Sunday, January 25, 2009
Documentarian Doug Pray has made films about grafitti artists (Infamy), an iterant surfing family (Surfwise), Seattle punk scene (Hype!) Hip Hop DJ’s (Scratch) and truckers (Big Rig), and now, with Art & Copy, he profiles the living legends of corporate advertising. Advertising has a complicated relationship to filmmaking — for one thing, many feature and documentary directors make a living doing commercials. The men and women profiled in Pray’s film have been responsible for most revolutionary campaigns of the ad business — VW’s “Lemon” and “Think Small” were by George Lois, who also provoked controversy with his Esquire Covers and was at the agency that did the infamous Lyndon Johnson “Daisy Girl” ad (which has been credited with Johnson’s election win); “Got Milk?” by Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein; Lee Clow of Chiat/Day’s Apple Computer campaign, advertising which is integral to the brand itself; sentimentalist master Hal Riney, whose voice you would recognize from every commercial that ever made you cry (and some, like Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America,” that might have made you scream). Phyllis Robinson empowered the women of the “me generation” with Clairol ads and took the 1960’s to the sky for airlines. Dan Weiden and David Kennedy took their Nike motto “Just Do It” from the published last words of an executed felon, and set about to make a campaign that changed how sports are played in America. Pray put the camera on these men and women not to provoke them into talking about corporate responsibility, but to expose, in the purest way possible, what their art is and how they think about it.
Filmmaker: How is this film different from your other films?
Pray: For one thing, here I was in these expansive, gorgeous, architecturally wondrous ad agencies in these super high-end apartments in New York City, which is a far cry from the trash infested alleys and truck stops of my previous films. I thought when I started the film that it was gonna be totally different -- that any fans of my previous work were gonna think I’d completely jumped off a cliff to make a movie somehow celebrating advertising, as if I’d lost all of my indie cred in one fell swoop. With a lot of my films I was dealing with people who were anti-society, many of them are about artists and subcultures. But I started thinking how similar this was. These guys are doing all these things that we’re trained to believe are not in the same spirit as what true artists do – selling products, working for a corporation -- but that it couldn’t be further from the truth. In their hearts and minds, these guys do think of themselves as artists, they do think of themselves as revolutionaries. Even if it’s for Coke or Apple computer, they are still seeing their role in life as trying to change people and change the world. And then you kind of go, well, all artists, that’s kind of their goal too. They want to move people, they want to express themselves, they have something to say.
Filmmaker: It seemed to me that you kept stopping short of indicting these people for working for corporations; it’s not a film about corporate ethics or the corrupting power of money. How did you draw that line?
Pray: I can honestly say, that question was the hardest part of making the movie for me – how far do we go, and how much will the public be interested in talking about advertising in this different frame. Because the only two conversations that have ever been had about advertising are, “I loved that Superbowl ad” or “I hate advertising.”
Filmmaker: What were some formal decisions you made to keep that balance?
Pray: One of my decisions was to add statistics [about the amount of money generated by advertising, against footage of satellite launches and billboard posting] – which is to try to take the movie to another level, one where I didn’t want the movie itself to go. I wanted to add that layer of information for the audience as a way of constantly reminding them that what these people do is huge. The results of these guys’ thought processes are affecting millions and millions of dollars of commerce. The film assumes that we live in this world of commerce, and talks about the advertising. The film isn’t asking if commerce is good or bad.
Filmmaker: That’s interesting, to make a film about the kings of this business, but not about the business itself.
Pray: I felt like, it’s really, really easy to make a film that trashes advertising. Nobody likes 90% of the advertising that’s out there – nobody. Especially not these guys. So it just didn’t make sense to do a movie where we go on and on about how bad it is and how corporate it is. It just made sense to focus on these individuals and let them say what they want to say. I just decided to keep it personal. Not personal for me, but about them. They can share their own doubts -- one of my favorite lines is when Jeff Goodby admits that he won’t let his kids watch bad ads. I wanted [that idea] to come from them, not me. My job is not to reinterpret what they’re saying, but to expose who they are.
Filmmaker: How did the film come together – you were approached by The One Club, right?
Pray: Yes, the producers approached me, they had seen my work and knew I had made films about artists. Nobody wanted to do a tribute film, or a puff piece on the ad industry. But I knew that I wasn’t going to make ADBUSTERS, the movie. And I love ADBUSTERS, by the way, I read it. But I was granted rare, rare access to these individuals, and I had a deep respect for the opportunity, and I felt the same way about the Pascowitz family or the graffiti artists. Some of these guys have been interviewed about particular campaigns, like Lee Clow has been interviewed dozens of times about the [Apple/Ridley Scott] 1984 ad, but never have these guys like allowed a camera into their home, or been asked to step back and look at the whole thing. Hal Riney had never done an interview like that in his life for anybody, in fact, none of these guys have.
Filmmaker: What were they like to interview?
Pray: I think they really enjoyed talking about their work on this level, stepping back and talking about what it all means. I love interviewing artists, I just love it, and these people are artists. My whole thing is like, “What is motivating you? Where’s this coming from?” One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Hal Riney says, ‘Well, I haven’t been to a shrink… much.’ And he gives this sly grin. And then he continues, ‘but the fact that I grew up in a home that didn’t have emotions…’ that propelled his work. If you look at his ads after hearing that you just can see, ‘Oh my god, this is one big therapy session. I’ve just bought Saturns and bought Bartles & James, because Hal Riney had a childhood with no emotion and he created the fantasy life that he wanted in these hundreds of ads. And I know that’s simplistic but it’s also so cool to realize that everything is human; architecture is human – the design of that shopping mall reflects someone’s childhood.
Filmmaker: What was your concept of advertising before you made the film?
Pray: I had two general concepts of advertising. One of them was a life long cynicism against it. The second one, which is diametrically opposed to the first one, is that over the last few years I have begun directing commercials myself. I realized that some of my heroes, like Errol Morris and Barbara Kopple, they all do them – I mean I had no idea that anybody that I respected would do ads and then I realized that everybody that I respected does ads, that’s how they maintain their documentary careers, so I started doing them. Then I realized that it’s an incredibly dynamic process, one that makes you so much better as a director – it’s like boot camp. The commercial work I have done is documentary style with non-actors, but you’re surrounded by an agency and a client who are demanding that certain things occur. And in a documentary environment, certain things just do not occur. On a commercial, you have to get a non-actor to say things you want them to say. It sounds so manipulative but it’s really quite the opposite -- it’s about getting in touch with the truth of what they think and getting them to say it. You’re also surrounded by very skilled crew who can do exactly what you want. I thought I would hate it, but it’s usually really invigorating. And they pay you. There’s a terrible economic reality to doing documentaries; working on commercials has allowed me to make the films. But no one I interviewed had any idea that I do this stuff, because I didn’t want it to feel like I was doing this to get work.
Filmmaker: And certainly there is work being done in advertising that no one could afford to do in features, not to mention intensely creative, surreal work by filmmakers who just don’t work in long form…
Pray: It’s true – and it’s actually Rich Silverstein that says, ‘If you can figure out a way to still be creative and say things that you want to say, and yet do it in this weird situation where you’re actually pushing a product, that’s a pretty amazing thing.’ We really aren’t looking at the work-a-day people who are not enjoying their work and doing mediocre stuff, we’re looking at people who for most of their career have been able to connect [creativity and commerce.] They’re saying something, they’re being creative, they’re pushing limits, they’re taking risks, they’re doing everything an artist would want to do, and yet it’s for a product and they’re getting all this money to do it. You could say that completely changes the nature of it, but in their minds it doesn’t. And my whole trip on that anyway is like – who funds the art? Why is it any different getting money for a 30-second documentary from a huge corporation and [doing a feature on your own]?
Filmmaker: Well, one major difference is that if you’re doing something in the service of making more money, versus finding someone to spend money on a goal you already had, and often without the promise of getting it back. But it’s certainly complicated. '
Pray: There’s very little art in the world today that isn’t funded by corporate clients. The only difference with this is that they make no bones about it, they’re not trying to hide it: ‘Hell yeah, we’re selling soap.’ If there is an evil, what they all keep saying in the film is, ‘What’s evil is looking down at your audience and treating them like idiots.’ These guys do not like bad ads. It would be wrong if I made [what they do] sound altruistic — it’s just an interesting discussion, like, who’s funding Sundance?
Filmmaker: As you joked, this is the first Sundance movie with ads in it.
Pray: Right, I said to the audience before the premiere: if you think Sundance has gotten too commercial, you’re in the wrong movie.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Peter Callahan’s Againt the Current is road movie that takes place in a vehicle that “couldn’t out-run a turtle.” It’s a story about Paul Thompson (Joseph Fiennes), a man in his mid-30’s who is still grieving for his wife five years after her death. Emotionally adrift, Thompson decides to make it literal by enlisting his best friend (Justin Kirk) to man a boat as he swims the entire length of the Hudson River. The pair are joined by a pretty, single barfly named Liz, played by Elizabeth Reaser, and they all stop briefly at Liz’s Rhinebeck house, where her mother (Mary Tyler Moore) and niece (Michelle Trachtenberg) are waiting to stir up trouble. Thompson keeps swimming and the city gets closer as a subtle and restrained human drama unfolds between the three of them. This is Callahan’s second feature (he toured the festival circuit with Last Ball in 2001) and his first time at Sundance, where the film premiered last week in the Spectrum section.
Filmmaker: I mean this in a good way: Against the Current is the slowest road movie I’ve ever seen.
Callahan: Well it is, it’s a road trip movie on water. They’re not moving fast; they’re swimming. And it’s just kind of this... lazy trip down the river. Like Huck Finn or a Mark Twain-ish journey down the river. Some of the elements were inspired by events in my life, my own experience with loss and grief, and from there it was just a springboard into fictionalizing them.
Filmmaker: Were you trying to talk about male friendships, was that a conscious theme?
Callahan: I wasn’t trying to say anything about friendship particularly -- it was just the natural result of trying to write genuine honest people. You know, I don’t think subtlety is reserved for novels. I hope it’s still alive in film. And I think there are a lot of us who want to preserve it. I think we’re programmed by seeing so many Hollywood mainstream movies that we forget that film is not limited to just simplistic stories and characters.
Filmmaker: Were you ever tempted to change the ending?
Callahan: That was the ending I wanted to write. It was the only legitimate ending for me, as someone who likes interesting, thoughtful films. I could give you a Hollywood ending, which we’ve all seen before. It goes in one ear and out the other and you forget about it and that’s that.
Filmmaker: What were some of the challenges of shooting on water?
Callahan: It was really tricky, because you’re shooting from a boat – or a so-called ‘boat’ we were shooting on, it was really a raft -- filming another boat, and a swimmer, and then you’ve got some support boats around, and all the boats are moving. The Hudson has a strong current, and the boats had a mind of their own. Try and set up a shot and you’d look back and it would be like, ‘oh, it just moved 10 feet in 30 seconds. Meanwhile you’re drifting the other way. You’d also get an almost sea sickness. At the end of the day we’d come back and walk through the hotel and things would still be moving. The boat would still be rocking.
Filmmaker: Did anyone fall in?
Callahan: Amazingly, nobody fell in. My personal goal before the shoot was not to be the first person who fell in. Once some lens cases went sliding and got close, but somebody caught them.
Filmmaker: How did you communicate with the actors from across the water, and how did they cope with it?
Callahan: Communication was a combination of yelling and Walkie Talkies. There’d be a walkie below the seat and Justin or Elizabeth would operate it, or we’d have somebody stashed out of view. Sometimes, for the closer shots, we could get on their boat so I was there with them. I think they had a chance to bond more than people might on other movies, because a lot of time it was just the three of them out on the water. They were alone out there, so they needed to rely on each other. I think that helped strengthen the bond between them.
Filmmaker: How did you come to filmmaking?
Callahan: I came to it from writing. I studied journalism for a while and then realized I liked making things up more. I moved towards fiction for a little bit, and then realized screenwriting and movies was more what I was drawn to and more suited my talents and my goals of storytelling. I like the way films tell stories. Novels are great, but just not quite the best fit for me.
Filmmaker: What are some of your favorite films?
Callahan: I just want to make a film that means something to people and moves people. I don’t like mainstream movies, and I don’t like art movies, really. I like movies that are a happy medium between the two, the ones that really just are trying to tell an interesting story but don’t fit into a particular formula. They’re not trying to please every person in the theater, they’re just being true to life. I think the 1970’s were really the great period for American film. Because it was Hollywood itself taking chances – big stars in big movies that were great. Not only were they interesting and challenging but they were successful. My favorite films were all box office smashes.
Filmmaker: What are your hopes for Sundance?
Callahan: I hope people like it and realize that there is an audience for it. I have faith in the film that people will like it. It’s not gonna please every single person but it wasn’t intended to. To me that’s the whole point of independent film – trying to say something meaningful instead of asking yourself, ‘how can I appeal to everybody in America ages 12 -90 to come, how can I get teenagers to come see this again and again and again?’ I was trying to write something for thoughtful adults.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Up there with Snakes On A Plane in the pantheon of catchy titles, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is a horror-comedy about Hamlet and the Holy Grail premiering in Slamdance this year. The movie stars Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, Jeremy Sisto, John Ventimiglia, Ralph Maccio and Waris Ahluwalia and was only the second East Coast feature film to use the Red camera.
The film’s director, Jordan Galland, is a New York-bred renaissance man with deep and varied interests. At age eighteen, Jordan Galland started a band, Dopo Yume, which toured the world with Cibo Matto and Rufus Wainwright, and he has collaborated on other music projects with everyone from Sean Lennon to Mark Ronson. He has made several award-winning music videos, and his short film, Smile for the Camera, about a cult who uses an antique camera to capture the souls of its victims, won Best Short Film and the New York Film and Video Festival. An animation and mythology major in college, few other directors in Park City this year could claim references to the Ur-Hamlet, Greek drama traditions, Dracula and romantic pop songs equally in what is sure to be an entertaining, endearing hit at the festival and beyond.
Filmmaker: How has the lead-up month before the premiere been like?
Galland: It’s just like with a band -- nothing happens until right up against a deadline. You get years to work on something and then suddenly you book a show and suddenly you’re practicing all the time to get ready. When we were accepted we decided to make some small, finessing polishes with the edit, and what’s ironic about making small changes like that if that you have to re-conform the entire movie. But I think it was worth it.
Filmmaker: What are some of the themes of the film – what’s it about?
Galland: Well, because it deals with Hamlet, there’s a lot of ‘to be or not to be’ stuff, [ideas about] acting – what’s real and what’s theatre; how does art imitate life; what’s autobiography and what’s fiction, and how to they play off each other. Then there are vampires and their metaphors – the seduction of romantic relationships in our lives, which are both attractive and bad for us, and how they suck the life out of you. I found that all these elements kind of resonated from the funny title I came up with, which I had made up when I was twelve, loved the book of Dracula, and read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the first time.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea come from to make a Hamlet vampire movie?
Actually Hamlet is very compatible with vampire mythology. Howard Bloom writes about it a little bit. His age is inconsistent throughout the play, and vampires, they’re gonna lie about their age. And there’s a scene where Hamlet says “now I could drink hot blood.” I’m not saying that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet as a vampire, but I’m also not ruling that out as a possibility. In college I studied a lot of that stuff – conspiracy theory, the holy grail. There were originally two versions of Hamlet: something called the Ur-Hamlet, which was another version –there’s a mystery around that text already, so I thought it would be fun to explore. Obviously there’s a limit to the amount of that you can do in a romantic comedy.
Filmmaker: How do song writing and filmmaking relate to each other?
I guess somehow, my affinity for writing about romantic relationships in pop song format came through when I developed [this concept] this into a modern love story. At the risk of sounding too serious about it, in songwriting you have to distill the essence of what you feel into just a few words, and at the same time come up with something catchy. I think a lot of the scenes between Jake and Devon are similar in that way – distilled moments from a relationship. I suppose that writing songs helped me take this really obscure vampire-hamlet thing that I was thinking about and root it in something that had real emotion, real heart… something we could all relate to.
Filmmaker: So obviously music must have been an important part of the movie…
Galland: Sean Lennon wrote the music. He and I played in each other’s bands and have worked together a lot on each other’s music. So I knew that Sean and I had the same musical vocabulary in terms of composers that we loved -- we had bonded over like hundreds of those old albums by Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota and Wendy / Walter Carlos. It’s very cinematic – we didn’t make an indie rock soundtrack. He’s got his Sean Lennon spooky pop sensibility with a lot of really sophisticated instrumentation.
Filmmaker: What kind of film experience did you have before you started?
Galland: I’ve made two short films and written a bunch of screenplays – one is the adaptation of “Coin Locker Babies,” which I co-wrote with Michele Civetta over a long time and is in pre-production. I stopped [my band] Dopo Yume to make Smile for the Camera, a 30-minute sort of horror-comedy, experimental, super-low budget film that I did everything on – I lit it, I shot it, I did the sound, I wrote the music. Working on a film is intense, but it’s also really fun, because it’s much more conducive to my obsessive-compulsive behavior. When you have a band, everything’s sort of like ‘ah man just chill out, we’re in a bar,’ it’s about the fun and the lifestyle, no one wants you to be obsessive, whereas on a film you can’t be too obsessive. I found people saying like, ‘Wow, you’re such a laid back director,’ and I was very surprised by that, because I had always felt so insane. I’m one of those people who will wake up in the middle of the night, remember something that someone was supposed to do and text them about it. If you do that in real life, people get really annoyed, but if you do that when you’re on a film, people are thrilled and think you’re doing a great job.
Filmmaker: How did the cast come together?
Galland: I knew Jake [Hoffman] from NYU and I brought him in for a table reading we did, and he brought something that I hadn’t anticipated to the character, which is that the character became adorable. He was always funny, but Jake brought this sort of sweetness, and so he was cast in the role. With Ralph Maccio, I was watching My Cousin Vinny for the 20th time, and I was like, ‘What’s stopping me from making an offer to Ralph Maccio?’ Eve Battaglia, our casting director, did an amazing job figuring out the puzzle of putting together a true ensemble. The movie delves into a Mafia kind of place, and then a Waiting for Guffman, almost goofy kind of place, and then a conspiracy-Da Vinci Code place, which is what I wanted.
Filmmaker: What was it like shooting on the RED camera?
Galland: We were the second feature on the East Coast to shoot on the Red, so we were sort of on the cutting edge of what it meant to put effects on Red footage, and put it back into After Effects and then into Scratch, the program we color corrected and did the conform on. Because the movie was about something historical and empirical, I felt like the Hi-Def look, which was all that would have been affordable before the Red, would have made it much harder to capture the world we intended to create. So the Red was amazing timing for us, because without it this would not have been the same film.
Filmmaker: What part of directing a feature surprised you the most?
Galland: I never pretended that I knew something if I didn’t know, and I had a lot of really skilled advisors around me. But you learn to trust your instincts -- sometimes everybody would tell me something and I’d know they were right, and sometimes everybody would tell me something and I’d have to make them listen to me. The whole experience was so exhilarating and insane and passionate. I told any of my friends who were annoyed that I wasn’t around anymore: pretend I’m on a trip to China, because I’m going under for a few months. Of course that has extended to like a year. And now here we are.
Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person stars Michael Shannon, last seen as the asylum-bound neighbor in Revolutionary Road, and if Sam Mendes had directed this film, he might have played it straight, disregarding the minefield of clichés to pay reverent homage to The Long Goodbye; Buschel knows what a bold move it is to make a noir in 2007, so he subverts the genre with un-ironic simplicity and a few tall guys hitting their heads on the ceiling.
We meet Shannon’s character in his dungeon-like Chicago apartment. His cell phone is ringing; he’s a PI; he’s offered a lot of money to get on a train and follow someone to California. He drinks too much, generally, but the liquor isn’t filling the hole gaping open on his sleeve. As the case develops and winds its way through L.A., Mexico, and back to New York, he is forced to choose which side of this case he wants to be on. Instructed by his employer’s secretary (Amy Ryan) to obtain a cell phone with a camera, he spends much of the film learning to use it. Buschel (previously the director of Bringing Rain and Neal Cassady) wanted the film to play like a dream, he says, because sometimes movies that feel like dreams are more real than real life.
Filmmaker: The world of the film, especially visually, is very controlled. Can you talk about how you placed the film in time?
Buschel: Hopefully it all plays as sort of a dream, and feels like its own world. He’s sleeping in bed in the first scene, and I would like to think that we retain the possibility that maybe he never woke up, that it was all just a dream. [The story] is sort of about him wandering through his past, him wandering through his own mind. Those are my favorite kinds of movies, where you can see the story literally but also you could view it as a trip through the main character’s mind. Movies by Hayao Miyazaki, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Hitchcock -- The Conversation is like that, where it might as well just be the inside of Gene Hackman’s mind. To me that’s more like life than movies that don’t have that quality.
Filmmaker: How did you describe the world you wanted to create to your designers?
Buschel: For them [Eden Miller, Costume Designer and Aleta Shaffer, Production Designer], it was about mixing and matching 1945 and 2007. It’s present day, but it’s about a guy who’s stuck in the past. For Alita, her job was more to cover up anything that was too 2007. You don’t want to have Nike sneakers around or anything that distracts from this being its own world. But Alita did force that Segway [driven by a power-drunk Santa Monica Promenade guard] on me. That’s probably the biggest 2007-era distraction in the film, that and the cell phone store -- but you need those to show that he’s essentially out of place.
Filmmaker: The dreamiest stuff to me is the non-diagetic lighting when he’s listening to music (clearly unmotivated blue and red light washes over him as the camera pushes in during some musical takes) -- what was your idea behind that?
Buschel: You know, it was a tough shoot, and at a certain point that was the kind of groove we got in – let’s be simple, let’s just be, almost, dumb. I like [those shots] because we’re not hiding the fact that we’ve got a light rigged. The whole movie was about being small, about just saying, ‘OK, let’s turn the light blue.’ We had a blue light, and we turned it up, and it made it blue.
Filmmaker: Was it complicated to split the shoot up (one half in Los Angeles and the other in New York)?
Buschel: Yeah, it was. It was a very ambitious project and a kind of rushed production. We actually got on a train from San Diego to LA to shoot the train scenes; we were out on the highway with all the madness. It definitely made me want to write scripts for only one location from now on. (laughs)
Filmmaker: What’s wrong with location shooting?
Buschel: You can’t control the energy when you’re moving around that much, that fast. It’s hard to keep a thick atmosphere on set. You’re at the mercy of the location, someplace you’ve never been. I like to keep it just quiet and contained. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the more you can shoot in one location the better. The less exteriors, the less elements you have to control, the better, for me. In some ways I’d rather make a movie on a studio lot – no people walking through the frame.
Filmmaker: What was the hardest part of the production?
Buschel: We just didn’t have a lot of time. You feel like you’re letting the actors down when you run out of time, even though you know that they’re gonna be good no matter what. But it’s a horrible thing to have to rush actors, especially with Michael Shannon, whose energy is endless. I felt like he could do this 24/7 -- we could have had longer days and he would have been in his element at hour twenty. He’s coming from years of crazy theatre so he’s like a phenomenal beast who never gets tired; an athlete.
Filmmaker: Did he bring anything to the character that you didn’t expect?
Buschel: We were both worried that it was going to be really depressing – he’d say, ‘Noah, I don’t want to be drunk and depressed the whole time.’ So we started talking about how he was Holden Caulfield a little bit, in terms of having that dry sarcastic attitude, and he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress. We even talked about maybe putting a white mark on the side of his head, like Holden had [in Catcher in the Rye.] So any time I felt like it was getting a little heavy I would say, ‘add some Holden to it,’ you know. Get a little more snarky and sarcastic and defensive and drunk, have some fun.
Filmmaker: It definitely seems like the actors are having a lot of fun.
Buschel: Well, what happened when we were making it is that we found out that it was a comedy. We started doing things where, like, Shannon would hit his head on the ceiling. That was great, because I think we avoided it being too melodramatic by adding little pratfalls here and there -- just stuff that was dumb and simple.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Greg Mottola's Adventureland screened in the Premieres section of this year's Sundance Film Festival. You can read our story on the film in the Winter issue section.
Unlike other films playing in our three-part look at crossover artists at Sundance, The Cove is not playing in New Frontier, but in the Documentary Competition, and that’s despite its director’s non-traditional background. Louie Psihoyos was one of the world’s top-ranked photographers, a staff member at National Geographic who had traveled the world taking portraits of the world’s most famous people and abstract concepts (you try photographing “science.”) He was also an avid diver who witnessed year by year the physical destruction of the world’s oceans. He and his friend Jim Clarke, founder of Netscape and WebMD, decided to form an action organization -- the Oceanic Preservation Society -- to use their skills to raise awareness.
“The first part of my transition was to become an activist,” says Psihoyos, who was initially planning to simply take photographs on his journey. Then someone told him the story of a small Japanese village , where tens of thousands of dolphins were slaughtered every year, and the eccentric, former-Flipper dolphin trainer who has devoted his life to stopping these fisherman and saving the dolphins. “My son used to have sleepovers with Stephen Spielberg’s kids, and once we were talking and I told him that I was starting the OPS and that I was a still photographer. He said, ‘Never make a movie with boats or animals.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
Boats and animals, Psihoyos would find out, was not the least of the complications making this documentary – the Japanese government and national fishing business were committed to shutting him down, and they set everything from private investigators, knife-wielding thugs and armored squad cars against him. Psihoyos assembled an Oceans 11-style crew that included a career rock n’ roll road manager (to get military-grade thermal cameras across the border), a former member of the Canadian air force aviation technician (for hidden camera rigs), artists at Industrial Light and Magic (for fake rocks to house hidden cameras), a pair of world-class free divers… but no one with any film experience.
“As a still photographer, you might climb up some mountain and dangle off a rope, but you’re not risking the life of anyone but yourself,” Psihoyos says. “In Japan they can keep you in jail for 28 days without charging you; we were being followed by police all the time. A real filmmaker would have been too smart to go out and make the film that we made. The plan was like a result of watching too many Jacques Cousteau and James Bond movies.”
Indeed, a traditional documentarian, especially one with this much at stake, usually wouldn’t jump into the field without a clear plan of action towards an end result. Psihoyos, luckily, was not a traditional documentarian. “We shot just like a National Geographic story – you go out in the field and you find the picture.” After their filming in the field was done, Psihoyos employed the expertise of editors and producers who helped him find a way to structure the narrative with interviews and voice over. “There’s a quote [by Orson Welles] – ‘making a film is like painting a picture with an army.’”
Psihoyos has thought deeply about the opportunities that film provides. “I started out just wanting to make the most beautiful images possible, and that’s no different from photography. You’re trying to burn retinas and enter people’s consciousness. But with film you’re burning them at multiple frames per second,” reflects Psihoyos. “Telling a story with stills is a two-dimensional experience. You’re always trying to suggest movement – and then here with film you can actually capture movement. I feel like I’ve been a caveman for my entire life and I’ve just discovered fire for the first time.”
Most importantly for The Cove filmmakers, making a good movie is only part of the goal. The film is a tool for his activism, and he made it with the hope of actually changing people’s behavior. The Sundance acceptance, Psihoyos admits, provoked tears of joy. “It was like, you work under all this horror and stress for four years, and in one moment the film becomes real. When we started, I said ‘I’m going to aim for Sundance,’ because as a non-filmmaker Sundance always sounded like this mecca. People said that was ridiculous, but they said the same thing when I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. The crazy fates of the universe will support you if you have the confidence and the will to overcome all the obstacles.”
Saturday, January 17, 2009
James Toback's Tyson screened in the Premieres section of this year's Sundance Film Festival. You can read our story on the film in the Winter issue section.
Lynn Shelton has worked in a variety of creative forms for most of her life, but seems to have found her true voice in the role of writer-director. A Seattle native, Shelton spent her formative years immersed in painting, writing poetry, taking pictures and acting. She was a stage actress for ten years (and was told she was destined to work in film), and subsequently studied for an MFA in Photography at NYC's School of Visual Arts. She then began working in film, both as an editor on movies such as The Outpatient (2002) and Hedda Gabler (2004) and as the creator of experimental and documentary projects The Clouds That Touch Us Out of Clear Skies (2000) and The Fruits of Our Labors (2005). Shelton made her feature debut as a writer-director with We Go Way Back, a poignant film centered on a twentysomething actress reflecting on her teenage life, which won the Grand Prize at Slamdance in 2006. She followed this up with the fantastically funny My Effortless Brilliance, about two old friends whose paths in life have diverged, which was released last year by IFC.
Humpday, Shelton's third feature, is in many ways a companion piece to My Effortless Brilliance, as it revisits the idea of two college buddies who attempt to reignite their friendship after a period apart. This film, however, has a killer hook, as early on in the movie its two “bromantic” leads, devoted husband Ben (mumblecore director Mark Duplass) and wild adventurer Andrew (The Blair Witch Project's Josh Leonard), pledge to have sex with each other. During a night of debauchery, the pair decide to make a film for Hump, Seattle's amateur porn festival, which will have the novelty of featuring non-gay intercourse between two very heterosexual men, and what begins as a drunken dare becomes a promise neither is willing to back down from. Humpday is a true crowdpleaser, and certainly fulfills the rich comic potential of its outrageous premise, but it is more than simply an absurd tale of one-upmanship. Whereas the Apatow model for such movies might have settled for superficial laughs, Shelton delves deeper into the unease behind the laughs and dares to ask more serious questions about her characters’ lives and their motivations for pursuing this folly to its illogical conclusion. As on her previous films, Shelton uses an improvisational approach that blurs the line between the role of actor and writer, demonstrating a rare ability to elicit from her cast naturalistic performances within rich and interesting narratives.
A few days before Humpday's world premiere at Sundance, Filmmaker spoke to Shelton about her use of structured improvisation, Joe Swanberg's fascination with gay porn, and her brother vomiting during The Blair Witch Project.
DIRECTOR LYNN SHELTON, CINEMATOGRAPHER BEN KASULKE AND ACTOR JOSHUA LEONARD ON THE SET OF HUMPDAY. COURTESY LYNN SHELTON.
Filmmaker: Where did the initial idea for the film come from?
Shelton: The starting point for me were that I knew I wanted to work with Mark Duplass, really bad. We met on the set of True Adolescents, which was shooting in Seattle in the summer of '07, which I was a still photographer on. We'd known of each other, mostly through Joe Swanberg and other people in that world, but had never actually physically met. By the time that we met we were primed to meet each other, it was just a giant hug and it was like we'd known each other for years and we had a great, great bonding experience, just talking about films and comparing notes on how we approached making movies ourselves. We just had a lot to talk about and knew we wanted to work with each other in some capacity. And then watching him act on that set was just completely inspiring – I just loved the way he worked as an actor. Not only was he tremendously talented but the specific style that he worked in and the generous he was with the other actors and how he seemed to bring the best out of everybody and make everybody go deeper than they might have gone otherwise. He got me thinking, “What would be some interesting scenarios of a movie that would be appropriate for him?” My original idea was actually two guys who were good friends: one was this kind of crazy guy who had a philosophy of life that was “I have to do everything in this world – you only have one life to live, so you've got to experience everything at least once. Literally everything!” Then his friend was more tame and domesticated and less adventurous, and there would be a Svengali-like hold of the one guy over the other, who would almost be living vicariously through these adventurous ideas. They would go to this amateur porn festival together and they would see gay porn there and the adventurous guy would be like, “Oh, my God, I've never been with a man! I have to do that! I have to open myself to that experience because I open myself to every experience and I'm that kind of guy.”
Filmmaker: And Joe Swanberg was somehow part of the inspiration for this?
Shelton: Yeah, he came to Seattle and stayed with us on our couch for about 10 days. Hump was happening then and he went to it and literally for a couple of days talked all the time about how fascinating it was. He said that long ago he'd become completely desensitized to straight porn – growing up in the age of the internet, a young guy just watching it all the time – and had never sought out gay porn before, so here he was sitting in this theater being forced to watch gay porn and he just found it absolutely compelling. He could never describe exactly why. He kept saying, “I wasn't turned on by it – it wasn't a sexual thing,” but at one point I remember him saying that he found it “sculptural.” It did something to his brain and he was just thinking about it a lot. And I just found it kind of funny! [laughs] It wasn't as if Joe was like, “I need to have sex with a man!” but it was fascinating that this very straight guy was just like, “Boy, that was really an interesting sight to see!” Some little switch was flipped for him, and at that point I thought, “Well, this just seems very amusing to me that this straight guy is so interested in gay porn,” and that was what got me going in that direction of straight guys and gay porn and gay sex.
Filmmaker: Did you ever consider casting Joe as one of the leads?
Shelton: Well, I was chatting with Joe and said, “So what about this idea of two straight guys having sex with each other?” and Joe immediately volunteered to be the one to have sex with Mark Duplass! [laughs] But when I started talking about it to Mark, we realized that the two characters needed to be the same age. I originally imagined Mark as being the Josh Leonard role, charismatic, crazy guy, but Mark immediately said, “I need to play the domesticated dude.” Then I needed someone else to play that role – it just didn't seem like the right casting choice because of the age thing.
Filmmaker: Did you know Josh Leonard before you embarked on this project? Did you know him before?
Shelton: No. In fact, when Mark was adamant that he needed to play the domesticated guy, I said, “Well, you're going to have to help me cast this part, because I need this part to be somebody who is as charismatic – if not more so – than you, and I don't personally know any actor who is more charismatic than you, [laughs] so I'm going to need some help here.” Josh was actually the first person that Mark thought of. They had met at the Woodstock Film Festival, when Mark had Puffy Chair there and Josh was there with a short, The Youth in Us, and they became good friends. When Mark called Josh and threw the idea at him, vouched for me and said it was going to be an interesting project, he was interested right away. I remember we met on the phone, I pitched the movie to him – which was hard enough to pitch to Mark, who I already knew – and sent him my first two films. He really liked and responded well to both of them, and after that he was on board. I think he understood what I was trying to do and understood Mark's way of making movies as well, so knew what he was in for.
Filmmaker: Were you aware of Josh as an actor, particularly in The Blair Witch Project?
Shelton: I'd never seen that film, and then I felt like I had to see it... I'm not a horror fan at all – I'm a total weakling and just don't have the stomach for horror and so had no desire to see it. Also, I get really motion sick at the drop of a hat and that movie is terrible for that. My brother saw it in the theater and he had to run to the bathroom and vomit, so there was no way I was going to see it in the theater. People were telling me how incredibly scary it was and I was just like, “No, not for me...” Mark warned me, “You're going to be really creeped out,” so when I watched it I ended up barely being able to look at the screen, I was so sick watching it on my little TV. I had to look at it peripherally, sideways on the couch, and I would be listening and glancing at the movie in the second half because I got so sick.
Filmmaker: Both Humpday and My Effortless Brilliance have an incredible feeling of spontaneity. How much free rein did you give Mark and Josh in order to achieve that sense of immediacy and naturalism?
Shelton: It's very similar to a Mike Leigh paradigm, the only difference is that he actually writes down [workshopped dialogue] and submits the script before they go into production, but all those words came out of the actors' mouths originally, because he uses improv to come up with the script. Even though he's got it written down and can put his name on it and can say, “These are the lines I ultimately decided on using,” he takes the screenplay credit even though the actors are the ones who were very actively participating in the writing process.
Filmmaker: So he writes the film before shooting begins, whereas you essentially write in in the editing room.
Shelton: I write it in the edit suite – exactly. So I let them go on and on for a 40-minute take, and we've got two cameras, so they just play out the entire scene. And there were some scenes that were very different every time, like with the fight in the kitchen scene, for instance, we tried out a number of different things. Or the three-way scene – good lord, that scene had so many different colors to it! We really shaped it and wrote it in the edit room, and it's very similar to a documentary where you're the fly on the wall and you're just gathering footage, and you could make a thousand really different movies from that raw material. I think about it as the idea of sculpting in marble: you have this big block of material, and you're just carving and tweaking and tweaking. It's just fascinating, because the core of some of the scenes are the same as when we were on set, but a lot of them are constructed after the fact. Sometimes you'd finish shooting a scene and I knew I had the elements to put it together, but a lot of the time the actors were like, “I don't think we got it.” Like Mark and Josh didn't think we had an ending.
Filmmaker: Had you planned the ending out at all?
Shelton: We got to the hotel room and we didn't know what was going to happen when we got there – that was the agreement that we'd made. We had some ideas and some starting points, but Mark was adamant that nobody in the cast or crew would know what was going to be the ending of the movie. We were there for 12 hours and we tried a number of different things out through the night, but when we left in the morning Mark and Josh were both pretty convinced that we didn't have it and that I was going to have to come to L.A. to shoot some more. I was pretty exhausted and they were pretty adamant, but I knew that it was there. I didn't know exactly which takes we would use or how we would put it together, but I was about 95% certain that we had it. It's an interesting way of directing because, going back to the screenplay, I have everything in place: I know what the movie is going to be, except for the exact words that are going to be spoken. Especially with this movie, because I wanted every point in time to make people feel like “What's going to happen next? I want to know what's going to happen next!” In order to have that strong narrative drive, I had to have it all planned out and it was the opposite of “Oh, let's just make a movie and improvise the whole plot.” It wasn't like that at all. There was a lot of planning and a really strong blueprint. And, at the same time, we shot the whole thing in order so there was enough flexibility to evolve and adjust as we shot.
Filmmaker: Something that's very evident from this and also Brilliance is your uncanny knack of capturing male relationships and the way that men talk to each other. How have you managed to do that so well?
Shelton: I think I credit my background as an actor, a photographer and a documentary maker. I've always loved people-watching. I remember in high school, I was a photographer and had a telephoto lens and could take these photographs safely and anonymously, just there watching and observing people and zoning in. I was teaching myself to be a close observer, and then I expanded that when I started doing interviews with people and trying to elicit people's real self and draw them out and show their authentic selves. As an actor, it was the same thing – you have to be a close observer of people if you want to get to the heart of the character that you're playing and my initial impulse has always been to go to the truth of something. With We Go Way Back, I found it painfully difficult to write a line on a page and then try to help somebody turn that into something that would sound like it would come out of their actual mouths. It just wasn't the way I was going to find naturalism, but for me I just really enjoy working this way. It's so organic and so collaborative. With both Brilliance and Humpday, I brought the actors in right at the very beginning before I had anything plotted out; I have this very loose idea, but before I can nail down the plot, I need to know who the characters are. And I can't nail that down until I have the characters cast, because I want the actors to be a huge part of the development of their own characters. It's really easy when they're coming in at the beginning, because then can embody those characters and own them, and it's fun.
Filmmaker: From a practical point of view, how have you managed to combine the demands of teaching and motherhood with pursuing your own career as an independent film director and making two films in the last two years?
Shelton: It's helpful for me to see how much work I've been able to accomplish, because I think of myself as a really lazy person! [laughs] I'm somebody who, if I had a choice, would probably just stare out the window for hours at a time given the opportunity. Firstly, I have to say that I would not be able to do this if I didn't have an incredibly supportive husband. He's just so great about letting me check out from the family; in production, I have to just totally pass the child and all responsibility off to him and he's just unbelievably wonderful about being willing to do that. It's been a bit of a struggle, and I've had to learn how to create the work-life balance. With my first film, I'd never been on a set before and I was constantly trying to absorb new information because I didn't know anything. I slept on average four hours a night for nine months and I went on vacation from my family. I was still sleeping here at night, but that was it. It was tough on us, but now with Humpday and Brilliance, we had much more compact production time and and the development process took place over months it was not too crazy. And the whole time I was teaching a day and a half, even during production, because I can't afford not to. It's a constant balancing act, but I've somehow figured out how to make it happen.
Filmmaker: Finally, with your Independent Spirit nomination, all the Sundance buzz around Humpday and your career clearly gathering momentum, what are your aims or goals Sundance and the next few years?
Shelton: Well, I'd love to sell Humpday, mainly because I paid the crew and cast either nothing or less than their worth and they all have a share in the film so I want to make sure that everybody who made the film possible gets something back. I would love for this film to be in theaters, and I know that that's harder and harder these days but I'd sure love that too. I really envision it. Aside from doing right by this film and hoping it gets out into the world, I just want to keep making movies. It's really as simple as that. I don't have any specific goals – I don't want to leap into the studio system, I just want to be able to stay in Seattle and keep making movies and not bankrupt my family. If it provides me with a broader range of options for budgets and a broader range of people, that would be a lovely side effect. Frankly, I'm a very actor-centric director, so my biggest fantasy would be for actors that I respect to see this film and want to work with me.
California-based artist Charlie White has made his mark with highly produced, carefully-staged photographs that construct scenes both disturbing and familiar, work that aims to dissect the violence, desires, and social anxieties that trouble the American collective unconscious. From his Understanding Joshua Series (2001), which offered an adorable/repulsive monster character as surrogate for human fragility and the internal demons that haunt our experiences of self, to the more varied And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull series that, among other uncanny images, offered The Persuaders, a flat Sesame Street-like image of puppets taunting their tormented human host in front of a storybook blue sky. Often cast with actors, employing the magic of special effects teams, and taking on scenes from our pop culture consciousness – one photo re-staged the 1970 Charlie Manson trial -- White's work is easy to describe as ‘cinematic.’ But few would expect to see a Charlie White film at Sundance.
American Minor, part of his most recent series titled Girl Studies, is an eight-minute, four scene visual meditation that will be shown in New Frontiers. Shari Frilot, organizer of the New Frontier, saw White’s work in London, and invited him to submit the film for consideration.
As described by White, American Minor “observes a single, protracted morning in the life of a picture-perfect American youth lost in the dehumanizing space that wealth, isolation, and fear can provide. By watching this American teen perform basic acts, from eating cereal, to watching television, to combing her hair, the film aims to reveal the complicated relationship between personal pleasure and politics, youth and sexuality, and class and suppression.”
When asked about the transition from photography to film, White offered, “I think there is a very natural bridge between photography and film, document and narrative, still and time-based works. I started working in photography with a very cinematic approach, as my photographs became less cinematic I began to think more about time-based work as an option for ideas that I felt photography could not accomplish in the manner that I desired. For me, the two mediums go hand–in-hand currently, the film allowed me to let go of the tableau in my photographs, and the photographs allowed my film to move at a very meditative pace where the entire frame was the story, not the actions unfolding in the frame.”
Perhaps most interesting when considering White’s work in a film festival is the complications involved with the venue itself. White makes work for museums, and a Park City theatre with an audience of blackberry-tappers is not exactly a calm, controlled environment. “In an institutional environment you walk in prepared for the work, for the metabolism of it. In an over-archingly narrative, linear place like Sundance I think my eight minutes might be a long eight minutes.
“The idea of space is utterly controllable to an artist,” White continues. “So the idea that it just goes into some kind of pool of presentation possibilities where it might not be right, that’s a nightmare for an artist. The festival is very different then a museum, so I will have to let go of these terms, and the film will have to screen like all others in various theaters, with various degrees of difference in their surroundings– and this fine, because I see the film as able to traffic in both institutional spaces and in normal commercial cinema theaters, where all of the preconditions of “the movies” play a part in how it is read.”
Exhibition conflicts and all, White is thrilled about Park City. “I was honored when it was selected, and I think that as a film it is going to be seen in one of the best contexts possible. New Frontiers is an extremely relevant non-competitive space. There are so many people who helped me work on it who don’t function in art and academia. I was so excited to tell them that it’s in Sundance, to announce that it’s in something that’s so big in their world and their culture.”
Friday, January 16, 2009
Mike Plante wrote about the DVD release of Chameleon Street in our Load & Play section in 2007. The film will screen at this year's Sundance Film Festival in its Sundance Collection section.
In Chameleon Street, the enigmatic Doug Street goes through a series of cons, sometimes to make money, sometimes to prove he can do more than what the world expects of him. In short time he goes from a simple extortion plot to complex impersonations, including as a reporter from Time, a Yale student, a lawyer and even a surgeon. Yes, a surgeon – who performed 36 successful hysterectomies.
The point of the film is not just to tell a story of a con man, but asks what a black man is expected to do to make a living in this modern world. Based mostly on the true story of super-con-man William Douglas Street, Jr. the film is written and directed by Wendell B. Harris, Jr. who also turns in an uncanny performance as the lead character.
The film existed in the burgeoning indie cinema of the early 90s. Unlike most of the films around him though, Harris provided a complicated character and not a simple genre drama or comedy. The extremely intelligent Street has great ideas to fight the system, but is constantly stumped by tiny details he cannot control. It’s a drama and you root for Street to win but feel sorry for the people getting conned as well. And it’s bittersweet funny, as the sardonic humor in the film rings all too true. Above all, you feel the frustration that leads to fighting back against the grain.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990. But that didn’t lead to distribution. Rather, the prize led to many meetings in Hollywood and the insult of a possible remake rather than a distribution deal. Studios wanted to make new versions with various actors. Harris remembers, “Each time it was given to a different person, it was given a different ambience. For Wesley Snipes, it was changed into a kind of car chase movie. For Sinbad, it was changed into a kind of goof-ball character. For Arsenio, it was a hybrid of the two.” Will Smith also wanted to remake it, and has twice redone a scene from Chameleon Street where Harris solves a rubik’s cube to impress an employer. Luckily, no one ever reworked the smart, artistic Street to a happy-go-lucky version. Unfortunately, no one wanted to release the original film.
Harris shopped around many ideas in the 90s, including Negropolis, a version of ancient Rome where the emperor and ruling elite are all black and all the slaves are white. Roles were written for Oprah Winfrey as Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and Cosmetology, Howard Stern as Alexander the Great and Harris as Canigula – Caligula with a ‘N.’ The film has not been made....yet.
After three years in Burbank, a friend of Harris let him know the brutal joke that was going around town: “All you have to do to get a production deal in Hollywood today is be black, male and NOT Wendell Harris.”
Harris decided it was time to move back to Michigan and continue to work on his own projects as his award-winning film was being suppressed in Hollywood. Chameleon Street eventually got a forgettable theatrical release and Harris was able to write some scripts. Only now at the end of 2007 does the film finally get a DVD release. The extras on the DVD include a 33-minute pseudo-trailer for his longtime project Arbiter Roswell, which will end up as a three-hour feature film. Also on the DVD is an audio commentary by longtime supporters and writers Armond White and Michael Reiter, behind-the-scenes video and two great short films as unique as the feature: So You Know Leadbelly? and Colette Vignette, both resulting from working with the actors in Street.
I recently interviewed Harris for my zine Cinemad, available right here. Clips from the film are available on the Wholphin blog right here.
DVD available now from Home Vision and Image Entertainment for $26.99.
You Wont Miss Me is Ry Russo-Young’s second feature, and her first in Sundance. Orphans, which premiered at SXSW last year, was a Bergman-esque tale of two sisters, now separated, who come together in their parents’ sprawling, snow-bound house to hack emotional pieces out of one another. You Wont Miss Me is very different in style and tone. It uses experimental film techniques – disjointed narrative, a salad of film and video formats – to paint a portrait of one desperate, uncensored, sexy wreck of a young woman named Shelly Brown. Russo-Young invented the character with the film’s star, Stella Schnabel, and they filmed the movie in dark, surprising New York City locations, with local personalities of the sort perfectly familiar to someone who grew up inside the town’s downtown art and music crevices.
That the making of You Wont Miss Me followed its own collaborative, intuitive path seems in tune to the structure of the film and the character itself. Life seems to alternately bore Shelly to distraction or overwhelm her to the breaking point. She’s a girl who keeps saying she’s sorry but never apologizes. We meet Shelly upon her exit from rehab, the days of reintroduction intercut with her by turns vulnerable and manipulative confessions to a staff therapist. She returns to her friends, goes to auditions, looks for love in sex and sex in love, tries in vain to connect with her mother. On paper, these situations are as banal as anyone’s life, but through the force and originality of its characters, You Wont Miss Me’s scenes each unravel to reveal their own specific gems of strangeness and truth.
Filmmaker: How did you meet Stella and start working together?
Russo-Young: Stella’s older sister was my childhood best friend, so I knew Stella peripherally, as like, my best friend’s sister. It wasn’t until after Orphans that I found out she was acting, and I remember thinking, she’d be interesting on camera. Just that — she’d be interesting. [Stella] has a really magnetic presence. Then she came over one day and we just started shooting an interview on DV and made up this character. I took the footage home, showed it to some people that I trust. It wasn’t anything yet, but eventually I started mapping out a whole movie based on this initial interview.
Filmmaker: Sounds like a really organic way to make a film.
Russo-Young: Yeah, it was, it was nice to truly collaborate with someone and just follow my instincts. Of course as you shoot, you get more structure locked in, and then you get more problems.
Filmmaker: What was your shooting schedule like?
Russo-Young: We’d shoot in little chunks -- a week here, a six week break, two scenes here, a week off, and then three days… I shot Orphans [straight through], and it was just like six weeks of hell. On this movie we had the luxury to shoot and then edit, and then shoot and watch and make sure that the outline was being smartly carried through. I remember on Orphans feeling that I was sometimes fighting my instincts. Maybe what you have to shoot next doesn’t feel right given other things that you’ve shot, but because you’re not thinking critically, you’re just trying to get through the day. It’s much easier to have the time to sit down with the footage and figure out what you have, to be realistic about what we’re shooting next and double check yourself, as opposed to being forced into the next scene by the schedule.
Filmmaker: How did you direct the actors in unscripted scenes?
Russo-Young: There was no script but there was a pretty extensive outline. There were times on set when dialogue was sort of written, on the spot, and I would feed it to the actors. There was a lot of pulling actors aside and whispering to them what they should say, and then they would put it in their own words. I cast a lot of people that I know, a mixture of actors and non-actors, but most of them performers in some way. I called each new actor beforehand and told them who they were playing, why they were there, what they wanted out of the scene, and all the rest of the stuff you would realistically come to a situation knowing – where you were from, your parents, your history with the other characters. Everything.
I knew very clearly what I needed emotionally from each scene, even if it was unclear how it would eventually play out in screen time. For me the film has an emotional trajectory, not a linear trajectory necessarily. Time is very elusive; you don’t really know where you are a lot of the time, in terms of scene order. That was deliberate – what happens first and then what chronologically happens next, that’s just not a concern of the movie. But it was important to make sure while editing that the audience feels the slow burn and build of the character so that they know they can trust the story. That was a huge challenge in editing, trying to figure out that balance.
Filmmaker: One motif in the film seems to be her stunted relationship with technology and attempts to learn how to use it -- like the scene where she learns how to use her email. She seems very outside the rest of the world, like she’s missed the last decade.
Russo-Young: I think she’s an extreme example of what we all go through in different ways. No matter how tech-savvy you are you’re always playing some kind of catch up. You can never know enough. She’s still learning this basic thing that most people are assumed by now to know, and she’s kind of got to go out and learn it on her own. It was more about the feeling of always having to play catch up, and being outside of something than something literal about email. The character that we made up was almost a perfect manifestation of many things that I was feeling about society at the time, including the sense of media speeding up and becoming a more multi-format, transient experience. But it is still believable, you know -- there are people like that still, who don’t use email.
Filmmaker: You use a lot of different film formats – how did you make those decisions?
Russo-Young: That kind of fell into place as we went in a very organic way. Some things were part of the story – for the scenes where they’re shooting a movie in Super 8, the footage should be Super 8. For the auditions we used the HVX with 35mm prime lenses, because we wanted the scenes to have a theatrical quality. For a day when we were shooting outside on the street, and the character is going through a really negative emotional time, we used the Flip camera, which is a one chip, very low-res camera. The different formats shed light on the diversity of the character’s personality and perspectives.
Filmmaker: How do people relate to Stella’s character, who is a kind of impossible, volatile, and unconstrained sort of girl – the sort not represented on film very often?
Russo-Young: For one thing, we knew that no matter what, there was going to be some consciousness about Stella’s father [painter and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly film director Julian Schnabel], so we were careful about constructing her back story, especially with her parents. It’s very weird the way people deal with celebrity. People come to the table with a set of presumptions and judgments; sometimes they want to hate her [and then they hate the character.] That might be true for any famous person, but I think it’s different because they come to the table with a perception based on her family, not on her -- though when people do actually see the movie, I think they let go of it. For me the story is not about a girl with a famous parent. Her mom in the film is supposed to be a working actress. The thing is that the movie is supposed to feel so real that you question whether or not it’s fiction, which is a mirror for the character — where the character has a hard time telling fiction from reality. And then there’s the parallel blending of those elements in the film’s structure and format itself.
Another line we were always calibrating was how funny she should be, how much humor was needed to make her enjoyable to watch but still be complex. Most people who have seen the movie either personally empathize with her or feel like, “Wow, I have a friend just like that.” Everyone has someone in their life who is just, simply, impossible. But you love them anyway.
Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell The Dead, starring Dominic Monaghan and Ron Perlman, will open Slamdance this year. Taglined “Never Trust a Corpse,” it’s a vintage-inspired horror-comedy set in the 18th or 19th-century, structured as a series of drunken recollections on the life of a career grave robber (Monaghan.) The film is produced by and co-stars horror-master Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, The Last Winter, Habit) of the New York production outfit Glass Eye Pix. The team behind ISTD – McQuaid, Fessenden and Scareflix producer Peter Phok -- sat down with Filmmaker on the eve of their trip to Park City to reminisce about the shoot, wax philosophical about the low-budget life, and give away the sequel.
Filmmaker: So, tell me about the inception of the film.
McQuaid: The movie came about from a short film that I made back in ’05 called The Resurrection of Francis, which Larry Fessenden also agreed to act in. I got the film finished, and was still intrigued by the world and atmosphere and characters that I had created, so I decided to elaborate the whole thing into a feature. Larry and I worked on the script for a while, and then we invited Peter Phok on to join us.
Fessenden: Yes, we actually had the whole film figured out and budgeted at a certain very low level, and were starting to prep the film. This was in 2006. Then Peter, who had been watching Lost, had this idea to take the film to Dom Monahan, just to see if Dom would be interested. When Dom showed some interest, that opened up a world of possibilities [and increased the budget], and we in fact wound up postponing the shoot for Dom to finish with Lost. So it developed from this small period film to a more ambitious project.
Phok: Well you guys had Ron Perlman on board already from The Last Winter, and I felt that going for Dom matched that caliber of actor. But I knew that in going for Dom we ran the risk of losing Ron because of scheduling. In the end we had to to split our shoot in half, which worked out because of the whole organic nature of the film. We shot 17 days with Dom, took a six month break, and then came back to shoot eight more days with Ron after he finished Hellboy 2.
Fessenden: Because the structure of the film is basically Ron and Dom talking and Dom reflecting on his past memories, of all scripts it was actually possible to do that with this one. But I think philosophically there’s something so rigid about the ways films are made because of the budget and rental processes. You always have to shoot them as quickly as possible. To be able to have this four or five month breather for Glenn to actually get into the editing and do some reflecting on his film techniques…
McQuaid: …and my life…
Fessenden: Yes, not to mention his life and his future, all of it was just a great opportunity to literally grow in one project rather than what always happens, which is that you finish a movie and immediately feel that you want to make another one.
McQuaid: At the time I resented it because I wanted to be gung-ho and get it done, but upon reflection, as Larry said, it was great to see what you got and see what you need to get back in there and do.
Filmmaker: Glenn, can you talk about your influences?
McQuaid: The name I Sell The Dead is sort of an homage to the work of Val Lewton. He made I Walk with a Zombie, and he also produced The Body Snatcher, another grave robbing kind of thriller. A lot of my influences were from watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the movies of Terrence Fisher and Freddie Francis, all those great British fog-drenched horror films of the '60s and '70s. With the writing, I was probably influenced by Irish writers like Connor Macpherson — I tried to be whimsical and lyrical with the dialogue especially, as it became this big stew of funny characters set in this atmospheric throwback world. But it’s as much if not more of a comedy than it is a horror film. I don’t think it’s going to scare anyone.
Fessenden: It’s such a thrill for me, having made horror films for a couple of decades in my style, which is quite somber and melancholy, to anticipate going to festivals with this movie knowing that it’s actually playing for laughs and will be such a good warm time for the audience.
Filmmaker: How did your background in visual effects influence the film?
McQuaid: We have a comic book motif thought the movie, which is sort of a nod to Tales from the Crypt and even other anthology movies like Creepshow. But we obviously didn’t have the budget to go out and shoot some beautiful vista, so we hired a matte painter called Ram Bat. Ram and I worked very closely and he would paint these beautiful city scapes and even clouds and moons and trees. He’d give them to me as elements, and I would go in and create an environment with them, even a fake camera move.
Filmmaker: I can’t think of that last time I saw a real matte painting.
McQuaid: Yeah, and they’re not trying to be anything more than what they are.
Fessenden: Directors come from different places and it’s always interesting to see how that influences their work. For instance, Nicholas Roeg’s stuff is very very edit-y, because he’s an editor; Glenn was very comfortable integrating [FX] elements into what became this wonderful soup, but luckily Glenn is also extremely enamored with actors. So it was not one of those clinical situations when somebody comes from an FX background and they just want to get off set and into post as fast as possible.
McQuaid: I definitely wanted to avoid the idea that we could fix things in post…
Fessenden: … exactly, we didn’t fix anything in post! (laughter)
McQuaid: One of the challenges and great thrills for me was just to be on set with actors. I come from a theatrical background, ever since I was a kid in Ireland I’ve been involved in theatre. I tried to let some things happen in the masters, just accidents -- I was very intrigued by the idea that the actors could really carry the movie, and I could just watch them work from behind the camera.
Filmmaker: What’s it like to direct your producer, or for you, Larry, to be directed by someone you’re producing for?
McQuaid: Well, it’s funny, I did say to Larry quite early on, that while on set I really wanted him to concentrate on the character, which he did. We had an agreement that a lot of the production stress would land on Peter’s shoulders during production.
Fessenden: It was an interesting issue when you’re the actor you want to give the director everything, when you’re the producer you want to give them as little as possible. I loved this character, and I wanted to hold onto that and our relationship as actor/director, but occasionally there were times as a producer when one wanted to chew Glenn out. Of course, there was a lot of general affection for the project and each other, so that’s how we got through it.
McQuaid: It was a wonderful experience.
Fessenden: I was deeply conflicted about it and I have not recovered. (laughter)
Filmmaker: You made the script into a comic book, can you talk about that?
McQuaid: Well, once we got the script in good shape Larry suggested we send it to the artist Bram Revel who turned it into this great, DC-style, Tales from the Crypt-inspired comic book. It was invaluable to work with Bram and get the visual language of the movie down right before I talked to any actors or crew. I would love to do it that way again.
Phok: That comic was influential in so many ways in bringing the actors on board, as well as crew, first of all because it was such a beautiful thing to flip through. And then you just saw the world that we were going to be in, and it was so inviting -- who wouldn’t want to be part of this world?
Fessenden: It was very clear that even at this humble budget we were a group of rogue artists who were absolutely game to take on this impossible challenge.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the low-budget strategy in making a period piece?
Phok: We shot in 3-perf, 35mm. We did early tests with HD, but the feeling was, if we’re gonna put all this energy and money into building these sets and costumes, let’s photograph it right. And we realized that the budget didn’t allow us to really build sets, but the movie had these scenes of such grandeur -- like the opening scene called for a Town Square, for instance. So we went to the New York City Mayor’s Office and looked through all their forts, investigated each one, and found a place called Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, which became our primary set.
Fessenden: The motto became, “Everything at Wadsworth!” It really became our studio. It was built for the civil war to protect the Hudson River and of course the south never made it this far, so I don’t know if it was ever used for battle…
Phok: No it wasn’t never in active use. It was an officer’s quarters, and then it was used as a country club. When line producer Brent Kunkle and I first went there, we went under the guise of being students interested in architecture and just going on a tour, so the tour guide brought us into the depths of the place to show us every part of it. Then we brought Glenn back, and then we ended up using it for everything.
McQuaid: The people at Fort Wadsworth were lovely as well. Ranger Steve, I remember, ended up being an extra.
Fessenden: In fact, we built an ancient door that Ron was supposed to be behind, and they decided to keep it and say it was from the original architecture! Which makes you wonder about the historical tours you’re taking all over the world…
McQuaid: It’s now a feature of the tour.
Phok: The other big set was the Scratcher Bar in the East Village, which was a working bar until 4am, and then we would come in and start shooting. The art department, David Bell and Beck Underwood, did an incredible job working with that location.
Fessenden: At first, a lot of the patrons of the bar were like, what have you done? Because we built some pillars to make it look a little older and put in the old sawdust on the floor kind of vibe. After a few days though, apparently the patrons were rather taken with it, and we heard that everyone very disappointed when we restored it.
Filmmaker: I actually remember walking to work on morning at 9am and seeing all these dressed up extras like 18th century villagers, everyone drunk, coming out of the Scratcher bar…
Phok: That must have been a different production.
Filmmaker: Was there anything you remember that you couldn’t accomplish because of the budget?
Fessenden: Yes, Glenn wanted me to have a pet monkey. And I said, No, Glenn, I have to draw the line. He also wanted me to travel around in a balloon, which we also couldn’t afford…
McQuaid: You’re giving away the sequel! (laughter) Actually it was going to be a chimpanzee, named Professor Tibbles. And Professor Tibbles would come along with [Fessenden], and would also have been a grave robber. But everybody told me to go fuck myself in one way or another.
Fessenden: But Glenn you have to admit that it’s a tribute to how much we tried for you that we actually had Professor Tibbles on the table for a couple of weeks.
McQuaid: No it was really gutsy low-budget filmmaking. Of course we knew we were making a low budget movie, but everyone was committed to letting my imagination to roam free in that.
Fessenden: Of course, I’ve made my name on [low budgets], I really believe in it. But I do believe you need to catch people when they’re still young and innocent. When you’re a film company, however modest we are, it’s a little tough to go back to the well every time and ask the same wonderful people for favors and time for next to nothing. The hope, of course, is that we can get more money so we can all graduate up together and still have some kind of control and work out of New York and all those kinds of issues. At the same time I think a lot of people in New York would agree that we do try to be a family and make it a good enough time that it’s worth coming back. We built on this community that we have and we were able to do some of the things that are usually associated with a big budget – having our composer on for months in advance, and our production designer; location scouting for months. But we were able to basically take advantage of our friends and have it be a fun thing.
"I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on." — Mark Rothko
Doesn’t it make sense that every professional artist would have ideas in between mediums, would collaborate across categorical boundaries and make new and different work as their vision expands over their lifetime? It would seem to make perfect sense, but it doesn’t happen as often as it could. This year at Sundance, though, there are several artists who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves “filmmakers” on their tax returns, and who are showing work that one is more likely to catch in the pages of Rolling Stone, Art Forum and National Geographic than Variety. Below, we profile three of them, all of whom are traveling to Park City for the first time this year.
Two out of the three filmmakers interviewed below will see their work programmed in the New Frontiers section of the festival. The title encompasses a category of feature and shorts programming, and its custom-designed Main Street space is also a venue for panels and media art exhibitions. “We’re trying to create a space that engenders and brings together film, art and media technology,” says Shari Frilot, the series curator. “As much as artists and filmmakers love each other, they don’t really talk to each other that much. There’s even tension sometimes, partially due to a lack of understanding. But what’s really interesting and innovative is what’s coming out in our culture right at the crossroads of these worlds.” New Frontiers installations and films includes work from known video artists like Sharon Lockhart, Omer Fast and Maria Marshall; feature-length films that are exploring the very essence of film experience, like James Benning’s casting a glance, or multi-media and fractured narrative, like Ry Russo-Young’s You Wont Miss Me. There are also installations by scientists and computer programmers whose creative projects are using and talking about media in new ways.
As we enter the hangover phase of a decade when commerce became a greater and greater threat to art, when the power of hype seemed omnipotent and the value of new ideas increasingly trite, it is nice to focus on the edges of Sundance; the margins where the Institute’s mission for diversity is allowed to live free.
We'll speak to three of these artists. This first installment profiles musician Melissa Auf Der Maur, whose Out of Our Minds plays in the New Frontiers section. Next will be gallery and installation artist Charlie White, whose American Minor is also in New Frontiers. And finally we'll visit photographer Louis Psihoyos, whose The Cove plays in the Documentary Competition.
Melissa Auf Der Maur, Out of Our Minds (New Frontiers)
Both famous and fawned over for playing bass in the bands Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins, Melissa Auf Der Maur’s film Out of Our Minds is just the latest manifestation of an idea created amidst a life devoted to art-making. “My mother enrolled me in cross-disciplinary art schools,” Auf Der Maur recalls. OOOM is an elegant and wild 28-minute Witch/Viking fantasy journey through time and reality, filmed in the Vermont woods and scored with wall-to-wall music by celebrated avant-garde rock group The Entrance.
Auf Der Maur conceived of OOOM the movie as just one element of a larger project, which is centered around a new 12-song album and an accompanying comic book. When a friend invited her to a rough cut screening of a movie about Vikings, she jumped at the chance — “I had always credited Vikings as part of my inspiration for rock music,” she says – and halfway through the screening she knew she had found the only possible collaborator for the project. Tony Stone (Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America) became the film’s director, and over two seasons at his family’s off-the-grid Vermont cabin, they assembled a witch’s lair, bleeding trees and a car crash. The physical demands of filming in those conditions – “charging our cameras with solar power, downloading P2 cards and literally not knowing if anything was being stored, shitting in the woods, sleeping in the freezing cold” – was transformative for Auf Der Maur, a self-described city girl who had only really been to the woods for compulsory school trips.
“There’s not too many differences to me between the power of music and the power of nature,” she says. “Making music is extremely collaborative, like film, but mentally and emotionally it’s more of a cerebral spiritual zoo, where you sit in a circle and do this communal thing. Music isn’t real, you can’t hold it in your hand — it’s this invisible powerful force of nature that we just live in. What’s amazing about film is it’s got everything: you’ve got sound, the music, the story, the knock-your-socks-off visuals, and it’s a very very real thing. It’s not magic itself, it’s like a vessel to hold magic. You can use it to actually see and hear magic, somehow.”
Auf Der Maur is a strident proponent on interdisciplinary artmaking. She was brought up in art schools, where she found photography, sang in the choir, acted in plays, and played the trumpet. “Life was all one huge opportunity to express yourself,” she says, “and when I fell into rock music I was amazed at how music-centric the musicians were, how they didn’t seem to be interested in movies or other art.” She always took pictures, and soon was ready to show them publicly. “People would say, ‘Oh, a musician photographer, how will you get anyone to take you seriously?’ Some people are very sacred about devoting yourself to one thing.”
“There is, of course, something to be said about craft,” she continues. “A writer has to write for thousands of hours, has to do it every day, to be good – it’s the same thing with being a musician,” she points out. “I couldn’t wake up tomorrow and be a painter, but if I were to decide to devote three years to studying how my hand moves on canvas…”
Why play the film in festivals at all if the film could easily be promoted as an accompaniment to the album and comic? “I wanted film festivals to be oone of the outlets for people to hear this message – it’s about getting one theme out there in as many different outlets as possible.”
Perhaps most exciting to her is the collaborative aspect of this new form. “Music is collaboration as much as film, especially if you play rock music. It is a thousand percent about collaboration. Communing with the audience is also in some ways about collaboration and exchange. I just want to commune with people.”
Thursday, January 15, 2009
More than anything, Sundance is a survival game. Here are some tips from veterans on how to make it through your stay there.
Park City Fashion: You shouldn’t be embarrassed about skiing down to Main Street and going straight to a screening. It’s cool to show up at the Egyptian in your snow gear. — Jeff Abramson, Gen Art
Budget Control: The more time you spend in an actual theater the less chance you have of buying rounds in bars and other more frivolous expenses. Rather than partying, choose that midnight movie instead! — Michael Tully, Hammertonail.com
Housing Strategy: Wait until the last possible minute to book housing and gamble on finding something on Craigslist. — Ryan Kampe, Visit Films
Best Bet for Free Food: Events. You can make your whole dinner out of event snacks. — Jay Van Hoy, Parts & Labor (echoed by all interviewed.)
Best Free Food, Evening: Last year it was definitely the William Morris one cause they had a free Chipolte bar inside the party. — Todd Sklar, Range Life Entertainment
Best Free Food, Morning: Bagels at the New York State Film Commission table. – Josh Zeman, Ghost Robot
Best Reason Not to Look for Free Food in the Morning: Because you've already eaten breakfast. All that stuff about it being the most important meal of the day? At Sundance, it's kind of true. Don't rely on grabbing something at your first Eccles screening — the line will probably be too long. Stop at Albertson's and stock your condo with coffee, juice, fruit and cereal for the a.m. — Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine/Forensic Films
Watch Out For: Anyone looking at your chest to see your credentials instead of looking in your eyes and face. – Marianna Palka, director, Good Dick
Simultaneous Meeting and Eating Strategy: I have found the only tolerable place to have a meeting and to eat (even for vegetarians) is Butchers Chop House. I recommend getting a window booth in the bar area at lunch, having meetings all day there and then moving into the dining area with a large group for dinner. I think I did that every day last year. — Hunter Gray, Producer, Artists Public Domain
Extracurricular Activity: Go skiing. Sundance is the one time of the season when the slopes are empty. – William Malone, Park City Chamber and Visitor’s Bureau
Best Place for Random Encounters: Albertsons [the grocery store]. You can go meet James Schamus in the produce section. – Bob Byington, Harmony & Me
Parking: If you rent a car, which is not necessarily recommended, and you are driving up Park towards Main Street and you see a spot, take it. Even if it's too far away, you'll save time by not circling around Main Street again and again. — Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker and Forensic Films.
Innovative Ticket-Scoring: Hover by the door and once a screening starts you might be able to get ushered in by a press person or a producer with extra tickets. — Jeff Abramson, Gen Art
Best Place for Meetings: People’s condos. You can get some very good insight into what someone might be like to work with by seeing the state of their apartment. — Jared Goldman, producer, Manda Bala
On Wildlife: Beware of Bears! We had a baby bear approach our hot tub last year. — Jeff Abramson, Gen Art
Appropriate Footwear: Wear waterproof shoes and warm socks. There is nothing worse than starting the morning by trudging through mucky sludge and then being forced to suffer through the rest of the day with uncomfortably soggy feet. It makes watching an already bad film much worse, and might even take subconscious points off a perfectly solid effort. – Michael Tully, Hammertonail.com
Must-Do Good Deed: If you get shwagg or whatever, take it to the [Salt Lake City] Good Will on your way out of town. – Marianna Palka, Good Dick
Saturday, January 10, 2009
What’s the mood heading into the 25th Sundance Film Festival? Overall, the sense of a across the board scaling back is palpable. Almost no one will talk about their own company’s downsizing publicly, for fear of appearing financially unstable, but it’s no secret that the economic catastrophes have hit everyone’s travel and promotional budgets. Besides fewer sponsored parties – Motorola, for instance, will not be in attendance -- the rumor is that some photo agencies have majorly scaled back their coverage, sticking to the red carpet only, and usually ubiquitous publications aren’t sending their film critics. “The party grid is much, much shorter than it has been in the past,” says Jeff Abramson of Gen Art, whose company is nevertheless co-sponsoring several parties with companies like Kenneth Cole and 7 For All Mankind. “There are still tons of actors who don’t even know if they’re going or not,” possibly because producers no longer have the budgets to bring them.
William Malone, President and CEO of the Park City Chamber and Visitor’s Bureau for the last nine years, says that hotel bookings look to be between 6 and 7 percent less than last year. “We’re hearing from catering companies that there’s pullback from the money spent on parties, and that some private spaces, like art galleries, are seeing less interest in rentals for parties or corporate sponsorship.” Malone says that this retrenchment is across the board, and that lodging ranging from expensive properties to value-conscious hotels are all suffering.
But most filmmaker’s anxiety is focused on the possibility of a grim distribution landscape and fewer sales in general. “People are on the defensive,” says Ryan Kampe of Visit Films. Visit is repping three Sundance films for sale — Ry Russo Young’s You Wont Miss Me, David Russo’s The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (pictured left) and Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person (pictured above right). “A lot of industry people without films in the festival, who might have gone in years past, aren’t going.”
Producer Jared Goldman, for instance, whose film Manda Bala won Best Documentary in 2007, doesn’t have a film in the festival this year and still hasn’t decided if he’s going. “Sundance isn’t the only place to take meetings — and L.A. has nicer weather.”
Robert Byington, director of RSO [Registered Sex Offender], who received a Sundance/Annenberg grant for his soon-to-be-completed Harmony & Me, may or may not go. He has been out to Park City four times, but not recently. “Word seems to have gotten out that selling your film isn’t so much a part of the deal anymore, and that’s definitely a change from when I was going in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s,” he says.
“Sundance isn’t the full answer anymore,” says Kampe. “The domestic side starts at Sundance, then we’re positioning ourselves towards Berlin to sell international rights. It’s definitely not a full roster of international buyers [at Sundance this year.]” Indeed, just weeks before the festival one prominent sales agent was circulating an email trying to unload their expensive pre-paid condo.
“I’m fairly sure we’re not going to see any $5 million bids like there were two years ago,” echoes Gary Palmucci at Kino International. Kino released 12 films last year, all but one of them theatrically, and has picked up many films that have played at the festival including Love the Hard Way, Love Comes Lately, Harvard Beats Yale 29-10, Momma’s Man and Old Joy. “People are more conservative. But dozens and dozens and dozens of films are looking for distribution. I’m optimistic that we can find great films that we can afford and get them into the theatres.”
Producer Josh Zeman is bringing Peter Callahan’s Against the Current to the festival, and acknowledges the subdued atmosphere — “I definitely expect it to be quieter, but that’s also exactly what this festival needs. ” Zeman was recently a participant in the Sundance Producers Initiative, and he spent time at the Institute this summer. “This past summer changed my understanding of the organization because now I understand it’s not just a festival. The Institute has goals, and it is trying to foster talent and diversity. It’s tough because in some ways the marketplace by definition subverts those values.”
All agree that the toning down of hype is not necessarily bad for the movies themselves. “It seems the hype outweighed the reality [in years past],” continues Zeman. “I think we lost sight of what these films are really being made for, which is art first, not commerce. Obviously there are better ways to invest your money than independent film, and I think we’re paying the piper now for having set expectation levels too high. This is probably a natural market correction, and hopefully the pendulum will swing back and eventually we’ll find the equilibrium again.”
Producer Jay Van Hoy is bringing Cruz Angeles Don’t Let Me Drown (pictured left), which will premiere in Competition on the first Sunday of the festival. Van Hoy also doesn’t think the lack of hoopla will affect the film. “We’re meeting with all the distributors before we screen the film,” he says, “getting to know one another better. I think all the people we really want to be at the screening will be there, so we’re excited about it. It’s definitely a buyers’ market for everything, including hotels and flights.”
The upsides: flights seem to be cheaper, and there are cut rate hotel rooms still to be found. Less parties in bars means more parties in houses, less DJ’ed events means more conversations where you can actually hear each other, and smaller crowds mean better odds that you can get into the films you want to see. “I remember distinctly when I realized people were coming to Sundance just for the parties,” says Abramson, who has been going for 14 years. “And that was the year Paris Hilton came for the first time. Since then it’s just gotten more and more crazy, and it’s nice that it’s retracting to how it was a few years ago. They used to give out buttons that said ‘Focus on Film’ — maybe everyone will do that.”
Independent filmmakers like to think that they are creating works of art that contribute to an enduring American culture. There’s just one problem: these works of art are disintegrating. Literally. More concerned with life rights than half-life, filmmakers are allowing their films to crumble and dissolve into analog blurs and forests of digital glitches as formats change, materials are uncared for, and elements are left forgotten on lab floors.
Enter the Sundance Collection, a collaborative program with the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It is the first archive to be devoted exclusively to the preservation of independent cinema. This year, the Sundance Collection is dipping into the Archive’s vaults to screen two seminal festival award-winning films – Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, and Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street – in a program that will both revisit these great films but will also call attention to the Collection’s mission of preserving cinema in general.
Says Sundance programmer John Nein, who heads up the Sundance Collection, “Our goal is to bring visibility to the problems independent filmmakers have in terms of the longevity of their work and the preservation of film prints and digital masters. There are the problems we know, like the fact that film prints disintegrate over time, but there are also the lesser-known troubles of digital work, like issues regarding format.”
The functioning of the Sundance Collection is simple. Nein reaches out to Sundance filmmaker alumni and urges them to donate a print of their film. Then, he explains, “The UCLA Film and Television Archive will put the print in preservation.They prepare it properly to be stored in plastic bags that are stored in breathing canisters in state-of-the-art temperature regulated vaults. Occasionally these prints are used for retrospectives with the permission of the copyright holder, but they really shouldn’t be [removed].”
Nein says if a filmmaker wants to give the Archive a better restoration element, like an interpositive, it will gladly accept it, although he admits that convincing a producer or production company to spend an additional $10,000 on an archival film element is a tough sell.
What about digital? Isn’t that where everything is headed anyway? “For a lot of films that originally existed as prints, the filmmakers will go back and do restoration ending in a digital format, such an HD cam master,” says Nein. “Wendell Harris went back to his 35mm source material for Chameleon Street and restored part of it, but the ultimate product is HD. The real issue, though, is that the archive world is still coming up with the best [digital] standards for filmmakers. Right now you have to be aware that you should be constantly migrating your source material. There may not be machines anymore than can play what used to be shown on SVHS or early forms of DVCAM.”
“Who knows what the next format will be?” muses Nein. “Probably hard drive will be what the archive world will recommend – uncompressed media files that are easily migrated to new tape sources, whatever those sources may be.”
If the Sundance Collection has a current limitation, it’s that it must rely on the good sense and forward thinking of filmmakers for its materials. Nein points out that much of the good work from Sundance’s past is sitting in closets or in the bankrupt vaults of now-shuttered distributors. “People assume that if a film was released by a major specialty distributor that there is at least one good print somewhere in the world, but sometimes there isn’t. We assumed there was a good print of Paris, Texas somewhere, but there’s not.” That’s why Nein distributes to filmmakers a brochure about the program and why he regularly follows up with filmmakers and producers like… ahem, one we know about who decided to allow a festival print get “rerouted” to the Archive instead of the distributor’s vault.
Nein admits that, in the future, money targeted for acquisitions and restoration would be great, but the Sundance Collection is not there yet. “It’s hard to find people to give you money,” he sighs. “That’s my goal for the collection, but that’s a little ways down the line. It doesn’t cost any money to give a film to the collection, though, to make a master and put it in our collection.”
This year’s “From the Collection” screenings will be accompanied by a gallery exhibit at the Sundance House consisting of posters, publicity materials, hats, hoodies and other memorabilia and photography representing the 25 years of the festival. Says Nein, “We have the letter Todd Haynes wrote when he submitted Superstar to the festival. We have a set of monitors and displays showing archival footage from the mid ’80s of the labs, fantastic 35mm footage. We have the paraphernalia filmmakers used to promote their films, the posters they brought to the festival. We have the storyboards from The American Astronaut. And we have the entire history of the festival told through its filmmaker badges, tickets and bus routes.”
To learn more about the Sundance Collection at UCLA visit its website.
(Photo credits, top, Sundance Opening Night, 1989; Steven Soderbergh at the Yarrow, 1990; Wendell B. Harris accepting his Grand Jury Prize, 1989. Photos by Sandria Miller. Bottom: the Sundance poster for The Full Monty.)
Friday, January 9, 2009
Here's Anthony Kaufman's Industry Beat column for the upcoming Winter issue.
“Gay Marriage Ban Inspires New Wave of Activists,” declared a recent headline in The New York Times. If the passage of California‘s Proposition 8 initiative — which denied same-sex couples the previously granted right to marry in the state — could stir hundreds of newly politicized members of the gay community to join together and fight back, will that same activist energy jolt America‘s gay and lesbian filmmakers to do the same?
If a new, more radicalized LGBT cinema were on the rise, trend spotters would likely find murmurs of it at this year‘s Sundance Film Festival, which recently found itself at the center of the Prop 8 debate. On one hand, the festival has been subject to attacks from gay activists because of its close proximity to Utah‘s Mormon power players — key funders of the Prop 8 campaign; on the other, it is the birthplace of the New Queer Cinema, as identified by critic B. Ruby Rich after stylistically and thematically confrontational films such as The Hours and the Times, Edward II, The Living End and Swoon screened at the event‘s 1992 edition.
This year‘s LGBT writers, directors and producers heading to Sundance have a divergent range of opinions on how Prop 8 may affect a new gay cinema, and what it might or should look like.
Experimental filmmaker Jenni Olson, whose latest short 575 Castro St layers audio recordings from murdered gay activist Harvey Milk over images from the Castro Camera Shop set of Gus Van Sant‘s Milk, believes more activist/political films are on the horizon post-Prop 8. “I hope for a return to our roots as a community of people who actually want to see films that are politically engaged,” she says. But the concept of an activist film movement also needs to embrace the “aesthetics of queer filmmaking as well,” she adds. “I strongly believe in the transformative impact and political importance of avant-garde work.”
Similarly Julian Breece, whose short film Young and Evil, about a troubled African-American teenager on a mission to contract HIV, says he‘s already seeing more and more films that are “presenting a strident challenge.” If a gay-themed movie such as 1995‘s Oscar-winning short Trevor “tugged at people‘s hearts,” Breece advocates a more oppositional strategy. “You have to grab people by the throats and let them know they have blood on their hands.”
Breece‘s agenda also speaks to the complexity and diversity of the gay community. As an African-American gay filmmaker, he believes current queer cinema needs to address the mainstream gay community, which he believes “is slowly, gradually becoming a privileged community. We can‘t isolate ourselves to one particular image of what we consider to be a more civilized or accepted queer imagery in our politics, which I think is happening and which I think is backfiring,” he says. “As filmmakers, our responsibility isn‘t to normalize, but to show the truth of our sexuality and sexual diversity.”
“We‘re not just challenging the straight community anymore,” he adds. “We have to continue to challenge ourselves as well.”
Writer-director Cherien Dabis, whose feature debut Amreeka (pictured above) focuses on a divorced Palestinian woman and her teenage son‘s life in rural Illinois, agrees that the mainstreaming of gay media — in TV shows such as The L Word, for which she has directed episodes — seemed to suggest that homosexuality was more widely accepted. “So people forgot,” says Dabis, regarding the prejudice revealed by Prop 8. “It kind of snuck up on everyone.”
Now, Dabis says, “People are angry. And I think we‘re going to see that translated into passionate activism, both inside and outside the media. And maybe we‘ll see a surge in gay films.” For her part, Dabis says she‘s planning to tackle explicit gay themes in her upcoming work for the first time.
But for Dabis, a Palestinian Jordanian-American whose cultural background is at odds with provocative gay imagery, a subtle aesthetic, not a confrontational one, is imperative. “That‘s the way to affect change,” she says. “If you‘re up in people‘s faces, that‘s not going to work.”
Veteran producer Lee Daniels (Monster‘s Ball) adopted a similar strategy for his second directorial effort Push, which is playing in this year‘s Sundance competition. While Daniels admits that Push is not the “gay story he has to tell,” the film includes a glamorous black woman character that helps the young heroine, and it‘s not until three-quarters into the film that her lesbian sexuality is revealed. “I sucker punched them,” says Daniels. “I played the movie for my aunt — she‘s the type of person who would have voted against gay marriage — and she shook her head after watching it. At first, I thought it was disgust, but it was embarrassment because she fell in love with this woman.”
Filmmaker Madeleine Olnek, whose short Countertransference will be at Sundance, also prefers a less provocative approach. A veteran of New York City‘s downtown theater scene and a former AIDS activist, Olnek believes comedy is the best way to reach — and educate — an audience. “I think it‘s notable that the most dramatic social sea change [regarding gay awareness] came about with the Ellen coming-out episode,” says Olnek. “You can‘t put activist demands on art,” she continues, “because the job of the activist and the artist are two different jobs. Sometimes art results in activism, but it can never be the intention of art to be activist.”
That said, Olnek also says filmmakers can take a lesson from Harvey Milk‘s belief in “stepping up to the plate and telling your story and responding specifically to the charges. If you‘re a gay filmmaker and you water down your story to make it palatable to the widest group of people possible, you lose the edge of truth.”
ART AND COPY'S DOUG PRAY
By Alicia Van Couvering
AGAINST THE CURRENT'S PETER CALLAHAN
By Alicia Van Couvering
SLAMDANCE: ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD'S JORDAN GALLAND
By Alicia Van Couvering
THE MISSING PERSON'S NOAH BUSCHEL
By Alicia Van Couvering
SOME KIND OF LOVE
By Nick Dawson
CROSSING OVER: LOUIS PSIHOYOS
By Alicia Van Couvering
OFF THE ROPES
By Jason Guerrasio
LYNN SHELTON, HUMPDAY
By Nick Dawson
CROSSING OVER: CHARLIE WHITE
By Alicia Van Couvering
By Mike Plante
YOU WONT MISS ME'S RY RUSSO-YOUNG
By Alicia Van Couvering
OPENING SLAMDANCE WITH I SELL THE DEAD
By Alicia Van Couvering
CROSSING OVER AT SUNDANCE: MELISSA AUF DER MAUR
By Alicia Van Couvering
ADVICE FROM THE FRONT LINES: SUNDANCE SURVIVAL TIPS
By Alicia Van Couvering
SUNDANCE MOOD RING
By Alicia Van Couvering
VAULTING ACROSS SUNDANCES
By Scott Macaulay
INDUSTRY BEAT: In the wake of Prop 8, will a new Queer Cinema rise at Sundance?
By Anthony Kaufman