Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Responsible Filmmaking - sketching the blurry line between the creative and the careful

When I decided to shoot a short film about the day a 14 year-old girl decides to give up her virginity called "My Last Day On Earth", I was not at all thinking about the various practical and ethical issues that it might engender. I was just thinking about the film from a creative/thematic/story-telling perspective that is necessarily divorced - at least initially - from the actual process of realizing this idea as a film.

But once the mechanics of making any particular film are set in motion, the reality of what you are putting people through to fully realize your film starts to come into play - and that's when things get thorny, if not downright hairy....and sometimes tragic.

While at dinner one night over at my good friend and creative collaborator Sean Hood's house, I discussed the film off-handedly with him and talented D.P. Fortunato Procopio. The script included some simulated pot-smoking and , at the time, a couple of shots of simulated sex. I told them I wanted to cast a true 14 year-old to maintain a sense of autheticity and they made it clear that this was not a good plan. They informed me it was not only irresponsible, it was illegal. I was a little surprised by their reaction and (mis)read some moral indignation in their tone. So, of course, I decided to needle them by pretending I didn't care and suggested that America's cock-eyed puritanism was not going to influence my creative judgement.

What emerged was a fascinating, contentious (and perhaps irritating for them) debate about the conflict between personal responsibility and creative ambition. I'm the first guy to criticize filmmakers for not demanding more from their films and doing all that is necessary to create a truly unique and arresting film - filled with authenticity, complexity and power. But on the other hand, I have seen and heard about filmmakers so blinded by their own obsessive "vision" that they have put actors and other crew members in harm's way both physically and emotionally.

In my case, I was going to ask a young girl to simulate a very sensitive and profound adult experience that she may, in her own life, be nowhere near comprehending - let alone experiencing - the fact of which, my friends argued, may cause irreparable harm to her psyche. Although they acknowledged there are many girls who may actually be sexually experienced at 14 years old, there is no way of me knowing that nor the circumstances surrounding those experiences. I argued that this was a rather tame simulation and that there are films where girls of similar age are doing much more shocking and egregious acts. I made the point that each girl is different and this, then, becomes a personal decision - one that should be made jointly by the girl and her parents.

Carson Goodwin and Daisy O'Bryan (laying down)
rehearsing for "My Last Day On Earth".

Of course, they countered with the point that there are many desperate stage parents whose judgement is clouded by the ambition they harbor for their child and will let them do just about anything. As for the films that had children engaging in more graphic behavior, there's no way to know the psychological toll such "acting" took on their lives.

Good points. I would never want to be responsible for willfully causing any kind of permanent harm - physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or otherwise - to any cast or crew member no matter how "important" realizing the film in a specific way might be to me. Even accidents, such as the ones that killed Brandon Lee and Vic Morrow would haunt me forever and make it perhaps impossible to ever make another film.

Of course, a death is an extreme example. But there are many other things short of that which can happen that would thoroughly suck - mental breakdowns being a rather common occurrence on shoots that test the limits of a cast member (or entire cast/crew's) endurance. And I certainly would not want to be even partially responsible for transforming a sweet, innocent 14 year-old girl into a potentially promiscuous, drug-using, shop-lifting, therapy-needing basket case of an adult.

But I recently saw a beautiful, but gut-wrenching short film from Iceland at the Los Angeles Film Festival called "2 Birds". It was gut-wrenching for one particular scene that **SPOILER ALERT** graphically depicted the rape of an unconscious teen-age girl. This was not an 18 year-0ld playing a 14 year-old. This was truly a 14 year-old, which was obvious from her body type since she was nude in the scene. This gave the film a sense of authenticity and power that was absolutely horrifying. As a cautionary tale, it was even more profoundly disturbing for having this veracity. As a work of creative ambition, this choice made the film's final moments even more deeply affecting.

However, given what I had gone through trying to cast my film, I couldn't help but wonder what parent would let their child do this and how this scene might have affected the actual young actress playing the victim. Shot in Iceland, I simply assumed they may not have the same laws protecting minors that we do here in the States. But beyond the legalities, what were the ramifications? And was the end result that was achieved worth those ramifications or even the risk of adverse ramifications even if there were none? I personally could not answer that because I was so bowled over by the film.

In my thinking, most films that take obvious creative risks and/or convey an authentic and palpable sense of the character's experience are going to rise head and shoulders above all other films. And the bigger the risks, the bigger the potential payoffs...and potential failures - on screen and off. So when are we taking it too far? When is the true life experience of making the film too dangerously secondary to the art we are attempting to create? And is the lasting cultural/social impact of that art ever more important than the lasting personal impact of its creation?

I really don't know the answer since the lines blur for me at a certain point. And I really don't think there is a single answer that an be applied to all filmmaking situations. But I think the answers are less important than the questions. Legalities aside, if you aren't even asking yourself these questions, then you are perhaps dangerously self-absorbed.

With my film, it simply boiled down to a practical/legal matter. If I wanted to show simulated sex, I would have to get an actress over 18. Otherwise, parents would rail in disgust and perhaps torch my home. But also, I could get arrested. The other option was to cast an authentic 14 year-old, but remove the simulated sex and keep everything at the level of suggestion. This second option seemed like the more elegant and poetic choice and, therefore, the choice I made. And I don't regret it. My film didn't need anything more graphic. But some films do demand more if they hope to realize their full power and potential. Tough choices are made. And, perhaps, not without consequence....

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"The Revenant" WINS the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature Film at CineVegas 2009!


Check it out! -

Also, we got this great review from Harry Knowles at Ain't It Cool News!:


Does that mean the picture is finished and perfect. NO! I my opinion, there's still some work to be done as we rushed it through to it's World Premiere. Also, despite all of the accolades, there were some valid criticisms we need to address. But all relatively simple stuff that is easily addressed.

So, It's all good! We're off and running!....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Revenant" at CineVegas 2009

A film I helped produced is having its WORLD PREMIERE at CineVegas 2009. Hopefully, you can make it out there and/or spread the word to peeps that can. It's gonna be a blast!!!

See ya there!!