Now It Can Be Told By Mike White. This is cautionary tale of one young filmmaker who became intoxicated by the idea of seeing his work on the big screen and drunk with the power of being an auteur...
This is cautionary tale of one young filmmaker who became intoxicated by the idea of seeing his work on the big screen and drunk with the power of being an auteur. Names have been omitted to protect the innocent.
It was an indie filmmaker’s dream. In the right hands, it might have been glorious; it turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
The director had developed a screenplay, written by his former co-worker. True, it was a typical Reservoir Dogs derivative: lots of guns, swearing, and nouvelle violence, but it was a script nonetheless. The screenwriter was a theater major and arranged to rehearse and perform his work at the community college he attended. After each performance he, the rest of the cast, and the director sought input from the audience in regards to plot and pacing.
The director pulled strings and made promises to secure free locations. A stroke of luck provided a restaurant that was closed on Sundays with a manager who trustingly gave up the keys to the film’s crew, providing the major location for this talky crime drama.
He acquired a used 16mm news camera with battery, changing bag, and extra spool. With some haggling, he purchased 16mm color film stock at near wholesale prices. An agreement to have all of the film processed at once clinched a bargain basement development and video transfer rate.
The prospect of working on a “for real” motion picture bagged the crew, remaining equipment, and time in an edit suite.
Herr Direktor changed his name to that of his maternal grandfather’s. Some thought it was grand gesture to the great German auteurs of old like Lang or Freund. Instead, it was one in a series of clever ploys; this one geared to aid in his self-incorporation and subsequent business loan to provide the budget.
It looked as if he had done everything perfectly up to the day he called, “Action.”
But then it all turned to shit.
Taking a closer look at the situation, we find that the director was actually a producer who aspired to direct. All of the aforementioned finagling brought the project to a point where a competent director could have taken the reins. . .
The director had never shot a foot of film-not even a test reel with his pre-owned camera (opting instead to save the money, raw stock, and time). He had done some video work-shooting a promo piece for a local cable channel-but he had never shot a narrative.
Despite coiling cables on a cornball horror film and gaffing on an overly-artsy student film, he hadn’t learned anything of camera angles, positioning, framing, depth of focus, lighting, editing, et cetera. He knew he wanted to make a movie, and that’s about all.
In the later stages of preparation, the director was inspired by the writings of another indie filmmaker who had made a film with a tiny budget and pared down crew. I’m referring to the enjoyable diary of the making of El Mariachi by Robert Rodriguez, Rebel without a Crew.
How influential and informative is Rodriguez’s do-it-yourself book? It has been suggested that between it, Joe Queenan’s The Unkindest Cut, Roger Corman’s How I Made 100 Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime and Christine Vanchon’s Shooting To Kill, that attendance at film school is useless except to learn film theory and history (and that’s not in vogue anymore anyway).
Unfortunately, the inspirational tome seems to have inspired all the wrong people. It continues to drive out the no-talents in droves. For every one genius motivated to finally get off their bum, there are thousands of jerkoffs who pick up the mantle of indie filmmaking and churn out pure crap.
Before parents, teachers, and ministers gather up copies of Rebel Without A Crew and set them ablaze in a public square, I have to make it clear that saying Rodriguez’s book caused me undue pain would be like blaming the music of KMFDM for the shootings in Columbine, Colorado.
These amateur auteurs may have been motivated by Rodriguez’s wonderful cry to arms for indie filmmakers just as easily as by an episode of “Saved by the Bell.” Something was bound to come along and dislodge these unstable hacks. No book is to blame.
Robert Rodriguez may have suggested that a competent director need not employ the services of a cinematographer, but he has been making films since he was a kid. He still does.
“I make at least a movie a week, short ones, experimental ones. On DV mostly, sometimes 16mm,” says Rodriguez. Obviously, he had learned a few things during his twenty-some year-long filmmaking past that allowed him to continue being his own cinematographer; things to which a novice would be (and was) clueless. Rodriguez had undoubtedly learned by trial and error.
There had been a cinematographer in the initial game plan-an amateur capable of brilliant work and hungry to lens a 16mm production. At the outset of filming, however, the cinematographer fell victim to the ego and inflated self-opinion that eventually took the entire production hostage. The cinematographer didn’t know that principal photography had even begun until he received a call inviting him to come watch the proceedings some Sunday afternoon. (What a way to find out!)
I tagged along with the cinematographer to check out the situation. Upon entering the “set” I was immediately struck with the realization that everything was being bathed in natural light, coming in through the large picture windows, but no color correction gel was being used for the key light.
“I hope he knows what he’s doing,” the now ex-cinematographer quipped as we departed.
Would a competent cinematographer have made a difference on this film? Certainly it couldn’t have hurt. While the performances may have still reeked of theatrical overindulgence, at least the scenes would have been well lit and in focus. Yet, ultimately, the shooting “style” and inadequacy of technical preparation would have proved an issue.
For a few months, neither the ex-cinematographer nor I heard from the erring director. Suddenly, without warning, we were both inundated with a deluge of voicemail messages urging us to call him. There was panic in his voice.
We set up a meeting to talk to him on the weekend; apparently shooting had halted. At his apartment he had a VHS tape cued up and waiting for us. As he played it, he asked us, hopefully, “Do you think you can fix this?”
It was footage from his film. It was numinous in its sheer wrongness. I tried to grasp the one thing he hoped us to fix. Was it the flat, harsh lighting? The lack of focus? Or, was he referring to the canted angle that left everything tilted forty-five degrees clockwise? I cocked my head and stayed silent, waiting for him to narrow the field.
He was referring to the focus. Apparently, his lens hadn’t been mounted correctly, causing the first ten of twenty-four 400-foot reels to be blurry. The other fourteen? They were spared due to a happy accident: some on-set shenanigans resulted in the camera being sent in for repairs. Of course, no second test reel was shot after the camera returned to determine if it was working correctly. Luckily, the lens had been remounted in the process of fixing the focus problem.
(Why the persistent Dutch angle? The director was under the impression that his camera was set up in such a way that it had to be turned forty-five degrees before images were centered on the film.)
I suppose I was in a state of mild shock. I didn’t want to take the five minutes of video footage as a representation of what waited for me in the other ten hours I was going to slough through. Yes, I had agreed to edit this mess. Now I hoped that I would share the fate of the ex-cinematographer and be “fired” before my work could begin, but luck wasn’t with me. Sitting in the edit suite, watching the silent footage, getting a crick in my neck until I finally propped the monitor with some tape cases, I knew things were bad but I didn’t yet know how bad it could get.
After a week of logging videotapes, seeing images that set my hair on end (“What is that? Does he know the camera’s running?” “Is it supposed to be that dark?” and conversely “Is it supposed to be this bright?”), it came time to listen to and log the audio.
When turning over his DAT player, the director boasted to me about the microphone he bought for the shoot. Having never seen it, I don’t know if it was cardiod, omnidirectional, or shotgun-but I don’t think he knew that either. Listening to the tapes, it seemed that the microphone was adept at picking up every noise around it, except for the actors’ dialogue. I’d hear the whirring of the camera, crickets chirping in a distant field, and somewhere-barely within audible range-I could make out muffled sounds of young thespians emoting.
Listening to the tapes, I got a good sense of what it was like to be on the film’s set. (The “sound engineer”
often forgot to turn the recorder off, leaving great spans of time occupied by off-screen banter.) Typical scenes played thusly: After the clap of the slate, the director called “Action!” and the scene began. An inevitably flubbed line was followed by a curse. From there, chaos ensued.
As the actor rehearsed his line, people chatted, and arguments broke out. After a few minutes of this, the director attempted to regain control of his set. “Let’s pick it up from, ‘Fuck you, Charley,’” he’d say. And, sure enough-after all momentum had been lostI’d hear the clap of the slate, call of “Action!” and “Fuck you, Charley.”
The problems began to become apparent in a way they couldn’t while watching the raw footage. Synching up the sound and image revealed that as the actors picked up from a line; the director hadn’t asked for the lines preceding the misspoken dialogue, nor had he change the camera angle. Thus, without shooting any coverage or cutaways, a scene would end up as a montage of uneven tone pieced together with jump cuts.
In other words, I was fucked. There was no way I could begin to salvage this mess. Even if the footage had capable audio, competent lighting, and the correct axis, the bizarre shooting style precluded any chance of making this movie the slightest bit watchable.
And yet, I couldn’t even begin to explain these things when I received a call about the progress of the editing. Obviously, the concepts I discussed above were completely foreign to my friend’s ears. He didn’t want to hear or understand that he had just gotten a ten thousand-dollar education.
Just as I have an image in my mind of Quentin Tarantino taking crib notes from Hong Kong gangster films back in the early nineties to make Reservoir Dogs, I can imagine the legions of filmmakers who’ve stayed up late at night watching Tarantino’s work and thinking, “Hey, I can do this.” And, unfortunately, they do. Young or old, experienced or not, the ironic ripping-off of Quentin Tarantino has indeed fostered a full-fledged cinematic movement. For some, Rodriguez’s book proved to be a catalyst to make that blind head-first leap into the cinematic void. But, instead of making the next El Mariachi, they more often create another My Best Friend’s Birthday; the unreleased experiment that served as an expensive film education to high school dropout Quentin Tarantino.
We are coming to the end of an age where those Reservoir Dogs rip-off artists have just about weeded themselves out and moved on. Alas, I foresee something new on the horizon and a cold chill runs down my spine whenever the thought occurs to me. The new Horatio Alger tale of the cinema is The Blair Witch Project. I can already envision years of aspiring directors running around the woods with cameras. Certainly, some may be geniuses lying in waitthere’s nothing wrong with forest-bound horror films in and of themselves; just take a look at The Evil Dead -but the others...The great mass of shaky, blurry film that awaits is more terrifying than anything in those woods.
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