Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The State of the American Independent Film

Okay so after reading Filmmaker magazine’s blog I had to chime in on this. In the latest entry Scott Macaulay talks about the debut of where independent film is headed, and he sites two films that are fueling the fire of this discussion. They are Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation, and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy. I have not seen Reichardt’s film, but have seen the trailer in a theater near me. I have on the other hand seen Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, and his first film called Funny HaHa. I also have seen Reichardt’s first film River of Grass awhile back, and it was that film that introduced me to Larry Fessenden a filmmaker I admire very much. What kind of got me steamed was the assumption that these two filmmakers are what are defining the American independent film scene of today.

In the post Macaulay talks about the discussion about the independent film scene today and where Reichardt’s and Bujalski’s films fit in. Both films seem to be introspective dramas that explore the lives of two or more characters. Now I like character driven type films. Done right they are interesting, and explore events & emotions that are not unfamiliar to it’s audience meaning me. I have not seen Old Joy, but do have every intention on seeing it if and when it gets to play in my neck of the woods. I remember seeing the trailer in the theater, and taking note of the striking cinematography of the piece. I am equally impressed upon hearing that Reichardt had about 6 or 7 people to her crew, and the script was 50 pagers, so some free-forming happened while making the film. From what I hear in the reviews it sounds like an interesting film. When I saw River of Grass long ago it was one of the films that inspired me to actually try getting my own film done.

Now Bujalski on the other hand is a bit different for me. I watched Funny HaHa, and didn’t think too much about it. Maybe it wasn’t coming from the same angst I experienced in my youth, and Mutual Appreciation is more of the same to me. Maybe I wasn’t identifying with its subject, but what I really wanted to do is slap the character upside their head and yell, "Snap out of it". I mean it’s one thing when it’s teen angst, but twenty something angst is enough to drive me nuts. I mean I was around when St. Elmo’s Fire came out, and even then those characters didn’t interest me though I was hot for Demi Moore, but that was my own twenty something lust not angst. I applaud Bujalski for filming his feature in 16mm, but someone tell Mr. Bujalski that they’ve developed this new technology called DV, and it really does work well with small films like his. Bujalski even shot Mutual Appreciation in black & white, which when I saw it I wondered why. Maybe he was using that last batch of film stored in his freezer for film stock. I couldn’t get past the first 15 minutes of the film, but I did manage to watch all of it in time. The words that came to mind were pretentious & un-interesting. If that’s what passes for art films today then Bujalski is right on. But with only two films how is it that Bujalski is considered a great artist. Some compared his work to Cassavetes and I really didn’t think so. Cassavetes films are so much more deeper then Bujalski’s films. They have a lot more substance then any of Bujalski’s films.

Okay so I’m not a fan of Bujalski’s work. He does have his admirers, and I myself did order Mutual Appreciation from Bujalski’s website. I’m an open minded film devotee. I’ll go out of my way to see a film that doesn’t get high exposure in theaters, and art houses. I do believe that such films like She’s Gotta Have It, or Sex, Lies, and Videotape are better examples of American independent films. Both filmmakers listed in the blog entry have only made two feature films, and to argue that they are what represent the American independent film scene of today is just plain stupid conjecture. I believe that Bujalski has his hand on the pulse of a certain segment of our society that his films resonate to, but somehow I miss the message Bujalski is sending out.
Don’t get me wrong Bujalski is a talented filmmaker as well is Reichardt, but I find it hard to believe that by comparing two filmmaker’s works we can suddenly gauge how the American independent film scene is doing today. What about other filmmakers such as: Tom DiCillo, Larry Fessenden, Alison Anders, Jim Jarmusch, hell even Robert Altman. Where are the comparisons with these filmmakers. Are these filmmakers too yesterday? I think NOT!

The list can go on, and on. What about such other filmmakers who aren’t well known as the above. Such filmmakers as Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez or even for the matter Steven Soderbergh who completed a interesting film entitled Bubble not too long ago. All are still engaged in the commerce of filmmaking. I haven’t even started on the numerous other filmmakers whose work seems to go straight to DVD and who have a following there. (Lance Weiler, & Stefan Avalos just to name a few). It’s a wide open market, and though I think Bujalski & Reichardt are doing interesting work in the field of cinema I do believe that the field is much bigger then that. The American Independent movement is much bigger then just two individuals, and I think we ALL know that

Friday, September 22, 2006

Film Production 40.3

The above picture is from the shooting of my film “Deadly Obsessions”. On this day I took over my cousin & her husband’s house and ran a bit late. The funny thing is that I didn’t use as much footage from this location as I thought I would. In the script Rebecca and Lisa have a bit more conversation with each other, but as I found out in the editing this slowed the picture down considerably. So I took out the footage, and tossed it, but while shooting it I thought I needed it. It was in the script, and I liked it, but after repeating viewings it just killed the flow of the film, and even now looking back I can say that I’d cut some more out of the film to shorten it, but I let sleeping dogs lie. After all it wasn’t “Heaven’s Gate” which originally clocked in around 4 hours on it’s first cut.

I did little damage to my cousin’s home, but I was reminded of some scuffmarks I had left. Let this be a lesson to all up and coming filmmakers. No matter how small or how little damage you think you won’t do think otherwise. I was careful, but I couldn’t keep my eye on everything since I was spread to thin as it was. I did have insurance, and I did offer to help pay & fix what ever was broke after filming, but I was told it wasn’t necessary. If you’re going to film in some stranger’s house have insurance. It will save you in the end. Especially in this litigious world we live in now. As I said before the insurance came in handy when I ruined my uncle’s carpet while filming there.

In the picture you see Stephanie applying make-up to the actors. Stephanie was a great help, and she made the actors look good. Ryan my gaffer & lighting director is getting the f-stop. I used an arri BL with a 17 to 85mm lens. The speed of the film was a 2.2 I believe. We used Kodak 7277 film stock, which was rated at 400 ISO.

As I said before I broke down the script as per location, and we shot several different scenes in the location we were in. It would have helped to have a continuity person, but I was somewhat aware of this, so we took Polaroid’s of actors in dress & of the set to remind us on what was the original set-up for that shot. It helped our make-up person extremely, and it helped me remember things that I may have forgotten since I’m bad with details. Like I said I spread myself too thin, and it hurt, but I had to roll with it.

Same thing goes with our sound. I was told on the first day of shooting that the camera was being picked up, and so we made every effort to blimp it. We even put moving blankets over it as I was shooting the film to help muffle the sound. I made the decision to keep shooting. Had I stopped I would not have started again. Momentum is the key. If you don’t have it you’ll flounder, sputter and then die. Every day I was hit with questions that I had to answer. If the questions were about technical things I was okay since I knew what I wanted, but I did sweat the sound problem all through production. I knew there was a way to minimize the sound, but it could get expensive, and I could clearly hear my film teacher as he screamed at me “fix it in post”. You see my film professor was not a fan of fixing it in post, and he knew why, but like everything you don’t know what you’re going to do or have to do till you’re in the trenches of production.

The good thing is that I found Tom Agnello of Agnello films, and he helped me minimize the sound in the mix. I edited the film on a flat-bed editor knowing that I had to go the way of the film mix by projecting my work print of the film. Of course in the intervening years digital technology leaped forward, and the old ways were becoming less and less the way to do business. Tom happens to have a full mixing studio downstairs in his basement, and he is a master at mixing. We improved the sound, re-did sound effects, and did some trimming, and re-syncing of the sound track. Yes in essence he saved my bacon, but it proves a point and that is you need to keep alert and your eyes open at all times at other talent out there. I had been a subscriber to AIVF’s magazine “The Independent”, and I gave him a call. In fact I gave several people a call, but Tom was the only person who made me feel comfortable, and was very reasonable in his pricing.

When I projected the finished answer print at Color Lab I was very happy at the results. One cannot describe the feeling when one sees his or her film projected for the first time. I used a negative cutter down in Florida, who had worked with Color Lab for a long time. Originally the negative cutter was from the Boston area, but he had re-located, and I remember the day I sent ALL my negative down to Florida for the negative cut. Again another expense, but I was charged by the cut, and again it was reasonable in price. I had cut my own negative for my final thesis film in film school, and I knew how demanding a job it was. I NEVER want to do that again. The colors and the sound were good as I viewed the answer print. From there I had Color Lab lay the footage down onto a digi-beta tape. The colorist did an excellent job at transferring it. I did not have enough money for a scene by scene color transfer so they ran it as a straight one pass color transfer. I was told the colorist did do some adjustments on certain reels & scenes and that goes to show you how well they treat their customer.

I looked at the print at Color Labs make shift screening room. It’s where they edit too, so the facility is small. My wife and little toddler Kristopher was there, but they soon left, and I was left alone to view my print. I still would love to see it projected again, but know full well that it’s a digital world out there, and most likely the digi-beta will be the one projected. The digi-beta was required for me to go to DVD. So as you can see there were a lot of steps to overcome, and that’s why it took a while to get the film done. They say films are never done only abandoned, but as my firstborn I don’t want to just toss it aside. I think by working on it for so long I’ve gotten comfortable in saying I’ve done as much as I could do with this film, and I’m happy with the results. Marketing the film is a whole different animal, but at least I have a good quality film, and that would not have been possible if I’d gone the video route. I never abandoned the film, and I was proud when one of my actors said to me that I was a good filmmaker. I had follow through, and I finished the film. I hated that it took almost 5 years, but I do know a lot more about the filmmaking process that I would never have learned by just reading more books. The experience was well worth it, and I’m still not tired with filmmaking. I just want to do more films and at a quicker rate. Digital video can help with that. I have many stories that I’d like to flesh out, and see up on the screen. As most of you know I’m a big fan of Cassavetes, and I think he would be fascinated by the DV revolution, and I see stories and talent out there that still puts a stride in my step. Being part of something bigger has always been something that I wanted to do. Filmmaking is a calling, and a devotion that I am passionate about. I’ve always thought that I make more films, but what the first film has taught me is that if I’m going to do something that will take some time to do I better LOVE it. Because making a movie that says nothing is just a waste of time for me.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Light dimmed!

Sven Nykvist died today. He was one of my favorite cinematographers. He'll always be associated with Bergman, but he did do so much more, and he was a great cinematographer. I put him in the same league as Nestor Almendros another cinematographer who passed some time back, but they were very similar. They used simplicity and achieved dramatic results. There is so much more to say about him and his work, but it will have to wait till another post. He was 83 and he was considered the Master of light. God speed Herr Nykvist.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Cinema of Despair

The other week I got to see the movie "Factotum" starring Matt Dillon, and Lili Taylor. It’s based on the writings of Charles Bukowski. Bukowski work was published through self-publications that the author did or published by the underground magazines and press of the time. The movie is based on one of Bukowskia’s books called “Factotum”. The word factotum is an old word, which means “a person with many responsibilities, and/or a general servant. The movie depicts Matt Dillon’s character Henry Chinaski a drifter of sorts who had many jobs & who battled the bottle also. The movie is a character study, and the characters that inhabit the world of Henry Chinaski are very interesting. I have always liked Lili Taylor as an actress. She doesn’t do anything halfway. She immerses herself into any role she plays. I first noticed Ms Taylor in the film “I shot Andy Warhol” where she plays Valerie Jean Solanas. She was great as Lisa Kimmel Fisher is the HBO’s series “Six Feet Under”. I could go on, but why bother. When you put two good actors together like Taylor & Dillon you’re going to have something special develop. This is in no small part due to the director who is Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer. This is Mr. Hammer’s second American film I believe. Hamer made a film entitled "Kitchen Stories" in 2003. Hamer’s style in Factotum seems laid back and he lets the actors get into their characters. It is these characters that propel the story forward.

Norwegian cinematographer John Christian Rosenland, FNF paints an interesting world that the character Henry Chinaski inhabits. The glow of a strip bar with it’s muted colors, and smoke seems to transport the viewer into a reality where bright colors don’t exsist. Shot in more then 50 practical locations in 24 days both Bent & Rosenland create the feeling of despair that hangs over the film throughout it’s 94 minutes. I am told that the filmmakers enjoyed a leisurely prep period. Four weeks on location, and six months on & off in Norway before shooting. I’ve always said on low budget films planning ahead in pre-production is a key to an uneventful shoot, and this film is an example of that.

The cinematography of the film makes the skid-row milieu look beautiful. The acting, the cinematography, the set decoration, all comes together to create a world of despair and beauty. Rarely do films come together as they do here. I really liked this film and was glad I could catch it in the theaters. The next day it was gone, and so if the film does hit your part of town catch it the first week since it seems to be in limited release. The theater here held it for a second week and I was so glad I got to catch the film.

I think what also helped this film was that the lead, Matt Dillon, is a fan of the writers, and he understood the character he had to play intimately. I would be remiss here to not also mention Marisa Tomeia's character Laura that Matt Dillon hooks up with briefly. In the few scenes that Ms Tomei is in she nails her part, and transforms into Laura, seamlessly. It is a credit to her acting prowess and the fine direction Hammer provides. Adrienne Shelly a staple of a lot of Hal Hartley movies makes an appearance here to as Jerry too. The cast contributes to this film and without them this film would not be as half as good as it is.

The film also resonates with a simple truth, and that truth is about creativity. Bukowski's writting in essence tells us don't do anything half assed. Go all the way. As a writer Bukowski never got the recognition he deserved, and was largly dismissed by the publishing field, yet that did not stop him. He had to write so he did, and now with all of his work published he is now considered a great author and in the class of such notables as Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Carlos Williams. In some English departments Bukowski has become an unavioidable part of any discussion of post-war American literature. His writting shows us the depth of his despair, and yet he transended it, and now makes his name among America's greatest writers. If that's not a powerful statement about human creativity I don't know what is.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Failure is Inevitable

So I recently came across a film that was picked up by IFC. The film is called “Failure” and is written & directed by Chris Suchorsky, and it’s about how he failed in making his film. It’s a amusing look at no-budget filmmaking, and its many pitfalls that most first time filmmakers fall into. It’s also very funny, and I was laughing throughout the film. What the film reminded me of my teenage years. It was there that I experienced most of what Mr. Suchorsky experienced in making his films. The no shows, the giggling actresses, and the off set shenanigans that happen when friends work together. Brought back a lot of bad memories, and ones that were quite frustrating.

The DVD has two versions of the film. One the IFC version, which is 30, minutes long, and then there is the film fest version, which runs 34 minutes. There are some bonus materials on the DVD too such as a audio commentary with the filmmaker and his two co-horts that helped him. The film goes by fast, and it’s well done. There’s original music by Rich Adams, and a band I believe called Homage. Suchorsky’s mom even makes it into the film, so it’s a family affair.

The film shows the frustration of making a film, and all that can go wrong with trying to do everything yourself. I tip my hat to Suchorsky for putting together a short film about his failure. Throughout the film Suchorsky narrates the film, and weaves together the fragmented footage he shot for his feature. Along the way we see actors goofing off, and friends screwing around. I’m sure when Surchosky looked at all his footage he didn’t have a clue on how to piece it all together, but he manages to do so in a humorous vein.

This film is a look back at when I started out making films. It’s not the technical things that will get you though Suchorsky does have a problem with his sound, which when viewed I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry because I know the feeling. The film felt very nostalgic to me, and hit home with me. I think it caught the right emotions that first time filmmakers feel. The sense of chaos and emotions that surround filmmakers when they themselves are trying to get their first film made. Suchorsky is pretty inventive using his subjects and getting a film out of it. As Suchorsky says at the end of the film the one thing he learned from all this is “you can make anything work”. That lesson is something we ALL can take and use in our own projects.

The film is available for $17.99, through Suchorsky’s web site, and is worth seeing if you happen to be stuck in procrastination city, or bummed out about your own film. I’ll take inspiration where ever I can get it, so I highly recommend the film.

Suchorsky is currently working on another film about the Brooklyn based indie rock band The Damnwells, currently entitled GOLDEN DAYS.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Box - Magic on a budget!

So I’ve wanted to do this for some time now, and figured this is as good a time as any to start reviewing & also telling you all about other indie work. After all there are a lot of other people out there doing their own thing, and a lot is worth mentioning here. So I’ll start with a film called “The Box” by Pete Bauer. No we’re not related or anything. Pete is based out of Florida, and he has his own blog too. I first became aware of Pete when he reviewed my film “Deadly Obsessions” for the web site Microcinema. He made some valid points about the film, and I believe I even had purchased a book about microcinema filmmakers he wrote called: “ 20 questions: The Interview series”. In the book Mr. Bauer interviews several micro-budget filmmakers about their films. The book as well as the interviews in it are insightful, and worth reading.

So I ordered a copy of his film “The Box” from his website, and decided to take a look. “The Box” is a drama about a girl who accidentally brings home a box of genetically engineered contagion into her turbulent home life. The film is a very polished looking film, and it certainly is technically solid. I did have problems with the story, but I did like the message of the film which seemed heartfelt, and sincere. I did think that the film could have been shorter, and I realize that Mr. Bauer had re-edited from his original cut, but I still believe the film could have been cut even shorter and tighter. But then again my own film “Deadly Obsessions” suffered from that too and I do know how hard it is to cut some scenes that you really like. To be honest that wasn’t what detracted from the film. What did was the characters in the film. Pete Bauer plays one of the main characters in the film, and I have to say that Bauer isn’t half bad as Dan. I even thought the relationship between Louise (Samantha Grahn) & Dan was interesting. What bothered me was how the characters seemed to be comedic. I realize that comedy in dramas are sometimes like pressure valves. When the drama becomes too serious there is a release for the audience in the form of laughter, but here it doesn’t work for me. The characters seem one dimensional and the added comedic elements feel as though the filmmaker is winking at me distracting me from the plot. The performances are all good, and I smiled at some of the quirks the characters had, but again it just didn’t work for me.

Technically the film is really well done. I even heard the footsteps the filmmakers put in during the chase sequence in the beginning. That attention to detail should be commended especially when a lot of other films lack that detail. All in all I enjoyed the film, and thought that it was a good first film. I even kind of felt empathy for Dan’s character when he explains to his suffering wife that he feels that he was meant for better things. Maybe that theme of “self importance” is something we all can all identify with, and I wish the filmmaker would have explored it more, but then the film would have been a different type of film all together.

The filmmaker is offering the film on his website for the under $10 and if ten dollars is too much Mr. Bauer is offering a non-frills version of his film for $4.99. For that price the film is well worth checking out. Something that I’d like to see would be a director’s comment on the DVD. I believe Mr. Bauer would have some valuable comments on the making of his film that other filmmakers would find helpful, and useful. I do know that adding a commentary up’s the cost of the DVD, but I for one would gladly pay the extra cost to hear the pearls of wisdom that Mr. Bauer has in the making of his film. I know it’s something I wanted to do for my own.