View from the window at Le Gras, 1826, Joseph Nicephore NiepceView from the window at Le Gras, 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
image: Ransom Center, UT Austin

Or specifically, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin:
1) to see the world's first photograph, a view out his window taken by a Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in 1826. Jim Lewis writes about it on Slate.
2) to read the unpublished manuscript of Minstral Island, a futuristic musical by Thomas Pynchon and Kirkpatrick Sale, which they recently acquired. [Fill out your research application before you go. Oh, and get Pynchon's written permission if you want to make a copy. I'm sure he's listed.]

December 27, 2002

Just One. Last. Shot


This morning, I ran off to shoot one more pre-sunrise shot of the mountains and highway for S(J03), a cold, dark 2.5 hour round trip from SLC.

With the sweet Powerbook that Santa brought me, I'll get some stills up this weekend or next week, depending on the editing schedule. Stay tuned for a rush course in short filmmaking!

What a way to spend Boxing Day. I logged two of the three hours of footage we shot Monday for S(J03), which took most of the afternoon. Now that I know what we have to edit, the question is, how can I best tell the story in the script? Technical issues and changes on the ground complicate things a bit.

Technical issues: Unstable monitor settings which we didn't solve until about 11AM means that some really good shots from the morning are just too dark to use. Others are too good not to use, even if they are a little dark. The solution: work the lighting into the story, using it to mark the passage of time. As it works out, this jibes well with the daily routine in the cleaners, which is staggered half-a-day from the dry cleaning process. (i.e., they do the first steps (cleaning and pressing) in the afternoon/evening and the last two steps (bagging and sorting for pickup) the next morning.) The light/shadow/darkness in our footage maps onto the process well.

Changes on the ground: In the script, the main character spends a day working at the dry cleaners. Rather than negotiate and explain this to Joe, the cleaners owner, over the phone, I just asked if we could shoot without disrupting their routine. Joe was nervous because Monday is their busiest day. Looking at the footage, an arc emerged: we started exploring the facility, then observing the people, then asking questions. After building up a degree of familiarity and trust, the man quietly and naturally offered to help. This evolution from observer to participant, and the growing trust it entails, was more satisfying than what I'd originally intended, so it became an organizing principle for the film.

Out of Sight, dir. Steven Soderbergh, image: georgeclooney.orgFinally, the J-Lo Factor. Watching the footage, there are so many wonderful details and vignettes, it feels like I'd have to make an hour-long documentary to include them all. Not gonna do it. With the basic structural principles in place (light>>dark, start>>finish rather than just day>>night, reticent observer>>trusted participant) a rigid narrative, sequential arc seems less imperative. The film is more reflection than narrative, we decided, especially in the dry cleaners. Pushing this forward, we came up with the idea of intercutting between two timestreams: ironing and driving, getting ready and going.

Steven Soderbergh, in what I still feel is one of the sweetest examples of this technique, just brings it home in the seduction scene in Out of Sight. I've mentioned this before. If my repetition bores you, by all means, clue me into other great scenes.

This all relates to notes I made on the table today at lunch. Check out a transcript here.

Mom's house, those chocolate cookies with powdered sugar on them, embarassing family pictures, elaborate meals. For several fleeting moments, you're ten years old again. You actually feel it. Why? It seems like every other year, but those visceral feelings of actually being back in time... What could be different?

Then, as you surf the news at Google [sure didn't have that when I was a kid!], and as you read the Times and the Guardian [that, either.], it breaks on you like a dawn. Something extra this year. It's a clock, alright, but not as in "clock, turning back the," more like "clock, doomsday."

What really makes you feel like you're ten again is the Doomsday Clock, the one your uptight Viet Nam vet civics teacher told you was inching perilously close to midnight. [Uptight? He'd blink hard a few times before answering a question, trying to hold it all together.] Go figure. Hadn't thought of that for a while.

Thank you, President Bush. And thank your friends. For a Christmas just like the ones I used to know.

December 24, 2002

S(J03) Shooting, Day 1/1

Synopsis: A man travels to Springville, Utah to hang out in a dry cleaners owned by Joe, a Korean immigrant.

Cast & Crew: I directed. Artist/photographer Patrick Barth starred as cinematographer. Producer/assistant camera/astrophysicist Jean Cottam did everything else. Joe (presumably) makes his onscreen debut as himself. Patrick, a longtime friend, is working on his own film-based project for the Spring, and was interested in getting a feel for the Sony VX camera and the logistics of shooting; when we found out that we would all be in Utah for the holidays, I rushed together this one-day shoot.

Travelodge Provo, image: utahvalley.orgLocations: The simple script calls for just three locations: a hotel room, the man's car, and the cleaners. The Provo Travelodge served us well; we didn't spend nearly enough time in the richly appointed lobby (see left). Faced with such breathtaking mountain views, the Travelodge decided not to compete; their room decor is very pared down, which fit the aesthetic needs of the story. I'd known about the cleaners in Springville; you might say I'd location scouted it before.

Equipment: For this rather impromptu shoot, I kept equipment at a minimum. Probably too minimum, but any more'd mean more crew, more time, next thing you know there're unions involved, Della Reese wants a cameo, you get the idea.
Actually, I'd planned to mooch equipment from a friend in SLC, but schedules didn't match up, so at the last minute, I brought my old Sony VX-1000 and package from New York. It worked great, except when it didn't work. Overdue for its factory service, we had inexplicable outages, which we at first thought was the monitor (battery or cable). As they say in Provo, oh my heck, this thing is a piece of shizz.
Lighting, with a 2-live crew , we had to go with natural light; from my intense study of Soderbergh DVD commentaries (see Traffic School), I learned about replacing light bulbs. (Note to Travelodge: If you're wondering why room 217 uses 10x as much electricity as the others, check the bulbs.) What we didn't figure out until it was too late is to use natural wavelength or tungsten bulbs. As a workaround, I rewrote the script so that the golden hues of the small hotel room pay homage to Soderbergh's Mexico scenes. Option 2: Heck, we'll fix it in post.
Sound, we were screwed. I didn't get DAT/MD and a mic before coming out, so we ended up shooting all camera mic. This should be ok, since there's hardly any dialogue in the 5-min. film. The solution here: fix it in post. We took ample room tone in each location, and then did some scenes purely for sound, as if the camera were just a mic. The idea is to clean up these tracks as much as possible and construct the sound once we get the rough cut.

I've got some last minute Christmas shopping to do, so check back for some amusing anecdotes.

Greg.org got quoted in The Juice, MSNBC entertainment polymath Jan Herman's weblog, for my post about the Peter Eisenman & Co's (aka the Gang of New York) "stealth deconstructivist memorial" proposal for the WTC site. Why "stealth"? Because what they pitched as the most humble building turns out to be the most massive of all monuments. So, why stealth?

Anyway, I have changed the title of my next movie to celebrate The Juice: henceforth, it will be called Souvenir (Jan 2003).

I haven't posted much about it at all, but I wrote a new short script, S(J03), which I'm going to do a rough shoot of Monday in Springville, Utah. If it goes well, we'll come back and shoot it in film during Sundance. It's about a guy who takes quiet pleasure in ironing. I imagine it'll be about 5 minutes long, and we'll try to get a rough cut ready to show the folks at Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films by Jan. 8. Another self-imposed, ridiculously short deadline, which we have no reason to believe we'll meet.

Here is the location schedule for the one-day shoot. Check back for a blow-by-blow account.


I'm quite behind, obviously. Thursday went very well, as I wrote earlier. Souvenir (November 2001) screened last in a program of four short films which, in the words of Festival Director (and MoMA curator) Sally Berger, were "different from all the Sept. 11-related things we've been saturated with...These 'makers use a more essayistic, and in one case [mine, -ed.], narrative form to explore issues and ideas." The other three films were:

  • Encounters of the WTC Kind, 2002, dir. by Kristin Lucas, in which the artist and friends wandered the empty halls of the WTC speculating about ghosts, a whimsical idea at the time (it was shot in 2000) which now has a painful, prescient resonance. The film is part of Lucas' Invisible Inhabitants Network.
  • WTC: The First 24 Hours, 2001, dir. by Etienne Sauret. Sauret essentially slipped into Ground Zero and got images and sounds that were otherwise unavailable and captured the raw, dazed, and unregimented rescue efforts.Sauret and producer David Carrara's film has already received widespread attention; it was in Sundance 2002 and other festivals. Their site is thefirst24hours.com.
  • Scenes from an Endless War, 2002, dir. by Norman Cowie. A still-growing collection of critiques of the methods, manipulations, and messages of war in the US media, Cowie's sharply crafted video re-presents the news and its apparatus in an eye-opening way. Watch a clip at normancowie.com.

    Before the screening, I met David and Etienne in the theater, when we were caught off guard by the opening music from Souvenir; the projectionist was checking the levels. Family showed up, a wave of people I didn't know, then a couple of familiar faces. The whole thing was more nervewracking than I'd imagined. Sally Berger got up to introduce the films, then we were off.
    I was very interested to see the other three films, which were very different from each other and very good in their own ways. Inevitably, I was caught up, trying to anticipate what kind of context the program was creating for my film. (The only line I remember from Beaches: "But enough about me, let's talk about you. What do you think of me?") The various settings, pacing, tone and styles worked well, though, and people seemed to take Souvenir in quite readily.

    Watching it on the big (did I say big, I meant HUGE) screen was intoxicating; repeatedly, self-consciousness would build ("oh no, this shot'll be too long!"), and then a gorgeous image or a nice cut would come. People reacted to lines I worried were too obscure. A couple of shots were kind of dark, but if you look back to the location notes, lighting was one of our major challenges then, too.

    Then, it was over. Lights came on, the woman in front of us bolted, I knew no one'd stay for the Q&A, and they did. Norman and Etienne both took questions, Sally talked about putting the program together, and then people asked about Souvenir, how memorials change over time, what French people thought, what should happen on the WTC site, about repeated references to emptiness and voids in the film (something I hadn't really considered), and then it was over. People came up, we got shooed to the lobby, we talked and talked, there were hangers on, it was very, very cool. Just like you'd see in a movie. theater.

  • December 20, 2002

    So Now I Know

    Coatcheck So you're at the Annie Liebovitz party, where even the Christmas trees are tall and skinny, and there's no coatcheck. The safest place to leave your things: next to the bag containing $1,000 worth of marijuana, watched nervously by its owner.
    Finally, the voices in my head have a name, and that name is Gawker.

    Thanks to all y'all (as we'd say in NC, at least when our parents weren't around) who've sent your kind wishes and congratulations re Souvenir. Since 1) You mailed from work, 2) you mailed from outside New York, and 3) there were far more of you than bodies in the theater, I conclude most of you weren't actually at MoMA yesterday. So thanks for the vote of confidence, too, I guess.

    So far, the winner of the farthest-away-wellwisher goes to Aussie Matthew Clayfield, who writes about his prodigious film production activities on his weblog, Esoteric Rabbit Films. According to his site, he has yet to graduate to wearing pants. He's 16.

    Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

    Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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    greg [at] greg [dot ] org

    find me on twitter: @gregorg

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