HILARY BROUGHER'S STEPHANIE DALEY.
(writer-director, Stephanie Daley)
I was standing with two very naked and dirty babies in my mother’s garden when the call came that we finally had financing. After an eight-year wait from my first film there was that wonderful sense of a key turning a crusty lock. Something opening up, a season changing.
I told my producers that this time around I wasn’t going to try and make a great film, but rather try and have a great process, which most of the time happened. I think directing should not be about what’s in my head — it should be about conversation and trust. What I’m most proud of is that as a team, we created an environment of respect and attention to detail from which came a lot of beautiful moments on camera and off. We also got lucky in that our actors, Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn, are not only smart but very funny, because, especially on a dark film, there needs to be humor on-set — it kept us connected and awake. One of my favorite moments was after our first shot — a simple medium profile of her in her car. Tilda and I joked we’d just made a wonderful short film called “Woman Driving a Car,” and we had...because it’s about keeping it present. Loving every little film that makes up the whole.
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MIKE OTT & YONG KIM SO'S IN BETWEEN DAYS.
SO YONG KIM
(director–co-writer, In Between Days)
The leads of my film, Jiseon and Taegu, are both non-actors and met for the first time two days before we started shooting. We didn’t rehearse, and I did not let them read the full script. One night, after about a week into the shoot, Jiseon told me she didn’t want to do the film anymore. She said she didn’t want to be in a movie with Taegu because he was a bad person. Angrily, she confided in me that he had asked her to have sex that afternoon. I thought for a second and then reminded her that I had told Taegu to ask her to have sex — that we were filming a scene — and that it was part of the movie we were making. Still, she wasn’t easily convinced. They didn’t speak to each other for two days. But it was at that moment that I felt the film might turn out all right.
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JENNIFER AND KEVIN MCCOY
(directors, Our Second Date)
The lesson learned in making Our Second Date is the power of simplicity. Second Date is not, strictly speaking, a film at all. It is about the experience of watching film. It is a video installation that chronicles our second date, which we spent watching Godard’s Weekend. Although the main part of the project reconstructs the massive traffic jam scene from that movie, the main point is the watching — the uncomfortable watching. You know, the “for the love of god, why did I pick this film anyway? He looks like he’s bored. What smart things can I say about this film when it’s over? Now I’ve lost track of what’s happening so it will be impossible to say smart things when it’s over” — that kind of uncomfortable film watching.
The traffic scene is intercut with images of us watching the film. The projected sequence only has four shots. We usually storyboard all our projects, and when working on this storyboard, we were stunned that although we had only four frames of drawings, the work seemed artistically complete. So we built the piece, all the while thinking, “This can’t be interesting — we’ll change it later.” Then we finished it and realized we shouldn’t change a thing. Somehow it’s enough. Those four shots endlessly cutting together resonate. We discovered again that when you are experimenting with form, it is somehow very satisfying to keep the plot very simple. Sometimes the position of the artist is just to subtly reframe reality, not to reimagine it. Might as well keep it simple.
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RICHARD GLATZER AND WASH WESTMORELAND
Quinceañera is a reinvention of British kitchen-sink drama set in a Latino neighborhood undergoing gentrification. One of our major inspirations was the Tony Richardson film A Taste of Honey, and our first obstacle was: where would we ever find a lead who could hold a candle to that film’s star, Rita Tushingham? After several frustrating weeks of watching the auditions of 18-year-old girls from Beverly Hills and the Palisades pretending to be 14-year-olds from East L.A., we were getting worried. Then Emily Rios walked in and we knew immediately she was the real thing.
Emily was a mystery to us from the day she arrived. She was always polite and always quiet. Then when she would start acting, a light would shoot into her eyes, and she would command everyone’s attention. She invested the character of Magdalena with an unself-pitying dignity and an innate intelligence. How could a 15-year-old girl whose résumé consisted of playing Cleopatra in a school play be so imperturbable, so confident? Nothing we threw at her shook her. Grappling with a boy in the grass: no problem. Shouting at her huge, imposing father: easy. She knew everyone’s dialogue as well as her own, and when we tried to choreograph the quinceañera waltzes, she would be the one impatiently correcting our steps.
Her cool professionalism became naggingly enigmatic. Where did it come from? Who was this girl? We knew a few things about her that aligned her with our main character: that she was raised in a strict religious house (as a Jehovah’s Witness), that her older sister had gotten pregnant at 16. Still, however emotional she’d be in scene as Magdalena, when the camera stopped turning Emily was scarily unflappable. Her 16th birthday hit towards the end of our shoot, and her parents allowed us to buy her a birthday cake – her first birthday cake, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in celebrating. She was pleased, but cool as ever.
The day we shot Emily’s last scene, she thanked everyone and went to the trailer to change. It was around 1 a.m. when we finished saying good-byes to the crew. There, with the hair and makeup people, Emily was waiting in street clothes. She hugged both of us, thanking us and letting us know that the shoot was the high point of her life. And then the dam broke. She couldn’t stop crying.
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NICOLE HOLOFCENER'S FRIENDS WITH MONEY.
(writer-director, Friends With Money)
When I made my first short film, I shot it in my mother’s New York apartment. When I made my second short film, I shot it in the same apartment, as well as my own. When I made Lovely & Amazing, I shot it in my dad’s house, the house I grew up in. We used it for about three different locations over a period of two weeks.
When I found out I was getting a bigger budget for Friends With Money, a movie partially about very rich people, I looked forward to finding some fabulous, lavish locations for these characters and not have to endure bored production assistants laughing through my old photo albums. Besides, I was thrilled to be able to tell my family they could relax — those low-budget, film student days were over!
But finding locations for rich people was harder than we thought. The budget, though bigger than I’d ever had before, was still small. The wealthy people I knew had no interest in letting a film crew into their lives, and for good reason. After all, they didn’t need the money. No rich people need the money.
But right about the time the burdened location manager was going to pull the hair out of her head, she found a large house we could afford, and it didn’t belong to anyone I was related to. These people really didn’t need the money, but luckily for us, the wife apparently had a large couture purse collection she wanted to invigorate.
As for some of the other locations, we shot in my boyfriend’s house, his sister’s house and, of course, my mom’s. Thank god for family and friends. Budgets may grow, but obviously not so much.
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RAMIN BAHRANI'S MAN PUSH CART.
(writer-director, Man Push Cart)
While filming Ahmad dragging his pushcart down Lexington Avenue, I was reminded why I had written the script, and why we had all worked so hard together to make Man Push Cart. In fact his determination in the face of his endless struggles are reminiscent of how a film gets made! It also reminds me of a poem by Rumi: “I am the polo stick and you are the ball. Wherever I hit you, you go. But wherever you go I must follow.”
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BRIAN JUN'S STEEL CITY.
(writer-director, Steel City)
I feel that a large part of an independent film is made in the prep, because you simply don’t have the money or the resources to fix it on the day. That’s why it can be a daunting process at first of lining up locations, talent, crew, etc. Because you’re very limited in resources, you have to use your internal drive to get the film made. That drive has to shine through in order to pull all the elements together.
Left to create something from nothing, your greatest ally is your script. It took several years to make Steel City and many false starts. It’s a strange feeling going into production recognizing that you have 19 days to summarize years of labor. For me, day 1 was hectic, but I learned to relax and trust my instincts. We were shooting in a dirty location, four setups for this particular scene, and suddenly you have 50 people trying to accomplish your goals as a director. And things begin to fly: your actors are on, your d.p. is on, your sound mixer is on, and you’re on... That was the key moment for me. The process carries you, and you just hope that you come out in one piece.
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(producer-editor, TV Junkie)
For me, TV Junkie began with a ratty suitcase. It arrived at our facility with little fanfare. Inside we discovered an old Hi-8 player and 120 tapes. Some tapes were completely unmarked; some had cryptic labels like “Hooker #3,” “Rick Fights Chimp” and “Family Christmas.” These tapes, along with 3,000 others, comprised our source material for TV Junkie.
Each tape was like a piece of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and as our team reviewed them all, an entire life slowly came into focus. Tapes that originally seemed inconsequential became pivotal. Throwaway moments became critical. Sometimes we felt more like archaeologists than filmmakers.
The burden of the footage was also the project’s blessing. Few filmmakers will ever have such an incredible archive from which to draw for a single film. Few filmmakers will ever make a contemporary film where they were only present for a fraction of the photography. We will probably never make another film like TV Junkie, but if there is another suitcase full of tapes out there, I’d love to be the one that gets to open it.
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JULIAN GOLDBERGER'S THE HAWK IS DYING.
(writer-director, The Hawk Is Dying)
A month or so before we started preproduction on The Hawk Is Dying, I took the opportunity to spend some time alone on location in Gainesville, Florida. My intention was just to reconnect with the town and the environment and to do some preliminary scouting. I also needed to get out of Los Angeles (and my head) and begin the process of opening myself to more oblique creative strategies. I knew once we started production, our 24-day shooting schedule would hardly allow for serendipity, chance or voodoo to dictate the course of the day.
After checking into my hotel I was reminded that a hurricane was heading directly towards Gainesville. This was the 2004 back-to-back hurricane season. I had about 12 hours till the eye would pass through town. I didn’t feel like driving up to Atlanta. I was going to ride it out. In my room I started making notes on my failed attempt, earlier in the day, to hike through Paynes Prairie, one of our locations. I lasted about a half mile on the trail before the mosquitoes showed no quarter and drained most of my blood. I had had enough and turned back. During my manic retreat I noticed a young boy, about eight or nine. He was crouched down next to some palmettos, perfectly still, entranced by several deer feeding in the distance. I blew past him, swatting at the air. Further up the trail I passed his parents, who were having an argument about whether or not they were going to stop at Chick-fil-A.
Only after I got into my rental car and the air-conditioning hit me full blast did I realize the relevance of what I had just experienced. I was making a film about man’s disconnect from the wild. The A.C. was gravy.
Later that night I drove to Eckerd Drugs to buy some food and supplies in preparation for the hurricane. It was raining pretty hard, and I could barely see the road ahead of me. I had the radio on and stumbled across a local AM station playing a talk show on dreams and the divine. I pulled over to the side of the road to listen. Something in my mind became unhinged. I couldn’t tell if it was all the talk about dreams and Jesus or the haunting quality of the overhanging Spanish moss, but the mystery of the place was continuing to reveal itself. Hearing the closing music of the show took it even a step further. I had been desperate to find music to help me go deeper into the film and this was it, delivered to me on the AM dial. When I made it back to the hotel I called the station and found out what they were playing. That music made it into The Hawk Is Dying — not literally, but it’s in there, as are the mosquitoes, the Spanish moss, that kid on the trail, his parents, the voice and fury of the hurricane, aswell as a myriad of incidental inspiration, all buried in the soil of the thing.
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(director-producer, TV Junkie)
By the time Rick delivered the 46 cases of tapes, photos, awards and newspaper/magazine articles to me in 2000, he had been capturing his life for over 35 years. There was no way I could understand what the other 3,000-plus hours of footage might provide, but I was determined to tell Rick’s story.
After trying to fund the film unsuccessfully for over three years I came to the realization that part of why no one was biting was that I had no idea how we were going to tell the story and how the story would end. I was frustrated and overwhelmed by the project in front of me. In the meantime [Matt Radecki and I] put together an educational project where Rick was invited to present the keynote address to a graduating class of at-risk teens. This day of filming, the only one we actually did on the film, gave me the inspiration for what the film should be.
Rick stood in front of these 200 graduates and their crowd of 2,000 parents, friends and faculty and simply told them the story of his life. Rick told the tale of a man who had everything: a beautiful wife, two great kids and a dream job. A bittersweet tale of a life filled with promise that ended in disaster. His tale ended with hope, as Rick had been saved by the love of his children, his saviors.
This speech was a confession, an exhausting and a much-needed confession similar to the video diaries he had never bothered to watch. As Rick thanked the audience and took his seat, the thunderous applause began. He received a standing ovation from students, parents, faculty and friends. He had inspired them, not with tidbits of advice but with a tale of hope and redemption. Through the applause and my tears I finally understood the ending and the power of the message in the faces of the audience. Everyone wants and deserves hope and a second chance, no matter how hard you fall — even a first-time director.
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The breakneck pace of an 18-day shoot greatly facilitates learning the art of improvisation and compromise. As the writer-director, I had entered into the shoot of Forgiven with what I thought was a very tight script stripped of every possible unnecessary shot, scene and line of dialogue. So whenever my first a.d., Joe McDougall, would approach me with a genuinely pained look on his face that said we were running behind schedule, I would invariably insist that we couldn’t possibly cut whatever scene he was suggesting we cut because it was literally the “most important” scene in the whole movie, without which the entire plot would make no sense! By the second week of our shoot, when such a crisis would arise, Joe liked to remind me that I had already identified over a dozen “most important” scenes in the movie.
At the end of our 15th day of this exhilarating, wonderful but truly grueling shoot, we were setting up for the last shot of the day. Our day had run long — I think we were heading into our 13th or 14th hour — and it was close to midnight. It was a Sunday night, we were in a city government building, and there would be no way of getting back into this location for any kind of pickup later on in the week. Naturally, Joe approached me with that look. But it was the look with a twist. The thing was, the scene we were about to shoot really was the most important scene of the movie. Or at least it contained information on which the entire plot hinged and without which the story would make no sense. Really. Joe called a huddle, and my soft-spoken mad-scientist genius d.p. Vanja Cernjul, my steady-in-the-storm rock of a producer Kelly Miller and I came together with Joe. In his hand Joe had a rather worked-over looking sheet of paper which turned out to be a side for the scene we were about to shoot with one character’s lines of dialogue dutifully highlighted in yellow. The trouble seemed to be that the side page, which contained the aforementioned pivotal information in the about-to-be-shot scene, had become separated from its owner: the actress we’d hired for the role was nowhere to be found.
All the air was instantly sucked out of our little confab. The rest of the crew, unaware of our problem, continued setting up the scene while four sets of eyes darted around our circle for some tense, long moments. And then someone — I don’t really recall who, though I think it was Vanja — started giggling. And then we all started to laugh, ’cause what else could you do? The long and short of it is that one of the grips was also an actress, and Joe already had her on the hook by the time he’d broken the bad news to us (ever the ideal a.d., a solution for every problem already in hand). Within minutes she was ready to go and was truly perfect in the scene.
This moment stands out just ’cause it really was a perfect storm of circumstances — so much so that you just had to laugh. And the moment this particular bad-news bomb dropped has always epitomized for me the spirit in which Kelly and I set out to make this movie. The great and terrible thing about working with such a low microbudget is that you can’t buy yourself out of problems. You just have to improvise or compromise but, most importantly, move forward. And Kelly and I decided before we began that nothing was gonna stop of us from completing this movie in the time frame we’d set for ourselves. All the things that seem to be the “most important” things in the moment, in the scene, in the movie — on the planet! — really aren’t. They’re just pieces of the whole. I always think back on this moment and the old maxim “The show must go on,” corny as it may sound. And I think adhering to those marching orders is really the only “most important” thing in the whole movie
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KELLY REICHARDT DIRECTING OLD JOY.
(writer-director, Old Joy)
It’s hard to picture now because Will Oldham’s portrayal of Kurt, the wandering, wild half of the movie’s main duo, is so whole and absolute for me, and Daniel London’s Mark, the more domestic, passive-aggressive character, is so Mark, but from January 2004 to May 2004, before I met Daniel London, I was picturing Will in the opposite role. Will had said from the beginning that he knew both characters, and for months the idea was that Will would play the more hunkered-down figure. Kurt was someone I imagined as a wiry, speedy, aging punker — an Ian Svenonius (Weird War, The Make-Up)–type character, if not Ian Svenonius himself. I got very hung up on that image while writing the script. I wasn’t working with a casting director, but rather just asking around if anyone knew someone that fit this description. Seems everyone has a Kurt in their life (if not a Kurt in their soul), but the problem with casting someone who is truly very much like Kurt is that Kurt is notoriously hard to pin down. While he’s super enthusiastic, he’s also spontaneous, and he doesn’t like to commit himself. Not to mention he’s basically a nomad and doesn’t have a phone. So casting a real Kurt to play Kurt presented a lot of practical problems. The search for Kurt led me to so many different variations of Kurt that gradually my idea of the character expanded. Then one day I did a reading with Jon Raymond (who wrote the story the film is based on), and a friend of his and Todd Haynes from Portland, Noah Riebel. Noah was moving the next morning, so his little studio was torn apart, and he seemed to have about two boxes that he somehow planned to fit all his worldly possessions into (very Kurt). Anyway, all his postcards and letters and items from his past were strewn about, and we did the reading on his futon. I learned a world of things about both characters during that particular reading. Reading two friends with a real history, you can’t help but glimpse the complexities of their relationship. I somehow left Noah’s making the pivotal decision that Will Oldham should play Kurt. I was also thinking that Jon Raymond should play Mark — both characters took new shape that day. And at another pivotal moment, to Jon’s great relief, I would meet Daniel London and cast him as Mark.
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(director, What Remains)
Along with my partners, editor Pax Wassermann and director of photography Paul Dokuchitz, I tend to think of our documentaries as unscripted movies. That is, we try to take our cues from the narrative films and television shows we like and avoid standard documentary conventions like voiceover and interviews whenever possible. It can be a risky approach, as we never know where, or in fact if, a story is going to emerge. And since storytelling is the essence of what we do, not having one can present a major problem.
With What Remains, we returned to the subject of my first film, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann. Despite the awards and accolades bestowed on that earlier film (including an Oscar nomination), Sally and I always felt that it overemphasized the controversial element of her photographs. We both yearned to take another crack at a film about her work and found an ideal jumping-off point when she embarked on a new series of work: a meditation on the subject of death. We received immediate support from HBO and the BBC. That was five years ago.
Our editorial difficulties began about two years into the process. While Sally was coasting towards a major new show at New York’s prestigious Pace Gallery and the insights she was sharing on-camera about her creative process were consistently fascinating, a certain dramatic tension was missing from the footage, and I recall thinking that were this a scripted film, there would be a few obstacles in Sally’s way.
As fate would have it, one presented itself only a few weeks before Sally’s opening at Pace, when she learned that her show had been abruptly canceled. Forlorn, she called me to break the news — and as a friend my heart broke for her. All I wanted was to offer her comfort and support. But somehow, the filmmaker in me took charge as I blurted out “Don’t stop crying! We’ll be right down.”
The drive from New York City to Lexington, Va., normally takes seven hours. On that day, Paul and I did it in just over five. Sally was a wreck when we arrived, reeling from rejection and crushed by feelings of self-doubt. After filming all day, Paul and I finally drove off to our hotel to get some sleep. Only then did we fully realize what had happened.
In the midst of this upsetting experience, we now had our pivotal plot turn — from a filmmaker’s perspective, the dramatic structure for our documentary had crystallized in an instant. Although we were both saddened by Sally’s pain and misfortune, we also could not suppress a glimmer of excitement in knowing that the story we were telling had just taken shape.
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CHRIS GORAK RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR.
(writer-director, Right at Your Door)
We had already locked our picture and were deep into final sound mix and color timing when Hurricane Katrina occurred. Since I’d lived in New Orleans for five years, the event weighed heavily on me. Listening to the catastrophic news reports on the radio as they unfolded, I was completely affected. It was quickly obvious that the similarities to our film were staggering. Right at Your Door has the backdrop of a citywide disaster that cripples Los Angeles. All of a sudden our scripted news reports of “Help is on the way” were no longer fiction. It was a creepy, sad realization that a once imagined desperate situation had become a vicious, heartbreaking reality. Tragic themes in our film became nonfiction overnight. For me, it highlighted once again the fragility of life, an inspiring theme for this film, a theme that was spawned originally from the psychological limits of a post-9/11 society.
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(director, Don’t Come Knocking)
In the central scene of Don’t Come Knocking, Howard (Sam Shepard), our would-be cowboy hero, meets his long-lost son. They have a bitter fight, verbal as well as physical, at the end of which Earl (Gabriel Mann) walks away from his father with the words “Fuck you! You’re pathetic!” Howard stands there in the middle of the street. He’s come to the end of the rope, his entire mission has failed...
We shoot the first take as a master, pretty wide, with the background of an abandoned mine, in a suburban street of the ghost town that Butte, Mont., has become.
There is a blue sky, so we shoot the scene in plain sunlight, as some sort of a High Noon showdown. But just as Earl leaves the shot — he’s barely out of the frame — and Howard stands there alone, dumbfounded, lost, hopeless, all of a sudden a huge shadow falls upon the entire street and darkens the scene. A small cloud has materialized out of nowhere and covers us in sadness.
We all stare at the miraculous, metaphorical appearance. Howard sinks down on the sofa that his son has thrown out of the window of his apartment and sobs helplessly. Franz Lustig, my director of photography, has the presence of mind to slowly open the lens again on the remote control. We move in with our crane to a close-up of Howard, who tries to regain his composure. But somehow his whole life has just collapsed, and he knows it. A minute later I say “Cut.” We never shoot the end of the scene again...
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LAUREN GREENFIELD'S THIN.
The making of Thin was an opportunity for me to bring my still photographs to life and expand my use of narrative. I am a documentary photographer, and while the subject matter of this film was very familiar (a continuation of my decade-long work with girls and body image), HBO and producer RJ Cutler gave me the opportunity to embark on the adventure of directing my first film.
The film is a cinema vérité window into the Renfrew Center, a residential treatment facility for eating disorders in South Florida. The narrative was not planned but instead unfolded as we delved into daily life at the center, eventually focusing on four women with different backgrounds. Since we had no idea what would happen during our time there or which characters would be interesting, we took a leap of faith that our story would evolve organically during the course of our 10 weeks of scheduled filming.
Although access is my personal strength in photography, the delicate nature of eating disorders and the extremely demanding requirements of film continually challenged my ability to secure access. Trust was gradual and sometimes fleeting (everything changes from moment to moment with subjects suffering from mental illness), and access was a fluid dance with the subjects. By the time we committed to a character’s story, we had so much at stake that we had to negotiate with the subjects on their terms. We could never take participation for granted and had to work with the girls on all problems, concerns and conditions as they arose. We had to continually earn the right to keep working, especially as the girls went deeper into treatment and the process became more painful and personal for them.
When I was a student at Harvard, filmmaker Ross McElwee once told me that access was everything in documentary filmmaking (in response to my saying that I had a great film idea but didn’t know if I had the access). Thin was going to make or break on the quality of the access. Only access that was maintained during the most difficult crisis moments of the treatment and the illness would give me a narrative and a movie.
My major access breakthrough happened with Polly, a Southern belle who tried to kill herself after eating two pieces of pizza. She enjoyed the attention of the camera and had a naturally dramatic flair. And yet when we got to the critical part of her story, when she was about to be kicked out of treatment, she asked for the cameras to be turned off. At that point she didn’t think she was going to look good and was not in control of the attention she was getting.
Of course, I was devastated at missing a piece of the pivotal narrative scene. Nevertheless, we agreed to her request (we always told the girls they could stop the filming at any point), and afterwards my cinematographer, Amanda Micheli, told me that I had to work with Polly to earn back her trust and make her understand that we could be fair to her side of the story if we were permitted to film. Polly was hysterical because of the situation but we had a long talk in private, and she finally agreed to let us continue. The footage we got over the next 24 hours made up some of the most emotional scenes in the film and more than substituted for the situation we missed when she asked us to stop shooting.
That night, Polly was on suicide watch and, given the volatility of the situation, I did not want to leave the premises to go back to the hotel. I slept at Renfrew and checked in on her several times throughout the night. Though we did most of the filming with a three-person crew, I stayed alone with Polly and filmed her one-man-band style. Most of the night, however, we talked rather than filmed. Somehow, the time I put in by her side allowed her to trust me at a time when she felt betrayed by everyone else.
The next morning, I realized that she had returned to her eating-disorder symptoms and could possibly purge her food after her meal. In all the time I had spent with eating-disorder patients, I had never seen anyone purge, as it is always done in secret, and is forbidden in treatment. I stayed by Polly’s side after breakfast, and when she got up to go to the bathroom, she did not ask me to leave. She said it was embarrassing and shameful to purge in front of me, but I think she also knew that this reality had to be a part of the film.
This was a turning point in the making of Thin because I was able to record a painful private moment that is part of the daily life of an eating disorder for many girls. Polly did not control or manipulate the process (as girls with eating disorders are apt to try to do) but gave me the privilege of bearing witness to an act she had done hundreds of times alone. Eating disorders are fueled by secrets and lies. Polly’s brave act of trust gave her the opportunity to expose a clandestine reality while enabling me to tell her story with more intimacy and candor.
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RICKI STERN AND ANNIE SUNDBERG
(directors, The Trials of Darryl Hunt)
In 1993, we were captivated by a story of a Southern community still in racial turmoil over a rape-murder that had happened in 1984, and at the time it was the beginning of a decade-long journey.
We were three college friends, the two of us and d.p. William Rexer. One of our film professors came down with us to help record sound. Over the next two years, we traveled back and forth to North Carolina, believing this case would soon reach a climactic end.
During this time, we were often close to running out of 16mm stock as we filmed the hearings, so we’d shoot at slower frame rates with the intent of slowing down the transfer when we went to tape. This footage never quite transferred back to feel like smooth 24 frames per second as we’d hoped, but its jittery rhythms now give some of the courtroom moments — especially the wait for Morgan’s ruling on the DNA — an edginess that works really well.
In 1994, when the DNA test results were announced excluding Hunt as the rapist, we were shocked by the judge’s decision to uphold Hunt’s conviction; Darryl would return to prison and the case was closed.
After Darryl’s North Carolina Supreme Court appeal was denied, we returned to New York and stored our shot film in our d.p.’s freezer, where it remained, exposed but not processed, for over 10 years. We didn’t have enough money to handle the lab costs. Eventually, in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Darryl Hunt’s final appeal and all funding leads dried up, we put everything else into storage and went on to other films and other jobs. We forgot about the frozen film.
Then, on Christmas day in 2003, we learned there was a chance Darryl Hunt might finally be released from prison. Once again we were back shooting — this time on digital video.
We recovered the 16mm film from our d.p.’s freezer and sent it for processing. At DuArt, we put the resulting work print onto a Steenbeck and, with great anticipation, watched the moment when Mark, Darryl’s attorney, tells him through tears that the North Carolina State Supreme Court had rejected his case. It was possibly our most moving footage — remarkably, the years in the freezer hadn’t damaged the film — but it was silent.
Where was the sound? We searched for over 10 months, pulling apart storage units and digging through basements with no luck. Finally, we convinced DuArt to organize its vault in search of the missing reels. We remained convinced that our sound was living somewhere in a dark corner on the lab’s 10th floor, hidden behind 1981 prints of after-school specials.
When nothing turned up, we started to work creatively with the silent footage, building dreamlike sequences, visual montages, adding in new interviews from Mark and Larry, and trying flashback reflective moments with voiceover. Then, one afternoon, William called to say he found some unlabeled quarter-inch reels in an unlabeled box that had been sitting in his loft. It was the missing sound.
In the final film, the scene described above plays with its original audio, but we still kept a feeling of silence in the sequence. The audience sits with Mark and his tears when it would be easier — emotionally — to cut away to the next scene.
One of our greatest potential mishaps — the missing sound — turned out to be a blessing, as it encouraged us to be visually inventive with our footage. We were fortunate that our editor, Shannon Kennedy, is a remarkable photographer and artist who understands how to juxtapose images to create an unexpected emotional or instinctual response (the hatching of the dragonflies in the opening montage, for example, triggers a sense of unease and frenzy). In the end, the work we did with the silent footage left a visual mark on the film as a whole — from our opening montage, which introduces the story without dialogue, to the voiceover mixed with point-of-view imagery of the crime scene, to the visual bridges used to collapse time within the story.
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LAURIE COLLYER'S SHERRYBABY.
I saw the movie Secretary and thought the lead actress was so very striking and extraordinary. I had the good fortune to be able to get her my script. Months went by and I hadn’t heard anything. Then, all at once, a slew of e-mails from Maggie Gyllenhaal’s agents and managers started to come in... She loved the script! I knew we were going to make a wonderful movie together.
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JOEY LAUREN ADAMS' COME EARLY MORNING.
JOEY LAUREN ADAMS
(writer-director, Come Early Morning)
When I got the call that I had the money, I felt nothing. I’d been fighting for five years to get the project going, and I’d heard that too many times before. I’d heard it from a man who suddenly became afflicted with some rare disease that wiped out his memory of the previous two weeks — including his memory of my script. I’d heard it from a company who then spent six months negotiating a deal with me, only to find out they didn’t actually have any money.
Well, this time apparently the money was there, somewhere. I never actually saw it, but I went along with it, and I continued to fight. I fought for crew, cast, days, equipment, locations, etc. It all seemed to me like the same fight I’d been fighting for five years and that at any moment it would all fall apart. What I didn’t realize was that I was making the movie.
You make your movie in prep. People told me this but, like most advice, it doesn’t resonate until you’ve actually experienced it. The first day of shooting we were scheduled to shoot the first scene of the script. I arrived on set, and there it was...
INT. MOTEL ROOM - MORNING
Sunlight slices through a crack in the curtains and comes to rest on the face of LUCY, early 30s. She lies in bed, her eyes open, staring at a Gideons Bible resting on the nightstand, the previous night grinding through her head.
What was once a blank piece of paper was now a reality. It was at that moment I knew the fight was over and the movie was made. The work had been done, the wheels were in motion and all I had to do was keep them moving.
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As a documentary maker, understanding the shifting relationship between script, cast and the finished film became the key in my first foray into features. I was learning this as I was going along. In a documentary the storyline is “given” — and unpredictable: you just have to know which path in the “real” to follow, and you make the key decisions in the cutting room afterwards. Here, in a feature, the starting point was an invention — a script that was brilliant, quirky and highly original. Everything seemed preordained — but, despite years of refining, the moment of shooting was often the first time you could see that, as the film was shaping up and becoming concrete, what was on the page was not going to work in the way envisaged. But when a project is financed on the back of a script, and especially given the pressures on location, it takes courage, and a lot of self-confidence, to tear up the pages for a particular day and do something else.
All this crystallized at one particular moment as we were about to shoot what was to be the crucial scene of the film. I would have shot it as written — but in the run-through just before shooting, both the lead actors in the scene felt they could not play it as it was. They felt paralyzed — and they were right. We spent the whole morning reworking the scene — in the process reducing it by two-thirds. I began to realize that as the film was taking shape, many of the scenes that eventually ended up on the cutting room floor should never have been shot. Doing so would have freed precious time in a very tight schedule for other things that are rarely budgeted for and could never be part of the written page. This was a crucial lesson: for the true “essence” of a film is in what is not written.
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STAY WRITER-DIRECTOR BOB GOLDTHWAIT.
It’s a strange coincidence, but the pivotal moment in the storyline of Stay was also a pivotal moment in our filming. There’s a scene where our female lead is pressured by her fiancée to come clean about her sexual history. In the script, I had written this as taking place in a car parked in her parents’ garage. When it came time to shoot the scene, we had managed to borrow an old convertible, but the guy whose garage we were supposed to be shooting in wasn’t answering his phone. So we...“found” a garage to shoot in. I mean, I don’t want to get into specifics or anything, but somewhere there’s a family who hadn’t quite finished moving into their new house last June... and if they see this movie, that scene may look a little familiar. I think sneaking around that yard all night and watching my crew crawl in and out of that pirated garage is one of my favorite memories of making Stay, and a pretty good example of independent filmmaking. Please don’t forward this to the cops.
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FINN TAYLOR'S THE DARWIN AWARDS.
(writer-director, The Darwin Awards)
You can’t fool Mother Nature, but she can sure mess with you.
We’ve brought a crew of 120 people, dozens of trucks, process vehicles and picture cars to Nevada. We’re here to film one of the more famous Darwin Awards. A man welds a military JATO rocket to the back of his Chevy hoping to set a speed record. Underestimating the power of this rocket, he meets with earth-shattering results. The sequence takes place in a hot desert.
I’m staring out the 12th-story window of our hotel at the dense white blanket of snow covering our production vehicles, the city of Reno and as far as the eye can see. We’ve run into the worst snowfall this part of the world has seen in 60 years. I look at the call sheet at all of the desert scenes scheduled for the next several days. In independent film I’m used to running and gunning, but this is a larger production. I meet with the d.p. and producers. Some of us argue to move this production elsewhere immediately, but we’re told this film isn’t a speedboat and that you can’t turn a freighter on a dime.
So we improvise. We shoot scenes with David Arquette and Brad Hunt at an exterior salvage yard that’s supposed to be in the desert. The art department shovels away snow, the actors chew ice to reduce the condensation coming out of their mouths. We get it on film and it looks great. Still, it continues to snow.
The producers look at alternative locations, getting permits and lodging for 120-plus on a moment’s notice. The freighter is turning. But I’m in a snow-covered world for another day. We shoot process-vehicle driving scenes with Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder that I adapt for another part of the film that takes place in Minnesota. The snow is so thick it looks about as Minnesota as you can get.
Finally the freighter has turned. The crew loads the dozens of trucks with the speed of the Pony Express, and we head south. I fly down with my d.p., Hiro Narita, to scout new locations. We’ve left instructions with the first assistant cameraman to shoot as many traveling and establishing shots as she can while driving south.
So, fifty miles east of Barstow in the high desert at 4,000 feet, we shoot the sequence over several days. Victory. The rocket car works, the weather holds, the desert is a beautiful backdrop for scenes with David Arquette, Juliette Lewis and Brad Hunt. My stunt coordinator, Dick Ziker, celebrates his birthday by jumping the rocket car 70 feet.
Mother Nature has brought us here on her schedule, and we adapted. Very Darwinian indeed.
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HAL HABERMAN AND JEREMY PASSMORE
(co-directors and co-writers, Special)
We were shooting an insane scene at four in the morning in a sketchy part of town...rushing the whole night to get through all these brutal stunts and complicated makeup and wirework. So halfway through shooting [star] Michael [Rapaport]’s last close-up (where his character is getting beaten up by invisible people), we directors (there were two of us, which is a whole other story) glanced at each other, and we were both crying.
When the shot was over we peeked at the crew, and the makeup artist was crying, and the wardrobe department was crying, and the d.p. was crying, and even some of the grips were tearing up a little. And it might sound a little trite, but it was really a profound experience for us, like maybe shooting this no-budget, oddly existential superhero movie wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
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RAYMOND DE FELITTA
(writer-director, ’Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris)
In making ’Tis Autumn, I had to confront the fact that I had no idea what movie I was making or why. I only had the profound desire to capture and record the story of a legendary and mysterious figure before he died — and it was clear, from the beginning, that Jackie didn’t have long to live. This might not have bothered a more seasoned documentary filmmaker, but for a first-timer like me, whose whole understanding of the medium is rooted in the craft of screenwriting, it was like being dropped in the middle of a foreign country and forced to learn the language as you go.
While interviewing Jackie and his friends and wondering what the ultimate goal of what I was doing was going to be, it occurred to me that my own confusion mixed with my adulation of him was in many ways the most human of predicaments. Why had Jackie and I met, how had we grown so close so quickly, what did he want from me and what did I want from him? Most importantly, after he’d passed away and I had a little perspective on the entire experience, I realized that my need to discover what lay at the root of his art and life was much less important to my understanding of him than I thought. Indeed, it was really my own desire to understand what it is to be an artist that I was in search of. And that’s when I knew what my film was destined to be about.
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STEVEN ASCHER AND JEANNE JORDAN'S SO MUCH SO FAST.
STEVEN ASCHER AND JEANNE JORDAN
(co-directors, So Much So Fast)
We’re very interested in the power of time in film, and the story of So Much So Fast evolves over a period of years. When you’re looking for meaning in everyday moments, you end up filming a lot of moments that seem a lot less than meaningful. One day, having tried to shoot all day with nothing happening, the shoot was a complete bust, and the whole concept of filming real people living their lives was feeling totally ludicrous. Just before packing up, Stephen Heywood rolled outside in his wheelchair and coached his baby son Alex in his first tentative steps, a brief moment that crystallized so many things that are central to the film. When you’re filming like this, you can’t plan, schedule or budget for the scenes that make all the difference.
Another key moment happened in the editing room. We’d been wrangling with 200 hours of footage shot over four years and had a really interesting 130-minute cut. It seemed like all the threads of the story demanded that length. But as important as all that story was, it was just too much for audiences to take in. Slowly, painfully it came down to 87 minutes. Subplots that had three scenes were cut to one. There was a kind of miraculous transformation. Finding a way to distill all that lived time into that brief screen time made the film come alive.
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(writer-director, Off the Black)
The cabin was on the side of a mountain. Asheville was the nearest city, but that doesn’t mean it was nearby. I was nowhere. It was quiet and chilly. I spoke to nobody. November was almost gone. I wasn’t looking forward to December.
It was the end of a long, painful year. I’d lost some people that I loved very much. I’d found myself in a cold place.
My goal on this mountain was to write a feature-length screenplay. I’d had the idea for the script for almost a year, and had written exactly three words: Off. The. Black.
In my brain, the script was complete. And sublime. In actuality, the screenplay was as real as a unicorn tap-dancing across an invisible dance floor all the way to the moon. Which is to say, the possibility of even beginning the script — not to mention completing it — seemed like utter fantasy.
I’d grown bored of, well, me.
Each morning I would walk to the edge of a mountain lake. I would stare at the lake. I believed that this lake would inspire me. I tossed things into the lake (pebbles, pencils). Day after day, I tossed. But there was no inspiration, just ripples.
In a few more days, I might have considered tossing myself into the lake. I’d be found with the spring thaw. People might believe that the title page of my script was a suicide note (“‘Off the Black’? He must have been very depressed.” “Yes, but at least he understood the value of brevity.”)
Then, without warning, something terrifying and new arrived from Atlanta:
My sister and her boyfriend pulled up the gravel driveway in their station wagon. They would stay for two nights. Now, my sister and I have a peculiar relationship. We fight. We’ve always fought. We anticipate glorious fights we’ll have in 20 years.
But on this occasion my sister didn’t come to fight with me. Or even to visit me. She’d come for the cabin. She and her boyfriend hiked. They enjoy walking up mountains. I like to stare at mountains while remaining stationary.
We barely spoke.
But my sister was a saint in disguise. She’d brought her CD collection. I devoured her CD collection. Most were CDs I’d heard before, though I finally came to one I didn’t recognize. The group was called Hope for Agoldensummer. I played this CD.
The music was exotic, ethereal, fragile — full of childlike wonderment. There were spare arrangements with singing saw, xylophone, clarinet, acoustic guitar, strange percussion, so much reverb that it seemed to be playing in another dimension, and, at its center, one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous female voices I’d ever heard. The singer’s voice was booming and haunted, and the lyrics were full of mourning, yet also managed to be hopeful and at times even silly.
This was summer music about winter themes.
I listened to the CD on repeat for the next week.
I began to hear it in my dreams.
It colored the way I looked at everything around me.
And suddenly, I knew that I could write my screenplay. While I’d understood the plot for some time, I had no sense of tone, and the characters had no pulse, or soul. But now they did.
The world of my script was peopled with funny-sad characters, and funny-sad themes, and when the moon hovered in the night sky of this world, and when the train ran by in the distance, and when the characters were at their loneliest, there was a tone that was both gentle and non-judgmental and occasionally humorous.
The script became a summer story about winter themes.
Flash-forward to this exact moment: Mon., Dec. 19, and I’ve spent the entire weekend in the recording studio with Claire Campbell (the brains and soul and voice behind Hope for Agoldensummer). We’ve barely slept. But the score for Off the Black, my first feature, is finished.
And I love it.
I’ve told Claire that for the next film I want to make, the score will require Hawaiian steel and slack-string guitar—even though the story takes place on Cape Cod in the middle of February.
This one will be a winter story about summer themes.
The silence is gone for now. I can hear a melody. I’m hopeful again.
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(writer-director, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints)
I was kicked out of Long Island City high school in Queensbridge and have truly no business making movies except I love them. To death. Always have. My film is called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. In a million years I’d probably never go see something like it, as I pretty much only like crap! Basically Morgan Freeman, a serial killer and Ashley Judd and I’m there, ya know?
But I love this film with everything I got. Wrote a book in pen that got published by Avalon/Thunder’s Mouth Press. Robert Downey Jr. came up to me at a bookstore in Los Angeles and said he wanted to make a movie out of it. Next day he brought down producer Trudie Styler. When it seemed real, I picked up a screenplay and found out that “INT.” meant interior (not introducing), “EXT.” didn’t mean exit, and I wrote my own script. They loved it, and next I know, Sundance accepted it for the Screenwriters Lab. Never heard of the lab, but it turned out to be one of the luckiest and best experiences of a lifetime. There I was coached by great writers like Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon) and Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también). When I got back I shot some ridiculous short films with friends who knew as little as me, and the Sundance Lab accepted them and me for the Directors Lab, where I learned a bit more.
Went on and made this film. My plan was to shoot a bunch of non-actors, straight-up street kids. One after another came the movie stars. Before I knew it I had Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri and a whole bunch of other famous actors. Chazz scared the hell out of me. The character he was playing was simply a typewriter mechanic from Astoria, Queens. I always saw [Chazz] as some kinda gangster or something and wanted nothing to do with that in my film. Against my wishes he got the part, and it turned out to be one of the greatest learning experiences in this whole madness. His first day, the costume woman was worried. “Chazz only wants to wear blue or black!” I almost had a heart attack. Straight-up mafia nightmare, I thought. Went in and talked a minute or two. Told him Monty, the character, was a lonely guy. No friends. Loves when the kids come over. I left, and he called me back a few minutes later and said he hadn’t thought of that. “Maybe I shouldn’t wear this blue blazer, ya think?” From there on his performance was magic. This basically happened in every aspect of this film. All I can say to anyone who wants to make a movie is, Well, I waited two months to rehearse and got about two hours. Felt the kids would never seem like lifelong friends. In the end it worked better than I imagined. I loved each and every one of my characters. The hard part for me was allowing the actors who showed up to bring their stuff to it. Because there was no rehearsal time, that was just the way it had to be. Once the camera’s rolling, even though Antonio (one of my characters) would never say “moms” (he’d say “your mother”), well, if that’s the way the actor felt most comfortable then Antonio says “moms,” ya know? I believe the script goes right in the garbage once filming starts. It’s good for reference if you get lost, but that’s about all. I know you’re looking for that one moment that was enlightening, but the entire feature is. Every bit!
Here’s another quick one: At the Directors Lab I had to shoot a scene between two friends seeing each other at a prison visit after 15 years. They hire the actors, and you meet them half an hour before filming. My actor was the great Michael Wright. The friend they chose (the prisoner) was a local white guy from the surrounding area (Utah) who was (by the way) a giant! Like, six foot eight and huge! I flipped and said the scene was gonna seem like a joke, but we had to film. At first I kept telling Michael that the character I wrote talked loud. Wanted all the other prisoners to know he had a visitor, that someone cared about him. No matter what I did, the guy would not talk loud. Michael walked over to me after an hour of failed attempts and said, “This guy is such a nice guy — he probably hates being so big and scary, which is why he talks so quiet. Let him do it at his volume.”
I went back and did it as Michael said, and the guy’s performance broke everyone in the room’s heart. It was beautiful. So I guess it’s good to have the soul and intentions of your scenes and characters completely pinned down in your head. But how it’s achieved is the journey and the fun.