Screenwriting: The Archons.

If you’re an artist and you’ve been in the game long enough, you tend to notice central themes that keep manifesting themselves in all of your work. As I finish the final act of my screenplay for my Paul Pope project, I’ve noticed a certain type of character that keeps materializing in different forms in all of my work, including Lilith. It’s called an archon, and not only is it in all of my writing, it’s also found in the constitutions of my very favorite characters in fiction.

In its simplest terms, an archon is a being - it may be a god or an alien - that may have been formed before the universe. There are three categories of archons: the first is the cosmological, which means they were formed before the creation of the Earth and tend to interfere with matters of human existence. Cosmological archons also tend to be inorganic, and often appear as cyborgs in fiction.

'Tetsuo the Iron Man'

The second category is a noetic-psychological archon, or catalysts that play upon our hard-wired tendencies to act inhumanely. Noetic-psychological archons can manifest themselves as parasites, either alien or reptilian.

The last of the archons are the sociological archons. Like the cosmological and noetic-psychological archons, socilogical archons prey upon the moral fallibility of men, but through an authoritarian / governmental/ religious structures.

The unifying thread in all of these categories are that the archons are agents of destruction, beings that require human complicity to gain power, to prey upon the tenet that humans are fundamentally corrupt. They “live” amongst us and may or may not be human, or even alive for that matter.

It’s a grim manifestation to dwell upon but it’s fascinated me for decades. In high school I took AP European History and we were required to read a 1,000+ page biography of Adolf Hitler, and somewhere in the recesses of my brain I kept thinking an impossible thought - what if Hitler wasn’t even human? It seemed incalculable that one man could be capable of such abject terror; I found that Hitler had more in common with Vlad the Impaler than any other human on the planet. Maybe he was the walking dead? A cyborg from another planet?

As ludicrous and blasphemous as it seems, the idea that archons walk amongst us fascinated me and gave me nightmares. They began to pop up in my writing and artwork - strange characters who represent something far more amorphous and large, beings that straddle the line between live and dead, destruction and rebirth. The title character in Lilith is such a character - an archon / archangel that is capable of immense destructive power, and yet is hooked into the fundamentals of human nature, including love. In my Paul Pope script I have a character that is the manifestation of pure evil, and he may or may not even be of this Earth. I leave it up to the viewer for that.

In film, television and literature I find these archons popping up. For research I’ve been dissecting the scripts for The Wire, and my archon emerged in the form of Omar Little. Omar is not a classic archon (in that he *SPOILER* is intriguingly murdered by a child) but he seems to represent some greater universal force, he is neither good or evil, and he seems to materialize anywhere, coming out of the shadows to dispense his interpretation of justice. It’s a similar construct to Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and likewise Judge Holden in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I think of HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Roy Batty in Blade Runner. Insanely powerful and operating on a different cosmological level, and each with their own laws of creation, death and afterlife. Oh and they’re seemingly indestructible, indefatigable, and immortal. They are like gods. Or demons. Or both.

The archon is a fascinating character construct for a filmmaker because it is liberating - I don’t need to explain its origins or how it functions - it simply does. Its intrigue is its ambiguity, and it will always keep us guessing. I like the mystery of it all. It also serves as a mirror to our own inexplicable behaviors. Why do we hurt others when we believe ourselves to be fundamentally good? Are there forces operating beyond our comprehension? Is the world of our consciousness and being flat or spherical? The archons are metaphysical quasars, sitting on the edges of our perceived existence, signposts to the last remains of what we might think we understand of ourselves.

In our writing we need our Atlantis, our Xanadu, Valhalla, El Dorado, Annwn, Lyonesse or Shambhala. We need our point and goal of exploration that stokes the fires of our imagination and turns us from mere observers into scouts, travelers and prospectors. Writing must be that journey into the great unknowns, and for me, my Atlantis - my white whale - is the archon. I will continue to pursue it because once I find it, I know that so many of my questions will have possible answers. Likely nothing definitive, but a contribution to our defining of the greater unknown. It’s that goal of discovery which is the fuel for every word committed to paper, and it is essential for our art to move forward.

So what’s your archon?

shout out sunday, 4.22.12

Remember, if you want a shout-out, let me know.

Movies: Faces, directed by John Casavettes , 1968, United States.

I think it’s a travesty when critics hail a filmmaker as “the next XYZ.” I remember Newsweek famously dubbed M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg” and we all know how that’s gone down. So let’s get this straight - there simply cannot be another Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorsese or even Michael Bay because these filmmakers have a unique viewpoint and aesthetic that is uniquely theirs (yes even Michael Bay has a style, and he’s the very best at doing it). More recently Lena Dunham has been called both “The Next Woody Allen” and “The Next John Casavettes,” and after viewing the pilot of Girls that thought gives me hives. Sure there are thematic similarities, and Dunham and her Mumblecore cohorts are indeed making films that are in debt to Casavettes and Allen, but I’ve seen about a dozen Mumblecore films and they pale in depth, observation and nuance that Casavettes and Allen were/ are capable of. Hence my film pick for this week, Casavettes’ brilliant Faces. Like the films of Dunham, Swanberg and Duplass, Faces deals with relationships couched in the malaise of some level of privilege, but Casavettes’ work has a nasty mean streak - the actors cut to the bone and don’t try to fumble (mumble) around the issues with twee pop culture veils and farcical assertions of intelligence. Faces is a raw, brutal and uncompromising film that is uncomfortably natural, and not in an awkward sex kind of way. Granted I don’t think Dunham and the Mumblecore crew asked to be dubbed the next Casavettes or Allens of their generation - it was foisted upon them by a media too lazy to dig in and create new personalities (so they have to rehash old ones because it’s easier). So this pick is therefore a criticism of our film culture and not the filmmakers themselves - you will never once hear me say that they are not hard working, talented filmmakers. They are. I’m just more perplexed by a media culture that finds value in films that really have nothing to say. And maybe that’s the point.

Music: Time and Temperature by Judson Claiborne.

I saw Judson Claiborne open for chanteuse Ami Saraiya last night at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago, and I was really taken back with the beauty of his voice. There are elements of Bono, Andrew Bird and Grant Lee Buffalo in his warble, and live it was pretty captivating. The set was really incredible, and I’m eager to learn more about him and his talented band.

Funding: Artist Alley Project, a comic book resource by Matt Sardo and the The Comic Vault

I’m re-upping Matt Sardo and his Artist Alley Project from last week, simply becuase Matt has been hustlin’ and flowin’ in promoting his work. Plus he got Shia LaBeouf to do a piece for him, which was pretty cool (see video below) .

From last week:

Matt Sardo is an old friend and owner of my local comic book shop, The Comic Vault. While Matt had to shut down his store last year (a huge loss to the neighborhood, as it was a huge community gathering spot), Matt has lived on in the digital neighborhood with The Comic Vault 2.0. To say that the man loves comics is an understatement, and his Artist Alley Project is a testament to that. Think of the AAP as a virtual comic-con, where artists can set up page “booths” and share their creator-owned projects directly with fans. The exchange can create a new level of interactivity between artists and their supporters, and is vital to the health of the industry. Despite the billion dollar movie franchises of Marvel and DC, the actual comic book industry is in the doldrums, with comic book shops closing across the country and writers and artists being paid a pittance, with the lone shining financial hope that their work gets picked up as a media intellectual property. This is essential to support, or else we will no longer have anything like The Avengers to look forward to in the future.

Contribute to the Indie GoGo campaign HERE.

Trailers: Headhunters, directed by Morten Tyldum.

Despite the cheesy American trailer voice (“he’s got….a SECRET”) this film looks like it’s a ton of fun, a throwback to classic potboilers.

Blogs / websites worth checking out (with Twitter links, if available):

The Composites, a police composite Tumblr.

What a great idea. Using a police composite software and the descriptions found in texts, this site creates composite sketches of some of the most famous characters in fiction. There’s even one of Judge Holden from my favorite book Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Loads of fun, and quite revealing.

The Final Image a film Tumblr.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the first and last image of a film should encapsulate the entire theme of a movie, and this website gives credence to that philosophy (well at least half of it) and presents the final frame of a multitude of films. Would have liked to have gotten some theory to go along with the images, but I guess that’s for us to deduce.

Beyond the Frame, a film directing resource by Schmüdde.

I pretty much love every post that Chicago-based director Schmüdde (we should meet up some time, no?) puts up. Each post has invaluable insight into the nuts-and-bolts of directing and also articles on the state of the industry. Schmüdde’s writing is elegant and yet not over encumbered, which makes it a perfect resource for anyone interested in the maddening craft of directing. One of the top 10 Tumblrs out there in my opinion.

From ‘Beyond the Frame,’ and because I wanted to get one last jab in at Mumblecore. Sorry.

Remember, if you want to get a shout out, you gotta let me know!

Shout Out Sunday Archive:

April 15, 2012
April 8, 2012
April 1, 2012
March 25, 2012
March 18, 2012
March 11, 2012
March 4, 2012
February 26, 2012
February 19, 2012

Filming the Unfilmable: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’

After many months of reading (and coming across a litany of words I’ve never heard of), I’ve finally finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It is, without a doubt in my mind, of of the greatest literary achievements of the past century. It easily belongs alongside the greatest works of Faulkner, Hemingway and Morrison, and is one of the most lucid accounts of the death of the American West.

McCarthy is well-known for his literary style, eschewing quotation marks and filling run-on sentences with verbose accounts of minutiae. Blood Meridian ups the ante by doing away with any semblance of a plot and enters the Melville and Faulkner-esque territory of experiential train of thought, accounting the travails of the murderous Glanton Gang as they terrorize the borderlands of the American Southwest and Mexico.

Glanton and his band of murderers purge the land with no mercy or remorse.

The book is filled with such gorgeously terrifying imagery, and is blessed with the monstrous white whale that is McCarthy’s greatest of all creations, the macabre god of destruction Judge Holden. With all this abound and beautifully rendered in the most languid and lyrical of language, it becomes a herculean task for a filmmaker to not imagine the story on the big screen. But because of its nontraditional structuring, span, and chronology, Blood Meridian is considered among the many ‘unfilmable’ novels. My heart is crushed because I read that Todd Field of Little Children fame is slated to write and direct an adaptation. I like Todd Field, and I wish him well. But for purely selfish reasons - mainly that I love Westerns and my heart cries for material like this - I want to someday be able to take a crack at this book. I know I can do it.

EDIT: Word is now that James Franco has been handed the directorial duties for Blood Meridian.

But I truly believe that the book is adaptable, and for that matter I think there isn’t a book out there that can’t be adapted. The idea that a book can be deemed as ‘unfilmable’ is, to me, a true cop-out, a sentiment that is reinforced only by prescribed notions of what a film has to be. The minute anyone declares a story as ‘unfilmable,’ this should be a rallying call for filmmakers to very well make it happen.

Why? Because for a book to attain ‘unfilmable’ status, it means that the author pushed the boundaries of narrative, structure and characterization. They fundamentally changed the way we read a story, and this is an evolution of the artform. So if the storytelling has evolved, then so too must film storytelling evolve.

I’ve said it before - film, for all its desires to find the next hot new talent, is one of the most conservative industries on the planet. A large part of this is because of the exorbitant cost of making films. My fear is that a nontraditional narrative like Blood Meridian will be forced to become traditional because it has to appeal to the expectations of a large number of ticket buyers, which in turn will help recoup the investment needed to make the film a reality. We can’t really use the previous McCarthy adaptations as a barometer for Blood Meridian's prognosis for success; No Country For Old Men and All the Pretty Horses are the most straightforward and linear of McCarthy’s works, and are completely different animals to Blood Meridian.

No, for Blood Meridian to be adapted correctly, in the narrative form that makes it so very special, it must be done by either going fully independent, or by having the unequivocal support of a major star willing to take a pay cut and help finance the film, or be made by a maverick producer who is willing to take the risk (luckily uber-producer Scott Rudin is behind the film), or it must be helmed by a director whose previous box-office success allows for them to make a passion project with little interference. Zack Snyder got this opportunity when, likely due to the success of his film 300, he got the chance to take on the legendary ‘unfilmable’ book Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. While I loved the film and I think Snyder did the book justice (minus the whole squid issue), he did what he and the likes of Robert Rodriguez have always done with their comic book adaptations, which is to replicate them frame for frame from the source material. This may very well be the safest way to do the adaptation, but it doesn’t push the evolution of cinema just as the books pushed conventional narrative.

Cinema has to evolve or else people will get bored, and the medium will become stale. Some might argue that this is already happening. There are filmmakers out there that are pushing the envelope, like Gaspar Noe with Enter the Void or Michael Winterbottom, who did an amazing job adapting another ‘unfilmable’ book in The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentlemen. Winterbottom’s film Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a classic example of filmmaking innovation when it comes to adapting an ‘unfilmable’ novel. Winterbottom embraces the essence, wit and fractured style of the novel and makes it his own, employing layers of meta narrative that ultimately pays 100% authenticity to the base novel. It is a tremendous achievement, and it is a truly under-appreciated film.

In the end, I want a crack at Blood Meridian, because I know in my heart I can do it. I see it in my head, I feel it pulsing through my arteries. I know how to lay it out, to make it happen. I may be sounding like an overconfident indie director but this is something that’s in my bones, like something I was destined to do. I can’t explain it. I will get my shot at it, I guarantee it. If Great Expectations and the works Shakespeare can be remade countless times, then I know I’ll get my chance at Blood Meridian, one way or another. I was told I was crazy when I said I wanted to adapt Dante’s Inferno - also thought largely ‘unfilmable’ - as an indie horror film in the form of Lilith. There are ways to do it, and the minute someone tells you it’s impossible to do something, that’s your first sign to make it happen.

So mark my words, dear reader. In due time we’ll be revisiting this writing and it will ring prophetic. I know this to be true.

On Photography.

So I’ve taken a few days break from Lilith after my marathon editing sessions to get the Sundance screener together. After pulling twenty consecutive 19-hour days, my eyeballs needed a rest.

But always the filmmaker, my hobbies outside of my profession inevitably always lead me back to my work. To pass time I like to read (currently nose-deep in Cormac McCarthy’s chilling Blood Meridian, which Im sure I’ll write about later) and I like to take pictures.

Now I’m the furthest thing from a professional photographer, and I’ve never pretended to have any kind of real photographic skill. The sheer beauty of the images in Lilith are the product of my cinematographer, Faroukh Mistry. But before we shot the film I sat down for many hours with Faroukh, discussing the intent, design and aesthetic of the cinematography, a conversation I would likely be unable to have if I didn’t take the time to go out and take pictures.

As I’ve written previously, what differentiates cinema from photography is editing, where shots and sounds are stitched together. But in the bigger picture, photography is the origins of film, as the moving image, aided by the persistence of vision, is simply a progression of still photographs. So we’d be remiss to think that photography has no influence on how we tell stories. On the contrary, how we process and photograph stills very much informs how we tell stories in a visual medium.

My portrait of the Buddha, taken in Evergreen, Colorado.

When we take still photographs, we’re distilling the essence of filmmaking down to a single frame, and our challenge is to tell a story or register an emotion in a solitary image. We are stripped of the tools of cinema - specifically movement, but we can find ways to imply movement through exposure and composition. Mastering this way of interpreting the world visually is an invaluable tool for all filmmakers. In my honest opinion, every filmmaker must be a photographer, irrespective of the department. Doing so hammers down the fundamentals of visual storytelling, and pares our cognitive skills to the utmost basic. When we can tell a compelling story in a single image, everything thereafter - succession of images, sound, visual effects, editing - serves to amplify that base image. This is the absolute core of being a visual storyteller.

midnight, on a subway...
My old stomping grounds, NYC.

When we have the core of photography in our heads, we can best estimate how we will assemble shots and how those images will come together to provide the different layers of the film. But if I may make a suggestion, it is to first embrace photography as a film medium. Do not go out with a point-and-shoot digital camera and snap away. Digital SLRs and point-and-shoots have turned us into shutterbugs, where we don’t think about the composition because we can just take a thousand photos of the same subject. We have the instant gratification of seeing what we shot, and we all-too-many times think we can fix the image later in Photoshop. These are skills to be applied later. In the beginning, go out an buy a cheap, used 35mm film camera and in your free time, snap pictures.

Shooting on film makes you consider your compositions because of the limited resource - i.e., the film itself - and you don’t get the instant gratification of seeing what you shot, so you are forced to really put some thought into compositions. I’m not saying mull on a composition for twenty minutes before you shoot it, rather simply register in your head your thought and creative process before you press that button.

As for my own personal kit, I go pretty bare bones. I shoot my photographs on a beat-up LOMO LC-A, a Russian toy camera that is blessed with the glorious Minitar lens. The Minitar has a unique coating on it that produces images of astounding contrast and saturation, and using it with the minimal controls on the LOMO is like wrestling a wild boar. When you shoot on a LOMO or Holga camera, you absolutely have to rely upon your instincts and judgement, and for me this is an ideal exercise to sharpen my mind, my eye, and my aesthetic. It also reinforces my dislike of using a zoom lens in filmmaking. In my opinion, because the human eye does not have the ability to zoom, the minute we employ it in a film, we are making it very apparent to our audience that they are watching a film. We must make every concievable effort to suspend the belief of the audience, and not employing a zoom lens is my personal way of contributing to this. If I want to go in close, then I’ll use a dolly, because that’s what we naturally do when we want to see something up close - we walk up to it. I have to do that with the LOMO, and it’s produced some lovely images for me.

The Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, India. Taken on a LOMO.

I also like to play with film stocks and developing. One of my favorite things to do is to shoot cross-process, i.e. to shoot on slide film (E6) and have it developed in standard color chemicals (C41). When you shoot cross-process on a LOMO, you’re wrestling with the extremes of photogrpahy, and your instinct and base understanding of the emulsion becomes paramount. I simply love it.

When we graduate to digital, this is where we learn the post-production end of things. After we transfer a picture, whether we captured it analog or digital, into a computer, play around with Photoshop. See what extremes of contrast, brightness, saturation and gamma do to the image. Once you understand the extremes, your knowledge of manipulation of the image increases tenfold, and rather than relying upon Photoshop to rescue your images, you can plan in advance as to how Photoshop(and in cinema, color correction / grading), can bolster your eventual image. This is using the computer as a tool, and not as a fixit solution.

And finally there is the social aspect of photography. Going out and shooting pictures forces you to interact with your environment, with people, and it forces you to become sociable and bold. If you really want that picture of a pretty girl, then go ask her. If you really want a picture of that group of police officers, then ask them. People transform through a lens, and the capturing of our existence is a priceless and neccessary exercise. It reminds you of the vastness of our world, and that we share it with so many unique people, creatures and plants. While filmmaking is often a world of artifice, when we embrace photography our inclination is to move the camera out of the studio and into the real world. Whether it is documentary or fiction, the most compelling stories are those told in a percieved natural surrounding, and the skill of pulling that off can only come through practice and genuine interaction with the real world. Photography (and not Facebook) is a bona-fide way to be a part of something far greater than you, and everyone should pick it up. It is the sketchbook of our times.

working hard.
Making roadside dumplings in Tokyo. Taken on a LOMO on reversal film.