Sunday, November 13, 2011

Episode Four: "Occupy"

I had wanted to visit an Occupy Movement tent city and incorporate some footage into the series. We're in a moment in time here, and the series has the ability to write, shoot, edit and release an episode in one day. So that is what we did.

I'm doing an experiment here, mixing documentary footage, interview footage, and our fictional characters. It's a thing I saw Soderbergh do on "K Street" and I loved it. That series has the illusion of shooting in real time, in real life. The thing I'm nervous about is mixing the real with the imaginary. I was inspired to do this episode just the other day as I was driving by the campsite with Eowyn in the back seat. I showed her the Occupy signs and the tents, and she asked me Why don't they go out to the country? It was a cute question. Why would people want to camp in the city?

So I tried to explain the Occupy Movement to her, and she told me to shut up. I thought I'd use that.

This is one of the first times we have used anything so expressionistic. We have our characters standing in front of the demonstration, looking straight into the camera. The shots are filtered and cropped, and sped up to give them a 16mm home-movie feel. Then we pepper them in with the real interview footage with David, whom we met today. He is a movie star. This guy blew my mind, and I could have stayed in that tent and hung out for hours. We cut from about 15 total minutes of interview footage. And when I emerged, I gave Jamie some dialogue ideas. She and Analea were tasked with explaining it to a four-year-old. And the four-year-old was tasked with shushing them. I don't really know what it all means. Maybe it means that on the inside of the movement, we have a lot of issues to address, and we're covering a lot of ground: the economy, the environment, equality, workers' rights. And on the outside, we struggle to try and distill it down, so we can decide which side we're on.

Initially, I had no idea why anyone would occupy Ann Arbor. But now I see what's happening in each Occupied city. There are national issues being addressed, and much of it on the local level. Ann Arbor has its issues, and David hits upon it beautifully. There is a misuse of funds within the city. Later on in the season, we will release the full interview, as a supplemental bonus feature, or what have you. People need to hear this guy. We still had to put it in context of the series, and I'm pretty convinced that it was the right move. These quick, spontaneous scenes are fun, and part of the joy is in not knowing what will happen. You have to throw it all away. You can tell people what you want to have happen. You know that they have a lot to draw from. And so you let them do their thing. It's a fantastic experiment, and it's going to add up to a film.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ready to Rumble

I've now seen episode 1 ten thousand times, and it's ready to go public. There is a very scary moment before you go public with anything. But you have to pull the trigger some time.

The final edits were done last night, it's got a brand new tune by the World Famous Love Machine. He cooked up something special. I made this first episode the way I wanted to. It's three minutes long, and I'm pretty pleased with the results. Shooting the second episode today, and it's got its own quirks to it.

You can say you're influenced by Bertolucci, but in the end, you're not Bertolucci. I've seen Bertolucci's films, and I love them, and no doubt they've been an influence (I like to use mirrors in certain shots) but lately I've been looking more at Soderbergh. He holds the camera himself. And for every Contagion or Ocean's Eleven that have famous people in them, he does three or four small films with unknowns. There is a certain charm to a new face. You see the character, not the actor. Some great actors manage to maintain this effect throughout their careers, like Viggo Mortensen. Every time I see him, he's someone different. The actors I'm using have a lot of charm, and the camera lingers on their faces long enough that you see them in private moments and when they are at their worst. I tend to think that you really learn who a person is when you see them in a crisis. How they respond, how they react, that's what movies are. It's the most important events in a person's life. And when you see it on a new face, you don't see the actor, you see the person, in the scenario. That's the idea, anyway.

I'm so glad that new people will see our actors do their thing. I'm very proud of the talent I have to work with, and I'm so happy to see them on screen.

Monday, October 31, 2011


When Melvin Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, he stuck by three principles:

  1. No cop-out. The movie can't be a cop-out at all. 
  2. For entertainment, it's gotta be a motherfucker. 
  3. It's gotta look as good as anything the Man could ever make. 
It's an independent film. Tomorrow, when we continue shooting, we have to go in and shoot fast and loose. We have limited time, limited daylight, and the weatherman is predicting rain for the next month. I think that as much as you have to go in with a clear shooting script and schedule, you have to allow for the unpredictable. For us, the rules apply as follows:

1. "No cop-out."
When we shoot, we have to go for the gusto. The honest, spontaneous moment is the one we want. And we can't pull any punches. We can't compromise, or formularize the product.
2. "It's gotta be a motherfucker."
Yes, it does. There have to be characters you care about, and stories you want to follow from one episode to the next.
3. "It's gotta look as good as anything the Man could ever make."
You have to be very brutal with yourself. Hold each shot up to the highest standard. It doesn't have to look like anything anyone's ever done before. It has to look like you want it to. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Inspirations: KEN RUSSELL

He directed Tommy. His adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love is considered a classic, and in many ways, it's very psychedelic. His work covers three decades, and informed much of the way we look at visuals. Music videos would never have been anything without Sir Ken.

His films were bandied about a lot during my college years, and I made a point to see everything he did, and I came pretty close. I don't think a day goes by that I don't think about Lair of the White Worm. It probably worked its way into my DNA. He is known for his excessive and overtly sexual imagery. His films are full of giant phalluses, naked girls and guys, strange sex, music, and ideas. At his best, he created films like Gothic, and at his worst he gave us Salome's Last Dance, which is a hard-to-watch adaptation of an Oscar Wilde classic. It's strange.

Psychedelic film is more concerned with content than structure. At the forefront of a psychedelic film movement of the 60s, Ken Russell went for the gusto, trading happy endings for wild imagery. I do think that many of his films lack a definite ending. They end abruptly, strangely, and on a sour note. You aren't meant to like it or hate it. But you've been somewhere nonetheless. In the case of Gothic, Altered States, Tommy, Lisztomania, Mahler, Crimes of Passion, Women in Love and others, the protagonist's mind reaches a climax of color and sensation, and while we aren't really sure what happens in the story, we come to realize that a greater story is being told.

When an artist has put out as many films as Ken Russell, you try to look at the whole body of work, not just individual films. Some of his films can be enjoyed by themselves, and some are really meant for the fans only. The ones you should start with would be The Boyfriend, Women in Love and Gothic. If you like what you see there, keep going. At his most sober, he made The Rainbow and The Devils. In the throes of madness, he made Lair of the White Worm. His films are beautifully written and acted. Frequent collaborations with Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Sammi Davis have yielded tremendous results. The body of work is astonishing. He was doing things that no one else was doing, or would do. While we might not have made the same choices, we love that filmmakers like Ken Russell had the wherewithal and determination to do it.

We can see his influence in the films of Oliver Stone, Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Greenaway. The films are playful, extreme, strange, and oddly charming. There is a visual language he uses, which pierces the intellect like a giant dildo. He works on a sensual level, assaulting the viewer with new images they haven't seen before.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Day One

We begin this afternoon, on a budget of zero. I have a Canon GL1 from 2001, and a Canon Powershot still camera that takes good video. I'm recording sound on Audacity, with a Blue Snowball USB mic. My assistant is Carla Angeloni, my trusty stage manager. BlackBag Productions is a theatre company breaking into film through the sponsorship of NextAcropolis.

Our first location is the Children's Creative Center, and we are shooting with three children, ages 1-4. My daughter Eowyn and actress Qmara Peaches Black's kids Barton and Moonlight. It's got to be done hot and fast, two takes per shot maximum. With kids, I try to follow Judd Apatow's formula, which is to get everything ready ahead of time and have lots of food around. The kids just have to be kids, and the actors have to hit their marks. The shooting script had a lot more in it. I'm toying with the idea of adding a preschool subplot, but for the time being I'm keeping things simple.

"Unemployed" follows four or five main characters on their quest. They are dealing with the issues that students face when they are leaving college and entering the job market. Our first scene came pretty naturally in the writing process; when the idea began, it was the first one that took any kind of real shape. I instantly saw actress Analea Lessenberry doing yoga, and going into work as a waitress, only to find that the restaurant had closed without any warning. Jamie Weeder was the next character, a coworker with an anarchic spirit. The idea is that we're all seeking jobs that we somehow believe in, but we have to take jobs that are basically available and convenient, biding our time until something better comes along. But the problem is that it becomes our life; we stumble into something that we say is just temporary, but the temporary becomes permanent. We constantly seek the next thing. We have loyalty to no one.

Last night I asked my acting class at Michigan Actors Studio about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. How did he get into that mindset?, we speculated.  We settled on a basic explanation: when you are a person operating with no rules, no expectations, and no options, you will begin to act out. If you have no responsibilities, you will become more comfortable acting upon your impulses. If the job market continues to stagnate, then more and more young folks will act upon their desperate notions. What didn't make sense before will suddenly become very sensible as a means to an end. So when a person turns to illegal activity, they are doing so after exhausting other possibilities. They aren't bad people. So once we establish that, we can follow them anywhere. When you take a job, you are risking personal decline. You will take jobs that will erode your sense of ethics. You might disagree strongly with what you are doing, and what is being asked of you. But you have to do it all the same.

Our resources at the moment are scant, so it's all about making the most out of the performance. What goes through the camera is everything. A camera devours imagery. My editing equipment is really basic, so the idea is to be clean in the edits, economical with the storytelling. We shoot on a tight schedule, and we edit and release within a few days. That way, the viewer can see something that is almost happening in real time. The events are maybe just a beat ahead of us in our own time, and the next episode is another glimpse into another future. It's our world, and we have to keep it within the rules of our own world. But crazy stuff happens to all of us. It's inspired from our own lives, and brought forward in the manner fitting the needs of the story. It's important to keep growing it as we go. We painstakingly script it, but we're allowing for a lot of improvisation too.

It's sunny today, and I'm also going for a sense of bleakness, which is inherent in Michigan weather. It's a perfect fall day, and we'll go with that. By 4:30 when the camera rolls, I'm hoping we have some cloud cover. By the time spring rolls around, the series will be headed in a new direction altogether. 13 episodes is good for a season, as far as I'm concerned. But it hasn't fully taken shape yet, and I'm happy to let it take on a life of its own.