Stuff Buried on the Internet

Some people have a strategy or an expert on getting new titles listed on imdb. I know someone who started a festival and once it got a letter from a deputy mayor making it seem official enough imdb accepted it and so the festival could be shown as the programmer who screened her films and a few others she appeared to be connected to. So suddenly there were at least ten more recent credits on her page, as pointed out to me by a friend who liked to rub my nose in bad news. I don’t know the ethics of that, but it worked.  Some might be given an official production code number, some get listed as union productions possibly. Worth looking into.  Otherwise you will have a short list of directorial credits like mine at the time of this writing.

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1077135/?ref_=nv_sr_1

I thought I may as well dedicate a blog entry to assembling a few key links to shorts that are still on-line somewhere and might be languishing without enough eyes on them, even if that may be for the best.  Some are done just for fun, others might not be up to any standard that would help me raise funding for something bigger.  But I think they are still amusing.  I guess I just don’t like to let anything die.

https://vimeo.com/user2402483

Stranded on the Sturgeon Stretch (Early Nineties)

 

Break-In

 

Big Babies (2004)

 

 

 

Working with Murphy: Volunteering B

What can go wrong will go wrong, but it will be in that blind spot where it is unthinkable that the best intentions could pave the road to hell.

Working as continuity on someone’s film, I saw a couple of jovial crew guys proudly demonstrate how they had used the UHF dial of a television in a hotel room to watch the signal of the video tap for a nude scene in the next room.  I spoke to the hair and make-up guy who had no problem looking into it and scolding the problem away.  That kept the director and the producer out of the loop and nobody got fired. But the day had just begun.  The lead actress was in the make-up room for touch ups at one point and the make-up guy (he had a great name but I don’t want to tip off which production this was) asked what I think (of how the actress looks).  I quipped, “Great, you can’t see any mustache.” I got a scolding from him for saying, “the wrong thing.” I fully expected her to laugh, because it was outlandish to say that she would have that problem.  But you never know. Later, an actor was killing time waiting around and the actress joined us in chit-chat.  The actor suggested a game of “pick-up lines” which she could judge.  I had nothing.  I don’t believe ice-breakers are anything more than that.  I started to make fun of the politeness or vulgarity of one when it was my turn and chickened out half way through uttering my proposition.   The actor understood and didn’t help relieve the awkwardness.  I shouldn’t have participated.  I could have begged off and left.  Well, the director moments later took me outside and said, “You’re not helping me out if you’re saying disturbing things to the actress.”  I told him the context but he had to be concerned for how the young woman felt and so I spent the afternoon catching a matinee of U.S. Marshals.  Years later, the director would describe that actress as a psycho, but there is an art to walking on eggshells and I was naive at the time.

***

In more recent years, I found myself with down time and noticed a Facebook post asking for volunteers to help with a project that seemed to involve holograms or lighting illusions. I e-mailed and volunteered to bring a camera and this person listed me as being there to document.  So my contribution would not have been the load bearing pillar of the project, if logic means anything.  I had known this woman from play readings years before and almost being in one of my short films but I had only interacted on FB lately so I thought may as well be of use.  I decided to bring two cameras, the first for said documentation, the second maybe as back up but I hadn’t used it for a while despite being expensive.  It recorded on HDV tapes at 1080p but had to have its footage captured in real time onto the computer.  It was good for long, unbroken takes.  At the home of the hostess/producer, I shot images of her other volunteers setting up support posts related to the technology she wanted to demonstrate.  But she then mentioned that her own camera had a problem with shooting long takes (or some other issue) and suggested using the second camera for three hour-long takes looking at the back yard. I let her place and frame the camera each time and we let it record on three separate tapes. After the shooting was done and volunteering was winding down, it was easy enough to transfer images from my Canon Rebel card to her laptop, and then I had to delete my own personal pix that had to be copied, including some tests with action figures that fully proved my nerd-hood.

Capturing the video from a Canon HX-A1 tape was more of a challenge.  Now it turns out that she did not have a capture card or firewire and we were stalled for a while.  She suggested I leave the camera and tapes there and maybe by the next day she would have figured it out.  So my camera, stock, and tripod stayed there overnight and when I returned the following day nothing had been solved so I brought it home and spend another three or four hours trying to capture and then burn onto disc material from those three hour-long shots. I discovered that there was some pixellation flashes in the footage meaning that my camera heads might need cleaning. As well, the shape of HD-shot material on a regular DVD burn gave it a bit of a curve that had to be recorded.  I also had trouble with the third disc.  The first two were fine. I decided the expedient thing would be to make high-speed five-minute files of all three and post them on youtube so the footage could be viewed in HD and decided upon.  As well, I noted that I could be seen conspicuously walking around the yard to document which might spoil the effect. I sent a text to this effect, as well as e-mail, voice-mail, and facebook.  I also sent links to the three youtube uploads.  I noticed that at least two of them were actually watched or got a click despite not being shared elsewhere but I got no feedback or instruction as to the next step.  I figured I had sent a number of messages and so I should wait to hear back.  She didn’t even ask for the two discs that worked.   The date of the demonstration must have come and gone and no reminder or update or concern from this person.

Two weeks later I did finally get through apart from voice mails and she picked up.  I asked what happened and she said, “You have strange timing.”  I misinterpreted that and said I’d call again later and she said okay.  Voice-mail and… nothing.  Eventually, I wondered did she build up a specific date for demonstration and then blame me for not delivering the material?  She couldn’t possibly mean I waited too long to call — I had immediately done hours of capturing and disc burning the day after the shoot and updated her via text, phone (which went to voice mail), e-mail, and Facebook. How much more communication could I have contributed on my end?  I don’t know.

Months later, I see a post on FB about her having gone out west to recover from a project that apparently went wrong.  Still no communication though if she harbored anything against me.  I’m still looking at discs she never asked for and I was wondering if I should delete the youtube clips. I saw another FB post this time about the Wackowski series Sense8 and I only chimed in the same opinion as another person there – that I like their directing but I expect the show to be too preachy. More months pass.  Then I comment some quip under a link she posted about The Male Gaze in photography.

There was some back and forth and she seemed to have an edge far beyond the issues being talked about.  I pointed out that the blog she linked used as its three examples Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by the woman who shot the International Women’s Day PSA a few years back, and Avengers: Age of Ultron directed by a vocal feminist, and as its example of a movie that manages to avoid the male gaze toxin Mad Max: Fury Road which the article bent over backwards to claim had some “scientific” framing plan that forced women to the center and….. all the while ignoring that the movie was shot for shot the product of George Millers Seventy-Year-old Male Gaze and that if you liked Imperiator Furiosa she was his creation. This discussion (which I lightly engaged in while watching a movie at home) deteriorated into minor debate of the announced 2016 Ghostbusters remake and in hindsight I should have left one comment and unfollowed rather than be strung along and appear “sexist” by challenging the narrative. A fellow I had unfriended the year before chimed in.  I should have thought to block him.  He helped throw shade on me and provoke more back and forth despite my detached politeness.  Someone sent a few screen shots of the guy’s page and some hostile things said or intended to lure further fighting. Also a scene from Robocop where the villain tells women to leave the room before he assassinates one of Robo’s creators – to demonstrate the kind of hostility he had.

I complained on my page about the toxic person chiming in – leaving out names – and the woman I had helped build that up and put fuel to the fire.  I saw the next day that a direct message to her was not answered, and that she just wanted to have this open flame war so I removed my posts. (Should have saved a screen shot first) and the next day she was posting about it.  She tagged me over and over as she tried to paraphrase the discussion or argument about (for me) movies but for her maybe other things.  Her goal was to make sure others on my facebook were drawn to this and for her to play victim. She then tried to draw me into a confrontation with the guy I blocked.  I finally unfollowed her so I wouldn’t be provoked by any more of her time-wasting “woke” posts. Next day, I was going to check that mess of re-telling she posted and she had unfriended me.  So I remarked at least that is some kind of answer to my message thread after radio silence.  We had some back and forth of her characterization of me and her errant memory of a project from the year 2000.  She didn’t like being told her history was incorrect and was demanding some sort of apology for….. arguing about movies on her wall?  Anyway, she ended with “do not contact me again.”  So I blocked her and that should have been the end of it.

Very few people had the e-mail address I used when replying to her call for volunteers. So when I started getting alerts for Instagram profiles made in my name and Facebook accounts using that address, it narrowed down who might do that: one person. When I posted a commentary track on youtube about a guerrilla short from 2000, part of the account was about an actress who showed up and walked in protest despite knowing the script was about “women fight over an abandoned cigarette.” It was about the silliness of cigarette addiction.  Well this is the woman who walked and whatever she told herself I was still able to make my movie thanks to another actress stepping in.  So I had not harbored resentment over that, only caution.  Maybe not enough caution.  On that hardly used e-mail account I got a notice for a false profile with a message that said, “I have a podcast” or something to that sarcastic effect.  Granted, the first time I tried to record my commentary about that short I did a poor job lighting myself against a greenscreen and my face was dark and the sound was muddy.

That was likely the version she saw (monitoring my youtube after unfriending me). I deleted that and put up a better version but the second time I could not find a prop VHS tape that was part of my comment on the protest-minded woman.  She thought the girls fighting was sexist as a concept, and I brought up (this once) having set my VHS to record a movie she had been in where she went topless for a second. I said, “‘I’ll show you the shot,” and then opened the tape guard and pointed to the physical tape.  End of joke.  Not showing an image of nudity, only the plastic. The next time I attempted the commentary I had misplaced the tape so without that visual joke I didn’t bother.  While it might seem unusual to keep that tape, when DVD took over a lot of us got stuck with tapes we stored without ever watching them again, let alone taping over them.  And it had been recorded in the first place because of news that, hey, a “friend” was in a movie!  But I later learned that even that element of the feud resulted in open badmouthing and spin about my even mentioning a flash of chest in a low-budget movie to someone so political about the Male Gaze these days.  I know that at least one friend and his wife ghosted me after that, which I admit makes me sad.

On a personal level, I may have let myself waste a lot of time better spent on creative output sorting through some of the abuse from all that.  What can start as a harmless, helpful gesture of volunteerism can result in someone’s undisclosed expectations building into something super toxic.

***

To top it all off, I had to take my Canon HX-A1 in to Mississauga’s Canon tech office to get the lens and heads cleaned – and clearly stated that over the phone and at the intake desk – only to have an over three-hundred dollar deposit enforced and an equal charge on top of that because likely they would not make money simply cleaning the heads and lens.  Lots of life-wasting back and forth. And then I had to journey to a FedEx to pick it up. They had sneakily put more on the form than the straightforward question of what was being asked for.  They got people to agree to an overall diagnostics of the whole camera, which gave them an excuse to supposedly replace the main guts of the camera.  Like taking your car in for an oil change and having the transmission replaced. I looked for the Better Business Bureau and another intermediary and the dropped the additional $300 + but kept my deposit of the same amount.

A fool and his money.  A fool and his time.

 

 

Working with Murphy 4: Digital and Collaboration Atrophy

Murphy’s Law comes into play even with the most idealistic intentions.

A friend of a friend initiated a collective that eventually was called Group Therapy, the stated objective being that each weekend we could all be working on a new short and keep up our crafts for the sake of keeping active and having something to show.  It was to be a democracy where anyone interested would submit short scripts that could reasonably be shot with limited locations over a weekend and these would be voted on so that we might have four to do over a cycle of a month.

A script I had written four years before in a batch of other scripts, Support Group, now had a dated resolution but it was one location and a lot of characters so I modified it a bit and at the last minute slapped on a new title page, “Stereotypes Anonymous.”  It was one of the four scripts that got enough votes to get the go-ahead.  Maybe because some of our group were actors and there were a number of roles.  Chris, another member of the team, was initially supposed to direct it.  I thought I would detach from it and see what someone else does.  The Chris got a paid opportunity that made a conflict so it fell to me. Once I had worked out a seating plan and storyboarded it, I was then more committed. I modified the script to allow a couple of gimmicks that were new, and ultimately the only things people liked about the finished movie.  We were the last project slated to be shot, with fewer resources. But a lot of people came through with combined connections.  Somebody got us a karate dojo to shoot in, which reads basically as a room.  Somebody got us a real handgun for a character to wear.  Even though I wanted a gold charm SHAPED like a gun.  Instead it was a black weapon against a black t-shirt.  Someone got a Samuri sword which also allowed us to have an amusing scene people did not know how to react to.  I won’t link to this video, because it didn’t really set the world on fire.  But I enjoyed most of the people working on it.

A 360 degree pan of the circle of participants did not have the impact intended in the storyboard.  Instead of literally being in the center and panning around it needed to have the impact of floating past people, wide angle, with the camera close to the actors and maybe on a jib arm of some sort.  The short has a number of image ideas that I may try again in another project.  There is one soft focus shot that bothers me.  The owner of the camera was shooting and I may have stopped pestering him to check the focus by zooming to sharpen before each shot.  By not risking offense, I ended up with a soft shot.

There is bold content in “Stereotypes Anonymous” and I have to own the fact that it is very much my voice, dark and politically incorrect.  The intention was to cast people from the written categories and have them demonstrate the absurdity of their associated stereotypes.  The Asian girl wears a kimono and likes to take photos of the group and when outraged pulls a sword.  There is a gay man who likes to smoke and make snobbish remarks.  We shot it under the gun in one day, with actors needing to leave early.  Because I had storyboarded it we got away with moving from the few establishing shots to smaller groups within the circle. But the energy and sense of reaction or tension that might have existed earlier in the day of the shoot – which is hard to quantify – was lost. The upside was that when an actor had a rough time with his lines we could be patient and he didn’t have as many eyes on him.

Ultimately the editor of the group was busy with someone else’s project so I had to outsource and pay for that out of my own pocket. Had this project come together a year later, I would have had my own editing software.  Had it come together five years later, I would have also had a better camera than the one being used.  But it is the human resources that are the real value.  Which brings us to the next controversy.

After choosing the scripts we were going to produce that month, a fundraising event was organized.  I don’t know how much went into the pot but it would be a meaningless figure here.  Next came the ramp up for the following series of shorts.  One of the group founders decided that this time we would begin with fundraising and then choose the scripts.  Many had been read for the next session so we had an idea what might be the options but no voting had been done.  The plan was to canvas local businesses and ask them to buy an ad in the program for the screenings of the last batch of films at the National Film Board John Spotten theater.  A few of us questioned it without being especially articulate as to what might go wrong.  We could not anticipate what Murphy’s law had in store.  That is often the case.  The founder was one of the best canvassers and raised more than a  thousand dollars.  Then he thought why should he just put that into the pot for the group and subject his own script to a vote and possibly not have it chosen strictly on merit.  The movie he wanted to make was more arty and the narrative complicated and it also had many scenes and locations, so it was not following the perimeters of low budget and single location.  He convened meetings in which he advised those who could attend that he and the co-founder had decided the money raised (ostensibly for movies yet to be voted for, and by screening films everybody worked on) would be allocated first to his own film and after that any other films would be voted on. This caused me and others to protest and ultimately many of us left.  A bunch that stayed and continued with the founder called themselves Splinter Group and a couple of them may still have animosity to me or others for not playing along with the new paradigm.  Had we anticipated this and articulated the danger early on, I do not know if it would averted the problem but it would have posed the question:  Should money determine which movie gets produced?  Should fundraising determine which script is chosen?  In the end, all of the funds were used up on the art film and its director never screened it or uploaded.  I have never seen it.  He had a nice chat with me years later while I was working as a guard outside of a bank (exactly how you want to meet previous creative collaborators). He said people had copies of it but it didn’t turn out the way he wanted.

Here are some odds and ends from the next project under discussion:

The next year I set out to shoot a feature on Super 8 Film.  I spent about $600 on rolls of stock, thinking that the developing would just be a matter of dropping it at Shopper’s Drug Mart and that it was covered in the purchase price as it had been for decades (or at least since the days I was in film school).  But that policy ended.  I fit the main shoot into a week off from work.  I did shoot some of the with about 10 rolls of the stock and used a video camera to record sound and some of that came together in an edit but it just wasn’t as presentable as I had hoped.  An actor fell out at the last minute and I had to step into a role and had not memorized my own writing.  I also realized that I was excessively tired; later in the year I would be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  I was not the only one feeling tired either.  At the outset I had asked each prospective actor if they actually have the time to do a film and that I didn’t want it interfering with their work or school.  Once filming was well under way, I discovered the actors – especially our lead – showing up dead tired.  They were both doing their night jobs and going to school and then showing up without sleep.  On a certain level it seemed to work in some footage because it was about mind-reading. But it is not something I would have I was asked well into the film by a friend of a friend who had volunteered to be “producer” whether I would then allow him to be credited as co-director so that he could have a feature credit on his directing CV.  I had to say no.  He claimed that the lead actress had told him if he is not allowed to co-direct she will leave the project.  I called her up and asked if this is what she said.  She said no.  The whole point was for me to break into a feature.  Some of my scheduling was reasonable but racing against the clock was not always working.  Because of the producer presenting his hidden agenda, I decided to contact everyone and cancel the rest of the film.  Once it had been stopped, I had more time to look over my script and storyboard sketches and reassess.  Off and on, the reassessment has taken 13 years and counting.  Different movies have come along with a similar emphasis, so I have taken the material I cared about and had to graft it onto a different paradigm each time.

The above describes the second time I tried to initiate that feature.  The first scene shot was with an actor I have since used for several other projects but who ghosted me after the first shoot.  I might still use the footage.  It was just an attack scene in a part of the old LIFT building that was then under renovation.

The third time I tried to shoot, the third time I had cast the lead, was with an actor I had met when I was asked last minute to act in someone’s short.  The actor across from me was talented and gave an emotional performance that likely was not well served by my own lack of learned lines, the filmmaker’s lack of costume for me as a priest, and the lack of a confessional book. . . frankly the overriding sense that these two young guys had a camera that had fallen off of a truck and it was just being held off the shoulder because they didn’t have a tripod and there were “no rules” about filmmaking.  None of that inspired confidence.  They took none of my advice and so there was way too much recorded of me flubbing lines and likely no way to cut around it.  In hindsight, I should have taken the director aside and given him an ultimatum.  Some actors will definitely cram for a shoot and meet that challenge.  I didn’t.  I thought I had, but my memory let me down.  Still, it could have worked with specific camera decisions. Would have been nice to have that young actor’s performance.  Maybe when it became clear that the scene would not cut and had to be scrapped, that guy abandoned my project.  I shot with this guy on the Toronto subway, in the elevator of the CN Tower, and at a workplace of mine when the building was empty.  We got some good shots in.  I SHOULD HAVE had some sort of meeting with at least my villain and a couple of other actors, so he would have a sense of the team and community making the film so it is not just me.  He went with his girlfriend on a holiday to Prague and a couple of other places, so I tweaked the script a bit for the remainder of the shoots but when he returned even though he agreed to meet to pick up a hard copy of the revised screenplay he never showed up.  And returned no voice-mails.  I have imagined either he thought the script was just too many mini-shoots or he might have been angry that my unprepared acting ruined the other guy’s movie.

I finished shooting some rolls of Super 8 film in my home town on holiday that year, just burning through it thinking it was wasted on images of my parents and other family members but years later that is the footage that had value, especially after my dad passed away.  I had a similar experience with rolls of 35mm still film in college.  I would think I’ll shoot out the roll on kids and family and then I’m thankful to have those images when the project itself was otherwise rote and meaningless.

Both of the projects mentioned in this entry of the blog are having elements combined for one of my next projects.  Even though I am writing this from the most gun shy phase of my life, knowing how so many things can collapse. And this is only some of it.

 

 

 

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.