My friends Bradley Powell and Curtis Matzke had me on an episode of The Work, a series of conversations with filmmakers in Chicago about our work and challenges as filmmakers. As you can see from the screenshot below, Bradley and I had a lot of fun discussing rejection and developing as writers and finding a voice and a whole lot more!
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.
That theme guides all other choices. Once you have that theme, it’s easier to make your decisions and answer questions.
I spent about three hours thinking through the theme and how I want the camera to move and what do to with framing, the key moments of the film, the tone, and the rhythm. The rhythm is so important to me and I’ve learned from experience not to leave this to the editing room because there’s only so much you can do with cutting.
The movie is dialogue-heavy so it needs to feel in motion and to move forward at all times, so as not to get stuck in the single location.
And I leafed through my dog-eared copy of Werner Herzog’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed, which I love dearly.
When he’s not talking about being shot in the stomach or bamboozling border agents, he says things like:
The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself.
Today I took a bit of a break. I try to keep some semblance of a day off on Sundays, with a leisurely morning and only some basic writing (i.e. journaling).
In the afternoon, I went up to 2112 to participate on a panel about pre-production for a group of female comedy filmmakers. The program is run by WiCo (Women in Comedy) and they asked for volunteers to talk about pre-production and other aspects of filmmaking.
One of the questions was “what went wrong on one of your projects?” and I told a story about the first time I directed anything (Words Fail Me). A few minutes into the improvisation on the first take in the first episode, I realized that I didn’t know what to say after saying “cut” and I was so nervous that I let the actors go on for about eight minutes while I thought of notes to give them.
After that I learned to keep a note in my back pocket at all times, so at the beginning of the day, I know what to say when I don’t know what to say. Sometimes you just watch a scene and think “hm” and don’t really know what to do and it takes a few takes to figure out why it’s not working the way you imagined it would work.
The Americans is over. It’s the only TV drama I’ve been able to get into in a long time and it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was an intense, heart-wrenching episode with some really nice surprises. Excellent writing.
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.
This consists in arriving at things roundabout, in asking oneself: “Given that you have a particular situation to get across to the public, what will be the most indirect, most intriguing way of presenting it?
Lets say that if one loves cinema as an escape mechanism, well, one escapes ten times more in a Hitchcock film because it’s better narrated. He tells modern stories, stories of ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. Don’t forget that I grew up in fear and that Hitchcock is the filmmaker of fear. You enter into his films as into a dream of great beauty of form, so harmonious, so natural… I admired Hitchcock very early and I got into the habit of seeing his films many times, and later, when I made films, I came to realize that, when I had difficulties in directing, it was by thinking of Hitchcock that I could find solutions.
Start with something very small, a microshort.
Then with each additional project, add another layer of complexity. If you’re feeling bold, you can add many layers at once. Too little challenge and you’ll get bored. Too much challenge and you might get overwhelmed (or rise to the occasion).
Either way, you can add something new every time you go out:
I was going through my Evernote to catch up on stuff I’ve saved but haven’t had time to digest and this Tony Zhou video came up. I realized that I already posted it but it’s worth posting (and watching) again, as are all of his video essays.
I really enjoyed this. Lots of good stuff in here on working with low budgets and getting the most out a little money, production-wise.
A few takeaways: