Friday, December 28, 2007

Hollywood: MovieMaking On Steroids

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First, let me explain this image, because it is unsettling, to be sure. From the website where I stole it, it says:

The “bully” whippet has a mutation in its gene for the muscle growth-limiting factor myostatin that caused the canine to develop its striking overstuffed muscles. Dogs with one copy of the two–base pair mutation are faster and more athletic than normal whippets, but animals such as this one with two copies have severely overdeveloped muscles and often die prematurely.

A perfect metaphor for Hollywood films. For Hollywood itself, really. And by Hollywood, I mean studio-produced commercial filmmaking. Only this dog is really sad and Hollywood is annoying and corrupt - financially, creatively and spiritually. In my low-budget indie world of filmmaking, I rarely have to cross paths with the steroidal beast that is Hollywood, even though I do my thing right under its nose. But because there are times when I need the funds and/or resources that larger films provide, I have to come face-to-face with the ugly realities of that world and they never cease to amaze, horrify and amuse me.

I am currently one of the producers on my friend Kerry Prior's new dark, funny buddy comedy/vampire film called "The Revenant". Normally, I think of producing as my day job and I am open to producing practically anything to pay the bills and maintain my independence. Someday, I hope to produce only things I'm passionate about, but for now....Anyway, it's different with Kerry because he's a friend and it's a really great project. So, I'm excited to do it. But it is an ambitious film with a significant budget. So, we've decided to cast it with some "name" talent to improve its marketability - which I absolute hate doing, but which I can't argue against given the current indie marketplace - also, knowing how much Kerry has personally riding on this. I'm all for him hedging his bet in as many ways as possible.

So, we've been on the hunt, looking at numerous "name" actors. I keep putting quotes around the word name because most of these actors are not household names. They are names in the industry. The movers, shakers and hustlers whose business it is to mold "stars" - which basically means create marketable human commodities - are keen to the beautiful, charismatic, new faces on the rise, keeping a sharp eye out for anyone who can make them money. Well, those same movers, shakers and hustlers are the people we have to deal with even when doing a small independent film. If you want that actor, then you have to deal with the machinery that comes with him or her - no matter how good or important your film is. And acting "on behalf of their client" they feel perfectly justified in asking for all kinds of outrageous things that may be perfectly standard in pumped-up Hollyweird, but have no real relevance to a small, personally-financed independent film. And when you object to these demands/requests they act personally offended as if you don't respect them, their client or "the way business is done". Here are a few of the things that have been asked for...

- A lot of money (of course, but peanuts according to them and relative to multi-million dollar budgets)
- Less shooting days (maybe they'd like us to make the film in a matter of hours, not days).
- Producer credit (even though their client would just be acting. I'm surprised they didn't ask for a writing credit in the event the actor ad-libs a line)
- A "three-banger" trailer (Very expensive personal trailer - you could land a plane in it)
- First-class, expense-paid trips to major festivals
- Pay or play contract (meaning you pay them their whole fee if the film never gets made, which is understandable since you are tying them up, but also even if they suck or are difficult)
- Any perks that can be created that are not available to any other actor

That last one is not made up. I'm sure I'm paraphrasing, but only just a little bit. And there were many, many more that were less expensive or objectionable. Now, a good script can be leveraged against these demands. If an actor is passionate about doing something, a deal can get done. But these Hollywad agents/managers will nonetheless start by asking for the world and convince themselves that they are just doing their job in trying to get the best for their clients. But are they truly doing that if they are putting the production in financial peril and risking the highest quality realization of the film (assuming we were dumb/desperate enough to acquiesce to these demands)? Also, some demands are just plain insulting in juxtaposition to a production like ours and it creates an adversarial energy between the production and the actor (even though actors are quick to blame their representation for outrageous demands).

The more important question for us as filmmakers is this: Are they worth it? Are these "name" actors worth the hassle and investment? Not only do they cost you a bundle, but you are crap-shooting that they won't cop attitude on your "small" film and will perform dependably and collaboratively. You've heard me rail against trying to track down a "name" for your films, but even if you have access to them, will they really bring the visibility (and subsequent pay-off) that is worth all the trouble? If they aren't the handful of actors whose schedules are booked through the next millenium, can they really affect the bottom line? I don't know. But I certainly have my doubts. Too many examples every year at Sundance and other fests of break-out films with NOBODY even demi-famous in them (Blair Witch Project, Chuck and Buck, Open Water, etc. etc.).

But sometimes the Hollywood "beast" is unavoidable. And if you must take it on for any reason, and to any extent, just be aware that you are going to pay a price. That creature is bloated and extravagant both in front of and behind the cameras - as is nearly every individual invested in that world. Like I said, my financial needs will occasionally place me eye-to-eye with the beast. I try not to blink, take what I need, then get the hell outta there.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Satyajit Ray Vid Tribute

If you haven't, you should see Satyajit Ray's whole Apu trilogy, if you get a chance. You can order them on DVD (click on title link), but they aren't cheap.

Pather Panchali (Song Of The Little Road)
Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)

There's a bit of background about the trilogy on wikipedia and some clips on YouTube.

Poetic, sensual, affecting, rich and satisfying as is much of Ray's work.

A brief tribute to Satyajit Ray

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Day In The Life Of This Filmmaker - Week 1

I was thinking of starting this at the beginning of the New Year, but hell, I'll start now.

I will pick a random day once a week and detail my activities over the course of the day to give you an idea of how a typical (or perhaps atypical) filmmaker gets through the day. I'll usually post it toward the end of the week unless I have an especially interesting day toward the beginning of the week. But I might post some very uninteresting days, as well, just to give a full picture (as a cautionary comment to aspiring filmmakers).

So here we go with the first...

Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2007

6:45 a.m. - Wake up, brush teeth, get dressed and take Yatahey (my dog) to the park.

8:35 - Make breakfast and settle down briefly in front of the computer to check/answer emails and look at all my various pages (my blog, several MySpace pages, Facebook, StumbleUpon, etc....)

9:15 - Shower get dressed and head to Hollywood.

10:00 - Meet with Michael Cioni at Plaster City Post with Kerry Prior, the director of "The Revenant", of which I am one of the producers. We are thinking of shooting with the new RED camera - a 4k resolution digital camera. Nice. Michael always blows me away with his wealth of knowledge, his candor and his great attitude. He gives us a lot of great information - not just about post, but about shooting with the camera, as well. I'm also impressed with Kerry's knowledge of technological complexities and nuances. I zone out often because it all sounds like pig latin to me. Michael sells us on going with the RED - without even trying.

Noon - I rush back home and do a bit more work on my Self-Distribution handbook before getting a call that ******'s car battery has died. I hop in my car and go to the rescue.

1:15 p.m. - Back at home, I attempt to once again to do work on the handbook, but find myself making obsessive lists of things to do on all my various projects, including "Within", "Midnight Movie" (two more projects of which I am one of the producers), "The Revenant" , "Rust"- my next feature, 5 Minute Film School and marketing "The Dogwalker" DVD...as well as ways to make money for Filmmakers Alliance, which, I no longer manage, but still worry about like a nervous parent. As a non-profit, it is constantly teetering on the brink of collapse, but always manages to stay alive. There's so much potential there, that I must make constant lists about how to tap that potential, thus allowing me to avoid actually doing anything to realize it.

2:00 - I have to take the woman who cleans my house a couple of times a month (the detailed stuff that I don't do well) to the FA office because it got beat up after the Holiday Party. While there, I end up talking to Kerry about "The Revenant" and a major casting issue we are facing (which I will discuss in a separate blog). I also move around a bunch of heavy shit in the office that was moved for the party. I don't stay long.

3:30 - Back at home, I jump back onto the computer and do some research on web marketing (for a number of projects) and answer emails. I send an email to the investment partners in our production company, FA Productions. Although we produced two features this year and are about to produce a third, there is little money available for launching/developing new films (and other projects). They are working on putting the money in place but it's moving slowly. And they also have many projects demanding their time in the other parts of their lives so I have to check in regularly to keep a high profile. But they are both great guys whom I like very much personally, so I want to catch up with them on a lot of levels. I discover one of them will be able to join us at Sundance. Good news. Like I said, he's a great guy and lots of fun. And we'll even be able to talk a little business.

Nonetheless, the conversations send me back to making new lists - this time about how to raise money for FA Productions.

4:45 - Getting dark..and raining a bit. I take Yatahey on a bike ride around the neighborhood and get soaked.

5:30 - Back on the computer. More emails. More research. More work on the distribution handbook. I also find cool videos about great filmmakers on YouTube that I upload to my Cinema Lovers Unite! group on Facebook. I jump around between all the stuff - constantly thinking about money I need to raise and the script changes I need to make on "Rust". Occasionally, I take a break to use the elliptical machine - which is cheap and a bit rickety, but keeps me from getting really fat. I also take a break to feed Yatahey.

7:00 - My friends/visiting housemates (they are moving here from NY, actually) cook an amazing meal - which they do every night because she's an amazing baker and he's an amazing chef. They are the reason I have to ward off obesity.

7:45 - Back on the computer, alternating between it and the phone - returning personal calls and discussing the gathering casting storm around "The Revenant". I start to lose steam and start screwing around - downloading and playing Christmas music from iTunes.

9:30 - I watch back-to-back episodes of "The Sopranos" on DVD. I never saw most of the original broadcasts and my housemates had seen none of them. So, we've become obsessed together.

11:30 - Wash up for bed and bring to the computer to bed with me so I can jump back on it. More work. More research. More emails. I put down the computer and read a few pages from Raul Ruiz's "Poetics of Cinema". I get really inspired and really sleepy at the same time. I drift off with Yatahey snuggled close to me, the sound of light rain tinkling down on the house, thinking about money, "Rust", the work I have to do on all my projects, my gut/heart-wrenching divorce and the new life I'm trying to build...

Sometime around 1 a.m. - Asleep, finally.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Ongoing Film vs. DV (especially HD) Debate

I sorta thought the whole film vs. video debate was winding down. It seemed like there was universal agreement that film looks best but that it was cost prohibitive (and unnecessary) for a lot of filmmakers and digital video (specifically HD) provided a strong enough and cost-efficient alternative. So, let's all go make our films and shut up.

I guess I passively accepted this mindset, happy to put all the nervousness about DV behind me (along with all of the smug elitism about film). However, a couple of recent occurrences have re-ignited the discussion for me and dislodged a nagging thought that I want to share.

The first occurrence is the emergence of the RED HD camcorder (not much bigger than one) with it's shocking 4k resolution image and its semi-apocryphal promise of stunning visual beauty for the price of a stick of gum (I will discuss this camera in detail in a coming blog). The folks salivating over it would have you believe that it practically relegates all other filmmaking details - like writing, acting, set design, etc. - to minor issues.

The second occurrence is my having shot my last short, "Transaction", on Super 8mm (with many questioning why I didn't shoot video and "create" the 8mm look) and also informing people that I will be shooting my next feature, "Rust" (in Oct. 08) on Super 35mm. I'm always surprised to find that people raise their eyebrows when I tell them this and look at me like I'm some kind of idiot.

So, as a little experiment, I went around telling people that I was unsure whether to shoot film or HD - which is completely untrue, of course, because I am 100% certain I am shooting on film - because it allowed me to hear the various arguments for or against the two choices.

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I won't go into detail about the responses other than to say that I was a bit surprised that there were still so many hard-core film purists out there. I can't say pleasantly surprised because they tend to be passionate in the way fundamentalist Christians are about their religion and it makes me fear for the spiritual, if not physical, safety of hundreds of thousands of HD "mediamakers" (purists refuse to acknowledge DV filmmakers as filmmakers or even cinema-makers).

I was also surprised, however, by how far the DV pendulum has swung. Once the ugly step-child of filmmaking, DV filmmaking has been given a new attidude through all the amazing HD tools here and on the horizon. It now has a kind of elitist energy of its own, like the class geek who suddenly beats up the school bully and now gets all the girls. When I tell these HD folk about my film, they suddenly stiffen, eyeballing me like I'm some kind of foolish throw-back for even contemplating shooting on film.

In the end, however, I was mostly saddened (and cynically unsurprised) by how few people even asked me any details at all about the film I was making before launching into their rant about their medium of choice. Few cared to know what I specifically wanted to create and what kind of energy it needed to have. This sad fact clarified for me the nagging thought I wanted to share. And, it is simply this: THERE IS NO FILM VS. VIDEO DEBATE.

Saying there is a film vs. video debate is like saying there is an oil vs. watercolor debate. Or a bronze vs. marble debate. Or even a 16mm film vs. 8mm film debate. Ludicrous. Film and Video (even HD) are two separate mediums...or formats or whatever you want to call them. They are two different looks, two different textures - and, as such, elicit two very different (sometimes only subtly different) responses in an audience. For me, this point is the beginning and end of any discussion about which medium to use. And it raises a larger issue about the way filmmakers too often (don't) think about their films.

There are so many details involved in the making of a film, that it is totally understandable that filmmakers can, sometimes want to, skip over a couple of things and just let the chips fall where they may. Maybe they won't fuss over finding the right location, or insist on the right prop or obsess over color palette, or get anal about composition, or demand a certain kind of performance from an actor - whatever. All of this stuff gets admittedly exhausting. But it's important to remember that filmmaking is the sum of all these details. A film is like an orchestral piece, made up of many players/elements - where each violin needs to be finely tuned and each percussive beat needs to hit at the right point with the right velocity and passion.

Everything that a filmmaker chooses to put on screen - the tiniest detail on the most extreme corner of the frame - sends a message to the audience. Now, few good filmmakers manipulate every inch of the frame in a specific way otherwise the film becomes too intellectual and/or too schematic. But it is important for filmmakers to hold a general awareness of the fact that every detail in every inch of the frame affects an audience emotionally and to make key decisions in accordance with that awareness. It's not necessary for a filmmaker to know precisely how what's on screen affects the audience. They are simply aware that every detail has an affect and, ideally, they know how it affects them personally. This way, each detail in the frame and every frame of the movie speaks from a place that personally affects the filmmaker - allowing audiences to share that personal reaction or experience another of their own.

Choosing the medium with which you shoot your film is therefore an important decision. And not because one is "better" than the other, or a more cost effective imitation, or some other reason. The decision should be made based on which medium is most appropriate for the visceral energy you are striving to create with your film. Even when looking at it from an economic perspective (which is important because film can be quite expensive) you can hold to this standard. If, for the right reasons, your film MUST be shot on 35mm film, then it must be shot on 35mm film. If you can't afford it, then make another film first. If it needs to be shot in any other format or medium (16mm or HD or even consumer DV) then shoot it in that medium no matter how much money you have. If it truly doesn't matter what medium you use (and with many films, the content does allow that much flexibility), then you can make a preference-based or economic-based decision - but you are NEVER sacrificing the aesthetic/visceral needs of the film.

The debate is over because it is pointless if not considered from an aesthetic perspective. And if considered from an aesthetic perspective, there is no debate, only choice. Film is (or can be) rich and deeply textured. So can HD, in its own way, and it is an amazing new filmmaking tool. Neither will, in themselves, create an amazing film. That is for you to do. And that only happens by thinking about your films passionately and in totality - with attention to as much detail as your spirit can endure.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly Premiere

Sorry it's taken me so long to post this given that I went to the premiere at the Academy theater two weeks ago. Again, my hook up was the industry-connected George Zaver, who's always a fun time.

It was the usual studio film premiere mix o'peeps that always seems to include a smattering of celebrities, some soon-to-be or almost famous, a handful of industry-famous (writers, directors, studio execs - nobody the general public can recognize), a lot of just plain ol' industry types (agents, assistants, etc.), legions of wannabes and good old-fashioned film fans. Not sure where I fit in. Perhaps the likes-to-sneak-into-catered-parties contingent, of which I'm sure there were more than just a few.

But I'm pleased to say I really liked the film a lot. Is it a masterpiece? No, but in this creative desert, it's really exciting to stumble upon an oasis of fresh ideas and real aesthetics. The film explores the experience of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 42 year-old Editor-In-Chief of the french Elle Magazine after he suffers a devastating stroke that totally paralyzes him - save for a single blinkable eyelid. He winds up with what is called (in the film) "locked in" syndrome - where one suffers total paralysis, but the brain functions perfectly. Bauby ends up writing an entire book about his experience by code, using his blinking eye to tap out letters of the alphabet to an associate.

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The film takes a very subjective approach to the story-telling, utilizing those memoirs (from the book of the same name as the film) to bring us inside that experience as much as a film can. It cleverly steps out of that subjectivity at key times to create a jarring juxtaposition between what Bauby's experiencing and what those around him are experiencing when they see him and/or try to relate to him.

Artist/Director Julian Schnabel uses his estimable creative powers and visual prowess to give the film real aesthetic punch without ever losing hold of the dramatic energy. However, the film was introduced by the studio's head of distribution (forgot which studio) as being one of the most emotionally involving films he'd seen in a long time. I didn't feel that. Not that it wasn't emotionally affecting, it just kept a kind of distance from raw emotional energy - which I appreciated, for the most part. The film could easily have been gratingly mawkish, which would have been absolutely contrary to the beauty and clarity of Bauby's memoirs. Schnabel was an excellent choice for the film.

The acting is terrific over-all, as much as I can tell without speaking french (another good choice was to do it in french) - although there are a few self-conscious moments when his therapists are speaking to him...in actuality, of course, to the camera. The legendary Max Von Sydow is an exciting surprise (didn't know he was in the movie) as Bauby's invalid father. For me, the scenes with him are the most emotionally bracing in the film.

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My only (minor) quibble is that the film is so beautiful. Too beautiful at times. Many of the visuals seem too meticulously, and therefore self-consciously, designed. And practically every woman in it is drop-dead gorgeous. Although all of it is more than pleasant to look at, it unfortunately took me a bit out of the authentic energy of the film. But it's hard to complain too much about yummy french babes.

In the end, the film, for me, was less about Bauby's tragedy and more of a reflection on life in general and the various ways it can be perceived, experienced...and appreciated. Many of us are "locked in", somehow, even with all of our faculties - paralyzed by thoughts, memories, prejudices, dreams, fears. There is pain, but also a kind of poetry in each of our experiences. But also a way out...even in something as simple as the blink of an eye.

The after party was appropriately somber, but still celebratory with the lead actors in attendance. It had a nicer energy than a lot of these things. Maybe because there was no booze or food (just desserts) the obnoxious people left immediately. I spotted Joe Pesci to whom Julian Schnabel dedicated the screening. Why did he dedicate it to him? Hell if I know. Because he was there? I guess even if you are an art-star and formidable director, you can still be just a worshipping fan. I find that to be both very sweet and incredibly annoying in this celebrity-obsessed world.

Go see the movie.

Monday, November 12, 2007

AFM and AFI Roundup

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Yes, that's me doing my Stevie Wonder impersonation for George Zaver at AFM. He never seems to get enough of it.

What the hell is AFM and why should it matter to us indie filmmakers? Well, I'm not sure that it does for many of us. The American Film Market (AFM) was historically a global marketplace for B, C and sometimes Z grade films that did not have access to the extremely exclusive studio distribution pipelines. It used to be a wild, somewhat sleazy convention that attracted film sellers and buyers from around the world. However, AFM has raised its profile significantly over the years and has achieved a new level of respectability as evidenced by their formal relationship with the prestigious AFI Film Fest. However, sitting out by the pool, George and I did indeed witness a prostitute approach, flirt, negotiate and disappear with 60+ year-old market attendee - all in less than 5 minutes. Despite recent changes, business apparently still gets done at AFM quickly and dynamically.

So, how does it work? I'm not sure, actually. But it seems production companies (sellers) with all kinds of obscure names you've likely never heard of, buy suites on the second floor to display/sell films you'll likely never see to global distributors (buyers), who wander from suite to suite buying up product (as films are now often and accurately called). Meetings are generally arranged in advance. I suspect the buyers have their favorite sellers, from whom they tend to regularly make their purchases. I've been told that what sells to these global buyers is absolutely no mystery and as long as you can deliver a film that fits within their narrow parameters - it's money in the bank. And if you believe that, you're in for a lot of filmmaking pain and heartache.

Who knows why they buy what they buy, but they definitely do buy. Plenty of lowbrow stuff gets sold - with titles like "Hogzilla" and "Gag" inexplicably managing to earn a dollar here and there. But beyond the ubiquitous horror fare, the rest is kind of a mystery. That is why AFM is an important market for at least some indie filmmakers. Some of us make stuff that will actually sell here. But it's therefore important for us to understand how the global marketplace works - how films are sold, what kind of films are bought, how many are sold, who is buying them, and for how much money - so that we can have a more realistic understanding of how our films might perform in the global marketplace. And this information changes from year to year, so the market is a great indicator of global film purchasing trends.

I wish I had that information to impart to you now about this year, but I didn't do enough investigating. I only went one day and was too busy people-watching by the pool and eavesdropping in on hilarious conversations where people engage in serious dealmaking over film titles like "Bloodlust In Heaven 2".

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It's expensive to go up into the suites and poke around. A single day pass is over $200 and a 2nd half market pass is about $300 - which is the best deal. But it's worth it for the education you'll receive - if you ask the right questions. Of course, a lot of people just hang around downstairs in the lobby, by the pool or in the bar - and manage to get plenty of deals done.

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For my part, even though I didn't do all the investigating and/or deal-making I would have liked, I did manage to score a list of all the foreign buyers at the market from a super-secret contact who shall forever remain nameless so that they do not become jobless. I'll share it with whomever of you asks me for it.

Now, on to AFI Film Fest.

Let me just say to you now that I love this festival because it is a world cinema fest that programs some amazing films. Well, at least I can say that about the documentaries and the films coming from outside the U.S. The buzz I caught about the smaller American fiction indies, was, unfortunatley, not good. Anyway, Christian Gaines, the festival director is a great guy and the regular staffers like Shaz Bennett, Jeffrey Winter and Jon Korn are all wonderful people who do an amazing job with the fest.

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And I actually like the whole tent city thing at the top of the Archlight parking structure, although I heard a few whiners grousing about it for no clear reason. And the films screen at the Arclight theaters, which are among my favorite screening venues. And apparently attendance was up dramatically this year and that is heart-warming news to anyone who loves the fest and world cinema.

I was there doing the Kodak Connect program, which earns me a ProPass where I get to see any movies I want and hang out in the Cinema and Music Lounges (sorta...story in a bit) - although it doesn't get me into the Opening/Closing/Centerpiece Galas. That stuff is for the real bigshots, apparently. I'm a slightly-bigger-than-little-shot, I'm guessing. Anyway, I was deeply appreciative to be associated with the fest.

The Kodak Connect program is like film industry speed-dating where filmmakers meet with an eclectic assortment of film professionals - Producers, distributors, film organization representatives, publicists, fest programmers, consultants, etc. - and try to forge a meaningful connection in 10 minutes....or at least glean some quick, but sage advice/direction. These brief affairs are hit and miss as some of us Kodak Connect industry peeps have very little, if anything, to offer some of the filmmakers. But that's as it should be. All of the filmmakers are doing different kinds of work and are at different places with their films and in their careers.

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Across the board, all of the filmmakers I met with were focused but personable and, over-all, a pleasure to meet with. I hope I was of use to them. At least some of them. And hope I can be of use to some in the future, too. At least a couple were of use to me. For instance, I met the Puerto Rican producers behind "Manuela Y Manuel" who told me about whopping 40% tax credits (that's like a cash rebate) being offered to filmmakers by the Puerto Rican government and offered to help navigate that landscape should I come across a project that is appropriate to shoot down there.

Afterward, I planned on sticking around to see some films, but was dog tired from much heavy drinking the night before. I walked into the empty Music lounge to lay down a couch and catch a few quick z's. However, three volunteers where hanging out in there doing nothing in particular. One surly punk among them rudely told me that it was closed. When I pressed the point and told him I just needed to lie down for a bit, he became even more surly and rude. I finally left suggesting that politeness might be a useful tool for the work he's doing, but he snarled at that suggestion then accused me of removing the sign saying the lounge was closed. In my youth, I would've just knocked him out then grabbed a sandwich. In my 30's, I would've got his name and ratted him out. But I'm old. And I have a blog. Simply writing this is enough for me. I will also add that, in general, a few too many of the volunteers at tent city were too much like bouncers with an attitude. And having exclusive parties in plain view of the cinema lounge (parties staffed by said bouncers with attitude) added to the tension and unpleasant energy.

But who cares? The movies are most important and I managed to squeeze in a few....my two faves were "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days" - lazily referred to by myself and others as "4-3-2". It's a gritty, dogma-style (I know, maybe too many of those around - but this is one to catch) chronicle of an illegal abortion in communist Romania that is starkly and affectingly told. It had, what was for me, one misstep, that only hung me up a bit and which I will not reveal to protect those who will see the film. But if you're curious about my secret feedback, send me an email. Secret feedback aside, however, it was an amazing film.

My other favorite was "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project". Is it a great movie? No, not really. But it is an entertaining and sweetly sentimental profile of a cutting-edge comic, a culture and a historic period in entertainment. But most of all, it's just one of those films that defy cinematic analysis because the subject is so charming/compelling. I didn't grow up a big fan of Don Rickles. But he's grown on me over the years and his brand of insult humor is not only funny as hell (more often than you'd think), it's a jarringly honest and cathartic social experiment that challenges the way we see ourselves. And deep down, you always knew he was a mensch.

Of course, I ended each screening with a trip to the Cinema Lounge, which seemed to grow in popularity as the fest wore on. Still, too many refused to dance, but it did start to have a nice party vibe in the last days I visited (at least it did after nightfall), in spite of the bouncers.

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My general opinion, if you care, is this: AFI rocks! If you didn't go this year (or previous years), get yer butt there next year. And AFM is a necessary evil that can be fun and informative (and maybe even profitable) if you have the right mindset. Make some time to get there, too.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

10 tips for great cinematic shots

Here are ten tips I found for shooting great landscape photography (stills, of course). But I also discovered them to be useful rules of thumb for creating great, cinematic shots - even if you are doing a straight-to-YouTube piece. So, here they are - with some of the landscape-specific pointers edited out:

1. Maximize your Depth of Field

While there may be times that you want to get a little more creative and experiment with narrow depth of fields - the normal approach is to ensure that as much of your scene is in focus as possible. The simplest way to do this is to choose a small Aperture setting (a large number) as the smaller your aperture the greater the depth of field in your shots.

Do keep in mind that smaller apertures mean less light is hitting your image sensor at any point in time so they will mean you need to compensate either by increasing your ISO or lengthening your shutter speed (or both). Of course there are times when you can get some great results with a very shallow DOF. Know each well enough to know their effect and when best to use one or the other.

2. Look for a Focal Point

All shots need some sort of focal point to them. Focal points can take many forms and could range from a prop, object, person or part of a person, an animal, building or structure, a striking tree, a boulder or rock formation, a silhouette etc. Think not only about what the focal point is but where you place it. The rule of thirds might be useful here. Also, helps to think about what it means (JT's note).

3. Think Foregrounds

One element that can set apart your shots is to think carefully about the foreground of your shots and by placing points of interest in them. When you do this you give those viewing the shot a way into the image as well as creating a sense of depth in your shot.

4. Consider the Sky

Another element to consider is the sky. If you have a bland, boring sky - don’t let it dominate your shot and place the horizon in the upper third of your shot (however you’ll want to make sure your foreground is interesting). However if the sky is filled with drama and interesting cloud formations and colors - let it shine by placing the horizon lower. Consider enhancing skies either in post production or with the use of filters (for example a polarizing filter can add color and contrast).

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5. Lines

One of the questions to ask yourself as you compose a shot is ‘how am I leading the eye of those viewing this shot’? There are a number of ways of doing this (foregrounds is one) but one of the best ways into a shot is to provide viewers with lines that lead them into an image. Lines give an image depth, scale and can be a point of interest in and of themselves by creating patterns in your shot.

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6. Capture Movement

Conveying movement in an image will add drama, mood and create a point of interest. Capturing movement generally means you need to look at a longer shutter speed (sometimes quite a few seconds). Of course this means more light hitting your sensor which will mean you need to either go for a small Aperture, use some sort of a filter or even shoot at the start or end of the day when there is less light.

7. Work with the Weather

Many beginners see a sunny day and think that it’s the best time to go out with their camera - however an overcast day that is threatening to rain might present you with a much better opportunity to create an image with real mood and ominous overtones. Look for storms, wind, mist, dramatic clouds, sun shining through dark skies, rainbows, sunsets and sunrises etc and work with these variations in the weather rather than just waiting for the next sunny blue sky day.

8. Work the Golden Hours

I chatted with one photographer recently who told me that he never shoots during the day - his only shooting times are around dawn and dusk - because that’s when the light is best and everything comes alive.

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9. Think about Horizons

It’s an old tip but a good one - always consider the horizon on two fronts.
- Is it straight? - while you can always straighten images later in post production it’s easier if you get it right in camera.
- Where is it compositionally? - a compositionally natural spot for a horizon is on one of the thirds lines in an image (either the top third or the bottom one) rather than completely in the middle. Of course rules are meant to be broken - but I find that unless it’s a very striking image that the rule of thirds usually works here.

10. Change your Point of View

Take a little more time with your shots - particularly in finding a more interesting point of view to shoot from. Explore the environment and experiment with different view points and you could find something truly unique.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

How To Create Like A Cinematic Genius...

I know, I know. This is a terribly pretentious blog title...and a bit misleading. I don't actually hold the magic key to creating cinematic genius. But I do have some insights culled from various places that I find remarkably useful in helping me conceive of things, at the very least, in a fresh light.



First of all, let's clarify my definition of genius work. It is work that is both stunningly original/distinctive, but also deeply relevant to the universal human experience. Clearly, it is the work of someone who sees the world in a way that others do not, but in a way that makes sense to the rest of us on a profound level.

Most people see the thinking process behind math/science and that behind art as polar opposites. Not so, at all. In fact, the kind of thinking that produces genius mathematicians and scientists is precisely the same as that which creates genius artists. Therefore, many of the approaches to creative thinking listed below come from the math/science world - since the way those geniuses approach their work has been more often studied than the way artists approach their work. Nonetheless, they are relevant to filmmakers if you really have the ambition to create cinematic genius - or at least to create stuff we haven't seen a bazillion times before.

1. Understand what has come before, but don't be a slave to it.

All great mathematicians and scientists were well-educated in their fields - or thoroughly self-educated. The same is true of artists. They understand their craft. They are educated in the art of it. But they are not chained to the things that they learn. In fact, they are eager to explore ways to take what has come before and re-purpose it, re-conceive it, re-invent it...or totally deconstruct it. But you have to understand the forms and formulas to effectively make use of them and, ultimately, move past them. Watch a ton of great films. Discuss them with others. Take classes in understanding the aesthetics and language of film. Read film critiques (not bone-headed reviews) - anything that takes you inside the construction of a great film. Then have the vision and ambition to establish your own brand of genius.

2. Look at the "problem" of creating your film in many different ways.

Let's face it. Creativity is problem-solving. You are trying to express something and/or tell a story. The problem facing you is how to best tell it/express it. You may then think, "well, this is not math or science, there is no singular solution, so how can you think of it as problem-solving?" But there is a singular solution. That singular solution is the one that BEST expresses your idea - that best tells the story in a way that only YOU can tell it. Reaching it takes examining the myriad of options in front of you by creating an endless menu of possibilities for yourself from which to choose. Let no idea be too ridiculous or irrelevant to pass through your brain. In fact, dig for unusual solutions. You will soon learn how to restructure the problem in many different ways. This will push you past the limiting prejudices in your thinking. Often, the problem itself is reconstructed and becomes a new one. And eventually, all of this leads to the solution that speaks to your soul - and the collective one of your audience.

3. Make novel combinations. Combine, and recombine, elements into different combinations no matter how incongruent or unusual.

The laws of heredity on which the modern science of genetics is based came from the Austrian monk Grego Mendel, who combined mathematics and biology to create a new science. Mix and match your stories, characters, genres, visual ideas, etc. to form relationships and make connections between dissimilar elements. Da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves. Samuel Morse invented relay stations for telegraphic signals when observing relay stations for horses. In film, Welles devised his visual strategy for the artufl bio-pic "Citizen Kane" from watching John Ford's classic western "Stagecoach". Genuis ideas are seldom wholly original. They often come from the original combination of pre-existing ideas.

4. Think in opposites.

Physicist Niels Bohr believed, that if you held opposites together, then you suspend your thought, and your mind moves to a new level. When you conceive of a visual idea, character or circumstance, imagine it's opposite. Invariably, you will also, without effort, conceive of every variation in between the two. You will also be able to look at the original idea in a completely new way.

5. Think metaphorically.

The capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together is a special gift. And visual metaphors are a ubiquitous component of cinematic genius. Thinnking/creating metaphorically is also an ability that can be nurtured. Watch movies and read work rich in metaphor - especially short stories and poems. Take a literature class (or read a book) on developing dynamic metaphors. But, most importantly, observe and think. All things in life are metaphors. People can be metaphors. Practice creating connections between people/things - a cop, a bug, a chair, a tree, a car crash, whatever - think of how the person/object or group of people/objects exist in the particular circumstance in which you are observing them. Then, think about how similar that existence is to some other situation, idea, emotion or theme.

6. Visualize!

When Einstein thought through a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including using diagrams. He visualized solutions, and believed that words and numbers as such did not play a significant role in his thinking process. Well, this is even more true for filmmakers because this is a visual medium. But it is shocking to me how many filmmakers think in terms of words - the words on a page of a script. Move past the script even as you are writing it. See the film. See the scene. See the visual composition. See the detail within it. Place your various creative options within the context of that visualization and see how they play out. See them and feel them. Then, let your instincts guide you. For those for whom this is difficult, use pre-visualization tools - storyboards, photos, pre-viz software or shoot parts of scenes on video - anything to guide you in this process.

7. Produce! A distinguishing characteristic of genius is productivity.

Where is genius measured? Not in the thoughts in our head, but in the work we actually produce. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents. How many have proved meaningful to us? Probably just a few. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci's massive body of accomplishments. Van Gogh painted over 800 canvases in his short lifetime (and sold only one). Filmmaking, of course, is very expensive and not something you can do quite as prolifically as painting. But you can explore your ideas on paper and on video. You can keep creating, keep combining, keep testing/experimenting. Only in this way will you bridge the gap between your potential for genius and the true realization of it.

8. Welcome Failure.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, creating stuff that sucks is an important step in creating genius work. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Davis found that the most respected scientists produced not only great works, but also many "bad" ones. They weren't afraid to fail, or to produce mediocrity in order to arrive at excellence. Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we are lead to do something else. This is a critical part of creative growth and exploration and we need to embrace it with gusto. Failure can be incredibly productive, but only if we do not focus on it as an unproductive result. Instead, analyze the process, its components, and how you can arrive at a different result. Do not ask the question "Why have I failed?", but rather "What have I done?"

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stumble Upon This

Just a quickie to share my newest internet obsession, which is Stumble Upon. It is a website aggregator that organizes sites that others have found interesting or cool. Then you can compile them on your own preference page and share with others. You can also select categories of sites you are most interested in. The sites come up randomly, so it's always exciting fun stumbling across what's out there.

Check it out!

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Feedback Screenings

Hopefully, it's clear already that I'm all about community. I don't get anything done - personally, professionally, politically...or creatively, of course - without community.

When I finish a script, I have to give it to others for feedback. And I do that at various stages - giving it to different kinds of people at each stage. I do the same when I am editing. When I made "Transaction", I actually gave it to two filmmakers - Elyse Couvillion and Gina Levy - who made their own cut. Why the hell not? I'm always surprised by filmmakers who get freaked out by others toying with their films. We're all cutting digitally these days, so we can easily create duplicate files without affecting the "original" nor wasting any resources. You can use or not use whatever you discover in the alternate versions. Why not steal some great ideas from other talented (and generous) filmmakers and claim them as your own?

Anyway, I know people who are very protective of their work, and that's not wrong, either. Everybody has their own process. However, if you are not innately a cinematic genius, you won't create cinematic genius relying strictly on your own instincts.

Working within a community, on the other hand, may help in this regard, but it does demand a couple of things other than genius - clarity and strength. To be able to benefit from feedback without being overwhelmed by it, you need to have a strong sense of your project with a fairly clear vision - or at least, an ability to recognize what elements, when they arrive, will take it to the next level. In this way, you can take the feedback and use only what is relevant to you without bouncing around responding this way and that to the various pieces of feedback. (see my previous blog: Learning To Manage Feedback).

Anyway, the other night, my friend and FA comrade Michaela Von Schweinitz held a screening at FA of her new feature: "Diary of a Third Grade Teacher". - based on the experiences of Musician/Teacher Sabrina Stevenson and co-written by Sabrina and Karen Aschenbach. I won't comment on it because it's still in the early stages and I'm not sure how much information they want to get out about it. But I did want to briefly describe the process. Michaela showed the film at the FA offices, where we have a little projector and sound system. She invited an eclectic mix of hand-picked folks - about 15 or so - then put together a questionnaire for us to fill out afterward. She and her husband also made food for everyone and brought drinks. I've done many of these and this one was particularly well-organized and considerate of the participants.

We all watched the film, then wordlessly filled out the questionnaires. I had hoped there might be some open discussion, but with eating/drinking, screening and writing the evening had grown quite late. Many had to leave, but some of us did stick around and chat, however, and the ideas were exciting. The questionnaires were submitted anonymously, so hopefully everyone was usefully honest. I know I was. Not brutally, just usefully. This, by the way, is a new term of mine that I intend to apply to all aspects of my life. There is a certain inconsideration, selfishness and even cruelty in much unrestrained honesty. I prefer people being honest with me only to the degree that it benefits me somehow, even if that truth is painful. I guess you can argue that even cruel, seemingly purposeless feedback can be beneficial even if it is just to remind you that you don't want to get feedback from that person anymore. But time is short. Life is short. I'd rather skip that step, if possible. So, now, I engage in what I am terming useful honesty and try to solicit the same from others.

Anyway, Michaela was pretty nervous beforehand and I'm sure wading through all that feedback was a bit of a task. But hopefully she read all of the things she needed to read and processed them to her (and the film's) benefit. I know there was a lot of good energy and good ideas in that room. It was truly a community, if just for one night, and the collective creative power of that community was, for me, very evident and very inspiring.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brynne's Monthly Music 1

I'm musically illiterate, so I get all of my musical awarenesses/suggestions from friends. One of my friends, Brynne, is especially keen to stuff that's out there and has very broad but demanding musical tastes. I like that. So, thought I'd share it with you as she shares it with me....(these are songs, not albums)....

M. Ward - "Headed for a Fall" (To Go Home EP - 2007)

Kings of Leon - "On Call" (Because of the Times - 2007)

Sound Dimension Band - "Run Run Version" (Studio One Dub Vol. 2 - 2007)

Gotan Project - "Mi Confesion" (Lunatico LTD Edition - 2006)

PJ Harvey - "Silence" (White Chalk - 2007)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Rob Nilsson inspires at Mill Valley Film Fest

I went to the Mill Valley Film Festival this weekend for the premiere of two of Rob Nilsson's films "Used" and "Go Together". We are friends and supporters of each other and share similar beliefs about the purpose and potential of cinema.

But I also support Rob's filmmaking for another reason - one that reaches far beyond our personal relationship and speaks to new paradigms of creative and social interaction.

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If you looked up independent filmmaker on wikipedia, it really should show Rob's picture. He is the true and quintessential independent filmmaker. He eschews the limits of conventional film grammar, choosing to explore the raw essence of humanity as cinematic poetry and working with a full palette of blemishes, contradictions, discomforts and dysfunctions.

In the process, he uses whatever means necessary to realize his work and will invite any kindred soul along for the ride. He's resourceful, but in service of a true creative agenda and not any ulterior ego or profit-driven motive.

Finally, he doesn't sit around pining for some inept, crass distribution outfit (which almost all of them are) that offers nothing of value to either the public or the filmmaker. He makes his films available directly to audiences through festivals and special screenings - as well as through his own DVD distribution. He continually works to build his audience, enlisting people every time he screens someplace to join the 15,000 - the body of supporters and/or appreciators who form the bulk of his potential revenue stream. (Go to Citizen Cinema).

And he has been doing this for years. Many years. And will not stop doing it anytime soon.

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Rob tends to see himself as simply an artist and educator (with an admittedly strong opinion about the current dysfunctional "indie film" paradigm). However, I see him as a social revolutionary. He doesn't just operate outside the bounds of any traditional structure by necessity, he does it by choice and blazes as many trails as possible to make it work. Supporting that choice, includes building a viable alternative paradigm that will directly connect an artist to his/her audience. Many claim to be trying to do that (google, youtube, myspace), but they are really just trying to control that connection. It can only really be revolutionized by individuals like Rob. And once he - or others like him in this and other disciplines - figure it out, then others will follow and we will truly begin to see a re-configuring of the current social AND economic dynamic (check out The Long Tail Theory).

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Anyway, the Mill Valley Film Festival has been a strong supporter of Rob's work and, in doing so, has proven itself a heroic champion of "citizen cinema". So, I make it a point to support both Rob and the festival. And it's a damn good festival by the way, from a filmmakers' perspective (I had "Egg" there in 2001 and "Transaction" in 2005). So, me, FA member Cain DeVore (who acts, and is great, in "Used") and FA Vice-Prez Amanda Sweikow took the drive up to the fest for the two back-to-back premieres on Saturday night.

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It was, as we expected, a wonderful night. The audience was filled with Rob's extended filmmaking family and many of the players in his films. These were the last films to premiere of the 9@Night series that Rob began back in 2000 - born out of the marriage of creative and personal exploration. The films in the series are "Direct Action" films - a filmmaking process that Rob describes for the audience by presenting the graphic below before each film.

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Rob's films are clearly not for everybody. Nor are they intended to be. He does not make films for the lowest common denominator. Nor does he make them for snide "indie" insiders or the so-called cultural elite. He makes them for those that can appreciate his particular brand of cinematic poetry. I admit to being challenged at times by Rob's work. Even in my favorite films of his, I can have an issue with this or that moment - or this or that idea. But for me, that is precisely what makes them special. These moments and ideas are always rendered with his unique artistry and with a depth of feeling and honesty that you will absolutely not see in any other film. Because this is HIS film with his skills, intentions, artistic choices, etc. at play. By definition, there will be diversity in our responses to this kind of work and that is why they are a necessary antidote to the corporate product that clogs up our theaters and elicits scientifically engineered - Pavlovian - responses in its audiences.

That being said, I loved both of these films for very different reasons. Will they play in Peoria? They definitely could to a few brave souls....and, hopefully, will.

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I was struck by many things while watching the films, of course - the aesthetics, the "Direct Action" process, the huge journey of the entire series of films and many other things. But one especially striking thing was to be reminded of what a great actor Rob is. It's fun to see him work in that capacity because he brings such subtle depth and complexity to even the most minor appearances on the screen. It's no wonder he is so strong with actors. The other especially striking thing was the sense of completion I felt as the credits rolled on "Go Together". I was suddenly hit full in the face with what an amazing accomplishment this whole series of films had been. And I remembered back to when Rob first told me about them (having only done 3 of them) and my feeling that this was a rather impossible feat that may never see fruition. But here they were - realized just as they were conceived.

The fact that these were the last films in that series to roll out gave the evening a special poignancy and Rob was visibly moved after the end of "Go Together" when the audience rose to give him a standing ovation.

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I don't want to ghetto-ize Rob by labeling him an intellectual, but he is by and large a serious man and a serious thinker. But he is also incredibly passionate and that passion translates to less serious pursuits like drinking, flirting and laughing which we all did in abundance at the after party - first at the Broken Drum, then until the wee hours at the home of David, one of the actors in "Used" and "Go Together" who's also a musician.

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Reflecting on the night during the drive home, I couldn't help but feel deeply appreciative - not just of my friendship with Rob, but of the very fact of his work and that of all those around him. The 9@Night film series is truly a monumental accomplishment...and experiment - no matter how you respond to the films themselves. Rob's risk-taking, both in the films' aesthetics and in their management is and will continue to pay huge dividends to all of us who can conceive of a creative landscape where it is possible to see cinema as art and aspire to create something that means more to our souls than our egos - something that resonates within us - and out to the world around us - without the slavery of profit and pretension.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Finding time to write

6 a.m.

Meeting my friend and creative collaborator Sean Hood at Venice Grind coffee house for our weekly writing appointment. Sometimes, showing up for it makes me say one thing..."Ouch".


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Finding time to write, or create in any way, is always very challenging. Even though I often call myself a "filmmaker" and swear up and down that creating is the essence of who I am. Yet, I get so caught up in the mundane minutiae of daily existence, escapist entertainments and social/professional obligations that I make precious little time to do the thing that I claim is at the core of my being. Kinda f#@%ed up, eh? But apparently, not unusual.

I meet creative being after creative being, and few of them - there are many notable exceptions - give themselves as much creative time as they'd like. It's like some kind of odd self-punishment. It's also a lot like sex. Most of us love sex. As a culture, we're obsessed with it. If you put up a video on youtube and include "art" in the tag words, you'll get about 5 hits. If you put "sex", you'll get about 500,000 hits.

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Yet, for all the constant sexual imagery that surrounds us and exists in our thoughts/fantasies, how often do we actually have sex? Not very, according to statistics. It is not uncommon for married couples to have sex only once a month. And that is a lot compared to people who aren't in relationships (porn actors excepted, of course). Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we love to get ourselves excited, then deny gratification? Maybe we like the idea of things a hell of a lot more than actually doing them.

I know that's how I feel about writing. I love noodling around in my head about stories, ideas. I love talking about them. I love planning to write them. I like sitting in this coffee shop. But do I actually love facing the challenge of the blank page and trying to lay down any ideas of distinction and value? NO! I hate it.

But I am compelled to do it. The feeling of not doing it is worse than actually doing it. That's some way to live, huh? The whole tortured artists cliche, like all cliches, definitely has some truth to it. Am I a tortured soul? I don't think so, but it is torture getting up at six f&#@ing a.m. to write - never knowing if a single f#@%ing word is even worth the effort it takes to move my fingers.

But Sean and I do it every week (almost every week). We aren't writing something together. He writes his stuff and I write mine. But by being beholden to each other to show up, we are pushing each other to make time to create. Because I know if I didn't do this, I would never write. I would have the cleanest house, the cleanest car, all my receipts filed, all my emails answered and many, many blog entries (like this one). But I wouldn't create. I would just dream about it.....

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Top 5 Jobs To Do As A Filmmaker

Here's my list of the top 5 things to do if you want to pay the bills and continue your life as a filmmaker. I mean, you can do any job and still make films if you have the passion and determination. But it you're a borderline slacker like me, you want the job to have at least some, if not all, of these attributes:

* Relatively good pay and relatively short hours. Or at least, a lot of flexbility.
* Won't wipe you out creatively.
* Exposure to information and/or resources and/or people that can help you make your film.
* Exposure to creatively inspiring work.

None of the jobs below meet all of these criteria. And these may or may not be able to pay for your films, depending on the length and budget of the films you are trying to make. But they will put food on the table without sapping your precious bodily fluids while you do your hustle. These are just mine, by the way, based on my own experience. I challenge you all out there to come up with better alternatives....

1. A Dogwalker. Low barrier of entry. Have legs, can walk dogs. Just put up some flyers and the calls will come. I love dogs, so of course, this is at the top of my list. But it also demanded little of me and gave me time to think, plan, etc. I was able to start Filmmakers Alliance AND make films. Oh, and did I mention the dogs were fabulous?

2. A Bartender. Somewhat low barrier of entry - gotta compete with a lot of actors in LA and NY. Did this for 10 years. Can be a fun job - not nearly as horrendously miserable as waiting tables. Good pay for the amount of hours. Lots of people, lots of stories. And the job stays behind when you walk out the door.

3. Festival Work. Moderate barrier of entry as festivals always need volunteers. Great work can move you into a paid gig. Then, you can work at numerous festivals throughout the year without having to work every day. Not much pay, but you can get by and it offers great exposure to other filmmakers and potentially great films (depending on the programming). And if you never make a film, it's a really fun lifestyle, nonetheless.

4. Any industry job with reasonable hours that doesn't follow you home. Moderate barrier of entry. Could be a straight 8 hour day, could be freelance work, could be seasonal. It never hurts to work in an environment that gives you exposure to the people and resources that can help you make your film. But, be careful. Many industry jobs are all-consuming..even PA work (at least it is freelance).

5. Teaching, consulting or part-time professional work. High barrier of entry. You'll need to be educated and/or have practiced your area of expertise for a number of years before you can get away with this. I lumped these three together because they are similar in that way. But if you are truly skilled/experienced you have value - meaning information/skill that people are willing to pay for. Sometimes pay a lot. If you are a lawyer or doctor, your per hour charges can be ridiculously excessive - allowing you to make a lot of money in short periods of time, thereby freeing you to pursue your filmmaking life.

And, of course, there's always...

....Independent Wealth. This can happen by birth, inheritance, insane luck or homicidal greed. Every once in awhile it happens to guys named Ben and Jerry who just happen to make good stuff and do nice things.

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The things we do for love and money...

We had our monthly FA meeting on Sunday night. For those of you who don't know what goes on at an FA meeting besides incantations, ritual sacrifice and group sex, I'll lay it out for you:

Starting at 5 p.m., there is a potential member info session followed at 5:45 by a free seminar on some kind of filmmaking topic given by an accomplished professional (who may or may not be an FA member). Then, at 7:30, there is the regular member meeting where we discuss all the stuff going on in and around FA as well as update people on cool filmmaking events around town and across the country. We also check in with each and every member, finding out what they've been up to, what projects they're working on an what support they need. Then, around 9:15, we watch whatever films members have brought to show and finish off the night with a little beer/wine/snack reception. The whole thing is a 5 to 6 hour night, but it is fun, informative and inspiring - and it's only once a month.

Anway, as members got us up to date with what's going on in their lives, I found myself wondering what so many of them do to pay the rent. Clearly, they were in the room for the love (or obsession, but what's the difference). But to do the thing they love (make films) they have to do something to make money.

Coincidentally, the very next day, I had a phone meeting with our new partner in FA productions - who, by the way, is a semi-retired investment manager who never again has worry about how to pay his bills. As we discussed strategy for FA Productions and the type of capitalization it needs, I found myself wondering "how did it come to this?". How did I become a money-man, fundraiser, producer and entrepreneur? I was (and still am) a filmmaker/creative being and that simply cannot be more opposed energetically to money-hustling.

Or can it?

Well, there is definitely a different energy at play when one is creating "art" than when one is creating money. But the two are so interdependent - especially in a medium as expensive as film. And it is really no different in any art form. Everyone from Michaelangelo to Picasso (and zillions before and after) has hustled to find "patronage" - financial support that allows them to create. They all either became commercially successful artists or were successful at finding wealthy individuals/organizations/governments/corporations who would support their work.

A gift for attracting money is definitely a must in filmmaking and every working filmmaker I know of has tapped into it somehow, created it for themselves or were just lucky enough to be born into it. But how does one tap into it or create it for themselves if they, like most of us, aren't lucky enough to be born into it?

Of course, because filmmaking is so often referred to as the film BUSINESS, people often try to make a business out of their filmmaking - either by creating films they think will be commercially successful or by engaging in some tangential income-earning endeavor - from producing/packaging films for studios, to editing films to holding seminars to working at festivals to working in a rental house, etc., etc.

But for my money (bad pun intended), putting your energy into creating a commercially successful film is a huge crapshoot that most often fails, especially if you are not organically inclined to create such films. And even if you are, you need to find money to live while you write/find such a project and then you need to attract money so it can be made.

And doing tangential "industry" work may put food on the table, but it rarely if ever earns enough to fund your films (unless they are shorts) and often times sucks so much energy out of you, you have nothing left for creating.

But attracting money is not so much about what you do to bring it to you, anyway. It's all about mindset. Then, you work from that mindset to ALLOW money to come to you. And what is that mindset? Well, I can only speak from my own experience, but I've found it is a combination of the following ways of thinking. And in this thinking, the energy around being a great creator of art and great attractor of money does not seem so diametrically opposed:

1. I have to be doing what I'm doing (making films). I was born to do it and I will shrivel up and die if I don't.

2. In making films, I am bringing something new and/or important into the world that must have its birth. It doesn't seem to matter if this is true or not in any objective sense, just that you believe it to be true. Of course, if you truly believe this and apply it to the creation of your films, you will demand the most from yourself and indeed will be compelled to find what is distinctive in your aesthetic and develop it.

3. I deserve support for my filmmaking. If #1 and #2 are true, then of course, so is #3. Have you ever noticed the sense of entitlement that a lot of rich people have? That they always expect to get what they want? Part of that is indeed because they have money, but part of it is because they don't know what it's like to not have money - to not get what they want. Therefore, they carry themselves like they expect to get what they want and deserve it. This has an affect on others around them. You need to carry that same energy and affect anyone that might consider giving you money.

4. My passion has value. Of course, many bad filmmakers and out-n-out nuts believe this. The line between genius and madness is indeed thin. But this belief is a pre-requisite, nonetheless. If your passion has worth, it will be supported - financially and otherwise. But it can only have worth if you first believe it. Your passion will be necessary to push everything forward and to draw people and resources to you. If you don't think it has worth, no one else will.

5. There is enough out there for me. Do you get jealous when you hear of others making films and doing the stuff you want to be doing? Get over it. Instead, celebrate it. Use it as a model - as a personal message to you that the life you want is not just possible, but achievable. There is plenty of money out there and a lot of people get to use it. They don't deserve it any more or any less than you do (provided #1, 2 3, and 4 are true, however).

Yes, there are lots of other subtle and practical things that I can include, but these are the big five. If you can develop and hold these beliefs, then ACT (or make decisions) in accordance with them, you WILL attract money. No ifs, ands or buts about it. If #1 is true, then you will create. If #2 is true, you will create at a high level. If #3 is true, that creativity will demand support. If #4 is true, that support will attach real value to what you are doing. And finally, if #5 is true, there is no lack of support available. Everything you need will come to you.

Is this all just fantasy? Try it and find out. So far, it's working for me.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Celebrity-itis on the Darjeeling Ltd.

So, I went to the premiere of "The Darjeeling Limited" last night at the Academy theater.

What was I doing at one of those big-shot events, you wonder? I asked myself the same question when I was actually there, but the path to getting there ran through FA member George Zaver who's hooked up with these kind of "indiewood" productions and even studio sized productions. He works for Nielsen/NRG - technically in "film marketing" a sort of murky catch-all phrase that comprises the black ops of studio filmmaking. They will bring the film to a potential audiences' awareness by any means necessary. He specifically manages test market screenings and is able to get me into all kinds of screenings and events that I would otherwise never even hear about - much less be invited.

So, there I was. And there was a movie (preceded by a shorter movie). And celebrities. And drinks and food. And a lot of weird, if occasionally great-looking people. And that was that. I always think I'd be misssing something if I don't go to these things when invited. And then I go, and I realize I wouldn't have missed a thing. But I never seem to learn. Here's the important facts: The booze was just beer and wine, but nice beer and wine. And not much of a wait to get it. The food was disappointing, however. Small, mostly cold finger foods - not the scrumptious Indian food banquet I had been fantasizing about throughout the film.

Hollywood people are indeed weird-looking. The Studio Class, as I like to call them, has a particular style and energy that just feels weird to me. Too much stuff. Surgery, botox, jewelry, make-up, hair care, expensive clothes/shoes, fancy watches, high-tech gadgetry, etc. Everyone looks slightly dazed and desperate, like Ken and Barbie dolls come to life and wondering how the hell they got where they are, then feigning smarmy arrogance to cover that fact.

But I stumbled across a few FA comrades, particularly nice ones, which added a welcome surprise to the night. I also saw in the credits that (almost) original FA Member Colleen Bachman was the post supervisor on the film - which looked great. I remember when she got her first job in post - working as an assistant for another FA member, Phyllis Nix.

I also ran into long-time buddy Matthew Greenfield, producer of all of Miguel Arteta's films and now an exec at Fox Searchlight - a very smart and genuinely good and straight-up guy. Nice to know a guy like him can thrive in that world. Finally, I said "hi" to Jason Schwartzman, another really good guy who presented our Vision Award to madman David O. Russell at one of our VisionFest events a couple of years ago and still seems to hold fond memories of the evening. Nice to know.

But those anomalies aside, there's no doubt from the the type of crowd in attendance that this was a studio film. However, Wes Anderson - who also seems like a sincerely decent guy - is extremely talented and has a distinctive aesthetic perspective that is always at play in his films. This is why I am growing to hate the term "independent film". Who knows what it means anymore? Especially when I see "indie films" that are just cheap versions of crappy studio films and studio films that are distinctive and singular (although there are not very many of those, of course).

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Oh, yeah, about the movie...I found the film to be far from Wes Anderson's best work and although it pokes gentle fun at the "white man as spiritual tourist in exotic lands" kinda thing, it still has a certain annoying sense of privilege and entitlement without the emotional hooks that might make you ignore that feeling. It feels very slight and cleverly shallow - a film made by a hip rich white kid for hip rich white people (even if Wes Anderson is not hip or rich - I have no idea, frankly). It also suffers from celebrity-itis. Way to many "cool" celebrities in clever, but distracting little cameos that makes it feel like the film itself is winking at you.

But the guy is talented and singular, so there is still much there to be admired. The film was surprisingly preceded by a short film Wes Anderson somehow managed to squeeze out of the budget (it certainly didn't look cheap). It was sexy, stylish and vaguely mysterious. It is apparently a sort of "prequel" to the feature. Was it about anything? Who knows? Who cares? It was short. And captivating, nonetheless. Glad we got to see it.

I went home tipsy and out-of-sorts. Not remembering one second of the night the minute I greeted my dog, Yahtey at the door.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The First Of Many...

So, I'm diving into this whole blog thing. Seems to be some demand for it, although I often wonder where people find the time to read blogs, comment on them, listen to and download music, watch youtube videos, surf myspace and/or other community/dating sites, play video games, watch regular television (cable stations, of course) or any other myriad of activities that seem to emcompass the new models of human activity.

This, of course, does not include the traditional things that are still somewhat in vogue like reading a book, engaging in real person-to-person conversations, taking walks, going out for dinner and...of course....watching a movie. Time just seems to be in such short supply when you are a filmmaker - constantly scrounging to keep a roof over your head while developing projects and, if you're lucky, shooting them, completing them and then getting them out into the world.

Hopefully, this blog will provide some insight into how I make it happen and ways that you might create or maintain your own life as a filmmaker.

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Good timing to start this because I just got back from NY where I was at the IFP Market - an annual pilgrimage that I always love, but that always reminds me of both the joys and horrors of a filmmakers life. Here's a few quick observations:

- The IFP Market is always fun and exciting. It can also be odd and dispiriting. In good measue because the filmmakers are collectively driven by equal parts inspiration and desperation. Both generate a lot of passion but affect you in completely contradictory ways.

- Also, this disparate mix of energies comes from some of the realities of the market itself. So many projects, so little money (and other kinds of support). Of course, not all projects should get money and support. But there are so many accomplished folks involved and on panels, yet so little real direction, information and support. Of course, the IFP Market folks have to wrangle in these accomplished folks or no one would attend the conference. But so few of them have any real relevance nor offer any truly relevant information to nascent filmmakers. Still there is always those projects that find support and that little gem of info that squeaks out...and that's all that's needed to maintain the sense of hope and enthusiasm.

- Filmmakers, as a whole, have incredibly active and vibrant imaginations. The downside is that they are often unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality in how they approach the realization of their projects and how they conduct their filmmaking lives. Nonetheless, the market is a huge confluence of talent. Hearing about their projects and feeling their passion is very infectious.

- I love NY. Especially in the spring - even though it is horribly over-priced.

- Being from L.A., the indie film community in NY makes me incredibly jealous.

- Filmmakers, as a whole, prefer schmoozing to dancing. Understood, but it would really be great if we could find some way to do both.

Well, that's it. My inaugural blog. Not especially brilliant observations, but I'm jet-lagged. Also, I am going to put up a number of articles and eblasts that I'd put out earlier in other places. I will label them in such a way that you now that are somewhat archival blogs. But, some great stuff in there, if I do say so myself.

That wasn't so bad, after all. Let's see if I can keep it up. See ya next time.

J.

Links To More Articles N' Stuff....

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I also write a regular column for the FA Magazine called Collectively Speaking. Also, have done a few other assorted articles...

Here are the links to the isssues of FA Magazine that has them:

Collectively Speaking - Spring 05 - "Film, Politics, and The Art of Garbage" where I rant about making choices as a filmmaker.

Collectively Speaking - Fall 05 - "I Am, Therefore I Film" - Where I define what it means to be a filmmaker.

Collectively Speaking - Spring 06 - “Why We’re All Sick Of Crappy Movies And What We’re Finally Going To Do About It!” - The title says it all.

Collectively Speaking - Fall 06 - Where I go on and on about filmmakers and their egos and how to make the most of your own. Also, a great Part 1 article about the self-distribution of our feature film "The Dogwalker".

Collectively Speaking - Spring 07 - Where I insist we "Pull Together!" and extoll the virtues of collectivism. Also, Part 2 of our adventures self-distributing "The Dogwalker".

Collectively Speaking - Fall 07 - Where I harangue about change and how it benefits a filmmaker.

Old Stuff: End of Dogwalker Theatrical Distribution (2006)

Well, as of last Thursday, Oct. 5th, 2006 our commercial theatrical run of "The Dogwalker" is complete. Whew! You have no idea how much it takes out of you while you're deep in it. But it hit me when it was over and it's taking me a few days to recover. What a great experience on many levels, but most importantly for my filmmaking community, it was an amazing learning experience - the fruits of which I will share with you over time.

Now that the dust is settling, however, there are two over-riding feelings coming up for me. One is appreciation, of which I wrote in last month's eblast. And the other, now that I am recharging, is suddenly rising up powerfully - something I can only define as determination. Not only determination to see that "The Dogwalker" reaches its widest possible audience in its next phase of release (DVD), but determination to help establish a system/infrastructure of production-distribution-exhibition that will allow all truly independent films to reach their widest possible audience.

The current "system" clearly does not support this because "systems" are antithetical to truly independent cinema, and mainstream media and traditional commercial exhibition are, of course, beholden to protect the "system" - to the detriment or dismissal of truly independent cinema. But that's fine because mainstream media and traditional commercial exhibition are part of an irrelevant paradigm for us. What we need is a structure, not a system, with accessible information and resources, along with a network of mutually benefitting independent partners.

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But we'll talk in more detail about all of that in future blogs. For now, I just want to return to this feeling of determination - which is much different than a want, desire or even a need. Determination is like want, desire and need sharpened into an effective tool. It's more action-oriented and therefore extraordinarily empowering. Determination for me is part passion, part ambition, part persistence, part obsession, part blind foolishness and ultimately a refusal to settle for what's dished out to me (or what I dish out to myself). Determination is an amazing tool and an essential part of any indie filmmaker worth their salt. But like any tool, it works best in service of focused and meaningful goals - especially if these goals are present at the very outset of a film project and carry all the way through from idea development to final release (DVD, VOD, whatever). Determination can then attach itself to every goal of every step in the process.

Sometimes, something challenging, daunting or humbling is just what is needed to turn on the faucet of our determination. At least, that's what's doing it for me. But however it comes up in you, I urge you to tap it and let it flow through you unrestrained. Be determined to make your film (or the next one). Better yet, be determined to make a film that reaches the highest level of your creative potential and expresses your unique talent and voice. And our shared determination will see to it that it reaches the widest possible audience - one that is most assuredly waiting for it.

Old Stuff: Dogwalker Distribution (2006)

As you know, my wife Diane and I are dancing around the country distributing our first feature "The Dogwalker". It has been quite an experience - part of which you can read about in another soon-to-be-posted blog - from which we have already learned an immense amount. And still more to learn. Much of what we are learning, however, has been about ourselves.

Filmmakers, even more so than many creative people, constantly need to do periodic reality checks. Our imaginations and actual productions are so incredibly expansive that our expectations for the success of what we create can't help but explode beyond the bounds of reality. In our case. we've experienced some incredible highs and painful lows during the distribution of our film and have noticed that the lows have only hit us hardest when they are the product of unrealized (or under-realized) expectation. However, guess what remains when we remove the expectation. Appreciation. Yes, it's the old glass half-full/half-empty perceptual axiom. There's always two ways to feel about a situation. Intellectually you can examine it from either perspective (or both). But when it comes to what kind of emotion it produces in you, would you rather feel appreciation for what is or disappointment about what is not? A no-brainer, in my mind. Especially if the other option is disappointment born from unrealistic expectation.

How many times have I talked to filmmakers devastated that their film was not accepted to this or that festival? That it wasn't "sold" into distribution. And/or that it simply didn't turn out in any other way as they expected. Many of us are first-time filmmakers. In my case, a first-time feature filmmaker. But filmmaking is a complex art, a process, that takes years of experience to master. There are always exceptions, of course (the things you always hear about in the media), but I'm sure everyone from Van Gogh to Ed Wood did not expect the earth to move for them after their first efforts. But we filmmakers create these kind of expectations all the time. For more reasons than I can get into right now.

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But even if our first work is brilliant, we cannot manage the public's reaction to it. They have have their own unfathomable ways of coming to embrace new creative work, with their aesthetic appetites often informed (and usually corrupted) by a very slick, cynical mainstream media. As noted, there are occasional exceptions, but if you are doing truly visionary work, it will take some time for advocates and gatekeepers of all sort to find you out. And it will take the general public even longer. So, for lack of a better phrase, we filmmakers need to get real.

We've screened for packed houses and relatively empty houses. And in the end both were just people seeing the film. We've had good reviews and bad reviews. And in the end, both were just people responding to the film. Neither praise nor scorn is the truth. The truth is the experience, not the expectation.

And reality brings us appreciation. Diane and I are in an amazing situation. That our film is getting a theatrical release and being reviewed - positively or negatively - is both statistically and emotionally incredible. But even rewinding it all backward, we are fortunate that it has played in festivals. Fortunate that it ever got made. Fortunate that we ever had a creative thought in our heads. If you've experienced any of these things then count yourselves as fortunate, too. Because in the end, being alive, present and appreciative is everything. Living as a creative being is a special gift aside from that. And the rest,...just gravy.