Steal a bit from a lot of different places

The secret of theft, which is also called “creativity,” is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places. You can’t go to the same 7/11 every time because they’ll catch you. So you go to the photo shop, and you go to the gas station, and you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to and by the end you’ve stolen enough stuff from enough places that people think its yours.

— Paul Schrader

Via Austin Kleon.

Dining not alone

Something different about Scotland, something that I really like: if you go to a restaurant and there are no open tables, they sometimes seat you with another group that has an open seat at their table. This happened to me for the second time this morning when I went for breakfast at The Larder for the big Scottish breakfast. I sat with an English family in town for their daughter’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh. After some initial awkwardness, we talked about Il Duce, Brexit, American politics, tennis, and soccer/football (England is in the semi-finals).

I’m never quite sure what kind of cultural norms I’m supposed to follow in these situations, especially since they tend to be somewhat fluid in the U.S. Can I ask about work? Talk about work? We talked about politics right away, which gave me pause at first, because it can be so divisive in the U.S. I wonder if they sort of sensed based on my appearance that we were on the same wavelength? I always want to talk about these things because they interest me, especially when it’s with someone who has an outsider’s perspective, but I guess there’s also plenty of fun in the meta-conversation of how we’re dancing around this interaction between strangers.

Anyway, I just think it’s nice when semi-private spaces like restaurants create situations for meeting strangers, although I can see why some people wouldn’t like that. I imagine if annoying people kept sitting with me, that I would not like it.

They didn’t seem that interested in visiting the castle, which I thought, OK I’m not alone.

Back to being seated with strangers: I wonder if there’s just a politeness and trust to the culture here that makes this sort of thing more accepted? I went to fill up my rental car yesterday and I couldn’t find anywhere to pay for my gas at the pump. The sign said to pump first and then pay inside (!). I ran into the same thing in the highlands, but I assumed it was a rural custom. But this was in the heart of Edinburgh, a major city. I can’t imagine something like this in Chicago or New York or even the low-crime suburb in Maryland where I grew up.

Don’t people ever just drive away? I need to talk to someone about this before I leave.

I know the vacation is working because I feel the tug to get back home, to get back to routine, to work, to write every morning.

Here’s to the Scottish enlightenment:

 

I’m off to read on the Meadows.

 

Isle of Skye

My second time up in the Isle of Skye, a northwestern isle, part of the inner Hebrides. It’s incredibly peaceful out here, the air is cool, and I’ve been lucky to get mostly sunny days.

My non-touristy vacation continues as I refuse to engage in culturally significant tourism and instead relax into the views and meet an occasional local to ask about life around here.

 

I drove to the end of the road in Egol and stopped at a boat launch with a snackbar next to it. The boat was away from the launch, off with tourists who want to look at seals. I got a coffee at the snackbar and talked to the girl working there. The dock is also used by the local fisherman, including her father.

I asked her what it was like to grow up here and she told me that there is only one high school on Skye and that when school was in session, she slept in a dormitory near the school during the week because it’s about a 90-minute drive each way.

All but a few main roads are single lane, with little passing outlets on the side of the road every 100 yards or so. There’s a lot of stopping, pulling over, and backing up. Everyone waves as they pass. All this means that it takes a long time to travel by road but as a traveler with nowhere particular to go,  I didn’t mind because the scenery is so spectacular all around. Magnificent blue water and striking green mountains.

I asked her if she’s ever hiked the mountains across the harbor and she said no and we laughed because it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it? You don’t do the touristy stuff in your own backyard. She said that many people leave the island to go to college or to travel or to work, but that most of them come back eventually. I wonder if a place like this just stays in your soul and pulls you back. She’s saving up to travel to Italy and then go to college in Edinburgh.

Better ugly than dull

One of the big takeaways from making this first feature film was that everything about budget and production can be questioned. I think that everyone knows this. That you can just say fuck it and do it low-budget, but then when you try to do it and get people on board, a lot of people get scared that they won’t have enough resources.

I found that a lot of the cinematographers we talked to, all of them excellent, were approaching the low-budget film from the starting place of a high- or medium-budget indie film. For instance, they were thinking that you just do a scaled-down version of stuff and we wanted someone to come at it from a completely different approach. We kind of had to figure this out along the way and realized that we were framing and positioning the value proposition of working on this film in the wrong way.

We wanted someone to look at it as an opportunity to experiment and use the camera in interesting ways, to create a different kind of beauty. Not the kind of beauty of just beautiful images, but the beauty of using the camera poetically or creatively in new ways.

For me it was about this: that making something dull would be tragic, but making something ugly would be acceptable. And the choice between making it purely beautiful in an aesthetic sense would mean more time, more crew, and of course more money. In other words, it was a choice between making the film now or waiting months or even a year to make it, while we raised more money.

I was in part inspired by The Celebration, which I watched for the first time in the months before production. Visually you could say that it’s ugly. It’s shot on video and it’s very grainy, especially at night when the ISO is ramped up. They used only practical lighting, no outside lighting equipment. And it shows. But, it’s also one of the most intense, grab-you-by-the-throat films I’ve seen in the past few years. The camera is wild and maniacal and the story is incredibly emotional and gut wrenching (and hilarious at times). I would much rather watch something emotionally powerful than sterile and pretty.

In the end, we did end up with some gorgeous shots. But more importantly for me, we got some emotionally charged pictures. One of the final images of the film, which I can’t talk about yet, is one of the best shots I’ve ever captured. If it works the way I intended, then it will be the kind of image that resonates and stays with the audience long after they’ve watched the film.

I haven’t started editing yet, so I don’t really have a good sense of how well the film will come together, but I’m confident that it will not be boring.

Travel notes from Edinburgh

My second time here, last time was in 2014.

I’m glad I did the touristy stuff like visit the castle last time I was here because I’m completely worn out from filming and I get one week here to relax before I head home, move to a new apartment, and start a 3-month freelance producing gig in Chicago.

After 6 weeks of pure obligation, I’m spending my time here without anything remotely resembling a responsibility, except for basic hygiene and meeting up with my family for dinner (they’re on a 1-week guided tour of Scotland).

First priority is getting good coffee. I found a place yesterday with this sign:

The city is full of tourists, many of which visit the cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. The coffee was pretty good. In Scotland, an americano is called a “long black,” which is a much better name. They serve it with less water than in the states.

Yesterday, after coffee, I went to see Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts at Filmhouse, which is the local arthouse theater here.

Then I walked down to the University of Edinburgh and read on the grass for a while.

An ambling vacation, just decompressing from the intense stress of movie-making. I can’t really muster any interest in seeing castles or churches or monuments. And I think it would be a bit odd to live here with so many tourists. It feels like there are more tourists than locals, but maybe I’m just in the wrong places.

 

Oh and I saw the Queen:

Wrapped on my first feature film

We wrapped a week ago. My first feature film as a writer/director/anything. The working title is Dinner Party Movie and that will definitely be changing.

It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done, the most I’ve ever given myself over to a singular pursuit — six weeks of intense commitment, devoted almost entirely to the single endeavor of making the film. And of course there was much work before that.

 

We shot 71 pages in 10 days, doing 8-10 hour days. And yes, there were some actual 8-hour days in there, which is hard to believe. Most people assume that an indie production will be 12-hour days, which I don’t really believe is sustainable for more than two or three days. The work will start to suffer and attitudes will sour, and then the culture will start to break down. At least that was my fear — we never really pushed it except for a single 12-hour day in the 2nd week.

 

People have asked me if it was “fun” and I always laugh and say no, no it was not fun, at least that’s not the first word that I’d use. Yes, there were moments of fun and joy and laughter and all that, every day. Making it with friends meant it was an infinitely more rewarding and relaxing experience. But, it was intensely overwhelming, stressful, and mentally and physically exhausting. Joyful yes, fun no.

 

The biggest difference between directing a short and a feature: I felt my role was much less about directing each scene with precision, but rather about steering the whole project in the right direction, tone management, making sure that each piece would fit into the larger whole — about seeing and feeling how the whole film would cut together, constantly cutting and re-cutting it in my head.

 

I learned that we can question just about everything related to production and budget. The going rates for things are always negotiable. You don’t need x number of crew. Most crew positions can be done without. Everyone knows this and yet hardly anyone really believes it or is willing to follow the premise to its conclusions and make something this way.

 

People told me that I was very calm and relaxed on set. Outwardly, I suppose I was. I’m not frantic and I didn’t yell or snipe at people. Inwardly, my God, a different story. I was waking up in the middle of the night panicked, waking up with crushing doubts about myself and the material, and often feeling like a complete failure.

Then there were the highest of highs, times when I felt like the work was very good and that the final product would be very good, and then I’d wade back into another eddy of anxiety and depression and back and forth for two weeks.

 

There were many moments of fun, joy, happiness, and excitement. But I could always feel the bear behind me. And now, to be free from the bear, is a sweet sweet feeling.

 

Travel notes (on my way to Edinburgh)

My first time in an airport lounge.

I’ve never been good at working the mileage programs but I finally got a credit card with good mileage points and travel benefits and I can get into all the airport lounges now.

I’m in the lounge at Dublin International and it’s not mind-blowing, but it is quiet and there’s free coffee and CONTINENTAL breakfast and free wifi and free booze, although it’s 10:30am and I’m just going under the jet lag spell, so no thank you to the Jameson.

I watched The Post on the plane and I liked it, although I didn’t really get to enjoy the Altmanesque soundscape due to terrible airplane ear budds.

The weekend before production

We start filming on Monday. It’s a 10-day production, over the next two weeks, with the weekend off.

This week has been a whirlwind of last-minute prop pick-ups, phone calls, meetings, waiting to hear back from rental houses and friends about what we can use and how much it will cost. Yesterday I spent the afternoon finalizing the shot list and our approach with the cinematographer, Zoe.

And of course, Costco:

We spent $406 on crafty and supplies and hopefully that lasts the whole two weeks. Most people understand that working on a micro-budget indie film means that they’re not going to get paid a lot and I am dearly grateful for their contributions. But you have to feed them! I try to get healthier options but the producer reminded me that some people like to eat gluten and sugar.

We got to the coffee section at Costco and were severely disappointed. I’ve never had Kirkland-brand coffee1 but I’m incredibly skeptical.

I found reviews online and it’s well-reviewed on Amazon but I started reading the reviews and they were all people saying “I used to drink Maxwell House and switched to Kirkland and it’s just as good!!!” So, no. Besides, I believe that even if Kirkland coffee was just as good as, I don’t know, Metric, it wouldn’t matter. The branding does affect the flavor.

But it doesn’t matter because we lucked out — the producer, Josh, emailed all of the local Chicago roasters and one of them finally got back to us — Metropolis is donating a 5lb bag to the production! That’s some seriously good coffee and I’m really overjoyed.

Part of making a movie, in my mind, is about the culture you create on set. Little things like having good coffee ready for people in the morning, they go a long way. Movie making is hard work. It’s really hard. But it’s not some crazy ritual of suffering — it’s a lot of fucking fun, or at least should be. Yeah, there are a lot of down times and yes, there are painful compromises at every turn (when you don’t have money), but there’s a real joy to working incredibly hard with a tight group of 10-15 people for two weeks straight. But, you better have some good coffee.

One compromise we made was not having a full-time makeup person on set, which led me to my first purchase of makeup, a jar of Laura Mercier translucent powder. The makeup person recommended it. Basically, you need to keep the actors’ faces from looking shiny on camera and this creates a matte look on their faces.

I was re-reading my dog-eared pages in Werner Herzog’s book and he said that he likes to carry a small makeup kit with him whenever he directs so that he can touch up an actor before a take if he feels like the actor needs a little more time to get ready, not unlike a baseball umpire dusting off the plate as a courtesy to a catcher after taking a foul ball to the body.

Besides saving money, going the DIY route with makeup saves time.

We’re taking the approach that if this film succeeds, it will succeed on story, performance, and interesting visual storytelling. It will not succeed because of breathtaking-ly beautiful imagery, incredibly meticulous set design, or high production value. Not that we don’t want it to look good. And I think we are going to deliver some truly striking images, but my goal is to move the audience with emotion, not abstract beauty.

My living room has been transformed into a holding pen for all of our props, crafty, and some lighting and grip equipment.

OK, I gotta make some last-minute rewrites and then load all that stuff into my car and drop it off at the location. We’re setting up the location house today and tomorrow, and maybe even stealing a few establishing or non-talent shots, then a table read tomorrow afternoon, and hopefully a few free hours to do my laundry and cook some food for the week.

Bang on, as my English friend says.

And thank you to all the people who have offered material and emotional support, lent us gear, gave us honest feedback and good advice, encouraged us, and said “yes” when others said “no.”


  1. the Costco store brand 

The Party (2017)

I watched The Party tonight. No, not the Peter Sellers one, although I love that movie, but a different one made in 2017.

A single-location stageplay film, like the one I’m directing later this month. I really enjoyed this. Good rhythm and loved the use of the wide-angle lenses, makes for really interesting depth of shots and brings you close to the characters.

And it made me feel a lot better about shooting in a single location — this film takes places in a single house and most of the action is in the living room. My film has the same basic parameters but it’s actually spread around the house more. Yes, I guess it can feel claustrophobic, but at 72 minutes or so, it wasn’t an issue.

Coming down the home stretch. Casting is wrapped. Cinematographer is on board. Location is signed and paid for.

I went to Fedex to print a copy of the script and put it in a binder. I like working with a paper script so I can annotate it and put all the notes in the margins, the notes that I’ve been collecting off and on for the last few years, since I started writing the script in 2015.

I went back and looked at my first draft from 2015 and much of the dialogue is the same, although much has changed. Kind of amazing how much from the first draft stayed though, like an almost fully-formed film just came out of me. OK, that’s an exaggeration, I did have an outline.

And the story as it is now, takes places at one location — an upper-middle-class home in Chicago (we’re filming in Ravenswood). The original script was split between the story at this house, and another two characters that are on their way to the dinner party at the house. In 2016 I split those characters off into their own screenplay, so in a way, I have a little cinematic universe going on. Maybe for the sequel…

A day after printing the script, I was already changing things. The writing never stops (and how I look forward to starting fresh on something new when this is over).

 

Also went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to pick up this Global chef’s knife. Good knives are expensive apparently. This guy was $124 before the mandatory 20% discount. I should return it but maybe I’ll keep it — I’ve never owned a really good (and sharp) cooking knife.





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