We Will Control the Horizontal, We Will Control the Vertical

Way back in the 20th Century I made my first film. I was working with a very experienced editor who indulged my notes  about shortening this shot a hair and lengthening that shot a smidgen, until finally she said, “David. I know you want it to be perfect, but two things. One, it’s never going to be Citizen Kane,” she was straight up like that, “and two, you’re obsessing about these tiny details and I have to tell you, you’re going to screen this at film festivals and they’re going start with the lights still up or the sound off. Believe me. I’ve seen it happen at Sundance!”

8 1/2 x 11 poster by Heidi Fener
8 1/2 x 11 poster by Heidi Fener

The world premiere of  8 1/2 x 11 took place at a very nice (but now defunct) festival and started off a bit rocky. The program was introduced, the emcee exited, the lights went down …  and nothing happened for about a minute. A crowd of people doesn’t like to sit in the dark like that for a minute. It’s very awkward and a little unnerving. When the first images flickered on the screen, they did so without sound for about 15 seconds. In addition to being a fine editor, she was also, apparently, a pretty good psychic.

When I consider how films are screened and viewed nowadays, shown on the tiniest of screens and watched by an audience distracted by all of our modern gadgets, I wonder what’s the point of obsessing over the smallest details. It’s disheartening from time to time, so much so that I just want to throw my hands up in the air like I just don’t care, and not in a good way. But though I don’t have control of how the viewer watches A Life’s Work, I do control the content. So to that end, my job is to make it as good as I can possibly can.

But, it seems, I don’t always control the content either, as I found out the other day while looking for something on YouTube. Look at what “teamferryboat” did to 8 1/2 x 11.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MBKXyyD5To[/youtube]

I couldn’t watch it, but it seems someone compiled just the Ellen Pompeo scenes. Now, I love Ellen’s work in this film, but “teamferryboat” just downloaded my film, cut out 8 minutes, and uploaded a horribly pixelated, nonsensical version for the world to see. I wasn’t credited, and needless to say, all this was done without my permission. Good thing  I hold the copyright.

So it seems I don’t control the content. Some vague “We” does, just like the opening credits of The Outer Limits proclaimed 50 years ago.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCcdr4O-3gE[/youtube]

What to do, what to do?

If you want to watch the entire film, click here.

Is That All There Is?

These things are on the top most shelf in my linen closet.

The top shelf of my linen closet.
The top shelf of my linen closet.

They are prints and elements of films I made, 8 1/2 x 11 and Tango Octogenario

Sometimes I see them up there and I’m very proud. I’m reminded of the fun I had making them, of all the people I met because of them, of traveling to the film festivals where they were shown — New York, Berlin, London, Los Angeles, Taos, Denver, Baltimore, and many many more places.

Sometimes seeing them makes me a little sad. I think, Is that all there is? All that labor and sweat for what? So they can wind up on the unreachable shelf in the closet?

Sometimes seeing them reminds me of how much work I have to do (and money to raise) before I will have elements and prints of A Life’s Work.

And sometimes I think even when A Life’s Work does join them, there will be days when I think,  Is that all there is?

Of course, there will be days when I will be proud and reminded of the people the film introduced me to and places I went because of it. (Actually, there are already days when I’m proud of it and etc.)

Here’s Peggy Lee talking/singing Is That All There Is? (It’s abridged, but the double exposure can’t be beat.)

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe9kKf7SHco[/youtube]

 

Letting Go: The Last Picture Show and Me

Here’s my favorite scene from one of my favorite films, The Last Picture Show.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWSvo0eMK7E[/youtube]

At 56 seconds in, one long take begins. In the DVD extras director Peter Bogdanovich talks about  how fortuitous the weather was for this shot. As Ben Johnson delivers his monologue and the camera dollies in, the light changes. In the DVD extras Peter Bogdanovich tells us the sun came through a sky that had been overcast the whole rest of the day at the most opportune time. Then the camera dollies out and the light changes again, the sky is overcast, again at an appropriate point in the monologue. He was amazed at his luck.

At 3:08 there’s a cut to a lake for 4 seconds or so — Ben’s pov and Bottoms voice over — and then we’re back on Ben delivering the rest of his monologue.

Bogdanovich also tells us, with more than a little disappointment, about that cut. He intended the monologue to be one long take, but Timothy Bottoms didn’t deliver his line in that first, light-changing take. (Bogdanovich was not pleased with Bottoms that day, and he says the actor claimed he didn’t forget his line, that he was just thinking.) They shot it again, but of course the sun didn’t cooperate that time and the take wasn’t nearly as good.

It is obvious that even 30-odd years later, when the extras were shot, the director wishes Bottoms had delivered his line as rehearsed and that he had that one long take.

As a viewer  I watch the scene above and I don’t care one bit about that cut. The beauty of the monologue, Ben Johnson’s face, his delivery, Timothy Bottom’s attention, the composition, the length of the take, the dolly in, the change in light, the dolly out, it makes for such a powerful  and almost overwhelming scene that I don’t notice that cut at all. This scene  takes my breath away, and  the knowledge that it might have been better (at least to the director) doesn’t detract from the finished product. When I watch it, I see a perfect scene.

As a filmmaker, a few things about this story resonate with me.

Paul Albe welcomes Trip Cullman into his office in 8 1/2 x 11.
Paul Albe welcomes Trip Cullman into his office in 8 1/2 x 11.

One lesson I learned when I was making 8 1/2 x 11 came from the sound designer. I was having a melt down about some sound issue. He told me to relax, it would all be taken care of by the competent post production people involved. And in so many words he said  that there are things directors obsess about that sound people don’t sweat at all. And what my meltdown was about was one of those things. And he was right, everything worked out fine. Lesson still learning: letting it go in the heat of the moment.

Another. When I watch Tango Octogenario now… actually, I can’t watch it now (though I still enjoy hearing the music), all I see are mistakes and what ifs. The biggest what if is the location. I was probably $1,000 dollars shy of renting out a truly spectacular location, one that I thought was perfect for the film, and so every time I’ve seen the finished  film, I think how much better it could have been had I used the other location. $1000. C’mon! I could have come up with that! Lesson still learning: letting it go after the fact.

 

darden_imperfect01I’m hoping to bring these two lessons into A Life’s Work, but it’s difficult. The film is far from finished and already I’m obsessing over stuff no one will notice and full of regrets.

Kooky, right?

[cross-posted on Extra Criticum]

 

Good Luck: Or How Ellen Pompeo Wound Up in My First Film and What Does That Have to Do with A Life’s Work

Ellen Pompeo by Beowulf Sheehand

The other day I watched an excellent web series called Planet X, directed by Jacob Hensberry and written and produced by Jake and Ken Cook. I know Jake, so I emailed him and complimented him, his cast, and crew on a job very well done. Jake replied, “Thanks so much! Really glad you enjoyed it. We certainly worked very hard on it and I got pretty lucky with my cast.”

I was about to blast off an email scolding him for using the word “luck.” Luck seems to me a dismissive word, as if talent, drive, learning, hard work, and stick-to-it-ive-ness had nothing to do with success. After all, he and Ken wrote the parts, had people in mind, did some casting, held auditions, and made choices. “Luck, if there is such a thing,” I was going to write Jake, “favors the prepared.” But I didn’t write that email because my timer went off reminding my that my clothes were dry.

As I folded my socks, I thought about luck and casting, and I remembered how Ellen Pompeo wound up in my first film, 8 1/2 x 11. (Watch it!) We were about to cast the film and I had a look in mind for “Human Resources Woman,” but not a specific actress. One night, I was watching television and a Visa commercial came on. It featured a young actress who looked and acted exactly like what I imagined this character to look and act like. I turned to the woman I was living with at the time, K., and said, “That woman would be perfect in the film!” K., who was a make-up artist, said, “I just did a shoot with her yesterday. She seemed really nice. I have her number. I could ask her.”

 

Ellen Pompeo in 8 1/2 x 11
Ellen Pompeo in 8 1/2 x 11. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

She did. Ellen auditioned (this was 1999, before she was on Grey’s Anatomy and before her break out role in Midnight Mile) and she was fantastic.

So, luck. Think of all the things that had to happen in order for Ellen to wind up in 8 1/2 x 11. Ellen has to get cast in a Visa commercial and it has to run as I’m casting my film. I had to be watching TV (which I rarely did/do). I had to be with a make up artist who just happened to recently work with Ellen and become friendly with her. Ellen had to be amenable to auditioning for a goofy short film about going on job interviews. These are just the first things that come to mind. I could follow this thread back in time a long, long way.

So, luck? Maybe. Had I not seen Ellen on TV that day, some other actress would have been cast and who knows what would have happened then? I was very happy to work with Ellen at the time. And yes, I felt lucky, too. But that luck is different from the kind of luck one feels looking back. Maybe luck is something you see in the rearview mirror.

Which brings me to A Life’s Work. I know I am lucky to be making this film, with the fine people who are in it and the exceptional people who are making it with me. But I have a feeling when it’s done (when? WHEN?!?! by the end of 2015), when I look back at it, I will be astounded at just how lucky I was.

How about you, feeling lucky?

Photos of Ellen Pompeo on the set of 8 1/2 x 11 by Beowulf Sheehan.
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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

 

Sweet Briar College – Guest Artist, The Guy Making A Life’s Work

I did my stint as guest artist at Sweet Briar College and I’m happy to report that it went very well. After consulting with the teacher, Paige Critcher, we decided it might be more beneficial if I showed my earlier, shorter work. Showing the 36-minute sample didn’t seem like the best use of a one-hour class where I was supposed to talk about where ideas come from, how to make your first film, etc. So it went a little something like this ….

Sweet Briar College Students
Sweet Briar College Students Watch 8 1/2 x 11.

 

8 ½ x 11: First Film, Film School

I showed 8 ½ x 11 and gave my spiel: the inspiration for the screenplay, how I found cast and crew, and how making that film was very much my film school. I was a little anxious, because I have shown this film, which is about going on job interviews, to college students and it’s fallen flat—they couldn’t relate to the experience. But these Sweet Briar College students got the joke and laughed at all the appropriate places.

Tango Octogenario: Second Film, Unlike the First

I then introduced Tango Octogenario, telling them that I wanted to challenge myself and make something very different from the first film. Here again, they totally got it, and I heard someone say at the end, “So sweet.” I liked that.

After Tango screened, we spoke about the challenges that film presented and how different it was from 8 ½ x 11. Then …

A Life’s Work: My Life’s Work (so far)

The hour was going by quickly, so we showed the trailer for A Life’s Work. After that, one of the students asked me an excellent question, one I had never been asked before. “When you’re preparing to interview someone, how do you know that you’ve accumulated all the questions you should ask?”

Kind of a stumper, isn’t it? I said you really don’t know, not until it’s too late. But I usually interview people at least twice, over a span of some time, so I have time to go over the transcript and if I see that I missed a question or an opportunity for a follow up, then I’ll ask that next time.

It was a great experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, next time I’m at VCCA (if I’m so lucky), I will try to do it again.

Special thanks to Sheila Gulley Pleasants of VCCA for connecting me with Paige Critcher at Sweet Briar College. Extra special thanks to her awesome students. 

 

Unlikely and Sneaky Inspiration

8 1/2 x 11 star Paul Albe

The other day, as I ranted to a friend about the state of the economy and my unemployed status, I remembered a commercial that aired in 1971, when I was a wee-little boy. Here it is!*

*[The clip I originally posted was on Youtube, then removed and so hasn’t been here for a couple of years. I was contacted by M. who, after a few email back and forths, revealed that he was the commercial’s art director! He pointed me to the Vimeo video. Thanks, M.S. ]

At the time I thought it was hilarious. Just as you don’t need to know physics to find Coyote and Roadrunner funny, so too I didn’t need to know the social commentary it delivered. President Lincoln at an employment agency! What a gas!

I hadn’t seen this commercial since it originally aired. When I watched it for the first time last week, I was struck by its similarities to my first short film, 8 1/2 x 11, made in 1998. Click here to watch it. (By the way, if you’re a fan of a certain medical drama that airs on ABC, you may recognize a certain Meredith Grey.)

The idea for 8 1/2 x 11 came to me one humid summer evening. I had spent the day going on job interviews — I think three or four of them — and that night, in the shower, I tried to scrub them off me. I couldn’t. They ran through my head, but in a strange way; they had merged into one mega-interview that I couldn’t separate. I thought that was kind of funny, so I wrote a short script. When I showed it to my friend RM he suggested I direct it. I had written screenplays, but never thought of directing a film before. One thing led to another and I wound up directing and co-producing the film. You have RM to blame. And whoever handed me that Orangina on the stifling set, but that’s another story.

Here’s a screenshot from the commercial–Lincoln’s hands fidget with his hat.

Here are a couple of storyboard panels. We shot the hands but never used it in the film. I’ve put boxes around the relevant notes on the right panel.

Here’s another screenshot from the commercial.

A messy eater.

Here’s a screenshot from 8 1/2 x 11, featuring the amazing actor, Paul Albe.

A messy eater.

I didn’t have the commercial from 25 years earlier in mind when I wrote or storyboarded, nor when we shot or edited the film. I wasn’t thinking “homage.” And yet, there’s no denying that this commercial made an impression and was somewhere in my consciousness. After all, I still remember it.

I mention this because I am always struck by how things stay with us. You really never know what that thing will be. It can be a trivial thing, like a commercial that influences how a short film is shot, or a significant thing, like a beautiful voice that transfixes you and steers you to your life’s work, or a history tidbit learned in grammar school that leads you to make a documentary 40-odd years later.

Do you have a similar story you’d like to share? Something from your youth that you’re still carrying around? I’d love to hear it.

[color-box color=”gray”]

What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

[cross-posted on extracriticum.com]

Bigger, Longer, Better

“The trajectory is right,” my friend H. said to me years ago about my filmmaking career.

At a recent dinner with my friend S. we discussed what we wanted for our artistic lives in 2011: “I just want the trajectory to keep going up,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be steep, a little incline is okay.”

Seems obvious. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? But what does it mean for a filmmaker and/or writer to be on a desirable trajectory?

There is the obvious: 8½ x 11’s budget was x, its running time 9 minutes, it was shot on 16mm film, and it screened at 10 film festivals. Tango Octogenario came in at x+y, ran 7 minutes (ooops), was filmed on glorious 35mm film, and screened at 33 film festivals around the world and on a number of PBS stations. That’s a desirable trajectory.

But I am misleading you, because really, after 8½ x 11, I wasn’t thinking bigger, longer, more viewers; what I really wanted to do was make a better film. And I think I did with Tango Octogenario. This is why when the film was first completed and it wasn’t getting shown ANYWHERE, I was totally flummoxed. Festivals wanted to show 8½ x 11, so did TV stations. Why wasn’t anyone interested in Tango Octo when it was so obviously (to me) better?

It took a few months and many rejections before a festival took a chance on Tango Octogenario. Fortunately, the festival that took a chance was New Directors/New Films, a film showcase put on by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. After that, the film took off and suddenly many festivals wanted to show it. Some even waived their application fee. Imagine that.

And A Life’s Work? Budget x + y + z. Feature-length running time. The SD DV format is not as glamorous as 35mm film, but it’s a documentary; what it lacks in the format department it makes up for in the amount of footage department. Total footage of both of my previous films: under two hours. Total footage of A Life’s Work: over one hundred hours. Will it find a larger audience than Tango? I hope so.

The big question: will it be better?

Better is subjective, of course, and sometimes a work’s author is not its best judge, but from my subjective point of view, yes, it will be better.

So I’m happy to say A Life’s Work is on the right trajectory.

A Lot with a Little

I was going through my closet the other day and came across a flat file that contained this:

This poster, designed by Heidi Fener, is for my first film, 8 1/2 x 11. (Heidi also designed the poster, postcards and DVD cover for Tango Octogenario.)

8 1/2 x 11 was an exercise in economy, from script to publicity materials.

I love what Heidi did here. She knew I had limited resources, so she designed something I could duplicate in any b&w copier that would make 11 x 14 inch copies (such as the copier at the job I had then) and left space for me to put date and venue information. The graphic elements worked well together–the highlighter is black and white, but I colored it in pink along with the stars names* and the job listings (they are of the jobs the interviewee in the film is up for). The date and venue info was printed as needed on a label sheet using a standard ink jet printer (such as the printer at the job I had then). For the film’s premiere in Taos, NM, I ordered a bunch of pink highlighters with the film’s title and tag line on it and handed those out to the viewers. Pretty cohesive for a first, short film.

I love the challenge of working with limitations and turning them into assets. It’s actually the kind of thing I live for, maybe because I never have had unlimited resources.  Certainly production of A Life’s Work was conducted that way,** and now, as I head into post, the real challenge of doing a lot with very little will ramp up.

* The font may be too small in this image to read her name, but if you watch the film you may recognize a certain Meredith Grey. Yeah, that Ellen Pompeo. If you want to know what she was like on the set, go here.

** Just to be clear, these is a world of difference between doing a lot with a little and cutting corners. I don’t believe in cutting corners, and I don’t believe people should work for free. I respect a person’s time and talent. I may not pay the folks I work with what they make on a union gig, but I don’t insult them, either.

How Do You Find These People? The Cinematographers

Andy Bowley, Cinematographer

Recently I had a lovely sushi dinner with my friend Meryl, a photography-based artist and teacher. She had just watched the clips of A Life’s Work and was taken by the quality of the images. “How did you find such great cinematographers?” she asked.

“A friend of a friend. That’s usually how it … actually, now that I think about it, I found them all through you!”

She was perplexed. Here’s how it went.

Wolfgang Held on the set of Tango Octogenario
Wolfgang Held on the set of Tango Octogenario. Photo by Peter LaMastro.

In the summer of 2001 my film 8 1/2 x 11 was accepted into the Woodstock Film Festival. Meryl, it turns out, had recently bought a weekend home in Woodstock  and I asked if I could stay with her the weekend my film showed, the third weekend in September, I believe it was. She didn’t hesitate for a second and the plans were finalized.

Then 9/11 happened. At the time I worked in Tribeca and I saw a great deal first hand. After that, the last thing I wanted to do was show my little comedy at a film festival. I called Meryl to tell her I wasn’t going to the festival, and she told me I had to, that I had to be there to see my baby. Meryl is a most inspiring person; it’s no accident she’s a good teacher. She convinced me to go. Not to get too far off track, but like everyone else there I felt weird about showing my film at that time, but there was something soothing about that festival. It was very much the right thing to do, to celebrate our ability to create and not succumb to the despair after witnessing our ability to destroy.

Andy Bowley amidst the ATA, Hat Creek, CA. Photo by me.
Andy Bowley amidst the ATA, Hat Creek, CA. Photo by me.

So, because Meryl told me I had to go, I became friends with a filmmaker, K. K., not too long afterwards, sent me an e-mail asking me if I’d be interested in being set up with her friend, R. I didn’t object. We became a couple and when I started looking for cinematographers for Tango Octogenario, she told me I should ask her friend, filmmaker and photographer Robert Palumbo, for recommendations. Both Wolfgang Held and Andy Bowley came via Robert.

Me and Thomas M. Harting, CSC, Mt. Lassen, CA. Photo by Danica Li Roth.
Me and Thomas M. Harting, CSC, Mt. Lassen, CA. Photo by Danica Li Roth.

And Tom Harting was Meryl’s doing, too. Through R. I socialized and eventually became very good friends with Roland Tec, and when I was searching for a d.p. in June 2008, Roland suggested Tom.

I’m not sure there’s a point to this story, except that maybe you can never really predict who is on the horizon of your life and how he or she is going to enter it.