Sunday, February 23, 2014

Better Days Part 4: Tedium as Medium

In the week leading up to the shoot, many of my friends commented on how exciting they thought a making a movie must be. Perhaps. If you have never been on a film set, I can see why one might think it's exciting. There are lights. There are boom mikes. There are cameras. There are people everywhere. There are people doing lots of little jobs.

Actors sit in their places for hours, it seems. They'll run through lines, they'll talk about life, they are people at work. But they seem to sit and sit and sit and sit. Meanwhile, an assistant director yells this command or that command and waits for a reply. There is the sound guy doing his thing. There's the camera crew doing what they do. There's the director who looks on at the actors and does what a director should do. The shot gets framed, it gets frames again and then again. We do a wide shot, a medium shot and a close shot and then we do it again from another angle, and then from another angle. It's what we do.

Film is a tedious process. The medium itself warrants this sort of tedium. It can be no other way. To tell a story on film you want the biggest impact from the script, from the actors, from the scene. It has to be done again and again and again. The real magic, in all reality, happens in the editing room. If you want to compare this process to a piece of 'film' without this process, compare the best movie you've seen this year with any fucking trite piece of shit reality TV that goes on morning noon and night on nearly every channel on your TV. Believe me, the tedium of setting up a shot, the shooting of a shot and the editing of a shot is well worth the end product. I would think the shooting of reality TV is probably pretty exciting and the lack of art in it creates a tedium for the viewer. Anything you see on reality TV you've seen over and over again since MTVs Real World.

To avoid the tedium of this, I'll leave you with an anecdote: On the last night of the shoot, Gio and his crew were setting up a jib shot. This is a cumbersome, time consuming process. I was at the craft service table talking with Aeon and Andrew. I asked: “How's this going for you?” I asked because these two actors have much more experience than I have. They've been on all sorts of sets. That, and I really valued anything either of them had to say. Andrew laughed. He said, “This is going smooth. Going pretty quick.” I was dumbfounded. This was not what I thought. I thought it was dragging on and on. I mean, we were spending hours on a scene that becomes a minute or two. “Really?” I said. I looked from him to Aeon. She nodded in agreement to Andrew. Andrew, “You guys are running with two or three takes on average, it's moving.” I agreed with him. It did go quickly, in retrospect. It went quickly because Gio and his crew were very diligent when setting up a shot. The actors, especially Aeon and Andrew were chemically disposed to the screenplay. They were well rehearsed with their lines. A professional cast and crew with good direction will made for a smoother production.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Better Days Part 3: The collaboration process

As a writer, the collaboration process does not really exist. I mean, maybe, perhaps you got a few personalities rolling round in your mind, perhaps you consult some of your imaginary friends (all writers have these) or perhaps you must need a second reader to provide insight. Chances are, there are none of these things, and writing is just that, writing. It leaves no room for discussion, no room for debate and the only ideas a writer needs, wants or uses are the very ideas on the page.

I am not much of a collaborator. I suppose I had to collaborate with my advisers in grad school... rather, I did what they told me to do. I collaborate with my compadres at Umbrella Factory Magazine. It was really on collaboration during our founding process, now we just do our work and get it done. At Sophia Ballou we call collaboration, but really we are just a group of writers who enjoy each other's words and company. I guess what I'm saying it, collaboration is out there, and I have been party to it. I did not really understand collaboration until I began working with Rocket House Pictures.

For the writer, collaboration is not always going to happen. I mean, simply, a writer who does nothing more than write a screenplay and then the screenplay goes to a director and then the production company does not invite the writer along, then the writer is off the collaboration hook. I don't think it would be a bad thing to simply surrender a screenplay to a director and simply trust that the director will treat the screenplay appropriately. When I see a screen credit as writer/director, then I know the writer had to collaborate with others. When a writer becomes a director then something very unique happens: the screenplay becomes a fluid document.

Make calamari from a giant squid: A fluid document

Whole pages got cut from “Better Days.” Whole pages. There were entire soliloquy that made so much sense to me when I was writing. Soliloquy that made for romance and drama and humor and perfect. Soliloquy that did not make much sense to others when read aloud. Soliloquy that puzzled actors, then puzzled me. And ultimately soliloquy that really was unnecessary. Words, lines, and entire pages that did not make the plot progress. As a director I had no problems cutting these unnecessary pieces. I have admit, as a writer, I felt a little sting.

There were places, however, that I let actors use their discretion. If a line was difficult to say, there was no reason to say. I'm thinking of the fight scene in “The Tryst.” When people are emotional, anger especially, longer lines made no sense. In short, if an actor had a line that had three sentences, complete with three periods, things changed. They said their line to the first period. Anything more was trite, redundant and unnecessary. I see that now. What this accomplished, simply, is a more fluent dialogue between characters. Both Andrew and Aeon did not stray one syllable from their lines when they worked together. When they were with other actors, these two were patient, giving and supportive. Again, the fight scene got completely rewritten as we were rehearsing and blocking it.

After the shoot, the cast completely goes to the 2 dimensional images on screen. Most of the crew vanishes outright. What's left is two, the director and the director of cinematography. In short, Gio and me. Our collaboration is often inherently understood. We have a shared vision, a similar sensibility and a job to do. Gio is a master. I do what he wants because I trust him implicitly.

Writing is a private act. I've always believed this. For me, writing is the only time I'm not disappointed in the nature of the universe. It's the only time I'm not angsty, angry, or an asshole. I could be all of those things but no one will know, I'm alone.

As a writer, especially a writer of screenplays or stage plays, collaboration is the only way to get anything good from the initial project. And I just don't think process of collaboration is very easy. But isn't the notion of seeing a wonderfully unexpected finished project delight viewers?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Better Days Part 2: Visions of Marion

You gotta meet Aeon Cruz

My process began in February 2013. “Better Days” was the first scene I wrote. In February 2013, we were still living in Portland, OR. My son was approaching six months of age. I watched the baby all day, and at night I was waiting tables at Portland City Grill. We were not getting much sleep. February in Oregon, much like February in Colorado, is my favorite month. February to me is the possibility that the winter is nearly over, this is the optimism I feel during the short day. During the long night my imagination rolls through every noir I've ever read. I think about Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. And I think of them in that order. In February I think about suspense, and my mental soundtrack is something dark. February of 2013 was no different.

In February of 2013 I knew we were going to be moving back to Denver. I knew I would be working with Gio at Rocket House again. I knew it was time to work. But 2013 was not an easy year for writing. As I said, my son was six months old at the time I wrote this screenplay, I worked full time and there was little time for thinking much less writing.

From John Anderson Photograhpy
Marion, as a character came to me relatively quickly. I was walking to work, in the rain, one night when I thought about her. I love to write women. Women are the onion skins of possibility. One layer then the next then the next then the next. Women can be heroic, subtle, tragic and nearly godlike. Women can pull triggers of the guns of war and women can birth the generations to come. I feel like the act of writing women is just as dimensional as the women we all know. With Marion, I really wrote three separate 'women' or in Marion's case, three different times of her life.

Initially, I saw a playful Marion who can carry more weight than Atlas. If Atlas can hold the weight of the world on his shoulders, I saw Marion able to hold Earth and Mars and Venus. As I began to sketch the first scene, I saw a young woman who balanced perfectly strength and vulnerability. I saw a woman who was at once too wise beyond her years and as playful as a child. I saw a character who was capable of love and kindness but also capable of terrible, spiteful things.
And so, I wrote on.

The screenplay “Better Days” is comprised of 5 separate scenes. As I wrote the scenes, I knew the brevity of scene, the vagueness of set direction and the simple, if not tacit dialogue would appeal to the filmmakers at Rocket House. Here, they would have a manageable script to work and endless possibilities in the shoot. What I didn't realize at the time of writing, February 2013, Portland, OR is that I would be directing this film, I would be a filmmaker.

My family and I returned to Denver in August. The first week of September I was a full fledged member of Rocket House Pictures and we were auditioning actors for “Better Days.”

I was hellbent of getting the perfect 'girl' for the Marion character. I thought that the perfect actor for this part would make the film. To me, it was nothing but Marion. Before I digress further, two things that I've learned: film is collaboration and Marion, although a lead role is not the main character of the story. What the audience sees, is the trajectory of the lead character, Thomas. It is his story. But all I see, from the pages of script to the last shoot of the day, is Marion.

Perhaps the strength of a film is the perfect casting of the characters.

I'm probably not the first one to think this: the moment I met Aeon Cruz, I knew I had to have her. From the start I could see her on screen. I saw her as bestilling and perhaps disquieting. I also met her at the end of a very long day of auditions. We had her read through a few scenes. We asked her a few questions. Once she left, we all agreed that Aeon would make the perfect Marion.

What makes the perfect role for the perfect actor?

I don't know if there's a specific formula that makes a perfect match for actor and part. In the case of Aeon, here was a woman, a grown, mature, adult that could look like a adolescent girl in one scene and an adult in the next. In the situation of the “Better Days” scene this was an actor who could go from playful girl to very serious adult in one breath. On set, with cameras rolling, I watched Marion come to life almost the way I had envisioned her on the page. I say almost because on the page Marion was nothing more than a fabrication of my imagination and a composite of a dozen elements from dozens of people I've known. On set Aeon did what actors do, she played the part of Marion. She had the benefit of my conception, but she had the benefit of her experiences in life to channel into the performance.

Glass Delirium
I hope anyone reading this, anyone following either me, my blog, Rocket House Pictures, or Aeon Cruz will have the opportunity to see “Better Days.” When you see “Better Days” you will see Marion. If you want to met Aeon Cruz, she's a Denver (soon to take over the world) superstar. She's a bassist for the wild rock Denver based band called Glass Delirium. Aside from being a musician and actor, she's got the whole package: model, dancer, performer and artist. I would expect Aeon to be in high demand in the near future. In the meantime, I am immensely grateful to have worked with her on our short film “Better Days.”

Aeon Cruz

Monday, February 3, 2014

Better Days Part 1

The Preamble 

In the reckless Boy Scouts of America days of Portland, Oregon, I drank heavily. I drank heavily for a number of reasons. I drank because I was out in the bars night after night being social with the twentysomethings of my neighborhood. I was looking for sex, I won't lie, I was in my twenties. I was drinking because I worked for a living and I fucking hated it. I hated it so much that as long as I was hungover all day at work I didn't, or couldn't think about what I was doing.

At twenty-seven, I still had something to prove. It was still the 1990s and I was still young. I had no real plan of what I wanted to be, nor did I have any direction. So, I did what my dad told me to do, I went to work. And work was the problem.

When I drank, I made toasts. At first it was: to your health. This was only funny because we were drinking, smoking, and all around trying to kill ourselves. The second was: to love and happiness. I pinched this one from Ewan McGregor in the movie Shallow Grave. But the toast I most used in those old time was simply: Better Days.

Better Days to me was a strange combination of less complicated times, both in the past and in the future. These days were endless Blur albums and jokes and bike rides. Better Days was going to be a time of peace, and a time of clarity. I knew I would get there some day. And try as I did in those old days to find a solution, the solution was one that I could not define. The solution was and is, simply age.

I set about working on a few short screenplays about a year ago, February 2013. I already knew then that I would be moving away from Portland and back to Denver. The biggest draw to Denver, of course, was that I would get to work with my friends at Rocket House Pictures.

The initial screenplay was a group of five scenes titled “In the Heat.” These five scenes for me were an experiment in writing of short screenplays and it was a sort of catharsis for a younger time. I thought about all the missed opportunities, lost loves, scary close calls and an uncertainty of self that I knew at a much younger age.