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.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

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.