I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…
Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.
They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).
The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.
Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.
The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.
Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).
Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).
The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.
Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.
Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.
What about the film festival, Robert?
This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.
The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.
Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.
I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.
I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.
It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.
The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.
I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?
I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.
Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).
I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).
But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.
Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.
I released this earlier this year and completely forgot to post it here. The Deadline, my first short film, is now available to the public:
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.
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.
Rewriting the script today.
We did a table read on Wednesday. The beginning doesn’t work, the story takes too long to gets moving.
And I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle scenes where a group of people are talking and not really moving. Time to go to the well…
I decided it’s better to make them move more and talk less, to give them props, and let the characters inhabit and interact with the space more.
I re-watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and saw how Bunuel moves the camera and the characters around to say so much and play with the frame.
Once I have the thought that they have to move, it gives the scenes more life. Not just speaking words, but moving each other around, pushing and pulling with words.
And re-watched Rope as well, another dinner party film.
It was a great weekend! The festival was so well-organized. The parties were great. The other filmmakers were great.
The screenings were excellent, with average and peak quality of films far above what I’ve been seeing at other festivals this year.
And Bloomington, IN is a lovely college town. The screening venues and projections were great too, especially the main theater.
I can’t recommend this festival enough.
I’m also really happy that The Deadline got to premiere there. They gave it two screenings, including one in the main theater.
It’s really amazing, the first time you see a film you made up on a big screen with a professional audio system.
I had tears in my eyes. Then it was too much and I had to leave for a minute because sometimes I get weird watching my stuff with other people in the room.
And Off Book won the award for Best Comedy Short!
But really, I want to share some of the films that I saw and made me laugh:
Lovewatch by Harrison Atkins. One of the best/funniest things I’ve seen this year. Unfortunately, he hasn’t posted in online yet, but here’s another great weird short from him:
The Day Before. The full film isn’t released yet, but here’s the trailer:
I found this Graham Green quote in one of Pauline Kael’s reviews in The Age of Movies, my first encounter with Kael after I stumbled upon it in Powell’s Books in Portland:
“The cinema,” Greene said, “has always developed by means of a certain low cunning…. We are driven back to the ‘blood,’ the thriller…. We have to… dive below the polite level, to something nearer to the common life…. And when we have attained to a a more popular drama, even if it is in the simplest terms of blood on a garage floor (‘There lay Duncan laced in his golden blood’), the scream of cars in flight, all the old excitements at their simplest and most sure-fire, then we can begin–secretly, with low cunning–to develop our poetic drama.”
Kael is a wonderful writer, one of the best non-fiction writers I’ve read, and I enjoy her writing even when she writes about movies that I haven’t seen or haven’t even heard of. Besides adding a long list of movies to my already long list of movies I need to see, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about filmmaking in the process.
Two weekends ago I attended the Portland Comedy Film Festival. I only saw shorts there, although there were a couple features that played before I arrived. Here are a few that I both enjoyed and are currently available online.
Cauliflower, directed by Natasha Straley
Groundhog Day for a Black Man, directed by Cynthia Kao
Jihadi Street, directed by Yulia Fomenko
I still don’t know how I feel about this one but it’s so rare to see a comedy this risky and I really want to see what Yulia does next.
Movie-picking advice from one of my favorite blogs, Marginal Revolution:
1. If the movie was shot for the big screen, you must see it on the big screen. Otherwise your response is not to be trusted.
2. Try not to discriminate by genre or topic, for instance “I don’t like war movies,” “I don’t like romantic comedies,” and so on. You’ll miss out on the very best of that genre or topic this way, and those are very likely very good indeed. (NB: In your spare time, you can debate whether there is a horror movies exception to the principle.)
3. In my view, the bad Oscar picks were evident right away. A five year wait will only elevate some other set of mediocre movies instead. Movie awards are designed to generate publicity for the industry, not to reward merit. Ignore them.
4. I use movie criticism in the following way: I read just enough to decide if I want to see the movie, and then no more. I also try to forget what I have read. But before a second viewing of a film, I try to read as much as possible about it.
5. On net, I find the best reviews are in Variety magazine, as they are written for movie professionals. And the market for reviews is largely efficient. That is, if you read six smart critics on a movie — usually just two or three in fact — you will have a good idea of the quality of the movie. But you must put aside movies that are politically correct or culturally iconic, as they tend to be overrated. Brokeback Mountain and The Graduate will make plenty of “best of” lists, and they are both interesting and extremely important for both cinematic and cultural reasons. Still, I would not say either is a great movie, though they have some wonderful scenes and themes.
6. Hardly anyone watches enough foreign movies, that means you too. Or you might not watch enough outside your favored cinematic area, such as French, Bollywood, etc. There is a switching cost due to different cinematic “languages,” but most of your additional rewards at the margin probably lie in this direction. Furthermore, the very best foreign movies are so excellent it is easy to find out which they are.
7. I still think Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, while good, are overrated. Don’t always assume your second reaction is the correct one. In addition, a lot of movies are made to be seen only once, so don’t hold that against them. For instance, I am not sure I need to see the opening sequence of Private Ryan again, but I am very glad I saw it once. It made seeing the whole movie worthwhile, but since most of the rest is ordinary, albeit serviceable, seeing it again would be excruciating.
8. It is a mistake to smugly assume that television has surpassed movies. The best movies (mostly foreign) are better than the best TV, even today.
I especially agree with 1, 2, 6, and 8.
My friend Jae wrote on Letterboxd:
It’s pitiful that this will be marketed as the “iPhone film” or the movie with the the transsexuals – because I believe it offers so much more than this – though both aspects are important for different reasons.
I had the same thought watching it, that people would know or remember it as “the iPhone movie,” which makes me a little sad because I thought it was brilliant filmmaking that didn’t have much to do with what camera they shot it on. I think the budget was around $100,000 and you could easily make a film for a third or less the cost but with a much better camera.
What I loved was the editing, the sense of movement, the music and how it worked with the images, the performances, the writing, and above all the rhythm that makes it feel so alive. That feeling of “aliveness” is hard to define and even harder to create. To me, it’s a combination of playfulness, good camera work, great editing, and not giving a fuck (in a good way).