there, cross fingers.

Fine Cuts is handy but nowhere near as indispensable as First Cut. It interviews European film editors, arguing that there is a definitive difference between American and European film editing. I guess I agree. But the differences are all up and down the board, so everything different from conception. The interviews aren't really interviews either. They're transcribed without the questions the subject was asked. Like a European film, it can be pretty slow going.