I’m currently in the middle of a screenplay for a feature project to direct this summer. It’s a project that I designed to fill in some empty space in my schedule, as my fall is pretty booked up, and a project I was supposed to direct this summer has been delayed. Such is film, there are no predictable schedules and for a project to come to full realization, a million parts must be synchronized at once.
The piece I’m writing is a pure performance piece - six women in one room - and I’ve never written such a complex script before. As is my style, I tend to write everything out. Both the Lilith and One Trick Rip-Off screenplays are filled with details and instructions, they are more like blueprints for a film to be constructed from. When people read those screenplays, they often are able to vividly see the film before them. It’s a way of writing that works for some, not for others. It works for me, as the analytical part of me reassures my creative free spirit. I know that when I get off the path less traveled, I always have a core plan I can go back to and rely upon.
But this script is an entirely different animal. It’s one room, so it’s not like I have to fill the screenplay with descriptions of setting and mood. One and done on the environment, which changes only slightly over the course of the story. This is purely a performance piece, where the six women talk and debate. Ethics. Morality. Mortality. It all comes into play.
I’ve never written a screenplay - let alone a single scene - where six characters interact with one another. Maximum I’ve done is four in one scene, and luckily that was just a scene, it didn’t have to carry out for 90 minutes. After plotting the script out and writing a full treatment, I stared at the blank page, not really knowing where to begin.
Do I just write it all out, just as I would any other screenplay? I started doing this and it didn’t feel right. It felt clinical and lacked spontaneity. Everything was planned, the dialogue was coming off as far too clever and snappy. I was writing in actions for the negative space - the space between the words - and it was reading just as filler. My tried and tested method of screenwriting was not working.
Not that it was bad writing, in fact it was quite good. Very good quality, some of the best I’d written in a long time. The debates between the women were reading more as a transcript of a debate that’s already happened. I imagined that if I was an actress I’d be excited to play the part, but it would be a matter of saying those specific lines in a specific way. I want something that grabs the actress and fills them with immediacy. So I decided to scrap what I’d written and start over.
I started with the characters. I created detailed profiles of each character, not getting into their backstory but rather the salient points that would affect their arguments. After finishing the profiles, I mapped out the five main arguments that transpire over the course of the story. I then created a graph, with the characters names on the horizontal access, and the argument topics on the vertical access. And then came the hard part - at each cross-point, I wrote how each character would respond to each argument. The graph visually presented each argument in proximity of one another, and in this presentation, I saw how each act would initially unfold.
I’d achieved an organic construct, and now I had to get back to writing a script. The dialogue was beckoning, but I decided to take a massive departure and I planned to let my actresses improvise the dialogue.
Improvisation doesn’t mean you don’t have a script, in fact it’s still a very detailed screenplay that must result. But the script is painted in broad strokes with the important details not omitted, but rather concealed. The true power in improvisation is not telling your actors what to say, but rather describing what they should not say. It’s what they’re holding back that will deliver the true meat of the lines.
Everyone’s got secrets, and the core of any drama is the lengths people will go to cover up the truth. In a romance it is the suppression of true feelings, in horror it is one’s mortality, in comedy it is the avoidance of awkwardness, which makes things all the more awkward. In my screenplay I’m focusing on the inner fears and prejudices that drive each woman to a conclusion, so what’s important is that the actors know what it is that they’re hiding. Once they know that, the improvisation to cover up those truths, when in concert with character preparation and immersion, should promise some very interesting results.
I’m about a quarter of the way through, and the screenplay is reading essentially like a prose document, except with some key start and stop points. I’m defining the beginning of an argument, and the idea of the counter argument. The idea is the gift to the opposing actors. There may be a few key lines of dialogue that are to be given not as gospel, but rather as a suggestion, a seedling to a line that will come out organically and in the moment. By the time I’m finished, the screenplay will be about fifty pages.
I’ve never done something like this before, and I have to admit, it’s a little scary. But I also know that an improvised screenplay has more than one author, and in this instance I will have six more once I complete my casting. Casting becomes paramount because not only am I bringing in six performers with great acting capacity, but also six co-writers who must have the intellect and creativity to finish what I started. They will have to come from a place of total immersion, which is undoubtedly a lot of pressure but also a tremendous adventure for an artist. It’s like being sent on a mission - you’ve been given your orders, you have your tools, and now you must execute. My job as a writer and director is to ensure that my actors are safe and comfortable, that they can count on me for direction when they get trapped or lost. We depend upon one another, and trust is key.
This is exciting, a new territory for me. It’s part of my continual growth as a filmmaker, to keep pushing myself and my collaborators into new things. We swing to different ends of the pendulum and arrive in the center with new skills, perspectives and tools. Ultimately I want to achieve the natural ease of improvisation with the composed, artistic formality of my earlier work. I’ve always been a visual and sonic artist, and to get to the very core of performance, to make acting harmonize with the visuals and sound, is to reach the apex of my goal as a filmmaker. Doing this improvised screenplay is an important step in that direction.
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”—Kurt Cobain
Twenty years ago, Kurt Cobain was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I remember feeling lost and confused. In Cobain and Nirvana I had a voice that could process the pain of being misunderstood, of expressing aggression and anger without misogyny, ego or machismo. He was the one who’d found a way to process the chaff and frustration, and yet he’d succumbed to it, and despite a beautiful and caring last note, he felt the only way to truly deal with the pain was to end his life.
I had a very hard time processing his death. I couldn’t cry because I was angry at him. I felt betrayed by a man I’d never met, but whose art would help define who I would eventually become. He, like so many of my heroes, was unafraid to point the middle finger at the tormentors of the young, the quiet, the different. He fought off bullies of many sorts with his words, his ideas, his sandpaper growl, his art. And yet he collapsed.
After some time, his death imparted another valuable lesson, one which guides me to this day. Kurt Cobain, for all his success, his achievements, his otherworldly talents and his vision, Kurt Cobain was just a man. He was flesh and bone, made plenty of mistakes, and had fears and doubts just like anyone else. His death not only killed my hero-worship, it also obliterated any want for celebrity or to follow it.
Celebrity, whose etymology derives from the Latin celibritatem, or multitudes of fame, is a poison that corrupts the integrity of a man. It froths all that is superficial and covers fears, flaws and all those things which make us real. It is a dam withholding troubled waters. In our current times, celebrity worship has reached unprecedented levels, where the admiration of plastic constructs like Kardashians, anti-vaccination bimbos or the Royal Family not only perpetuate lies on what construes a normal, complete life (nobody is fabulous, rich, skinny, perfect, happy and gets what they want ALL the time, if ever) but also poisons us with disappointment in our own flaws, which many times aren’t even flaws at all. Celebrity not only foments envy, but chisels insecurity into our bones, to the point of self-destruction and self-mutilation.
The day Kurt Cobain died was the day I understood how beautifully fucked up life is, how immensely complex it is, and how it can never be appreciated through a filter of perceived celebrity perfection. It forever changed my interactions with people and how I did business later in my life. I see no one as being more important than the other, we are all flawed, we are all scared, we are all actively making mistakes and we should help one another to solve them, rather than being judgmental of our failures and envious of our successes, which is the very core of celebrity. The saddest part of Cobain’s death was that, despite having friends who loved him dearly, he died alone and in tremendous pain, and it is a thought that brings immense sadness to my soul.
The quote above demonstrates Cobain’s struggle with celebrity, and the best way to honor his death is to love him for being human, for being a real man, and not just for the art he made, which moved so many of a generation in a personal way. I remember, clear as day, the moment Kurt Cobain came into my life, as I recently wrote on my Facebook page:
"I got this EP for my 14th birthday. Wax Trax records in Denver, on Capitol Hill. Compact disc issued by Tupelo, discount marked down written in Sharpie on the case. Threw it on my dad’s CD player and THIS bassline changed my life forever. I couldn’t dance to it, all I could do was pound my fist into my chest and thrash my head. Mom was worried, but she also saw that I was happy. I’d connected."
Music for the Weekend:Boundless Love by Savage Sister.
We’re on the thaw. Officially it’s been the most brutal (brutalest?) winter in Chicago’s history, with the average temperature from November to the end of March hovering around 22 degrees. That’s almost five months straight of below freezing temperatures, and add to that the third most snow in Chicago’s history (about seven odd feet of it) and it’s a winter for the ages, one to hold above any future kid’s whining about how cold it is outside.
We survived, and it’s given me a lot to experience and think about. Your mind can’t help but go to dark places when it feels like nuclear winter for so long. In the thaw I’m seeing dead animals emerging from the glaciers, trapped and preserved like mammoths, who couldn’t survive the freeze. I see the damage on old wood and structures, I see the effects of expansion on the concrete.
And in the middle of all that, a tuft of green. A blade of grass. A bud on a tree branch. Life perseveres, as it must. It’s still cold outside but the chill has gone from the bones, we’re all ready to shed our weathered skins and bloom. Time to commit to paper all that has been experienced, pondered and formulated. Warmth and sun bring new energy, the rite of Spring.
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dryer’s Vampyr remains as one of my favorite films of all time, a brooding meditation on death, dreams and aspiration. It is perhaps the single most visually stunning film I’ve ever seen, and its fingerprints can be found in several other films that I’ve admired, from the works of David Lynch to the Brothers Quay, especially with their stunning film Institute Benjamenta.
My favorite sequence from ‘Intitute Benjamenta.’
I’ve been studying Dryer for some time, and no filmmaker’s education is complete without some dedication to his canon. Immediately noticeable are Dryer’s compositions and approach to light - unlike so many silent filmmakers he reveled in using brightness and haze to bring out the darkness of the subject matter. He used light to cast shadow and contrast the darkness, something we’d see later in the work of Kubrick, especially in 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange.
I’ve long been obsessed with darkness, and when I made Lilith I made sure to plunge the entire film in literal darkness. But what I’ve come to realize is that Dreyer’s brand of darkness is actually quite more affecting, in that there is nothing to hide within. There is nothing lurking in Dreyer’s shadows, the horror is real and upfront.
A study of Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc demonstrates this point brilliantly. In an iconic scene, young Jeanne D’Arc - played by a freshly cropped Renée Jeanne Falconetti - refuses the help of God before she is burned at the stake. The scene is shot in a haunting close-up, Dryer confronts us with Jeanne, and makes us look at her, face-to-face. We see the wrongs of our ways, we cannot turn away from her beauty and innocence. We know what is beset upon her will be a tragedy.
Closer study reveals an artistic choice by Dryer which reinforces the horror and tragedy of the sequence, and it is a motif repeated throughout his canon. Dryer keeps the backdrop of Jeanne a pure white - he had the art director paint the background pink so as to avoid any kind of shades being picked up by the black and white film stock - and as a result we are purely confronted by her humanity and our choices put upon her. This is the use of contrast in its most pioneering, as we see her in full detail. She is beautiful but not glamorous, we see her freckles, her small imperfections that reinforce her innocence and bind us to her even stronger. The power of white as a base of contrast, while largely commonplace today, was a massive step in the evolution of cinema, which at the time was reveling in the massive details of epic Hollywood films like The Thief of Baghdad.
Dreyer’s use of this kind of minimalism was selective and done in varying degrees, but remains as one of the few filmmakers dedicated to the use of white, which has now been relegated to films about space travel. Kubrick used Dryer’s technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey and expanded upon it, giving us a set with the bare minimum of iconic dressing, but still using white to a chilling effect, highlighting every element in the room, putting it in our face, and forcing us to connect the dots.
The use of such diametric contrast is difficult to pull off, but when done right and placed within the narrative and edited masterfully, it can be one of the most affecting, powerful things a director, cinematographer and actor can create together. In my most anticipated film of 2014, Under the Skin, I saw in the trailer that Jonathan Glazer bravely attempts this, further cementing him as a spiritual and artistic descendant of Kubrick and Dryer. Glazer does away with the white background and lights the skin of his protagonist, an alien Scarlett Johansson, as uncomfortably pale against a pure black background. The construction is inverse to Dryer, but the effect is nonetheless startling. I absolutely cannot wait to see this film.
One might question this study against my observations of Henri Cartier-Bresson, surrealism and using visually interesting backgrounds for subjects to play in front of, but one has to also accept that a plain white background can be equally visually interesting, and has as much value as one that is overly populated with elements and texture. It’s the middle ground where things get boring and uninteresting. Minimalism is always visually interesting, and Lars Von Trier brilliantly described Dryer’s approach - which can also be applied to Kubrick and Glazer - as cooking down a stock or soup, where elements are removed so that the core flavors become richer, complex and more pronounced. It is complexity by means of subtraction, something even Cartier-Bresson practiced.
Dreyer is a revelation, someone who made movies in the 20s that are still seen as a future vision of cinema today. He demands frame-by-frame analysis, and an even more fruitful exercise is to trace his influence throughout cinema. This is just the tip of that pale, white iceberg.
Las Vegas, The Marshall Plan, and Authenticity vs. Approximation.
I’ve just returned from Las Vegas, where I spent the last week on a work assignment. I used to go to Vegas a lot when I was kid, and it’d always held a fascination for me. Seeing guys gamble at 10am in an empty casino is some weird Edward Hopper-ish like nightmare for me, and even darker and sadder is watching people play slot machines in the airport.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid, Las Vegas was truly Sin City, seedy, cheap and dirty, a place that abhorred kids and families, and yet if you were a kid lucky enough to be allowed access to the city as I was, you saw the strangely surrealistic face of America. When I was ten we stayed at the Imperial Hotel, and while my family gambled for most of the day, me and a gaggle of other kids were sequestered in a tiny video arcade game room. My grandfather, perhaps sensing that I was going stir crazy, convinced my parents to let me tag along and see a Vegas show. Being that the show was a topless revue called “Nudes on Ice,” I’m shocked that my parents realized, during the show, that it might be inappropriate for a ten year old kid. But I was there, I loved it, and I saw amazingly beautiful tanned naked bodies, each adorned with vibrant plumage flowing from their heads and arms. I saw drunkards ogling women they could never have, and on the way out from the show I saw a man proposition an escort for an evening.
The next day I had a footlong hot dog for a dollar, and spilled mustard all over my jeans, which in the 110 degree weather caked like yellow building spackle. I had my fortune told to me by a bum on the Strip. I saw the place where Evel Knievel jumped over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. I saw drunken debauchery, lounge singers, male and female prostitutes, and an economy that was completely divorced from the American Dream. It was its own thing. It was incredible.
But then came the Mirage Hotel, and things changed forever. Vegas was no longer hostile to children like me, rather it welcomed them with the promise of entertainment for all. It forgot that it was that hostility which made the city so incredibly unique. Today the city is filled with glass towers and designer fashion boutiques. Within every hotel are the same designers, repeating inventories across three miles of real estate. Celebrity chefs prepare food fit for Manhattan gastonomiques. Hotels take on the personalities of cities, mimicking New York, Venice, Athens and Paris. It’s grand, larger than life, trying desperately to compete with Monte Carlo and Macau.
And it’s all so resoundingly plastic. I would win a bigger jackpot if I found a shred of authenticity on the Las Vegas Strip, instead it is entirely an approximation of the real thing. A facade to placate the masses who no longer have the outlet of sin, rather they drown in a pre-packaged and homogenous vision of affluence through acquisition. Essentially, the Las Vegas Strip has turned into one giant mega mall.
In this sense the Strip has embraced the American Dream of consumerism, i.e. The Marshall Plan, where happiness is inexorably linked to consumerism. Happiness in Vegas is no longer about striking it rich in the face of odds set by the house, it is about sitting in a celebrity chef’s restaurant (where the chef is rarely present, in name only) and thinking that eating their food somehow brings you to the same feeling as eating at their actual kitchen in Manhattan or Napa Valley. Buying a Gucci belt as a different kind of gambling.
Vegas used to be about 80 percent gambling and 20 percent entertainment, and I can say with full confidence that the numbers have flipped. Sin City is dead, The City of Sin Brought to You by MGM and Wynn is what remains, and it’s a mournful passing. It is just another city now, with the same shops, the same restaurants, the same chains. It saddens me deeply.
On my last day I made a trip to the Hoover Dam, as I’d never seen it before. I had low expectations but I came away from it inspired and amazed. What I’d noticed was that the dam, while built purely for function, still had stunningly beautiful elements of Art Deco design. It had personality and purpose. The large bridge across from the dam, only recently completed, was staggering in its scale but it lacked any design outside of its function. If Hoover Dam was Old Vegas, the Pat Tillman Bridge was the New America.
Everything around us is becoming so bland, so uniform, so uninspiring. New construction is built for economic efficiency, as design is an expense relegated to the supremely wealthy. I miss design in America, especially design for the use of the masses. My post office down the street is a granite and marble art deco bunker, with painted murals depicting the Agricultural Revolution inside. My new post office a few blocks away is a prefabricated brick and concrete box which, while clean, is completely lacking in any kind of deference to history, legacy, or style. It is immediately forgettable.
I was so bored in Vegas that I went and saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it encapsulated everything that I was feeling. The film is exquisitely designed and meticulously crafted, one of the most precise films that Anderson has ever made, which is saying a lot. I reveled in its details, its idiosyncrasies, its flourish. Every frame was a thoughtful painting, the work of a true aesthete. It is a film more fit to be shown in the art deco movie palaces of yesterday than in the AMC 8 corrugated steel box that I saw it in.
Design matters. Details make memories. Tactile emotions and personal statements. Details are only expensive if we deem them as luxuries. There was a time in America when details were done out of artisan pride, where it was paid for because it was appreciated. It’s why I bought a vintage home built in 1892. It has designs that can be no longer feasible, not because the technology is obsolete or the design flawed, but because builders just don’t want to do it any more.
When we make films, we must design them. We must be thoughtful and thorough, and make art that, while efficient and cost effective for mass consumption, must always be authentic, and never an approximation. This means additional work, but when you have the pride of an artists, there is no such thing as additional work in your lexicon. You do the work as the design intended, and as a result you will create something memorable, lasting, and worthy of inheritance.
“Intuition is the key to everything, in painting, filmmaking, business - everything. I think you could have an intellectual ability, but if you can sharpen your intuition, which they say is emotion and intellect joining together, then a knowingness occurs.”—David Lynch
What Lynch means by an intellectual ability is the skills and techniques of your trade. But what good is skill and technique if the hand that wields them is afraid? Instinct will always conquer fear. Always. When you are on a set, when you are directing your crew, when you are acting, when you are making edits, when you are exercising your craft, when you are following your bliss and you come to that repeated, inevitable junction of making a dangerous choice, then remember this mantra.
Technique: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Surrealism and André Breton.
When I go on holiday I actually work. I know there are a lot of people who’s idea of a vacation is sitting on a beach all day and doing nothing, and I’ve tried that and it makes me feel restless. I need to be actively learning something, and I find that learning actually recharges and refreshes my mind. Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, famously said that our minds are like car batteries - when it’s dead you have to run the car to recharge it. I wholeheartedly subscribe to it.
On our trip to Paris, my wife and I stopped in at the Centre Pompidou to see the newly-opened Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit, charting his entire life’s photographic work, his philosophy, and his technique. I was excited beyond bounds - HCB’s work has been a driving influence ever since high school, when as a graduation gift my grandfather presented me with a copy of The Decisive Moment. Every cinematographer I’ve worked with can attest that I reference Cartier-Bresson in all of my documents. He and Robert Frank are the two visual pillars upon which all my cinematic references are built.
But truth be told - and almost shamefully - I never formally studied Cartier-Bresson, I just admired his photographs. I never read up about him other than a topical biography and his founding of Magnum, the international collective of photographers. I always reference a single quote by Cartier-Bresson, which I’ve committed to memory, as an ideology to my approach to showing horror and darkness onscreen:
"We aim to make terror beautiful so that it will become unforgettable, so that it will burn into people’s memories, so that they will do something to stop it, if they can. And if they cannot, they will at least understand what terror means.”
And that was the extent of it. So imagine my joy and fevered anticipation upon entering the Pompidou, to learn in depth about this man who so wholly influenced what I do. I came out a new artist, a new thinker, a new man. My approach to cinema, in my future projects, will forever be altered by what I learned in that extensive and exhaustive exhibit, which took over three hours to navigate.
The first major element I learned was that Cartier-Bresson, who was also a trained illustrator and painter, was adherent to the newly-minted Surrealist movement and the writings of poet/ philosopher André Breton. Breton, who in 1924 drafted the first Manifeste du surréalisme, declared surrealism as “pure psychic automatism,” i.e. a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move randomly and freely across the paper, where chance plays a large role in the final impression, and therefore the surrealist composition is freed of any kind of rational control. Cartier-Bresson, seeing truth in this, applied this to his photographs in a technique which can be seen across all of his compositions. While the human subjects of his photography tend to carry the emotional impact, the real artistic foundation of his work lay in the backgrounds.
Cartier-Bresson, with his naturally gifted artistic eye, selected backgrounds of high visual interest. Textures, proportions, shapes and natural graphics. He would set up his position in front of that selected background, and simply allow life to unfold in front. Rather than searching for people to photograph, he allowed people to traverse that area and photographed them in what he called the decisive moment - a moment where potential energy initially becomes kinetic. Cartier-Bresson applied the idea of automatism, of letting his subjects be free of rational control, and let them move across his canvas, where he would capture a specific moment. The results are powerful and beautiful, a combination of journalistic veracity, surrealist velocity, and pure aesthetic beauty.
It was an absolutely startling revelation to me, and in the exhibit I started scribbling down in my notebook how I could apply this to cinema. I’d realized I’d already started philosophizing about this method on this blog, when I wrote about John Huston’s film Fat City and making muscular, American films. . In that post I wrote that Huston crafted the film with “remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines.” Unknowingly, I recognized that Huston was, essentially, making a film in the way Cartier-Bresson photographed. However recognizing it and doing it are two totally different things, and I want to push the Surrealist vision further by embracing the second important thing I learned from the HCB exhibit, which are the thematic pillars of Surrealism.
Unbeknownst to me, Surrealist compositions have three central themes or focuses. The first is some sort of bondage, with items or people wrapped in fabric, tape, leather, or just about any other material. Cartier-Bresson made extensive use of muslin and transparent, textured materials in both his back and foregrounds, and there is an overriding dark sensuousness towards its use. When fabric or material was not available, he employed the human body.
The second theme is on aberrations of the human form. We see it in the works of Dali, where the human body is stretched, ballooned, fragmented and distorted. Cartier-Bresson, be it through lens selection and exposure or through actual subject matter of bodies shaped by environment, genetics or disease, captured the human form as if a subconscious expression of the inner self. Cartier-Bresson intentionally cropped out body parts, refrained from the full body form, and honed in on bodies to the point of abstraction. He used mannequins, statues and costume to warp our perspectives and proportions.
The third element is the notion of people actively dreaming. In Surrealism this is most often captured by showing people sleeping or with their eyes closed, but as time progressed, Cartier-Bresson expanded the idea of a dream fugue state of being by experimenting with frames within frames, creating three-dimensional objects on a flat plane, and photographing subjects from a higher, omniscient angle. The dream state is altogether bizarre but populated with familiar elements, and in that manner, Cartier-Bresson’s truths are indeed stranger than fiction.
These of course are my observations and are part of a deeper study as Cartier-Bresson continued to evolve, and I do not claim to be an authority on Surrealism or photography for that matter. But when in application to my own art, these are the creative starting points to something that resonates within my own aesthetics and worldview. I’ve longed to capture truth within the surreal and vice versa, and this jaunt into an artist whom I thought I knew exposed my own hubris. There is so much more to learn, and rather being daunted by that, I found it invigorating. I feel like an explorer on the eve of an expedition into dangerous territory, like a soldier armed with a new weapon he’s yet to master, like a kid who thought he knew all about music picking up a guitar for the first time. Cartier-Bresson continues to enrich my life, and I know he will continue to guide me throughout my life and career. A monumental sea change in how I work is afoot.
Hot Topic: Lady Gaga's SXSW Keynote and Selling Out.
My first trip to SXSW (‘South by Southwest’ for the uninitiated) was in 2004, when I was invited by the organizers. Ten years ago, the festival was a bustling confluence of independent film, indie rock and fringe hip-hop, and a burgeoning interactive / new media sector. It was grassroots, all about the artist, and the empowerment of ideas that would be glossed by the mainstream, only to become the pillars of the future mainstream. It’s an invigorating event, one that mirrors the “keep it weird” ethos of its host city of Austin, which has to be one of the five coolest places on Earth. I’ve been going on and off to SXSW for the past ten years, and it’s been an amazing experience every time.
Ten years on and the festival is bigger, louder, faster and more crowded than ever. I did not attend but I had about a dozen friends and colleagues who did, and they all came back feeling that the festival may have jumped the proverbial shark. The indicators were the presence of Justin Bieber, corporate sponsors for every event, Hollywood productions with distribution peppering the lineup of films, and first and foremost, the inclusion of Lady Gaga as the keynote speaker for the music festival.
I like Lady Gaga. I think she’s a true performer who knows her shit. I saw an interview with her and her knowledge of performance art and music is vast and impressive, more than any recent pop-star. She pushes the envelope of good taste. It was indeed confusing when the festival decided it was to be her to deliver the keynote address. It wasn’t that she was a commercial success and that disqualifies her. Last year, Dave Grohl, who is arguably one of the most commercially successful musicians on the planet, delivered one of the best speeches I’d ever heard about staying true to one’s voice - because it’s the only voice you’ve got - and it always being about the artist first. It remains as one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard, and if you’ve got the time, I’ve included it below. It will, without a doubt, change your life.
Lady Gaga’s keynote address was posted online a few days ago. I watched it with great interest on what insight she would bring to an industry very much in flux. There was already buzz because of her performance of ‘Swine’ a few days earlier, in which she had self-proclaimed ‘vomit artist’ Millie Brown puke green pain all over her chest. Okay. Gaga being Gaga. There was a major hullabaloo that Gaga’s “you don’t fucking own me” vomit performance was sponsored by Doritos.
Next stop, Nikelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards!
But hype will be hype, and in our age of Twitter and instanews, it’s best to get it from the source. Gaga walked on stage, dressed in a melange of white trash bags and a giant white Battlefield Earth wig, and I waited for her keynote address.
First of all, it wasn’t an address. It was an interview. She didn’t prepare a speech, like all the keynote speakers before her had. She was interviewed, asked questions, and spoke off the cuff. I have to admit, it made me mad. You look at the thoughtfulness and immense work that Grohl, Springsteen and the keynote speakers before put in, and she didn’t even take the time to write a speech. Okay, that’s just me. Put it aside. Let her speak.
She was asked about the Doritos thing, and she responded that her critics “don’t have a fucking clue how the music industry works.” She was right. So many artists get flak for selling their music to ad agencies, that they ‘sold out’ for the money. But to Gaga’s point, the sources of revenue for bands have all but shrunk, and if you can get that money, it’s more money and exposure that you can get touring for a few years. It’s a business move, and in many cases a survival move. I don’t begrudge artists for selling their own music. Gaga had a point.
But then she went on and on about how she wants to connect with fans, about it all being heart and soul, and yet the elephant in the room remained: she was being funded by giant corporations and despite her cries that artists should own their own music, she doesn’t own her own music. Gaga works hard, she says that even if she didn’t have a giant record deal she’d still work just as hard for that indescribable high of making art. I believe her, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s being funded and promoted by giant corporations.
Is that a crime? No. But Gaga defended it with a statement of “Don’t sell out, sell in.” So she’s saying to play into a system that clearly doesn’t work for 99% of the music industry, but make the maneuvers to create your art within that system. It doesn’t make sense. Gaga doesn’t need the sponsorship of Doritos to have a girl vomit on her, but she needs Doritos to have that act carry any kind of meaning. The shock is not the act of vomiting (countless musicians and performers regularly engage in body horror / self mutilation), the shock is that a pop star is having it done to her under a corporate sign.
Gaga continues on, and what she seems so oblivious to is that the corporations that fund her and her charity do so not to support her art, they are simply profiting off her image. This where she is wrong about ‘selling in.’
But what does that even mean, to ‘sell in’ or more importantly, to sell out? In the larger sense it is when you give up your voice, your integrity, for a dollar. Has Gaga lost her voice? No. In fact it’s probably stronger than ever. She has every right to make as much money as she can. But she cannot profess to fight the battle of the independent artist - telling them to sell in, to find the Doritos and KIA’s of the world, who will somehow magically support unfettered expression - and maintain any sense of integrity in doing so. Doritos and KIA will latch on to anything that is popular to shill their products. They didn’t seek Lady Gaga because they believe in her art and want it to thrive, they did it because she’s popular, and they’ll drop her the minute she’s unpopular.
When I see films rife with product placement and blockbusters castrated to appeal to the masses, I don’t view that as a singular, unique voice. That’s allowing outside forces to dictate your art, and there’s little to no integrity in that. One might argue that this is a way to finance a film, and this is true, but we have to ask ourselves at what cost. When the revenue source begins to dictate the voice and perspective of the art, the choices made by the artist, then we are selling out. This can be a tough thing to swallow because it’s difficult to imagine popular art without product placement or sponsorships.
Why then, is it such a bad thing to sell out? Because selling out means you are putting your perspective, your voice, and your worldview aside for the benefit of someone who has no interest in making the world a better place. Sure Doritos might contribute to Gaga’s charity, but they do it also as a tax write-off, as a way to curry favor with the public. Can it be that advertising and corporates can be that cruel and heartless? A resounding yes. We wonder how we got into the shape we are today, where corporate greed has become uncontrollable, and by way of people selling out, permissible.
Lady Gaga telling artists to ‘sell in’ simply allows a system that doesn’t support the artist to thrive. She’s supported and justified the wrong guy. If she truly were the artist / entrepreneur deserved of a keynote address at the most influential media conference in the world, then she would have made a statement for companies like Doritos to support musicians on the fringe, to give them just as big a stage as they give her. She would form a record label, like Dave Grohl, to support new artists and have her corporate backers back those artists. This has nothing to do with her advocacy and activism in the LGBT communities, this is about the business of art, which is what she was invited to SXSW to talk about. She failed miserably.
Gaga’s in a rarefied air that so few musicians can even relate to, and while she can parlay stories of her struggles to get signed and noticed, that is a universal story that all artists experience. It’s what she’s doing now that matters, and she’s having her image cashed in upon, and the saddest thing is that she seems oblivious to it.
Ultimately I blame the organizers of SXSW for inviting a corporate popstar to talk about the future of music. She didn’t even bother to write a speech. SXSW, like Sundance, has slowly embraced celebrity worship, when in fact they really didn’t need to. Ten years ago the festival was sold out, and the biggest celebrity to show up was Elijah Wood. It was always about the artist, and now it’s about sponsors and selling tickets, and they’re believing the idea that the more revenue the festival gets, the more independent artists they can help. It’s trickle down economics for the indie set, and it’s going to self-destruct.
I just watched a documentary about Pearl Jam, PJ20, directed by Cameron Crowe. I saw the story of a band, at the height of their powers, take on Ticketmaster because they felt the company was making music undemocratic, that the power of profit overrode the responsibility to bring music to the masses. They fought the company, stayed to their ideals, and never sold out. They continue to tour and make the art they wish to make, on their own terms, and they make a living from it. Those times when they ‘sold in,’ they were smart enough to know what it was doing to them, their art, and their fans. They stayed true. Filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles do the same. They are in control of their art, are in service of their art, and enter agreements with corporate distributors with the sole understanding that the art is to remain undisturbed and unfettered. All of these artists never sold in, and therefore they will never sell out. Integrity and truth to the self is the single most important quality of the artist.
Another pick for one of the best albums of the year, this record is blowing my mind. You can download it at the band’s Bandcamp page for your own price. Good karma always dictates that you show bands who extend goodwill some love. Pay for great music and films, and they will repay you in spades.
Been a very long and hectic week, many new and exciting events happening in my career. I’ve been offered some exciting directing work which hopefully will find its legs this summer, and I also just secured the film rights to a wonderful comic book by insanely talented writer/artist Sam Alden, which I’m going to produce into a short film, to be directed by a dear friend. More on both as events unfold.
Tireless work pays off. Glad to start seeing some returns. I hope the readers who have been with me from the start will see that film careers indeed do take time to unfold, as two important facets must develop and mature. The first is your experience, which only comes with time and constant creation. The other is your unique voice, which comes through living life. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was toppled overnight. This is a fragile and contradictory balance, one which requires infinite patience, dogged impatience, and the desire to make a practical career out of circumstances that on paper don’t make any practical sense at all. Eyes on the prize, my friends. Eyes on the prize. It is still very, VERY early in our film careers, and we’ve got a long way to go. Stay persistent.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”—Mark 8:36
The 60k giveaway contest is officially closed. I got about 350 submissions and so many of them really moved me, made me laugh, and made me think. For whatever reason it all made me think of this quote from the Bible. Yes, as godless a heathen that I am, I have read the Bible.
To be faced with so much truth is, in this day of hollow “inspiration” (“What happens next will inspire you! Faith in humanity restored! Please stop it, Upworthy. Please.) is a true breath of fresh air. I’ve read things arcane and dark, passing and seemingly trivial, all to the purpose of understanding what truly is important. To achieve small understandings, to not conform to blanket uniformity, is to preserve one’s soul. Hence the quote.
Quite astonishing, really. I’ve chosen a winner, and will contact you soon.
Thank you all so much for opening up and sharing. I’ve learned a lot from you who were so brave to share.
I wanted to make mention of a very special project of a dear friend of mine. Jacob Moore, a Chicago and LA-based actor who I had the privilege of directing in our TV pilot last year, has founded and championed one of the finest not-for-profit organizations I’ve come across. The group is called NØSTIGMAS, and is dedicated to suicide prevention and dealing with mental illness. Jacob and I connected over losses to suicide in our lives, and I truly appreciate his drive, his ambition, and the tireless and heartfelt work of the NØSTIGMAS staff. Here’s an amazing speech that Jacob gave about his own life and struggles, it’s heartbreaking and inspiring. I admire his courage so much, please take the time to watch it.
It would be a tremendous favor to me if you went to the NØSTIGMAS tumblr page and followed them. There’s some really amazing stuff going on there, and if you really dig deep into your heart, please donate to the organization. I pledged to Jacob to donate every year in memory of my fallen friends, in hopes that he and his staff can reach out and prevent further tragedies.
We reached a great milestone yesterday, as this blog reached 60,000 followers! That’s a lot of folks.
As a show of appreciation for all of your support, I wanted to do a giveaway. I don’t this very often, but I keep my promises and deliver on my word (see here and here).
I though that since so much of this blog is about process and inspiration, so I’ve decided to put together a cool prize to give away.
The Prize: A signed and annotated copy of the FIRST draft of the Lilith screenplay. I think it’s always interesting to see the first iteration of an idea, and the first draft of the Lilith screenplay is a really cool fever dream, full of stuff I never filmed and some really bizarre imagery. I’ll include a signed copy of the film for your reference to see how much has changed.
As a bonus, I’ll throw in pen drive that has ALL of the production dossiers and original temp tracks PLUS the entire original score by dälek. Plus I might throw something else cool in there as well. Maybe some original artwork or production sketches, or a DVD / LP from my own personal collection. Whatever I do it’ll include a personalized letter from me to you, and the subject of which will be determined by…
How to Enter: I want you to write me one sentence. Since the theme of Lilith is loss, I want you to write me one thing you’ve lost that you wish you could have back, or you’re glad is gone. One sentence. Can be funny, sad, twisted or banal, it’s up to you. By 12AM next Thursday, I’ll review the submissions and pick one as the winner. I’ll post the best entries (anonymous, of course), and we can share in the overall impact that I wanted my movie to have, which is to face our demons, make peace with them, and start a new day.
Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 3. What is Love?
Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.
Of course thanks to Haddaway we laugh every time we ask the question, but it truly is an important question, and without delving into it, our efforts to write a romantic comedy script will be futile. In this third installment of the mini-series (part 2 here, and part 1 here), we’ll look at the motivating factors that can drive a romantic comedy.
Here’s a quick test: type the word ‘love’ into the Tumblr search engine and see what comes up. Chances are you’ll get a smattering of gyrating K-Pop idols, sentiments written in old-timey cursive on paper, and lots and lots of people fucking. Is this what love is now?
Having binged on over thirty romcoms these past few weeks, I think we’ve got a very strange conception of what love actually is. There’s a very blurry line in movies and television between wanting to love someone versus wanting to fuck them, and that’s kind of problematic. The endgame of love, in popular media, is getting to fuck someone, and we know that’s just a harlequin romance fantasy. It’s so much more complex than that.
The act of sex is not love, it is an expression of it. It is one of many expressions that can also include things like getting a card, doing the dishes, hanging up your towel, donating to an animal shelter, or simply listening. In mainstream cinema we tend to default to equating sex as love because a) watching people fuck is good for business and marketing, and b) it feeds into our primal instincts and is therefore the fastest route to universality.
This is also love.
But we all know there’s so much more to it, and that the very best romance / romantic comedies know this. I recently watched the Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Color and it is one of the freshest, most startling romances I’ve seen in a long time, probably the best since Once. It has very explicit sex scenes but they are just one component of the complexity of the core romance. There is a great dose of pain in the film, the pain of separation, of not getting it right, of possibly losing this person who makes you feel alive, who makes you feel safe, who you can truly be yourself around. I finished watching the film and said “this is a portrait of true, if not tragic, love.”Love is painful.
For a romantic comedy to be truly epic, it must accept this pain, and the source of its humor will arise from that pain. The greatest jokes come from the uncomfortable truths of the human condition, that we’re programmed to do the impressive mating dance and yet we falter, we have flaws, and we hope and pray that the person we’re interested in can see through all of that.
The mating dance - that most awkward of rituals - is the source of the greatest humor. I see it on the street all the time. A male pigeon puffs his chest and prances around a disinterested female, hoping she’ll be impressed. She’s trying to mind her own, and this clown is flexing and preening, making pretty much an ass out of himself. I imagine a bunch of other birds looking at him and feeling sorry for him, and others angling to cash in on his failure. So now my bird friend has two options: amp up his game and make the adjustments to get the girl, or back down and let the other birds swoop in.
This is the first act of any romantic comedy. We establish the normal world of the hero(ine), their normal way of life, which may include plenty of failure, or loveless sex, or escape from the pursuit of romantic happiness. The end of the first act arrives with the call to action - the object of affection - and the failure of the normal way of doing things. Our hero(ine) is now locked in - if they want the love, then they’re going to have to make some changes to make it happen. End act one.
The second act is where most romcoms fail, in that the core of comedy is found in the failed attempts to get things right with the object of affection. Today’s romcoms revel in humiliation and mean spirited predatory humor on insecurities. Instead, the second act is the very best place for observational humor, humor that brings up absurdity as opposed to humiliation.
In the second act, the hero(ine) works through their playbook, and fails at them all. The realization then arrives that the normal playbook, be it an ace or pathetic one, will not work in this situation. The midpoint comes when the hero(ine) is shown the error of their ways, and it is implied that they will have to make a great change for things to work out. They concoct a new plan, and the end of the second act is when this new plan, fueled by some kind of courage, doesn’t seem to be working. The second act ends with the character on the precipice of absolute failure - not only do they stand to lose the object of affection, but they stand to be in even worse shape than when the movie started.
We’re still playing it safe here, but the third act is where we really have to dig in and understand what being in love is about. In the third act, now having faced almost certain desolation, the hero(ine) must partake in the final, epic battle for their love. This is the Campbellian “slaying of the dragon,” be it a rival suitor, a crippling insecurity (Hugh Grant was / is the king of this in romcoms), or a fear of humiliation. The hero(ine) steps beyond the limitations of their body and becomes an elemental force of love, laying it all out on the line. Exposed heart, willing to lose the world for their love.
We think this is where it all ends, but there is always one last battle, the villain that isn’t really dead, and comes back for one final swipe. This is the moment of true love. It is that moment when our hero(ine) has their worst fear realized, they overcome it, and a new normal is achieved. That new normal is up to you. It may be tragic, in the idea that is always better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all, or it may be victorious, where the new normal is a coexistence with a new partner in crime.
As aforementioned, this is where we have to dig deep and figure out what is love. For us. It’s different for everyone. But there is one universal factor for true love, and this has been proven over and over again throughout the annals of recorded human history, and that is that true love is rooted in compassion. If passion in Latin means to suffer, then compassion means to suffer with. We suffer for the things we care about, and that’s all what the third act is about. It’s taking the proverbial (and sometimes literal) bullet. True love will not come to you, you will have to make a sacrifice for it, and it is the degree of what you’re willing to give up which defines the epic scale of your love. Sometimes the greatest act of love is simply letting go, and that is the core of the tragic romance. You let go with the hope that they will return, that destiny has it written that you be together. The choice, as it is presented in so many romantic comedies, is not between Hot Guy A and Hot Guy B, it is between you and your conscience. What will being with either guy entail you sacrificing? The greater the sacrifice, the deeper the love. It’s as simple as that.
In my research of romcoms I realized that the great romantic comedies are always romances that happen to be funny. It doesn’t work the other way around. Humor in a romantic comedy is born from brute honesty, observations of human behavior when we are at our most vulnerable, and the missteps that the ego makes us take because we’re too afraid of exposing ourselves as crumbling, awkward people. The desire to appear strong - like the puffed up pigeon - is what is required to have sex for procreation, but the need to be vulnerable - which is born through suffering - is what is required for romantic love. The comedy is in the facade of strength, and the romance is in strength of conviction.
I’m not sure if I’ve cracked the romantic comedy but I think this was a pretty good start. It’s definitely completely out of my comfort zone. But I know what I like, and I don’t really like what I see today. In modern romcoms I’m being sold the idea that romantic love is the only answer to loneliness. This is wrong. The only thing that romantic love addresses is the desire to be wooed, to be pursued. True love is seeing beyond that. True love is not finding the person who is right for you, it is that moment when you are truly at peace with yourself.
I will not be watching the Academy Awards tonight. I ultimately support the artists and their right to have their work celebrated, but I also value their right to be paid fairly even more than any kind of statuette.
The VFX industry is in mass crisis. The studios have been abusing the time, ability and remuneration of the industry to their massive gain, and this has to stop. Please take the time to watch the documentary below, it very clearly and succinctly explains the crisis of the industry:
As an act of solidarity, I ask that you boycott the Oscars as well, spread this documentary, and spread the word.
As filmmakers we can make the ultimate difference. When we conceive films, it is up to us as directors and producers to have very clear, precise scripts and plans for our VFX. It is not an area open to improvisation, it is a very specific art form, like production design. Small tweaks can be made, but it must be preconceived and planned out, tested and LOCKED. When we make bids for VFX work, it should be a very precise list of requirements, one that has a small contingency but is ultimately exactly what the film requires. We cannot count on VFX to bail us out when our creativity fails. They are there to help us achieve our visions, and not make them for us. There are limits to what we can ask of them.
Do not approach a VFX company if you don’t have any money. Raise the funds for what you need. In fact don’t do this with any artist. As a producer you cannot abuse artists by asking them to work without any kind of fair compensation. Filmmaking is exhausting creative and physical labor - we don’t ask engineers and doctors to work insane hours without pay. And that unpaid work earns billions of dollars for studios and distributors, most of which the artist does not see.
I’ve long been a proponent of taking a stand and asking for pay. We’ve been made to feel that asking for payment is degrading, especially when we get to work in our passions and “everyone else” is making sacrifices. Everyone else is not making sacrifices - executives are getting paid handsomely, a-list actors are being MASSIVELY overpaid and everyone’s grabbing a piece of the backend pie. If they can get paid, so can we.
At some point we have to just say no to unpaid work. And we all have to do it together, and not be that terrible person who takes unpaid work while the rest of us are sitting it out. If you take unpaid work, you’re being part of the problem, and not the solution. If you must, then WORK FOR COST. Whoever is hiring you should cover your expenses so that when the work is done, you break even. Your sweat and personal expenses should not be paying for some producer’s film, which they will reap money from and you’ll still see nothing. If they say you’re getting experience in return, tell them that experience has never been a form of currency, and that it is never, ever earned through free labor.
They’ll tell you to get a job. Tell them that’s what you’re trying to do, and that what they’re offering is not a job, because a job typically involves an exchange of work for pay. Walk out the door. If they really need your expertise then they will have to find a way to pay you for it.
This is a very, very big problem. I stand in solidarity with the VFX industry and promise to honor their work, their right to pay, and the formation of a union for their craft. I will not watch the Oscars. I wish all the nominees the very best in the rewards they worked hard for, but I cannot in good conscience support an institution that chooses to sweep the VFX industry under the rug, that does not address the pay discrepancies in the industry it profits handsomely from.
Music for the Weekend:Looking for Someone by East India Youth.
Picked this up in France. I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the best records of the year. Stunning.
Have a great weekend.
NOTE: I received an email that the song was removed from this post by Tumblr due to licensing issues. They even said I risk having the blog shut down (!). I guess it’s a domestic / international thing, but either way when the record comes out in the US seek it out, and for readers in the EU/ UK go and get it. It’s a winner.
In the meantime you can listen to the song on the band’s official YouTube page by clicking here:
Got back late last night from Paris. Feeling rejuvenated and inspired, I could not have asked for a better holiday, it went completely without a hitch and was pretty much perfection.
A week in Paris and I learned much about myself, my host city and her people. As it is my nature to observe, here are ten things I came away with:
1) Parisians are incredibly kind. Somewhere along the line, Parisians got a bad rap as being rude and arrogant. Maybe it’s from a bunch of people traveling to France who become exasperated about not being able to communicate, and the French not making an effort to communicate back with them.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. Ever single place we went to, our hosts were welcoming, kind and showed us love and affection. Strangers smiled at us and helped us with directions. Shopkeepers gave us free stuff. Bistro owners gave us free desserts, wine and kisses. At one dinner the owner took 15% off the bill because he liked us.
But here’s the thing, which is that we always made an effort to be kind to our hosts. We always said ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci,’ and we apologized for our rusty language. They seemed to appreciate the effort, which was always heartfelt, and reciprocated tenfold. I’ve yet to have such a lovely experience abroad.
2) Parisians are exceptionally beautiful. It’s not that French women and men are any more attractive than anywhere else, but there’s definitely something in the air. In a reflection of the beaux-arts details of the city itself, the people of Paris make the extra effort and take care of the details. Women artfully wear makeup, just the bare amount to highlight their features. Men are groomed and put together. Style is about wearing basics, but brilliantly and thoughtfully assembled. When people look after the small details and carry themselves with the confidence of that assemblage, then it’s pretty damn near impossible to not be beautiful. The French have that, and then some. They embrace sexiness and charm.
There’s also the beauty of the country’s colonial past, and it’s seen in the faces of the people. Roots of Africa, the Middle East and Asia are found in the melting pot of Parisian faces and bodies. They are striking, and when combined with their style, presence and aforementioned kindness, they became stunning to me.
3) Parisians are both brutally efficient and selectively inefficient. The Paris Metro is a thing of beauty. We never had to wait more than one minute for a train, and we were able to get around town with supreme ease. Again, small details - thoughtful maps, clean access, rubber tires on the trains for a smooth and quiet ride, it all adds up. And the French pay handsomely for it in higher taxes, but it makes for a very high, if not oppressively expensive, quality of life.
But Parisians know how to slow it down, almost to a grinding halt. Even the simplest of dinners can go for as long as three hours, and shop owners don’t seem to care. Take your time, keep the wine and conversation flowing. The culture is rooted in discourse, and people talk to each other, a lot. They devote time to it, even if it means putting other things aside. Perhaps this is the key to their thoughtfulness, as they talk and listen to one another.
4) Paris has its problems. Of course on holiday it’s hard not to see a place through rose-tinted glasses, and like any other place on Earth, the Parisians are far from perfect. While the city is a gorgeous mix of diversity (see next), like New York City, London and Los Angeles, the real division is economic. The city is cripplingly unaffordable, and has led to massive emigration of the poor to the suburbs, many of which have become ghettos. As wealthy bohemians drive up rent and cost of living, the division of the haves and have-nots is incredibly apparent, and distrust is not a racial divide but rather an economic one. Lifestyle comes at a cost anywhere, but in Paris it is borderline ludicrous. The riots of the past indicate a populace that feels marginalized and forgotten, and despite the aforementioned love of conversation, this seems to be one conversation that the French keep sweeping under the rug.
5) Parisians are diverse. While the economic gap is widening, the racial divide in Paris is small. The city and culture, in contrast to the United States, is incredibly racially homogenous. Television shows feature all races equally (and not like the purely black and white networks in the US) and ad campaigns feature white, black and Asian models and families together. Gay couples walk and display affection without fear, interracial couples are part of the norm. It really highlighted the lack of true diversity in the United States, which may be comprised of many races and orientations, but has not fully coalesced into an accepting whole.
6) Parisians embrace art, and art inspires. Galleries are full of children, windows are always dressed, and people dress and present themselves with artistry. It all serves to inspire one another, and I couldn’t help but have my imagination sparked. As a work environment, Paris provides infinite inspiration, from modern and classic architecture, food, fashion, music, art and design. Art begets art, and creativity thrives in such an environment. Parisians read voraciously, exchange ideas and feed off the city. They ultimately put back in what they take, inspiring the next generation of forward thinking artists. Provocation is encouraged. Technique is admired and honed. Classics are respected and similarly defiled. An early morning trip to the Père-Lachaise cemetery, where the artistic and intellectual giants of Paris are laid to rest, showed me the boundless creativity and innovation that the city fostered. I paid visit to the graves of Marcel Proust, Max Ophuls and the godfather of cinema, Georges Méliès.
Hand on heart, I paid my respects. Without him, we cannot be filmmakers. Photo by my wife.
7) Parisians love. Love is everywhere. People holding hands, kissing, embracing one another. The human body is celebrated, playfully teased and adored. Parisians love to love and be loved, they are playful and kinky, they are sexy and charming. Everything in this town is sensual, a culmination of philosophy and aesthetic. It’s pretty intoxicating.
Photo by Alberto Reyes.
8) Parisians do all the wrong things, and yet they make it right. Chain smoking. Eating butter, bacon, beef, chocolate, bread, cheese and booze nonstop. Eating late, waking up late. And yet they remain thin, healthy and vibrant. Back home we’re obsessed with low-cholesterol, zero fat, PX90, militantly healthy lifestyles and yet we still struggle with obesity and stress. The French just seem to say fuck it, and enjoy what they want. All of those vices are expensive so the French are kind of forced to do it in moderation, which is a good thing. They also eat the very highest quality of food without compromise, GMOs, preservatives or additives. They’re doing something right, and we stand to learn from it.
9) The Parisians are clean, BUT THERE IS DOG SHIT EVERYWHERE. Seriously, it’s like a fucking minefield walking down the sidewalks. Nobody in France picks up after their dogs. I don’t know why. The city is otherwise clean and spotless, but my wife had to always tackle me from stepping in dog doo-doo. Come on, mes amis, do the right thing and pick that shit up.
10) It’s impossible to not fall in love in Paris. It’s because in every cell of their being, the French embrace joie de vivre, and because of that they lead long, reduced stress lives. They enjoy the moment, and keep record of the moments of the past. They make it work, and it’s something to really admire and emulate. Returning to America I have not lost any fondness for my home country, but we can stand to learn a few things from the French. Embrace details, wholesomeness, beauty, diversity and art. We are on this planet for a short time, and we must make it beautiful not only for ourselves but for the inheritors. The French understand this. They maintain their culture, their art, their philosophy and spirit despite the cost and effort required. It is worth it to them, and we are the benefactors of their effort. We could stand to do the same.
I’m taking a much-needed sabbatical. Wife and I are off to Paris, we’re just going to sit in cafes in the Marais, eat at bistros, read books, write, visit some locations from my favorite Godard and Truffaut films, and just take that long-overdue break. Our last holiday was two years ago, and before that it was our honeymoon, so we’ve pretty much been all work and no play for the past seven years. We’re like the only people on Facebook who don’t post about our fabulous lives because the truth is we’re pretty much working all the time, and nobody wants to know about that.
I’ve been to Paris a couple of times for work and I find that it really invigorates my soul. Perhaps there’s a little bohemian inside of me. There are few cities in the world that have purely dedicated themselves to pure artistry and expression like Paris, and that’s pretty cool.
I went to Paris during my junior year of undergrad for one week. I’d set a goal to do the entire week on a budget of $150, and that included room and board. I somehow managed to do it, subsisting on one sandwich a day and roaming around the city, snapping photographs for entertainment. Met some seedy folk with seedier occupations, and also some really kind people who shared their lives with me (my French is pretty solid). I was feeling lost in more ways than one, and on my final night in Paris, I sat under the Eiffel Tower and wrote a manifesto for the next fifteen years of my life. I placed it in a baggie and buried the letter in a small garden near the far right corner of the Parc du Champ de Mars, and set off on my life.
Many years later I had a flight delayed in Paris and had a 12 hour layover. I took the RER out to the city and looked for my letter. The entire topography of the park had changed, and the corner where I’d buried my letter had a new garden design. I couldn’t find the letter, so I’d assumed it’s been dug up. Maybe someone read it. I don’t know.
I’m pretty sure I had accomplished 40% of the goals I wrote about, and in hindsight that’s actually not too shabby, given the scope of my goals. But it took Paris and her people to inspire that change, so I guess I can honestly say that the city has a very special place in my heart. Perhaps it shall inspire me again, and perhaps I may bury another letter, this time in some place a little less prone to change. How ironic - a letter professing change to be hidden in a place stuck in stasis.
We’ll be back soon. In the meantime, here’s a song for the week, the sounds of an American Cowboy in Paris.
Four years ago, like so many young bloggers on the interwebs, I thought it might be a good idea to share my ideas and experiences as a filmmaker. There were so many young, starting filmmakers like myself out there, so I didn’t figure I’d have much of an audience. Maybe my mom would read the blog every once in awhile, and my wife would favorite my posts anonymously just to make me feel better, because my wife is awesome and she loves me.
I started the blog during pre-production of Lilith and was met with nothing. Fifteen or sixteen posts in and not a single person was reading what I wrote, which was essentially a production diary. There comes that moment in every artist’s life when you realize that you have a lot to say and you don’t have an audience. It’s terrifying, sad, and daunting.
This is where I feel a lot of good and talented people quit the game. I know this because I considered it. The Lilithfilm blog was a huge intellectual demand for me to write, consistently, maybe three to four times a week, and to not have an audience was kind of soul-crushing.
But I enjoyed writing this blog. So I just kept going, and strangely enough people started reading. Rinse and repeat. More interesting things came about. Just kept going. I’ve enjoyed the journey of this blog immensely. I’ve seen zero financial return from the 678 posts I’ve made (with four reblogs, sorry I had to, it was that one girl going “waaay-oh”), but the emotional return has been tremendous. I’ve met some really cool people along the way through this blog, some strange and awkward people, and not a single rude or douchebaggy person (there’s always time).
I’d like to think that it’s because from the very first post of this blog I’ve maintained a policy of brute honesty in documenting the trials and tribulations of being an artist. I try to keep my victories humble and my losses in perspective, and there have been both.
This past year in particular has seen lots of personal hurdles for me, and I felt it appropriate to include them in the blog because they were and remain an important part of my creative life. This blog, and the support of you, my dear audience (now numbering 59,205 and growing every day), helped me tremendously in processing my grief, my emotions, and where I want to go as an artist, as a citizen, as a friend, and as a person. My output last year has been slightly less than years before, but I feel like the quality of my writing has improved greatly.
That’s because through all the death, the loss, the triumphs and the failures, life happened to me a lot last year, and life is what informs the truth and spirit of our work. When I write of death and struggle I can do so with utmost authenticity. When I write of feeling helpless and numb, my words ring hauntingly true. When I find small specks of light in the vast darkness it is a historical account. When I experience love when there seemingly is none, that is a confessional from the bottom of my heart.
I don’t really have a plan as to how long this blog will continue, but as with most things I think it will find its natural end, and I’m fairly sure my ego won’t keep it going longer than its expiry date. As long as I know that people are benefiting from my words, are being entertained by them, enjoy my weekly music selections, and are challenged by my observations, then I see no reason to stop writing. Keep asking me questions, ask me things to think about. I might not get to it right away but I always eventually do. This blog is equally as much for your benefit as it is mine.
1,460 days of writing and it’s been an honor and privilege to be able to share my thoughts and feelings with you. You’ve made it all worth the effort.
Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 2. Teach Me How to Duckie.
Of course if I knew how to write a smash-bang romantic comedy then I’d probably have done it by now. Truth is that I know what I know about screenwriting and making really interesting stories, and based on part one of this series, I’m not happy with how romantic comedies are being written. With the feedback I’ve received so far, it appears that many of you share my feelings.
What I do know is that there is a tried-and-true formula for writing romantic comedies, and the most successful films do high-concept spins off that formula, and the most banal ones follow it to the letter. We see it everywhere, especially in things like haute comfort food. It’s not just a grilled cheese, it’s got cornichons and hand-smoked bacon and fois gras butter. Tastes great, costs a small fortune, but in the end it’s still a fucking grilled cheese sandwich.
I’m tired of that. I want something different. I want us to discover new ways of having people find their true loves, of having them, and struggling to keep them. There’s the bible of romantic comedies - Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit - which is uniformly excellent and worth reading, regardless if you want to write an romantic comedy or not. The book breaks the genre down into a single, seven-step formula and goes to great lengths to show that pretty much every romantic comedy followed said formula. Mernit’s formula is as follows:
1) The Chemical Equation, i.e. the players in the game and what’s missing in his / her life.
2) The Meet Cute, i.e. the crossroads where the two lives intersect for the first time.
3) The Sexy Complication, i.e. the central conflict that keeps the characters from fulfilling the gaps laid out in Step One. This can be both internal and external factors.
4) The Hook, i.e. the big event that throws these two together and it becomes the point of no return.
5) The Swivel, i.e. a reveal that puts one or both characters’ goals in jeopardy.
6) The Dark Moment, i.e. the consequence of the big reveal, which exposes an inner truth / realization of what actually is missing or what they’re doing right or wrong.
7) The Joyful Defeat, i.e. the acknowledgement that the other half is the key, and the willing sacrifice of something to make it all happen.
Mernit goes into great detail of each but this is a bastardized version in a nutshell, and I can’t really argue with it. Where we often see failures in the genre is when our expectations are never really challenged, and on top of that the formula is laden with really dull, mean characters. So let’s rock the boat and fuck with both tenets.
I’ve gone into great lengths some time ago about writing interesting characters, and it’s worth your while to go back and revisit those posts:
Once we have those interesting characters, insert them into Mernit’s formula and see what happens. You should have an interesting story at it’s most basic, fundamental level, but what happens when you start to rearrange and reinterpret the stages. What happens if the ‘meet cute’ happens at the very end of the movie? What if it never happens at all? The latter would be a very bold step, i.e. a romantic comedy where the leads never once meet. At least physically. Think of a movie like Spike Jonez’ Her, where technically the lovers never meet. They interact but there’s no physical connection (despite a painfully awkward attempt which is one of the truly great scenes I’ve witnessed). What if the final sacrifice involves saying goodbye forever, a la Roman Holiday? It’s been done before but what makes it so memorable is the lead-up to that moment. A couple that is so perfect for each other and yet the forces of the universe keep it from happening. The ultimate sacrifice is their love itself, which is a very powerful thing. it plays into the notion that there is no such thing as an everlasting love, because the truth is that death will tear us apart at some point. But there is an elemental love, one that exists in ether, one that death cannot touch. It’s a love that is incredibly difficult to fit into the romcom formula, but I feel if we can do that, we will redefine the genre and bring it back to its glory.
Play with the formula by first writing your story to the formula. Then go back and write the exact opposite of the formula’s demands, one section at a time, and see what happens. Defy expectation, take the path less traveled. Most of the time it won’t make sense but if your characters are true, interesting and compelling, they will take you to very interesting places. Trust your characters, and observe how they would react. One of the most important things to remember is something I call the Mamet Rule, which is David Mamet’s central questions regarding characters:
What does the character want? What happens when they don’t get it?
Deny your characters at all phases. See what happens. Give them a little back. See what happens. Take it away. See what happens. The most unconventional of reactions is where the root of your comedy and drama lays.
I keep thinking of the character Duckie from John Hughes’ screenplay for Pretty in Pink. He is memorable to me because he is constantly denied what he wants. He reacts with both spoken and physical comedy, and his journey is quite tragic. He journey strikes a chord in my heart, as the plight of the fool, which universally is something every romantic has in his / her heart. Putting your love out there is an act of borderline humiliation, but we do it anyway because love is irrational. Duckie is a real character and we get to see what happens when he is denied what he wants. It defies the formula because theoretically it is the story of Andie Walsh and Blane McDonough, but in my view it is Duckie’s story, which kind of blows my mind.
We cannot break rules unless we know the rules in the first place. More importantly we have to accept that while there is the notion of classic, romantic love (which is what the formula gives us), modern love has evolved into something very different. Just think - had there been cell phones and email, most of the problems of romantic comedies would be solved. There’s no need to run to the airport. Feelings can be conveyed in an instant. Flash mobs can be posted on YouTube. Courtship has changed, and no matter our desire for things to be the way they were, the reality is that while romance is still about getting lost in love, we have a GPS in our phones to get out of it. Let’s work with the modern notion of love and courtship and craft authentic stories, with authentic characters, that let us connect to our condition. I think a film like Her accomplishes this with tremendous success, as the desire in a technology-ridden world is the desire for actual, physical contact. That desire is tempered by the protective shield that technology gives us, it feeds into our survival instincts of not wanting to get hurt. Play with these notions, put your characters in them and see how they react. You’ll be telling the tale of modern love.
Music for the Weekend:The Big Gloom by Have a Nice Life.
Indeed the big gloom has set in, I can say with absolute honesty that I’ve had it with winter. I find myself sitting at the edge of my bed in the mornings staring into cold air, faced with the inevitability of shoveling dingy, wet snow. It’s depressing.
The power of the sun is undeniable, it recharges our batteries and our spirits. I’m running on reserves without it, and my batteries are near empty. This has not affected my writing, as I feel that January has been one of the best months of my career in terms of quality of writing, and it’s only getting better as my ideas start to coalesce into words and structure. It’s like watching a cathedral being built.
There is beauty in darkness, comfort in the cold. This song reminds me that. Eminently sad but so achingly gorgeous, one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long time. Echoes of MBV and Jesu. Stunning, it provides me illumination, it makes the frigid snow glow and dance just a little.
Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 1. What Happened?
I came across an article a few weeks ago that discussed which genre had the most original screenplays. In an industry rife with remakes and sequels, I assumed it was the world of low-budget horror where the most original works were to be found. I was wrong. It was romantic comedies that held that title.
I have a hard time accepting this because for the most part, there really hasn’t been a more derivative or lifeless genre in the movie industry for the past twenty-odd years. Sure there have been one-off successes (Bridesmaids comes to mind, but it’s a stretch to call it ‘romantic’) but for the most part as a genre it’s been pretty flat out awful.
But here’s the thing - it’s an insanely profitable genre. Ever since the industry came up with the idea of counter-programming, i.e. giving the sophisticated ladies something to watch while their knucklehead boyfriends watch the latest installment of Transformers, there’s been a need for romantic comedies to be churned out. And since there’s a ton of knucklehead movies, there’s gonna be a ton of romcoms.
With pretty much every Nicholas Sparks novel being exhausted and every holiday ruinously exploited (Valentines Day, New Years Day - both AWFUL), desperate Hollywood and Indies alike have decided to hit below the belt and go after that most uncomfortable of targets - women’s self-esteem.
Hey ladies! Can’t find a man? Unmarried by the age of 33? Can’t conceive? Feeling fat and ugly? Overworked with kids? Don’t know how she does it? Unrecognized at work with a nagging misogynistic boss who for whatever reason you feel the desire to fuck? Let’s have 99-lb Kate Beckinsale with mussed-up hair and no makeup play you and show a remarkable transformation via expensive clothing, soft lighting, five layers of Spanx and “empowerment” in the form of a swift knee to the boss’ crotch.
In the past week I’ve sat down with Netflix and negotiated the treacherous psychological minefield of the Romantic Comedy queue. Movie after movie was women denigrating themselves, calling themselves stupid, fat, ugly, hopeless, not worthy and undesirable. Almost universally it took a handsome bohemian man to let these ladies know that they are in fact the opposite of what they believe, this despite a quasi-fugly female / gay bestie comic relief who eventually comes around the end and tells our newly made over (and owner of her newly opened flower shop!) heroine to “go get him.” Ensue comidic running / driving / general humiliation that culminates in a choice - should be with the male model asshole or the male model bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold-who-keeps-it-real, because, you know, there’s only two guys in the universe. Guess who she ends up with.
One after another. Low-budget indie to multimillion dollar star vehicles, it was this same derivative crap. And they’re not funny, they’re mean spirited, with humor coming in the form of humiliation and insults. I’ve seen the true face of nihilism and it’s not No Country for Old Men, it’s the collective works of Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler. Paint the face of human tragedy with a pregnancy test and a fake eHarmony profile. It’s dreadful.
Where did it all go wrong? Poor Nora Ephron and John Hughes are spinning in their respective graves. There is a very rich and beautiful history of romantic comedies, from classics like Roman Holiday to the penultimate When Harry Met Sally. Movies that made us laugh, made us think, made us cry. Romcoms today are like the cold steel of grandpa’s shotgun put between our teeth. They exist to point out our shortcomings and propose “solutions” that are based on superficiality and psychological placebos.
I want to see great romantic comedies again, and I know so many men and women want them too. They’re the stories of our lives, our pursuits of love and happiness, and sometimes they don’t always work out (cue Audrey Hepburn with that look, the one that melts my heart every time).
The commonality to all these great romcoms is a dose of sadness, with either love unrequited or the pains of separation, be it permanent or temporary. Perhaps this is the missing element to today’s romcoms, which tend to focus on a woman somehow gaining all that she perceives that she lacks (a good man, a solid career, the ability to balance life and love), whereas romcoms of the past (and by past I mean the 80s and previous), it is not about the practicality of love, rather it is a portrait of how messy and impractical love can be.
It’s important to always remember that a key element to comedy is tragedy. It’s a basic tenet displayed in the universal symbol of the theater with the masks of Melpomene (Tragedy Mask) and Thalia (Comedy Mask). The two are inextricably linked, as Nietzsche famously stated “beneath the conformist, there lives the satyr.” Dante called The Inferno a part of “The Divine Comedy,” implying a sentiment best coined by Jules Renard which is that if we “look for the ridiculous in everything, eventually we shall find it.”
The notion of romantic love in and of itself is absurd, that we’re at times willing to risk life and limb for nothing but a mere “feeling.” It is that absurdity, that impracticality, which makes it so inspiring. It speaks to our crazy, irrational selves, the reckless abandon that invokes the freedom of youth, the liberation that comes with naivety. Love is about not always doing the right thing, it is sloppy, it rarely makes sense. The greatest romantic comedies understood this.
Reality Bites, one of my faves.
The modern romantic comedy is desperately trying to create order from chaos, trying to make sense of messy lives and label and compartmentalize them, trying to find practical and marketable solutions to impractical problems. They are giving us practical fantasies, whereas the best romantic comedies gave us impractical realities.
What befuddles me more is that a vast majority of these romcoms are being written by women, and yet these stories are relentlessly cruel to women, and show women being relentlessly cruel to each other while the men stand by and watch. It’s like those girlfights in high school where one girl finds out her boyfriend has been cheating on her, and instead of going after the guy she goes after the other girl. Never made sense to me. Men in romantic comedies get away with murder while it is the women who suffer. If that’s meant to be a mirror of society, then well, we’re seriously fucked.
To repair the genre, we have to acknowledge three things. The first is that romantic love presents no easy solutions, and the second is that people should not be cruel to each other, because fate and destiny provide enough cruelty to handle. The third thing to accept may sound radical but it really isn’t, and that is to accept that romantic comedies are not the sole voice of women. Romcoms are not women’s stories, they are simply stories. Pandering to the insecurities of women is violence in the written word, and it needs to stop. Misery loves company, and it makes for rotten art. Think of all those Photoshopped covers of women’s magazines that accomplish nothing but instilling insecurity in women and false expectations in men. They are lies about what is considered life, they are fabrications of the highest order.
One of these people exist.
Armed with these three revelations, in the next segment we’ll talk about how to approach writing a romcom. In the meantime I urge you to watch a few romcoms, both modern and classic, and see if these observations I’ve made ring true. I’d love to know your take on it.
Like many I was deeply saddened by the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I did not know him personally nor did I have the opportunity to meet him, but I feel I can speak for most filmmakers when I say he was a champion of cinema and performance, and one the very best actors of his or any generation.
I had no idea that he had battled with heroin addiction for so long, and was really shaken when I read how he had died - apparently of a heroin overdose, found in a bathtub with a needle in his arm. I’d like to think that he went out in a blissful haze of chemical lucidity, but the reality is that heroin, like so many narcotics, is an opiate to a deeper pain and struggle. There is nothing romantic about going out this way.
I want to have an honest discussion about drugs. The arts are full of drug and alcohol abuse, and while I myself have not dealt with an addiction, I know many artists who have and continue to struggle with substance abuse and addiction. I am not qualified on the subject of addiction, but I want to talk about the things we can try to do to avoid going down that slippery slope.
As aforementioned, drugs are everywhere in media. People work long, hard hours and cocaine fuels a lot of that energy and drive. Many an article and novel have been written about the influence of drugs on art, positing that some of the greatest works of art were made under the influence. It’s often believed that drugs are a key to altered mind states that lead to lucidity, which unlocks new realms of creativity. Truth be told, I don’t doubt that. Every artist I’ve worked with partakes in smoking cannabis regularly, if not every now and then. I see no harm in it, just as I see no harm in people having a beer or bourbon every once in awhile.
Like anything, moderation is the key. I know that cannabis is entirely safe and that no one ever died directly from it, but it is an expensive vice to have. I remember college classmates selling their current textbooks to buy weed, of people eating like crap so that they could budget for some kind. Same can be said for cigarettes, as most starving artists I know still pony up the insane amount of money to buy a carton a week.
Addictions of any sort will ultimately drain us, not only of our finances but of our drive, ambitions, focus, and our overall health. But drugs and alcohol, whether we like it or not, are here to stay. We will all have experiences with them at some point in our lives, and we will all at some point be pressured into more illicit or dangerous substances.
In an industry where its participants experience 99% failure for every 1% success, the demands to remain level headed and optimistic are immense. There are different ways to deal with this - exercise, travel, food, sex, books, music, comedy and yes, drugs and alcohol. The difference with drugs and alcohol is that they can truly suppress the functions of the brain, they can take us away from our realities. The downside is that they become highly addictive and corrosive to the body and mind.
I have been pressured to do drugs at many industry parties, and it is an immense peer pressure to deal with. I fear sometimes that if I refuse drugs from someone who has influence in the industry, that they may feel I am passing judgement upon them, that I am coming off as a prude, that I’m immediately excluding myself from the club.
I went through this on my very first trip to Sundance. I was offered cocaine by an industry executive at a party. He was a big name and I was just starting out, and he was completely high when he offered me coke. I was so frightened - this was an opportunity to commingle, to get in tight with a heavyweight of the industry. This is why I came to Sundance, which was to make connections to help my career. My self-esteem was at its lowest.
He offered it to me, and I thought about it, and I refused. He looked hurt. Then he tried to push me more. I refused again. He asked me why. I told him this, and I remember it clear as day because I was so scared shitless as the words came out of my mouth:
"Sir, I’m just starting out in this business. I have nothing to my name in this industry except the words that I write and the images I put on screen. Those are from my brain, and my brain being my only equity, I can’t afford to fry it."
He frowned at me. I knew I’d blown it. He sighed and walked away. I had no other reason to be there so I decided I’d go back to my cabin and wallow in how I’d blown the biggest opportunity of my career at that time. I put on my jacket and was heading out the door, when the executive came over to me.
"Yeah. I’ve had a long day. Thank you for inviting me."
He paused and grabbed me by the shoulder. I was scared. He leaned in.
"You’re a good kid," he said, patting my shoulder. "You’re gonna go far."
I smiled and I left. And I never heard from him again. I left a few voicemails and emails and he never got back to me. So perhaps I did blow it. No, not perhaps. I blew it. With him, at least. But I also wonder if I did do that coke, would have I been in tight with him? Given my experience in the industry, probably not. He was just looking for someone to get high with, not make a friendship. And I still have my brain, and it is healthier than ever. He’s still in the industry, and I think if I bring this story up to him he won’t even remember it or me. No loss, no gain.
But it was a battle, and I’ve faced so many more incidences like this with heroin, uppers and downers, and even LSD. And each time I’m under immense pressure from my own demons - dealing with failure, the darkness of writer’s block, personal finances, lacking inspiration, being shut out and shut-in, it can all be soothed over so easily with drugs and alcohol. I’ve been tempted many a time, and each time I find the strength to refuse. The guiding force behind that strength is my brain, the need for my brain to be intact and healthy. Without a healthy brain I cannot create, I cannot love, I cannot function to make this world a more beautiful place. The love for my own brain is what keeps me away from drugs.
But don’t get me wrong, I do have a drink every now and then. Once in a blue moon I might take a toke. It’s part of enjoying life. But I will never use them as a means to address my personal darkness, because no amount of drugs or alcohol will address darkness. There is no light to be found in narcotics. Zero. They simply place distance from the inevitable, and when they wear off, you are closer to the inevitable than when you started.
Ultimately it is your choice whether or not to use drugs, no amount of posters or PSA’s can stop you from doing them. It’s your life, do with it as you see fit. But think of Philip Seymour Hoffman in that tub, all alone, his pain and issues unresolved even after his death. Tragedy happens in our lives, but perhaps the greatest tragedy is when we allow it to find us. There is nothing to gain from drugs, not even that legendary creativity that scholars write about. That creativity was always there, and drugs were one way to set them free. Let’s find other ways to do it. David Lynch swears by meditation and I vouch for it. Travel unlocks the mind, meeting different people unlocks the mind. Experience unfolds the mysteries of the world. Reading sparks the imagination. These are drugs of a different sort, a magical sort where too much of them will only benefit you tenfold.
But what of that darkness, the persistent, dragging darkness? That is what friends and family are for, that is what mental health professionals are for, that is what your art is for. These are the answers, and not narcotics. It takes tremendous courage to seek help with the darkness, and what scares us the most when we suffer from the darkness is the judgement of others, who will wonder why we are suffering, who will say callous things like “get over it” or “what’s your problem, you have no reason to be depressed.” As artists we need people we can trust, people who can be objective and kind, people who will not attach stigmas and judgement. People who have been through what you have, and who can relate. People who love you and care for you. People who are honest.
Those people are hard to find, but finding them is part of our life’s work. When we find them, they will have found us. It is a bond and energy that no drug can match. I know Philip Seymour Hoffman had many wonderful friends who in the end, none of them knew the extent of his sadness. It is truly sad that a man so gifted at telling stories was unable to tell his own. May he rest in peace, and he would most likely wish his fate upon no one. He would want us to find peace, to avoid drugs and addiction, to lead lives drunk with art, experience and love. This is the legacy he has left with me, and I am thankful for it.
Music for the Weekend:Made for Rockets by New Canyons.
Been listening to this brilliant record by New Canyons and it’s dripping with romance, lots of swooning and sweeping synths, John Hughes-era heart-on-sleeve brand of longing. I really like it, and as I’m in the throes of writing, it got me thinking - what the hell happened to the romantic comedy?
Really? Is this the best we can do?
So I’ve decided that I’m going to spend the coming blog posts on figuring out a) what happened to the romantic comedy and what’s wrong with romantic comedies today, b) how we can approach writing the romantic comedy, and c) what constitutes romance in the first place. Maybe not in that order but I really want to delve into it.
Contrary to popular belief, I love a good romantic comedy. Who doesn’t want to laugh and rekindle the feelings of love and infatuation? It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen a truly great romantic comedy, and I think it’s worth spending the time to figure it out. We all serve to benefit from that.
Going to cram in a few RomComs this weekend in prep, for better or worse. 27 Dresses here I come!
Jesus Christ give me the strength…
Don’t ever say I never suffered for you. Have a great weekend!
“All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen.”—Sidney Lumet
A beautiful moment in film is only resonant if it is captured, and more times than not, beautiful moments are the results of accidents, which is when the unexpected happens in a controlled environment. If we are ill prepared to capture the accident, if we are not ready with our cameras, if we do not know the distances of our focus, if the sound has not been calibrated, if the actors are not in the moment, then the accident will be forever lost except in our minds and memories. But to be prepared, to know your environment, your capture settings, your tools - is to be able to capture that lightning in a bottle. It is why the work of great documentarians and journalistic/ wildlife photographers are so powerful and memorable, because at the decisive moment, they are always ready to capture. The feeling should be no different for the narrative filmmaker, and this is an insanely powerful thing for us to understand and work towards.
It is why Lumet, like Kubrick, Fincher and the directors who are so often accused of being cold, technical and mechanical in their preparation consistently deliver some of cinema’s most memorable images and powerful performances. There is power in preparation, but the true art emerges when we learn to trust it and free ourselves to explore the great unknown.
A long time ago, filmmaker Jon Nix, my friend and collaborator on Lilith and co-founder of Ohio-based production company Turnstyle Films, asked for my opinion on Spike Lee’s remake of Chan Wook-Park’s classic Oldboy. He sent me the trailer, here it is if you haven’t seen it already.
And here’s the trailer for the Korean original, which in almost universal regard is a modern masterpiece.
Now I haven’t seen Spike Lee’s remake so I’m limited in terms of my overall opinion of it. From the trailer it looks to be exceptionally well made, Josh Brolin typically guarantees a good performance, and for all intents and purposes it looks like Oldboy, except that it feels flat.
The real question here is as to why I think it feels flat. Is it because it actually is, or is it because I’m constantly comparing it to the original, which is probably one of the most fiercely-realized films I’ve seen in my life. I’ll be honest, it’s most likely the latter.
I keep thinking that if the original Oldboy didn’t exist, Spike Lee’s film would be considered a complete revelation and breath of fresh air in American cinema. But the problem is that Oldboy already does exist, and it is a magnificent film. I keep wondering about the studio executive thought process when it came to greenlighting this film. The original is good - flawless even - and it can be assumed that a large percentage of the English-speaking/ non-Korean speaking population of the world has not seen Oldboy. Those who have seen it are rabid in their enthusiasm for it, so we know that if we build that kind of loyalty to a new film, we’ll be in good shape. The only people who will complain about Oldboy being remade are the small overall filmgoing population who have seen it, and we don’t need their money. We want to tap a new market with a proven good script and story, and we can cast a star and a name director to hedge our bet. We will be bringing Oldboy to an entire new generation that has no idea that the original even existed.
In business terms, that makes sense - it’s a pure cash grab. And yes - you ask the average joe who just walked out of Iron Man about the original Oldboy and he’ll shrug his shoulders. You throw that trailer at him and he’ll see sex, violence and something that sort of resembles The Matrix or some shit like that. It is a good story that takes us by surprise, so if done well and marketed properly, the film will make money. Which it didn’t. Spectacularly.
But if we really wanted to introduce the world of Oldboy to a new generation of viewers, why not just re-release it? That entire new generation will only know Spike Lee’s version and probably won’t even touch the original because the secrets are revealed, the magic has been dispelled. Unless Josh Brolin eats a live octopus, there’s no real reason to see the Korean original after seeing the remake.
This what bothers me so much about remakes. Studios are remaking films that are already amazing - Straw Dogs, The Evil Dead, Psycho come to the top of my head - and they’re actually devaluing the originals in an effort to make a cash grab. Is that illegal? No. Is it a piece of shit thing to do for the future of the industry? Abso-fucking-loutely.
Admittedly, some remakes get it right. I think of The Birdcage, which was a remake of the French blockbuster La Cage Aux Folles. It’s pretty much the same movie except transplanted to Miami. Both films are incredible, but I’ll ask this - how many people went back and watched the French original? The Birdcage now stands atop that mountain, which is diddly in terms of film business, but in terms of film history, it’s quite distasteful.
I know - who gives a shit about film history, right? This is a business we’re running. But if I think in terms of business, to me it is all about the creation of bold, original intellectual property. Oldboy and La Cage aux Folles were written with tremendous originality despite the fact that they themselves were adaptations (a manga and a stage play, respectively), and they were exciting for their freshness and audacity.
When we remake, we are essentially spinning our wheels, turning our backs on original scripts / bold adaptations in favor of a proven entity. it’s conservative thinking at its best and worst, and in the long term, it’s absolutely destructive, because it drives where resources will be pushed towards.
Hollywood is filled with aspiring screenwriters in low-rent apartments who churn out thousands of original screenplays every week. Worldwide, millions of original screenplays are floating around, looking for backing. I’ll admit that it is convenient for me to say that studios are being shortsighted in overlooking these works - not every script can be produced. Making a studio film is an exceptionally expensive venture, and to put that kind of money behind an unproven entity is, in a conservative view, a massive risk.
But maybe this is where we are relying upon metrics too much, and omitting that one thing that defies all logic, which is the gut instinct. In our quest to make the numbers work, the numbers being built-in audiences and international marketing reach primarily, perhaps we’re overlooking the main reason why we’re in this business, which is to find a good story.
My hairbrained proposal: We shelve remakes for seven years. Put the kabosh on it, and focus on original scripts and literary adaptations. That $300m it took to make The Lone Ranger can be spread out to six $50m original and adapted screenplays. They can be any genre, but there needs to be smart action films in the mix, because in today’s environment those will pay the bills. Support smart, beautifully-written original romantic comedies and make them for small money. Have them reflect generation now and not some granddad misogynistic Heigl-Hallmark cliche fest. Executives need to read scripts and stand behind the ones that punch them in the gut. Attach a star to the material because that’s how it works, and let the star be your built-in audience. Support original writing, like television does, and let film be a writer and director’s medium once again. We see it in rare instances, like the films of P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, whose films might not make a billion at the box office, but they are profitable, deliver art and entertainment, and leave us asking for more.
I bring this up a lot on this blog, which is that for too long we’ve been treading down the path of least resistance. Somewhere along the line, corporations decided that the real money is found in stooping to the lowest of lows, of empowering hopelessness rather than inspiring thought. The easy path never once afforded long term success. It isn’t easy to make The Lone Ranger, and to gamble on $300m is a heart attack in the works. Why take that kind of insane risk, when it is on paper less risky to spend less money on a great script? Think of American Hustle or Philomena. The future of movies depends on this, or else what Spielberg and Lucas predicted will come true - the movies will die, and what we will have left are ‘cinematic experiences.’ That’s grim, and a fate undeserving of the seventh art.
So where does this leave us? You and I have original screenplays that we want to sell, and yet the industry wants proven entities. The charge is upon us - we must become proven entities, which means we must make our films independently, at any cost. If you are a writer worthy of greater glory then make a film for $10k that showcases your prowess with words and images. Demonstrate your talent, become a proven entity. It’s easier to do now that ever before, but DIY tech will never write an amazing original screenplay for you. That’s old fashioned elbow grease and a desire to tell a meaningful story. You have to be the very best at what you do in order to succeed. Be an original voice, don’t rehash tired ideas, and express your individuality through your art. Make it powerful, make it beautiful, and make it truthful and you will find that the industry will take notice, because original voices that can make it happen are a rarity. Prove them wrong, work damn hard, damn smart and display the talent that you know you have and that others have doubted. Make the cut.
Cinema thrives under original voices, as television is thriving right now. It is up to us to ensure the viability of this medium, that it doesn’t drown in corporate expenditures and the fear of an executive losing their job. We are above and beyond that, we are creators and an industry unto ourselves. The future of cinema is dependent upon us, and let us assume that responsibility with fire, passion and determination.
It feels like all I’ve done in 2014 is fucking shovel snow and freeze my ass off. IT KEEPS SNOWING. Right after I shovel a shelf of frozen fucking snow IT JUST KEEPS COMING BACK. It’s like the Rob Schneider of meteorological phenomena.
Fuck you Polar Vortex and the snot-icicle-ridden pony you came in on. I’m going nuts. It’s dark when I wake up and it gets dark by 3:30pm, and to top off the depression it’s -18F outside. Even the polar bears at the zoo are like ‘fuck this shit.’
Somehow we have to eat and I don’t feel like cooking. Time to call the pizza delivery guy and have him trudge through this nonsense. I feel bad but it’s pizza. PIZZA. Carbs and cheese. Cheese and carbs. PIZZA. PIZZAaaaA.
Music for the Weekend:Why is We Americans? by Amiri Baraka.
This week saw the funeral of one of the most influential poets in American history, Amiri Baraka. I had the good fortune of an English teacher who made us read Baraka’s poems, and they affected me greatly. His outcries were more than a list of grievances, they were, as Saul Williams sang, “a list of demands, written on the palm of my hand.” His message was not limited to the black experience, rather he spoke for the misrepresented, misunderstood and mistreated. To identify with Baraka is to come face to face with your brutal, unflinching truth.
Baraka sadly remains largely invisible to mainstream America, and like so many great and provocative artists in history, perhaps he will see his greatest audience after his death. His message is universal, his legacy well worth maintaining in all permutations. Justice is veracity and tenacity. Arrow to the Sun. RIP.
“I’ve always considered that the last version of my script is the first version of the editing, and that the first version of editing is the last version of my script.”—Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s words highlight the importance for screenwriters to have some experience with film editing. A writer doesn’t need to be a full-blown editor or have edited a feature film, but some time at an editing bay will help. Or simply sitting in with an editor if you can. At the minimum you must read the scholarly writings of uber-editor Walter Murch, which is essential for all screenwriters.
By studying editing, writers will have a better understanding of film economy, the relationships of shots and sequences placed in serial order and jumping in time, and a grasp of cinematic pacing. These are invaluable things to know when constructing a script.
Quentin Tarantino can write verbose screenplays because he always delivers in his film edits. His films are lean, muscular and propulsive, even in their most languid moments. He’s earned the right to write the way he does, because he’s proven he can translate from written word to film with tremendous efficiency and economy. Very few of us have earned that privilege, but it is definitely a goal to work towards.
After months of research, outlining and character profiles, you’re finally ready to bust out that first blank piece of paper and begin writing your screenplay. FADE IN.
Screenplays, like so many novels, novellas, short stories, poems and songs can start out in any myriad of ways. Universally they should always start off strong, as this is the point when a reader / viewer / listener will decide to make their investment of time. Of course what constitutes a “strong” opening is highly subjective.
Screenplays, being that they are a visual medium first and foremost, typically benefit from a strong first image. I was taught this by my professors in school, who always told me that the two most important frames of a film are the first and the last. Both frames should encapsulate the spine and theme of the entire story you are going to tell, which seems like one hell of a difficult task. What image could you possibly write that covers the thematic elements of the entire 120 pages you are bound to write?
It takes a lot of thought, but more times than not this process happens organically if you’ve done the work, research and plotting in advance. This is where the study of symbols, semiotics, literature and art will benefit you tremendously, as metaphors will dominate the composition of the first scene.
Think of a film like Star Wars. A small space cruiser enters the frame and it is followed by a massive destroyer that is raining down laser strikes upon the cruiser’s hull. On the surface it is pretty self explanatory - a war, a battle is being waged. It is a hunt. It also is a metaphor of being outmatched, outgunned, out muscled, and yet still finding a way to survive. This opening shot is the theme of the film, which is to overcome insurmountable odds by sheer will - a force. It is David versus Goliath, a story of ingenuity and survival.
As it is written in the original Star Wars screenplay:
The awesome yellow planet of Tatooine emerges from a total eclipse, her two moons glowing against the darkness. A tiny
silver spacecraft, a Rebel Blockade Runner firing lasers from the back of the ship, races through space. It is pursed by a giant Imperial Stardestroyer. Hundreds of deadly laserbolts streak from the Imperial Stardestroyer, causing the main solar fin of the Rebel craft to disintegrate.
It may seem like it would be easier to write such metaphors for science fiction or films that have outlandish imagery, but this also applies to more “human” stories or conventional relationship dramas. Take the opening of When Harry Met Sally, which opens with ‘documentary’ footage of an older couple. They’re sitting on a loveseat, holding hands. This is their monologue:
I was sitting with my friend Arthur Cornrom in a restaurant. It was an cafeteria and this beautiful girl walked in and
I turned to Arthur and I said, “Arthur, you see that girl? I’m going
to marry her, and two weeks later we were married and it’s over fifty
years later and we are still married.
The image is telling - a portrait of everlasting love, one that was robust enough to withstand the test of time. The choice of an older couple visually shows the battle of age but they are defiant of that crumbling physical existence. The monologue reaffirms the idea of an epic, singular love, one that is given to us by a spark.
This is not an opening filled with visual pyrotechnics or kinetic energy - so many films today feel the urge to “drop us in” a sequence that gets our hearts racing immediately, but that needn’t be the case. Think of the first shot of There Will Be Blood, which is a simple fade in to a shot of hills. As it is written:
OVER EXTERIOR SHOT OF HUGE MOUNTAINS IN THE B.G., PURE DESERT IN THE F.G. MUSIC BUILDS FROM SMALL TO LOUD, VIOLENT CRESCENDO, THEN OUT. TITLE CARD: There Will Be Blood.
What seems like something quite static and tepid - a lone fade in of a mountain range, is given a metaphorical meaning by its juxtaposition with the harrowing music. The mountains are a barrier, the singular roadblock of Westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. The music makes the geography lethal and dangerous, and the cut to the title lets us know that a battle to the death awaits us. Whose death is uncertain, but we know it cannot be good. There is evil in them hills, and as we learn, it is Daniel Plainview.
In these three examples we see screenwriters using all the tools of filmmaking - sound, dialogue, image - to deliver an opening frame that gives us the intent and spine of the stories to follow. One can argue that they are so brief and part of greater whole that it doesn’t make that much of a difference, but it should always be reminded that in film, every shot must count, every shot must dedicate itself to telling the story and moving it forward. There are no throwaway shots in film - if it does not add to the story, plot or character, then it must and will be excised in the edit. With that in mind, save yourself the trouble and don’t write throwaway scenes. Make all of them count, especially the first one because that’s the first thing we’ll be engaging with. It makes both a conscious and subconscious statement of who you are as a writer and demonstrates the level of thoughtfulness and lucidity that you are capable of.
If you’re writing a story about a couple of high school kids in love, and say the boy is mentally handicapped and the girl he loves is coming to terms with his condition, then write a scene that encapsulates the meaning of that struggle. If the whole point of the story is to see the true inner self of someone and get past the broken bodies, then create a stirring sequence that conveys that in as truthful way as possible. I don’t know why but I think of a young girl playing with her barbie doll. The doll is scuffed and the hair has been cut. The girl’s room shows the clear signs of a family without much means, it’s a small, crowded apartment living room. She’s wearing a heavy sweater indoors. The girl places her barbie doll inside a makeshift home made out of pieces of cardboard and tape, and the doll looks warm and happy, a sharp contrast to the apartment. What I’m trying to show is the happiness to be found in a harsh world, true beauty in a scarred shell. It’s off the top of my head and needs work, but hopefully you see where I’m going with it.
It’s important to note that every scene in your film should not be approached this way, if so then your film will be heavy-handed and stuffed with metaphors to the point of becoming arthouse absurd. This approach to scenes will be of most use in scenes of introduction, transition and ending, where a deeper thematic message is meant to be conveyed. Use it wisely and you will find it a powerful and effective tool.
The key to doing this effectively is to understand the story you want to tell long before you formally begin writing. If you start your screenplay with a half-baked idea then you will not have a solid reference to draw upon for the formulation of your images. The myth of “writing from the hip” is a detriment, as few to none writers can write straight from nothing. It’s likely an idea that’s been in the works for a long time, sometimes in the head and most of the time in journals, notes and preparation. Those stories of screenplays written in one week tactfully omit the preparation and long-term thought that went into it, and we’re led to believe in the possibility of writing as an act of spontaneous combustion. I wish.
Screenplays are that strange beast in that they must be spare in their literary density (executives don’t like to read thick pieces of text), but they must deliver images in a few short sentences what a novel might take an entire chapter to achieve. The compression comes in the form of visual language, music, sound and careful dialogue. These are the elements that compress an entire prose paragraph in a novel down to a single frame on film. Think of the introduction of the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien wrote of it as such:
It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.
And in the screenplay by Phillipa Boyens, it reads as such:
A HUGE SHADOW, surrounded by flame, falls across the hall..the ground shakes…an unearthly sound rumbles…
“You’ll never be the creative person you aspire to be if you don’t know where it all came from.”—George Lois
I spend a tremendous amount of time tracing my roots, finding those things that inspired, moved, educated and entertained me from my childhood through my adulthood. I post a lot about those memories on this blog in the form of music selections and anecdotes not for the sake of nostalgia - which dangerously posits that it was a better time than the present - but rather for recalling the emotional connection that I made at that time. Many of our efforts in screenwriting, production design, directing and film music is to tap those emotional truths, those words, images and sounds that signify and translate authentic feelings. We must remember and record them always for our creative work.
Nostalgia is a lost man’s poison, but memory is is a house of riches.
Hi Sridhar - since you're currently writing a few screenplays and you've had past experience, if/when you need to write for a tight (i.e. tiny) budget, is there anything you do in prep/outlining/drafting in order to properly take into account the limited access to resources? I'm in early planning stages for a low/no budget screenplay but I'm at a bit of a loss as to the process, despite reading a bunch of articles on it. Thanks in advance!
A great question. Often times it’s considered a faux-pas to think of the budget when writing, you simply should get your ideas out without limitation, which from an artistic standpoint can be liberating.
But with film, our primary goal is to get it made, and that’s when we often have to consider budget. The lower the budget, the more chances we’ll be able to complete our financing, increase our chance of return on investment, and actually have a completed film.
It’s important to know a few things that will aid to your budget, and you can consciously think of these things when you’re plotting your story out.
1) Reducing locations.
A company move, i.e. when the entire production packs up and moves to a different location, is a major drain on production finances. It’s the old adage that time is money, and company moves take a lot of time out of a very limited work day. The times when you are not shooting is when you are spending the most money.
Most low budget films limit their locations to one or two spots. Even if you have a small crew, it still takes time to get from one location to the other, even if that location is nearby. The geographic proximity isn’t so much a concern as it is the time to load and unload all the equipment. Cameras and lenses need to go back into cases, c-stands need to be broken down, cabling needs to be corralled, and the set needs to be struck. Conversely when you arrive at a new location, all of that has to be done in reverse. This takes time, and given the cost of filmmaking tools, you never once want to rush your team in packing. You also don’t want people getting injured.
You’ll see a lot of low-budget films take place in a house, an apartment, some street shots and maybe a restaurant / club. But your script might call for more geographic diversity, and you just don’t have the money for that. Here’s a simple solution - find locations that you can double up.
Once you’ve written your treatment, go out and scout preliminary locations. It might even be your own house or a friend’s house. When assessing that location, see if there are places in that location that you can cheat for a different location. On Lilith we used an abandoned factory, and we used different corners of that factory - each of which had a distinctive look - for different locations. We had an insane schedule - fourteen locations shot in eighteen days - but the script originally had twenty-seven locations. We were able to take out thirteen company moves - which would have been fiscally impossible to achieve - and it saved us a bundle.
If your script has three separate houses to film in, try and cheat different rooms in one house and make them visually distinct from one another. Dress them differently. Try adjusting your photography / lighting scheme. The only people who know it’s one house is you, your cast and your crew. The audience has no idea.
2) Master shots.
Start every scene by shooting a wide / tracking master shot (or two) that covers the entire scene, and then punch in for coverage and inserts after that. You want to make sure you’re covering your script in the limited amount of time you have, and sticking to the adage that time is money, each setup takes time. Even switching a lens takes time. For zero-budget indie filmmaking, instead of renting an expensive set of prime lenses you can invest in a quality zoom lens. On my short film 7x6x2 we used a pair of Fujinon zooms which were absolutely incredible. We had some very short focal lengths that needed their own lenses, but for the most part we shot with the Fujinons. The downside is that they were very heavy, but we only changed lenses a handful of times.
You want to spend as much time filming and as little time doing setups on a zero-budget film. By grabbing your master shot, you know you’re at least covered in the edit, and you can punch in on close-ups that you know will be essential to your edit. A good master shot will also provide you invaluable cutaways, and it can be a great way for actors to get into a groove for their close-ups.
From a writing standpoint, try writing with the master shot in mind - get too complex and you’ll have a hard time executing it. Reduce your dialogue, and if something can be said in a movement, then do it. It’ll make your master shots more compelling and worthwhile.
Time is money! Time is money! Time is money! When you have a camera and lights on set, you are spending money. You will have time to make adjustments with your actors, but you will not have any time to do on-set rehearsing with them. Do this in pre-production. Schedule a week, or at minimum two days, of rehearsal time with your actors before photography starts. The more time you spend with them in rehearsals, the less time you’ll be spending on set when everyone’s on the clock. You will have to pay your actors some additional money for rehearsals but it’s not like you’re hiring Leonardo DiCaprio, so it shouldn’t be a major expenditure, and many times with young actors you can negotiate it all into one comprehensive package.
If you are shooting on digital then take advantage of your medium and film your rehearsals / walkthroughs on set. This is additional coverage that you can use, and there will always be hidden gems in rehearsals, as it is when actors might be at their freshest or they may try something unconventional. If you are going to film your rehearsals / walkthroughs, make sure your camera team knows this and have them slate rehearsals or make it a habit to end-slate them.
If you know you can accommodate rehearsal time, then don’t hold back on writing the more complex dialogues and movements.
There are tons of other ways to save money but from a conceptual / planning stage, these I feel will help you the most. This way you can plan out your screenplay accordingly - if you have large swathes of dialogue or complex movements, start planning your rehearsals in advance. Write to maximize your locations. Plan sequences that can be covered in master shots that can be unique.
Music for the Weekend:Eyes Without a Face by pacificUV.
It’s funny how our minds work. When I first heard the original Billy Idol version of this song when I was a kid, I always thought the woman’s voice in the chorus was saying “Patience is divine.” I kind of took that to heart. Patience, as they say, is always a virtue.
But after hearing this brilliant cover by pacificUV, turns out what she’s actually saying is "Les yeux sans visage", which is literally a French translation of “eyes without a face.” I dunno. Felt kind of crushed when I learned that. I don’t know what Billy Idol was trying to achieve by having the verse in French. Doesn’t make sense.
For the first time in my career, I’m writing three separate feature projects at once. Two of them commissioned, the other of my own design. Between producing The One Trick Rip-Off and another short film, I had plenty on my plate with the two screenplays, so why did I start a third?
Because inspiration struck. Because I felt so strongly about this idea and it’s ability to get made. I come up with ideas all the time, and I’ve got a shelf full of notebooks as proof of that, but there are some ideas that just come out fully formed, and you can see how it will be executed and packaged. It is timely, and everyone you talk to about is excited, in large part because they feel the excitement in your voice when you describe it.
So perhaps against my better judgement, I started the third screenplay. I’m now balancing three entirely different genres and I have to make sure that with my brimming excitement of my own idea, that I do not get derailed and marginalize the work on the other two works that I need to deliver on.
It can be a dangerous path to tread, but sometimes - and the key word being sometimes - when you’re flowing on one project, the momentum carries on to the others. You get in a groove, and everything benefits from that. I’m experiencing that now, and I’m finding that the other projects have a freshness to them that I hadn’t experienced earlier. I can clearly attribute that to my work on my own screenplay.
There is one major thing to be cognizant of when writing multiple projects at once, and that is overlap. You might subconsciously (or even consciously) be repeating themes, dialogues or plots in each work. In other words your multiple projects run the risk of melting into one giant, singular expression. Which is okay if you’re writing a trilogy, but if it’s completely different genres as I’m dealing with, it can be a doozy. Some stories require sentimentality, others nihilism, and others a sublime innocence or morbidity. Very different ends of the spectrum on an emotional and tonal scale, and while there can be elements of each that can deliver surprise in the other, it’s important to maintain focus so as not to derail the intent and purpose of each piece.
I avoid getting derailed by plotting out what I am going to write long in advance. I’ve allocated three hours of writing to each project. For the first two hours I write, and the last hour I plot out what I’m going to tackle the next day. By plotting I’m doing a detailed outline of what I want, an outline that is linked to research articles, photographs and references. What helps is having a completed treatment, where you can break the story down into segments or emotional beats that give you clear start / stop points. These are your boundaries for the day.
By plotting out my next day’s writing, I bring a sense of closure to that particular subject and style of writing, and it makes it far easier for me to shift gears into a different style. After my three hours I take a break, and then come back to writing. In total I’m doing about 5-6 hours of quality writing a day, and it’s working well.
The hardest part is when you’re on a roll with one project and stuck with the other. Part of the writing process is staring at the blank page, and I’ve done a lot of that. Temptation is to jump back into the project that was working and let the other marinate for awhile. It’s taken a lot of self-control to avoid doing that. I slog it out, writing stuff that I know doesn’t work very well but that will at least take me to the next beat. It can be brutal. Writing doesn’t always work, in fact a majority of the time it can just be nonsense that will be deleted in the future. But that’s okay, that’s part of the process. It can be frustrating, and that frustration can carry on to the other projects. It’s hard to let go of broken ideas sometimes.
Which is why the outlines help. You can determine in advance what may or may not work so well, and it clears a path for you. Think of it as driving with a GPS as opposed to going at it blind, like Lewis and Clark. The latter has the excitement of exploration, but what we rarely hear about the Lewis and Clark expedition is that there were probably a TON of days where absolutely nothing happened, and even more days where things went horribly wrong. But imagine a pilot flying the space shuttle with an electronic navigation and ground control guiding them. There are tons of unpredictable elements to account for but for the most part it’s smooth sailing because it’s all been plotted out in advance. The excitement is still there, there will always be surprises, but there’s a reassurance that there’s a plan.
Overall the best way to avoid getting derailed is to just make sure you never get off the rails in the first place. Sounds stupid but it’s true - the best way to avoid stoppage of writing is to just keep writing. Simple as that. And the way to keep writing is by having a plan that keeps you focused and disciplined. If you have that, you can switch between any number of writing assignments. For instance this blog post is in a completely different style of what I’m writing in my screenplays, and as soon as I’m done with this, I’m shifting gears and entering a completely different style. Having written this blog post has loosened things up, has warmed up my fingers and my mind, and now the engine is running at full click. I’ve said everything that I wanted to say, I can take a few minutes to jot down what I’ll write about next, and then freely move on to my other assignments. It works remarkably well. IT’S NOT EASY by any stretch of the imagination, but with hard work and discipline, it can be done.
And this is where our judgement must be used. Sometimes no matter how amped up we are about an idea, it may not be the right time to start it. Projects have a way of announcing that they are ready to be written - if you are honest with yourself then you’ll know it. I’ve had a long-gestating western concept kicking in my head and on paper for almost nine years now, and I’m as excited about it as anything I’ve ever thought of. It will be my magnum opus, my Blood Meridian, but it’s not ready to be written. I’m not ready to write it. I’ll know when I am ready, and I keep making notes and building up my research dossier (now some four thousand pages deep) and the starting point will materialize and I will write and write like there’s no tomorrow. But if I write it now, I won’t be doing it justice and I know I will be stuck after the first twenty pages, and I don’t want to write those twenty pages and put it away. I’ve plotted it out and outlined it, but I’m not going to write it. That day will come, I just have to be perceptive and aware of it.
Music for the Weekend:Why People Disappear by His Name is Alive.
Sometimes when you go through old stuff you stumble upon a very important relic of your past. Mine was finding my old His Name is Alive CDs, buried away in my old record crates. This was one of those albums that is so incredibly important to me, but lost in the sea of an information overload. I bought it in 1992 after seeing their brilliant music video Are We Still Married?, directed by none other than The Brothers Quay. I loved the lo-fi density of the recording, which was scratchy and a hundred layers deep. I spent the next year digging into all things 4AD and Warren Defever (the mastermind of His Name is Alive), and long with my explorations of Eisturzende Neaubauten, Coil and Throbbing Gristle, I dove headfirst into atmospheric DIY home recording. Using two cassette tape recorders, I’d loop tracks over and over and over, layering in sounds of guitars, homemade percussion and field recordings made in my backyard. I can’t say it was any good, but it was like painting with sound, creating heartfelt abstractions that meant something to me.
And this song means the absolute world to me. I learned how to play the guitar parts and recorded my own version of it using a plastic recorder flute that I had from grade school. I had a friend sing the lyrics, and she had a beautiful voice. We enjoyed making it so much, and it’s one of the very fondest memories of my life. It’s the energy of the DIY studio, of crafting, of making things with the people you care about. Nothing can diminish or match up to that moment, which for all intents and purposes, was my first artistic collaboration. Enjoy it as I did, it is still a work of magic.
I am so not a morning person. Productivity typically starts after the sun goes down and lasts until 2-3am. I’ve been like that pretty much all my life. My wife is an early-riser and I’m a light sleeper so when she gets up I’m typically awake. it takes me some time to get into the morning and for a good chunk of time I’m the walking dead.
There are those times when I had to run out to Kinkos at the crack of dawn and I have to admit, I love it when there’s nobody on the roads or the trains. Ever been to a Target right when it opens, or on a Sunday morning? It’s like heaven. There’s this bizarre coolness and charm about it, and your mind is clear and sharp. It sounds like I’m making something mundane to sound really amazing, but trust me, try it and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Best day at Target. EVER.
My mate Paul Pope recommended a book to me called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. It’s pretty much what the title implies, short vignettes about the daily rituals of writers, painters, musicians and filmmakers. Both Paul and I are nighthawks, and true to many artists, there isn’t really any kind of structure to our work day. We just kind of go about it, and cram in life wherever we can. There’s often little time for reflection or relaxation, as not having a daily routine means that there is no allocated time for creative work, and without that time, it can consume most of your day without your even knowing it.
As I read the book I began to notice a common theme amongst all the artists and thinkers, which was that they all woke up very early. They did a majority of their creative work in the early morning, and by the time lunch rolled around, they were pretty much done with their day, creative work wise, leaving the rest of the day for life’s daily requirements. Many attested that there’s a limited time of productivity, that a person can only write or create good work for a maximum of three to four hours, tops. After that it becomes diminishing returns, writing and painting for the sake of writing and painting.
In the month of December I audited my work habits, and found this to be revealingly true. My creative powers were limited to a block of time, and after that I’d be wandering a bit. My first inclination in the mornings would be to handle daily non-film work, i.e. calling vendors and services, handling bills and accounting, etc.. My reasoning would be to get that stuff out of the way so that I could focus the latter part of my day on being creative, and then I could work in my normal hours of nighttime creativity.
But maybe I’ve got it all turned around. The morning - when we are at our most well-rested and focused, is the correct time to be creative, and later in the day, when we’re wearing down a little, is when we can handle mindless day-to-day responsibilities. Makes sense.
But talk, as it is so often noted, is cheap. Time to put it into action, so I made my New Year’s Resolution, which was to start my day at 5am and hit the hay at around 11pm. Gives me six solid hours of sleep, which is plenty for me. I’ve been doing it for a week now and I have to admit, it’s been kind of brutal. Especially these Chicago mornings when it’s pitch dark and -53 degrees out (that’s not a typo, thank you Polar Vortex). There isn’t much motivation to get out of a warm bed. But I’ve been managing.
Start the day with exercise, a shower and a good breakfast. By 6am the cat is fed and I’m ready to work for four hours, uninterrupted. I’m refraining from checking my email the first thing in the morning, as it can easily provide distractions as I’m writing / storyboarding. When working on the computer I’m using the 20-20-20 rule, which is that every 20 minutes, I look away from my computer screen and focus my eyes on something that is 20 feet away, and hold my gaze for 20 seconds. It rests and recalibrates your eyes. My wife gave me some eye drops as well, and there’s a sticky on my computer that reminds me to blink every once in awhile. It’s important.
As hard as it’s been, it’s been quite revelatory. By the time I previously would have woken up I’ve now already completed a ton of creative writing and designing, more than I would have during the day. The quality of my work has never been better, and I’m feeling calm and lucid, like being at Target on a Sunday morning. At 10am is when I usually tackle my emails, as that’s when people on both coasts will be at or heading over to their computers. By lunchtime (1pm) I’m pretty much done with my film-related work, and I have the rest of the day to enjoy to do whatever I want, whatever I need to do for our other work.
The only downside so far is that by the time the evening rolls around I’m feeling dead tired. But my body is adjusting day by day, and I should start getting used to it.
I’d love to get to the point financially in my life where the second half of my day can be dedicated to more bohemian pursuits - cooking for friends, seeing films, going for walks, reading magazines at my local coffee shop, exploring the city and meeting new people. In due time.
I’m enjoying this. It’s specific and it helps me achieve other things. A solid resolution if there ever was one, and I invite you to join me in doing it. Who’s game?
1. Would you have sex with the last person you text messaged?
That's a fascinating question. Considering that the last person I texted was Verizon in regards to my overage of minutes, there's a lot to think about there. Perhaps - and this is speculation only - perhaps if the Verizon robot that sent me the text was an artificial intelligent OS like Scarlett Johansson in HER, then I could maybe dream of having sex with it, but we don't really have the technology for that. It would require a lot of work, some serious hardware and a lot of imagination that frankly I'm not willing to commit to now. So I guess no.
2. You talked to an ex today, correct?
No. My ex is now a right-wing nutjob gun-toting Republican. I fear I may have done that to her. It haunts me. Maybe I should call her and talk her off the ledge. That would be the right thing to do.
3. Have you taken someones virginity?
If you count that Twinkie I just crushed as a "someone," then hell yes.
4. Is trust a big issue for you?
Yes. Like that other day when I was staring down a squirrel that was about to root through my recycling. We had a mutual understanding that he was going to back the fuck off and that I wasn't going to chase him down the block making hooting noises. That's trust.
5. Did you hang out with the person you like recently?
Yes. I spent four hours in the bathroom reading my Kindle on the toilet.
6. What are you excited for?
At this moment? Lunch.
7. What happened tonight?
I don't know. It's one in the afternoon. I'm not a soothsayer.
8. Do you think it’s disgusting when girls get really wasted?
No. It's an honor for everyone to hold a girl's hair back when she's puking on someone's lawn. In general anyone's who's wasted has the potential to be incredibly disgusting. Look at the Hoff and that hamburger.
9. Is confidence cute?
Yes. Especially when it is accompanied with a handgun and a balaclava ski mask.
10. What is the last beverage you had?
Tears of Crushing Defeat.
11. How many people of the opposite sex do you fully trust?
12. Do you own a pair of skinny jeans?
Is the wave function of a system of identical integer-spin particles has the same value when the positions of any two particles are swapped called a Fermion? That would be a resounding...
13. What are you gonna do Saturday night?
Cry myself to sleep.
14. What are you going to spend money on next?
A few lottery tickets.
15. Are you going out with the last person you kissed?
If she'll have me.
16. Do you think you’ll change in the next 3 months?
It depends. I've been meaning to get that glowing growth in my lower back excised. IF it keeps growing at this rate, then yeah, change is gonna come.
17. Who do you feel most comfortable talking to about anything?
A billion strangers on the Internet.
18. The last time you felt broken?
That would be when I got hit by a Rolls Royce in front of Harrod's in London. (True story).
19. Have you had sex today?
If you call scraping ice off the sidewalk sex, then yes.
20. Are you starting to realize anything?
That maybe starting this poll was not the best use of my time.
21. Are you in a good mood?
Almost always. Why do you ask? The fuck is your problem?
22. Would you ever want to swim with sharks?
Yes. I saw SHARKNADO and if Ian Ziering can do it, then hell anyone can.
23. Are your eyes the same color as your dad’s?
I'm not sure. His are in a plastic baggie in the freezer I'll go check it out and be right back.
24. What do you want right this second?
Donald Trump interracial bukkake porn.
25. What would you say if the person you love/like kissed another girl/boy?
I'd believe that they were just studying for the dentistry school entrance exam. REMEMBER I TRUST PEOPLE.
26. Is your current hair color your natural hair color?
Wait - what the hell is hair?
27. Would you be able to date someone who doesn’t make you laugh?
If they just took the duct tape off my mouth I might be able to.
28. What was the last thing that made you laugh?
When those photos of mass genocide in Sudan last came out and the Sudanese UN delegates completely denied them. OH THAT WAS A HOWLER.
29. Do you really, truly miss someone right now?
30. Does everyone deserve a second chance?
Here's a bunch of shit you broke and stole. Fix it.
31. Honestly, do you hate the last boy you were talking to?
Yeah. He was six years old and pretended to know everything. Fucking kids.
32. Does the person you have feelings for right now, know you do?
Judging by the look on her face when I got her that IOU Christmas card, yes.
33. Are you one of those people who never drinks soda?
It's called POP. Not soda.
34. Listening to?
The voices in my head. MAKE IT STOP. SHUT UP NOBODY LIKES YOU.
35. Do you ever write in pencil anymore?
When faking paternity tests, yes.
36. Do you know where the last person you kissed is?
Uh, that Twinkie from Question 3.
37. Do you believe in love at first sight?
No. Because 87% of all the pictures online are fake. I WATCH CATFISH.
38. Who did you last call?
Ghostbusters. They routed me to a call center in Manila.
39. Who was the last person you danced with?
40. Why did you kiss the last person you kissed?
They had had an allergic reaction to shellfish.
41. When was the last time you ate a cupcake?
When Osama Bin Laden died.
42. Did you hug/kiss one of your parents today?
If they'd let me.
43. Ever embarrass yourself in front of a crush?
Oh yes. There was a fenderbender on Lawrence Ave the other day and while waiting for the fire department I took an Instagram picture of the lady behind the steering wheel and posted her picture using the 'Amber' filter instead of the 'Neon.' Can't see blood in Amber. SO EMBARRASSING.
44. Do you tan in the nude?
If I feel like getting shot at.
45. If you could, would you take back your last kiss?
No. I have no problems with shellfish.
46. Did you talk to someone until you fell asleep last night?
No, I didn't realize they'd hung up on me about eighty minutes into our conversation.
47. Who was the last person to call you?
It was a wrong number. I was flattered to hear a human voice after so long.
48. Do you sing in the shower?
Yes. I do a harrowing rendition of Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonight."
49. Do you dance in the car?
I am not two feet tall.
50. Ever used a bow and arrow?
Yes, the last time I was involved in a dystopian tournament to save the people of my famine-ridden district. In Chicago.
51. Last time you got a portrait taken by a photographer?
Benny down at the precinct does amazing work.
52. Do you think musicals are cheesy?
Cheesy as in stinking, rotting piles of Limburger?
53. Is Christmas stressful?
Let me get this salad fork out of my calf muscle and I'll tell you.
54. Ever eat a pierogi?
Sorry, I'm not a cannibal.
55. Favorite type of fruit pie?
56. Occupations you wanted to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be the stunt guy who was charged with jumping into bushes and piles of garbage on "The Greatest American Hero."
57. Do you believe in ghosts?
Let me ask my dead friend.
58. Ever have a Deja-vu feeling?
Let me ask my dead friend.
59. Take a vitamin daily?
It says on the packet that an Oreo has 1% of my daily requirement of Vitamin A, so that is a resounding yes.
60. Wear slippers?
Yes. Fred Rogers would like them back.
61. Wear a bath robe?
Only when I am nude and covered in blood.
62. What do you wear to bed?
Plastic tarp, bungee cord and packaging tape.
63. First concert?
When those people visited our house and I hid in the closet.
64. Wal-Mart, Target or Kmart?
Target. They allow me to return anything no matter how blunt, chipped or spattered.
65. Nike or Adidas?
66. Cheetos Or Fritos?
Whichever is easier to snort.
67. Peanuts or Sunflower seeds?
Sunflower. Much easier to spit into someone's hair.
68. Favorite Taylor Swift song?
The one where she doesn't sound like a total fuckwit.
69. Ever take dance lessons?
No, but I need to. I hear it helps when trying to evade Russian police.
70. Is there a profession you picture your future spouse doing?
71. Can you curl your tongue?
Only if I remove it.
72. Ever won a spelling bee?
I'm Indian. What do you think.
73. Have you ever cried because you were so happy?
That would require me to experience this vague thing called happiness.
74. What is your favorite book?
"Diagnostic Immunohistochemistry:Theranostic and Genomic Applications, Expert Consult" by David Jabbs
75. Do you study better with or without music?
Music only makes the voices angrier.
76. Regularly burn incense?
I prefer Febreeze. Obliterates varying stages of putrefaction.
77. Ever been in love?
See question #3
78. Who would you like to see in concert?
Taylor Swift performing that one song.
79. What was the last concert you saw?
The chorus of fifteen crackheads in Detroit who were beating down on my sternum with lead pipes and other detritus.
80. Hot tea or cold tea?
Cold. Like my soul.
81. Tea or coffee?
Whichever is the better diuretic.
82. Favorite type of cookie?
83. Can you swim well?
Funny - I ask that to people all the time.
84. Can you hold your breath without holding your nose?
Provided I can put my fist up my ass.
85. Are you patient?
I made it to Question 85, what do you think.
86. DJ or band, at a wedding?
As long as they don't play anything by Punjabi MC.
87. Ever won a contest?
Walking away from last year's wreckage and only a tiny piece of fuselage stunk in my cranium.
88. Ever have plastic surgery?
Why? Do you recognize me?
89. Which are better black or green olives?
I'm not a racist so I won't dignify that question with an answer.
90. Opinions on sex before marriage?
Before there was even marriage there was sex. I'll go with historical precedence.
So I’m through with lists for now. Maybe one more when the Oscars are announced and I typically do my Overlooked Oscars post, but then again that’s a post that calls for a list.
I feel like journalism is hitting an all-time low, and it’s in large part because listmaking has now been fully accepted by editors of the world as a legitimate form of journalistic writing. If you think I’m being dramatic, just peruse your local newsstand (remember those?) or peruse Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, etc..
34 Places to See Before You Die.
12 Habits of Petulant Assholes.
50 Books We’ve Been Told Are Good and Will Pretend We’ve Read and Liked Just to Make You Feel Like an Illiterate Moron Because Everyone’s Got the Time to Ready Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Right?
And then there’s that other “journalistic” animal, the hook title that’s supposed to change your life forever / restore your faith in humanity / blow your mind. Come off it already. A sloth hugging a kitten is pretty fucking adorable but then again I ALREADY KNEW THAT because a sloth or kitten doing anything is bound to be cute. Even stuff like hurling their own feces or reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Want to see something that will restore your faith in humanity? Video yourself volunteering at a local animal shelter or joining a protest against unfair banking practices. Then keep doing updates and don’t share it with anyone but yourself. And if a UFO lands and abducts all the Rottweiler puppies then share that shit, and prepare for the backlash that you’re an attention whore who did all that in After Effects.
Smarmy a bit? Yes. But that’s what journalism has amounted to, a bunch of sensationalism and reporting opinions instead of facts. Yellow journalism justified by the “take it as it comes” nature of social media. If it’s not true it’ll be disproved later so what the hell, put it out there. At least someone will talk to me in the form of a hate-laced barrage of tweets.
I got a few letters asking where I thought Gravity should be on this list. I know a lot of people liked the film, and so did I. It was immensely entertaining, frightening and gripping, and upon first viewing I was completely blown away, ready to declare it the best film of the year. But then I actually started thinking about the film, and its complete disregard for basic science eventually made me understand that it’s an incredibly silly and poorly-scripted movie. It’s one thing to be The Avengers and eschew all natural laws in the name of comic book action, but for Gravity to seek an authentic space experience and yet, in one singular moment, completely blow that authenticity, well it undermines the entire premise of the film, rendering it to just yet another Hollywood action/ suspense potboiler. Gravity deserves every conceivable award for its technical achievements (just as 2001 revolutionized VFX), but I can’t in good conscience rate it with the best films of the year. So there’s that.
Continuing from yesterday…
5) Rurouni Kenshin, dir. Keishi Ohtomo, Japan.
This is one badass motherfucking movie. Based off the popular manga and anime, Rurouni Kenshin has the greatest swordplay action sequences I’ve seen since Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, and that’s a major comparison. I don’t know how this film isn’t more popular in the United States - it’s gorgeous, hyperviolent and is an incredible story, told efficiently and without any chaff. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to feudal Japanese stories of wandering assassins seeking to reclaim their honor and what is important to them. It also has a pair of beautiful leads in Takeru Satô and Emi Takei who act as good as they look. Satô is a bonafide action star, and he has an undeniable presence about him. Love it love it love it.
4) Ship of Theseus, dir. Anand Gandhi, India.
Full admission here - I am friends with the producers and the director of the film, but by no means did that influence the placement of this film on this list. Years in the making, Ship of Theseus is the magnificent telling of three different stories in contemporary Mumbai. The seemingly disparate protagonists - a blind photographer, a wayward young financial worker, and an ailing monk - all seek meaning and discoveries in the greater context where they ultimately shape each others’ destinies. It’s a deft and intellectually vivid take on the Ship of Theseus myth, which is that if the parts of a ship are removed and replaced piece by piece, is it still the same ship? Anand Gandhi smartly gives no easy answers, as some things are greater than us and we are merely to lay down the seeds of questions as we gather more information in life. This is a gorgeously shot, impeccably acted metaphysical yarn that dares to pull no punches, it’s unabashedly brainy and complex, and it makes no apologies for it. The true beauty of the film is that despite its heavyweight aspirations, it is never inaccessible, as Gandhi paints his canvas with universal human moments and truths - it never once is obtuse or abstract. A film that deserves greater study and discussion, and cinema needs more films of its ilk. A staggering achievement.
3) Upstream Color, dir. Shane Carruth, USA.
I’ve been dealing with a lot of death and loss this year, and a large part of my healing has been though art, which has an incredibly ability to mould itself to your specific condition. Two people looking at a Francis Bacon painting can see two entirely different things, depending on where they come from and their current place in life. When I saw Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color I was coming off utter devastation of loss, and in this film I found willing companions on my journey, the story of a couple dealing with loss and processing their grief. There are so many images and sounds in this film that I connected to on a very basic, atomic level, and knowing how smart Shane Carruth is, I know it cannot be an accident. There are very few films in my life that have actually guided me and healed me, and this is one of them. It’s an intensely personal film, uncomfortably intimate to the point of psychological voyeurism, but that kind of honesty is needed when dealing with the subject of grief. If grief cannot be shared, then it becomes toxic and mutates into confused anger and despair. Carruth had major expectations to exceed after Primer, and he did it in a fashion so spectacular and out of left field that I have to consider him one of the most important artists working in any medium today. He is a talent to treasure, to support, and to learn so much from.
2) Computer Chess, dir. Andrew Bujalski, USA.
Let’s make this clear. Andrew Bujalski never was, is, or will be Mumblecore. All of his films have completely eschewed the tenets of that god-forsaken family of films in that his characters have goals, aims, and do not drown in their privilege. Bujalski writes amazing scripts and creates unimaginable depth in his films, and his tireless work has culminated in one of the most fascinating films of recent times, Computer Chess.
I grew up in the 80s, which was a time of immense technological tinkering. Radio Shack was the hub of all hardware for hobbyists who wanted to really dig into personal electronics (the store is now a shadow of its former self, basically a place to buy a cell phone) and the computer was the infinite horizon. Computer Chess delves into that world with nerdy aplomb, covering a computer-driven chess tournament between competing universities and the random oddball genius hobbyist. The programmers work with furious intensity, placing it all on the line as they strive to outsmart their own brains.
It’s chilling to already know the future of this endeavor, from Big Blue to to the most basic chess app on an iPhone, and it feels like we’re witnessing an act of creation with this film. Perhaps more poignant is the film’s setting, a ramshackle no-frills hotel that is occupied by a bevy of spaced out weirdos and, bizarrely, a bunch of cats. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of technological hubris versus metaphysical questioning, and it makes us think of where we belong in the pecking order of neuroprocessing.
What binds all of this together is the format of the film, which was shot on analog video tape using Sony AVC-3260 cameras. The cinematography creates a ghostly, otherworldly feel, and is authentic to the desire to find “better” technologies when they may not actually be an improvement at all. It’s a barbed commentary to the shift of cinema to digital capture from film, and I think it’s apt. Computer Chess is one of those rare films where it all comes together when in theory it shouldn’t have. A gem of a film, owing much to David Lynch, An Occurrence at Owl Creek, Trash Humpers and The Twilight Zone, and yet completely unique and divorced of the aforementioned pillars. Truly special and worthy of multiple viewings.
And my pick for best film of the year, and maybe best film of this young decade so far, is…
1) The Act of Killing, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous, Denmark / Norway.
The film camera has a unique power to bring out the true nature of people. For some reason, there’s a kind of pressure put on people when the camera is rolling. It’s for them to either play perfect - in which the lie is revealed - or be brutally honest, in which the truest forms of human nature come out. Actors will always attest to the power of the camera, as they transform in an almost out-of-body manner when the director calls “action!” The world melts away, the camera records the moment, and there is nothing impeding the distance between lens and subject. Actors do strange things when the camera rolls, and they go to places they never knew existed within their heads.
So what happens when you turn the camera on someone who has killed over a thousand people under the protection of a brutal right-wing paramilitary group, and who sees them self as a rockstar for what they have done? What truths will the camera reveal?
The Act of Killing explores that question, documenting the recollections of a group of men who freely and proudly admit to slaughtering thousands of people who stood in the way of their sponsored political party. A legit death squad who used means such as garrotting with wire and other masochistic forms of death-dealing. The men who enact these crimes talk about their exploits like basketball all-stars discussing their storied careers, describing acts of torture like it was a finger roll in Madison Square Garden.
What a difficult film to watch, as we are constantly barraged by the cold distance of these men, and we can’t help but think there had to be some kind of collateral damage in inflicting so much death. Can one truly be that desensitized? Director Joshua Oppenheimer uses a brilliant and provocative method to investigate this, which is to have these men reenact their crimes against humanity, but in the form of filmed vignettes done in varying genres: musical, western and gangster films. What happens after is the aforementioned magic of the camera and its resultant effect upon the actor. Dark truths are revealed.
I cannot express how important this film in our understanding of our species. We see senseless crimes all the time - school shootings, genocide in Sudan and North Korea, US military drone strikes and people generally being so callous and thoughtless to the greater whole around them. We often wonder what drives people to do such things, and what might be going through their heads. We rarely ever get the answer to that because the perpetrators of the crimes are either dead or completely inaccessible under the judgement of the legal system. The Act of Killing is that rare opportunity to access the mind of killers and sociopaths who have yet to face any kind of justice or judgement, and if we are lucky we just might see a revelation or comeuppance. We are that lucky. What transpires in the film left me gasping for words, flooded with tears and such a confusing array of emotions that I have yet to ever experience.
When we make films we are on one simple journey - to seek the truth. Many times our search for answers only spawn so many more countless questions, and our quest for the truth begins anew. So rare is it then that we reach a decisive moment as we do in The Act of Killing, and as a result it rightfully belongs as one of the most important films made in recent memory, belonging with the Zapruter film and other documents of true human nature. This is required viewing for all, and should be mandatory in schools and academia. I cannot recommend or rate a film any higher.
If there is any kind of connection between the films that have made a mark on me this year, it is that they all revel in the curiosity of mankind, they ask the questions of our nature and constructed societies and they seek verification of our responsibilities to one another, to the planet and its myriad inhabitants that we share it with. We are alone in our thoughts always but we create company by sharing, and that is what these truly great films do. The community of art, a family of man, and a celebration of our flaws that make us truly special. While blockbusters continue to seek and cultivate the lowest hanging fruit - a danger no doubt - it has quietly also been a simply outstanding year for cinema. Where there is spirit, education and community, art will always find a place to thrive.
There’s a ton of great movies in theaters right now which I haven’t seen, so it’s always a bit presumptuous for me to make this list. I’ve still to see 12 Years a Slave, Inside Lewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Hunt, Nebraska and Philomena, all of which have tons of buzz and have appeared on many year end lists.
So let’s assume that many of these are a given, and do a list of films that may have slipped under a lot of radars. This works for me because my top films were all distributed in very limited release, but the good thing is because of that you’ll be able to see them right away. Plus I can honestly say that my top five were decided a very long time ago, and barring 12 Years a Slave I’m fairly certain that it will remain unchanged.
10) Short Term 12, dir. Destin Cretton, USA.
I knew some kids who were in foster care when I was growing up, and it’s only many years later and reading about the foster care system that I realized how incredibly lucky those kids were to be placed in caring, committed foster homes. A lot of kids aren’t so lucky, as there’s an insidious side to the system that revolves purely around profit and little with the physical and mental health of the kids involved.
Short Term 12, directed with a sure and controlled hand by Destin Cretton, gives us a complete and sensitive insight into the world of kids and young adults that the world has forgotten, and how so many of the issues facing them are universal to all. It’s beautifully crafted and acted with a standout performance from Brie Larson, who should take the indie ingenue torch from Elizabeth Olsen. A classic American independent from a young talent with something to say.
9) Tian Zhu Ding (aka A Touch of Sin), dir. Zhangke Jia, China.
Zhangke Jia’s Platform is probably one of my favorite Asian films of all time, a languid look at Chinese youth caught up in a transition that makes little effort to recognize them and their desires. It’s a deft and honest portrait of a real China, a China that we rarely get to see (in large parts because Jia’s films were so often banned and censored). My anticipation went into overdrive when i heard about Jia’s A Touch of Sin, a crime drama that weaves four separate stories from different regions of China. Knowing Jia’s penchant for realism, to see him go into stylized violence that is so storied in wuxia filmmaking would promise an experience that we’ve never seen before.
The film doesn’t disappoint, giving us powerhouse performances by Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao and Wang Baoqiang that have just the right amount of action/ crime histrionics whilst maintaining an authenticity that makes it all completely palpable. There is sociopolitical commentary throughout, and it’s refreshing to see a crime film that strips back its style with intent of delivering meaning. It’s almost the polar opposite to Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, which boils over with gorgeous style and yet has very little to say for itself. If this is the future of Chinese cinema, then it looks very bright.
8) A Teacher, dir. Hannah Fidell, USA.
It took me almost a decade after the fact to realize that my teachers in high school were real people who were working through their lives. They would’ve been in their twenties and thirties when I was in school. I remember going on a field trip to the art museum and seeing my teacher - who was a single father - chatting up an attractive woman who worked as a docent at the museum. It never crossed my mind to think that our teachers can be lonely people, hurt people, people trying to figure out the world just like anyone else.
Hannah Fidell’s debut feature A Teacher pulls back the curtain on the mythic status of teachers, and gives us a portrait of the most taboo of relationships, a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. There is little to no backstory or final resolution, we’re just thrown into the middle of this relationship and are left to figure out the motivations of its participants. It never once judges its characters, and as a result we are forced to our own moral judgements and justifications. Anchored by a mighty performance by Lindsay Burdge as a young teacher figuring out where she belongs, the film, like its protagonists, blurs the lines between love, obsession and meaningless sex as an opiate. While the film is at times frustratingly messy, it is in tune with the frustratingly messy nature of its subjects. A haunting and at times creepy film, I found it quite unforgettable, and kept asking myself throughout - what would the reactions to this film be like if the teacher were male and the student female?
7) Post Tenebras Lux (aka Light After Darkness), dir. Carlos Reygadas , Mexico.
Art that records dreams can be a hit-or-miss venture. There can be strokes of disconnected brilliance like the works of James Joyce or Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, or they can be things like What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams. Don’t bother to look that one up.
Thankfully Carlos Reygadas’ intensely personal dream journal Post Tenebras Lux falls into the former category. It’s a visually lush, thinly connected set of visual vignettes that comprise a complex life full of love and loss. Like last year’s Holy Motors I’m at a loss to describe what the film is about, but all I can say it made me intensely feel in a very physical and emotional way. It was like witnessing someone’s life through a crystal prism, an almost anthropological essay on the infinite and shapeless. It’s a hypnotizing affair, one that makes you think by letting you connect the dots on your own. This is far from passive cinema, and it shines brightly because of it.
6) Fruitvale Station, dir. Ryan Coogler, USA.
With the head-scratching conclusion of the Trayvon Martin case, America has decided that its discussion of race has ended, and now they can move on to Miley Cyrus with a clear conscious. Fuck you, America. Seriously. The Martin case is likely one of the biggest travesties of justice in this country’s history, and I’m not using hyperbole. That a young innocent man was gunned down by a thug whose actions were justified by a barbaric “stand your ground” law is failing to even make a blip in our mainstream consciousness is a sign of our failing as a fair society. Instead we get legal precedents like “affluenza” (which will never apply to black men, irrespective of their economic background) which continue to excuse behavior firmly rooted in socioeconomic stereotypes. We’re willing to give young white men a backstory, and yet when it comes to Trayvon we stop at his being a “thug” with thug friends.
With Fruitvale Station we finally get to put a human face on one of these “thugs” and are forced to realize that the only thug in this equation is the damning judgement of authority on its citizenship. I feel like it needs to be tattooed on our foreheads at birth, in backwards writing so that we can read it in the mirror - no one deserves to die.
We know how this movie ends. What we don’t know is the man who took the bullet. We’re given a beautiful rendering of the real-life Oscar Grant by Michael B Jordan, who gets my vote for best performance of the year. Hand him the Academy Award now. It’s a virtuoso and vital performance that has meaning beyond a simple character, it is a cry for understanding for all that are being unfairly judged, whose destiny is being determined by those unwilling to see beyond the path of least resistance. This is vital and timely filmmaking.
Music for the Weekend:A Handsome Stranger Called Death (Com Truise Remix) by Foe.
Holidays can be fun times. And weird times. People who you thought you knew for a lifetime can appear to be completely different people after not seeing them for so long. Life happens. Cynicism creeps in. They find God. They say things like “I forgive the lack of actual science in Gravity because it entertained me, and that’s all that matters.” The subject of the Affordable Care Act is brought up, and true colors are shown. You want to go back to your house and cry yourself to sleep.
In doses, it is enlightening. In a steady course it is homicidal. But you’ll always learn from people, no matter where they’re coming from, no matter how diametrically opposite they are to you. Keep an open mind and store it away for the characters of the future. No matter what, life is rich with ideas. Always.
Stay safe, stay sane, and have a great holiday weekend!
As many of you know, music is a huge part of this blog and of my overall creative process. I collect music throughout the year, and a lot of that music makes it way into my scripts and eventually the films. A big consideration for using music in film has always been cost of licensing, so I made a habit a long time ago of trying to find musicians and bands that are just starting out or on the brink of something so much bigger. I tend to reach out and form relationships with those bands, and they often lead me to other musicians that are within their circles. It’s a wonderful way to discover new music. Here are the thirteen best records that I listened to this year:
13) Second Sight EP by Balaclavas.
Technically a 2012 release but who cares. They’re awesome.
12) Glow by Jackson and His Computer Band.
Not only an amazing album, but my vote for best music video of the year. See it below - NOTE IT’S EXTREMELY NSFW.
11) Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd.
Vijay Iyer’s a badass of the highest magnitude and he just won a MacArthur Genius Grant this year, deservedly so. I’ve been a fan of Mike Ladd for ages and his Infesticons project is one of the truly great hip-hop collectives that few know about. Worth your time and money. This record is a haunting record of the experiences of America’s wounded warriors, an eye-opening and life-changing account of broken hearts and bodies. Amazing.
10) New History Warfare by Colin Stetson.
I played baritone saxophone from elementary school through high school, and in my dreams I wish I could have played like Colin Stetson, because Colin Stetson plays a saxophone like it’s not a saxophone. Frenetic, powerful and just a little crazy. So cool, and guaranteed to make appearances in countless indie films from here on out.
9) Error 500 by Mutation.
A supergroup if there ever was one. Containing members from The Fall, Napalm Death and Merzbow, this is probably the most eclectic metal album of the year. Hypnotically weird, totally fucked, and brimming with energy. I love it.
8) Excavation by The Haxan Cloak.
Beautiful Aphex Twin-y dirge that’s been put through a meat grinder. Relentlessly evil and gorgeous, this entire album is a concept for a feature film.
7) Pain is Beauty by Chelsea Wolfe.
This was a beautiful moment, driving on the cold, frozen plains of the midwest, distant barns dotting the landscape, connected by power lines and still windmills. A gentle frost builds on the edges of the glass. Truly gorgeous, menacing and vulnerable.
6) Abandon by Pharmakon.
Brings me back to Throbbing Gristle and moments of The Hafler Trio with throat-shredding vocals and a pitch black soul. The sounds of ritualistic sadism and bloodletting. Stunning.
5) Shaking the Habitual by The Knife.
A previous venture into opera and theater has yielded incredible payoff for The Knife, as their music has taken on a dimension of poetry and imagery spawning from their previously cold and hard electronics. Karin Dreijer Andersson remains steadfast for me at the top female vocalists in modern music. A remarkable journey of an album.
4) Sky Burial by Inter Arma.
A complete skullcrusher, complete with Cookie-Monster-battling-The-Balrog vocals and smoggy waves of guitar sludge followed by pummeling brutality. Every track on this record is vital mayhem.
3) Compendium by Old Apparatus.
Dense and dramatic, yet another film score-ready album filled with thousands of complex sounds, bizarre beats and heartfelt washes of noise. I’ve done much writing to this record, it is not perfect but it invokes so many incredible images in my head.
2) Embracism by Kirin J Callinan.
There’s a raw, confessional earnestness to this album that draws me in more with every listen. Like a brutalized and scarred David Bowie, Callinan paints a beautifully humble portrait of doubt and mortality. Not usually my cup of tea, but I’m completely and madly in love with this record.
And my best record of 2013 is…
1) Nepthene by Julianna Barwick.
Maybe it’s because I’m coming off such a tough year with all the death and loss in my life that I found some solace in the achingly gorgeous album. There’s an infinite sadness in each track, featuring layer upon layer of vocal harmonies and swelling orchestration. It feels like so much of the death that has surrounded me - wispy, dreamy and lacking a physical body. Listening to this album feels like embracing a ghost, a crumbled relic of love, a spear of air shot into the brain. It is warmth in a vast plain of cold, an internal light in an indifferent sea of dark.
It’s heavy stuff but the best art makes you go there, it doen’t force you rather it is your guide, your own Virgil in a personal hell. So few works of art can do that, and the ones that do are revered and admired. Barwick has accomplished just that, and has made a record for the ages.
As the year comes to a close, here’s a few things I found exemplary. I’ll be doing best films and best music of 2013 lists soon. In no particular order:
1) Heck by Zander Cannon.
In what was a strong year for comics (Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals, Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus), I found this simply-drawn indie to be the most captivating. But don’t let the simplicity of the art fool you, Heck is a metaphysical doozy, telling the story of a broken man who finds a portal to Hell in the basement of his deceased father’s home. He turns the portal into an odd business, of extracting secrets from dead friends and family members of paying clients. The story has a gallows humor and is incredibly emotional, as any journey through Hell should be (I should know). A quick and inventive read, and one that reveals as much about us as it does its characters. Wonderful.
2) Belvoir Elderflower Soda (Pressé)
My wife and I had this stuff at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Grace here in Chicago, and our life hasn’t been the same since. Screw Mexican Coke, this stuff is the shit, and it goes with just about anything. Not an easy find but in Chicago it can be found at Joey’s Sodas and Snacks, and I’m pretty sure Joey ships as well. The fuck if I know what an elderflower tastes like, but in soda form it’s pretty amazing, lightly honeyed and citrusy, with a mineral undertone. Pretty much unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
3) Yoji Yamamoto Y-3 Sprint Classic Sneakers.
When I’m on set I never sit. Ever. There’s always a director’s chair in the budget and I should save the production a few hundred bucks by telling them it’ll never get used. Invariably someone else gets to sit in my chair, which is fine by me. But I’m on my feet for 20-hours at a shot, and naturally my feet take the brunt of it, and the need for comfortable shoes is paramount in a director’s line of work.
I’m no slave to fashion but I wouldn’t be caught dead in SAS or Crocs or any form of orthopedic shoes. Fuck that. I’m a director of a film, not a senior home. By chance I came across a store that was having a clearance sale and they had one display pair of some cool looking Adidas Y-3 kicks for sale. They happened to be my size, and I tried them on. Holy shit. These have to be the most comfortable shoes I’d ever worn, and a later study revealed that GQ magazine had declared these shoes to be the most comfortable pair they wore all year. Damn. Not inexpensive, but if you’re on your feet all day, it’s worth every fucking penny. I bought two pairs. And while it’s subjective, I think they look dope.
4) Daniel Danger.
One of my hobbies is to collect art. Not in the Picasso / Modigliani / Francis Bacon sense (I wish!), but I love collecting prints and original artwork (if I can) of young artists who are on the fringe of blowing up. Many moons ago I started collecting a then-unknown artist named David Choe, who later painted the offices of Facebook and became a multimillionaire and contemporary art icon. I feel Daniel Danger, who is a household name in the world of concert posters, is one of those artists who will make the leap to fine art in due time. I’ve spent the year combing stores and art fairs looking for his work, and found two incredible pieces that are now being proudly hung in my home. Danger’s detailed work and haunting themes are far from literal, and they exist in some kind of Edward Gorey-esque pre-apocalyptic world, a zone that got like just a third of a nuke. Weird, unsettling, and heart-breakingly gorgeous. Find his work, frame it in archive quality, and keep it for future generations. A monumental talent.
I wrote extensively about Tron: Uprising in a post earlier this year. It’s one of the best shows on television, and the best science fiction in the business right now. Naturally, it looks like it’s cancelled. I don’t understand viewers sometimes.
6) Knowshon Moreno.
I’m a die-hard Denver Broncos fan, and this year has been one hell of a season. Peyton Manning’s a shoo-in for MVP and he’s already won the Sportsman of the Year. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas will receive the notoriety they deserve, but to me the unsung hero of the Broncos’ dream season is running back Knowshon Moreno. A first round draft pick under Josh McDaniels, Moreno was on his way to being just another first round bust, but this year he’s rebounded with a competitive fire that I’ve yet to see in any player in the NFL. This guy plays hard, and then some. He consistently grinds yard after tough yard, blocks like a motherfucker (see gif above) and raises the intensity and focus of all around him. While his running style is nothing to write home about, it’s a joy to watch him play, to see him enjoy this beautiful game which has come under such scrutiny, and to revel in being the part of something greater. He’s also an example of perseverance, of responding to critics and adversity and working your way to the top. Tip of the hat to you, Knowshon, you are my MVP for the season.
7) Pizza Dog.
Since Marvel is scraping the bottom of their barrel (Ant-Man? Guardians of the Galaxy? Huh?), maybe it’s time they give a feature film to one of the most memorable characters in the Marvel Universe, PIZZA DOG. His name is Lucky and he’s a one-eyed dog who eats pizza. And he’s awesome.
Pizza Dog is featured in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s brilliant, fun and sexy Hawkeye comic series, and was given his own issue, an iconographic and largely silent telling of Pizza Dog’s exploits as a canine crime fighter. It’s a distinct homage to both Preminger and Chris Ware, and it’s the best single comic book issue that I’ve read in the past ten years. I’m serious as a heart attack, it’s that amazing. It also establishes Pizza Dog as a fully formed character, worthy of his own adventures. I’d love to make a Pizza Dog movie (R-rated, of course). Pizza Dog also has his own amazing twitter, which is probably the best Twitter feed since the dearly-departed HOBO DARKSEID. I want a Pizza Dog movie. Read the issue and you’ll want a Pizza Dog movie too. It will be an instant cult classic. Let’s make it happen.
8) Tomb Raider
I’m incredibly behind on my gaming and am slowly catching up. I’ve had Tomb Raider sitting on my shelf for over six months, and I finally got around to playing it. Wow. I’ve always been a fan of the franchise since way back when but this game takes “cinematic experience” to a whole new level. It’s intense, brutal, and has an actual story. Side characters remain classically inept as with most video games, but this is and has always been Lara Croft’s adventure. We’re given a new origin story and join Lara as a young grad student, and discover how she learned the skills to become the vaunted Tomb Raider. Lara takes a monumental and cringe-worthy amount of punishment in this game, and while she’s still an amazing athlete of world record proportion, the game progressively shows the toll of damage on her, both physically and emotionally. It’s quite remarkable, and an amazing experience throughout. The puzzles aren’t quite to snuff as in the classic TR games, but what it lacks in puzzles it makes up in atmospherics and character. A worthy relaunch of a much beloved character.
9) Kai Kaphrao Kai Dao aka ‘Stir-Fried Chicken with Hot Basil.’
My wife and I cook all of our food from scratch. We eat out maybe once or twice a week, but other than that we get all of our produce from an organic farm share and we make our food at home. It’s rewarding in that we know and control exactly what goes into our bodies, but the downside is that it can be exhausting. After a long day, many times the last thing I want to do is cook.
Asian food is useful in this regard, as many dishes are quick stir-frys that can be done in less than an hour. I found this recipe for an amazing Thai dish from the famed Pok-Pok restaurant in Portland, OR from its eponymous cookbook. This dish has become one of my all-time favorites, and I make it all the time. We make a vegetarian version of it with tofu as well. You can download the recipe from the Amazon page of the book by clicking here. The book is ace as well, but this is the fastest, easiest and knockout amazing tasting dish I’ve had from it. Eat well, eat healthy!
10) Pussy Riot.
I’ve long had a complaint that this generation has had a distinct lack of artistic rage against all that has happened to them. I had Public Enemy and Nirvana as a kid coming off Reagan and Thatcher, and coming off George W. Bush the only thing remotely resembling any kind of legitimate, powerful rage from this current generation is Anonymous. (Which is huge).
Which is why I make the case that Russia’s agit-punk band Pussy Riot should be be anointed the bona-fide voice of a generation, a heart-on-their-sleeve band of troublemakers who are not afraid of whatever punishment Putin and the Russian government can dole out. Their anger is legit, their fearlessness is inspiring, and with today’s release of two of their members from prison as an act of public relations solidarity for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, you know Pussy Riot is angrier than ever. These are artists we can all rally behind, create anthems with, and stand arm-in-arm with. We are all Pussy Riot. In a year that saw us lose Nelson Mandela, we are in dire need of heroes and leaders of conviction and truth, and Pussy Riot are my choice.
NOTE: Reposted because I couldn’t use the original music. Bahhhfuckyou.
So I’m gonna rant. An epic rant. ‘Cause I’m in a mood. That’s right - A MOOD.
I don’t fucking understand the holidays. First of all it doesn’t even feel like Christmastime since corporate America decided that Christmas sales should start in motherfucking September. It’s been Christmas for like almost three fucking months, there’s serious Christmas fatigue goin’ on here. Fuck Black Friday and bring it back to normal. Please. I beg of you.
Can we talk about how horrible a show How I Met Your Mother is? My god it’s like if the meanest people in the world decided to get in a room together and jerk each other off while simultaneously putting droplets of battery acid in their eyes and eating freezer burned Healthy Choice “inspired by Top Chef” meals that weren’t even microwaved instead they were just left out on the vinyl dashboard of a used Kia Sorrento that was stolen by a 82-year old tranny hooked on bath salts from Dollar Rent-A-Car in El Paso, Texas. And that’s being kind.
Don’t tell me that you can put rotten pizza and used gym equipment in a van for like fifteen days and then put some tiny Febreeze thing on the dash and it smells like the fucking armpit of a puppy that’s been frolicking in Tilda Swinton’s lingerie drawer. It’s a fucking lie, bullshit advertising. “Real people - not actors” my ass. You think we’re that stupid? Apparently so.
Lies lies lies. All lies. Tiny oranges aren’t made just for kids, they’re just convenient to be shucked to insecure moms who think they’re doing their kids a solid and being the best parents in the world by feeding their kids shit they fucking hate anyway. Did you loooove eating oranges when you were four fucking years old? Not me. I wanted Frosted Flakes. And Zingers, and just about anything that wasn’t a tiny fucking orange. No thank you. Fuck off.
You can’t buy a cookbook online. Every review is “ooh, that looks so good, can’t wait to eat it!” Here’s a tip, genius - how about cooking a fucking dish or two out of the book before you post a review of it? I wanna know if that stir fried tofu with butternut fucking squash is worth my time an money. Don’t tell me the picture looks nice. Make the damn thing and see if it tastes like ambrosia or nine-day old refried beans with a slathering of marmite and pink school erasers. I wanna know. Or you can write meaningful reviews like the one I did on Amazon for my favorite cookbook of all time, Microwave for One by Sonia Allison. Professional grade.
Lastly, you expect me to shell out 4 c’s for a PS4 and then make it so I can’t play my old games on it? What the flying fuck, Sony? How am I supposed to play Katamari Damacy unless I do some illegal shit to your precious box and then you come out and call me the bad guy in this arrangement? You’re as bad as that bullshit toy company (GOLDIEBLOX) who makes engineering toys for girls and then turns around and lambasts the Beastie Boys AFTER the company stole their fucking song. Parents are stupid. Go buy a tub of fucking Legos for your kids (non-gender specific for decades, assholes) and stop pretending you’re Gloria Fucking Steinem for blindly following what some greedy company designated what female empowerment is. Want your girls to feel proud and strong? Tell them you love them every once in a while. Tell them you believe in them. Demonstrate that by asking them how they’re doing instead of giving them a box full of building blocks and essentially telling them “fuck off, you’re a strong independent woman now, go change the world, kid! Oh and by the way here’s trillions of dollars of debt, crippling insecurity from photoshopped ads, and license to drug you into a coma with anti-depressants because I’m too insecure to talk about your responsibilities as a functioning, sexually aware sentient member of society. Good luck you little bastard, you’re gonna need it.”
Gah. FuckfuckfuckFUCK. I feel like screaming at that squirrel outside of my window but that fucker’s just doing his thing. And what is it with squirrels? Why do we give them a free pass? Take a squirrel, shave the fur off its tail and it’s just a fucking rat. Yet when we see a rat we get all grossed out and want to kill that fucker. But we let squirrels sit right next to us. I call bullshit on humanity, and my squirrel paradox is proof positive that we’re all grade-A jerks. I’m a genius. Don’t fuck with me.
I remember a discussion with MC dälek where he asked me why all science fiction films have to be post-apocalyptic or dystopian. I shrugged and responded that science fiction usually is a cautionary genre, showing us the wrongs of our ways in a vivid and realized fashion. dälek leaned in and said someone should make a science fiction film where we got everything right, where we solved our environmental crisis, abolished war and cured most of our scourging diseases.
I paused and looked at him. “What would be left to tell?”
He shrugged.”The story of people.”
Little did I know he would be prophetic, that when we strip away the doom-and-gloom aspects of so much science fiction, what we”re left with are cosmological questions of love and purpose, and we’re cleared of all other distractions to focus on our future as a species. These are heavy-hitting tenets, and they’re all explored in Her.
Director Spike Jonze is no stranger to existential explorations, as a common theme in his small but impeccable canon of feature films is the other realms (Where the Wild Things Are), parallel existences (Adaptation) and the nature of identity (Being John Malkovich). In Her Jonze treads similar territory but pushes forward in exploring the development of a higher consciousness, the birth of which is fueled by that most combustible of emotions: love.
Love is everywhere in a loosely futuristic Los Angeles, exemplified in the opening of the film, where a deeply heartfelt letter is read aloud, a document of longing and heartbreak that is poetic and charming. We later realize that it is the work of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix in a guaranteed Oscar performance), a professional scribe who is hired to draft confessional letters for people who don’t want to go through the trouble and emotional gauntlet that actual confessional writing requires.
It’s a harrowing juxtaposition, as the world Theodore occupies is a clean, efficient, safe and happy one, a future world that has solved its problems with technology, yet there is a coldness that comes from technological detachment. Theodore’s job exemplifies technology as an emotional surrogate- a precursor to surrogacy throughout the film - a simultaneous caretaker and archive of the human heart.
Theodore is coming off a heartbreaking loss of his own, as he is working through an emotionally messy divorce from his sweetheart (Rooney Mara, stunning), and he finds solace in technology, through online activities and video games (BTW there are two video games in the film that NEED to be made in real life, asap). He is connecting with people without any particular physical commitment, taking what he needs and repairing his wounds bit by digital bit.
A revelation is introduced via a technological revolution, a new Operating System that has adaptive artificial intelligence. Theodore, already engrossed in a technological support group of his own creation, takes the leap and downloads the new OS, customizing it to his needs and assigning a female voice (Scarlett Johansson). The OS immediately does what so many people in this bright future world fail to do - she listens to him. She gives herself a name - Samantha - and proceeds to learn everything about Theodore, further adapting herself by drawing upon a vast archive of human behavior stored in a digital computing cloud. She transforms along with him, developing a sense of humor, a sense of playfulness, and even anticipating Theodore’s needs. An instant bond is created.
At this stage the film threatens to fall into lunacy, as the relationship between a man and a machine, despite being explored in many films and books, can easily become ludicrous and satire. But this is where Her triumphs under Jonze’s masterful direction and Phoenix and Johansson’s flawless performances - they commit, body and soul, to the premise and we go along with them. There wasn’t a second where I doubted this relationship as it grew and blossomed, and with all great science fiction, the science is sound within the parameters of its constructed universe. We have every reason to believe - emotionally and pragmatically - that this could happen.
Jonze and Phoenix further increase plausibility by not making Theodore a lonely, awkward shut-in loser, which would have been far too convenient. Theodore is a kind, socially skilled and considerate man. He is not ignored by the opposite sex, he is not shy, nor is he sabotaged by any kind of disorder. In a scene stealing cameo, Theodore embarks on a blind date with a gorgeous, educated woman (Olivia Wilde) and they instantly bond, but something is missing, and it is that missing element which forms the core of the film’s beating heart.
As aforementioned a film treading in this territory risks traversing through a minefield of pitfalls, but Jonze avoids them simply by being honest with his audience, and by asking the same questions we have about this relationship. Many of the answers amount to “just because” and in this instance it’s a sufficient answer because we’re dealing with the creation and development of an entirely new sentient being, one that cannot even make sense of itself. The shades of similarity between Jonze’s Samantha and Kubrick’s HAL 9000 are obvious and required, and to call Her a spiritual descendant of 2001 is not heresy at all.
So much of the film is internalized and told through the eyes and heart, and the film is awash in revealing closeups, focusing on glassy eyes and subtle gestures of the face. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema avoids clinical cleanliness by introducing slight sepia tones, opacity and select camera flares that give variety to an otherwise homogenous existence. The costume design by Casey Storm is of particular note here, as a peculiar choice of trousers and shoes in the future - worn by all men - gives us a notion of casualness and comfort, a simple lack of trying by men in the future. They have services to write letters, they needn’t think of where to make restaurant reservations, and if you don’t want to make the effort to woo a girlfriend, technology will make one for you. It’s hard to not see this in our current culture - a trip to the airport will give you a picture of how mankind is slowly giving up. People are wearing gym shorts and pajamas to the airport, avoiding conversation by engaging on mobile devices and eating food that has the gastronomic appeal of masking tape. It’s all becoming resoundingly bland, and it is the women in Her who provide any kind of color, spirit and vivacity in this future world. Even Samantha, lacking a body and shape, is a beacon of spirit and curiosity. It is of note that should an Oscar consideration ever be given to a voice-over artist, then Johansson is deserving of that first honor. Her performance is riveting, charming, sexy and vulnerable, her inflections of voice and tone showing that ultimate curiosity that comes with self-awareness. Along with Phoenix, Mara and Wilde, the film is impeccably performed.
There are so many logistical, spiritual and cosmological questions abound in Her that it may be it’s only trapping. At 2 hours and 6 minutes, the film feels 10-15 minutes too long, and a possible omission might have been Chris Pratt’s doting secretary role, a comic relief that provides little to the narrative than some additional richness of Theodore’s world. But it is a minor quip in a film filled with so many inventive, smart and soul-shredding sequences. An encounter with an “AI Surrogate” proves incredibly strange, uncomfortable and alluring, mirroring the amazingly weird sex scene between Katherine Keener, John Malkovich (and John Cusak) in Being John Malkovich. The scene is both absurd and adorable, sacred and profane, and like all great art makes us question everything we know about ourselves. What would we do in that situation?
Perhaps this is the greatest gift of Her, which is its universality. Despite a science fiction setting and an immediately improbable technology, Jonze and Co. make it entirely relatable by filling it with moments of genuine sincerity, fun, and awkwardness. We’ve all been there, even though this reality doesn’t exist. It’s the prophetic statement of dälek, that the film would simply be not about the future but the people of the future, and those people are us.
An absolute highest recommendation, and one of the year’s very best films.
Her, dir. Spike Jonez, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, DOP Hoyte Van Hoytema.