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.