Music for the Weekend:A Strange Sound by Sons of Magdalene.
Call me a helpless romantic of the 80s. I was listening to this Sons of Magdalene album (which is not from the 80s) at 6:00am yesterday, looking out the windows of the subway train onto a gray, rainy and awakening Chicago. I was heading downtown to our rehearsal space for Six Angry Women, ready for another three hour session of improvisation and study.
After three weeks of intense one-on-one rehearsal sessions with my six actresses, this Tuesday was the very first time they all met each other for the first time. I’d laid down some ground rules, the most important of which was that they could not tell each other about their characters. I have to admit I was really nervous on my first day of group rehearsals, as I’d never done this approach before. Usually when I go into rehearsals I’ve got fully broken down script, and here all I’ve got are six very real and very vibrant characters.
Honestly I feel like a newborn baby learning to take his first steps. I’m tempering my need to scientifically analyze and trying to create exercises in rehearsal that will get us to the place we need to be. After two sessions, I’m more than happy with the work we’ve done. Our previous three weeks of work has really paid dividends, as I have the luxury of putting six fully-formed characters in any situation, and watch how they react. It’s really empowering for both me and my actors, and at this point it’s my charge to give them very well thought out and clear objectives to explore. That is my next responsibility, which is to fashion the script around these objectives.
I really admire these six ladies for all the extremely hard work and long hours they’ve put in with me to make these characters. They’re all completely different and unique from one another, and they’re all very real. I must admit that this improvisational approach to filmmaking is incredibly exhausting, even more so that just sitting down and writing a full screenplay and storyboarding it out. At least with the latter approach I have certainties, whereas here I’m faced with the unknown every morning. It’s scary but exhilarating, but the energy required to create something new every day and every minute is immense. I have to find ways to relieve the intensity of the process, or else we’re going to get burned out quickly. I have some ideas, and we’ll try them out on our next session this Saturday morning.
My cinematographer flew in last night and we’re already building our visual strategy and blocking patterns. Watching a lot of movies and pulling photo references, just as we did on Lilith, but unlike Lilith we really don’t have a template to build on. We’re building it from scratch. The film is going to be highly stylized but if done right, it the style will never formally announce itself. As everything comes together, it should coalesce into a new vision, a strange sound indeed.
Six Angry Women: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Framing.
As we work on the characters, script and performances for Six Angry Women in rehearsals, I’m also constantly thinking of the aesthetic of the film. It’s a domestic drama that takes place in a single room, so from the outset there’s a limit to what I can do visually with the film. It’s mostly faces and the bodies in that limited space, but there are still plenty of artistic flourishes that I can put in. I can put the key lights in the frame and create flares and shadows, I can use props to build layers within the frames, I can distort the images through lens selection, et cetera et cetera.
It’s been a blessing in my career that I can create pretty images. My skills in fine art, from draftsmanship to painting to photography, have trained my eye to where I can comfortably be confident that I can make any given image visually rich. My first true love of cinema came through cinematography, before I understood the meaning and narrative of Citizen Kane I was mesmerized by Gregg Toland’s camerawork. Before I could process the psychological complexity of Apocalypse Now I could only be hypnotized by Vittorio Storaro’s compositions. So naturally when I started making films, I begin and end with my first love, the image as part of the narrative. It’s been a cornerstone of how I’ve worked for the past ten years.
This project though has made me think about performance first, and how the aesthetics can support said performance as well as the narrative. I’ve been watching a ton of movies for research and references, and for some reason I’m drawn to the early films of German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, specifically his two masterpieces The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Fassbinder was a highly prolific and mercurial filmmaker, passing away at thirty-seven years old, succumbing to drug and alcohol abuse. In fifteen years of nonstop work he made 40 feature length films, two television film series and countless theater plays and short films. His movies were brutal and efficient (much like the man himself), often using only one to two locations, minimal makeup and production design and lightning-fast production schedules. His subjects and actors were stripped down to their most raw and potent configurations.
To watch a Fassbinder film is to truly engage cinema on a molecular level. But it’s kind of foreign territory for me in terms of aesthetics. There aren’t the grand and meticulous lighting and set designs of Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now in Fassbinder’s work, and he rarely if ever moved the camera, instead relying upon static shots where the actors roamed freely, spouting over-the-top dialogues that were reminiscent of stage theatrics than the nuance of New German Cinema at the time. By my own parameters of what I consider “cinematically beautiful,” I would have initially called Fassbinder’s films aesthetically dreadful, but in watching them I can no longer make such an assertion.
Fassbinder doesn’t eschew film aesthetics a la Mumblecore, rather he used one device strongly, and that is his framing. This is a lesson to all low / zero-budget filmmakers. If you cannot afford extensive lighting or a lighting crew, and all you have is a camera and tripod, then you can exercise cinematic craft purely through your framing.
Framing is the core of shot composition, the very foundation that the shot is designed upon. Everything is built / added around it. There are no rules to framing, it’s purely how you see it and how you feel it tells the story appropriately. Two of the most referenced uses of framing are in the works of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. Anderson is noted for framing almost all of his shots symmetrically, with a clean division line down the center. Kubrick was notorious for using a one-point perspective, as shown in this brilliant video:
Fassbinder was too a meticulous framer but he didn’t use elaborate set design or complex lighting. He simply allowed his performances to dictate the frame, and placed his characters within a larger psychological state. If a character was on the fringe, he would frame them accordingly to the edges of the frame. If they were intense and poignant, he’d be in a close-up and dead center. He’d use golden proportions to convey peace (if ever, rarely, there was a moment of peace in his films) or violate the proportion to create unease.
I’ve pulled a frame from Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. We see the performance at hand, a black man who is being ethically torn has his back turned to the white woman. Fassbinder uses framing to accentuate the performance, using the door frame to give us the idea of a narrative within a narrative, of distance and entrapment. This film was made on a miniscule budget, but the use of framing to bring out visual layers and meaning makes it not only look expensive, but is also artistically accomplished.
In this gif from The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, which is my favorite Fassbinder film and photographed by the great Michael Ballhaus, we see Fassbinder’s meticulous and marvelous use of framing to brilliant effect. The scene itself is quite innocuous, a woman opening a blind and letting the sun in, and it startles another woman out of her sleep. But there’s so much information and texture in these shots because of their framing.
In the first shot, the woman has her back turned to us, and Fassbinder places her on the left side of the frame. He permits significant negative space to the window, thereby making the sun a major player in the action. He reinforces this in his second shot, placing the recipient of the sun’s rays to the far right of the frame. When the two are cut together, we get a sense of velocity and power of the sun, almost as if it took a running start and tackled the woman in bed. It tells the story of the woman opening the window, who is in many ways letting out a pack of wild dogs on the woman in bed. Her back is turned to us, so she doesn’t even care what it does to the other woman. There is disconnect, there is coldness to it. This is Fassbinder’s skill of framing on high display.
You may think I’m reading a lot into these compositions but trust me, every great filmmaker worth her salt puts this kind of thought and consideration into everything. Those that don’t make films that don’t resonate on so many different levels. It’s what differentiates the very best from the aspirants. Fassbinder shows a mastery of the medium despite miniscule budgets, he puts the performance first and allows his framing to deliver high artistry that takes full advantage of the power of cinema.
The next time you take a video on your cell phone, play with the framing and see what it does to your subject. If you record your cat sleeping, try stepping far away and placing her in the lower corner of the frame. You’ll suddenly see her place in a bigger world. Place her at the exact center at medium distance and you’ll see her become the center of her universe. Have her entire body occupy the frame and you’ll see her boxed in. That’s three extremely powerful concepts all accomplished with zero money, art or production design, or lighting schemes. Start adding those things and your world of expression expands infinitely.
Budget rarely defines the quality of a film. Artists make beautiful films for pennies, studios make bland duds for hundreds of millions. Fassbinder teaches us that the greatest value on a film is our ideas and our execution of craft. Apply those two and your film will be rich and defy any budget.
Every journey by an artist to create something involves a path deep into the soul. Because of my nature I see this as a very turbulent path, because I tend to embrace darkness and bleakness. Six Angry Women, unlike it’s Sidney Lumet ancestor, is a very bleak film. The construction of the screenplay has already begun and it really is devoid of any kind of hope or faith, and is showing citizens trapped in a downward spiral of dehumanization and crushing defeat. It’s the visual equivalent of doom metal, hence this selection.
I ended Lilith on a note of hope because I believe in rehabilitation, that fundamentally people can change. When it came to addressing rehabilitation in Six Angry Women, almost universally my collaborators and I said “maybe eventually, but not for a long, long time.” Things were likely to get worse before they got any better. It’s a backhanded and obtuse way to have faith in humanity.
There is a nihilist streak to this all, and with this film I might be accused of telling people there’s no point to it all, that we’re essentially hard-wired to self-preserve and that empathy is an aspirational wish at best. But I also believe the first and most important step to rehabilitation is admitting that we have a problem, and identifying that problem. We can’t make any further progress until that disgusting, ugly tumor of hate and fear is identified. You can’t excise something you’ve yet to acknowledge exists.
I think all organisms aspire to change - if it isn’t the case then why would we have the ability to dream? Whether we move in a positive direction or regress is dependent upon our cynicism and bitterness. If we are saddled by both, change is an impossibility. But we must first admit we are drowning in a cesspool of piss, shit and blood.
Yesterday, another black kid was shot dead in St. Louis by a white cop. Kid was thought to have a gun, and some reports say he was holding a sandwich.
Six Angry Women: Building a Technique and Studying Mike Leigh
When I made my first feature, 19 Revolutions, I used Jean-Luc Godard as my guiding influence, shooting youthful idealism with reckless handheld and frenetic editing. With Lilith I embraced Andrei Tarkovsky, using long, stabilized, languid and almost spiritual takes in a widescreen landscape.
Of course it’s one thing to ape or simply copy these filmmakers, but it’s an entirely different thing to let them be your guides. They did something right, and they fit their worldview perfectly, we’d be remiss not to visit their work and buttress it upon our own. When I look at a Godard or Tarkovsky, I’m not asking myself how they did it, I’m always asking why, of how their technique served the narrative and if those tools are something I can use to tell my story. Godard himself quoted the work of Howard Hawkes, and Tarkovsky’s films always carry the fingerprints of Eisenstein and Vertov.
From Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group, Un film comme les autres, 1968.
With Six Angry Women I knew I had an ensemble piece that required absolute emotional honesty and real characters. I wanted to avoid the cliched archetypes that infect so much of American independent cinema today, like the screechy malaise-ridden families of August: Osage County, which was an amazing play but I absolutely abhorred as a film. I don’t want my actors playing characters that fulfill a role, I want them to play real women who are in a volatile and unpredictable situation.
Tarkovsky and Godard are not the right reference for material like this. Nor is Kieslowski, Roeg, Bergman, Ray, Fincher or Kurosawa. They all have that balance of dynamic realism with surreal images, and it populates their entire body of work. Likewise I didn’t want to go to the crushing reality of filmmakers like Ken Loach and John Cassavettes, because I’m portraying a world that we can only imagine the reality of (the jury room, which none of us have access to), so I needed to look elsewhere. This is what brought me to Mike Leigh.
I’d seen Leigh’s films - Naked being one of my all-time favorite films - but I can’t say I’d ever really studied Leigh’s technique. Turthfully because his technique terrified me, as he regularly goes into a film without a formal script, building the screenplay in rehearsals. Because of my scientific background and my inherent desire to plan, and because I lack any experience directing theater, going about a film like Leigh does seems counter intuitive and unproductive. I was terrified of the prospect of working that way, but I knew it required consideration.
I started watching Leigh’s films and picked up a copy of Amy Raphael’s excellent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (also check out her book on Danny Boyle, it will change your life). I was accustomed to seeing powerful and impossibly authentic performances in Leigh’s films, but in rewatching and studying his work, it also dawned on me that his movies are quite visually beautiful. I’d never noticed that before, and it turns out he had a background in visual arts before going into theater and film. It became abundantly clear to me that I needed to study his technique, and that despite my fear, this was the technique that would best serve Six Angry Women.
Leigh, who is famously cryptic about the details of his method, gives out hints as to how he goes about things. I’d done training in improv at The Second City here in Chicago, so I was familiar with a lot of the rehearsal techniques that Leigh mentions in the book. Trust building exercises, hot associations, actors giving each other “gifts” of “yes, and” in improv sessions. I could do that, yes. But I was far more curious about how Leigh built his screenplays. The misnomer is that he films without a script, which is not true and only applies to Godard and Wong Kar-Wai. There is no waiting-for-inspiration-making-it-up-as-we-go with Mike Leigh. He builds his screenplays in rehearsals, and by the time the shoot date arrives, he has a screenplay in hand, one which his cast and crew can use to make a film efficiently. I loved this about him, and wanted to know how it’s done. Since there is no official document about this technique (at least one I know of), I basically had to create my own version of it based on my own skillset and whatever little information I could glean from writings and documentaries about Leigh, and DVD commentaries from his films.
I know that Leigh assembles his cast early and doesn’t even tell them what the film is about. A lot of times even he doesn’t know what the film is fully about but he has a nascent idea that he’s fleshed out a little. He spends a considerable amount of time only building characters with his actors. I don’t have a clue how he does this, but I’ve created my own version.
I’d tried writing a Six Angry Women screenplay many many months ago, and found that my own politics and desire for justice were getting in the way of the narrative being fluid and honest. The downside was that I was stuck, but the upside is that I had a very clear idea of what the film was about in my head. This helped me as I approached my actors about the project. I’d give them the basics and no details, and told them we’d be building the screenplay in rehearsals, that they will be part of the writing process. It intrigued all of them immensely.
Given that I only have a month to put this all together, I couldn’t afford to be as reserved as Leigh in his productions, so I had to spill some beans about the story, but I only provided a few sentences about what I thought each character would be. Based on that seed, I asked my actresses to find someone in their own lives, or multiple people, who might fit that description. I asked them to simply observe and put together a composite of a character. We were only focusing on character - there’s no mention of the jury or the trial, nor did I want my actresses doing research on race relations or the justice system. I just wanted them to build someone who is real. I asked them to put together a physical description, to come up with a career for them, a family history, and a daily routine that they go through.
The physical description is very important here, and by physical description I mean only quantitative analysis. It’s important to connect a visual to these ideas, and by obsessively writing down every detail, we form a bridge between the visual and the idea. Once the visual is established, then we build the qualitative and emotional aspects of the character. In director’s parlance this is called hot objects and is something I picked up from actress / University of Southern California professor Nina Foch.
Nina Foch. A brilliant teacher and a foxy lady til her last day.
So far we’ve only been talking about character, testing them in different everyday situations that have nothing and everything to do with the trial. But only I know that, and I’m taking notes. After two weeks, I feel like we have a group of very real women who are walking into this jury room. The next step I gleaned from Leigh is to now engage in group rehearsals, where the actors will meet each other for the very first time. Leigh maintains a very strict policy here - all characters must be spoken of in the third person, and no one is allowed to be in character until I say ‘action.’ At this point I am going to present the case to them in detail, and we’ll start collectively figuring out the natural flow of conversation and events. This is based on an outline that I have.
At this time I’m also going to have my cinematographer sit in the room, and we will be recording the rehearsals. I’ve hired an assistant (paid, of course) and at the end of each day, my assistant, DP and I will review the footage and come up with pages of script and a shot list. Hopefully by the end of the rehearsal period we will emerge with a screenplay and and full shot list. Performance, story and visuals all in one exercise
This may not be Leigh’s exact technique but rather it is a modified version of it that suits my own technique and temperament. As much as I was terrified by it, with each passing day of rehearsals I’m amazed with how it’s all coming together. I’m seeing the film clearer and clearer with each new idea. I’m feeling more confident and I know this technique can work because Mike Leigh has proven it works.
My film will not look, sound or feel like a Mike Leigh film because I’m not Mike Leigh. But he’s given me a new set of tools to work with, and my cast, crew and I will figure out how to use these tools to accomplish our goals. It’s like being in school again, and because we are independents we don’t have to please anybody except ourselves. It’s a wonderful and liberating way to work.
Sorry for the long delay in posting, it’s been a long nine days of casting and rehearsals. After an exhaustive search, I’ve found my six angry women, all local Chicago actors with a ton of talent.
Being that I’m going at this with a micro budget of less than $40k, it’s pretty much been a three man show so far. My production manager, Anthony Del Percio, who is a brilliant filmmaker based here in Chicago, has been handling logistics and has been working with my DP Faroukh Mistry on putting together a camera package and all the requisite gear for a full feature shoot. Despite our budget, we’re not going DSLRs and consumer light kits on this - it’s a full-blown production and we have no intention of skimping on production values. We’re striking mutually beneficial deals and making friends along the way. It’s been remarkable what we’ve been able to pull together so far.
I’m acting as my own casting director and have been criss-crossing across town to meet with actors. As I’ve written on this blog before, I don’t believe in doing cold readings with actors - I think it’s unfair and puts unproductive pressure on both of us. I’ve seen all of these actors perform on stage so I’ve got a pretty good idea about their presence, the timbre of their voices and what they’re capable of. I try to sit down for one to two hours with each actor and just talk to them. I want to find out what makes them tick and see how open they are to the concept, to their craft and to me as a director. This is business about trust, and if an actor and I have difficulty communicating then it will not be a fruitful collaboration.
Some of the actresses I met were fairly closed because of the nature of the part and the film. Many were afraid of playing a racist woman on film. I had to remind them that I truly felt the members of this jury weren’t racist, that none of them walked into that jury room with the mindset of “I’m going to fuck that black kid over.” It’s likely that the pressures of the trial and the jury deliberations brought out their inherent fears, fears which are most likely rooted in a prejudice that comes from misinformation or personal traumas.
I wanted to see how each actress would respond to that, given the part would require them to really dig deep and ask tough questions. It’s too easy to play a racist. It’s too easy to play a fearmonger or scaredy-cat. It’s tough to play a real woman with real feelings and secrets. By means of questions you can tell if an actor is intrigued and excited by the idea or apprehensive about it. As a director you have to read your actors and trust your gut. Given that I don’t have a script for this film, I’m counting on my instincts with this casting process, and I feel confident I’ve got the right bunch.
I also had to have actresses who were great writers themselves, and part of my line of questioning was to determine their process. Again, it’s too easy to just ask if they write, because everyone says yes. But it’s more about the process of writing, of their approach to creating a character, of where they find the soul of the character and how it matches up to plot and environment. I propose different scenarios to each actor - “We’ve determined that regret is a big part of this character, how do you demonstrate regret in a crowded room?” My actors are not “writing” a response on paper, but we’ll go through the creation of a scene using that seed. It’s a fun and fascinating process, and as aforementioned it requires openness and communication. If your actors trust you, then they’re more willing to take risks.
It begs the question: how does one go about building trust, especially in such a short time? The answer is simple: empathy and sincerity. As a director you have to be sincere with your actors. I follow a protocol when I meet a new actor, and when I say protocol it’s not a cold list of rules to go through one-by-one. I do these things because I sincerely mean it.
The first is to always, always thank your actor for coming out to meet and audition. It takes a lot of preparation and travel for actors to audition, and they’re putting themselves up on a plate for you to dissect them. That’s asking a lot of someone and is daunting, so be genuinely thankful for their participation in such a grueling process. The next part of the protocol is to just talk to your actors. Chit-chat. Talk about the weather, the commute, something that’s happening around you, whatever. This will put both of you at ease and let some of the tension out of the room. It’s also establishing your communication with them. In order to get to the root of any character you have to be able to talk freely.
Which makes the next part of the protocol very important - you must show empathy. This means you must share a bit of yourself with your actors in the process of discussing the part. You don’t have to reveal all your dark and personal secrets, but you should share your feelings and thoughts with them. An actor - or any collaborator for that matter - will be more willing to dig deeper and share ideas / thoughts / emotions when you demonstrate that you’re willing to do the same. I talk freely about experiences that have shaped my desire to make this film, my fears and doubts, my admission that I’m just as curious as anyone else to know what this film is going to end up looking like. And it’s not lip service - I honestly feel these things and want to share them, because it helps me process all that’s around me as well.
In this sense, my auditions are really just two sounding boards listening to one another. My actors are all figuring me out just as I’m trying to figure them out. There is no power struggle here, we both need each other to make this thing work. The audition is a level playing ground, which is why I hate traditional casting with a table separating me from the actors in a cold room. That’s an awful way to get to know someone.
But sometimes a cold reading of lines in a room with a table is necessary when casting supporting roles and smaller parts. I reserve my custom casting process for my lead actors, but it doesn’t mean I’m any less personable with my supporting actors. Even from behind a table I thank them for coming, I shake their hands, I chit-chat with them to put them and myself at ease. I don’t have the time to go through a full process with each actor, but at minimum I devote 30-40m per actor. It’s exhausting work for me, but if it means getting the perfect cast, then it’s well worth it.
Plato once said that we must “be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle.” Actors are not there to take our frustrations and insecurities out upon. I’ve seen this too many times and it disgusts me. It all stems from the opinion that many directors have of actors, which is that they are property, they are just tools, pieces of meat to manipulate to make a picture. Where the director is the seat of power that all actors and crew must bow down to. This is nonsense. Your actors are the directors of performance, you have to entrust them with your vision, and when you do that they will listen to your direction with utmost care and respect. You are equally important to each other, and that mindset has to be upfront and clear from the second they walk through that audition room door. Doesn’t matter what style you have as a director, an actor will only give you respect when you respect them. This applies not only to film, but to life as well. If you show an actor respect and they turn around and disrespect you, then there’s no place for them in your collaboration. Talk to them, find the root of the problem, and if a solution is not there, then fire them. But that’s a tough and expensive process, so it’s best to get it right at the audition level. Cast with your heart, not your eyes.
Now begins my one-on-one rehearsals with my actresses, where we focus only on character. We’re not even discussing the film. Just character. I’ll get more into to this process in my next post.
I guess that’s what I like so much about her. She’s a button pusher without blatantly being so. She’s being herself and telling us to take it or leave it - if I make you uncomfortable, you need to ask yourself why you feel that way. I mean, look at that cover image. Almost like a plastic doll, one eye made to look bruised, messy makeup that, for me, I find to be disturbing. But that’s me. It’s not like she’s trying to send me a message, I’m making my own. And it’s not pleasant. But I love it. And I love her music.
The song doesn’t pull any punches either:
Break or seize me
Let the things that I tell you survive
In the way that you handle your size
Never leave me
The fuck? I don’t know how to feel about that, especially when couched in an absolutely sensual treatment that screams love and trust. But this indeed is love and trust, and I need to see it in a different way. Not just for my or her sake, but for the sake of a different perspective. It’s fascinating. It’s like having a window to someone’s soul for five minutes.
The entire record is like this, and it’s a frontrunner for my pick of Album of the Year. Aphex Twin’s Syro might challenge that, and by year’s end we’ll have a winner, or a tie because what does it matter really. It’s rare to have so much great music that reaches the inner depths of our consciousness. Very, very cool.
The work on 'Six Angry Women' begins, two decisions already made.
Back home from LA, got a day’s rest, and jumping full speed into working on 'Six Angry Women.'
As a reminder for those just joining in, in a bout of inspiration that I will write about further, I’ve greenlit my own production of a feature film that follows the deliberation of an all-woman jury for a fictional trial where a young black man is shot dead. The case is an amalgamation of incidents like the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings. I have no screenplay for the film, only an outline, and the script will be built through improvisation during rehearsals. We’re gonna Mike Leigh this movie into existence.
We’ve set the shoot date for November 6th-11th. Yes, that’s a six day shoot for a feature length film. It’s insane, but that’s how I roll. I’ve found three of my six angry women and have to be fully cast by October 1st, which is when our rehearsals begin. We’ll rehearse for five weeks. My DoP, Faroukh Mistry, who shot Lilith, will be coming in early and during rehearsals we’ll figure out our shot list and visual strategy. We’ve already made two creative decisions that are written in stone: we will film in black-and-white, and the movie will be shot in a 4:3 format.
These choices are both instinctual and symbolic. I just felt the 4:3 format, the “square” aspect ratio, was fitting because all of these police brutality / racial profiling / shootings are being chronicled on television, and the 4:3 aspect ratio, despite our widescreen flat-panel televisions at home, is still considered the classic “tv” aesthetic. It also is symbolic a myopic, sheltered point-of-view, which for me is important when it comes to showing each juror in their own self-justified world. I also love the format, used brilliantly in films like Meek’s Cutoff and Wuthering Heights. Both films feel like a pressure cooker of tension simply by their choice of aspect ratio. Aesthetically I also love having the black bars on the sides, it’s a bit of a jolt since we’re so used to widescreen now.
Wuthering Heights dir. Andrea Arnold
Meeks Cutoff dir. Kelly Reichardt
The decision to film in B&W is a purely symbolic one. The court-justified shooting of unarmed black men is a black-and-white issue that has tons of moral gray inbetween. To film it in vibrant color seems like an affront to the issue at hand. To do it this way would also reinforce the starkness and bleakness of the situation. I’m inspired by Robert Elswit’s work on Good Night, and Good Luck and Roger Deakins’ work on The Man Who Wasn’t There. Lofty standards, but Faroukh’s a kick-ass DoP who can do it.
The Man Who Wasn’t There, dir. The Coen Brothers
Good Night, and Good Luck, dir. George Clooney
Locking in on decisions like this early on makes so many future choices clearer. The location we choose, the set dressing, the costumes, the makeup, the blocking and the framing will all be driven by these two choices. We will not step down from these choices, they are set in stone, and were mutually made after a long discussion between me and my cinematographer. It’s a bold choice, but then again after being honest about why the choice was made, it’s not that bold at all.
Tons of work ahead, and after a long lull this blog will pick up some steam as we plow forward into the great unknown!
My Open Letter to Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner.
With new video and information surfacing regarding the Ray Rice domestic violence case and the NFL, after much deliberation I’ve decided to pen a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, demanding his resignation. Read the letter and if you agree, forward a link of this the letter to Mr. Goodell’s twitter account, his email (roger.goodell-at-nfl.dot-com), or write how you feel in your own words and send it to him, send it to your local NFL team’s offices (I sent one to the Denver Broncos offices). Send it anywhere you think it will be read.
My earliest memory of professional football was that of a nightmare. At the age of four, I was convinced that Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Jack Lambert was hiding in my closet. I used to turn off the lights, terrified, thinking Lambert would consume me despite his lack of front teeth. While terrifying as a child, as an adult it brings back fond memories of how much football and the NFL was a part of my life.
I grew up a Denver Broncos fan and have religiously watched every game I could for almost three decades now. My family, immigrants to this country from India, found a sense of community in Denver that centered around football. Some of our dearest and lifelong friends have come into our lives because of the shared experience of supporting our beloved home team.
Having idolized Steve Atwater, I worked hard as a kid to develop my body and skills to become a defensive back. I played in high school and it will forever be one of the most formative experiences of my life. My coaches, some of them retired NFL players, not only taught me teamwork, communication and the fundamentals of the game but also became father figures, teaching me as much about life as they did football.
It is obvious that my regard for the game is sacred, so it pains me all the more, for the first time in my life, to boycott the NFL because of your administration’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case.
The NFL has made many errors in the past, as any organization is inevitably destined to do. In the face of these errors one has to have faith that the heads of the organization will make any and all corrective measures to ensure that these errors do not occur again. To do this requires humility and compassion, both of which were distinctly lacking in the handling of the Ray Rice case. That you, your staff, and the Baltimore Ravens organization were well aware of the infraction and yet actively denied the existence of conclusive and damning evidence not only makes you complicit, it makes you an accessory.
You may think this is hyperbole but it is not. I will go a step further and ask you to imagine if it was one of your own daughters in that elevator, would you bow down to the economics of demographic profitability and sponsorships and cover up evidence that would help bring her justice, and more importantly, safety?
You may also think it egregious for me to bring your daughters – your personal life – into this discussion, but remember that Janay Rice is also someone’s daughter. That every woman who is punched, kicked, spit upon, and dragged is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother. To further compound the humiliation of the victims of domestic abuse, your committee – knowing evidence existed that would send Ray Rice to jail – made Janay describe what had happened to her in the presence of her attacker. Your lack of empathy and any notion of her future safety is mind boggling, disrespectful, and appalling.
Because of this I am requesting – no, demanding - your resignation, and the resignation of all individuals involved in the cover up of this case. I have in the past been forgiving of the NFL in its handling of substance abuse, knowing personally through collegiate friends who went on to the NFL that there are systems in place for rehabilitation and recovery. In theory these are things men do to themselves, and are not afflicting upon others. But violence upon another is another issue.
Just as swift action was taken against Michael Vick for his role in the abuse and killing of animals, the same consideration was not given for a woman being beaten unconscious by an NFL player. Michael Vick admitted fault, has expressed remorse and regret, and has fortuitously managed to rehabilitate a career despite losing the prime window of his athletic ability whilst incarcerated. But that is the price he willingly paid. That the NFL has pursued justice for abused and murdered dogs and yet is an accessory to denying evidence in violence against women says volumes about what you and your cohorts’ opinions of women actually are. In case you had forgotten, women are living, breathing people, your sisters, mothers and daughters, and not just a demographic to sell merchandise to or curry favor with similar deep-pocketed “not-for-profit” sponsors.
This is not about Ray Rice. This is not about his wife. This is not about the multitude of players, coaches and employees of the NFL who have had troubles with the law. It is about you and those involved knowingly obstructing justice, and doing so in the sole interests of preserving your organization and your job at the expense of victims of domestic abuse. Like any lie, your dishonesty has caused more damage than any perceived gain.
My coach in high school once told us that the great Vince Lombardi, whom the vaunted Super Bowl trophy is named for, was absolutely wrong. Winning isn’t everything. The main lesson of sport is humility, the cornerstone of sportsmanship. The greatest thing I learned from football was not to win at any cost, but to lose with dignity and respect. If I was bested by a wide receiver, my coach would hold me by the pads, look me in the eyes, and tell me to go to that receiver after the game, shake his hand, and tell him he played a great game. And I had to mean it. It is a lesson that to this date has made me a better son, brother, husband, citizen and man.
In this regard I ask you and those complicit to exercise the same lesson of football. Prudence, justice and morality have bested you all. It is time for you to admit your wrongdoing, acknowledge your being caught, and resign with whatever dignity you have left. Until that happens, I will not be watching your games, and I will continue to vehemently campaign for others to do the same.
The NFL was once the bastion of manhood and sportsmanship. Today, because of you, it represents neither, and instead is an organization that has decided to sweep domestic violence under the rug. While it is a difficult and brutal decision for me to give up on the game that has ingrained itself in my DNA, it is nowhere near as brutal as domestic violence. Any person or organization that tries to cover up domestic violence, who is incapable of compassion or empathy, is not worthy of my time, consideration or money.
I look forward to your resignation and the rebuilding of a once-proud league.
“Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”—
I struggled with this concept for a very long time. I always knew I had something important to say, and I didn’t realize that the last thing the audience wanted from me is to hear me say it. If they wanted a soapbox lecture they’d have paid to hear me speak and not buy a movie ticket. They shouldn’t hear an idea, they should experience it. This was an absolute revelation to me, and the difference between my first feature and my second was immeasurable because of this discovery.
Before I made my first film (19 Revolutions) I could have read this Tarkovsky quote a billion times and I would have made the same choices because I was headstrong in my desire to convey my ideas. I had great ideas about wealth disparity and the plight of forgotten youth, and in a grand mistake I had my actors talk about those ideas as opposed to live through them. React to them. It made for a talky, preachy movie, and my saving grace is that the dialogue was at least interesting and my actors brought some cool nuances to it. Other than that it was a lecture on film.
With my new film 'Six Angry Women' I also have a lot of ideas, but I’m taking the approach of having my actresses develop characters around those ideas, using real life people and incidences as the foundational pillars, and we shall improvise in rehearsals from there to build up the screenplay. In improvisation we will hopefully see real reactions to those ideas, reactions based on truths. This will be our key to experiencing ideas, to creating images that show how something feels as opposed to how it looks. During this entire time we will be recording and jotting down our discoveries, and from this our story, shot list and screenplay will emerge.
This of course requires immensely talented actresses, and I’ve already found three of my six angry women. They are both writers and actors, and have done some truly astounding work in Chicago theater. It’s my responsibility to have them think in terms of film and to hone their creativity towards my ideas, and let them build life around it. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time, but with each new word and image comes waves of anticipation and excitement.
It’s like watching a new universe being born in front of our eyes!
Excited to announce my new feature project tomorrow. It’s something that’s been in the works for about a year and a half, and the time has come to take the leap and just do it. Events in the world have dictated that I need to make this film now.
For me it’s an entirely new approach to making a film, and truthfully it scares the living daylights out of me. But it’s an essential step in my development, to become the filmmaker I aspire to be.
My first concert ever was a Bauhaus show, at the Gothic Theater in Denver. I was thirteen. I’d listened to all the tapes but I had no idea what to do at a show. I showed up in an Einsturzende Neubauten t-shirt, baggy jeans and a beat-up pair of Air Jordans. I was surrounded by mostly porcelain-pale women dressed in black lace, black nailpolish and lipstick, and black / purple hair covering most of their faces. They shrieked and cried as the band played, and despite sticking out like a sore thumb it was for the first time that I felt any kind of sense of community. I loved this kind of music and was ashamed of having dark thoughts, and here was a bunch of people who expressed it outwardly, without shame or embarrassment. The room was full of fog and piercing lights, and Peter Murphy emerged from the mist, shirtless and skeleton-like, and full of a primal, dark energy as he dove headfirst into a blistering rendition of 'Stigmata Martyr.' A hot girl next to me was so excited that she grabbed me and kissed me long and hard on the neck, leaving behind a black lipstick reminder. It was technically my first kiss.
Six days ago on my plane ride home I was listening to Peter Murphy’s new record, and between my post-fever haze and feeling emotional about leaving my grandparents, this song brought tears to my eyes. I felt like one of those ghostly goth girls, swelling with feeling and sadness. I can still feel the raw power in Murphy’s voice, now fifty-seven years tested, and I put this track on repeat and listened to it for an hour.
My sickness has taught me to live in the moment, that our lives can change on a dime. It’s been one year since my wife and I experienced our tragic loss, and where I once used to think the flair for drama and bellicose was silly, I see now the value of living out loud, in the present moment, not caring what people think. Which doesn’t mean we have license to be inconsiderate - in that theater with Bauhaus we respected each others’ space, and any outward displays were in the name of passion, love and life. We learn lessons from life, and sometimes we need a trigger - a reminder - of those moments that meant something to us and changed our lives. I never realized until now how important my first concert was, beyond it being my first concert. It was my first experience of a shared love, of connecting with who you are with people who understood you. That’s pretty special.
Next time you go to a show, think of that scared thirteen year old who finally learned to let go and let life happen to him. You’ll hear the music in an entirely new way, a powerful way, a way that art can only affect you. You’ll find it magical.
Some time ago I wrote about my dear friend and film school classmate Mike Pecci, when he made a very controversial fan-film using The Punisher, and Marvel got their panties in a bunch because Mike’s film was a little too amazing for their liking. I guess fan films are supposed to only reek of amateurism, and Mike is the furthest thing from an amateur. He and producing partner Ian McFarland are some of the finest filmmakers working in the United States today.
A few weeks ago Mike launched a Kickstarter for a feature project that literally sprung out of his mind early in the year. I was actually helping Mike and Ian out with a music video project here in Chicago when Ian sent me an email: the shoot was canceled, and Mike was in the hospital.
You hate to get emails like that. Apparently Mike had cracked his skull open after taking a digger on some ice, and was out cold in a hospital bed.
Yesterday I’d written of my own experience with hospital lucidity, and where my brain was cooking itself, Mike’s brain was being squeezed by a hematoma. And of course thankful that Mike survived, but he emerged with something pretty fucking cool. It’s called 12 Kilometers, and it’s a feature horror film. Hear it from Mike himself:
I contributed to the campaign immediately, not just because Mike is a friend but also because more than any other filmmaker working in America right now, nobody knows how to stretch a buck like Mike Pecci. Give him nothing and he’ll make gold, give him something and he’ll make something priceless. He’s that good, he’s that fucking creative, and he’s already created some striking images for the film.
And if it’s your thing, Mike wrangled up some kick-ass (or “wicked hardcore” as he would say in his thick Boston accent) perks for the campaign, including original artwork by the always-amazing Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night).
Support good art. Support amazing indie film. There’s 65k+ followers of this blog and if each of you donated a dollar then Mike would hit his goal tenfold. Contribute and reblog this post. Mike’s not asking for much, and he’s giving everything in return. Help him out, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more of 12 Kilometers in the near future. This is one to watch.
What a trip. Got a lot of business done but turn around succumbed to the worst fever I’ve ever had. Eight days with my temperature above 102, two days where I was near 109. Started seeing things. Couldn’t put words together. Never thought I was going to die, but I was worried about my brain.
I was worried about my brain because I was having really bizarre visions and dreams that would get stuck on a salient point, and when I awoke I too would be stuck on that salient point. And I mean stuck. To the point where my mind would obsess on what things meant and how it all fit together.
I had a singularity dream where I collapsed in a bathtub and through the drain I could see one thousand different versions of the same event, each slightly different than the other. It was as if my life were one of those 100-CD carousel players and all I had to do was stop on one of them and my life could continue on. I would choose a particular reality but end up back in that bathtub, looking down that same drain. As if I could not escape time, that it would find its own equilibrium.
My second dream involved a black USB cable that had no function, but it was extremely important. I could see myself holding the cable and hear myself saying the words “black USB cable” over and over again. It was a piece of a puzzle to making a larger technological construct work, and I was surrounded by robotic machines and giant chunks of twisted metal, one of which needed a black USB cable. I could feel it in my brain, lucid in vision, but I could not articulate it. My nurse tells me that at the height of my fever I tried to explain to her something about a “head start,” about having it all laid out before me and locating a power source. She said I was talking gibberish. Even now I feel like something important in my brain is trying to express itself.
It’s believed that altered states are when we are at our most lucid - we’re looking into the ether of something beyond logic. My brain was cooking itself and making connections that could either be interpreted as madness or some greater pattern that is worth investigating more.
It’s a gift that I have perfect recall of my dreams, but figuring them out is an entirely different matter. The imagery produced is vivid and often does find its way into my work, but when I figure out a narrative puzzle it makes for some very interesting scenarios, born of legitimate tension and pull. Doesn’t mean I seek altered states - the loss of control is probably the greatest frustration I can experience and I do not cherish it. But altered states can also be achieved without the use of drugs or being pushed to the medical brink. Transcendental meditation, sensory engagement / overload (music, paint, color, sex, etc.) and simply being open to the indifference of the universe can take you there. It’s the major difference between creating a scene and creating an experience. If we can convey rawness of being in our most simple and elegant forms, then what we commit to paper is hard truths, real feelings, and sometimes things we weren’t supposed to find.
Fright unlocks a lot of dark truths. I was certainly frightened whilst in the hospital, in a different country, away from my loved ones. And it tapped something powerful inside of me. Because I am a writer I can explore this, and it is a new frontier for me, an infinite horizon of the mind. It’s exhilarating and powerful, and I am thankful I am able to do it.
Glad to be home. A few weeks and I’m back on the road, raising more money and putting it all together. Thank you for your patience these past three weeks, I will get back to posting regularly. Much appreciated.
It’s amazing to see how many lives Robin Williams touched, and how devastating his loss has been to so many, yours truly included. I memorized every one of Adrian Cronaur’s monologues from ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ (“Fool - it’s so hot I saw a guy in an orange robe burst into flames! Damn!”) and reveled in the quiet, tender moment when he saw young men off into battle. But perhaps the most meaningful moment in Mr. Williams’ filmography for me was the most innocuous.
My mom was a fan of ‘Mork and Mindy’ (it was impossible not to be a fan as the show was set in Boulder) and in the grocery store video section she saw a Robin Williams film and brought it home. “It’s got Mork!” she exclaimed, and after a nice dinner the family settled around the tv, and dad popped in the cassette. The movie was ‘Moscow on the Hudson’ and it was NOTHING like Mork from Ork. It was dirty, profane, and on a wire’s edge. I didn’t understand it, but I found its energy infectious. Then a scene in the film burned itself into my head forever. There was Robin Williams, naked and easily one of the hairiest men on the planet, cavorting in a bathtub with an equally naked Maria Conchita-Alonso, their tub flanked with American flag shower curtains. Mom shut off the VCR at that moment, realizing this wasn’t a family-friendly movie. But that scene stuck with me, and it did with every Robin Williams movie I saw thereafter.
As I grew older, as I lived in places all around the world, as I struggled with life and celebrated small victories, that image always came back into my head. It was happiness in America. It was simple pleasures, sex and Chinese take-out. It was raw power. And today I realize that it was everything that Robin Williams embodied. I still haven’t seen ‘Moscow on the Hudson’ in its entirety and for me the movie will always end on that bathtub scene, and I want it to stay that way. It will forever be my personal memory of a rare actor who became a part of an entire civilization’s DNA. Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. May your demons be calmed and I hope you find the healing power of love and laughter, the very same gift you gave to us all. You will be missed.
Am halfway around the planet in India, just getting started on my meetings with potential financiers for some long-gestating projects. It’s been three years since I was last in this country, which continues to reinvent itself on a daily basis. The world is changing at a pace that few of us can comprehend.
I chose this song because of its backstory. James Kelly, who is the brain behind WIFE, is also the brain behind Altar of Plague, one of the best black metal bands in Ireland. It’s a complete shift in musical ideology, and yet Kelly makes it work. Listening to this album on my flight reminded me that the greatest joy as an artist is to be unclassifiable. It means no one can peg you down, no one can predict your next move, and if you’re really good at your craft, the world will eagerly anticipate your next move.
It also means that you will continue to challenge yourself, you will never become complacent or spin your wheels. As the saying goes, change is the only constant, and this applies to so much more than just art. Never be bored. Never be satisfied. Never settle. Always change, always learn, always discover. The art which will come out of you will surprise you, it will be dangerous, and most importantly, it will be yours.
I’m four weeks into my insane ten-week travel schedule and I’m already starting to feel burned out. I’ve done three cities in four weeks, a meeting a day, and still have the hardest part ahead of me, which is international travel. I’m abroad for the next three weeks.
Feeling worn out aside, I’ve gotten a lot of things done and things look promising. I’ve been in the film business long enough to temper my emotions coming out of an outstanding meeting (and I had a few) where everything seems perfect and your life is ready to change forever, but then weeks, months, sometimes years later you’re still waiting for those promises and agreements to come to fruition. It’s an old adage from my business law classes during my MBA, which is that if you don’t have it on paper, you don’t have it. I don’t start breakdancing until the ink is dry on the contract.
This song popped up on my playlist - a relic from my college days - and the lyrics hit me hard as I was sitting in a crowded discount airline cabin in my middle seat, at the back of the plane, by the lavatory.
Charms in limited supply and refusing to stretch
That indefinable nothing somehow keeps pushing you
Finding the right words can be a problem
How many times must it be said
there’s no plan
it had to happen
Got to move on sometime and it’s about time
By putting one foot in front of another and repeating the process
Cross over the street, youre free to change your mind
Strength through diversity couldnt have put it more plainly
It seemed to perfectly distill the process of pitching. You’re good in the room, your passion is authentic and vital, and the other side seems excited, but whether it is out of professional kindness or genuine sincerity is known only to them. Then the dance begins, the coaxing of that simple-yet-evasive one syllable answer: yes or no.
Scott Rudin used to say the best answer he could get from a meeting was a “yes,” but the even better answer was a “no.” Because when someone says “no” you can move on, you can try a different angle or strategy. But the media business rarely works like that. On average my discussions / negotiations with agencies take about four months of back and forth, all of it exceptionally noncommittal. It’s absolutely maddening.
We slog it out. Work damn hard. Make sacrifices. There’s few luxuries. Save money by crashing on the couches of loyal friends. Spend money where it benefits your goals the most. And sometimes you make a breakthrough and it’s our human nature to feel excited. But besides giving you a thick skin, this business will give you a new concept of delayed gratification. The celebration must wait until the movie is in the can, or even better when it’s onscreen, or even better when you get your first check from the receipts. There are so many stages, so many uncertainties.
Doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. It’s a cliche but it really is all about enjoying the journey, this is the source of our joy. Those moments when you look up at the ceiling of a room that isn’t yours, and realize that you’re working towards something that’s pretty fucking cool and is incredibly important to you, and is your mark on the world. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.
Soldier on. Back on a plane tomorrow and away for three weeks, so the posting may be a bit spotty. Thanks for understanding, and let’s keep fighting for our dreams.
What a brilliant record by this Swedish quartet. You know music is special when it can transport you, either to a future that you wish could happen or to the past you’d like to reclaim. In this instance for me it is the latter.
There’s something about this track that reminds me of my most awkward introduction to love, or what I thought was love. Sometime around freshman year of high school. I couldn’t stop thinking of this one girl in my math class. She wasn’t one of the unattainable popular girls, she was a figure skater and would show up at school at like five in the morning to practice. Nobody seemed to really notice her. In that sense we had a lot in common.
She was very pretty but more fascinating to me was an understated elegance to her. Every movement of hers was soft and on some sort of parabolic glide. She had sharp features mostly hidden by long, straight brown hair. I was mesmerized and awestruck. She was the first girl that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. And the last.
She also had a boyfriend. Every nerd’s nightmare. She was off limits, and even if she was unattached I was so painfully shy I wouldn’t have done anything about it. What would a beautiful girl like her want to do with an introverted dork like me?
High school continued and two years later I ended up having a photography class with her. And her boyfriend. My torture resumed. Then one day I had my nightmare scenario. One early morning before school started, I was in the darkroom (we used to develop our pictures back in the 90s, kids) and I was developing a series of pictures that I took in the mountains. It was really good work, the nascent legs of a visual career that I had no idea would turn into my life’s passion. I was in the darkroom by myself, and then she walked in. It was just the two of us. I was petrified with fear. We worked in silence.
She looked over at my picture in the developer bath, and looked at me and tried to say something, but she choked on her words. I looked up at her, as if I’d done something terribly wrong. She smiled and said “your pictures are really beautiful.” My brain exploded, and I eked out an almost inaudible “thanks” and smiled at her. And then something amazing happened. We talked. Like a lot, for an hour or so, about a ton of stuff. Music. Mountains. Skating. Art. Life. We got out of the darkroom, and for reasons beyond my understanding, she asked if she could take my picture. I was dying inside. I said okay. She snapped a pic, and I took a picture of her on my camera. Our relationship thereafter was relegated to exchanged smiles in the hallway and a hug at graduation.
And that’s it. Rather unspectacular in the annals of recorded relationships, but the emotions that were invoked in me, the sea change of feelings, I cannot possibly give justice to. It wasn’t love, or infatuation, or some teenage masturbatory fantasy, it was a special moment when you just connect with someone on an entirely different level, when every nerve is activated and every cell engaged. Small, beautiful moments that carry on for the rest of your life. For that, I thank Lisa with all of my heart.
“Polaroid by its nature makes you frugal. You walk around with maybe two packs of film in your pocket. You have 20 shots, so each shot is a world.”—Patti Smith
I feel this way about film vs. digital. I’ve shot movies on both, from Super-8 to 16mm reversal to Super 35mm to RED, Alexa, Sony and Canon DSLRs. There is a unique economy to film that digital doesn’t have, because it is a finite resource.
I put a ton of thought into every shot irrespective of capture medium, but film has this additional pressure that repels any kind of shortcuts. There is no safety net with film, when you expose it you have that much less time and money to work with, so you make each one count that much more. Smith says it perfectly - each shot is a world.
Film strips by my late college professor and mentor, the great Stan Brakhage.
The thing to take away from this is that even when you shoot on digital, you treat it with the reverence and care of film. We are filmmakers, not videomakers. Film is an art, a craft that knows no shortcuts. You exercise it, you execute it, you practice it until you are a master of it like any other art. When you shoot digital, you plan for film, you light for film, you color correct for film. No excuses. When people start accepting digital as digital, this is when you see glitches, limitations and movies that look like backyard birthday parties and bar mitzvahs.
Everything - including digital -begins and ends with film.
Music for the Weekend:Cigarettes & Lonliness by Chet Faker.
This weeks starts an insane ten weeks of work travel, and I’ve already spent a considerable amount of time in airports. I’m shopping three television shows and two feature films, all which has been written in the past two months. I’m all written out for now, but now it’s time to hit the road and sell.
My father used to be a consultant, and he was on the road all the time. There was a period in my childhood where I’d see my father maybe 1/3 of the year, because he’d stay for weeks in Europe on consulting gigs. He’d always come back with gifts from wherever he visited. He’d get me old comic books and weird stationary products from Asia.
My pops rarely if ever shared his stories from the road, but having grown up and logged my own fair share of miles, I can now understand why. The road is an amazing place, lonely and introspective, and simultaneously dangerous and exciting. Those stories are personal and just for my dad. Someday he might tell us, but that’s okay, we all have to take some things with us.
Eating dinner in a hotel bar, or getting room service in a small town hotel. I always order fish and chips or french onion soup. Don’t know why, but it’s comforting. Watch the spelling bee on ESPN. Local news, where the Mudcats scored three touchdowns against the Fighting Hornets. Weird guy who sat next to me on the airplane and who tried to convert me to Christianity. People crying on their own. Cigarettes and loneliness.
Hi I never got around watching Tarkovsky films. I wonder in which order would you recommend to watch to get into him. With some directors don't matter what order, but it others makes a significant difference! Thanks
A great question. I’ve spent over a decade studying Tarkovsky and I think there definitely is an order to go in. One that works for me, at least.
I’d start with Andrei Rublev, as it contains pretty much all essential elements of Tarkovsky’s philosophy and aesthetics, his usage of Christian themes as part of his greater Russian identity. It’s also a doctrine of the artist, an encapsulation of the place of art within the larger state and consciousness.
I’d then move on to Ivan’s Childhood, which for me is a great juxtaposition of finding beauty in detritus, of childhood innocence within the mores of men. From a composition standpoint it is one of Tarkovsky’s most visually arresting pictures, and as it is his first film we see his reliance upon painterly visuals and less maturity in terms of performance.
From there I’d move to The Mirror, which to me is Tarkovsky working at the height of his powers, and it is his most personal film. Here we see it all come together, and it is Tarkovsky’s most layered and textured film, and it is imbued with an emotional honesty that was previously masked. Tarkovsky mines his heart and his memories, and it makes for an emotionally riveting experience.
From here I’d move to Tarkovsky’s science fiction masterpieces, first Stalker and then Solaris. Both films in this order will take you through the gauntlet of faith, the former being stripped bare of it and the latter reaffirming it, albeit in the most gnostic of ways. After the grounded humanity of Andrei Rublev, Ivan’s Childhood and The Mirror, it’s fascinating to see Tarkovsky move into fictionalized, created spaces, where his humanity is allowed to exist in a pressurized construct. Both films use the environment and inexplicable laws of science to test the human subjects, a test of ultimate faith which would mirror Tarkovsky’s own allegiances to the Soviet Union.
This is a good time to revisit Tarkovsky’s earlier works pre-Ivan’s Childhood, as it’ll give a remarkable insight as to where Tarkovsky developed his signatures. Start with The Steamroller and the Violin then to The Killers and There Will Be No Leave Today. It’s the equivalent of reading old high school essay papers, where we know the later outcome but we start to understand how it all came together.
Back to his features, we see the tumult in Nostalghia, where Tarkovsky was betrayed by his homeland and he had to divide his work between Russia and Italy. The dynamic affects his work, and for the first time I felt a genuine rage in Tarkovsky’s writing, a discontent which moved far beyond his mammoth reasoning. It’s my least favorite of his films, but Tarkovsky’s least effective movies are grand successes when compared to others.
It is apt to watch his final film last. The Sacrifice was made in collaboration with legendary Swedish cinematographer Sven Nyquist, and the battle of monumental wills is apparent onscreen, but to brilliant effect. It was at this time that Tarkovsky’s health was beginning to decline, and one has to wonder if it influenced the overall tone of the film, which reads as a gentle dirge, a passage to a different place altogether. Combined with Nyquist’s flawless lighting, the film contains trademark long takes and transformations, each more arresting and affecting than the next. I see the film and the romantic in me thinks Tarkovsky understood his fate, and he made this beautiful tone poem as a result.
While you watch all of these films, I highly recommend that you check out / purchase Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time. Let the book be your reference along your journey, it is better than any kind of commentary (albeit the Criterion discs are magnificent in both transfer and extras), and will be a reference to you for the rest of your life. I know that sounds like hyperbole but Tarkovsky was one of civilization’s truly great thinkers and philosophers, far more than just a filmmaker or even an artist. He was an intellectual giant, a deeply felt humanitarian, a philosopher who rightfully belongs in the same breath as any Plato, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Krishnamurthi or Lao Tzu.
Enjoy the journey, it will likely be one of the most rewarding in your life. Hope this helps!
Music for the Weekend:When Will They Shoot? by Ice Cube.
These past two weeks in Chicago have been insane. On the 4th of July weekend, some sixty-four people were shot, fourteen dead. It’s getting crazy in this city. On the news you hear of innocents being killed in Palestine (zero fatalities in Israel) and just out your door you hear of grandmas being caught in the crossfire of gang activity. There aren’t enough cops, and a lot of the cops can’t be trusted to make fair judgements without prejudice.
What to do?
Be active. Be proactive. Be empathetic. If we all flee then it will only get worse.
To watch the film in its entirety, click here to go to the Tribeca Film website.
Before I get into more details of how we made 7x6x2, I wanted to discuss a little about the role of the director. One of the most common questions Paul Pope and I got asked about the film was what it was like to co-direct. I think people were interested because individually, we’re both kind of control freaks, we’ve always been in control of our visions from start to finish. So what happens when you put two of those kinds of artists together?
We had immense success as a co-directing entity, and a lot of that success I feel stems from our personalities, but also in that we clearly defined our roles from the outset, and we gave each other input on what we were tasked with.
In order to do this, we had to do two things: address where we would be most useful and productive to each other, and then really break down what it meant to direct. The latter seems almost nonsensical, but it is essential for any director to understand, be they solo or co-directing.
Paul had asked me to come on board as a co-director largely because he’d never directed before, and being the humble giant he is, he wanted to have someone he could trust by his side during the entire process. We’d established our collaborative chemistry during the development of The One Trick Rip-Off, so it seemed the natural choice. Once we sold Tribeca on the idea, we had to figure out who was going to do what. It would be counterproductive to have us do the same work, and having two minds chime in on every single decision would be incredibly inefficient. We had to decide where our strengths lay, and go from there.
Paul is one of the great visualists of our time, his aesthetic has earned him honors and accolades, and he’s been recognized as one of the true masters of his craft. He builds worlds from the ground up, and infuses them with genuine heart and sensitivity. It made absolute sense then that he be in charge of the design of the film - the art direction and production design, costumes and visual effects. We would be remiss if we didn’t build a Paul Pope universe.
Paul’s got a brilliant knack for production details. Check out the Thing’s texting tools.
My strength is creating strong visuals, and doing them very efficiently. I can make something look insanely expensive and beautiful on a pittance and incredibly fast. I would take Paul’s ideas and designs and map them out, block the action and work with our DoP Jesse Green on getting the images and coverage we needed. Paul and I would both collaborate on the performances.
By separating our work, we were able to work brilliantly together. Paul would complete designs with Mike Conte and he’d ask my opinions. I would storyboard the film and consult Paul on angles and movements. We’d make adjustments and discuss our differences in opinion. It worked exceptionally well.
But this was all pre-production, and the crux of our work was understanding what it means to direct a motion picture. I always break down the directing responsibilities into three categories, and this is what I shared with Paul before we got into principal photography. The three responsibilities of directing are:
1) To Hire. A director is only as good as the people around her, and she has to have a keen ability to interview, assess and hire the best collaborators. There are many things to consider when hiring, but the most important thing to assess is chemistry. This applies to both cast and crew.
What is chemistry? Chemistry is a connection that you share with someone, when wavelengths are harmonized and honesty is enabled. It’s when someone intrigues you and makes you want to know more about them, when they bring something to the table that you’ve been dying to discover, and they’re willing to share it. Chemistry is ease of communication, of someone you’re clicking with. As hard as it is to describe, the beauty with chemistry is that you’ll know you have it once you experience it. But in order to get to that point, a good director has to be able to ask the right questions of candidates. A good director finds out what makes her collaborators tick, what makes them scared and what makes them exited. A good director makes challenges for their collaborators and takes notes on how they respond. A good director knows what they want and must be able to determine if their collaborators are willing to work to get there, and if they have the wherewithal to do it.
Paul Pope, Jim Pascoe, Paradox Pollack and producer Gary Krieg (foreground) during a production meeting at Native Films in LA.
2) To Convey. Every director, if they’ve done their homework and put in the work, will have a complete vision for their film. A complete vision is not every minute detail, although many directors (myself included) try to get down every detail as possible in our heads. It really depends on the individual, as some will have a greater holistic vision and others will be far more lucid and detailed. Each end has their particular advantages and pitfalls. Either way, a vision must be had.
But a vision in your head is useless if you’re not able to clearly describe it to your collaborators. I find that directors who are unable to clearly convey what’s going on in their head are the ones who scream and become belligerent. If you see the top kitchens in the best restaurants, you’ll find that the atmosphere is calm, relaxed and efficient. Every chef in the kitchen knows what they need to do, they are fully aware and understand the executive chef’s vision. Ever wonder why Gordon Ramsay shouts so much on Hell’s Kitchen? It’s because his chefs don’t get what he wants. He could easily remedy that (which he does in his own restaurants), but if he did that on tv then it would be the most boring program on Earth. The man doesn’t have multiple Michelin-star restaurants for no reason.
Paul and I had to be exacting and extremely clear with our team as to what we wanted, and we had to put our desires into objectives that not only conveyed what we wanted, but allowed our collaborators to bring their talents to the forefront. This is the difference between directing and micromanaging. A director will ask an actor to reach a place after giving them an actionable objective, a micromanager will act the sequence out for the actor and tell them to exactly replicate it. The latter will always result in uninspired work. You can give examples, you can interact physically, but you can never, ever do their job for them over their shoulders. Fail to communicate clearly and you will build only resentment and contempt, and you will lose control of your show. Clarity is confidence, and you must have conviction behind your words. People will trust you if they feel you know what you’re talking about.
And what if you’re stuck? What if you run out of ideas that work? Then you clearly ask your collaborators. It’s as simple as this: “nah, this doesn’t seem to be working, what do you think?” You’re being honest and clear, and you will get some good ideas in return, some bad ideas, and some things that you can work with to create a solution. That’s collaboration, and it only happens when you are able to clearly and calmly explain what’s going on in your head.
3) To Observe and React. As your vision comes together, you have to be able to take notes and process everything that’s unfolding. Sometimes it’ll go exactly as you envisioned, other times, because the millions of moving parts in making a film, you will get something different. You have to be able to see those shifts, observe them, and react accordingly. Reacting could be making corrective measures or it can be seeing where these changes are taking you. During this entire time you must keep a running log in your head or even on a notepad of how this vision is evolving. You must let your instinct react to these developments, and trust your gut. Sometimes your gut leads you astray, but more times that not your instinct is correct because your instinct is the real you, and you want the real you represented on the screen. If you feel the real you is not being represented, make the changes accordingly, give objectives to your collaborators that will push in those directions, and see what they give you. If the chemistry is right, if the objectives are clear, then you will find that things will appease your instinct or challenge them in beneficial ways because your collaborators trust in you and you trust in them.
Note that all three of these responsibilities apply to every facet of filmmaking, because the director is responsible for every facet of what makes it into the final cut.
Paul and I adhered to these responsibilities religiously, and it not only made our collaboration seamless, it made the shoot fun for all involved. It was brutally hard work but I can say with absolute honesty that I enjoyed every minute of it. Every film should be that way, where even the problems are welcomed as challenges and not as affronts. Filmmaking is nothing but solving problems and creating new solutions, and the more fun you have creating, the more your problems will seem like opportunities do do something crazier.
Apparently one reader felt my last rant was misleading. Fair enough, I didn’t talk about the content of Transformers: Age of Extinction and used it as a segue into our greater problem of lowering the achievement bar to a point where even things like picking our nose is considered a grand accomplishment. It’s the reason why I called it a rant, and not a topic. Rants can go anywhere, I just needed a starting point. I apologize for the misdirection, but I won’t apologize for my politics.
But if it’s a rant against the movie that was advertised, then who am I to unfairly not deliver? Transformers: Age of Extinction was the seed for my rant, so let’s find out where it all started. Against my better judgement, I watched the movie.
Emerging from the film I had the urgent need to chug a Bud Light in one of those fancy blue cans, to eat an Oreo cookie, to buy my wife some Victoria’s Secret and pretend in my mind that she’s underage jailbait. My brain feels this because I’d been bombarded these messages for 165 fucking minutes nonstop, a relentless 3D barrage of product placement and pent-up Bay psychosis and misogyny.
Oh fuck. Misogyny! Watch out, here I come with my bullshit politics again. Let me address that thought right after we finish this agonizingly long crane up Nicola Peltz’ legs and hold on her booty shorts, all the while we’re reminded multiple times in the film that she’s underage. Michael Bay wants us to know this. He also creates a giant vagina robot that gets blown away and has his a-hole protogonist-bot quip: “Take that, bitch!”
Ah, such eloquence. Such displays of a gentleman’s entertainment. Gimme that beer (or berrrh). Better yet give me that weird Chinese beverage that is so prominently displayed for no other reason that there’s a demographic to be cashed in upon. Wait - did Stanley Tucci just take the most incredible transmographic compound in the history of the universe and turn it into a ‘Beats by Dr. Dre’ bluetooth sound pill? This just shows us that Michael Bay isn’t stupid, he’s just mocking our own stupidity, which simply makes him an asshole. An asshole we’re freely giving our money to. Over and over again.
Halfway through this cinematic equivalent of punching myself in the nuts- wait, let me correct that, because I’m being an insensitive liberal asshole here. Comparing this movie to punching myself in the nuts is an insult to the underrepresented minority of people who actually enjoy getting repeatedly punched in the nuts. I’m sorry for being so insensitive and hostile to people having a good time. Go ahead and ignore the ‘do not try this at home’ warning on the last Jackass movie and create papercuts on your scrotum and pour lime juice into it. Have mindless fun. That’s your right, and I’ll pay to see you do it.
Because this is America (or better yet TEXAS, USA as the film reminds us, because there are so many other Texas’ out there) and in America we want our stories to not make sense and show Frasier Crane getting paid to lead an anti-immigrant parable only to have that mildly interesting plot point killed off in favor of even more questionable jailbait humor. Hey look, Nicola’s Red Bull-sponsored racing boyfriend just produced a legal document that says in Texas it’s okay to fondle an underage girl. Well I’m glad Michael Bay cleared that up for us.
Maybe I should follow the lead of the blatantly pan-Asian autobot (thank GOD they got rid of the blatantly ghetto Black autobot from the last movie) and try not to rock the boat. This is just a movie after all, and it’s okay if a movie has denigrating lowest-hanging-fruit messages like not being able to make an omelet without breaking some eggs (an Autobot yelling “just run ‘em over’ in reference to not being able to get those pesky humans out of the way) and Pleistocene revisionism that would make intelligent design proponents desperately look for scientific logic. It’s okay. This is entertainment, where nothing has to work, as long as it gets blown up in the end by a robot riding a giant fucking robot dinosaur.
I miss old curmudgeon Grimlock.
Sure, stupid is a form of entertainment. But lace that stupidity with misogyny, sexism, racism, nihilism, sociopath tendencies to kill innocent bystanders and NOT have any of these aforementioned elements be a part of the narrative or character development is just outright pandering to the worst parts of human civilization. It’s a propaganda snuff film, one that purports to be mindless entertainment and yet fuels and reinforces our most selfish and evil behavior. It’s absolute fucking horse shit, and we gave it our money, and because we gave it our money, we’ll continue to get more and more of it. Like FIFA. Like Hobby Lobby. Like Chick-Fil-A.
By giving shit like Transformers a pass, we’re giving passivity a positive veneer. Transformers doesn’t even try to be good, and we accept it as passable entertainment. We’ve given up even trying to embrace good entertainment, because as Robert Greene wrote “if we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our circle of action, we can give ourselves the illusion of control. The less we attempt, the less chances at failure. If we can make it look like we are not really responsible for our fate, for what happens to us in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable.”
So continue to justify the inane and empower it in the name of mindless entertainment, of good chicken, of our God-given right to have a good time at anyone’s expense, because those people are far away and have nothing to do with our lives. That’s our right, let the next generation worry about the consequences of our insouciance, our fear of losing creature comforts, our desire to not fight for our right to party responsibly. The right to party has to be earned, it is not an entitlement.
THAT’S what I got from Transformers: The Age of Extinction. Sorry I misdirected on the last post, I hope this clears it up. Let’s go enjoy Tammy this weekend, I hear it’s insanely stupid entertainment.
Transformers: Age of Extinction made $312,642,664 worldwide in just three days. The film holds a 17%’rotten’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is certifiably terrible.
If there was ever a prophetic title, then Age of Extinction is it. Maybe we’ve underestimated Michael Bay, maybe he’s the satirical prophet we just never gave a fair shake to.
We complain about stupid movies being made. We bitch and moan about how idiotic people are becoming. And yet millions of people went to go see this movie. Stupid is as stupid does.
We’re so good at this. Playing the high horse and then indulging in the path of least resistance. I have friends who believe in and fight for social justice who will happily turn a blind eye when it comes to watching the World Cup. The plight of Brazilians being fleeced by their government, migrant workers enslaved in Qatar, all enabled by FIFA, apparently has zero connection to the desire to have a good time. All of a sudden people who fight injustice everyday throw their hands to the sky and shrug, saying there’s only so much they can do. The only thing left to do is drink beer and watch soccer. Suddenly those 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria become less important than the Nigerian soccer team. Bring back our girls, just bring them back after the game’s over, okay?
Numerous corporations like Chick-Fil-A, Barilla and Hobby Lobby assume the rights of individuals and are forcing their religious beliefs upon people who don’t share those same beliefs, let alone the same religion. But people take a defeatist attitude because hey - those chicken sandwiches taste so fucking good and where the fuck else am I going to get my scrapbooking materials? Fuck gay people. Fuck women’s reproductive rights. Just give me some tasty chicken!
In 1984 as an 8-year old kid I’d never once met a gay man, and the term “gay” was an immature way to make fun of someone. Reagan’s AIDS-fueled homophobic agenda completely convoluted my young mind as to what it meant to be gay in a society that literally thinks you are radioactive. I remember seeing this music video - Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” - on Teletunes, Denver’s late-night public television music video show. I’d seen it a few times and I loved that synth line, but I’d no clue as to what the song and video were about. It was a great song, and since I was clueless about homosexuality, it was just a great sounding song. I went out and bought the record. I still own it.
Almost a decade later I’d become aware of LGBT issues, and I’d openly expressed my support of equal rights. It came to the forefront during a high school campaign to vote down Amendment 2 in Colorado (which passed but was later deemed unconstituional in the Supreme Court), but one thing remained: I’d never met a gay person in my life.
That changed in college. I pretty much made friends with everyone in undergrad and my organic chemistry partner Alan was no different. He was a senior, I was a sophomore. We got along, we kicked ass as lab partners and studied together. We became friends. Chem labs were from 6-10pm on Thursdays and we walked home, as our dorms were in the same direction. Alan seemed nervous. Not his usual peppy self. I reached my dorm and he said he wanted to ask me something. I said go ahead.
He asked if I was interested in going out for dinner. Without giving much thought I said “that’d be fun.” He looked at me, and I remember his face clear as day. Like he was looking at an innocent puppy. “I’m not sure you get what I’m asking,” he said, holding my hand.
Then it hit me, and in that moment a wave of confusion slammed into my brain. All the programming of growing up in Reagan’s America resurfaced. It was like seeing a unicorn. I didn’t know what to say. Alan saw my hesitation. I could see he was scared too.
"Oh god, you’re not-" he stuttered.
"No, no I’m not. I’m so sorry." That’s all I remember saying to him.
He was embarrassed. He turned and left. I felt terrible. We saw each other in class and for some reason we acted like nothing ever happened. We remained affable and we finished the semester. He graduated. I never saw him again.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard was found battered and beaten on a barbed wire fence in Laramie, Wyoming. He was murdered for no other reason except because he was gay. I was mortified when I heard the news. I’d overheard people in Denver say they were happy that the “faggot got what he deserved.” It disgusted me.
I thought of Alan. Of how brave it was for him to come out to me, at that time, in the climate we were in. How terrifying it must have been for him to hear Matthew’s fate. I tried to look Alan up, to maybe send him a letter, but I haven’t found him. In this age of internet I still can’t find him.
So I have this song, this music video. Bronski Beat. And this song makes me think of Alan, of Matthew, of every kid who grew up thinking that they were doing something wrong, who had the courage to love and accept themselves first, and take on the hatred, fear and confusion of the world around them. Coming out is one of the greatest acts of courage I can think of.
I see the Pride parades across the world today and see how far we’ve come. I meet couples who are now legally married. I know there’s a long way to go, but I’m so happy on this day and every day. I hope Alan is happy, that wherever he is, he can live without fear and marry the man he loves. If today is to celebrate pride, then I declare that I am proud to have shared that moment with him, that he liked me enough to risk it all, including the threat of physical violence, to ask me out. I thank him for showing me something beautiful. I am proud of him.
Music for the Weekend:Lesson No.1 for Electric Guitar by Glenn Branca.
What a week. Turned in TWO television show bibles and have now been commissioned for a screenplay. It’s not directing, but its paid work, and I’m always thankful for that. A friend of mine who is a film professor at the University of Michigan had the wonderful opportunity to have lunch with John Sayles, who is a great influence to me. Sayles was affable as ever, and he had to close the meeting by saying he had get back to his hotel room and work on some for-hire screenplay assignments that were due the next day.
Someone of Sayles’ stature shouldn’t have to be doing for-hire work, but because of his commitment to being independent in terms of his directing work, he needs for-hire assignments to make a living. That’s not such a bad thing, especially when the trade off is that you get to direct your films exactly the way you want to. Not a bad thing at all to aspire to.
Even if we are entrenched in corporate / studio environments, it’s always vital that we think independently, that we always take what is around us and process it through our own unique and vibrant filter. I give this piece of music as an example. In the 80s, genius composer Glenn Branca took an electric guitar, which at that time was an instrument drowning in the muck and hairspray of arena rock hair bands, and twisted and tortured into something entirely different, he applied classic compositions to a purely pop conceit. The result in the 80s was mind blowing, the early roots of what we call ‘math rock’ today. It’s an amazing, towering achievement.
When I first bought this Branca record I’d failed to see that it was to be played at 45rpms, and played it at 33rpm by accident. I have to admit, it sounded even better slowed down (‘Skrewed’, if you will), and now that’s how I choose to hear it. I’m making my own departure on what was a departure in the first place. Stuff like that, however insouciant it may be, really really inspires me. Happy accidents, great discoveries, small victories.
To watch the film in its entirety, click here to go to the Tribeca Film website.
In the six days of preproduction for 7x6x2 we had the arduous task of building an alien landscape and the sci-fi elements that were commonplace in Paul Pope’s work. We’d already begun the work on the seven rock people, and we’d turned our attention production design and art direction, which included a desert campsite that had one very specific distinguishing feature: a giant mek.
Meks in Paul Pope’s universe are far more than just robots, they are extensions of mankind’s ambitions and flaws. They are sentient beings with attitude problems, they are guardians and killers. Paul’s THB contains the greatest of all meks, the eponymous THB (aka Tri-Hydro Bi-Oxygenate), and the graceful and liquid lines of THB are tantamount to the very essence of Paul’s Meks. They are insectoid, organic and fluid.
Paul’s original script called for a massive terraforming mek that was downed in a barren wasteland, large enough to form a shelter for a lone repairman surrounded by seven creatures. Paul’s concept art shows the intended scale:
From a production standpoint, on a four-figure art budget with less than a week to build, replicating the mek on that scale and form would be an impossibility. We had to strip things down, but not lose the essence of Paul’s signature meks. We brought in art director Mike Conte, who’d done some crazy throwback sci-fi work for music videos and television. Also a bonus, Mike is the frontman and lead guitarist for one of my favorite metal bands of all time, EARLY MAN. You might say it was a match made in heaven.
Mike really starts killin’ it at 2:30
Mike not only had to build the mek, he was also responsible for all the sci-fi gear for both Bryce and Swanson, the young surveyor. This included laser welders, the camping gear, and the electronic workbook used by Swanson. The script also had a buggy transport for Bryce, but our budget and timeframe didn’t allow for it.
Mike started putting concepts together right away, because he had to source materials and start building in his workshop. One major consideration would be the transport of the mek - it had to be easily disassembled to be placed in a truck and reassembled the desert location. It also had to be designed to not just look like a pile of junk sitting in the desert, it had to have indications of a fallen robot.
Mike put together some initial concepts that were based more on Paul’s observation of lunar landings and early NASA concepts. He did 3D breakdowns for scale and measure:
It was a good starting point, but it needed to be bulked up and placed with a personality, hence it needed a face. Paul like the idea of a wasp / bumble bee, and Mike built a ‘face’ with dimmed eyes. The idea was to have a mek that had some power still left in it. Mike took two opaque domes and coated them in the luminescent liquid found in glow sticks. Low-tech solutions to high-tech problems.
With the mek and gear taking shape, it was important to Paul to ground all the elements in a tangible reality, and he wanted all the items to have brands and logos that signified an authentic and identifiable world. We employed the services of our longtime friend Jim Pascoe, who hands down is one of the most talented people on Earth. I’m not exaggerating. Besides being a design genius, Jim is also an acclaimed published novelist and international man of mystery. And he’s funny. And a great father and husband. We should all aspire to be men like Jim Pascoe. Seriously.
In true 7x6x2 fashion we asked Jim to create iconic brands and labels for the mek, for Bryce’s manuals and references, and for his provisions. Paul created space foods that were prevalent in his graphic novels, including things like PRO-JAK, PROACH and fruit hybrids. Jim belted out some awesomely hilarious labels that we affixed to tin cans:
Tribeca was concerned with Sony having modesty issues, so Jim modified that last label.
Jim also created a manual for robot repair and logos for Bryce’s gear and for the mek itself:
While a lot of this would never be seen in the film, it added a layer of authenticity to what we were doing, and helped create an atmosphere that we could all immerse ourselves in. I’d written about this some time ago when we included a copy of ZORD magazine in the film, ZORD being a tip of the hat to Blade Runner. The magazine was illustrated by cartoonist Sam Hiti and designed by Pascoe, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Put it all together, and you’ve got a believable alien world on film.
With production design chugging along, we turned our attentions to the human elements of the film - our three leads and their corresponding looks. We weren’t even halfway there, and we had four days to hold auditions, rehearse and source and fit costumes. It wasn’t getting any easier.
Music for the Weekend:Jumpin’ the Turnstyles by Alms for the Poor / DJ Z-Trip & DJ Radar
My brain feels like this song. Really. It’s been a hell of week. Perhaps I might’ve taken on too much, I haven’t gotten much sleep as I’ve got some big deadlines looming. Been writing an eight-episode TV bible for a noir crime show that uses time travel. That’s right. Time travel. Never easy, because there’s so many loopholes / wormholes to navigate, and I want to get the science right. So while my days have been spent writing, my nights have been spent studying quantum physics, particle / string theory, uncertainty principles and predestination paradoxes, singularity, the heat death of the universe and Schrodinger’s Cat among many other things. Because if the internet proves one thing, it’s that everyone loves cats.
Also this week I had an amazing opportunity to meet two very important directors who have had a profound impact on my life. I got to hang out with Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and Andrew Davis, the director of The Fugitive. Both men were incredibly humble, despite having created some of the most powerful and influential films in cinema history, and what really struck me was that they were infinitely curious and asked questions with the same energy of a debut filmmaker embarking on their first project. It was incredibly inspiring, and I made two very good friends who I know will be there when I need some advice, an extra set of eyes, and a solid opinion. I was honored and humbled, and aspire to follow in their footsteps of creating art without compromise.
Andrew Davis, yours truly and Steve James. Chi-city represent.
For Part One of this series, click here. To see the film in its entirety, click here.
We didn’t waste any time once we got into Los Angeles, the clock was ticking and we now had six days to design, build, dress and cast the film before shooting. We were met with many skeptics and naysayers, but we plowed ahead with aplomb and confidence.
It’s impossible to say our “biggest concern was” with this production because everything counts, but we knew the component that would likely require the most time and resources would be the seven monsters that surrounded the campsite, and the downed mech robot that would comprise the campsite itself. We started with the monsters.
The word “monster” itself is a loaded word, and we didn’t want to create one-dimensional baddies. All animals are complex, with social structures, languages and rituals. Our script revolved around a pack leader and his clan, so our first goal was to find our leader and then design everything around him. Our good fortune and friendships brought us to one Mr. Paradox Pollack.
Paradox is a fight and motion design maestro - and founder of LA’s brilliant Alien Fight Club - who has worked on the highest profile films imaginable, from Thor to his playing the lead vampire in I Am Legend. Paradox is aptly named, as he is one of the most gentle and generous artists I’ve ever met, and yet he has an uncanny ability to tap an inner rage and ferociousness that gave both Paul and I chills. We brought Paradox aboard and he immediately went to work, bringing in six of his colleagues to complete the tribe. Within 36 hours, Paradox and his tribe, beyond designing motion choreography, had created an entire goddamned culture and language of the Rock People, bringing Paul’s two-dimensional illustrations to vivid life. Paradox had given each member a name, a skillset, a backstory and a series of hand gestures that served as battle communication. They operated as an organism, feeding off of one another, moving in concert like a tightly wound coil. It was simply brilliant to behold, here’s a little video I shot of Paradox and his tribe interacting with Paul in Griffith Park, in character:
While 99% of these details would never be seen onscreen, they manifested themselves as true menace from the characters. Our screenplay had a much more complex interaction between the Rock People and Bryce, but our shooting schedule would not allow it. Because the majority of the film took place at night, we basically had two nights and a few daytime hours to shoot - about 18 hours in total. Factor in time to get the Rock People made up and prepped, we really had no choice but to strip them down to their bare minimum. But the characterization was key - these creatures had to be a real threat, and this is where Paradox and his tribe’s preparation really shone through. I am forever indebted to Paradox for the sheer amount of heartfelt work he put in, and I look forward to working with him again in the near future - he’s got some amazing, world-altering, magical ideas up his sleeves.
With the Rock People actors and performances taking form, it was time to turn our attention to the design and look of the creatures. We enlisted the talents of creature company MORB-X, headed up by Eric Fox, who has his own SyFy show Foxy & Co and was a much loved winner on Face Off. We called Eric and he was on board immediately - he had to, because we basically gave him a 48 hour deadline to create seven creatures on a vaporized budget, and he went to work in his studio. We sent him Paul’s original concept drawings:
And 24 hours and 500+ lbs of clay later, this is what Eric came back to us with, which blew our minds:
We gave Eric the green light to build the seven creatures, including their hands, feet, and radio controlled faces. Despite the level of insane detail Eric was putting in to the makeups, we also knew that our Rock People, because of our budgetary restrictions, would also have to be built up in post-production, specifically CGI and sound. I’d never done CGI work before save for basic plates and mattes, and we’d referenced the creatures in the brilliant film Attack the Block as our desired effect, where bare minimum highlights would be made. This was our way of working around our budget to create the effects we wanted, the effects we could achieve within our limitations. We took the footage to Platige in New York City, and they darkened the creatures, lit up their eyes, and added small but powerful facial movements to the creatures.
Chris Stangroom, my Director of Sound on Lilith, went to work at Howard Bowler’s HOBO Studios in NYC on manipulating the original creature sounds that Paradox and the Tribe were making, and added more layers of animal sounds to the Rock People, including his own voice (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve made Chris scream into a microphone). In our edit we limited the screen time of our creatures to very brief, quick extreme close-ups, which allowed us to highlight Eric’s sculpture work with punctuated emphasis. The final combination of character, performance, image, sound, music, edit and VFX helped us create a threatening sevenfold antagonist that was believable and palpable, all on a four-figure budget, all done in six days.
During this week we had to also bring our human characters to life, and before us stood the daunting task of building a giant robot in the middle of a desert. We hadn’t received our prototype camera from Sony, which was being shipped in from Japan. Every night, after an 18-20 hour day working with Paul, Gary, Elisa and our core team, I put my head to my pillow, trying desperately to figure out the puzzle of what lay before us.
By now I hope you’ve had a chance to the see the short film I co-directed with graphic novelist Paul Pope. If you haven’t, you can see it by clicking here.
In the coming posts I’ll take you through the journey of the film, which is quite unorthodox but it’ll demonstrate one way to get a film made. The “x” factor in all of this, of course, is that Paul Pope is someone who film companies actively want to work with. He’s worked for almost three decades creating groundbreaking original stories (or “content” or better yet “Intellectual Property / IP” as the suits like to say), and he’s built a loyal and diverse following of readers over those three decades. That hard work and visibility invites opportunities, and it is well earned, no fluke, and beyond simple luck. Paul is a hot commodity in film for good reason, and he did it without nepotism or industry connections, so he can afford to be choosy about who adapts his material.
Most of us are not in that position to have people approach us to adapt our work, in large part because we don’t have a body of work that’s been through the gauntlet of distribution. Our goal therefore is to create that body of work, either on our own or through collaboration with the creative friends and people we do have access to. Just as Paul put brush to paper many years ago to create his first graphic novel, so too must we put pencil to paper, write ‘fade in’ and create a body of work that makes people want to work with us. It must be inventive, beautifully crafted and with something unique to say. It must be your voice, your talent, your worldview.
I’ve been fortunate to be friends with Paul for the past six years. Our relationship started professionally as I approached him, as a complete stranger, to option his book The One Trick Rip-Off as a feature film. Paul is very guarded with his work, as he should be, and it’s not his first time at the rodeo in terms of people / studios wanting to adapt his graphic novels. He’s been through development hell (he was a co-director for the proposed Kavalier and Clay adaptation before it went into turnaround), had promises made to him that were not kept, and he’s got the healthy dose of skepticism which is absolutely required when navigating the media business world.
Paul really liked my take on The One Trick Rip-Off, and more importantly, we both liked each other as men and respected each other as artists. I’d written some time ago that when I go into business meetings I’m not looking for money or a product, I’m looking to determine if this will be a good relationship. Paul’s the same way. We clicked, and over the years our conversations about the progress on The One Trick Rip-Off are always couched in great food, life hurdles, Battling Boy and Lilith, and whatever it is we’re feeling at the time. There’s a tremendous amount of fraternity and trust there.
Paul entrusted me with his baby, and we’re making it the right way. Four years of development and counting…
This sets up Paul being approached by Tribeca Films to make a short film. Tribeca is an extremely progressive company dedicated to independent cinema and pushing the envelope, and they saw the same qualities in Paul’s work. Paul had an idea of a space western, which is natural to Paul as they’re his two favorite genres. It was a great idea - a man surrounded by seven monsters has a gun with six bullets to deal with them - and it was prefect for the short film format because its core mechanic was simple, but its psychological depth was beautifully textured and vast.
Paul had been through pre-production before on Kavalier and Clay, so he had a good idea of what it took to make a film, but probably one of the greatest qualities of Paul Pope is that despite his overwhelming and otherworldly artistic talent, he’s humble enough to step back and say he doesn’t know something and wants to learn. He felt he needed to co-direct 7x6x2, to go through the baptism of fire with a trusted collaborator. He’d been enjoying our collaboration on The One Trick Rip-Off, and phoned me up. I flew out to NYC and we sat with producers Gary Krieg and Matt Spangler and talked cowboys on Mars.
Instant chemistry. Tribeca, Paul and myself were all on the same page from the outset, and we wanted to make this happen. It was an ambitious project, as it required the trappings of the sci-fi and western genres - alien planet, seven creatures, firearms, and a high level of production design to bring Paul’s universe to life. The budgets available to Tribeca simply wouldn’t allow that. I did many drafts of Paul’s original script to not only make it more cinematic, but also make it more affordable. After many rounds we came upon a script that was feasible, but we were at an impasse with money, and had to bench the film until we came up with an idea of how to fund it properly.
In the meantime, I’d done an interview with Blackmagic Media about Lilith and the interview, which was done over three days between Chicago and Australia, was amazing. I’d hit it off with the Blackmagic folks and we talked for hours. One of our conversations was about their development of small 4k cameras, and at that time Blackmagic was still in their R&D phase. In passing conversation I told Gary Krieg at Tribeca about the cameras and he being the genius he is, came up with a plan to get 7x6x2 financed.
This leads to a conversation about getting short films financed, and one way to do this is through sponsorships and product placement. A ton of short films are being funded this way, and it requires a deft business and artistic hand to balance the needs of art and commerce. It’s vital to learn this balance because it is the story of film finance, and you will face this battle every step of the way with all of your projects. You must find a way to get money for your films, and equally find a way to preserve your original vision. This is the core of the movie business.
Through Tribeca, Gary and Tribeca co-founder / super producer Jane Rosenthal got the ear of Sony, who were gearing up to launch their new flagship digital cinema camera, the F55. They’d already commissioned multiple shorts that were already in production all over the world, but there was a little bit of funds left over in their budget. Gary asked Paul and I to put together a mood document that would show not only what we envisioned, but also how we could showcase the technical capabilities of the new camera. Our story was perfect for testing a camera - hostile remote location, extreme low light, slow-motion, intense blasts of light, and day and night photography. We included in our mood document references to not only Paul’s work but also the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and screencaps of a variety of movies from Attack the Block to Once Upon a Time in the West to Achipatpong Weerasethakul’s brilliant Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. We submitted the document along with the revised screenplay and we waited. This was on October 24th and we knew that Sony was launching their camera with their array of short films on their lot on December 6th. It was a very, very, VERY small window.
On October 26th, we got the green light from Sony. They would provide us with the camera, technical support and a small budget. Key word was small, as it was the remains of their overall short film budget in their department. But it was more money than we originally had, and so we decided to go for it. On October 27th we flew out of New York to Los Angeles - just missing Hurricane Sandy by a few hours - with the shoot scheduled for November 3rd and 4th. Our producer Matt Spangler was grounded by Sandy, so Gary, Paul and I were down a man, which was frightening considering what we had to face.
We had seven days to prepare. Seven days to plan our shots, storyboard the film, find our crew, our actors, our locations, test a camera that was still in R&D, choreograph our alien tribe, build seven prosthetic alien suits, a crashed mech robot, and oh yeah do it all on a VERY small budget. After photography we’d have two weeks to edit, find vendors to execute our CGI elements, do an original score, color correct, sound design and mix, and deliver by Thanksgiving.
At that point all we could do was trust one another, trust the story, and let the film guide us. We’d partnered with Native Fims in LA, and their line producer, Elisa Morse, became a great ally in our battle against time. She met us at our hotel on the first night, and we got to brass tacks right away. In the middle of our meeting, a fortune teller came to our table and offered to tell our futures. I was dog tired, having flown from Chicago to New York to LA, and the time zone was not helping my fatigue as I’d been storyboarding during the entire flight. But at that point I was hallucinatory and got my fortune read. The lady made me put a rabbit puppet on my hand and she looked in my eyes and said “you will make magic in this next few weeks.” Elisa took a pic of that moment.
I took it as a good sign. We were going to need all the help we could get.
“Short films really compel you to think with a story editor’s mind, and it is important to remain in that mindset as you transition from short to feature filmmaking. It’s basically an incubator where you can experiment. You don’t have to mortgage your house to go make something that people will notice.”—
Music for the weekend:Big Man With a Big Gun by Nine Inch Nails.
As I was writing about 7x6x2 for today’s and next week ‘s posts, I got word from a friend that there was another mass shooting in Seattle. I found it difficult to focus on film.
Two mass shootings on American campuses in one month. This is a time for sadness and introspection. Anti-gun advocates are foaming at the mouth, and while I favor strict gun control and abhor the NRA and their cronies, I also know removing guns will not solve the deeper issue at hand.
There is a deep-seeded wrath boiling in America. I can’t tell if it is the product of a struggling economy that leads people to feel all is lost or if there is a greater cultural shift at play here. The shooters are almost all exclusively male, Caucasian, and relatively privileged. Their grief is not over lost jobs or economic disparity. Their wrath is personal, directed and rationalized by some twisted logic. Being ignored. Denied. All solved with a spray of bullets.
It’s too easy to label these men as pure psychopaths who went crazy with a gun. It’s too easy to blame the gun lobbies. It’s the mind behind the man with the big gun. A violent alchemy. That truth is like drinking battery acid. But it has to be done.
There is a war being fought, and it’s not between lobbies, genders, or races. Those are just outward manifestations of the epic battle within ourselves, where decency and civility are being massacred by fear, loathing and cynicism. This is our real battle, and we must come to each others’ aid in this grave time of need.
The irony is that this is the anniversary of D-Day, where selfless soldiers put their lives on the line for the greater human good. To honor that spirit, we must fight our inner demons and come to the core of our own evil. Until then it doesn’t matter if someone has a gun, ball peen hammer, or a fork in their hands, their capability for mayhem will always be realized.
Music for the Weekend:You On The Run by The Black Angels.
Finally back home after two weeks of work travel, been listening to this record nonstop during my travels. There’s something about traveling through America that calls for psychedelia. The ever-changing horizon, weirdos and shutouts peppering towns, paranoia-induced-love and love-induced-paranoia. People eating giant chicken fried steaks and washing it all down the gullet with a 48 oz. Diet Coke. Post fat-carb-sugar haze. Excess is a drug, and America is addicted.
I know between mass shootings, a misogynistic rape culture, racist basketball team owners who still get to make $1.9 billion in profit as a “punishment,” the government lending to Wall Street at 0.75% interest while student loans are being raised to 4.66%, and a gun law in Georgia that allows people to pack heat in churches, schools and just about anywhere except the state capitol building where the law was written, it can be all too easy to say that America is pretty fucked up right now. But I’m pretty sure ever since we landed on Plymouth Rock and spread disease and pestilence, people have been saying that America is going up shit’s creek.
But I was watching folks in the airport and I can’t help but think we’re actually there. We’re up shit’s creek. We’ve thrown in the towel, officially given up. Everything’s purchased on credit cards. Surcharges are being passed on to the customer and people just shrug because it’s a few dollars more to go in the credit card bill. People are eating themselves out of their own trousers, and just letting it all hang out because who the fuck cares anymore. Bad tattoos. Terrible English. A guy watching ‘Crank 2’ on his iPad because someone out there has to keep the ‘Crank’ franchise alive. Poorly made stuff being sold at a premium, people paying more for tuna salad that is gluten-free becuase, you know, fish is just packed with gluten. Five minutes of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and I’m wondering what I’m actually “learning” on The Learning Channel. I’m gonna learn me somethin’ about polygamists, breeders and inbreeders. Yay. Go America.
The Learning Channel, once the pride and joy of NASA.
We’re turning into a nation of morons, and we seem to be cool with it, because we’ve decided the smart folks are out to get us and dammit if I wanna be stoopid then it’s my Constitutional right to be a fucknut. On the other side is an educational and economic elite that keeps threatening to move to Sweden and Canada if someone takes away their heirloom craft homebrew kombucha.
I don’t know. I’m not perfect and I have my moments of stupidity and selfishness, but I’d like to think I have some basic common sense. Maybe we’ve always been fucked up, and it’s part of our hard wiring to both complain and defend. Was there ever a “perfect time” in humanity? Probably not. But the tenets of our teachings about civilization is that every day we’re supposed to work towards progress, equality and the minimization of suffering whenever we can. Over thousands of years, through trial and error, we realized that hey - genocide is a bad thing, racism is detrimental, and looting money doesn’t do anyone any good. And yet it seems we’re doing just as much of it now as before, we’re just finding better ways to cover it up or justifying our selfish actions. We’ve managed to distract ourselves onto the precipice of oblivion.
We’re all fuckwit organisms, all of us, me included. Self-preservation is pretty hard-wired in all creatures, but the point of civilization was to look out for the person next to you first, before yourself. Somewhere along the lines we flipped that script.
Let’s do something this weekend. Go find a complete stranger and tell them you’re glad to be on this planet with them, and then ask them to tell that to another stranger. They might call you an asshole and to fuck off but that’s their insecurity speaking. Deep down they’ll appreciate it. And if you don’t want to do that then select some of the people who are following you on your Tumblr and write them a short letter, letting them know that in some strange, weird internety kind of way, you’re there for them. We’ve all been in those dark places, feeling lonely, misunderstood. We may not know exactly what is going on in other people’s lives but we can let them know that, despite not knowing what to say, we’re really thankful we have people around us who care enough to listen.
I know I judge harshly, and that is wrong. It’s easy to judge and complain, and harder to look into oneself to be the agent of change we need to be. It starts and ends with empathy, and not sympathy. Sympathy is detached, judgmental and pushes us apart. Empathy is what brings us together, puts us on level playing fields, and allows us to respect our individual positions. We can be better, bigger people, always. It is our greatest art project.
“You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”—Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
If this is not the perfect distillation of what it means to be a political artist, a conscious artist, a counter-culture artist, an agent of change, then I do not know what is. Anger is so often shunned because we are either scared or made to feel ashamed of it, or led to believe it is illegal. It is not. Anger is a fundamental, universal human right. Anger is powerful, anger is beautiful, anger is real. As Dr. Angelou says, it is bitterness that is dangerous, it is bitterness that leads to cynicism and wrath. Anger is altogether something different. It is a shout against injustice, it is an expression of courage. It is, when couched within civility, the greatest agent of change in human history. It is our voices at their most naked and honest.
Music for the Weekend:Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears.
Been traveling all week (sorry for the lack of posts) and I heard this song playing in the airport as I bought a sandwich and bag of potato chips for the flight. Was standing in the checkout line behind ten other travelers. The lady in front of me was taking some Advil and had a copy of US Weekly tucked under her arm. The woman behind the register, who looked to be of Ethiopian descent, wore a Chicago Blackhawks jersey and she looked smokin’ hot in it. A guy was talking on his cell phone about he never got that email but you could tell he was lying his ass off. It was one of those magical moments where it all made sense. Hard to explain, but it was kind of awesome. I had an epiphany of sorts.
Some great news on the horizon as we’ve officially been given a release date by Tribeca Films for my short film 7x6x2 that I co-directed with Paul Pope. Doing some press for it this week, and I’ll finally be free to talk about how we made it and some behind-the-scenes stuff soon. Next month there should be some big news regarding a theatrical release of Lilith, it’s been a crazy battle and it seems there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I won’t hold my breath until it actually happens, but after three years of going back and forth with my distributor, it looks like my diligence has paid some dividends. If all works to plan, it’ll mean I’ve got two films releasing this summer, and we’re still awaiting word on the feature film I’m an executive producer on, Chuck Hank and the San Diego Twins.
For the past ten months I’ve been in the business of film, drowning in fundraising and distribution. My evenings and early mornings are spent writing scripts, and I’m itching to get back behind the camera to direct. With the LA feature I was hired to direct being delayed, I’ve basically greenlit my own micro-budget feature project, which I hope to shoot in August/ September. Right now its working title is 37b, and it’s shaping up to be a great script. I’m going to spend the summer working with my six actors for almost two months of rehearsal, where we’ll essentially rewrite the screenplay together, then we’ll do a one-week shoot. Should be fun and interesting. The majority of this summer’s posts will be about the development and shooting of this film, and it should provide great insight as we’re essentially starting from scratch. Follow along and you’ll get a blueprint of how to make a micro-budget film, soup to nuts.
I think the lyrics of this song encapsulate best what I’m feeling, my aforementioned epiphany:
It’s my own design,
It’s my own remorse.
Help me to decide.
Help me make the
Most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever.
Today Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ goes to auction in New York City. It’s one of the great pieces of agit-pop art in history, a crucifix placed in a vat of the artist’s own urine, then photographed. It continues to bring about the discussion of the sacred vs. the profane. It’s estimated to bring in about $150,000.00 for a print, one of seven in existence (I think).
The news brought back a fond memory of one of my favorite shows, and one of the greatest thinkers of our modern times, Sister Wendy. She had a show on PBS that ran a long time ago called “The Story of Painting,” which my sister and I used to watch religiously. Sister Wendy Beckett was a consecrated virgin who lived and continues to live in a monastery in Norfolk, England. Oxford educated, soft spoken and a master wordsmith, Sister Wendy, over the course of a dozen or so episodes, took us on a journey of painting through the works of artists famous, reclusive and unknown. It was always a great paradox that this woman of extreme faith, who had made a pledge of chastity, would interpret art, that great subversive medium of mankind. She described and appreciated sensuality, sexuality, and just about every other sin that her religion purportedly condemned. But Sister Wendy always took the approach of seeing what the artist saw, she was empathetic to their statements and place in life. If an artist expressed wrath, it was not a sin to her, rather the expression of the artist. This made her truly remarkable, an example of how one can be true to their principles and also respectful of a vibrant, diverse and ever-changing world.
Here, Sister Wendy defends Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in a manner that would make all other art critics blush with embarrassment.
What a gentle, poised woman with an absolutely ferocious spirit. With all the adoration poured towards a new, “progressive” Pope (who still condemns homosexuality, and says instead we have “bigger problems”), the Catholic church should instead turn their lessons towards Wendy, whose faith is never shaken, whose beliefs remain true. And yet when confronted with the rights of same sex marriage and homosexuality, she gives an answer that is not only profound towards subtly exposing the bigotry of the Church, but also amazing in its sense of true wonderment and embracing the unknown:
"I believe in loyalty. We should respect our church, but never believe that the church has the last word. The church is saying ‘this’, but I believe that sooner or later ‘this’ will change. ‘This’ is not the mind of our Lord. God is all love. It’s a delicate balancing thing. The Church has changed its position over the years, and because the spirit is with the Church, in the end the Church will always get it right. But in the end. The spirit of the Church is the meaning of love, which hasn’t yet, perhaps, been fully understood."
Amazing. As someone who is on the fence about God myself, I can’t help but immensely respect her point of view, one which is true to her faith and her existence. Sister Wendy is a gift for all artists, a champion of expression in any form, and a complete, total and bonafide badass. Seek The Story of Painting out, you will be a better artist and person for it.
I’ve written many a time about the influence of H.R. Giger on my work, including the title of this blog and the film that fueled it. Giger’s ‘Lilith’ was the first image that inspired four years of maddened, feverish productivity. It remains one of the most beautiful pieces of art that I’ve ever seen.
Hans Ruedi Giger died last night, from complications arising from a fall he’d taken. He was seventy-four years old. His story is one of using art as an outlet for his interests - machines and sex - and for a long time being misunderstood, labeled as a pervert before an artist, and having his legacy tied to movies despite creating a body of work that extended far beyond the celluloid domain.
Giger is, of course, most well-known for his design of the alien xenomorph for Ridley Scott’s Alien. It is a design that continues to be the standard bearer for the design of the future because it is one that we would direly wish to avoid at all costs. A fusion of man and machine is an inevitability, it’s been happening for decades in the form of prosthetic limbs and more advanced forms where machines are giving the blind the ability to see and the deaf the ability to hear through artificial neural networks. Giger’s vision of that progress shows a moment in future human development where the boundaries of slave and servant become blurred and tortured, where technology has so fused with our biology that we can’t tell who is serving whom, who is driving the primary directives and decisions, and what needs to be fed and maintained. It is the portrait of a world that grows without a conscience, that seeks physical feeling and approximations of a lost humanity. Giger’s vision of the world is a grim one, stripped of plants and replaced with biomechanical diversity, a world populated by machines that live to fuck, and fuck to live.
When I was in high school my brother-in-law took me to the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver and said I could pick out any book and he’d buy it for me as a gift. I saw Lilith on the cover of Giger’s Necronomicon II, and picked it up. My brother-in-law, perhaps out of duty to his word, bought it for me, not really knowing what was inside. Neither of us knew what was inside, and when I got home I was introduced to the concept of erotica for the first time. This wasn’t the naked women in Playboy or Penthouse, or people fucking on scrambled cable porn, this was something entirely different. The sex and nudity in Giger’s work didn’t feel forbidden, it felt propulsive and fluid, it felt entirely elemental and almost feral. To this date I’ve never experienced anything like it, the closest being the writings of Anaïs Nin.
Perhaps the knock on Giger was that he never seemed to evolve as an artist, that his work occupied one space and he populated that world many times over. I’d like to have seen an evolution of his biomechanical world. Or maybe that was Giger’s point, which was that in his vision of the future, the mechanical froze the biology, to the point where adaptation could only occur through parasitic or viral destruction, as embodied in the Alien design. It’s a terrifying thought.
That Giger had found his voice, that he’d created an outlet for his philosophical and sexual desires is an admirable goal for any artist. It’s the adage that we create true art when our outer voice matches our inner voice, and Giger’s inner voice could not be any more clear. One can never question his vision or his commitment to his ideas, he is honest with what terrifies him and what turns him on. We are the benefactors of his honesty, as we get to see a world that simultaneously engages and mortifies us.
As a filmmaker I take away not only Giger’s imagination and commitment to detail, but also a cautionary lesson on the nature of film as a business. After Alien, Giger was the most sought-after futurist in Hollywood, and for the moment Giger seemed to have embraced the attention and financial rewards of Hollywood’s bauble. But Giger, who as aforementioned remained deadly committed to his vision of the future - became exposed to the multi-headed Hydra of Hollywood, the beast that would systematically tame and neuter Giger’s ideas in the name of commercial accessibility. Giger would eventually become disillusioned with Hollywood and film in general, his legacy being known as a “special effect” as opposed to a fully formed artistic universe.
When I see drivel like Alien vs. Predator I think of how Giger’s vision has been abused and taken for granted. It’s the business angle of “this looks cool” as opposed to “this is the future.” It’s a slap in the face to Giger, but then once Giger signed the dotted line with Hollywood, he forever gave up any kind of ownership to his creation. Giger’s legacy is a reminder to maintain our integrity with our work, that at some point our vision, our philosophy and our desires are worth more than the five minutes of fame and a few extra dollars.
H.R. Giger should enter the pantheon of the world’s greatest and most influential artists, his work deserves to be placed alongside the masters of ancient and contemporary painting and sculpture. He is as bold as Picasso, as fearless as any Dadaist, as skilled as Raphael. He was not just a concept or visual effects artist, he was, and forever will be, one of the greatest artists in human history. Rest in peace.
I have found so much new amazing music thanks to your Tumblr :] Specifically sister crayon & young fathers. I cant thank you enough for sharing these gems
It’s my pleasure, and I’m thrilled to know that someone is getting value out of my music posts. Sharing art is the core of happiness for me, whether it be making films, building mixtapes, cooking for people, or writing. You’ve made my day.
I’ve spent the past hour reading your blog and we’re kindred spirits. So much cool stuff on there, so thank YOU for sharing such amazing art!
Music for the Weekend:Fallout Friedman [Pause’s Broken Brain Rework] by AK/DK.
A slow burner electronica jam, but it’s insanely cool, like if old school Autechre got skrewed. Makes me think of an awkwardly violent video game that hasn’t been made yet.
This weekend is going to involve a lot of research for a project that I hope to film by the end of the summer. With the LA feature getting delayed, I’m glad I planned out backup projects that I’m able to launch simultaneously. Always keep working, you never know what takes off, what stagnates, or what dies.
On my bucket list is to be on an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters. The show - which we’ve watched since the Suzanne Whang Era (SWE) - is something of an obsession for my wife and I, as there’s something very comforting about watching couples tour through homes and talk about their dreams, aspirations, quirks and hang-ups. There’s also a grand element of schadenfreude as we snicker at the girl who can’t see past the fluorescent green paint and watching the guy get neutered on tv as he realizes he’s never going to get his “man cave.”
Here’s how my dream episode - my episode - of House Hunters will play out:
The opening montage shows Chicago in February, when the wind chill hits about -20. I’m out walking my dead squirrel on a leash, he’s been taxidermied for the past five years. As I throw pieces of Bimbo bread onto the ice for nonexistent ducks and geese, I tell the cameraman that I need to go somewhere I can work on my new career as a “bat whisperer.” Yes - I speak to bats. Preferably in barns and warehouses. Cut to my wife, her head in her hands, uttering to herself that “he seems to think it’s an underserved market.” She looks up at the camera. “Is it even a market at all?” Cut back to me, smiling, my dead taxidermied squirrel being chewed on by a possum without my knowing.
The new destination: Peterson, Alabama, here we come! Montage of all the activities to do in Peterson, including multiple shots of the lone “hipster” peanut-butter-and-jelly emporium, populated by the only three cool gay kids in town who are willing to trade their souls to move out. They get in a bike-chain fight with a bunch of Juggalos coming back from an Insane Clown Posse concert.
Our realtor, a redhead woman with bad acne named Shanice who’s got various stuffed animals populating her car’s rear window, brings us to our first home. It’s a cookie-cutter new construction home located quite some distance from the PB&J emporium, which troubles us. “Don’t worry,” says Shanice, hobbling up the still-dirt driveway (her left foot is in a medical boot, the show never explains why), “there’s a large metal tube with cylindrical rubber appendages that shows up every once in awhile that’ll take you downtown. What’s that thing called?”
"A bus," my wife says, incredulously.
"You might be right on that," says Shanice.
We enter the home and I’m immediately struck by the open-floor concept, as the house is essentially one gigantic room. “I like to keep my eye on the cat at all times, and this way she’ll never be out of our sight.” My wife looks at the stripper pole in the middle of the living room. “Is this what I think it is?”
Shanice pays no attention as she leads us to the kitchen, which has granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. “Ooh, honey” I say with much excitement. “Imagine all of the entertaining we could do here.” My wife bites her lip and refrains from telling me that we have no friends in Alabama. I read her mind.
"Once the bat whispering reaches an apex, we’ll have plenty of friends. But look at the unfenced backyard overlooking the power plant!"
Shanice drives us to our second location, a 1987 ranch-style home. She tells us to “keep an open mind.” Open the door and we’re greeted by a wave of fetid stench. My wife vomits on the front lawn. I’m used to the smell, as I am surrounded by bat guano on a daily basis. Shanice places a handkerchief to her nose.
"The previous owner had a predilection for burying small woodland creatures under the floorboards, but he’s since been detained and being held for psychiatric evaluation. The District ME says that there’s so many personalities rattling around in that guy’s head that he doesn’t even know the address of this place."
"Ooh," I croon as I turn to my wife, "I love a place with history. Provenance."
We walk to the back of the house and I put my finger to my chin, a perplexed look on my face.
"Uh oh," says Shanice, "I know that look. It’s the built-in miniature alabaster shrine to Baphomet, isn’t it."
"No that’s not it at all," I say, resting my elbow on the tiny god’s horned-head. "I’m just wondering where my extensive collection of 17th-century Scottish and Estonian erotica will go."
Shanice’s skills as a realtor really begin to shine at this moment.
"You can knock out these perpendicular walls and create a steel transom that extends the length of the ceiling," she says, confidently. "Then using a cantilever system you can extend a floating, glass-encapsulated ‘bridge’ lit by an array of computer sequenced LEDs that will display your collection."
My wife stares at her. “How much would that fucking cost, Shanice.”
"Oh I don’t know. A few hundred bucks."
Shanice takes us to our third location, a rusty 1972 Dodge B200 van located near swampland. “I don’t know about this, Shanice” says my wife, eying the band of hillbillies across the swamp, who have been staring at us for the past hour.
"Oh you just wait," says Shanice, opening the back of the van. A cast-iron blast door is on the bottom of the floor of the van. Shanice types a code into an adjacent keypad and the door recesses, revealing a pathway to an underground bunker.
Assessing the steel-reinforced walls and the rows of canned food rations, I shake my head. “It’s not quite mid-century modern, is it Shanice?” Shanice shrugs and tells me that at my price point, her hands are a bit tied. I look through the periscope and see that the hillbillies from across the swamp are busy laying down an intricate lattice of bear traps around the van. I look at my wife. “I know what you’re thinking,” I say to her. “You can totally use my closet, I don’t have that much stuff anyway.”
The Life: Dealing With Setbacks and Industry Relationships.
If it hasn’t become apparent already, filmmaking is an incredibly frustrating venture. As if it wasn’t hard enough to come up with that really cool and original idea and to write a screenplay that leaps off the page, you’ve got to don a producer / business hat and try to find money, AND coordinate sometimes 100+ people, who all have to be available at the same time, can be afforded by your budget, and whom you have chemistry with. All that and we haven’t even discussed the actual making of the film.
Being an independent filmmaker makes it all the more harrowing, because for a large part you’re on your own in this herculean pursuit. It can drive one to madness, and our mettle is tested pretty much every day. There are insane ebbs and flows as in the morning you can be greeted with a sign of progress, and by the evening you’ll find yourself back where you were nine days ago. I won’t lie - it’s hard, difficult, and heartbreaking.
Three months ago I was hired to direct a feature film in Los Angeles, and I’ve spent day and night prepping, doing script revisions with the writer, and doing my production dossiers for each department. I had called upon old collaborators to start thinking about the shoot. My mind was busy structuring and designing shots, and I’d started storyboarding major sequences out.
And then I got the call. The production was going to be delayed. A myriad of issues, most of it stemming from the fragile balance of financing and commitment from actors. Which means I would have to wait, indefinitely, for the word when things would fall into place. We’d fallen into the dreaded turnaround.
It happens, and it happens all the time to features both major and small. It doesn’t make it any less deflating to deal with, as momentum is a terrible thing to stop. I was really immersing myself in the material, absorbing it, filling my mind with it. To have to hit the brakes is kind of soul crushing.
To compound the misery, I’d received word that a major A-list actor that I’ve spent the last five months negotiating with for my own feature project, had decided to commit to a much larger $100m studio film. So close. I was SO close. I’m not so shaken by this because I know the actor commitment naturally involves sadness. If that actor commits to me, it means that a dozen other projects that he was being courted for would not have him, and those producers would be sad while I’d be elated. At any given time you’re on one end of the table. It’s part of the process, but like everything else, kind of sucks. Now I have to start the process over again.
Setbacks are hardest when you’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking, planning and dreaming it all together. In those five months of negotiating I kept imagining that actor in that role, and as a result of that seeing the reactions, the emotions, the way the part would manifest itself. Momentum, then setback. Start / stop.
In your journey you will also experience this. Everyone does, it doesn’t matter if you are a student filmmaker or Paul Thomas Anderson, you will face moments where things will fall apart. Read any bio of any filmmaker and there will be multiple moments where they invested months / years into the development of a project, only to have the money fall out in the 11th hour, the actor commit to something else after immeasurable delays, even things like political instability affecting the locations that were essential to the tax credit financing. A million moving parts, all connected to one another.
As difficult as they are to face, optimism in the face of setbacks is the only way to deal with them. Too many artists give up at the first round of setbacks because it stings too much, it brings up the most unpleasant aspects of our insecurities and fears. But a little perspective always helps.
Sure I lost an A-list actor that I spent five months working on, and he would’ve been absolutely amazing for the part, but I got a lot out of it. As aforementioned I dreamed about the part, started visualizing it in my head. I was creating beats and motivations, acting exercises and rehearsal prep as I envisioned him in that role. I wrote everything down, almost fifty pages of notes on that one character. The character revealed itself to me, and the actor was the catalyst. I no longer have the actor, but I still have all the notes. When my new actor steps in, I have a very solid foundation to work from, and I can make those adjustments to the new actor accordingly. It was five months passed, but not five months wasted. Not at all.
I also take solace that my dealings with the actor and his agent opened up a new relationship in the industry, one that will lead to other opportunities down the line. This is very important to acknowledge. All dealings of business are the creation of new relationships. I invest a lot in my relationships, because in my mind the relationships are more important than the business itself. People who have faced numerous setbacks often scream the common line - “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know in this business! I wish I had Coppola for a last name!” Nepotism aside, who you know in the industry is vital. Otherwise your project will remain inert. Films do not make themselves, you need people to help you, to invest in you, to take that journey with you. That doesn’t happen if you don’t make relationships, if you don’t get to know people. You don’t need to find Steven Spielberg, you need to find people who are as driven and passionate as you are, who understand that film is a collaboration, that we can all benefit each other, that we all need each other for moral support and as sounding boards.
There is a strong element of paying it forward here. There will be times when l meet with a film financier and after we discuss the project, they’ll tell me “this isn’t the type of movie we’re looking for.” Fair enough. But I ask them what kind of movie it is that they’re looking for, because I may have another project that fits that bill, or I have a friend who has a project that fits that bill perfectly. It’s my responsibility to connect my friend to that financier, because I want to see my friend’s dream come true as much as my own. Like that I’ve referred so many friends to jobs and money, and likewise I’ve had friends do the same for me. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed.
I don’t use the term friends lightly. These are not people I met at a party, exchanged cards with, and put into the Rolodex. These are people I’ve spent time with, wrote with, commiserated with, hung out with their families and helped with their kids’ science fair projects. These are friends, people who I trust and who trust me. When I hear the “it’s who you know” missive, I retort that it indeed who you know, but you must go and cultivate those people you know. They won’t come to you, and so few of us are born into that world, so we have to build that group of people you know, one by one.
There are also people who know a billion contacts and have no idea what to do with them. It’s what we do with our resources that matters most. You may not have a gaggle of friends (as I don’t), but you may have one person that you trust, who you write with, who you dream with. That one person is a treasure. Invest in them. Get to understand what they want to accomplish, try to see their vision, and when you have an opportunity to help them advance, do not hesitate. Do this with genuine sincerity and you will find that people will do the same for you. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, but it will happen at some time.
I’ve been told that my optimism is naive, that I’m too idealistic in my faith in other people. That I lack “killer instinct.” Actually my instincts are pretty fucking sharp, and I don’t need to kill anyone to prove it. I’m not naive, and the main reason why is that I’m not counting on people to help me. I can’t force someone to help me. But I can help others, and should someone want to come to my aid, that’s their choice. I give with zero expectation of return. But the core kindness of people, their moral compass and their sense of decency is what makes them give back to the people who helped them. Not everyone has that, and those people might still find success, but that success is only topical. I’d rather have made it being a decent human being than selling out the friends and family that I love. I’ll take any setback in the world before losing the love around me.
Last night I watched an episode of “Shark Tank” and it made me want to hurl. I saw a power structure of “you need me more than I need you,” of these horrible people who had money and were willing to take advantage of scared entrepreneurs who’d done all the hard work in design and start-up. That relationship is central to filmmaking - the filmmaker does the thinking, the writing, the packaging, and then we go on the firing line looking for the deep pockets to get it done. It’s a very hostile arrangement, where money trumps all dignity and integrity. I imagine that show if the “sharks” and the entrepreneurs were actual friends, where they understood each of them had something to offer. They’d still talk money, but it would be in mutual benefit, and not one trying to fiscally raze the other. This is the power of a trusting relationship. In the real world, things don’t get done in the style of “Shark Tank” - that’s a textbook example on how people get taken advantage of. The show is essentially the sharks asking the entrepreneurs “how much are you willing to sell out?” Real business - the deals that actually make things happen in the best interests of both parties, the deals that make the world go around - are done by people who want to work with each other, who trust one another, who are in it for the long haul. Those relationships are hard to find and harder to maintain, but they are the lifeblood to your success, to turning your setbacks around, to making your dreams come to fruition.
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”—
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith wrote that shit in 1776. I thought of him after paying $26 for two tickets to see Oculus, during which a group of kids who snuck into the theater giggled through the entire movie. Another guy and girl, who walked into the theater SEVENTY fucking minutes into the film, sat next to us and checked Facebook on their phones whilst thinking OUT LOUD why nothing in the movie made any sense.
In a rare act of aggression, I turned to the guy, who was maybe sixteen years old, and told him to “shut the fuck up.”
He postured and his girlfriend held him back. I don’t remember how the movie ended because I was fuming too much. Which is a shame, becuase I was actually really enjoying it.
I understand why people don’t want to go to the theater anymore. Where is the value for money? I’m paying a premium and getting a shit experience in return. People are treating the movie theater like it’s their living room. And why shouldn’t they? They’re paying a fortune to essentially watch a giant LCD TV.
I also finally watched Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and to watch it on the big screen was an absolute gift. Luckily the crowd was more civil, as we all collectively took in the quiet, dark poetry of the movie. It was a day and night experience.
I don’t know what’s going on here. The decorum of cinemagoing is disintegrating, while the cost of cinemagoing has increased to unaffordable proportions. Spider-Man made $92 million domestically this weekend, and I avoided that movie like the plague. Maybe it is, as Adam Smith wrote, a conspiracy against the public, or maybe we deserve to go extinct due to our collective desire to purchase crap at the price of gold.
Music for the Weekend:Midas Touch (Hell Interface / Boards of Canada remix) by Midnight Star.
So happy to share this with you. One of my prized possessions is the complete set of MASK records, which contains some of the finest electronic music in the world. It’s taken me over ten years to complete the set, and I’m now in the process of converting the vinyl to digital.
This is probably one of my favorite songs from the series, a remix of an RnB classic by Boards of Canada long before their debut landmark Music Has the Right to Children. There’s just something about this track - bubbly arpeggiated bassline, whooshing synths, and the original soul - that makes me immensely happy. It’s pretty simple, to the point, and doesn’t mince words. I love it, and sometimes I hum it to myself when I’m working on a screenplay. It does wonders.
Been a long week of setbacks and gains, discoveries and disappointments. Just another week in the film business.