Six Angry Women: Building a Technique and Studying Mike Leigh

When I made my first feature, 19 Revolutions, I used Jean-Luc Godard as my guiding influence, shooting youthful idealism with reckless handheld and frenetic editing. With Lilith I embraced Andrei Tarkovsky, using long, stabilized, languid and almost spiritual takes in a widescreen landscape.

Of course it’s one thing to ape or simply copy these filmmakers, but it’s an entirely different thing to let them be your guides. They did something right, and they fit their worldview perfectly, we’d be remiss not to visit their work and buttress it upon our own. When I look at a Godard or Tarkovsky, I’m not asking myself how they did it, I’m always asking why, of how their technique served the narrative and if those tools are something I can use to tell my story. Godard himself quoted the work of Howard Hawkes, and Tarkovsky’s films always carry the fingerprints of Eisenstein and Vertov.


From Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group, Un film comme les autres, 1968.

With Six Angry Women I knew I had an ensemble piece that required absolute emotional honesty and real characters. I wanted to avoid the cliched archetypes that infect so much of American independent cinema today, like the screechy malaise-ridden families of August: Osage County, which was an amazing play but I absolutely abhorred as a film. I don’t want my actors playing characters that fulfill a role, I want them to play real women who are in a volatile and unpredictable situation.

Tarkovsky and Godard are not the right reference for material like this. Nor is Kieslowski, Roeg, Bergman, Ray, Fincher or Kurosawa. They all have that balance of dynamic realism with surreal images, and it populates their entire body of work. Likewise I didn’t want to go to the crushing reality of filmmakers like Ken Loach and John Cassavettes, because I’m portraying a world that we can only imagine the reality of (the jury room, which none of us have access to), so I needed to look elsewhere. This is what brought me to Mike Leigh.

I’d seen Leigh’s films - Naked being one of my all-time favorite films - but I can’t say I’d ever really studied Leigh’s technique. Turthfully because his technique terrified me, as he regularly goes into a film without a formal script, building the screenplay in rehearsals. Because of my scientific background and my inherent desire to plan, and because I lack any experience directing theater, going about a film like Leigh does seems counter intuitive and unproductive. I was terrified of the prospect of working that way, but I knew it required consideration.


'Naked'

I started watching Leigh’s films and picked up a copy of Amy Raphael’s excellent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (also check out her book on Danny Boyle, it will change your life). I was accustomed to seeing powerful and impossibly authentic performances in Leigh’s films, but in rewatching and studying his work, it also dawned on me that his movies are quite visually beautiful. I’d never noticed that before, and it turns out he had a background in visual arts before going into theater and film. It became abundantly clear to me that I needed to study his technique, and that despite my fear, this was the technique that would best serve Six Angry Women.

Leigh, who is famously cryptic about the details of his method, gives out hints as to how he goes about things. I’d done training in improv at The Second City here in Chicago, so I was familiar with a lot of the rehearsal techniques that Leigh mentions in the book. Trust building exercises, hot associations, actors giving each other “gifts” of “yes, and” in improv sessions. I could do that, yes. But I was far more curious about how Leigh built his screenplays. The misnomer is that he films without a script, which is not true and only applies to Godard and Wong Kar-Wai. There is no waiting-for-inspiration-making-it-up-as-we-go with Mike Leigh. He builds his screenplays in rehearsals, and by the time the shoot date arrives, he has a screenplay in hand, one which his cast and crew can use to make a film efficiently. I loved this about him, and wanted to know how it’s done. Since there is no official document about this technique (at least one I know of), I basically had to create my own version of it based on my own skillset and whatever little information I could glean from writings and documentaries about Leigh, and DVD commentaries from his films.

I know that Leigh assembles his cast early and doesn’t even tell them what the film is about. A lot of times even he doesn’t know what the film is fully about but he has a nascent idea that he’s fleshed out a little. He spends a considerable amount of time only building characters with his actors. I don’t have a clue how he does this, but I’ve created my own version.

I’d tried writing a Six Angry Women screenplay many many months ago, and found that my own politics and desire for justice were getting in the way of the narrative being fluid and honest. The downside was that I was stuck, but the upside is that I had a very clear idea of what the film was about in my head. This helped me as I approached my actors about the project. I’d give them the basics and no details, and told them we’d be building the screenplay in rehearsals, that they will be part of the writing process. It intrigued all of them immensely.

Given that I only have a month to put this all together, I couldn’t afford to be as reserved as Leigh in his productions, so I had to spill some beans about the story, but I only provided a few sentences about what I thought each character would be. Based on that seed, I asked my actresses to find someone in their own lives, or multiple people, who might fit that description. I asked them to simply observe and put together a composite of a character. We were only focusing on character - there’s no mention of the jury or the trial, nor did I want my actresses doing research on race relations or the justice system. I just wanted them to build someone who is real. I asked them to put together a physical description, to come up with a career for them, a family history, and a daily routine that they go through.

The physical description is very important here, and by physical description I mean only quantitative analysis. It’s important to connect a visual to these ideas, and by obsessively writing down every detail, we form a bridge between the visual and the idea. Once the visual is established, then we build the qualitative and emotional aspects of the character. In director’s parlance this is called hot objects and is something I picked up from actress / University of Southern California professor Nina Foch.


Nina Foch. A brilliant teacher and a foxy lady til her last day.

So far we’ve only been talking about character, testing them in different everyday situations that have nothing and everything to do with the trial. But only I know that, and I’m taking notes. After two weeks, I feel like we have a group of very real women who are walking into this jury room. The next step I gleaned from Leigh is to now engage in group rehearsals, where the actors will meet each other for the very first time. Leigh maintains a very strict policy here - all characters must be spoken of in the third person, and no one is allowed to be in character until I say ‘action.’ At this point I am going to present the case to them in detail, and we’ll start collectively figuring out the natural flow of conversation and events. This is based on an outline that I have.

At this time I’m also going to have my cinematographer sit in the room, and we will be recording the rehearsals. I’ve hired an assistant (paid, of course) and at the end of each day, my assistant, DP and I will review the footage and come up with pages of script and a shot list. Hopefully by the end of the rehearsal period we will emerge with a screenplay and and full shot list. Performance, story and visuals all in one exercise

This may not be Leigh’s exact technique but rather it is a modified version of it that suits my own technique and temperament. As much as I was terrified by it, with each passing day of rehearsals I’m amazed with how it’s all coming together. I’m seeing the film clearer and clearer with each new idea. I’m feeling more confident and I know this technique can work because Mike Leigh has proven it works.

My film will not look, sound or feel like a Mike Leigh film because I’m not Mike Leigh. But he’s given me a new set of tools to work with, and my cast, crew and I will figure out how to use these tools to accomplish our goals. It’s like being in school again, and because we are independents we don’t have to please anybody except ourselves. It’s a wonderful and liberating way to work.

Six Angry Women: Casting and Trust

Sorry for the long delay in posting, it’s been a long nine days of casting and rehearsals. After an exhaustive search, I’ve found my six angry women, all local Chicago actors with a ton of talent.

Being that I’m going at this with a micro budget of less than $40k, it’s pretty much been a three man show so far. My production manager, Anthony Del Percio, who is a brilliant filmmaker based here in Chicago, has been handling logistics and has been working with my DP Faroukh Mistry on putting together a camera package and all the requisite gear for a full feature shoot. Despite our budget, we’re not going DSLRs and consumer light kits on this - it’s a full-blown production and we have no intention of skimping on production values. We’re striking mutually beneficial deals and making friends along the way. It’s been remarkable what we’ve been able to pull together so far.

I’m acting as my own casting director and have been criss-crossing across town to meet with actors. As I’ve written on this blog before, I don’t believe in doing cold readings with actors - I think it’s unfair and puts unproductive pressure on both of us. I’ve seen all of these actors perform on stage so I’ve got a pretty good idea about their presence, the timbre of their voices and what they’re capable of. I try to sit down for one to two hours with each actor and just talk to them. I want to find out what makes them tick and see how open they are to the concept, to their craft and to me as a director. This is business about trust, and if an actor and I have difficulty communicating then it will not be a fruitful collaboration.

Some of the actresses I met were fairly closed because of the nature of the part and the film. Many were afraid of playing a racist woman on film. I had to remind them that I truly felt the members of this jury weren’t racist, that none of them walked into that jury room with the mindset of “I’m going to fuck that black kid over.” It’s likely that the pressures of the trial and the jury deliberations brought out their inherent fears, fears which are most likely rooted in a prejudice that comes from misinformation or personal traumas.

I wanted to see how each actress would respond to that, given the part would require them to really dig deep and ask tough questions. It’s too easy to play a racist. It’s too easy to play a fearmonger or scaredy-cat. It’s tough to play a real woman with real feelings and secrets. By means of questions you can tell if an actor is intrigued and excited by the idea or apprehensive about it. As a director you have to read your actors and trust your gut. Given that I don’t have a script for this film, I’m counting on my instincts with this casting process, and I feel confident I’ve got the right bunch.

I also had to have actresses who were great writers themselves, and part of my line of questioning was to determine their process. Again, it’s too easy to just ask if they write, because everyone says yes. But it’s more about the process of writing, of their approach to creating a character, of where they find the soul of the character and how it matches up to plot and environment. I propose different scenarios to each actor - “We’ve determined that regret is a big part of this character, how do you demonstrate regret in a crowded room?” My actors are not “writing” a response on paper, but we’ll go through the creation of a scene using that seed. It’s a fun and fascinating process, and as aforementioned it requires openness and communication. If your actors trust you, then they’re more willing to take risks.

It begs the question: how does one go about building trust, especially in such a short time? The answer is simple: empathy and sincerity. As a director you have to be sincere with your actors. I follow a protocol when I meet a new actor, and when I say protocol it’s not a cold list of rules to go through one-by-one. I do these things because I sincerely mean it.

The first is to always, always thank your actor for coming out to meet and audition. It takes a lot of preparation and travel for actors to audition, and they’re putting themselves up on a plate for you to dissect them. That’s asking a lot of someone and is daunting, so be genuinely thankful for their participation in such a grueling process. The next part of the protocol is to just talk to your actors. Chit-chat. Talk about the weather, the commute, something that’s happening around you, whatever. This will put both of you at ease and let some of the tension out of the room. It’s also establishing your communication with them. In order to get to the root of any character you have to be able to talk freely.

Which makes the next part of the protocol very important - you must show empathy. This means you must share a bit of yourself with your actors in the process of discussing the part. You don’t have to reveal all your dark and personal secrets, but you should share your feelings and thoughts with them. An actor - or any collaborator for that matter - will be more willing to dig deeper and share ideas / thoughts / emotions when you demonstrate that you’re willing to do the same. I talk freely about experiences that have shaped my desire to make this film, my fears and doubts, my admission that I’m just as curious as anyone else to know what this film is going to end up looking like. And it’s not lip service - I honestly feel these things and want to share them, because it helps me process all that’s around me as well.

In this sense, my auditions are really just two sounding boards listening to one another. My actors are all figuring me out just as I’m trying to figure them out. There is no power struggle here, we both need each other to make this thing work. The audition is a level playing ground, which is why I hate traditional casting with a table separating me from the actors in a cold room. That’s an awful way to get to know someone.

But sometimes a cold reading of lines in a room with a table is necessary when casting supporting roles and smaller parts. I reserve my custom casting process for my lead actors, but it doesn’t mean I’m any less personable with my supporting actors. Even from behind a table I thank them for coming, I shake their hands, I chit-chat with them to put them and myself at ease. I don’t have the time to go through a full process with each actor, but at minimum I devote 30-40m per actor. It’s exhausting work for me, but if it means getting the perfect cast, then it’s well worth it.

Plato once said that we must “be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle.” Actors are not there to take our frustrations and insecurities out upon. I’ve seen this too many times and it disgusts me. It all stems from the opinion that many directors have of actors, which is that they are property, they are just tools, pieces of meat to manipulate to make a picture. Where the director is the seat of power that all actors and crew must bow down to. This is nonsense. Your actors are the directors of performance, you have to entrust them with your vision, and when you do that they will listen to your direction with utmost care and respect. You are equally important to each other, and that mindset has to be upfront and clear from the second they walk through that audition room door. Doesn’t matter what style you have as a director, an actor will only give you respect when you respect them. This applies not only to film, but to life as well. If you show an actor respect and they turn around and disrespect you, then there’s no place for them in your collaboration. Talk to them, find the root of the problem, and if a solution is not there, then fire them. But that’s a tough and expensive process, so it’s best to get it right at the audition level. Cast with your heart, not your eyes.

Now begins my one-on-one rehearsals with my actresses, where we focus only on character. We’re not even discussing the film. Just character. I’ll get more into to this process in my next post.

DDFH

Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels

Played 89 times

Music for the Weekend: DDFH by Run the Jewels.

Life’s moving at a million miles an hours and I seem to be getting further and further in a hole in terms of my sleep deficit. But that said, I’m thankful to be busy.

Finished my rough cut on my edit for the TV pilot, and it’s looking great. I think I’ve made some breakthroughs on my directing process, and I really need to thank my actors for that. It was a great collaboration, and their trust made it all possible because as all of my actors on any project will attest, I tend to put them in some very interesting and compromising situations.

Screengrab from the pilot; Elizabeth Riegert and Jacob Moore getting hot n’heavy on a very public elevator.

Took a few days away from the edit and this weekend I’m going to take the razorblade to it, trimming and seeing what is absolutely necessary and what needs to go. It’s the most brutal part of filmmaking, which is letting go of something that is beautiful and perfect, but all for the benefit of the story. Egos and sentimentality not allowed, which is why I need albums like Run the Jewels to keep things real and in perspective. EL-P and Killer Mike are absolutely murdering it right now.

Have a great weekend!

The Actor Thing.

A few posts ago I’d mentioned that what I’d gleaned from the Producers Guild conference is that for a film to get properly financed with a proper, non-DIY budget, is that you need to have an equitable actor attached to it.

I’ve received some letters from readers of how this revelation seemed antithetical to my longtime professing that I wanted to remain independent, that I wished to be a champion of new talent. Here I now am, talking about getting a bigger named star to help my film get financed, which to some readers comes off as my selling out to the system, of my caving into the ways of “The Man” and engaging the bullshit Hollywood machine. I can understand that, because I go through the same dialogue with my own conscience all the time.

My previous films all featured newcomers and up-and-comers who’d I’d chosen because of their appropriateness to the part. Many of these actors are going on to bigger things, and when we talk they are always so forthcoming in telling me how Lilith and my other films gave them the experience they needed to get to the next step, that they became better actors after their experience of working with me. It makes me feel happy and proud, and it’s a tradition that I want to continue.

But how can I possibly continue that tradition if I am seeking a name actor for The One Trick Rip-Off, an actor who can aid in my independent financing and packaging? There isn’t much career development when you attach a star, right?

Not always. Movie actors come in all shades and varieties. A lot of actors get tracked in their career paths, they are only offered parts that are appropriate to them on the surface. A comedian is typically cast only for comedic roles, but what few people know is that comedians are extremely well-trained to do dramatic roles, and most of them are pretty dark, introspective and have razor-sharp focus. Will Smith, after being typecast as a television comedian on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, had to do an excellent indie ensemble film Where the Day Takes You and later play a gay man in the brilliant Six Degrees of Separation for people to really take notice of his acting skills. He needed smaller, indie films to give him the chance to show his range.

And there isn’t an actor on earth that wouldn’t want the opportunity to show their range, because they are passionate about their craft. But wanting and doing are two totally different things, and an actor generally must not only find a script that resonates with them, but also have faith and confidence in a director to go on that journey with them. Showing range inherently carries the risk of a stable image blowing up in an actor’s face (think of Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder going ‘full retard’) and it is a highly-gauged career decision.

This is an opportunity for a young director, who must present their vision so compellingly, confidently and humbly that an equitable actor looking to break out of a typecasting rut feels safe and encouraged, and will join your cause. There is risk on both sides, but when that risk is equally shared and given the attention it is due, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement. I think of Adam Sandler doing Punch-Drunk Love, which at the time was a massive departure from his tried-and-true successes as a low-brow comedian. Sandler delivered, and both he and P.T. Anderson were the better for it, although unfortunately Sandler has now regressed to an embarrassing level. He’s so much better than what he’s doing right now.


This just saddens me.

But we’re facing a problem. With Hollywood’s A-List getting older, there is a very weak crop of marketable stars/ potential stars to fill those shoes because of the mulitplatform transformation of the industry. Twentysomething talents are spread out to television, music, stage and features. You have supporting cast members of Gossip Girl, Skins and Friday Night Lights getting lead roles, and then disappearing when executives shockingly learn that they don’t have enough box-office equity to carry an over-inflated $100m budget. Actors are getting turned over at an alarming rate, and no one is being given the chance to establish themselves as a bona-fide star that can carry a film at the box-office. In large part this also has to do with over-inflated salaries, because most producers simply can’t afford established talent.

The other problem with stars today is that so much of their marketability is being placed upon their public persona, where total fuckups like Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen are deemed valuable because of their over-saturated presence in mainstream media. Most executives are taking the adage of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ to a hazardous extreme. Talent is taking a back seat to perceived market value. Casting Rihanna as a supporting actor is a shitty decision for the filmmakers, but in the executive mind it’s just one more thing that can hedge their risk.

Which is why I stand firm on my commitment to stay independent, which will give me the freedom to promote new talent. Getting an equitable lead actor will allow me to hire young fresh new talent in supporting roles, which can be that very valuable stepping stone to success. I may not be able to cast unknowns as lead actors, because if I do then I severely restrict my budget - a budget dictated by my script, and not my cast.

The business is tough. One of the other things that really dawned on my at the PGA conference is that I’m not the only one trying to make a movie - there are thousands upon thousands of people trying to make that one great film, and they’ve all been told the same thing as me - in this market, at this time, you need an equitable actor. But there are only so many equitable actors, and so so very many of these film projects. Not everyone, myself included, can be so lucky to have a name actor attached. It’s sobering, but it also makes you think of different ways to get your film done. Alternative financing, cutting your budgets, finding foreign talent, thinking globally and online, reconfiguring the very way you think a movie should be made. I am doing this as I pursue my actors - The One Trick Rip-Off will be made, with or without a star. One path means instantaneous results, the other will take time, patience and ingenuity. Sometimes limitations can be blessings in disguise.

attitudeandsyndicate-deactivate ASKED:

I'm thinking about getting into Directing, do you have any tips for first-timers?


Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been getting around to answering my backlog of messages. Feels good to get back in the game!

First and foremost, the most basic tip I can give you is to prepare, prepare, prepare. You can never, in my opinion, prepare too much. Break down your script, create shot lists, create acting objectives for each scene, storyboard complex sequences in advance, and rehearse if you can. Some argue that preparation kills creative spontaneity, but I’m in the camp that it actually promotes spontaneity because you’ve covered the basics before you’ve even stepped in front of the camera. You are free to make adjustments based upon the moment, of what your actors and environment are giving you, of what your instinct is telling you (more on that later). But to go into a shoot unprepared means you’ll be spending valuable time figuring things out logistically rather than spending time with your actors and key crew. Prepare, prepare, prepare and you’ll be freeing yourself to really be in the moment.

Next tip. I think back to my first film and I think the best thing I learned was to get as much coverage as I could. For the uninitiated, “coverage” is collecting as much footage as possible of each scene, and this includes wides, angles, perspectives, close-ups and inserts. A good wide master-shot will ensure that you’ve filmed the scene in its entirety, and that in a worst-case scenario you’ll have the scene in its full for your edit.

But there’s a downside to master shots, which is that they tend to be flat, long and boring. Unless you incorporate interesting movement, layers of production design or choreographed action into your masters, they will tend to read almost flat. You’ll need to have close-ups and inserts to build narrative and interest. But as a fail safe, a master shot is a great insurance policy for a first time filmmaker.

My next tip is to manage your energy on set. Think of production as a battery. Each day you start at 100% and as the day presses on, people’s energy will drain. As a director you’re going to have to be at 100% all the time, but you have to be mindful that your crew and actors will be fading as the hours pass. Manage their energy wisely through scheduling and pragmatism. Rehearsals are great but avoid doing too many - actors will tend to put their energies into their first few rounds and you’ll want to preserve that raw power. Do a walkthrough at half-speed and if you’re shooting digital, you may even want to film your rehearsals. If it’s a complex sequence, then you’ll want to schedule a rehearsal before the camera shoots so that when you’re on set, you’ll be able to fine tune without expending too much time and energy. Avoid numerous takes on things like inserts - shoot them as a series instead.

The two things you’ll never have enough of are time and money. When you shoot, try to consolidate wherever you can without losing your inherent style or objective. If you can say two things in one shot and still keep it visually interesting (think of using a camera move or having your actors move in the frame as opposed to two shots), then you’re saving both time and money. Each setup costs you precious time, so be judicious with what you can do. Early in the shoot take note of your setup times and keep a mental log of what your shots will demand in terms of time and manpower. That long, single take with a steadicam will take time to light, choreograph and execute, so if you’ve allocated the same amount of time to it as you did for an insert of a man picking up a gun, then you’ll be in trouble, and you’ll fall behind. So either incorporate the man picking up the gun in your steadicam shot, or ditch the steadicam shot and do it as a series of shots under a similar lighting scheme. Know what is important and what can be sacrificed. Be precise but avoid being a perfectionist. As Michael Mann once put it, “a perfectionist is someone who cannot distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant.” Directors should be exacting in their overall vision, but they should have the wherewithal to know what is worth investing in and what can be consolidated or even excised. Those decisions will usually have to be made in the moment as you’re running out of time, you’re losing light, your talent is going into overtime, and a rainstorm is on the horizon. Believe me, it always happens, so be prepared for it.

Of course the very best tip I can give you is to listen to your instinct. Your collaborators will be bringing you thousands of decisions to be made each day, and you really have to go with what feels absolutely right to you. Being decisive is very different from being stubborn. You have a vision for your film, and every decision you make should be in service of that vision. If it doesn’t feel right - and you will know when it doesn’t feel right - then you have to act on it and devise an immediate solution to correct it. And if you don’t have an immediate solution, have the humility to ask your crew for their input. Your cast and crew are there to facilitate your vision - they are working with you, not against you - but it is your responsibility to steer them in the right direction to achieve the results you want. Hence the title of the job - director. Create a situation and environment where your collaborators are able to exercise their talents to the fullest as they bring your vision to life. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that is dependent upon your ability to stick to your convictions and provide directions to making those a reality.

These are just a few tips that I think can help out. There’s tons more tips but I really think these are the utmost important ones.

Work ramble.

Been working a lot. Between finishing all the legal paperwork and deliverables for the distribution of Lilith, I’m also doing fundraising and my rewrites on my Paul Pope script. As it turns out, Paul and I have another venture on the near horizon, a short film based off one of his amazing sci-fi short stories. It would be my first legitimate crack at science fiction, and I’m really excited about it. We’re in our final polishes of the script and our funding is promising - we have some amazing partners contributing and it’s a huge step not only for us personally, but also in terms of building blocks for future projects. If all goes to plan, we’ll tentatively start shooting in September / October. More on that as events warrant.


Spirit animals are the subject of the day. Image by Paul Pope.

We’re now deciding on the dates for Lilith's release and we'll start platforming in various formats soon. We're experimenting with some newer forms of theatrical release - I'm all in for supporting these upstart companies who are trying to change the fossil that is studio theatrical distribution, whose costs of marketing and exhibition are exorbitant and unsustainable. The idea is to get as many people to see the film - in both small and large markets - without killing the margins for both the exhibitor, the distributor, and for me. It's always a bit scary trying out new strategies, but it's become more of a necessity that an option - we simply don't have that kind of capitol to roll the film out traditionally. The film is nontraditional in every aspect - from its conception to its execution, so I figure why stop there? Let's give it a rip - embrace new technologies and strategies, and let's see where it takes us. My next step is that I'm going to be doing my DVD commentary track with Julia soon and then do the final assembly of the DVD product. Things are moving slowly but we're always moving forward, never back. I know that's something most indie filmmakers don't have the luxury to say, so I'm counting my blessings.

In addition to all that, I’m editing my culinary documentary which I did a few months ago. It’s had to take a back seat to my other work and there’s been a few changes at the restaurant, so we had to adjust a few things on the fly. I did my interviews with the chefs last week and now I can begin the assembly in earnest. Editing a doc is so much more challenging than a narrative feature - I’ll write about it soon. But for now I’m combing through shots of delicious food into the wee hours of the night, taking a break by writing, and then starting the day anew with emails and legal documents about money, formats and regions. Then a few hours for fundraising meetings, a few hours for domestic responsibilities, and then the cycle starts all over again. Somewhere in there I’m doing my weekly sharpie portrait and trying to write on this blog consistently. Been spotty as of recent, so my sincerest apologies for that. As I mentioned in previous posts I don’t have the luxury of a staff, so I’m pretty much doing all of this by myself. Who knows down the line I might hire a few interns, but I need more organization and clarity to get to that point. I try to give my interns interesting and meaningful work, not crap like dropping off my mail. It’s an internship, not indentured slavery.

But as much as this all sounds like a grind, I enjoy every minute of it. I’m working on something I love and am getting paid for it, so I’ve no reason to complain. Sure it’s frustrating, but I remind myself that I volunteered to put myself in this position - nobody forced me to write a script or go out and raise money. Or do this blog, or shoot a culinary doc. It’s all choices I made, and it’s part and parcel of creating something from scratch. It’s the business of being an artist, and while sorting through legal documents and rights agreements may not be an artistic endeavor, it’s what brings art to the world, it legitimizes and protects your work. It’s as vital to the artistic process as picking up a pen and writing ‘fade in’ on a blank piece of paper. And it’s where you ensure that you can make a living being an artist. A career artist, and not a hobbyist who posts cat videos on YouTube.

I get a lot of cynical responses from people with 9 to 5 jobs when I say I’m busy with work. They tend to think that being a filmmaker is a flight of fancy, something akin to the folks on Entourage. I try not to get upset but I remind people that I’m an independent contractor, an entrepreneur, and my work day doesn’t end at 5pm. I start at 7am and end at around 2am. Every day. Even Sundays. And it’s work. It’s not kids playing with toys and playing pretend. It’s making something from scratch that involves coordinating a lot of people from every corner of the planet, and trying to find the money to pay them. All the while you’re taking criticism from people who might like you, but who don’t believe in your ability, and who would rather bet their house on the guy who directed Wild Hogs, because Wild Hogs made good money. And during that time you’re constantly questing your own choices, because hey - Wild Hogs did make a lot of money and Lilith is just too weird and dark.



'Wild Hogs' vs. 'Lilith.' I think I made the right choice.

It was exhausting just to write that last paragraph. This is a tough job, a career choice that makes you face uncertainty every day. If you’re an actor you walk into an audition not knowing if you’ll get the part. You have to prepare yourself for rejection, because that’s what will happen to you 95% of the time. If you are a producer you have to put everything you have into a pitch, travel on your own dime, and say the things people want to hear without compromising the very reason why you became a filmmaker - to tell the stories that mean something to you. And like an actor, you will get rejected 99% of the time. But you pick yourself up and start again, because you have belief - faith - that someone out there will see the world the same way you do. You adapt and adjust, never losing sight of who you are and what you want to accomplish. I feel like this is where a lot of artists struggle - they lose themselves in the journey. They may get a paycheck but it’s a brimming unhappiness inside, because we’re not immediately doing the work that we set out to do in the first place. Becoming a professional artist is taking a huge risk, and we don’t take such huge risks to muck around in the middle for the rest of our lives.

So insist on quality. Use the lesser projects to get you to that place you set your goal to reach. Never be satisfied. Do that local used car dealer ad and put everything you have into it, make it the best it can be, and make your client impressed with your skill and professionalism. Be proud of your work. If your name is on something, it should be associated with excellence. Hold yourself to that absolute highest standard, and do everything to raise your own bar. Study, rehearse, research, and just keep working, working working. It’s taken me ten years to get to the point where I could buy the rights to a book I loved and not have people question whether or not I’m qualified to make that film. Ten years of doing small jobs, seemingly unrelated work, banal shit. Somewhere in there I accrued enough experience to where I felt I could make Lilith, and that’s what I did. I made a lot of mistakes but Lilith is a high quality film. It speaks of our meticulous craft, it shows we cared and believed in what we were doing, and I’m proud to have my name on it. It’s not the film I always dreamed of making, but it was absolutely required as a step to get me there. Nothing is a loss, there was no time wasted, no dollar spent unwisely. It’s a great, ballsy indie film.

I’ve rambled in this post but I wanted to take a different approach to describing work. A lot of filmmakers have a bad habit of embellishing / lying about how busy they are - one of my favorites in LA is when people tell me they’re “in development’, which can be anything from scribbling an idea on a napkin to getting a promise from an actor they’re sleeping with to star in their film. They talk about how they’ve got a bazillion projects lined up, making it sound like they’re producing all of them at the same time, when in reality they’re a 2nd AD or an art dresser. Which is fine to be a 2nd AD or art dresser, because that’s what we all have to do, myself included. Unless we’re Steven Spielberg, we’re all struggling to make it. So I don’t believe in talking a big game, I believe in my work talking for me. Bullshitting doesn’t impress me, good work impresses me. A love for making film impresses me. People who hustle to make films a reality impresses me. Those are the type of people I want to be around, whom I want to help, and who I’d be honored to have help me. Genuine relationships formed on a common bond, which is to just do good work, and make an honest living doing it.

Hope this post makes some sense. Wrote it from the hip, so it’s more how I’m feeling than any kind of cohesive subject. Back to work!

Process of an Improvised Short Film.

So last week there was a moment of inspiration. Before Ebertfest, Prashant Barghava (friend and director of Patang) and I talked about how his father, Vijay, had been taking acting classes for two years and how cool it would be to make a short film with his dad. We had an opportunity present itself - for Ebertfest, two of Patang's actors, Seema Biswas and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, came into town and were staying with the Bhargavas. Additionally, another fine actor and good friend, Samrat Chakrabarti, was in town from New York. It was a confluence of talent that rarely happens - Seema Biswas is considered by many to be India's finest actress and she and Samrat had worked together on Deepa Mehta's upcoming adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight’s Children. Nawaz is one of the hottest young actors in international cinema, with two films premiering at Cannes and a half dozen more releasing in India. So we had to jump on it, and we decided to co-direct a short film in 36 hours.

Problem was, we didn’t have a script. We had tossed around a few ideas but they were pretty large in scale and required multiple locations. By Sunday night we had some vague concepts manifesting, but nothing close to a fully realized film. Plus we had four characters to manage. Things were not looking good, but Prashant and I decided to press on.

I showed up at the Bhargava household on Monday morning. It was a cold and rainy day, which further put a damper on shooting outside or in other locations. I had rented a 5-light ARRI kit and wireless mics from Zacuto Films here in Chi, and we had two Canon DSLRs shooting primes simultaneously, a 24mm prime and the other a 50mm. I mixed the audio on the fly on a Zoom HD recorder.

With nowhere to go, we decided to have our four actors sit in the living room and engage in an activity - we had them play a game of Jenga, and just had them talk to one another about some real-life worries or troubles that had happened recently. Every once in a while, Samrat would interject one of the vague concepts we had into the conversation, and we’d see where it would go with improvisation. And we just recorded like that for a few hours.


Seema Biswas.

Something really magical happened in those two hours. A lot of real emotion and feeling came to the surface, and we captured some incredibly raw moments. But we still didn’t have a story. We took a break and started talking about some of the key moments in the conversation that rang true or created uncomfortable moments. Through that conversation we had some lynchpins to work on, specifically the relationship between the characters, and we investigated them in a new location - the backyard - and tried to test them out through improvisation. It started to ring true, but we still lacked a narrative. We called it a night and slept on what we recorded.

Tuesday morning we all convened and talked about ideas, and a plot emerged from the actors each talking about how they felt and where they wanted to go with their characters. We managed to construct the most important thing we needed to move on - an objective for each character. We constructed some new scenes and then improvised for the rest of the day, building on the individual objectives until we reached a conclusion.


Nawazuddin Siddiqui (foreground) and Vijay Bhargava.

As most of you know, I’m a highly precise filmmaker, and to go into a film project without a script or concept is a pure nightmare scenario for me. It’s like showing up for an exam without studying for a single minute, and you don’t even have a crib sheet. Prashant is a little more versed in this style of improvised shooting, but he too made Patang with a complete script and almost three years of research behind him. So we were pretty much flying blind on this, and we placed our trust in our extremely talented actors and let them write the story with us, crafting dialogues, movement and plot twists from a purely reactionary standpoint. It was tense but extremely fascinating, and to watch four actors riff off one another and build, to have digital cameras that can record for hours and allow us all to make mistakes and just keep mucking around until we hit a real nerve is an amazing experience.

We ended the film by filming the climax in a car along Lake Shore Drive on the south side of Chicago. I lit the car with a small battery powered LED light with blue gels and Prashant and I filmed from the back seat while Samrat and Nawaz drove, talking about the events that happened before. Both actors fed off one another, and let the conversation take them into some really weird and unexpected places, exploding into moments of violence and following it with a lot of eerie silences. It was really fucking weird, and somewhere in that exchange, we found our final frame, a natural and truthful conclusion that felt real and unforced.


Samrat Chakrabarti improvising on two cameras, 24mm(L) and 50mm(R).

What a weird fucking movie we’ve shot. We had no idea where it was going but it found its own rhythm, its own voice and its own path simply because we were all collectively open to the truth of the moment, and we followed it accordingly. The truth can be an amazing guide, and when you follow it, it can take you to some very unexpected places. In these cases sometimes the best direction is very little directing at all, and simply imparting trust in one another.

We shot hours of footage that will now have to be edited down to about seven or eight minutes, and we’ll go on another wild journey of discovery in the edit. Can’t wait to see where this goes!

The Filmmaker’s Bookshelf.

If you type in ‘filmmaking’ into Amazon, you’ll get a billion titles. There’s tons of books available on the industry and craft, and in the past ten years I feel like I’ve read just about every one. Generally, the ‘making it in the film business’ books boil down to one thing - write / procure a good script. That’s common sense. No need to drop twenty to thirty bucks on a book to learn that.

But there are some books that just transcend common sense and either inspire or enlighten, and I find myself returning to these books all the time. These are books that are worth their weight in gold and are, I feel, essential references for all filmmakers. Here’s my must have list:

Film Basics:

1) Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steven D. Katz and Grammar of the Film Language by Daniel Arijon.

In this blog I’ve always stressed that any craftsman / tradesman must first learn her grammar before trying to speak the language. These two books are highly academic but completely thorough in their covering the language of film. They are classic staples of every film school and should be considered required reading by all filmmakers.

Screenwriting:

1) Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers.

There’s a heavy emphasis on mythology in these books, but that doesn’t mean they teach you how to write stories about monsters and gladiators. Instead they dissect classical story structure, of the standard templates that every story, regardless of how avant-garde or experimental, follows. In fact it’s impossible to create avant-garde cinema / stories without knowing these archetypes. Any writer that tries to experiment without knowing the fundamentals will come to a rude awakening, and that is that their “experiment” has actually been done before, and done exceptionally well. These books are accessible, straightforward and are pillars of writing structure.

Also know that they emphasize structure, and none of them tell you how to write. How to write is something born from you, your experience, and the fundamentals of your education. And it only comes to fruition when you do it over, and over, and over again. Write every day, even if it is nonsense. Start a film blog and use it as a way to write as much as you can. ;o)

EDIT: There are many books on screenplay format, but there are tons of websites that’ll give you the information you need. The best is John August’s amazing screenwrting blog: www.johnaugust.com.

Directing:

1) Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and pretty much everything ever written by David Mamet.

Getting tutelage directly from working filmmakers is, in any instance, better than getting taught by a film studies professor (apologies to all my film professors, you’ve impacted me in so many other ways). Lumet and Mamet are two of the finest directors when it comes to performance and extracting the human element of film, regardless of the genre. Furthermore, reading their books, especially Lumet’s, will give you an insight to the everyday process of directing a film, and while it can never replace physically being on a set, it’ll give you a heads up on what to expect.

2) Directing, Fourth Edition: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger.

A tome to the technical elements of direction, it also has invaluable resources for rehearsals, thinking ahead for the edit, and physical / mental preparation.

3) The Art of Acting by Stella Adler.

What I love most about Stella Adler’s book is her clarity on the preparation of the actor rooted in the Stanislavky techniques of method acting. Adler turns acting into a physical and metaphysical activity, and it is, in my opinion, the definitive methodology to extracting the truth out of a performance. Adler’s approach has a sensitivity to the artist and the material, and if anything her demeanor alone is a guide for all directors and their initial approach to actors. An invaluable book.

3) The Director’s Vision: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Filmmakers by Geoff Andrew.

If you read the comments on the Amazon page, the reviews for this book are all over the place, but I don’t really see the purpose of this book to provide pointers on how filmmakers like the Coen Brothers or Walerian Borowczyk technically make movies. What I love is that Andrew takes a singular image from a film, and from that extracts the essence of the storytelling from that visual. It is, to me, the core of filmmaking, which is telling a story through image. And seeing how each filmmaker uses elements of performance, framing and composition to extract emotions is the real lesson here. It highlights that the key to competent direction lay within the details and the skillful execution of unique ideas. This is one of my favorite film books, both as a filmmaker and cinephile. I never get tired of reading it and it never fails to inspire and enlighten me.

4) A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies by Martin Scorcese and Michael Henry Wilson.

Today’s European film may be the true director’s medium, but let us not forget that the French New Wave was inspired to greatness by the heart of American cinema, and it is this cinema, from the director’s perspective, that Martin Scorcese dissects with the elan and enthusiasm of a true fanboy. We get insight to the hurdles, challenges and, most importantly, the solutions of the great American directors like John Ford, Samuel Fuller, Howard Hawks and Arthur Penn among many others. Scorcese also breaks down American cinema’s penchant for genre cinema, which can be argued is America’s greatest contribution to global filmmaking. There’s also a companion television documentary to the book, but the book suffices for me.

Film Craft:

1) The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film and the 7-volume Screencraft Series by Focal Press.

I’ve written about Walter Murch’s editing bible before, so I won’t write too much about it here other than that it is required for every filmmaker to own. But of equal importance to me is the invaluable Screencraft seriesfrom Focal Press.

The Screencraft series is broken into individual departments of filmmaking: screenwriting, directing, production design and art design, cinematography, costume design, film music and editing and post-production. Each book profiles anywhere from seven to ten top artisans from each department, and exhaustively breaks down each filmmaker’s process, references, methods, and philosophy. I can’t gush enough on how absolutely gorgeous these books are, packed with images and work documents on luxurious heavy paper stock. I return to these volumes the most for both technique and inspiration. They are very expensive books, and I collected the series over many years of visiting Strand Books in NYC and finding hard-to-come-by used copies. But if you can spare the expense, they are simply worth every single penny. Indispensable.

Film business and producing:

1) Filmmakers and Financing, Sixth Edition: Business Plans for Independents by Louise Levison

As aforementioned, there are a glut of film business books out there, but I personally recommend Levison’s book for one reason: it has the most complete business plan templates I’ve ever come across. It’s very similar to the plans found and taught at the University of Southern California’s prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program, and it is an absolutely invaluable resource for indie producers to have.

2) Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry: From Negotiations to Final Contracts and Contracts for the Film & Television Industry by Mark Litwak.

By no means are Litwak’s books a replacement for an actual entertainment attorney, but it’s vital that before you get an attorney for your deals, you should have a comprehensive knowledge of the terms, terminology, and laws of the entertainment / intellectual property industries. Litwak’s contracts are excellent templates to compare to those drafted by an attorney, and a great place to formulate questions for legal professionals or when dealing with other possible investors / production collaborators.

3) Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept Through Distribution by Gregory Goodell and The Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint by Chris Jones.

Both books are one-stop-shops for production of low budget independent films, and are both refreshingly realistic about expectations, but are limitless on ambition. Goodell’s book has an excellent appendix of realistic independent film budgets for movies $5 million and under.

There are countless other books on my shelf that I turn to, from my prized treasure Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made to numerous books on individual filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa and Krzystof Kieslowski, but the books I’ve listed are the ones that are for general filmmaking as a whole.

Lastly, I cannot emphasize more the importance of reading trade magazines, but I would only subscribe to one: American Cinematographer. If you want to know the latest of technique, infrastructure and philosophy of cinema, then AC is heads-and-shoulders above the rest. AC also dedicates tremendous amounts of coverage to the latest in digital cinema, including the experiences of the best cinematographers in the world as they use RED ONE and other digital platforms. An absolute must, and a joy to read every month.

Of course all these books cost money, and I highly discourage anyone from buying all these books in one foul swoop. Build up your collection slowly, and the used book is a boon to filmmakers. But as great as these books are, they still can never, ever replace the educational value of going on a set and working. Even as a PA fetching coffee you’ll learn more in a day than you will in a week reading a book about filmmaking!