Working with Murphy on Movies 3: Grants and Bigger Stakes

Back in 1999 there had been a pitch event run at the time by the Worldwide Shorts festival.  Sometimes taking a plunge into the most nerve-wracking exercise can reap benefits that were unexpected.  Had I been smart, I would have made that principle more standard operating procedure in my creative life rather than mere flashes of bravery.  Each of us participating had to pitch a short to a panel of representatives from the various television platforms of the day.  I was pitching “Klepto the Clown” and one of the panelists thought my physicality acting it out was suitably sleazy.  I think I got the best response from CBC, Vision, and Judy Gladstone of Bravo!  Michael O’Hara was also there pitching his own short called The Tackle Box.  A pair of ladies who were also filmmakers and may not want to be name dropped here went with us afterward for coffee and to absorb the experience of pitching.  Michael offered to produce Klepto the Clown.  Sounded good.  And ultimately, it all turned out well.  One of the better experiences and with no serious battle stories.  Michael put in the application with my initial storyboard thumbnails and script as well as the idea of setting it to music by his sister Mary Margaret O’Hara.  We got the grant, which was that stamp of credibility because it was FOR someone.  It officially paid for half of a short’s budget in those days. We coasted expecting funds or a loan to come from the money fairy, but ended up getting an extension for the deadline and by then I had a couple of thousand to loan the production from personal savings renting a room and working in security.   This got the wheels going.  My friend Deborah Bojman allowed me to use her mother’s house as a location, and we had to get a permit from the city for shooting on the street out front for one shot but that worked out. Initially my storyboarded rendering of Klepto looked like a friend of mine who I had in mind for the character.  But he had become union and we were looking at non-union because Michael’s daughter Maddie was not yet in the union and was likely going to be the co-lead who foils the plot of Klepto the Clown.  Michael had seen an article in Toronto Life magazine about Gino Empry, so he arranged for us to visit Gino’s place.  That might be a story Michael will want to tell some day.  Gino showed us a tape from his episode of Made in Canada, the Rick Mercer series he was on.  Quite fun. Worthy of note is that Gino answered the door in housecoat and red trunks like briefs. Michael asked me to design how Klepto should look if Gino plays the role and I drew something up that utilized Gino’s qualities.  But when I showed up to shoot, the hair and make-up looked kind of like many traditional clowns and I didn’t push the issue.  Gino’s maybe real, maybe fake hair might have been a sensitive issue.  During the shoot I remember being taken aside by the AD and the DPs and reminded to just roughly show the blocking with the actors and then leave so it can be lit.  But the shoot went smoothly due to it being heavily storyboarded and easily scheduled for moves downstairs and upstairs. Michael had posted for kids to come to Klepto’s party, and we were fortunate to have a wall of parents present during the birthday scene that required children.  I had to get used to working with an audience.   I shot more than I needed and could have trimmed more just for running time. I was lucky to have a friend who could access a CBC off-line system so the movie could be delivered on broadcast quality tape format. But I should have let the editor be more ruthless.  I also failed to put a time code onto that tape or a copy for the composer Rusty McCarthy to synchronize the score. I had done off-line straight-cut editing in community TV back home, but did not know this aspect of the process and didn’t ask my intrepid editor about it or the control likely would have been added to an additional copy.  Rusty did a good job matching the visuals regardless of me making the job harder.

Since it is a purely visual short it is not fall-down funny.  Nobody has commented, “Hey, that opening shot seems to be a reference to the Hitchcock movie Marnie starting on the “baggage” toted around by the kleptomaniac.”  Our short played well with an audience at the National Film Board John Spotten theater, but when I first saw it it was on a TV in a coffee shop where I was the only crew member to show up.  At least I witnessed it airing on Bravo! for the first time.  Ironically, I had to make the tough choice to use only Rusty’s score as audio and not include the vocals of the great Mary Margaret whose name likely helped get us the grant.  The soundtrack had to be all about punctuating the visuals, and Mary’s experimental vocals were occurring at random intervals that were a distraction.  She did however fit well into the verbal theme Rusty created for the end credits on some versions of the movie.  The more detailed account of the project can be heard in the commentary track video.

Shortly after Klepto had been completed, I had submitted another short around that I had carried and refined for years.  This was not part of the whack of short scripts I had written in 2000 or so.  It had taken many forms.  Big Babies was a musical satire.  Initially I wanted to submit it to the Ontario Media Development Corporation Calling Card program.  The first hitch was that it was producer-driven and the producer could not also be the director.  So I put the word out for producers, and presented the script to a more than I might remember.  One lady who read it and heard the CD of songs turned me down and a year or so later got nominated for an Oscar for her own short.

The demo CD of songs had been produced by Rusty again who had bee given a short window of time to set my crazy lyrics to music.  I had been focused on the Calling Card deadline. It had become the Al Waxman Calling Card program.  But it ended right after I missed what appeared to be the last deadline.  I was still getting response from potential producers and going through with interviews.

I did finally get an Emerging Artists Grant from the Ontario Arts Council.  I figured if I follow through maybe it can be submitted to CBC’s Canadian Reflections.  In hindsight, that might have been naive considering the outlandish nature of my project.  I still felt I should have a woman as producer considering the heat I would receive tackling a topic like the abortion debate with satire. So I did end up going that way and making a leap of faith, careful to state outright what I expected to spend in total but withing I had put a lot more on paper besides a script and storyboards.  A formal before-the-fact budget should have been worked up ahead of production.  There is too much to say about Big Babies.

When I was gearing up to shoot, I was a volunteer stuffing envelopes at LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) when then coordinator Roberto Ariganello asked what I was up to.  He then told me that he had been on the OAC committee choosing projects and had fought for Big Babies because he was the only male and everyone else was against a male dealing with the sensitive topic.  He pointed out the storyboards and song demo CD and believed in it.  He asked why I was just stuffing envelopes to make up my volunteer hours.  He suggested that I take over the Directing Actors for the Camera workshop that the usual instructor Bruce LeBruce had taken leave from.  That was a mostly positive experience, but when you state that there will be a camera to work with you had better make sure one is available and that you are talking to the right people about whether it can be moved from one room to another.

Before shooting Big Babies, I could confidently prepare a class and spend a weekend playing teacher.  Even if it meant arranging a bonus session a week or so later to actually give hands-on experience. After shooting Big Babies, it cleared my head and energized me to write several feature screenplays I had been noodling with.  But there was also a downside resulting from the principle that all must be made to understand the idea of a FINITE figure when it comes to the cost of a movie.

And, no matter how burned out I was after filming I should have been more demonstrative and make triple sure everyone hears each other.  The producer on this film felt like she was my stooge and I hadn’t realized that.  Communicating between the lines on a film crew is not communicating at all.  I have to remember to tell everybody that.  Anything that MUST be known must be said directly and with full attention.  Also, I’ll just say that when an actress said she was allergic to sesame seeds I was LUCKY to notice that the individual who had been told as much delivered an assorted bag of bagels to the craft services table, which included a couple with the dangerous seeds.  I had to warn the actress off of eating bagels. Personality conflicts shouldn’t lead to a medical emergency.  Also, maybe find a way to ask whether any key crew might be on medication or hormones or anything that might cause unusual behavior.     Even though they don’t legally have to disclose.

If someone arrives on set to take photos officially, five that person the film rolls or data chip necessary and ensure that you receive it personally before they leave.  You do not want to be hounding a middle person for copies of photos you have paid for. Especially under the time crunch of sending out your film to festivals.

Here is a short that was inspired by nutty things that were said in e-mails.  I put them into the mouth of a parking valet to generate the script for this sketch:

My grant was $4000.  I expected to match that out of my own guard job savings, making a total budget of $8000. This was agreed verbally twice. Also, the plan had been that actors, the sound recordist, the Cinematographer, and second assistant camera would be paid positions but I would do my own continuity and have no First Assistant Director and the rest would be volunteer positions. By increments, this formulation was compromised and I failed to clamp down.  The producer on a low to no budget project would be expected to not be the head of a producing department but instead to be production manager, line producer, and location but next thing you know I’m being told the producer’s condo/office has production assistants for co-op and that they were being delegated tasks like phone calls and call lists and so on and their hours would be charged to the production.  Apart from some contact numbers that didn’t work when I tried them (and may have been wrong only on my copy of the list, since the producer refused to give any information citing “ways and means of doing business”), the production assistants were capable young women and were just caught in the middle.  But ultimately, there was budget overage beyond $12000 and then $500 for a lawyer and $500 for a website it turned out I had no control over.  That and whatever incredible stress and abuse is worth.  Here is a video where I read an old issue of the LIFT newsletter I wrote based on this experience.  The day it was published and sent out to members I got a silent hang-up call from an unknown number.  May be unrelated, maybe not.

After a series of e-mails requesting production stills and the removal of the website, for example, you don’t want to get a voice-mail from a police constable ostensibly giving friendly advice to stop. Even if it is a distinct yet lyrical name that had been dropped months later by his acquaintance during a less contentious time.  This meant going down the rabbit hole of finding out the term for Canada’s version of internal affairs.  It all represented a tremendous drain on the spirit and the hours of my one life.  And ultimately, attending a Legal and Business Affairs For Filmmakers and Producers workshop at LIFT only resulted in more stress.  The instructor before class said it sounded like I was in the right. Then just before class my nemesis shows up and I neglected to address the proverbial elephant in the room, so the instructor (now an annoyingly successful filmmaker himself) thought I should have advised him right away, which in hindsight is right.  Even though it might have created immediate drama.  He didn’t return my call when I through about engaging him. But when I did find someone to send a registered letter, guess which lawyer responded on behalf of my nemesis.

For the next fifteen years or so, there would be trollish little internet shenanigans that were supposed to be of unknown origin but were not.

This is another case where it might be more informative to listen to the commentary video below.  Even if it is the more polite version:

Working With Murphy 2:Beyond College

More Moviesplaining out of me.  On the day of graduation, one of my instructors asked if I had anyone there to see me get me go up. I told him my mom would be there so he deemed it worthwhile to point out that my shirt buttons were out of alignment.  Good save. I have finally learned something worthwhile from him. Our previous conversation days before in his office found him asking me what I plan to do after school with my life and I said I’ll write my screenplays and direct them.  He said, “So you plan to pass yourself off as a writer-director, eh?” There might not have been an eh but it’s there for the tone.  I honestly do not remember what I said in response.  I found irritation boiling up.  Had I not believed he still could lower my mark or something, I might have said, “Better than passing myself off as a writing and directing teacher!”  Or, “Yes, I’ll fool people by writing the script and then directing it.” To this day, that mind fu*k still bothers me.  It makes me potentially a control freak.  I don’t want to put an asterisk beside my credits.  A screenwriter gets feedback on a script so it might not be word for word dictated to me by the Archangel Gabriel.  But even if someone points out an “issue” with  script, I like to solve it myself. In directing, I do like to storyboard everything and follow that as closely as possible.  There are so many ways Murphy’s Law can trip you up but the only way I feel vindicated for my vision is if I follow it.

After graduation, I had a health problem that made walking difficult and ran me down so I returned home from the big city and recuperated at my dad’s house. I found myself writing out monologues that had only been glimmers of ideas a year before.  Something had opened up in my mind after downshifting and beginning to convalesce.  Organized and performed in a couple of monologue shows, and for the community channel 12 Halloween show that year I knuckled down and made a short called The Basement about a young woman who has car trouble and asks a nice old gentleman to use his phone and he traps her in his basement.  We shot it at my dad’s place. Used equipment from Cable 12, shot on 3/4 inch.  The old man was played by a nice man who had operated camera for a one-woman show I had recorded in the studio.  A couple of local theater actors had turned me down.  The heroine was played by a girl I met in a production of Dark of the Moon.  The lead of that production had said no. A lot of this movie turned out quite nicely. The actors were enthusiastic.  It had some dark humor and suspense.  As written, it had a great turning of the tables and escape.  Unfortunately, this was a two day shoot and the second day would have been a coffee scene for character development and then the escape from the basement but my actress was a no show.  Cell phones being less common then, I heard nothing until a week later.  So I only shot the bad-guy’s side and implied the death of the girl he had locked in the basement washroom.  One joke is, “Did you die in there?” I was told finally that the reason she was AWOL on day two was that she stayed with a girlfriend who had been suicidal.  My unspoken reaction to that was “so… did her place have a phone?” But maybe she didn’t have my number and I just let it go. Years later, since we know some of the same people, I met that actress in Toronto and then later on Facebook we touched base.  Bottom line was that she asked me not to post The Basement on-line.  Annoying.  But I have been re-adapting it off and on for a possible remake that I can share in the future.

The next year I wrote a short called Forty Winks, about a charm a child wears to bed that will freeze time while he is asleep and because his babysitter is in contact at the moment he conks out, she is able to roam around find the neighborhood in stasis. There are some tableaux moments she re-positions.  I started shooting with a friend of the family, and still used a couple of shots where she could not be identified.  But I ended up with an actress who was very good despite her reputation for maybe starting a fire at school.  The boy arguably was a little too old to be told bedtime stories.  While some of the movie might have been clunky, it mostly turned out.  There had been a written enactment of a legend of Forty Winks that involved a harem and a pharaoh winking at each wife before he slept and them clinging to his garment as time froze.  I cast the pharaoh with one of my home town’s strongest young actors and he was in a robe on a throne in the studio and ready but the sisters who had played the friends of the lead in another scene were supposed to be featured harem girls and they did not show up.  So a chunk of the movie is more telling than showing. And it may not have made me look good for the actor who did show up.  His father had turned down the role of the psycho in the previous year’s short.  When I made the leap back to Toronto permanently, I showed that actor a terrible draft of another script (where I tried to combine two of my ideas and it was too busy). He showed up drunk outside the place where I was staying and just yelled in passing, “It’s garbage!  It’s garbage!”  So he’s gone on to better things but as far as I’m concerned he is in the a-hole file.

I did another community TV Halloween short, this time called Maniac Wannabe about various horror situations going wrong because the prospective victim is smarter or the would-be killer is accident prone.  In hindsight it was pretty ambitious.  One exterior scene was compromised because I had the wrong filter on.  It was yet another camera borrowed from the station and I had overlooked why the image seemed so easy to see in the viewfinder.  It was over-exposed, but I was able to take out some of the light in post. The killer is a successful stand-up comic and MC in Toronto now.  No thanks to me.  We also did a strange short about wandering around the public library fearing he is being watched or followed.  It allowed for some good editing gimmicks and represents the one time I got some production value by getting the library to allow us to film during the closed morning of “Rae Days” when the Provincial government cut back on library hours.

I visited Toronto to help a couple of other filmmakers in a minor capacity.  I was continuity and second assistant camera on an “erotic” anthology.  I was continuity and a production assistant on a Humber classmate’s black and white feature.  That was another case where one of the actresses did not want to sign a release after shooting had started.  That made for some nerves but must have been resolved.  That movie was not finally edited until more than a decade when a couple of us really badgered the director, but he finally had a screening and we got closure and a copy and he is still the one of us that has directed a feature at the time of this writing.  One danger is that right after shooting something you might hear the dialogue differently.  There might be a temptation to lose passion for a project once some of the steam pressure has vented.  However imperfect a movie might be, better to complete it near the time of shooting.

In the year 2000, a school friend from the same project who had encouraged me to make a more permanent leap back to Toronto sold me a roll of 16mm film stock that required an exterior shoot.  I had sat down to type up a batch of short scripts with the intention of gradually shooting them all.  One was “Klepto the Clown” and one was called “Support Group” and one was “Nic Fit” of the few that actually got shot.  I had met a random character named Sterling in a Second Cup who noticed I was storyboarding Nic Fit and let me know he had a Bollex camera he had not yet used to shoot anything.  He had spend enough money on the camera that it put a strain on his marriage, and yet it sat there.  Many of us buy cameras and then don’t dive into projects.  They can be monuments to inertia.  Another friend (brother of the guy who sold the stock) agreed to help load the film.  A magazine was rented from LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) as well as a tripod but I neglected to test the mount and it didn’t fit.  Found out on the location, a lot behind my cousin Linda’s apartment building.  The behind the scenes account is a little more elaborate in the following commentary video.

 

Working with Murphy on Movies

Nobody wants to collaborate with Murphy of Murphy’s Law when it comes to making movies, but we have no choice but to collaborate with that POS.  Here are some sob stories about encountering situations where I failed to anticipate what could and would possibly go wrong.

First year Humber Super 8mm assignment: We should a parallel action short I conceived and directed which relied on specific movement and cuts to create scene transitions.  A classmate who looked enough like a vagrant because of the Nineties Grunge trend was recruited to act.  His last name sounded like the opposite of his character. He would also supposedly help with post.  He was supposed to meet me in the library to help edit.  I was in plain view and waited but he did not show up, so I did the edit myself, splicing physical film the old fashioned way.  I was pleased to see how my planned cut came together.  Looked forward to screening it.  Then I packed up and made the mistake of doing what we were told to do — putting the equipment and finished reel back into our crew bin on the shelves of the post-production classroom.  I went home that night feeling I had saved the day and showed up for the morning screening but my film was not there. Grunge boy showed up and handed the reel to the instructor.  In turn with the others, it was screened and I was horrified.  I was not vindicated by this at all.  My work had been destroyed.  This tool had come in early or after I left and had gone through the film and snipped either side of my splices and re-spliced it.  He was a vandal.  It was not just a matter of “learning to edit” and “getting experience.”  It was passive-aggressive and rendered my involvement worthless.  To redress the matter would require him to create something he cared about and then for me to destroy that.  If it had occurred to me to try to get the guy thrown out of the program, no doubt he would plead misunderstanding or that his was a “fine cut” and he is “here to learn.”  Decades later, I still think back to this anecdote and feel the rage.  Over the years, the same guy has proven to be a low-life despite the fact that he gets work in film as an electric.  Had I not been naive, I would have put a note in the crew bin, “Bringing the edited reel home.  Will bring it for screening.” In a time-travel fantasy, that is the advice for my younger self.

We did a 16mm film documentary, and I suggested the Guardian Angels of Toronto having seen them ONCE on the subway.  I had a flurry of amusing editing ideas that would give that subject energy.  The vandal was against the subject because he didn’t like the idea of Guardian Angels (volunteer protectors against violence and crime) having a presence. No shock.  I was technically the writer, which has little meaning in documentaries. I had to submit storyboards so that the guy in “the cage” would issue our camera gear. That policy makes sense, but then I found out that we were not allowed to have the writer and director be the same person. Another classmate, Trina, was named director. She went over my storyboards and agreed with them. Then she had to be absent for an appointment so the crew advised me through producer Shaun that I should direct that day.  So I did the majority of it, the exteriors. That included half of a transition, a whip pan from the police 52 division that would take us to the headquarters of the Guardian Angels. The swish-pan was storyboarded, a transition gimmick seen in Some Like it Hot and sort of on the old Batman show.  Pan quickly away from something to a blur, cut on the most blurry frame of that and the following image which begins on the fast pan and settles on the new setting.  Vandal was to shoot the first half, the pan-away. I asked if he knew how to do a swish pan.  He was affronted and said, “Yes!”  Then I watched him and new his pan was wandering and wonky.  I politely asked if I can take a stab at it.  Mine was smooth.  The following day, Trina was back and we had to shoot the other half in the Guardians office. She wanted to skip the pan-in.  I confess I insisted we get it shot even if it isn’t used. She may have been miffed at not having the last word as nominal director. Audio of an interview was used as our sound, so there wasn’t much need for me to write narration.   When we looked at the raw footage I explained to our instructor why the swish was there and how it was to be used.  Yet, when the editor had his way, he delivered a cut that omitted my swish transition but kept the meandering, shaky attempt Vandal had done.  It was a disaster.  I spoke to our producer and asked if I can use the outtakes and restore what I had storyboarded.  He said yes.  I did a marathon editing session and made the doc as it should be.  The next day, there was a pall in the air in the cafeteria.  The editor was a popular basketball player and some (especially not from my crew) thought I had crossed a line.  I was put on the spot in production management class and had to apologize especially for hurting the feelings of the editor (never mind that he had ignored my guidelines and embarrassed me).  I got a nod of approval for my apology from the person whose opinion meant nothing to me, the vandal.  But eventually the editor looked at my cut and realized I was right and most of it was kept.  After all the melodrama, I was invited to direct the 5 minute drama the next semester. Years later, I put a satirical voice-over to it and put it on youtube.

I showed up at the earliest meetings for 16mm drama with a bunch of outlines, little paragraphs and titles.  Anyone could have pitched their own script ideas but one of mine seemed most promising so it was chosen.  I then wrote that into an eight page script and then edited that down to five pages.  It was agreed, so we went forward. Board Beyond Belief was about a customer returning a Ouija board to a service counter.  The shoot went well.  The cinematographer often asked to look at my storyboards to get it right. Then the editing process was like waiting for a baby to be born.  The editing partners included Vandal. When the actors arrived with their mates to see the screening with our class, what they saw had jump cuts because the most basic editing of a simple conversation could not be competently achieved.  Thankfully this time there had been a negative that I could take in and get transferred (albeit only to VHS at time). I took this to an off-line suite and did a complete video edit.  I took it to the screenings of another class and it played well so I felt vindicated.

In third year, I had planned to make a movie called Art Show if my script won people over.  It did not.  The script that had support was by Randy Chase, the writer in class more prolific than me.  He would also be producer and continuity.  That year I was living with my First A.D. Peter and his girlfriend.  I think Randy and Peter were popular enough that some of the crew rallied around them, and as I had asked them to be involved with Art Show I somehow retained the position of director on our 20 minute 16mm film drama project, Hearing Things.  Again I storyboarded the whole thing, let my cinematographer look through the thumb nail version with me and then I refined them after seeing the most likely location. What could go wrong?  The highly capable DP did the ordering of equipment and said he would hot access a video tap.  (In hindsight I think that may have been a fib so I wouldn’t be scrutinizing each shot in progress, which proved highly necessary.) He also showed me some excellent camera tests with various film stocks so I could choose the best look.  But then to save money and without asking he went for a cheap Agfa stock that proved to be kind of grainy and not what I would have asked for.

The opening shot was to zoom out from the darkness of the heroine’s profile to end below her shoulders so it is still a medium close-up profile.  Everybody had a thick booklet of all the storyboards.  I questioned why the camera was so far back and asked to move it closer. I wasn’t tough enough.  I’m sure when I checked the end position it was the shoulder shot.  The woman’s arm feeling at her ear had to read on screen, so I was furious to see that the zoom pulled all the way out and far away and her hand coming up was a detail that barely registered.  We also had an anticipatory pan.  She turns her head upon hearing her sister and looks down a wall to where she will emerge.  I had production stills and storyboards of this and was clear of the finishing position.  But what they showed our instructor was a meandering pan.  And in this case it was two smart guys, the DP and camera operator.  I heard them claim “That’s what Will wanted,” and was tempted to throw them under the bus but I didn’t.  There was also a planned jump cut from a wide view of the mailbox at the end of the driveway to a closer detailed shot of the mailbox; the cut was to occur while the camera was blocked by a passing car. This was before everyone had cell phones, so a miscommunication with the driver meant that he drove the car past once and then turned around and drove out of the driveway and onto the highway thinking he had passed twice. The producer was off that day and I think my roommate AD had a dentist appointment.  There was nothing in place to goose me or remind me.  I had been through the ringer for being a control freak and now I was too sedate and amenable on set.  There was one day when we had a huge dialogue scene and out DP had to go to work at a hotel. I told him we have to finish and maybe I could just shoot it myself.  The threat of me taking over anything caused him to call in and delay his shift, so that was one small victory.

Our sound recordist had his apartment robbed so out mic and the Nagra recorder went missing.  The school wanted him to pay for the replacement and instead he chose to drop out of the course.  So our post-production sound guy filled in on location as recordist.  After each take I’d ask “Good for Camera?”  “Good for sound?” and get a yes before saying it was a keeper.  There was one take where the framing was bad – a head in lower frame  – and the performance was not so good so that was not a keeper.  Camera, Performance and Sound had to be deemed acceptable.  There was an interior dialogue scene where I wanted to match the point of someone sitting into a chair as the conversation took another turn. Standard cut on the motion of sitting, from wide shot to close-up.  If helps engage the seriousness in the close-up.  Well, despite keenly watching to make sure the timing lined up with the takes I had chosen, the editor advised me that because different takes were used they didn’t allow for that editing choice.  The post-production sound guy had listened to the takes while transferring to mag and decided which ones he deemed to have the most clear sound.  Now direction, framing and performance were low priority and sound clarity decided which takes were kept.  The editor and post sound guy had spent Christmas holiday getting that editing done.  Despite the fact that I had marked up the script and given storyboards and they had my number for any questions they worked independently instead of interdependently.  Where I had no ideas for sound I would write “doesn’t matter” in the margin but I should have said “editor’s choice” because it gave the wrong message.  In most cases I was specific about sound.  In one case, a pan from the husband’s thoughtless purchase of a new car to the heroine in profile reacting was intended to be filled by a rise of score.  But the production management instructor saw the cut in progress without music and suggested cutting out most of the pan and starting the profile from her nose.  This ignored my note mentioning the composer.  One scare we had was that part way in, the lead actress resisted signing a talent release because she thought she would become quite famous.  (I have no recollection how that was resolved by the producer/writer.) I do know that when copies needed to be made on VHS for cast and crew it was done at a TV station where our editor had his co-op placement and he forgot to set the levels.  So the first run of copies for Hearing Things to play for agents and so on had muddy sound nobody could hear.

20 years later, the producer Randy presented me with a 3.4 inch tape which I had transferred to digital.  I was temped to change the end credits to put my name first as director but I kept it in the random way the editor did it, irritating as it is. There were only a couple of small edits I indulged in.

More examples in another blog. . . . .

 

 

 

 

Directing and Screen Grammar

If there is a syntax of cinema, Steven Spielberg is the most fluent.  But he doesn’t have to be the director.  Anyone who believes in and learns to apply film grammar can direct a movie correctly, setting challenges that create problems and limitations and then figuring out how to solve those.

This is not about being dogmatic, but having a desired visual message and conveying it with whatever clarity or ambiguity is appropriate.  Every beat of a scene may have a shot or a move or blocking cue that is most appropriate.  Darren Aronofski in his commentary for Requiem for a Dream says that shooting two actors across a table the one with more depth and detail in the background is the character with power.  Martin Scorsese says that when character are shot over shoulder they are usually in agreement or considering each other and when they are shot in single close-ups they are isolated literally and in their own minds.  Sydney Pollock says a long lens allowing the person in close-up to be in sharp focus with the background and passing people in soft or blurred helps add to the feeling of being alone in a crowd.  Adrian Lyne in Fatal Attraction shows that you can plan to shift the camera axis with dolly track movie behind one actor from over one shoulder to the other when there has been a shift in the tone of a conversation and the actors trade sides of the screen.

Most people who crow “there are no rules” are not in love with cinema enough to absorb what a movie director potentially brings to a show.  They may be lazy.  They might not know the right tool for the right job.  They may shoot handheld just because they don’t happen to have a tripod or because it is the most expedient or because a faux documentary approach helps disguise a lack of aptitude for direction.

Here is a lie:  There are two kinds of movies, personal expression of your authentic voice and empty Michael Bay tent-pole movies that just want your money.

Here is the truth:  There are many kinds of movies, in all genres, and the authentic voice can be a celebration of the craft and the whimsical gesture of creation. Some are better written than others, and some are better directed than others.  Michael Bay should not represent all tent-pole movies, since his kinetic moves and cuts appear arbitrary and there are many less financially successful action directors whose discriminating use of the frame and the cut rank far above him.  Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy definitely wanted your money, but it was also the vision of a man who had a scale model of Gotham City in his basement he used for planning shots.  The message of a movie is not merely the content but the care and the dance of it.  One might not be drawn to the premise of Brokeback Mountain but upon seeing it must admit that Ang Lee did a good job of presenting it.  People may respect the casting of a Robert Altman film, or the subject matter in a historical context, but he is a particular sacred cow who too often preferred the approach of non-direction. David Cronenberg has said that movies about movies are about nothing.  But they can exude the love of movies and the potential of the frame.  Robert Rodriguez gets across his love of action, efficient design, family, and political satire while ever-sharpening his deft skill in putting images together.  A Chinese period soap opera can be riveting in fight scenes where the coordination of the camera is part of its dance of action. There is a call for diversity and new voices (either in direction or likely writer-directors) and if it results in a First Nations filmmaker being to Natives what Rodriguez was for Latino or Mexican fans of movies I will eagerly look for that person’s work.  It would be a shame for someone to think that because of the “importance” or seriousness of a topic style would somehow be crass, and it results in a stockpile of shaky documentaries about glue sniffing and suicide in isolated areas. To simply record information may be worthy use of equipment and suitable for youtube clips of evidence but may not warrant a film.

Some people claim that even the concept of merit is invented and promoted by Caucasians and straight males to keep them in the role of Director.  That’s another lie. Look at the early movies that Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson made together. That is merit on display. Look at Todd Haynes movies, a director who happens to be gay and was discovered by producer Christine Vachon when she saw Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a movie made with Barbie dolls.  James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Aquaman) is one of the finest new directors of today. As a test, try sitting through Fast and Furious 6 directed by Justin Lin and then watch Furious 7 directed by James Wan and you should sense that Lin’s decisions may have been delegated and arbitrary in the fashion of Michael Bay while Furious 7 feels tight, focused and directed with discrimination and personality despite the production problem of the star Paul Walker’s death.  Lady Bird by Gretta Gerwig is engaging and is directed with style.  Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch) leads us and uses the frame with commitment, confidence and subversive humor despite often unsettling content.  I was especially pleased with an interview she gave moderated by Roger Corman; when asked if she was inspired by typical indie art house example Jim Jarmush, Ana Lily said no she was more inspired by Robert Zemeckis.  Good for her.  For that, I cheer for her career.  Near Dark is my favourite of the movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, not so much the more recent political movies with which she has been awarded.  Style does not have to be conflated with content.

If someone can’t shut up on social media crying about the Male Gaze in photography or colonialism or bemoaning the heterosexual, that person might be best suited for blogs or angry tweets and maybe not the craft of movie-making.    The question is why something has to be a film and not a ten-minute rant on youtube or a college thesis or a blog.  Cinema doesn’t have a gender or a race.  It is its own language, and most of the people who have evolved it at key points have been men. But Leni Riefenstahl knew how to place her cameras, despite the work being in the service of evil.  Triumph of the Will is not a good film, as judged by history, but it is well directed and remains worthy of study by film students.   By the same token, a movie can have the most idealistic and righteous intentions but if it is not a directorial statement of style and power it need not be a movie.

It has been said that if you can possibly see yourself doing anything other than directing movies then do that other thing.  And as much as we hear on-line about “new voices” (not those undiscovered as yet, but those other than the straight while males) frankly some people just like to talk and can vocalize and rally and network like pros but may be averse to storyboard sketching of shots in advance and may even let the cinematographer conceive shots, making that person the de facto co-director. Plenty of comedies are made that way, with the credited director mostly a writer-producer who has a rapport with funny actors.  They might be comprised of the most generic recordings of coverage, even if they are funny due to the cast.  It can be frustrating to see someone soar who doesn’t seem to be a movie director (except as credited on screen and in a whack of imdb entries).

Ava DuVernay has twenty years of credits in marketing and publicity.  That is the bulk of her imdb list.  In Selma she crossed the line or the axis in covering a few scenes of dialogue.  I thought the movie was well cast but the directing not noteworthy. She had much support having made a documentary about the prison industrial complex – important subject. But the answer to why she was being talked up as the next big name in directors appears to be the accumulation of good will she has earned from other filmmakers in helping them through marketing and publicity work.  Knighted by Oprah, she might still continue directing even if super hero movie The New Gods flounders as bad as A Wrinkle in Time. But for every Ava there is a Patti Jenkins who ranges to the character study of Monster to the bright and measured thrills and laughs of Wonder Woman.  In the end, people know the story of the movie and also (more than ever) the story of how the movie happened and who contributed what.  Jenkins turned down an early offer of Wonder Woman but didn’t like the approach or the studio’s take, and then turned down Thor 2 for the same reason.  She essentially said during a Hollywood Reporter roundtable that, “It is important not to be so eager to do a project that you don’t examine what your collaborators want to do and whether they want to make the same movie. Even a tiny difference in the goal shouldn’t be ignored at early stages of discussion because that can eventually derail things as the film is being made.”

Nobody gets a “turn” at being a movie director.  Some people are focused on hiring and money and status and the statistics as to how many of what demographic have the job. But that can be distracting for someone starting out.  Anyone can pick up a DSLR or better for a reasonable price and shoot HD 1080p with a setting of 24 frames per second and get something that looks just right.  They can also get reasonable 4K cameras if they have the computer power to edit with it.  They can work with family and friends. In the late Nineties, Toronto filmmaker Ruba Nadda shot 16mm short films with a Bolex using her sisters as actors.  She would make film prints and send them off to festivals.  She has now worked with Oscar caliber actors and made Sabbah, Cairo Time, Inescapable, and October Gale as well as TV shows like NCIS, Hawaii 5-0 and Roswell, New Mexico. Today, creating a movie can be done on a cell phone. Best if the ease and cheapness is also counterbalanced with precision and genuine respect for how the right camera placement can transform a scene from “coverage” (wide establishing shot, close-ups, over-shoulders of the whole scene inclusive) to genuine movie directing.

 

 

Story, script, and feedback

Giving feedback on writing can take insight and a certain talent of its own.  If you are willing to take the time to compose a screenplay, it might also be worth letting people know the kind of feedback you need.  Maybe you just want to track how the reader feels or is engaged or bored from scene to scene. You may want to know whether you are clear enough or whether your ambiguity or withholding of information engages curiosity or frustration.

You may know that a screenwriting circle you belong to tends to discuss only the broad strokes, so asking them to read a four page outline might help kick the tires on your story.  Too many drafts that are not ready for feedback, full of typos, are submitted for premature feedback and it can hurt the writer’s image.  A table reading where actors are determined to go through it cold may mean discovering speed bumps that could have been ironed out in advance.  If one reader is busy checking text messages during the read and misses cues, a screenplay that relies on rhythm can lose its charm.  Any gathering of people should be the chance to hear the script work.  But another problem with table readings is that if the screenplay is so dialogue heavy it plays like a radio drama those listening will consider it a huge success but it will not be cinematic.  It will be pictures of people talking.  This doesn’t allow a cinema director much to work with.

Also, figure out how to break the news to prospective actors that you ideally plan to shoot what you wrote so that the writing is vindicated instead of replaced with paraphrasing or improvisation to placate cast members who want to avoid learning dialogue.  It can be hellish to find out someone doesn’t get the stylized approach to your patter or a heightened language or they are just used to generating their own material and believe the written word to be arbitrary.  They may feel vocal characteristics of actors are not enough to distinguish them and that what one character takes a few words to convey another should need half a page. Improvisation can take longer and may not inter-cut properly.  For a low-budget film, straying from the script means having the ground shift under the feet of the director.  And as common as it may be, a writer may have to fight for fidelity to the work and to avoid a committee sensibility.

Maybe the most commonly read draft or output of a script should not have everything in it.  You might create a second document with embellishments that might have thrown some readers. I once forgot the word “pristine” for a cleaning lady’s hand and used as a place holder “perfectly white” and forgot to replace it. That may have been taken the wrong way by someone.  I also had a domino effect after hearing someone’s long-delayed feedback that a couple of jokes were (in his mind) “punching down” and I could only reply, “You have to follow your own gut. No hard feelings if you don’t want to do the movie.” Some subjective and philosophical issues and interpretations have to be handled outside of the script.  You either will allow someone else to decide what stays and what goes based on their sensitivity or you want the script to represent your own risks, tastes, and point of view.  You might want to avoid what the Chinese call beizuo or the false virtue signalling that goes on so much in Western culture.