they say "you can't teach an old dog a new trick". well today i made a huge milestone and googled the following:
from today forward i plan on no longer misusing "were" and "where". watch out world!
they say "you can't teach an old dog a new trick". well today i made a huge milestone and googled the following:
from today forward i plan on no longer misusing "were" and "where". watch out world!
apparently my "office" is being re-appropriated as my kid's playroom and i am being moved into the garage. its not all bad news because this means the living room will no longer be the play room, and i do like garages. garages and attics are my fav rooms in any houses. i also like a basement but don't like the rodents and scary bits that come with that type of space. so, today i begin a trip down memory lane as i pack up all the crap that has been sitting on a mantel since moving into this house. soon it will be placed on a new mantel where it will sit, untouched, for many more years to come, until i move or the garage burns down.
this task would probably take a stranger 10 min to finish but i am no stranger to these historic artifacts. as the saying goes, every battery charger and lens cap has a story. i will need to write multiple emails to old friends and do many google searches as i go through each item. i will check the value of each piece of junk i touch and learn that my repo man limited edition DVD case is worth no more then the price i paid for it at kim's video 15 years ago.
if you see anything you like, let me know.... it could use a new mantel to sit on.
today i have a late call while shooting an out of town feature film. filming movies is f#ckin' hard and one gets very little time to do anything aside from making the movie. the few hours i have today are a rare occurrence. i could take a yoga class, maybe read one of the books i have carried around the world only to get half way through. i could even go to a grocery store and "stack up" on food i will never eat.... but instead i will do something i enjoy as little as making a bed, updating my website. i actually enjoy writing a blog from time to time because it reminds me i can still form a sentence, it's the actual website stuff i find annoying.
while creating a website from scratch one gets exited and may cherish the opportunity to express their personality and show their body of work to the wold... but to maintain a website is just another chore. i would even argue that nothing in life is particularly fun to "maintain". words that come to mind when i think of the word maintenance are boat, home, and methadone.... and none of those things sound fun. if you combine "work" with "chore", you get "maintenance".
this brings me to the question, how long does a grown adult have to maintain a self-promoting website in the 21st century? all i do is work anyway and yet i still feel i need to keep this thing going. i turn 41 this year and i see no end in site to this project. all i want is to work, have time with my family and then get a call to go back to work again... then repeat.
i assume you ask, "then why don't you close your website mike?", to which i reply, "cuz i think adults who use social media are dorks and yet i probably need some sort of online presence. then you might say "wait wait wait, you are actually calling social media users 'dorks', but i use social media?". then i would say "word up".... and then you would be confused..... and i would moonwalk backwards.
i cannot tell if the last jedi truly sucked or im just getting old. but im pretty sure it sucked.
here is a list of things that particularly bothered me:
i turn 40 this march and its no biggie but is seams to have some importance to the elliptical trainer at planet fitness since it asks me the same question every time i show up. typing in my age and weight daily has triggered some sort of inventory and evaluation of my career, making me contemplate where i am at in life and if career goals have been met.
the machine is also fascinated with my weight which has been maintained right under 200 for the last 10 years. i don't believe that this machine can change its function and behavior by knowing what my weight... and if the machine is that smart, then why can't they put a scale into the design of the machine so it will automatically know that information.
as i feel sorry for myself and bitterly curse the names of DP's who are younger and more successful then me, i destroy what little is left of my hearing to "the replacements" 5 good songs, over and over again. i then look over to my right and see this....
once in awhile, out the corner of my eye, i catch something i shot and find happiness. my rage and pity come to an end and i think, finally someone is watching something i have made without me personally showing it to them. something i have been apart of has a life outside of me, even if it's a panera bread commercial and i only got the job since jody lipes got super sick the day before the tech scout and was contagious. showing up as someones replacements is the best gig ever. the other guy did all the prep and had to respond to countless emails, they get sick and i show up like a hero since i was able to get to the airport in time.
i remember having drinks with a comedian friend of mine years ago and him telling me, "i've realized that success is two junior high schoolers repeating your act to each other in a gym locker room". what i am coming to understand is that success does not necessarily manifest itself in awards and accolades... we all just need to be reminded that someone is actually watching the shit we make.
and does anyone else think its strange that i dont have copies of the stuff i shoot? i buy the movies at a store just like any other sucker. shouldn't someone send me a copy? as for the commercials, i'm usually too embarrassed to ask the producers for a link. i assume they are thinking, why the heck would this guy want a copy of a "tide detergent" commercial.
a family member once asked me, "what is truly your life goal mike?" in an attempt to start a philosophical conversation. in all seriousness i replied, "to avoid being hit by a car each and every day of my life". my life goal and my day to day goals are the same, avoid the catastrophic and hope for the best.
any type of film making requires a certain level of delusional optimism to create it. it really takes very little to create chaos on a film set. when i read a script i try not to focus on the logistic problems because who would want to hire the guy who walks into a room with a list of problems. DP's already have a reputation for being dream crushers in the eyes of directors and it's best to figure out how to word a sentence without the word "no" in it if you want anything that resembles a career.
my most recent project was a super fun tv pilot which involved a single mother and toddler and their comedic and tragic struggles getting through a day. we survived the 8 day shoot with wonderful material but not all came out as planned. i was taking a trip down memory lane and reviewing some of the original scouting and blocking photos. in hindsight, i could not believe how naive we were in regards to what we thought a 2 year old "actor" would actually do.
well friends, believe it or not, both scenes didn't really go as planned. as someone who has raised a toddler i can tell you that a child's "freak out" can leave two very level headed adults in shambles. on a film set when a toddler freaks out it leaves 60 people or so in shambles. in regards to the scene in which mom and dad took the child out of the bath and created that cute baby buritto, we learned something... something we will never forget. a two year old might not mind getting into a bath with total strangers, a weirdo holding a camera (me) and a guy with a fuzzy microphone on a stick; the kid can handle that. what the kid cannot handle is the confusion of getting in and out of the bathtub over and over again... we then brought in the kids double and tried the simpler scene, the one in which frankie delivers her monologue of regret while bathing her child. by this time the kids actually feared the physical space of the bathroom. we finally got one of the twins with a near nude frankie into the bath and maybe we got one take before total annihilation.
why didn't i bring up the potential issues and logistics of the multiple breastfeeding scenes? because who wants to work with a debbie downer. as i mentioned, i just go into each day hoping for the best and try to avoid being hit by a car, so of course it didn't occur to me to focus on the stuff that could go terribly wrong. although the imagery of a mother breast feeding a child brings a sense of comfort to most, we quickly discovered that the simulation on breast-feeding (holding a stranger's bare nipple within inches of a toddler's face) made both child and child's real parents terrified and confused.
of course there will be a scene of the sweet night time ritual of putting a child to bed.
below is what happens when a stranger tells a 2 year old that its time to go to bed while the child is on a set with many strangers watching, bright lights in a stiflingly hot and slightly smelly room. apparently a 2 year old cannot tell the difference between being told its bed time by an actor and actual bed time.
in the end, some shits goes as planned and other stuff gets derailed, but almost always for the better.
have you ever felt painted in a corner? well i certainly have.
i'm currently prepping a tv pilot and was scouting this doozy of a location the other day. some days you get to film versailles and you think you know something about cinematography. other days it's a beige box and you realize you know very little.
i have recently lost at least 30 hours of my life to multiple failed attempts at writing a new blog post. this is not for lack of ideas, i have plenty of those, i just have issues with completing tasks... weather it be finishing a blog post or folding laundry i have no problem starting, but i have issues with finishing. i don't mind washing dishes, i just cant bring myself to wash the last few, hence the sink is never without clutter. this minor personality flaw comes with few consequences aside from finding myself with no socks when traveling because i could not bring myself to pack a suitcase in one sitting.
at this point i have accepted that i will never finish any of the blog posts i am currently working on, so here is the basic gist of the ideas i have been playing with.
stockholm syndrome, also known as "captive bonding" is a psychological phenomenon that is known to occur when a hostage feels empathy for the very people who are holding him or her captive. in the case of patty hearst, she went so far as to participate in future crimes with her captors, the symbionsese liberation army.
the idea behind this unfinished and now abridged version of the Stockholm syndrome essay is that i find my relationship to filming an "out of town" project can be similar to a captive stockholm syndrome sufferer. this idea has developed from often being asked how was my trip to "such and such" place. although i may have recently filmed in kashmir, that does not mean i saw anything other then the airport, our shoot locations and a hotel during the night. when making a project on location, it can feel like your trip to a foreign land is more like a kidnapping. upon arrival your are expected to go straight to work, and work until the project is done and then you're dropped back at the airport and sent home. at some point during the kidnapping you begin to feel empathy for the people depriving you of sleep and social activity; in my case its the director and producers.
reason for not finishing this blog post:
the whole idea doesn't make much sense since i get paid and i show up on my own free will.... but that will be the last use of my free will until the job is over. it also make me sound like i don't appreciate the work, which i very much do. i'm just trying to poke fun at work / travel and point out that it's far from a vacation.
i started a blog post on how awesome spike jonze' film "adaptation" is. it's a movie so great that it makes you want more... it inspires you to do research on multiple components of the film, everything from the books "the orchid thief" and "story" to the looking into the "making of". and it forces the viewer to ask, "what the fuck is up with nick cage!". how can one man be so good of an actor and so bad of an actor in one life time.
watching it inspired me to sit down and read robert mckee's book "story", which has been unopened and in my possession since 1998. as usual i started this task, only to get to page 5 and then was thrilled to learn of the audiobook version. the audio version has been extremely useful to me, by putting me to sleep while on airplanes. inspired by listen to "story" in my sleep, i continued on to reread david mamet's book, "on directing".
"on directing" has excellent production advice for storytellers as well as a guide to what is problematic with mamet's style in his filmmaking. he is a singularly visioned director with a philosophical storytelling approach, for better or worse. his technique can be brilliantly simple and austere but when used with such vigor and alignment with his specific philosophy it can be dogmatic and not much fun to watch. i also cant believe how much he bad mouths producers in the book and he keeps making up on the fly scenarios regarding "a whore house". can you imagine sitting in a college class in 2016 and having a guest lecturer repeatedly say things like, "ok! let make up a scenario right now. a guy walks into a whore house and what is the first thing he sees?" . I could be wrong, but i don't think it would fly.
i then thought it would be funny to coin the term "mamet-splaining" in the spirit of "mansplaining". i recently heard the term "mansplain" and found it really funny. it's a word used to epitomize the belittling and condescending syntax a man will often use to "explain" something to a woman with. i certainly hope i don't "mansplain" too often. i definitely "mike-splain" on set, which is running up to a crew member, speaking really fast, usually making no sense, giving no chance for that person to respond and then running to the next task, leaving the person i talked to in total confusion.
reason for not finishing this blog post:
it just goes on and on and on. it starts as a tribute to the great film, "adaptation", and unravels into me talking about "mike-spalining". WTF?
i actually like suicide squad and felt a need to write a blog post to defend its honor. while watching the film, i had no idea what was going to happen at any moment or how long any scene would go on for. it was consistently cluttered and confusing, which i enjoyed. it felt like the graphic novels like the dark knight, killing joke and works by frank miller and alan moore. in the late 80's there was a very adult genre of comics which were morally confusing and difficult to read in the visual sense. they were intentionally expressionistic in the design of the layout and it was unclear which panel should be viewed first. i found suicide squad felt like watching one of those graphic novels of the era.
i also listened to an incredibly enjoyable podcast while watching suicide squad. it was about a woman who runs a harry potter fan site and another crazed harry potter fan who has been cyber stalking her for close to a decade. for those who are interested, check it out. i only pressed pause to watch the jared leto and margot robbie scenes. i have been saying for years that "a bad film is just an opportunity for a good nap". maybe we as an adult audience are asking too much of a film that is obviously not made for us and just need to multitask and catch up on an episode of "this american life" or "criminal".
reason for not finishing this post:
i didn't finish this post because nobody believes me when i tell them i liked suicide squad and think i am joking... which i am not.
THE FINIAL CHAPTER
and that brings me to my feeling on the indie film, "the green room", which is............ i'm loosing interest in finishing up the blog.
i finally completed 59 shooting days on location in charleston, south carolina. it was a dream job, the new danny mcbride HBO project with david gordon green directing. we filmed long enough for multiple seasons to change and after 5 months away from home and family i am finally back.....
now what the heck am i supposed to do with myself!
for the last couple of shoot weeks, all i wanted was for the job to end and now i'm home and bouncing off the walls. production is overly stimulating and it can be difficult to return to a regular non production lifestyle. for 5 months i have been void of free time. its been said by more than one person that i am "not good with free time". i would argue that i'm great with free time, i fill every last second up with activity. i have never been able to sit still, as a child or as adult(ish). if i was born a decade later i am sure a doctor would have diagnosed me with some sort of attention disorder.
so here is an attempt at killing a few more hours, a photo easy of my 10 days since returning home from 5 months of filming.
stay tuned for my next post. i promise it will come out soon. it will have something to do with sundance stories from years passed.
the first book of art photography i connected to was by the great hungarian photographer; brassai. i found this little travel book of his work in a pile of papers amongst my grandparents' things. nobody in the family claimed it to be their own so i snagged it. it was a ghost book - snuck into the house, destined for me to find. i was 17 and was attracted equally to his use of light and content as i was attracted to the pornographic subject matter, such as this photo taken from a house of ill repute. i admired how "deep" he was able to position himself among the culture of his subjects. years later i randomly went to the "ill be your mirror" show at the guggenheim and discovered nan golden's work. i admired her for the same reason, how far she was able to go. these photographers were not technicians but rather lifestyle adventurists.... "how" these photographs were taken was irrelevant. "why" did they did it was the question.
brassai's work opened the door to art photography, which led to a love of art film. coming upon 15 years of shooting feature films and a dozen directors showing me the same philip-lorca dicorcia photos in their look books, i have come to the conclusion that still photography has nothing to do with narrative cinematography. i also have realized i dislike "look books" but that is a rant for another day. i have used photography as reference as well over the years, who wouldn't want their film to have the scale of andreas gursky or the spontaneity of garry winogrand? i admire that many notable directors site william eggleston as an influence and so did i but after much thought i just don't see it in the work, nor do i see an opportunity for that type of influence in any narrative film. i once read that lance accord was inspired by helmet newton's book "white woman". that sounds really cool, i love that book but what does it mean in regards to his shooting? i recently saw a sequence in kenneth lonergan's awesome film margarat, shot by ryszard lenczewski of "ida" fame. the sequence is a stunning tribute to the day time nyc photos of philip-lorca dicorcia but it's not a narrative sequence but rather a title sequence...... a series of shots that could easily be cut out of the film and not missed and at a 3 hour running time, it probably should have been cut.
you could say "but mike, i was referring to the emotion an image conveyed, not the technical specifics in the image." i would respond with "pack your bong and go back to woodstock you dirty hippie!" but in all seriousness, i do think collaborators need "something" to converse about but still photos make it confusing due to the seeming similarities with cinematography... and then it always gets connected to the never ending digital vs film rhetoric. an actress friend of mine recently worked with a director i very much admire. i asked her how he would direct on the set. she said that he would tell relevant stories about his family members and how those encounters made him feel. to me that is clever and something a collaborator could sink their teeth into. the actress enjoyed it but also felt that sometimes the director would give a long winded story when he really just wanted the performance to be faster.
when discussing narrative films i always try to remember the basics for the reason that nobody, including myself, seems to pay attention to the basics... a photographic singular shot in the context of a narrative film is primarily functional. most often the shot does not exist to convey an abstract meaning or complex emotion but rather it allows the audience to understand what is physically going on in the space of the scene. if it does not first serve it's function then its superfluous, redundant, pretentious, or at best part of a montage or title sequence. a series of shots can convey complex emotions but not a single frame.
a sequence of shots should be designed to highlight the turning point of a scene, i.e. the change of the protagonists fate.. the most obvious photographic way to highlight a turning point is going from an "over the shoulder" to "close up", which is basically used in every tv show. a change in the actor's positioning can also emphasize a turning point or a change of camera position as in jumping "the line" can guide the audiences. by changing the photographic angle we can allow an audience to understand what a character is feeling.... or how we are to feel as an audience.
in recent years i have found photographic inspiration in a unexpected place, the rosetta stone learning language computer program and have drunkinly yapped about it for many a night with whoever will listen. the program begins by showing an image of three boys and then the user will hear "los ninos". the user, whatever their native tongue may be, will without a doubt understand that the sound "los ninos" is in reference to the children in the photograph.... not the pencils they are holding or their age or anything else... the photo is simple in its execution of representing "los ninos". the idea of an image that is undeniable in its context seams rudimentary but its incredibly difficult to first isolate the intent of the image in your mind or story and then execute it so that anyone from shanghai to kalamazoo can understand the image.... "los ninos" is a simple example but how would one photograph "a woman making a decision" or "a man with immediate regret" or "a child trying to be good" or "a group of teenager feeling joy". of course an actor's behavior will convey this but not if the lensing in incorrect or the shot is distracting. passion can feel like assault if it's filmed from the wrong angle.
filmic storytelling is based on the building blocks of specific shots which, hopefully, lead to a dramatic crescendo... and in return make people feel something... it's probably not the best time to reference some photo you saw and liked enough to put in a look book.
now you all have an excuse to learn mandarin and appreciate the hard working photographs over at the rosetta stone corporation.
i just spent many hours writing a blog post and accidentally deleted it. i definitely don't feel like writing the whole thing again so here is the gist of what i wrote.
my two favorite autobiographies written by filmmakers are luis bunuel's my last sigh and nestor almendros' man with a camera. as you may know from reading this blog, i dislike the concept of advice, but i do love a good personal story. i truly have no interest in anyone's theories, beliefs, or insights but rather i cherish hearing about personal experience and (mis)adventure. both these books read as beautifully dictated memoirs of roaming life memory, rather then an attempt to be a great work of literature, and i believe that simplicity makes them in fact great works of writing. kurosawa (something like a autobiography) and bergman (the magic lantern) both wrote autobiographies and they are not good. the reader gets blow hard poetic quotes but no real grounded substance to trully relate to. for example, bunuel will randomly break off from his life story with a list of his favorite bars around the world...
almendros' will write a simple and relatable sentences like:
"no mater how hair brained a director's shot concept maybe, i will always try my hardest to decipher it and make sense of it before i say 'it's not possible'".
now that is something i can relate to!
unlike so many great DP's of almendros' era, i am not even sure if i can identify his work on sight. i believe this to be the case because his career did not have a clear and streamlined trajectory. he was raised in a world of revolutions and of governmental conflict, which lead him to have a nomadic life. aside from shifting between geographical locations throughout his career he shifts between narrative, documentary , art and commerce. just a glance at his filmography shows the following films in order:
almendros began his career making documentaries in nyc and cuba and participating in the nyc avant garde cinema movement of the early 1960's. he was good friends with maya deren and screened his own films at underground theaters. this pedigree made him a perfect match to participate in the french new wave where he shot paris vu par after the original DP fought with a director and left the set. although it's never been stated, i always suspected the original DP to be raul cortard.
i am not sure if it's good or bad for a DP's work to be recognizable and have a signature look but i know its not essential for a great DP to have a recognizable style. a style basically means that you visualize a story in a certain and particular and possibly limited way... or one way. an example would be gordon willis who has a signature style that i always enjoy watching--whether its "all the president's men", "annie hall" or "the godfather films", the film's lensing, composition, light direction and camera movement are all similar. he does do a great job of changing color palette from film to film.
i believe almenrdos' work not to have a signature style but rather a harmonious union with the story, space and performance. he approaches the photography from the director's vision first and not his own. there is no consistency in color, lighting or movement, although i do think there is consistency in his framing and compositional balance. i recently was introduced to the masterfully austere film "the mouth agape" only discover almendros name in the credits and i thought to myself "i knew i felt someone special behind the camera". in his book he describes himself as the assistant to the director and i assume the directors he worked with appreciated his collaboration. he worked repeatedly with auteur filmmakers such as francois truffaut, eric romer, barbet schroeder, and robert benton although his best know work is incredibly stunning yet boring days of heaven for malick. i have a theory that if you put on two movies at a party, days of heaven and anything else, people will be drawn to the room with anything else playing on it. then when you ask them which film they like better, they will always claim days of heaven.
i probably respect alemdros' work to such an extent since i identify with his bizarre and unique career path. i don't identify with a particular style and don't visualize films in one definite way. i enjoy the process of building upon a director's ideas and exploring all potential ideas with the hope of finding the best one... regardless of fiction or documentary, art or budget. i have been blessed in finding a career that has let me experience so many different types of filmmaking and in different places, and it's just the beginning.
i am truly grateful to almendros for taking the time and finding the humility to write "man with a camera", sharing his life and career experiences. very few people take the time and energy to give back and instead self promote, especially in this day and age of personal websites and instagram feeds. the line between promotion and the sharing of knowledge is very thin and often confused. this is an issue i try to monitor in my own life, since i am guilty and victim of this confusion. ones public images can be so easily curated and controlled in the digital era. photos and information can be controlled and used to create a self inflicted idealized "brand" upon anyone with a decent sense of graphic design and a internet connection. "man with a camera" does the opposite, it breaks down the wall between the writer and reader. aldemdros shares his experiences with us, wether they be successes or failures and more often then not he discusses the conflict and process of making movies, not just the war stories, successes and achivements.
one current DP definitely has been giving back, rodger deakins' with his wonderful online forum. you can post a cinematography question and deakins will actually post an answer. one trick i learned from the site is to use one shade of window curtains during a day time scene and then when shooting in the same location at night, switch to a darker color since you can never get a white curtain to look "dark" at night. smart stuff.
the original post that was even longer and more rambling. thanks god it got deleted.
as of writing this post i recently completed my last feature film, NERVE, and oh gosh does my right shoulder hurt. i did not operate the camera much until the last week of production when i completely abused myself filming reduced unit work. "reduced unit" means running around on subways, streets and other difficult to film areas with a much smaller crew than during principle photography. you would imagine the last shot of a film's production schedule to be the glamorus lead actress falling to her death, a la Black Swan, but more often it's a shot of a foot on a gas pedal, or a car driving passed frame. it's often the logistically difficult, time consuming and / or tedious shots that helps tell a story but are inefficient for a full unit to shoot.
on a union film, of a reasonable budget and higher, the DP is expected to use, and regardless of preference, must hire a camera operator. a DP can insist upon operating but an operator will more then likely be hired and on set regardless. throughout film school and the decade that followed i never worked on a set that was big enough to staff a camera operator. when i finally got to a budget level that staffed one i lacked the communication skills to allow an operator to execute, interpret and improve upon my initial concept. it's the ultimate difficult thing to explain: a shot. take something as seemingly simple as a insert of a key in a hand and i can think of 20 ways to photograph it and 100 ways the shot can be screwed up. if a shot is verbalized poorly , it's like a bad game of telephone, with everyone getting frustrated with each other.
the art of communication is a skill of never ending potential. one can get very good and fast at lighting an actress' close up or become efficient with camera blocking but you can always improve on communicating with your team. i have found that instead of responding to a co-worker with "how could you possibly screw this up, i told you exactly what i wanted." its much more effective to ask yourself, "how did my words become open to this interpretation." i'm probably sensitive about this wording since i have often been on the receiving end of the "how could you screw this up" conversation.
film sets seem to be a meeting ground for the deslexic, me included, which gets super complicated when "right and left" are usually flipped on set and called "camera right and left"... not to be confused with "lamp right and left", that is used when talking to electrics and don't forget "mag right and left", that is for the dolly grips. then compound that with lack of sleep and you get a large group of people who make no sense to each other and can't even agree which direction is "right and left".
i certainly am guilty of running up to the 1st A.C., barking some notes and then running off to the next person.... meanwhile the A.C. has no idea what the heck i was just talking about---was i talking about the shot at hand or something further along in the day and meanwhile he / she is not sure if i asked for a "hollywood black magic filter" or a "black magic camera"... it's not easy to verbalize something so intangible as a shot and especially not easy to verbalize a long series of shots to dozens of people. often times, the wrong information is given and it just confuses things. here are something that the crew does not need to know.
the shooting crew does not need to understand everything, but some basic information that is often over looked.
when i am on the receiving end of information, as in working with a director, i find repeating the creative notes back to them can be useful. i need to confirm that i have the right information so i can disperse it to my multiple departments. i also try to remain sensitive to the creative process. for many of us, we are trying first to understand what we want visually and then find a way to verbalize it. one of the most antagonistic sentences one may say on set is, "just tell me what you want!". through out a feature shoot, a lot changes from prep to shot day and you are constantly trying to catch up and figure out what "you want".
an indie film production might be 80% creative and 20% production logistics. as productions get bigger and more money is at stake that percentage shifts sharply in favor to logistics. "the plan" becomes just as important as "the idea". the DP's role is often to balance this out, protecting "the plan" and "the idea" and making sure that both get screwed equally.
executing an idea into a shot certainly becomes easier when you work with one of the best operators in town, PETER VIETRO-HANNUM. so talented that they gave him two last names.
how i dread the first day of a feature film shoot. everyone is an expert on film making while they are not in production. but once you step onto a live set, even a seasoned director or DP will get tripped up on how to get actor through a doorway efficiently. i have seen a film shoot come grinding to a halt while everyone tries to figure out how to get a car into a frame and have the actor step out and say a line. to you non filmmakers out there, you have no idea all the things that can go wrong when trying to land a car in a specific spot and link it to dialogue. feature film making is not like riding a bicycle, each project is it's own beast. and you don't know what beast your dealing with until your head's in its mouth.
my goal to dealing with the shock of production day 1 is to try to normalize my life as much as possible. a DP cannot control a film production, no one can. but we can all ride it calmly and try to lean in the right direction from time to time. tonight is my first night of shooting, i have three full camera crews and way too much gear to even think about and this is my plan for the day:
i have found that nothing i do right before shooting could better prepare me for the inevitable shock of day 1, so i should just relax and enjoy a nice day. i don't think you ever really get better at getting an actor through a doorway, you just get better at dealing with it.
location scouting on a feature film is similar to being a member of an indie rock band, but instead of riding in a van to a gig, the band is looking at real estate they don't intend to buy. conversations in the van sound like "are there any power bars left," then when you exit the van and enter your destinations the dialogue shifts to, "what a lovely home you have, i love your furniture."
scouting can be a good time. you bond as a unit, and lots of bizarre conversations come up. one subject that has been endlessly discussed (mostly by me) is an idea i've been exploring since film school. of course the stubborn directors i am currently working with disagree with me on this, so i will put it to writing and make them (and the world) realize I'm right. spite and jealously are the ultimate motivators in life. the idea is the following:
"hello, i'm jack jones. nice to meet you." "hello jack, i'm debbie, nice to meet you too." this is by far the least interesting way to set up a protagonist with another character. here are all the other options i could think of for two people to meet in a film. in general i am referring to a protagonist meeting another featured character.
person A knows person B and everyone else in the film.
in rob siegel's brilliant script "the wrestler" our protagonist (ram) literally knows everyone he comes into contact within the film. he already knows the love interest and it's unclear how long they go back. even when he is interacting with strangers, he calls them "buddy" or "spring chicken," which makes ram likable. we walk out of the theater in love with this animal of a man and wanting to be more like him.
person A introduces themselves to person B, person B knows person A, unbeknown to person A.
in vertigo, madeleine (kim novak) wakes up in scottie's (jimmy stuart) bed room. the two of them are meeting for the first time but we have watched scottie following madeline around town for 10 minutes of screen time. this is one of the most complex meetings ever, scottie is pretending he doesn't know madeleine, but madeleine is pretending she is someone completely different. meanwhile, they both are pretending that she didn't try to purposely throw herself into the river. all this while she is trying to figure out how she ended up naked in his bed. this gives the audience much to chew on and enjoy.
person A and B simply know each other in an informal context.
billy wilder's the apartment comes to mind. bud (jack lemmon) knows fran (sheila maclaine) as the firecracker elevator operator. bud has an arrangement with his boss that allows the boss to bed women outside of his marriage in bud's apartment. one day bud comes home at the agreed time and is shocked to find the elevator girl passed out on his bed in a suicide attempt.... and some how hilarity ensues.
person A and B knew each other from the past.
indiana jones goes to nepal to get something from marion (karen allen). this is one of the strangest and unique meet-ups i can think of. the audience knows nothing about these two people's history together, and they learn very little thought the film. regardless, we enjoy watching their love / hate relationship, which is completely built on their history, which we never learn about.
person A does not know person B but person be insists that they know person A.
this set up is so fun and complex that the idea has been used for an entire film, last year at marienbad. at first the audience will naturally feel that there is a misunderstanding between the two characters, but eventually the audience will suspect someone is lying.
person A does not know person B but person B knows person A by reputation.
indiana jones uses this constantly. every time indiana jones introduces himself to anyone, the other person says "the famous dr. jones, what an honor". even before indiana jones can say anything to a new character, that person will say "dr. jones, i presume." so much great info comes out of these introductions. we know he is admired by his friends, colleagues and foes.
unfortunately (or fortunately), the only example i can think of off the top of my head is "tango and cash". it's a silly film starring sylvester "stallion" stallone and kurt russel. they are the two best cops in L.A. and they are blindly jealous of each other, even though they have never met. when they finally get paired together, with all the buildup, their introduction scene is so much fun.
person A and person B no nothing about each other and meet for the first time.
this is the version that started the conversation off. it's commonly used and not very interesting to watch. i can only think of one director who has really used it well..... jim jarmusch.
the set up it this: the two characters know nothing about each other and the audience knows nothing about the characters. it can be used well, but it often becomes the story itself, i.e. many of jim jarmusch's films. jarmusch loves the strangeness of two people meeting for the first time and what happens immediately after, and after that, and after that. of course, in a career as long as his, he will have a film or two where the protagonist meets a main character and they have a history but more often not. down by law, night on earth, and dead man are all clear examples of two people meeting for the first time. that pretty much is the plot, two people getting to know each other, they have nothing to hide and the audience knows nothing more about them then the other character does.
wow, that took a long time.
THE TIME MARTIN LANDAU YELLED AT ME
there is a tremendous amount of pressure put on all cinematographers, regardless of a films budget. we are the gate keepers of the line between aesthetics and time and we have to guard this responsibility carefully for the integrity of the project, all while being clear headed and respectful to our co-workers..... we all screw up once in awhile and when i screw up, i try to remember to at least learn something from my mistakes.
this particular "learning experience" involved the ever so common phrase we use in the modern digital film making: "let's shoot the rehearsal". when i started in the pre HD film business, there was no such phrase due to film and developing cost. now it is common to never do any rehearsals after the blocking. it's not just those itchy directors or clock watching a.d.'s that want to eliminate the rehearsal, often its the actors that want to get right into it. in the film days you would often hear after a rehearsal a director say in jest, "it was perfect! why didn't we shoot that", but now when we are lucky enough to do a rehearsal, a director may say the same thing and actually be pissed off that we didn't shoot the rehearsal!
this particular story takes place while i was shooting a very grueling and rushed tv film. we were set up for a large party scene in which the female lead comes down a staircase to meet her older lover, martin landau, in the middle of the room. the scene was blocked out with the 1st team talent, lit, and now it was time to shoot. we would begin with a wide shot from above as an intro to the scene. the director, a.d. and i all agree that the shot would end before the dialogue began and the actors were informed. at the last minute i saw an opportunity for a 2nd camera position to catch some loose coverage on mr. landau.
normally a professional union set is a fairly calm place but since there were so extras and i was operating the 2nd camera, the a.d. had to yell across the room which added to the chaos. so he yells across the room to the director who was near "a" camera, "director do you need a rehearsal?" "lets shoot the rehearsal" she calls out. the a.d. then yells across the room to me, "simmonds do you need a rehearsal". i reply, "no, lets shoot the rehearsal!"..... the a.d. yells out to the tech crew, "we are going to shoot the rehearsal everyone, pictures up!" i then hear a familiar voice yell out, "no we are not going to fucking shoot the rehearsal because i want a mother fucking rehearsal". i looked up from my view finder and see mr. landau looking right at me. i cannot remember exactly what he said after that but it certainly was directed at me and was not pleseant.
apparently nobody heard this outburst but me as the sounds man calls out "speed". while the slates were clapping, i walked across the room to a confused a.d. and explained the situation to him. i made my best attempt to apologize to mr. landau while the director was notified but the apology did not go over well. mr. landau, who started his career in 1950 in north by northwest, did not come from the school of filmmaking of "shooting the rehearsal".
although i am not fully responsible for this misunderstanding and i would love to rightfully put blame on an a.d. whenever i get an opportunity, i take much of the responsibility. the team set up a frame and we explained to the talent the shot and how far we would take the scene and at the last minute i set up another camera and never properly explained this to the actor. and why not do a rehearsal? it takes no time compared to other parts of the shoot day.... god only knows how much of any shoot day goes to the endless debate over which hand a purse should be in (take that script supervisors! if you don't like it, start your own blog)......
the next day i saw mr. landau in the hotel lobby and i told him how embarrassed i was and made another attempt to apologize. he was in a much better mood and chain smoking as usual. he told me about how he was a successful cartoonist and then he caught the acting bug and got into the actors studio to his dismay. him and steve mcqueen were the only people accepted that year and he had to make a difficult decision to leave cartooning. he would would tear up when talking about his buddy, jimmy, who i would later learn was james dean.
i asked him about hitchhock and how certain directors worked. he said something along the lines of, all rehearsals should start with the director and dop saying to the actor(s), "lets find out what this scene is about". he claimed that it's impossible to use this sentence too much, and that it's the basis of the actor / director relationship and it also translates to the photography of a scene. he went as far to say that there is no "direction" but rather the actor / director relationship is one of discovering "what the scene is really about".
i then asked him about working with tim burton on ed wood and he went into a full rendition of his character and even said,
"pull the string!"
"IF YOU DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY IT'S COVER, THEN HOW THE HECK ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO CHOOSE A BOOK TO READ" - me
apparently my wife, miranda, and i don't believe our 3 year old child, kes, should be exposed to technology and media at his young age. the reasoning behind this has become a bit foggy to me in it's logic but we have made it a commitment and stuck to it. kes has been told and seems to believe that the tv is perpetually broken. the broken tv limits my film watching to the 30-55 minutes i am awake longer than my son. as i fade into the comforts of a few childless minutes with miranda, that short stack of dvd's containing the work of the great thai auteur, apichatpong weerasethakul, become less appealing in their sealed plastic wrapped cases.
i then give up all hope in entertaining myself with anything in the film medium and settle for 30 minutes of watching guy fieri behaving like a human garbage disposal as he harasses people trying to enjoy their 10 pound hamburger in peace. but a few nights ago i went the extra mile and downloaded a film on amazon.com.
i looked for the dumbest, most generic poster i could find in the new release section. something i knew i wouldn't regret turning off after 30 minutes and retiring to bed. i found a poster and movie title so generic and vanilla that it felt like wall paper... a poster so uninspired that a graffiti artist wouldn't even bother to paint over it. the movie was "edge of tomorrow".
once miranda stopped saying "it's ground hog day" for the 10th time and went to bed, i was completely engaged with this smart film. it's well cast, the script is original and the distribution of information keeps you in a state of suspense, and the performances are really really good. I would say it's the best tom cruise preformance in years-- tom cruise the way we like him: douche bag turns into really sympathetic guy after having his ass kicked.
the perfect casting goes to bill paxton as a deranged yet dedicated drill sergeant, bringing back his performance from weird science as the sadistic older brother. paxton is definitely on a roll and was also mind-blowing in "night crawler", a movie i avoided watching for some time due to thinking it was about a super hero named night crawler.
after doing 10 minutes of internet research i discovered i wasn't the first person to figure out that this movie was great and mishandled in its release. don't just listen to me, the smartest american director currently working, paul thomas anderson, has been quoted at saying, "it's fucking great".
cage (tom cruise' character) unwillingly gets thrown from his military p.r. job into the front lines of a battle he is drastically unprepared for.... after getting doused in special alien blood and simultaneously being killed during battle, cage now must relive the same day over and over again. this script uses the "groundhog day" trope in a new and clever way. unlike groundhog day which never explains why the day is repeating, the trope is directly linked to the plot of the film. the film echoes the video game analogy of "restarting" the game/narrative as a strategic plan to get ahead.
to many, i probably just described the dumbest film ever, but in all seriousness "edge of tomorrow" is as good or better then the great paul varhoven films of the 90's, like "robocop" and "total recall". it might even be as good as john carpenter's "they live". it's a genre that is geared to adolescent boys but it's intellegent enough to be appreciated by imature men of all ages.
in conclusion, bla bla bla bla.
a nice follow up to my anti advice post might be a series of insightful and funny things people have said to me over the years that have effected the way i work.
The first in the series, mikey likes it, will about the great gordon willis:
while i was at school of visual arts in nyc i was gordon willis' teacher's assistant. all i did was get him tea (he likes it with lemon) and hail him a cab at the end of the day. while my duties were minimal, i did get to listen to him talk quit a bit. he was a man of few words but they had a bite. they were at once thought out, passionate, insightful and funny. it was a 3 day workshop open to anyone willing to pay, so people outside of SVA were there as well. here are three moments i can honestly say i think about daily and have effected my behavior for the better, and still make me smile:
the first question anyone in the class asked was, "why are you teaching at SVA?", in other words, why are you not teaching somewhere more prestigious like nyu or columbia university? While you could sense the sva staff cringing in the room, it still was probably the most relevant question at that moment--"why are you here mr. greatest cinematographer in the world?". i like to think sva's reputation has improved over the years, but back then it was mostly known for have an aggressive subway add campaign with obnoxious slogans. gordon willis responded to the question with the most beautiful and eloquent response i could have imagined.... "they were the only people to ask me" he said. always ask!
i asked him about how he would go about reading a script for the first time (script reading for me is by far the worst part of my job due to my dyslexia. it takes me 5 hours to read a script and i have to basically rewrite it by hand as i read it). he said, "i make myself a fresh pot of coffee if it's morning or i open a nice bottle of wine and i sit in the most comfortable spot in the house. i set the lighting to a nice level and sit back and i enjoy that script. i enjoy it as much as i can, because if i take that job, it will be the last time i ever enjoy that script again."
around the same time he did this lecture, gordon had shot a feature that would be his last, "the devil's own" for alan j pakula. as you may know these two had a brilliant collaboration on "klute", "parallax view" and "all the president's men".... all perfect films that cinematographers have been making directors watch for the last 30 years. well, their last collaboration, "the devil's own", was certainly not considered brilliant at the time of its release. so one wisenheimer asks out loud, "what the heck happened with 'the devils own'"? gordon takes a moment and looks around the room, which was decorated in movie posters, most of which he had dp'd himself. he looked to his left which happened to have a giant "godfather" poster on the wall and said, "listen kids, you see this film right here? this was supposed to be a piece of shit, this was a bullshit gangster b-film. making movies is hard. it's really really hard, but making a good one is just a little bit harder..... so you might as well try to make a good one." there are two great lessons in there, the obvious one is: "try harder to make a good film" and then there is the less obvious lesson: avoid the question that was origionally asked if you don't have a good answer and say something unrelated but brilliant.
next in the "mikey likes it" series, the time martin landau yelled at me and what i learned from it.
the only new years resolution that ever stuck with me was this: "advice, don't give it and definitely don't take it." i've come to the conclusion over the years that the human species and possibly others (domesticated animals) are incapable of accepting advice and yet they must give it. in my studies, i have also found that the advice an individual tends to give is in direct relation to their own issues rather then the issues of who they "advising".
a career in the film industry can be sisyphean in nature with moments of bliss and long periods of dread. no "advice" or "tips" can change that. over the years some wise people have mentioned something in passing or told me a story that may have stuck with me and effected my behavior, but that is not advice.... that is me as an individual gleaning information that i find relevant or worthy of memory.... not an article that is directed at me, telling me what i should be doing differently.
the film business and the advice business definitely have a symbiotic relationship that seems to be growing stronger. what young film professional wouldn't want to be told the secrets of climbing up the ladder? but if you find film industry magazines from the recent past you will immediately notice that they actually talk about movies, not advice on making movies. in 1992 the only "advice" to filmmakers was a "new york film academy" advertisement in the back pages of a magazine. anyway, it's not in my best interest to criticize publications that i hope will write about me (wink wink)....... but i cannot help myself! here are some headlines from a certain online indie film website from the last few weeks:
now to repurpose and plagiarize a groucho marx quote: "if this publication continues to write such scandalous articles i will be forced to cancel my subscription."... or in my case i will be forced to stop using it as my "homepage".
there was a great susan sontag quote on the back of a certain edition of andre bazin's "what is cinema vol 1?". for those who are not familiar with the book, it's a collection of essays that basically discuss how movies are "read". as usual, i will totally mess up the quote but it goes something like this:
"this book is one of the rare examples of writings on cinema that will increase your enjoyment of film rather then take advantage of it." - susan sontag
currently the mass majority of writings on the film industry take advantage of the readers interest in film rather than increase it. they steal your time and give you nothing in return aside from "advice" that could just as easily lead you astray as it could help you.
here are a few things that i have found that have increased my interest and love of film and cinematography.
i like to read a book like i drink a bottle of whisky. I consume it in one sitting if possible but not very often.
my latest binge read was rudy wurlitzer's, the drop edge of yonder. the book is a cross between jeremiah johnson and uncle boom who can recall his past lives. does that not sound like the greatest mash up ever? apparently there's a sub genre of the western called "acid western" but that sounds as silly to me as "neo neo realism", a genre that i was a part of. it's a western written from a buddhist perspective.... to live is inherently painful until you reach enlightenment and the flame of our existence simply blows out... but wtf do i know. my friend siwat, who was ordained as a monk, told me something like that at the 11th st bar many years ago.
rudy wurlitzer is a famed american writer of books and scripts and i believe i live around the corner from him in hudson, ny. the word "cult" is often in the same sentence as "writer" when his work is discussed. i have always been titillated with the word "cult" ever since i saw it written in reference to movie on those little handmade signs at kim's underground..... the bleeker st location that is now a cvs or something. as much as us cinephiles love the genre of the "cult movie, novel or band", the artists that have created that work usually resent being categorized in that way... probably since "cult" is in reference to a "cult audience", aka "not a mass audience".
an unrelated question: "can there be a "cult" dop? and would that be robby muller?
another unrelated question: how do you make an "umlaut" on a mac?
please keep in mind that the following information is hearsay and unconfirmed. legend and current gossip have it that wurlitzer wrote a transcendental western script called "zebulon" that passed through many hands and eventually was to be made by jim jarmucsh. some sources say that film was at one point called "ghost dog", not to be confused with the urban ny film starring forest whitaker jarmucsh would eventually go on to make, also titled "ghost dog". eventually they parted ways and the project never materialized. time passed and wurlitzer saw the new jarmush film, dead man, and either he himself (or others?) felt it drastically resembles the script "ghost dog", "zebulon" or whatever it was called. so much so that former filmmaker and current career revisionist, alex cox, seems to like to bring it up often and to this day.
i am not so interested if wurlitzer's script resembled the completed "dead man", instead i am impressed and admire that the writer was able to take an idea, shop the screenplay though the industry, have the story be compromised along the way, passed around like a joint at a party and then after all that; complete and fortify that very idea into a book of it's own... what a heroic act.
maybe it would be better for all of our ideas to be picked over by others, stolen and twisted into something other than our own. let the low hanging fruit fall.... forcing us to reach deeper, making more original work and diverting us from obvious choices. to get any film made is nearly impossible and "dead man" turned out to be a perfect film, (although the amazing soundtrack is a tad over used...... ). for wurlitzer's story to go through so many incarnations until it's reached the form of a novel is a miracle and none the less, a perfect book.
do either of these works negate the other even if they were both potentially spawned from one source ?
lesson to you kids out there, if you're not organized enough to find your shoes in the morning, you haven't grasped basic arithmetic, and your hand writing is illegible, the job of 2nd a.c. may not be for you. hence my career as a 2nd a.c. was a short lived and fortunately for me, people who cannot perform simple tasks, seem to fall up the ladder rather than down in the film industry.
one of my first legitimate film jobs was on a film titled "the 4th floor". they shot the film in canada but they hired a crummy non union crew, with yours truly as 2nd a.c., for one day of nyc pick ups. the tech crew lined up a dolly shot of a woman entering a brownstone. due to my inexperience i assumed the woman was the actress. we rehearsed the shot over and over again, then right before we went for the first take, that woman disappears, the slate hit and new actress appeared and preformed the simple action of walking in a door; but with so much more life and energy i couldn't believe it... she was 100% more exciting to watch than that first person, and it wasn't until the end of the night that i realized that actress was juliette lewis. this is "1st team effect"--a dull and lifeless shot coming to life due to the radiant talent of the actor.
"1st team effect" is a term that i and many other dops and gaffers have probably coined at different points in their careers. for those not in the industry, "1st team" is in reference to the "fp's", aka the famous people. There are several things actors do to prepare right before doing a scene, so it is not realistic nor fair to ask them stand in while the tech crew executes the technical aspects of the shot. other actors are hired to "stand in" for the fp's so the tech crew have someone to light and work out the shot with. they are called "2nd team". the 2nd team is an essential part of the production and when they are good, they are great but this is often a place where production cuts corners.
2nd team should in theory look roughly like the people they are standing in for, pay attention to the fp's blocking rehearsal, and be attentive to the requests of the dop...... but often they look nothing like their counter parts, are completely confused and on occasion harass the fp's for future work..... and that is if your lucky enough to have a "2nd team" at all. it's one of the first things to be cut on a low budget film along with "extras" and decent transportation for scouting...... quite often it's the 1st or 2nd 2nd assistant dirctor who are standing in for people they look nothing alike....
the shot almost always looks like shit with "2nd team" and its unknown why. in defense of the professional stand ins, it's not their job to act but rather to model and be a body. perhaps your are thinking, "hey mike, you're just responding to the celebrity of the fp's." but I would argue that that's not true, because quite often a production assistant or a crew member will wander into the frame when you're lining up a shot, and their presence just makes the composition sing. and when its mentioned to them that the frame comes alive with their presence, they usually comment on having no interest in being in front of the camera......
the camera is a mysterious box that seems to prefer some people to others regardless of beauty, age or acting ability.... surprisingly or not some of those very people the camera prefers have no interest in being in front of the camera.
notes: legend has it that "bob" from "twin peaks" was the set decorator and accidentally got in the shot during a camera test.... ending up with him being cast in the role of the killer, "bob"...... i am sure i got all the facts wrong in that story......