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.
The news cycle is hot with racism. The Donald Sterling lifetime ban has created ripples, with people anointing Adam Silver as a champion for Civil Rights and the ban being a “historic” moment for America.
Forgive me for my skepticism, but the ban of Donald Sterling has done very little to address the real issues at hand. A $2.5m fine for someone who is worth nearly two billion is barely a slap on the wrist. It’s akin to financial institutions like Goldman Sachs being fined a hundred million for market manipulation, or British Petroleum being fined hundreds of millions for environmental pollution, a fine they’ll readily take because they’re still raking in billions on the other end.
Donald Sterling is banned for life from the NBA but he’s still the owner. This is not the first time an owner has been banned. In 1996, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was banned from Major League Baseball for racist comments. She sold her majority stake in the team but remained a silent minority partner. She still made money.
Which is my point. Donald Sterling, Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum and pretty much the entirety of Wall Street continue to prosper despite being caught in the act. Their punishments were blips on the radar of their overall haul, and the only damages they face are public relations ones. And when you have as much money and power as they do, nobody gives a shit about public image, because in an oligarchy, who is going to challenge them?
The challenge, as it must, should come from the people, the citizenry. But this too is under attack. Overshadowed this week by 81-year old Donald Sterling and his twentysomething mixed-race girlfriend is the decision by the United States Supreme Court that minority preferences for school admissions shall remain outlawed in the state of Michigan. The statements by the Supreme Court justices allude to the idea that we are now living in a post-racial society, that racism, for all intents and purposes, ended with the inclusion of the Equal Protection Act in 1866.
1866. One hundred and forty-eight years ago, racism supposedly ended. Justice Sotomayor, who represented one of two votes against the decision (Ruth Bader Ginsburg being the other), fumed in a 58-page missive that her cohorts are simply trying to “wish racial inequality away.” The Supreme Court cited unfair advantages given to minorities and yet didn’t once address the practice of legacy admissions, the legacy coming from a time when minorities were rarely if ever allowed to step foot on many of America’s college campuses.
Only a few days after the Supreme Court declared racism over, Donald Sterling told his girlfriend that he essentially owns the black men on his team, that he can sleep with the house negro but it shouldn’t be talked about, that he’s got appearances to maintain. It also saw an equally knucklehead response from former NBA player and New York Knicks executive Larry Johnson, who tweeted that all black players need to disband from the NBA and form an all-black league, owned and run by black executives. I hope some kind of fine is placed on Larry Johnson for the sake of consistency.
But that’s just it. It’s impossible to be consistent with racism because it comes in so many forms. It’s also not illegal to be racist. We are protected by the first amendment to believe what we wish, no matter how virulent or malicious. The charge changes when we start to trample upon the civil liberties of others, when racism takes form in socioeconomic suppression, when one party is not afforded the rights and opportunities of the whole. You can be racist, but when your racism starts directly affecting the lives of others, it is then that you are a criminal.
The United States has a long history of duplicity when it comes to handling racism, and it is consistent with all colonial entities throughout recorded time. There has always been a retaining of power in the face of liberation. When the Equal Protection Act was included into the 14th amendment in 1866, there was a flurry of regulations passed that prohibited minority access to things like land ownership, education and legal representation. These were called Black Codes, legislation that allowed the white majority to circumvent the law and still retain a seat of power. In essence it is the plantation owner saying “I’ve granted you freedom, but here’s the new world you shall live in, with laws and terms dictated by me.” On paper the slave is liberated, but the socioeconomic constructs that permit true emancipation remain unchanged.
The debasing of voter rights in the south, the removal of affirmative action in Michigan, the select implementation of stand-your-ground laws amongst others have all amounted to the New Black Codes, legislation that continue to hold minorities back. Donald Sterling was freely allowed to discriminate for decades in his real estate practices, where he deliberately kept minorities from renting in more affluent, white neighborhoods. His empire is vast, so it’s not just one guy in a sea of many. Donald Sterling is the 1%, the oligarch who has disproportionate power over many. He has been given legislature that either allows him to discriminate or to be disproportionately punished for his crimes. These are the New Black Codes.
It applies to all of us, in every profession. We never once question why there aren’t an equal amount of women and minority filmmakers in the movie business. It’s not just about winning Oscars, it’s about the incredible disproportionate amount of white male filmmakers in a global industry. The common explanation is demographics, that if the primary target market is white men aged 18-40, then who better to cater to that market than white men. But then that doesn’t explain the popularity of manga globally, or the fact that 50% of the population doesn’t have a Y chromosome, or that the primary revenue streams for Hollywood are coming from non-white, foreign markets. There is something else at play here, and to deny it is to plead ignorance in the worst way. I’ve walked into an office and been told that the production company isn’t looking for Bollywood, this despite that my scripts and products have nothing to do with Bollywood or India. They simply see that I am Indian and assume that is what I’ll make. I’ve been told that my reel “needs more white people” for it to appeal to companies, because apparently it’s an entirely different skillset to direct white people. I’ve been dissuaded to having a black lead actor in my next film because it’ll make it more difficult to sell foreign territories, that black men and women can’t open a film. It’s nonsense, and further affirming that this is a white man’s world, and we’re here to cater to it because unfortunately it makes money. Money for old white men. If I had a dime for every time I was told “sorry, but this is just the way it is…”
"But you’re a working filmmaker," you might say. "You’ve got a footing in the industry," you might argue. With the passage of civil rights, people seem to think all we minorities do is complain. "We gave you your freedom, what more do you want from us!" No. When slavery ended and civil rights passed, it stopped people from being able to lynch us, to rape our women, to enslave us, to allow us the simple dignity of using a bathroom or a bus. It stopped people from being inhumane, but it did very little in terms of equality. Right now, that equality does not exist, and inequality has manifested itself in the form of the largest economic disparity in the history of mankind.
I can, with full honesty, make the statement that young people - Millennials, if you must - don’t give a shit about race, gender or sexual orientation. Race is a social construct. But while they don’t see color, they do see rich versus poor, the haves versus the have nots. The New Black Codes do not apply exclusively to people of color, they are applied to the poor, many of whom are white. They are designed to maintain a poor populace that is not allowed to empower itself through education, to allow wealth and resources to stay within the few hands of power, most of whom are white, many who are Asian, and very few who are black, women or latino. There is the old anthropological term of “money Whitens,” and it rings true as the wealthy, irrespective of race, try to adhere to an old, white colonialist way of life. It’s good - fuck it, GREAT - to be the king.
So what do we do about it? First, we must be politically active and fight the New Black Codes. We must ensure that our Constitution works for us, and not the rarefied few. This starts at the grassroots level, where we become actively involved in our communities to not only highlight injustice, but to collectively work on new legislature that embraces equality. One has to vote and hold their elected officials’ feet to the flame. Accountability must be had.
The next step is to actively debunk myths. The narrative that we live in an equal society, that we’ve made all the progress we can is a flat out lie, told by the few to appease the many. Make films, documentaries, write researched articles, write songs, poems and missives. Engage in dialogue, armed with the truth. Facts. Figures. Resources. Do not allow yourself to be talked into a corner. Do not allow yourself to be bullied, and if you see someone being bullied, come to their aid.
Lastly, this is not about “kill whitey.” I know this is a very uncomfortable conversation for many white men and women who know in their hearts they believe in equality and are genuinely not racist. When they are told about New Black Codes they need to understand that this is not about them, but they must also acknowledge the privileges that they have, the ones they assume are given to all. They are not. We must join, hand in hand, to make sure we’ve all got a level playing field. Whether we succeed in life or not is up to us, but we’ve all got to start from the same place. That is equality. That is self-determination. That is being American.
Soundtracks are a big deal to me. My films often contain 5-6 licensed songs, the rights for which are always built into my budgets. Naturally I can’t afford the Rolling Stones but I always am on the lookout for young, breakout artists that I can still afford. I never ask for music for free, whatever I can pay, I will. Nothing is for free.
I also choose all of my own music. Many films employ a music coordinator whose job it is to collect a bunch of music and present them to the director. Many of these songs are offered by labels as music that they wish to promote, which is why so many Hollywood blockbusters contain new singles of Top 40 artists. Blockbusters exist to make money, an ethos that trickles down to pretty much every creative decision in their conception.
I bring this up because this weekend I witnessed this commercial from Apple:
I disliked the commercial from the very moment I saw it, and there are a myriad reasons why. The first being that I’m not a big fan of emulators - an iPhone can never replace a guitar amplifier or actual instrument, it will forever be an approximation. If you want a tube amplifier sound, go source a tube amplifier. Borrow one. You’ll make a friend.
There are tons of other things I don’t like about the ad, but for me the biggest problem is the selection of music. It’s not some curmudgeon generational thing either - sure the Pixies’ “Gigantic” was an anthem for any kid growing up in the 90s, and yes there are nostalgic memories attached to the song, but it’s an ad. The whole idea is to tap into nostalgia for customers like me and a cool edge for hipster revivalists. It’s also no coincidence that the Pixes have a new record out. Commerce as usual.
But I take issue with the selection of the song in context with the ad. ‘Gigantic,’ which was written by bassist Kim Deal, is a song about a young white woman who is obsessed with a young black man. The core of the song is about the woman watching the man have sex with another woman. It’s a creepy song whose refrain of ‘gigantic’ is a double entendre about the gaze upon black men. It’s pretty much a masterpiece of indie rock.
It also has absolutely nothing to do with the selling of mobile devices, or anything that’s going on in the ad. Launching model rockets? Creating a projected planetarium? Emulated violin concerto? Kids playing Godzilla in the backyard? No connection whatsoever. The song is employed for the aforementioned nostalgia and because it’s just got a killer hook.
I find this reprehensible. When a song is used with little to no regard for the spirit in which it was written, I consider this an affront to the musician. One can argue that the artist agreed to its use, but the reality is that most musicians do not own the publishing rights to their music, and while they may receive a royalty from its use, unless it is specifically stated in a contract the music can be used by the highest bidder.
It’s happened before. Take Royal Caribbean using Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ to shuck holiday cruises:
It’s a song about heroin, about celebrating the bombed-out blitz of drugs. Whoever chose the song did it only for its title, either that it’s a brilliant act of subversion, which I highly doubt.
I remember reading about President Ronald Reagan using Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a political rallying call, not understanding that the song is about an American man who is in a spiritual crisis, about a veteran who feels betrayed and isolated, a man without a country. So unless Reagan was going for some deep metaphysical shit with his campaign, it’s more likely that he or his campaign lackey heard the title and ran with it. Springsteen famously lashed out, stating “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” It only cements Born in the USA as one of the truly greatest American songs.
Choosing music takes a lot of effort. It’s not enough that the song be popular, it has to work in all facets. A song needn’t be so literally used either, it can be an ironic use, a metaphorical use, a subversive use. But the main thing is that it must have an application beyond the commercial.
In Lilith I pondered over the final track to use in the credits. The credits song is an immensely important one for me, as it is the time when the viewer can reflect all that has happened, and I like the song to guide me through that spiritual minefield. In my debut film 19 Revolutions, I closed the film with Rjd2’s Smoke and Mirrors (before he hit it with the Mad Men titles), because besides being a kick ass song, the words made sense - 'who knows what tomorrow will bring, maybe sunshine maybe rain, but as for me I'll wait and see, maybe it'll bring my love to me.'
At the Cinequest film festival I was praised for using the song, as it fit the theme of my film perfectly. 19 Revolutions is the story of a young man faced with the brutal decision of an act of crime for honor. I ended the film ambiguously, as the man points a gun at the screen, eyes closed, moments before he decides if he will pull the trigger. At SXSW I was feted with having the best soundtrack (which included tracks by Rhythm and Sound, Porter Ricks, Mouse on Mars, Flying Saucer Attack, Rjd2 and Anticon), all of which were selected meticulously to fit the narrative and spine of the film.
With Lilith I had about twenty songs on my list, most of which I could afford because they were not major label artists. But it just wasn’t working, none of the songs I had completely encapsulated what I needed. I was getting desperate, as we needed to audio lock and mix. I was thinking of dipping into my savings so that I could pay for an obscenely expensive Nine Inch Nails song, but then, a stroke of luck.
I was in NYC doing the sound mix and a major rainstorm hit. I was on 3rd street and Broadway without an umbrella, and I knew that on 4th I could kill an hour at my favorite music store, Other Music. I’ve been buying music at OM since 1998, and they, along with Aquarius Records in San Francisco, have been a great source of new music for me and my films.
I got to Other Music, soaking wet. One of the staff kindly offered me a dry t-shirt - such are the perks of being a regular (and why brick and mortar stores are worth supporting). As I was drying off, a new record was being put on the shelf. It was by a band from Sacramento, CA called Sister Crayon, and the record, ‘Bellow’ was their debut. I picked it up and saw the title of one track - ‘Here We Never Die’ - and something about those words resonated. It fit my theme perfectly, that Lilith was a girl trapped in hell, and it is a place where she never dies, as she lives in the heart of her sister forever. It is both a prison and an infinite void. On a whim I picked it up.
I took the album home and listened to it, and it was magnificent. Ethereal female vocals from Tera Lopez, a chilling organ and wispy, crackling percussion. The lyrics fit everything, almost eerily. I immediately got on the case and within a week we had rights to the song. It’s a magnificent piece, and something I felt was meant to happen. The storm gods led me to that store and I was meant to find that record.
Searching for a soundtrack is an act of exploration and discovery. It takes time and lots of thought. Throw into the mix the financial restraints and it can be downright exhausting. But trust me, it’s well worth the effort. A thoughtful soundtrack can take a film to the next level, and I can’t imagine my films with other songs or without songs altogether. They are part of the diegetic world of the film, they are influence and nuance, they are atmosphere and mystery. As important as performance, cinematography and edit. You can easily make a film without a soundtrack, it’s not a requirement to have one. The films of the Dardenne Brothers contain no music, and as a result they are harrowing, sparse and bleak. It’s by design. I choose to have music because it is a way I express myself in my art. Music is elemental, it is basic, it’s another language with which to communicate. There will be projects where a soundtrack will sound forced or introduce artifice, and this is where restraint must be applied. The choice to use music is like any other creative choice, it must be done in the benefit of the story. Fail to be cognizant of that and you will end up with a shitty iPhone ad: forced, pandering and completely clueless.
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, as I’m starting to hear some truly innovative hip-hop coming out of all places, Glasgow, Scotland. Young Fathers have put together a truly unique sound that pays respect to both Dizzee and Scottish indie legends like The Beta Band and even Arab Strap. Unique beats, dense textures and outstanding writing (the chorus of ‘AK-47 take my brethren straight to heaven’ has been stuck in my head) easily makes for a contender for best record of the year. I’m really blown away by these lads.
I’m a child of Ridley. Blade Runner and Alien are two of the top-three all-time greatest science fiction films ever made (second place going to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). James Cameron’s Aliens is not too far back, it’s one of the finest genre films in film history, and Ellen Ripley is the greatest female protagonist ever. EVER. You’ll get shit from me if you say otherwise.
So as you can tell, the Alien franchise holds particular reverence for me, and when I talk to equally fervent fans of the franchise, I hear a great amount of disdain for the later sequels of the quadrilogy, Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection and David Fincher’s Alien3, the latter which is universally panned as the worst of the bunch.
I saw Alien3 in 1992, in an empty theater during a hot summer in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Literally, I was the only person in the theater, as it was later in the film’s release and word had gotten out that it wasn’t that good.
But I fucking loved it. Maybe it was the first and only time in my life I had a theater all to myself (I went alone - yes I do that, still do it, and I’m totally okay with it), but I was completely mesmerized by the movie, as much as the original Alien, which I’ve never seen on the big screen. Fincher’s film was filled with gorgeously dirty widescreen compositions, and the prisoner colony theme was something that bizarrely echoed another favorite film of mine, Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Charles S. Dutton was a supreme badass on television (in the tremendously underrated show Roc) and he translated his brooding intensity to the screen, matching Sigourney Weaver beat for beat. The Alien itself was incredible, taking on a canine form and being able to run along the ceiling, which was shown with an ingenious, vertiginous steadicam trick. The set pieces were epic and mammoth, echoing the epic work of Dante Feretti mixed with a dash of Moebius.
I don’t understand the vitriol thrown at the picture. From a directing and professional standpoint, I can empathize with Fincher’s distancing himself from the film - which was his first feature - as the studio incompetence surrounding the picture has become the stuff of legend. The film was greenlit without a completed screenplay, and Fincher essentially had to retrofit a on-the-spot story into sets that had already been constructed at great expense. Incongruous studio notes cockblocked almost every major decision at every stage of production. Legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who had made magic on Blade Runner, had succumbed to a lifelong battle with Parkinsons Disease, and had to be replaced one quarter into photography. The film was the case of too many cooks in the kitchen, and I can imagine for a precise and obsessive director like David Fincher, the shoot would’ve been pure hell, and totally forgettable.
But it is a testament to Fincher’s skill that if this is his version of ‘patchwork,’ then he truly is one of cinema’s great filmmakers working today. And it was his first film. The film’s script, perhaps out of necessity, was stripped down to a long chase sequence, taking full advantage of Norman Reynolds’ labyrinthine studio set. The film feels primal and elemental, but yet carries the formal and rigid artistic composition that would later become the pillar of Fincher’s work. Like most first time feature directors, Fincher also quotes the techniques of masters he grew up on, including Ridley Scott, John Ford, Orson Welles, George Miller and Terry Gilliam. The camera is placed low on the floor, distorting the already-epic scale of the prison colony, and Fincher makes use of deep focus and multiple planes within the frame. The film pays great respect to the previous visions of Ridley Scott and James Cameron, and while it may appear to collapse under the greatness of its predecessors, I personally think it stands equal to them, but in a totally different way.
The design of the xenomorph is a thing of beauty, and even garnered the film an Academy Award nomination with its combination of puppetry, miniatures, and early adoption of CGI. I loved that it taking on the form of a canine reinforced the mythology of the creature, that it took on the physiology of its host. Also too was the maternal / hive roots of the character, portrayed brilliantly in the film’s most iconic scene, a tete-a-tete between Ripley and the Alien.
Because I had to.
Despite some rough edges around the CGI, the film is eminently rewatchable, and I begin to notice things that I hadn’t before. Despite the aesthetic power of the film, it is in actuality an ensemble performance piece, and its strength comes from the oddball gang of prisoners who battle issues of faith and brotherhood throughout. It is an emotional note that strikes far deeper than the bond between Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, who are simply battling for physical survival. The inmates in Alien3 behave as if they’ve come face to face with the Devil, and they engage in an agnostic battle to rid the world of Evil. It feels epic and much larger than it appears to be.
Is Alien3 perfect? Not by any means. It still pales in comparison to Ridley Scott’s original. It is a sequel that was forced into existence, and one that should have lived a different life under Australian director Vincent Ward’s original vision, which was to have Ripley moor upon a planet made entirely of wood inhabited by a tribe of Luddite monks. Early production design documents hint at the world Ward was envisioning, and had the studio honchos had the guts to stick with it, Alien 3 would have been something truly special.
But we have Fincher’s take, and it is one hell of a take. I think it’s pretty damn amazing. Hopefully time will be kinder to it than the film’s critics, who have called it “grim,” “nihilistic” and “conceptually disjointed.” Call me nuts but those are the exact reasons why I think it’s so great. There’s talk of a sixth Alien film (after the resoundingly dreadful Prometheus) and in a perfect world there wouldn’t even be a sixth film, but if there had to be one, I would hope someone would make Vincent Ward’s film as he intended it. The groundwork is all there, and if Fincher’s pastiche is any indication of what a fraction of that film could have been, then it is absolutely worth resuscitating.
Music for the Weekend:Gulo Gulo Caesitas by Peder Mannerfelt.
It’s one of those rare moments, when you walk out of record store - record stores being a rarity themselves - and you emerge with three albums, and all of them are good enough to be the best record of the year. What a joy, to listen to them one after another, and be consistently moved and shocked. I haven’t had a sonic experience like that in a long time.
At the very top of that list is the album ‘Lines Describing Circles’ by Peder Mannerfelt. Shades of Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works’ and some cross between Brian Eno and Amon Tobin, Mannerfelt - who plays live with Fever Ray - has created an album of work that borders on inaccessible and sheer genius. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and it’s already painting vivid images in my head. Enjoy this track, seek out the album (available for download here) and revel in something truly groundbreaking.
Sorry for the lack of posts this week, am on the road and writing has been start-stop. Thanks for your patience, and have a wonderful weekend.
I’m currently in the middle of a screenplay for a feature project to direct this summer. It’s a project that I designed to fill in some empty space in my schedule, as my fall is pretty booked up, and a project I was supposed to direct this summer has been delayed. Such is film, there are no predictable schedules and for a project to come to full realization, a million parts must be synchronized at once.
The piece I’m writing is a pure performance piece - six women in one room - and I’ve never written such a complex script before. As is my style, I tend to write everything out. Both the Lilith and One Trick Rip-Off screenplays are filled with details and instructions, they are more like blueprints for a film to be constructed from. When people read those screenplays, they often are able to vividly see the film before them. It’s a way of writing that works for some, not for others. It works for me, as the analytical part of me reassures my creative free spirit. I know that when I get off the path less traveled, I always have a core plan I can go back to and rely upon.
But this script is an entirely different animal. It’s one room, so it’s not like I have to fill the screenplay with descriptions of setting and mood. One and done on the environment, which changes only slightly over the course of the story. This is purely a performance piece, where the six women talk and debate. Ethics. Morality. Mortality. It all comes into play.
I’ve never written a screenplay - let alone a single scene - where six characters interact with one another. Maximum I’ve done is four in one scene, and luckily that was just a scene, it didn’t have to carry out for 90 minutes. After plotting the script out and writing a full treatment, I stared at the blank page, not really knowing where to begin.
Do I just write it all out, just as I would any other screenplay? I started doing this and it didn’t feel right. It felt clinical and lacked spontaneity. Everything was planned, the dialogue was coming off as far too clever and snappy. I was writing in actions for the negative space - the space between the words - and it was reading just as filler. My tried and tested method of screenwriting was not working.
Not that it was bad writing, in fact it was quite good. Very good quality, some of the best I’d written in a long time. The debates between the women were reading more as a transcript of a debate that’s already happened. I imagined that if I was an actress I’d be excited to play the part, but it would be a matter of saying those specific lines in a specific way. I want something that grabs the actress and fills them with immediacy. So I decided to scrap what I’d written and start over.
I started with the characters. I created detailed profiles of each character, not getting into their backstory but rather the salient points that would affect their arguments. After finishing the profiles, I mapped out the five main arguments that transpire over the course of the story. I then created a graph, with the characters names on the horizontal access, and the argument topics on the vertical access. And then came the hard part - at each cross-point, I wrote how each character would respond to each argument. The graph visually presented each argument in proximity of one another, and in this presentation, I saw how each act would initially unfold.
I’d achieved an organic construct, and now I had to get back to writing a script. The dialogue was beckoning, but I decided to take a massive departure and I planned to let my actresses improvise the dialogue.
Improvisation doesn’t mean you don’t have a script, in fact it’s still a very detailed screenplay that must result. But the script is painted in broad strokes with the important details not omitted, but rather concealed. The true power in improvisation is not telling your actors what to say, but rather describing what they should not say. It’s what they’re holding back that will deliver the true meat of the lines.
Everyone’s got secrets, and the core of any drama is the lengths people will go to cover up the truth. In a romance it is the suppression of true feelings, in horror it is one’s mortality, in comedy it is the avoidance of awkwardness, which makes things all the more awkward. In my screenplay I’m focusing on the inner fears and prejudices that drive each woman to a conclusion, so what’s important is that the actors know what it is that they’re hiding. Once they know that, the improvisation to cover up those truths, when in concert with character preparation and immersion, should promise some very interesting results.
I’m about a quarter of the way through, and the screenplay is reading essentially like a prose document, except with some key start and stop points. I’m defining the beginning of an argument, and the idea of the counter argument. The idea is the gift to the opposing actors. There may be a few key lines of dialogue that are to be given not as gospel, but rather as a suggestion, a seedling to a line that will come out organically and in the moment. By the time I’m finished, the screenplay will be about fifty pages.
I’ve never done something like this before, and I have to admit, it’s a little scary. But I also know that an improvised screenplay has more than one author, and in this instance I will have six more once I complete my casting. Casting becomes paramount because not only am I bringing in six performers with great acting capacity, but also six co-writers who must have the intellect and creativity to finish what I started. They will have to come from a place of total immersion, which is undoubtedly a lot of pressure but also a tremendous adventure for an artist. It’s like being sent on a mission - you’ve been given your orders, you have your tools, and now you must execute. My job as a writer and director is to ensure that my actors are safe and comfortable, that they can count on me for direction when they get trapped or lost. We depend upon one another, and trust is key.
This is exciting, a new territory for me. It’s part of my continual growth as a filmmaker, to keep pushing myself and my collaborators into new things. We swing to different ends of the pendulum and arrive in the center with new skills, perspectives and tools. Ultimately I want to achieve the natural ease of improvisation with the composed, artistic formality of my earlier work. I’ve always been a visual and sonic artist, and to get to the very core of performance, to make acting harmonize with the visuals and sound, is to reach the apex of my goal as a filmmaker. Doing this improvised screenplay is an important step in that direction.
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”—Kurt Cobain
Twenty years ago, Kurt Cobain was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I remember feeling lost and confused. In Cobain and Nirvana I had a voice that could process the pain of being misunderstood, of expressing aggression and anger without misogyny, ego or machismo. He was the one who’d found a way to process the chaff and frustration, and yet he’d succumbed to it, and despite a beautiful and caring last note, he felt the only way to truly deal with the pain was to end his life.
I had a very hard time processing his death. I couldn’t cry because I was angry at him. I felt betrayed by a man I’d never met, but whose art would help define who I would eventually become. He, like so many of my heroes, was unafraid to point the middle finger at the tormentors of the young, the quiet, the different. He fought off bullies of many sorts with his words, his ideas, his sandpaper growl, his art. And yet he collapsed.
After some time, his death imparted another valuable lesson, one which guides me to this day. Kurt Cobain, for all his success, his achievements, his otherworldly talents and his vision, Kurt Cobain was just a man. He was flesh and bone, made plenty of mistakes, and had fears and doubts just like anyone else. His death not only killed my hero-worship, it also obliterated any want for celebrity or to follow it.
Celebrity, whose etymology derives from the Latin celibritatem, or multitudes of fame, is a poison that corrupts the integrity of a man. It froths all that is superficial and covers fears, flaws and all those things which make us real. It is a dam withholding troubled waters. In our current times, celebrity worship has reached unprecedented levels, where the admiration of plastic constructs like Kardashians, anti-vaccination bimbos or the Royal Family not only perpetuate lies on what construes a normal, complete life (nobody is fabulous, rich, skinny, perfect, happy and gets what they want ALL the time, if ever) but also poisons us with disappointment in our own flaws, which many times aren’t even flaws at all. Celebrity not only foments envy, but chisels insecurity into our bones, to the point of self-destruction and self-mutilation.
The day Kurt Cobain died was the day I understood how beautifully fucked up life is, how immensely complex it is, and how it can never be appreciated through a filter of perceived celebrity perfection. It forever changed my interactions with people and how I did business later in my life. I see no one as being more important than the other, we are all flawed, we are all scared, we are all actively making mistakes and we should help one another to solve them, rather than being judgmental of our failures and envious of our successes, which is the very core of celebrity. The saddest part of Cobain’s death was that, despite having friends who loved him dearly, he died alone and in tremendous pain, and it is a thought that brings immense sadness to my soul.
The quote above demonstrates Cobain’s struggle with celebrity, and the best way to honor his death is to love him for being human, for being a real man, and not just for the art he made, which moved so many of a generation in a personal way. I remember, clear as day, the moment Kurt Cobain came into my life, as I recently wrote on my Facebook page:
"I got this EP for my 14th birthday. Wax Trax records in Denver, on Capitol Hill. Compact disc issued by Tupelo, discount marked down written in Sharpie on the case. Threw it on my dad’s CD player and THIS bassline changed my life forever. I couldn’t dance to it, all I could do was pound my fist into my chest and thrash my head. Mom was worried, but she also saw that I was happy. I’d connected."
Music for the Weekend:Boundless Love by Savage Sister.
We’re on the thaw. Officially it’s been the most brutal (brutalest?) winter in Chicago’s history, with the average temperature from November to the end of March hovering around 22 degrees. That’s almost five months straight of below freezing temperatures, and add to that the third most snow in Chicago’s history (about seven odd feet of it) and it’s a winter for the ages, one to hold above any future kid’s whining about how cold it is outside.
We survived, and it’s given me a lot to experience and think about. Your mind can’t help but go to dark places when it feels like nuclear winter for so long. In the thaw I’m seeing dead animals emerging from the glaciers, trapped and preserved like mammoths, who couldn’t survive the freeze. I see the damage on old wood and structures, I see the effects of expansion on the concrete.
And in the middle of all that, a tuft of green. A blade of grass. A bud on a tree branch. Life perseveres, as it must. It’s still cold outside but the chill has gone from the bones, we’re all ready to shed our weathered skins and bloom. Time to commit to paper all that has been experienced, pondered and formulated. Warmth and sun bring new energy, the rite of Spring.
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dryer’s Vampyr remains as one of my favorite films of all time, a brooding meditation on death, dreams and aspiration. It is perhaps the single most visually stunning film I’ve ever seen, and its fingerprints can be found in several other films that I’ve admired, from the works of David Lynch to the Brothers Quay, especially with their stunning film Institute Benjamenta.
My favorite sequence from ‘Intitute Benjamenta.’
I’ve been studying Dryer for some time, and no filmmaker’s education is complete without some dedication to his canon. Immediately noticeable are Dryer’s compositions and approach to light - unlike so many silent filmmakers he reveled in using brightness and haze to bring out the darkness of the subject matter. He used light to cast shadow and contrast the darkness, something we’d see later in the work of Kubrick, especially in 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange.
I’ve long been obsessed with darkness, and when I made Lilith I made sure to plunge the entire film in literal darkness. But what I’ve come to realize is that Dreyer’s brand of darkness is actually quite more affecting, in that there is nothing to hide within. There is nothing lurking in Dreyer’s shadows, the horror is real and upfront.
A study of Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc demonstrates this point brilliantly. In an iconic scene, young Jeanne D’Arc - played by a freshly cropped Renée Jeanne Falconetti - refuses the help of God before she is burned at the stake. The scene is shot in a haunting close-up, Dryer confronts us with Jeanne, and makes us look at her, face-to-face. We see the wrongs of our ways, we cannot turn away from her beauty and innocence. We know what is beset upon her will be a tragedy.
Closer study reveals an artistic choice by Dryer which reinforces the horror and tragedy of the sequence, and it is a motif repeated throughout his canon. Dryer keeps the backdrop of Jeanne a pure white - he had the art director paint the background pink so as to avoid any kind of shades being picked up by the black and white film stock - and as a result we are purely confronted by her humanity and our choices put upon her. This is the use of contrast in its most pioneering, as we see her in full detail. She is beautiful but not glamorous, we see her freckles, her small imperfections that reinforce her innocence and bind us to her even stronger. The power of white as a base of contrast, while largely commonplace today, was a massive step in the evolution of cinema, which at the time was reveling in the massive details of epic Hollywood films like The Thief of Baghdad.
Dreyer’s use of this kind of minimalism was selective and done in varying degrees, but remains as one of the few filmmakers dedicated to the use of white, which has now been relegated to films about space travel. Kubrick used Dryer’s technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey and expanded upon it, giving us a set with the bare minimum of iconic dressing, but still using white to a chilling effect, highlighting every element in the room, putting it in our face, and forcing us to connect the dots.
The use of such diametric contrast is difficult to pull off, but when done right and placed within the narrative and edited masterfully, it can be one of the most affecting, powerful things a director, cinematographer and actor can create together. In my most anticipated film of 2014, Under the Skin, I saw in the trailer that Jonathan Glazer bravely attempts this, further cementing him as a spiritual and artistic descendant of Kubrick and Dryer. Glazer does away with the white background and lights the skin of his protagonist, an alien Scarlett Johansson, as uncomfortably pale against a pure black background. The construction is inverse to Dryer, but the effect is nonetheless startling. I absolutely cannot wait to see this film.
One might question this study against my observations of Henri Cartier-Bresson, surrealism and using visually interesting backgrounds for subjects to play in front of, but one has to also accept that a plain white background can be equally visually interesting, and has as much value as one that is overly populated with elements and texture. It’s the middle ground where things get boring and uninteresting. Minimalism is always visually interesting, and Lars Von Trier brilliantly described Dryer’s approach - which can also be applied to Kubrick and Glazer - as cooking down a stock or soup, where elements are removed so that the core flavors become richer, complex and more pronounced. It is complexity by means of subtraction, something even Cartier-Bresson practiced.
Dreyer is a revelation, someone who made movies in the 20s that are still seen as a future vision of cinema today. He demands frame-by-frame analysis, and an even more fruitful exercise is to trace his influence throughout cinema. This is just the tip of that pale, white iceberg.
Las Vegas, The Marshall Plan, and Authenticity vs. Approximation.
I’ve just returned from Las Vegas, where I spent the last week on a work assignment. I used to go to Vegas a lot when I was kid, and it’d always held a fascination for me. Seeing guys gamble at 10am in an empty casino is some weird Edward Hopper-ish like nightmare for me, and even darker and sadder is watching people play slot machines in the airport.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid, Las Vegas was truly Sin City, seedy, cheap and dirty, a place that abhorred kids and families, and yet if you were a kid lucky enough to be allowed access to the city as I was, you saw the strangely surrealistic face of America. When I was ten we stayed at the Imperial Hotel, and while my family gambled for most of the day, me and a gaggle of other kids were sequestered in a tiny video arcade game room. My grandfather, perhaps sensing that I was going stir crazy, convinced my parents to let me tag along and see a Vegas show. Being that the show was a topless revue called “Nudes on Ice,” I’m shocked that my parents realized, during the show, that it might be inappropriate for a ten year old kid. But I was there, I loved it, and I saw amazingly beautiful tanned naked bodies, each adorned with vibrant plumage flowing from their heads and arms. I saw drunkards ogling women they could never have, and on the way out from the show I saw a man proposition an escort for an evening.
The next day I had a footlong hot dog for a dollar, and spilled mustard all over my jeans, which in the 110 degree weather caked like yellow building spackle. I had my fortune told to me by a bum on the Strip. I saw the place where Evel Knievel jumped over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. I saw drunken debauchery, lounge singers, male and female prostitutes, and an economy that was completely divorced from the American Dream. It was its own thing. It was incredible.
But then came the Mirage Hotel, and things changed forever. Vegas was no longer hostile to children like me, rather it welcomed them with the promise of entertainment for all. It forgot that it was that hostility which made the city so incredibly unique. Today the city is filled with glass towers and designer fashion boutiques. Within every hotel are the same designers, repeating inventories across three miles of real estate. Celebrity chefs prepare food fit for Manhattan gastonomiques. Hotels take on the personalities of cities, mimicking New York, Venice, Athens and Paris. It’s grand, larger than life, trying desperately to compete with Monte Carlo and Macau.
And it’s all so resoundingly plastic. I would win a bigger jackpot if I found a shred of authenticity on the Las Vegas Strip, instead it is entirely an approximation of the real thing. A facade to placate the masses who no longer have the outlet of sin, rather they drown in a pre-packaged and homogenous vision of affluence through acquisition. Essentially, the Las Vegas Strip has turned into one giant mega mall.
In this sense the Strip has embraced the American Dream of consumerism, i.e. The Marshall Plan, where happiness is inexorably linked to consumerism. Happiness in Vegas is no longer about striking it rich in the face of odds set by the house, it is about sitting in a celebrity chef’s restaurant (where the chef is rarely present, in name only) and thinking that eating their food somehow brings you to the same feeling as eating at their actual kitchen in Manhattan or Napa Valley. Buying a Gucci belt as a different kind of gambling.
Vegas used to be about 80 percent gambling and 20 percent entertainment, and I can say with full confidence that the numbers have flipped. Sin City is dead, The City of Sin Brought to You by MGM and Wynn is what remains, and it’s a mournful passing. It is just another city now, with the same shops, the same restaurants, the same chains. It saddens me deeply.
On my last day I made a trip to the Hoover Dam, as I’d never seen it before. I had low expectations but I came away from it inspired and amazed. What I’d noticed was that the dam, while built purely for function, still had stunningly beautiful elements of Art Deco design. It had personality and purpose. The large bridge across from the dam, only recently completed, was staggering in its scale but it lacked any design outside of its function. If Hoover Dam was Old Vegas, the Pat Tillman Bridge was the New America.
Everything around us is becoming so bland, so uniform, so uninspiring. New construction is built for economic efficiency, as design is an expense relegated to the supremely wealthy. I miss design in America, especially design for the use of the masses. My post office down the street is a granite and marble art deco bunker, with painted murals depicting the Agricultural Revolution inside. My new post office a few blocks away is a prefabricated brick and concrete box which, while clean, is completely lacking in any kind of deference to history, legacy, or style. It is immediately forgettable.
I was so bored in Vegas that I went and saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it encapsulated everything that I was feeling. The film is exquisitely designed and meticulously crafted, one of the most precise films that Anderson has ever made, which is saying a lot. I reveled in its details, its idiosyncrasies, its flourish. Every frame was a thoughtful painting, the work of a true aesthete. It is a film more fit to be shown in the art deco movie palaces of yesterday than in the AMC 8 corrugated steel box that I saw it in.
Design matters. Details make memories. Tactile emotions and personal statements. Details are only expensive if we deem them as luxuries. There was a time in America when details were done out of artisan pride, where it was paid for because it was appreciated. It’s why I bought a vintage home built in 1892. It has designs that can be no longer feasible, not because the technology is obsolete or the design flawed, but because builders just don’t want to do it any more.
When we make films, we must design them. We must be thoughtful and thorough, and make art that, while efficient and cost effective for mass consumption, must always be authentic, and never an approximation. This means additional work, but when you have the pride of an artists, there is no such thing as additional work in your lexicon. You do the work as the design intended, and as a result you will create something memorable, lasting, and worthy of inheritance.
“Intuition is the key to everything, in painting, filmmaking, business - everything. I think you could have an intellectual ability, but if you can sharpen your intuition, which they say is emotion and intellect joining together, then a knowingness occurs.”—David Lynch
What Lynch means by an intellectual ability is the skills and techniques of your trade. But what good is skill and technique if the hand that wields them is afraid? Instinct will always conquer fear. Always. When you are on a set, when you are directing your crew, when you are acting, when you are making edits, when you are exercising your craft, when you are following your bliss and you come to that repeated, inevitable junction of making a dangerous choice, then remember this mantra.
Technique: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Surrealism and André Breton.
When I go on holiday I actually work. I know there are a lot of people who’s idea of a vacation is sitting on a beach all day and doing nothing, and I’ve tried that and it makes me feel restless. I need to be actively learning something, and I find that learning actually recharges and refreshes my mind. Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, famously said that our minds are like car batteries - when it’s dead you have to run the car to recharge it. I wholeheartedly subscribe to it.
On our trip to Paris, my wife and I stopped in at the Centre Pompidou to see the newly-opened Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit, charting his entire life’s photographic work, his philosophy, and his technique. I was excited beyond bounds - HCB’s work has been a driving influence ever since high school, when as a graduation gift my grandfather presented me with a copy of The Decisive Moment. Every cinematographer I’ve worked with can attest that I reference Cartier-Bresson in all of my documents. He and Robert Frank are the two visual pillars upon which all my cinematic references are built.
But truth be told - and almost shamefully - I never formally studied Cartier-Bresson, I just admired his photographs. I never read up about him other than a topical biography and his founding of Magnum, the international collective of photographers. I always reference a single quote by Cartier-Bresson, which I’ve committed to memory, as an ideology to my approach to showing horror and darkness onscreen:
"We aim to make terror beautiful so that it will become unforgettable, so that it will burn into people’s memories, so that they will do something to stop it, if they can. And if they cannot, they will at least understand what terror means.”
And that was the extent of it. So imagine my joy and fevered anticipation upon entering the Pompidou, to learn in depth about this man who so wholly influenced what I do. I came out a new artist, a new thinker, a new man. My approach to cinema, in my future projects, will forever be altered by what I learned in that extensive and exhaustive exhibit, which took over three hours to navigate.
The first major element I learned was that Cartier-Bresson, who was also a trained illustrator and painter, was adherent to the newly-minted Surrealist movement and the writings of poet/ philosopher André Breton. Breton, who in 1924 drafted the first Manifeste du surréalisme, declared surrealism as “pure psychic automatism,” i.e. a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move randomly and freely across the paper, where chance plays a large role in the final impression, and therefore the surrealist composition is freed of any kind of rational control. Cartier-Bresson, seeing truth in this, applied this to his photographs in a technique which can be seen across all of his compositions. While the human subjects of his photography tend to carry the emotional impact, the real artistic foundation of his work lay in the backgrounds.
Cartier-Bresson, with his naturally gifted artistic eye, selected backgrounds of high visual interest. Textures, proportions, shapes and natural graphics. He would set up his position in front of that selected background, and simply allow life to unfold in front. Rather than searching for people to photograph, he allowed people to traverse that area and photographed them in what he called the decisive moment - a moment where potential energy initially becomes kinetic. Cartier-Bresson applied the idea of automatism, of letting his subjects be free of rational control, and let them move across his canvas, where he would capture a specific moment. The results are powerful and beautiful, a combination of journalistic veracity, surrealist velocity, and pure aesthetic beauty.
It was an absolutely startling revelation to me, and in the exhibit I started scribbling down in my notebook how I could apply this to cinema. I’d realized I’d already started philosophizing about this method on this blog, when I wrote about John Huston’s film Fat City and making muscular, American films. . In that post I wrote that Huston crafted the film with “remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines.” Unknowingly, I recognized that Huston was, essentially, making a film in the way Cartier-Bresson photographed. However recognizing it and doing it are two totally different things, and I want to push the Surrealist vision further by embracing the second important thing I learned from the HCB exhibit, which are the thematic pillars of Surrealism.
Unbeknownst to me, Surrealist compositions have three central themes or focuses. The first is some sort of bondage, with items or people wrapped in fabric, tape, leather, or just about any other material. Cartier-Bresson made extensive use of muslin and transparent, textured materials in both his back and foregrounds, and there is an overriding dark sensuousness towards its use. When fabric or material was not available, he employed the human body.
The second theme is on aberrations of the human form. We see it in the works of Dali, where the human body is stretched, ballooned, fragmented and distorted. Cartier-Bresson, be it through lens selection and exposure or through actual subject matter of bodies shaped by environment, genetics or disease, captured the human form as if a subconscious expression of the inner self. Cartier-Bresson intentionally cropped out body parts, refrained from the full body form, and honed in on bodies to the point of abstraction. He used mannequins, statues and costume to warp our perspectives and proportions.
The third element is the notion of people actively dreaming. In Surrealism this is most often captured by showing people sleeping or with their eyes closed, but as time progressed, Cartier-Bresson expanded the idea of a dream fugue state of being by experimenting with frames within frames, creating three-dimensional objects on a flat plane, and photographing subjects from a higher, omniscient angle. The dream state is altogether bizarre but populated with familiar elements, and in that manner, Cartier-Bresson’s truths are indeed stranger than fiction.
These of course are my observations and are part of a deeper study as Cartier-Bresson continued to evolve, and I do not claim to be an authority on Surrealism or photography for that matter. But when in application to my own art, these are the creative starting points to something that resonates within my own aesthetics and worldview. I’ve longed to capture truth within the surreal and vice versa, and this jaunt into an artist whom I thought I knew exposed my own hubris. There is so much more to learn, and rather being daunted by that, I found it invigorating. I feel like an explorer on the eve of an expedition into dangerous territory, like a soldier armed with a new weapon he’s yet to master, like a kid who thought he knew all about music picking up a guitar for the first time. Cartier-Bresson continues to enrich my life, and I know he will continue to guide me throughout my life and career. A monumental sea change in how I work is afoot.
Hot Topic: Lady Gaga's SXSW Keynote and Selling Out.
My first trip to SXSW (‘South by Southwest’ for the uninitiated) was in 2004, when I was invited by the organizers. Ten years ago, the festival was a bustling confluence of independent film, indie rock and fringe hip-hop, and a burgeoning interactive / new media sector. It was grassroots, all about the artist, and the empowerment of ideas that would be glossed by the mainstream, only to become the pillars of the future mainstream. It’s an invigorating event, one that mirrors the “keep it weird” ethos of its host city of Austin, which has to be one of the five coolest places on Earth. I’ve been going on and off to SXSW for the past ten years, and it’s been an amazing experience every time.
Ten years on and the festival is bigger, louder, faster and more crowded than ever. I did not attend but I had about a dozen friends and colleagues who did, and they all came back feeling that the festival may have jumped the proverbial shark. The indicators were the presence of Justin Bieber, corporate sponsors for every event, Hollywood productions with distribution peppering the lineup of films, and first and foremost, the inclusion of Lady Gaga as the keynote speaker for the music festival.
I like Lady Gaga. I think she’s a true performer who knows her shit. I saw an interview with her and her knowledge of performance art and music is vast and impressive, more than any recent pop-star. She pushes the envelope of good taste. It was indeed confusing when the festival decided it was to be her to deliver the keynote address. It wasn’t that she was a commercial success and that disqualifies her. Last year, Dave Grohl, who is arguably one of the most commercially successful musicians on the planet, delivered one of the best speeches I’d ever heard about staying true to one’s voice - because it’s the only voice you’ve got - and it always being about the artist first. It remains as one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard, and if you’ve got the time, I’ve included it below. It will, without a doubt, change your life.
Lady Gaga’s keynote address was posted online a few days ago. I watched it with great interest on what insight she would bring to an industry very much in flux. There was already buzz because of her performance of ‘Swine’ a few days earlier, in which she had self-proclaimed ‘vomit artist’ Millie Brown puke green pain all over her chest. Okay. Gaga being Gaga. There was a major hullabaloo that Gaga’s “you don’t fucking own me” vomit performance was sponsored by Doritos.
Next stop, Nikelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards!
But hype will be hype, and in our age of Twitter and instanews, it’s best to get it from the source. Gaga walked on stage, dressed in a melange of white trash bags and a giant white Battlefield Earth wig, and I waited for her keynote address.
First of all, it wasn’t an address. It was an interview. She didn’t prepare a speech, like all the keynote speakers before her had. She was interviewed, asked questions, and spoke off the cuff. I have to admit, it made me mad. You look at the thoughtfulness and immense work that Grohl, Springsteen and the keynote speakers before put in, and she didn’t even take the time to write a speech. Okay, that’s just me. Put it aside. Let her speak.
She was asked about the Doritos thing, and she responded that her critics “don’t have a fucking clue how the music industry works.” She was right. So many artists get flak for selling their music to ad agencies, that they ‘sold out’ for the money. But to Gaga’s point, the sources of revenue for bands have all but shrunk, and if you can get that money, it’s more money and exposure that you can get touring for a few years. It’s a business move, and in many cases a survival move. I don’t begrudge artists for selling their own music. Gaga had a point.
But then she went on and on about how she wants to connect with fans, about it all being heart and soul, and yet the elephant in the room remained: she was being funded by giant corporations and despite her cries that artists should own their own music, she doesn’t own her own music. Gaga works hard, she says that even if she didn’t have a giant record deal she’d still work just as hard for that indescribable high of making art. I believe her, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s being funded and promoted by giant corporations.
Is that a crime? No. But Gaga defended it with a statement of “Don’t sell out, sell in.” So she’s saying to play into a system that clearly doesn’t work for 99% of the music industry, but make the maneuvers to create your art within that system. It doesn’t make sense. Gaga doesn’t need the sponsorship of Doritos to have a girl vomit on her, but she needs Doritos to have that act carry any kind of meaning. The shock is not the act of vomiting (countless musicians and performers regularly engage in body horror / self mutilation), the shock is that a pop star is having it done to her under a corporate sign.
Gaga continues on, and what she seems so oblivious to is that the corporations that fund her and her charity do so not to support her art, they are simply profiting off her image. This where she is wrong about ‘selling in.’
But what does that even mean, to ‘sell in’ or more importantly, to sell out? In the larger sense it is when you give up your voice, your integrity, for a dollar. Has Gaga lost her voice? No. In fact it’s probably stronger than ever. She has every right to make as much money as she can. But she cannot profess to fight the battle of the independent artist - telling them to sell in, to find the Doritos and KIA’s of the world, who will somehow magically support unfettered expression - and maintain any sense of integrity in doing so. Doritos and KIA will latch on to anything that is popular to shill their products. They didn’t seek Lady Gaga because they believe in her art and want it to thrive, they did it because she’s popular, and they’ll drop her the minute she’s unpopular.
When I see films rife with product placement and blockbusters castrated to appeal to the masses, I don’t view that as a singular, unique voice. That’s allowing outside forces to dictate your art, and there’s little to no integrity in that. One might argue that this is a way to finance a film, and this is true, but we have to ask ourselves at what cost. When the revenue source begins to dictate the voice and perspective of the art, the choices made by the artist, then we are selling out. This can be a tough thing to swallow because it’s difficult to imagine popular art without product placement or sponsorships.
Why then, is it such a bad thing to sell out? Because selling out means you are putting your perspective, your voice, and your worldview aside for the benefit of someone who has no interest in making the world a better place. Sure Doritos might contribute to Gaga’s charity, but they do it also as a tax write-off, as a way to curry favor with the public. Can it be that advertising and corporates can be that cruel and heartless? A resounding yes. We wonder how we got into the shape we are today, where corporate greed has become uncontrollable, and by way of people selling out, permissible.
Lady Gaga telling artists to ‘sell in’ simply allows a system that doesn’t support the artist to thrive. She’s supported and justified the wrong guy. If she truly were the artist / entrepreneur deserved of a keynote address at the most influential media conference in the world, then she would have made a statement for companies like Doritos to support musicians on the fringe, to give them just as big a stage as they give her. She would form a record label, like Dave Grohl, to support new artists and have her corporate backers back those artists. This has nothing to do with her advocacy and activism in the LGBT communities, this is about the business of art, which is what she was invited to SXSW to talk about. She failed miserably.
Gaga’s in a rarefied air that so few musicians can even relate to, and while she can parlay stories of her struggles to get signed and noticed, that is a universal story that all artists experience. It’s what she’s doing now that matters, and she’s having her image cashed in upon, and the saddest thing is that she seems oblivious to it.
Ultimately I blame the organizers of SXSW for inviting a corporate popstar to talk about the future of music. She didn’t even bother to write a speech. SXSW, like Sundance, has slowly embraced celebrity worship, when in fact they really didn’t need to. Ten years ago the festival was sold out, and the biggest celebrity to show up was Elijah Wood. It was always about the artist, and now it’s about sponsors and selling tickets, and they’re believing the idea that the more revenue the festival gets, the more independent artists they can help. It’s trickle down economics for the indie set, and it’s going to self-destruct.
I just watched a documentary about Pearl Jam, PJ20, directed by Cameron Crowe. I saw the story of a band, at the height of their powers, take on Ticketmaster because they felt the company was making music undemocratic, that the power of profit overrode the responsibility to bring music to the masses. They fought the company, stayed to their ideals, and never sold out. They continue to tour and make the art they wish to make, on their own terms, and they make a living from it. Those times when they ‘sold in,’ they were smart enough to know what it was doing to them, their art, and their fans. They stayed true. Filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles do the same. They are in control of their art, are in service of their art, and enter agreements with corporate distributors with the sole understanding that the art is to remain undisturbed and unfettered. All of these artists never sold in, and therefore they will never sell out. Integrity and truth to the self is the single most important quality of the artist.
Another pick for one of the best albums of the year, this record is blowing my mind. You can download it at the band’s Bandcamp page for your own price. Good karma always dictates that you show bands who extend goodwill some love. Pay for great music and films, and they will repay you in spades.
Been a very long and hectic week, many new and exciting events happening in my career. I’ve been offered some exciting directing work which hopefully will find its legs this summer, and I also just secured the film rights to a wonderful comic book by insanely talented writer/artist Sam Alden, which I’m going to produce into a short film, to be directed by a dear friend. More on both as events unfold.
Tireless work pays off. Glad to start seeing some returns. I hope the readers who have been with me from the start will see that film careers indeed do take time to unfold, as two important facets must develop and mature. The first is your experience, which only comes with time and constant creation. The other is your unique voice, which comes through living life. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was toppled overnight. This is a fragile and contradictory balance, one which requires infinite patience, dogged impatience, and the desire to make a practical career out of circumstances that on paper don’t make any practical sense at all. Eyes on the prize, my friends. Eyes on the prize. It is still very, VERY early in our film careers, and we’ve got a long way to go. Stay persistent.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”—Mark 8:36
The 60k giveaway contest is officially closed. I got about 350 submissions and so many of them really moved me, made me laugh, and made me think. For whatever reason it all made me think of this quote from the Bible. Yes, as godless a heathen that I am, I have read the Bible.
To be faced with so much truth is, in this day of hollow “inspiration” (“What happens next will inspire you! Faith in humanity restored! Please stop it, Upworthy. Please.) is a true breath of fresh air. I’ve read things arcane and dark, passing and seemingly trivial, all to the purpose of understanding what truly is important. To achieve small understandings, to not conform to blanket uniformity, is to preserve one’s soul. Hence the quote.
Quite astonishing, really. I’ve chosen a winner, and will contact you soon.
Thank you all so much for opening up and sharing. I’ve learned a lot from you who were so brave to share.
I wanted to make mention of a very special project of a dear friend of mine. Jacob Moore, a Chicago and LA-based actor who I had the privilege of directing in our TV pilot last year, has founded and championed one of the finest not-for-profit organizations I’ve come across. The group is called NØSTIGMAS, and is dedicated to suicide prevention and dealing with mental illness. Jacob and I connected over losses to suicide in our lives, and I truly appreciate his drive, his ambition, and the tireless and heartfelt work of the NØSTIGMAS staff. Here’s an amazing speech that Jacob gave about his own life and struggles, it’s heartbreaking and inspiring. I admire his courage so much, please take the time to watch it.
It would be a tremendous favor to me if you went to the NØSTIGMAS tumblr page and followed them. There’s some really amazing stuff going on there, and if you really dig deep into your heart, please donate to the organization. I pledged to Jacob to donate every year in memory of my fallen friends, in hopes that he and his staff can reach out and prevent further tragedies.
We reached a great milestone yesterday, as this blog reached 60,000 followers! That’s a lot of folks.
As a show of appreciation for all of your support, I wanted to do a giveaway. I don’t this very often, but I keep my promises and deliver on my word (see here and here).
I though that since so much of this blog is about process and inspiration, so I’ve decided to put together a cool prize to give away.
The Prize: A signed and annotated copy of the FIRST draft of the Lilith screenplay. I think it’s always interesting to see the first iteration of an idea, and the first draft of the Lilith screenplay is a really cool fever dream, full of stuff I never filmed and some really bizarre imagery. I’ll include a signed copy of the film for your reference to see how much has changed.
As a bonus, I’ll throw in pen drive that has ALL of the production dossiers and original temp tracks PLUS the entire original score by dälek. Plus I might throw something else cool in there as well. Maybe some original artwork or production sketches, or a DVD / LP from my own personal collection. Whatever I do it’ll include a personalized letter from me to you, and the subject of which will be determined by…
How to Enter: I want you to write me one sentence. Since the theme of Lilith is loss, I want you to write me one thing you’ve lost that you wish you could have back, or you’re glad is gone. One sentence. Can be funny, sad, twisted or banal, it’s up to you. By 12AM next Thursday, I’ll review the submissions and pick one as the winner. I’ll post the best entries (anonymous, of course), and we can share in the overall impact that I wanted my movie to have, which is to face our demons, make peace with them, and start a new day.
Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 3. What is Love?
Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.
Of course thanks to Haddaway we laugh every time we ask the question, but it truly is an important question, and without delving into it, our efforts to write a romantic comedy script will be futile. In this third installment of the mini-series (part 2 here, and part 1 here), we’ll look at the motivating factors that can drive a romantic comedy.
Here’s a quick test: type the word ‘love’ into the Tumblr search engine and see what comes up. Chances are you’ll get a smattering of gyrating K-Pop idols, sentiments written in old-timey cursive on paper, and lots and lots of people fucking. Is this what love is now?
Having binged on over thirty romcoms these past few weeks, I think we’ve got a very strange conception of what love actually is. There’s a very blurry line in movies and television between wanting to love someone versus wanting to fuck them, and that’s kind of problematic. The endgame of love, in popular media, is getting to fuck someone, and we know that’s just a harlequin romance fantasy. It’s so much more complex than that.
The act of sex is not love, it is an expression of it. It is one of many expressions that can also include things like getting a card, doing the dishes, hanging up your towel, donating to an animal shelter, or simply listening. In mainstream cinema we tend to default to equating sex as love because a) watching people fuck is good for business and marketing, and b) it feeds into our primal instincts and is therefore the fastest route to universality.
This is also love.
But we all know there’s so much more to it, and that the very best romance / romantic comedies know this. I recently watched the Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Color and it is one of the freshest, most startling romances I’ve seen in a long time, probably the best since Once. It has very explicit sex scenes but they are just one component of the complexity of the core romance. There is a great dose of pain in the film, the pain of separation, of not getting it right, of possibly losing this person who makes you feel alive, who makes you feel safe, who you can truly be yourself around. I finished watching the film and said “this is a portrait of true, if not tragic, love.”Love is painful.
For a romantic comedy to be truly epic, it must accept this pain, and the source of its humor will arise from that pain. The greatest jokes come from the uncomfortable truths of the human condition, that we’re programmed to do the impressive mating dance and yet we falter, we have flaws, and we hope and pray that the person we’re interested in can see through all of that.
The mating dance - that most awkward of rituals - is the source of the greatest humor. I see it on the street all the time. A male pigeon puffs his chest and prances around a disinterested female, hoping she’ll be impressed. She’s trying to mind her own, and this clown is flexing and preening, making pretty much an ass out of himself. I imagine a bunch of other birds looking at him and feeling sorry for him, and others angling to cash in on his failure. So now my bird friend has two options: amp up his game and make the adjustments to get the girl, or back down and let the other birds swoop in.
This is the first act of any romantic comedy. We establish the normal world of the hero(ine), their normal way of life, which may include plenty of failure, or loveless sex, or escape from the pursuit of romantic happiness. The end of the first act arrives with the call to action - the object of affection - and the failure of the normal way of doing things. Our hero(ine) is now locked in - if they want the love, then they’re going to have to make some changes to make it happen. End act one.
The second act is where most romcoms fail, in that the core of comedy is found in the failed attempts to get things right with the object of affection. Today’s romcoms revel in humiliation and mean spirited predatory humor on insecurities. Instead, the second act is the very best place for observational humor, humor that brings up absurdity as opposed to humiliation.
In the second act, the hero(ine) works through their playbook, and fails at them all. The realization then arrives that the normal playbook, be it an ace or pathetic one, will not work in this situation. The midpoint comes when the hero(ine) is shown the error of their ways, and it is implied that they will have to make a great change for things to work out. They concoct a new plan, and the end of the second act is when this new plan, fueled by some kind of courage, doesn’t seem to be working. The second act ends with the character on the precipice of absolute failure - not only do they stand to lose the object of affection, but they stand to be in even worse shape than when the movie started.
We’re still playing it safe here, but the third act is where we really have to dig in and understand what being in love is about. In the third act, now having faced almost certain desolation, the hero(ine) must partake in the final, epic battle for their love. This is the Campbellian “slaying of the dragon,” be it a rival suitor, a crippling insecurity (Hugh Grant was / is the king of this in romcoms), or a fear of humiliation. The hero(ine) steps beyond the limitations of their body and becomes an elemental force of love, laying it all out on the line. Exposed heart, willing to lose the world for their love.
We think this is where it all ends, but there is always one last battle, the villain that isn’t really dead, and comes back for one final swipe. This is the moment of true love. It is that moment when our hero(ine) has their worst fear realized, they overcome it, and a new normal is achieved. That new normal is up to you. It may be tragic, in the idea that is always better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all, or it may be victorious, where the new normal is a coexistence with a new partner in crime.
As aforementioned, this is where we have to dig deep and figure out what is love. For us. It’s different for everyone. But there is one universal factor for true love, and this has been proven over and over again throughout the annals of recorded human history, and that is that true love is rooted in compassion. If passion in Latin means to suffer, then compassion means to suffer with. We suffer for the things we care about, and that’s all what the third act is about. It’s taking the proverbial (and sometimes literal) bullet. True love will not come to you, you will have to make a sacrifice for it, and it is the degree of what you’re willing to give up which defines the epic scale of your love. Sometimes the greatest act of love is simply letting go, and that is the core of the tragic romance. You let go with the hope that they will return, that destiny has it written that you be together. The choice, as it is presented in so many romantic comedies, is not between Hot Guy A and Hot Guy B, it is between you and your conscience. What will being with either guy entail you sacrificing? The greater the sacrifice, the deeper the love. It’s as simple as that.
In my research of romcoms I realized that the great romantic comedies are always romances that happen to be funny. It doesn’t work the other way around. Humor in a romantic comedy is born from brute honesty, observations of human behavior when we are at our most vulnerable, and the missteps that the ego makes us take because we’re too afraid of exposing ourselves as crumbling, awkward people. The desire to appear strong - like the puffed up pigeon - is what is required to have sex for procreation, but the need to be vulnerable - which is born through suffering - is what is required for romantic love. The comedy is in the facade of strength, and the romance is in strength of conviction.
I’m not sure if I’ve cracked the romantic comedy but I think this was a pretty good start. It’s definitely completely out of my comfort zone. But I know what I like, and I don’t really like what I see today. In modern romcoms I’m being sold the idea that romantic love is the only answer to loneliness. This is wrong. The only thing that romantic love addresses is the desire to be wooed, to be pursued. True love is seeing beyond that. True love is not finding the person who is right for you, it is that moment when you are truly at peace with yourself.
I will not be watching the Academy Awards tonight. I ultimately support the artists and their right to have their work celebrated, but I also value their right to be paid fairly even more than any kind of statuette.
The VFX industry is in mass crisis. The studios have been abusing the time, ability and remuneration of the industry to their massive gain, and this has to stop. Please take the time to watch the documentary below, it very clearly and succinctly explains the crisis of the industry:
As an act of solidarity, I ask that you boycott the Oscars as well, spread this documentary, and spread the word.
As filmmakers we can make the ultimate difference. When we conceive films, it is up to us as directors and producers to have very clear, precise scripts and plans for our VFX. It is not an area open to improvisation, it is a very specific art form, like production design. Small tweaks can be made, but it must be preconceived and planned out, tested and LOCKED. When we make bids for VFX work, it should be a very precise list of requirements, one that has a small contingency but is ultimately exactly what the film requires. We cannot count on VFX to bail us out when our creativity fails. They are there to help us achieve our visions, and not make them for us. There are limits to what we can ask of them.
Do not approach a VFX company if you don’t have any money. Raise the funds for what you need. In fact don’t do this with any artist. As a producer you cannot abuse artists by asking them to work without any kind of fair compensation. Filmmaking is exhausting creative and physical labor - we don’t ask engineers and doctors to work insane hours without pay. And that unpaid work earns billions of dollars for studios and distributors, most of which the artist does not see.
I’ve long been a proponent of taking a stand and asking for pay. We’ve been made to feel that asking for payment is degrading, especially when we get to work in our passions and “everyone else” is making sacrifices. Everyone else is not making sacrifices - executives are getting paid handsomely, a-list actors are being MASSIVELY overpaid and everyone’s grabbing a piece of the backend pie. If they can get paid, so can we.
At some point we have to just say no to unpaid work. And we all have to do it together, and not be that terrible person who takes unpaid work while the rest of us are sitting it out. If you take unpaid work, you’re being part of the problem, and not the solution. If you must, then WORK FOR COST. Whoever is hiring you should cover your expenses so that when the work is done, you break even. Your sweat and personal expenses should not be paying for some producer’s film, which they will reap money from and you’ll still see nothing. If they say you’re getting experience in return, tell them that experience has never been a form of currency, and that it is never, ever earned through free labor.
They’ll tell you to get a job. Tell them that’s what you’re trying to do, and that what they’re offering is not a job, because a job typically involves an exchange of work for pay. Walk out the door. If they really need your expertise then they will have to find a way to pay you for it.
This is a very, very big problem. I stand in solidarity with the VFX industry and promise to honor their work, their right to pay, and the formation of a union for their craft. I will not watch the Oscars. I wish all the nominees the very best in the rewards they worked hard for, but I cannot in good conscience support an institution that chooses to sweep the VFX industry under the rug, that does not address the pay discrepancies in the industry it profits handsomely from.