Asleep

Makthaverskan

II

Played 237 times

Music for the Weekend: Asleep by Makthaverskan.

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.

All this from one song. Such is the power of art.

Have a great weekend!

Cigarettes & Loneliness

Chet Faker

Chet Faker - Built On Glass

Played 511 times

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.

Have a great weekend!

Lesson No.1 for Electric Guitar

Glenn Branca

Lesson No.1

Played 247 times

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.

Have a great weekend!

Making of 7x6x2, Part 3: Machines and Ephemera.

Previously:

Part 1: The Beginnings.
Part 2: The Monsters.

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.


From THB.

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.

Making of 7x6x2, Part 2: Monsters

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:

img036

And 24 hours and 500+ lbs of clay later, this is what Eric came back to us with, which blew our minds:

photo 1

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.

To be honest, I was scared. More to come.

Making of 7x6x2, Part 1: The Beginnings

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.

Fortune teller.

I took it as a good sign. We were going to need all the help we could get.

Hot Topic: Racism and the New Black Codes

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.

Choosing a Soundtrack.

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.

My Unapologetic Love of David Fincher’s ‘Alien3’

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.