Category:making movies

Dateline, Malibu: Directin' ain't easy, even for Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic, a man who has Steven Soderbergh on his Buddy List (and IM's him for advice on "Super-35 blown up to anamorphic" or not). He writes about his unblinking-but-not-too-pity-inducing directorial debut in the NYTimes. Gaghan also tells a good story (ahem, surprised? He's an O-winning screenwriter.) on the Criterion DVD for Traffic.

The Spiral Jetty is back. Although it was submerged when we checked in July, my college senior sister said it was visible from the hill above it when she took a first date out to see it a couple of weeks ago (talk about a litmus test; it's a 3+ hour drive one way, half on rutty dirt paths.) Sure enough, the SL Tribune has an article about it (Thanks, Artforum.) Read Smithson's own comments on making the Jetty here.

Underwater or not, Geocachers have logged Spiral Jetty; it's not surprising, given its off-the-mapquest.com obscurity, limited-but-not-prohibitive access, and non-mainstream nature. Geocaching would suit Smithson fine, I think:

After a point, measurable steps...descend from logic to the "surd state." The rationality of a grid on a map sinks into what it is supposed to define. Logical purity suddenly finds itself in a bog, and welcomes the unexpected event...The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments, but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper. Of course, it is also possible to translate the mental spiral into a three-dimensional succession of measured lengths that would involve areas, volumes, masses, moments, pressures, forces, stresses, and strains; but in the Spiral Jetty the surd takes over and leads one into a world that cannot be expressed by number or rationality.

Geocaching examines the gap between the natural and the rational worlds, too, coming at if from the grid side. Spiral Jetty is locatable in grids, of course, including USGS satellite photos and via latitude/longitude coordinates, translated from GPS orbital data. But for geocachers, getting there is more than half the fun; the rush comes from "mapping" the "distance" between the two worlds.

Back in New York, Smithson sat down with friends to make his film about the Jetty.

Film strips hung from the cutter's rack, bits and pieces of Utah, outtakes overexposed and underexposed, masses of impenetrable material. The sun, the spiral, the salt buried in lengths of footage... And the movie editor bending over such a chaos of "takes" resembles a paleontologist sorting out glimpses of a world not yet together, a land that has yet to come to completion, a span of time unfinished, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels...[Editor Bob] Fiore pulled lengths of film out of the movieola with the grace of a Neanderthal pulling intestines from a slaughtered mammoth. Outside his 13th Street loft window one expected to see Pleistocene faunas, glacial uplifts, living fossils, and other prehistoric wonders. Like two cavemen we plotted how to get to the Spiral Jetty from New York City.

Smithson uses the road, going forward and backward (in time as well as place) to tie his film together. "The disjunction operating between reality and film drives one into a sense of cosmic rupture. Nevertheless, all the improbabilities would accommodate themselves to my cinematic universe."

When I went to Spiral Jetty in 1994 (it's first reappearance in 24 years), I was overwhelmed by how different experiencing the work in person (glistening salt crystals, cotton candy pink water, and that drive...) was from seeing it in pictures (aerial B&W on the last page of the art history text). Now it seems that that was the point. Mapping the distance between two worlds is what filmmaking's all about.

This weekend, after seeing Full Frontal, we discussed the dialogue at length. My (grew-up-on-the-stage) wife spotted a lot of weak improv, or weakly directed improv--actors left to figure it out for themselves and, more often than not, not pulling it off. Besotted Soderbergher that I am (nothing like three DVD commentaries in the last two weeks to make you feel like you know the director.), I'd argued that surely Soderbergh knew what's up; he's shooting a script that's written to sound like this. It's all artificial, after all. Get it?

Rather than address the fact that I was just wrong [Fine. I'll address it. Nerve.com has an excerpt of the script which differs notably from the scene in the movie. The actors seem to have recreated and expanded on the type of conversation written in the script. A FoxNews interview with Blair Underwood settles on "workshop" as the best way to describe the film.], I'd rather deflect the whole issue toward something "serious." Here's Joel Klein in a New Yorker column about Hilary Clinton's strong showing at that Democratic meeting in NYC last week:


But political deftness and ease of delivery were not the most impressive things about the Senator's turn: Clinton was the only speaker who didn't make an advance text available to the press. Apparently, she winged it. A day later, in response to a call to the Senator's office requesting a copy of the speech, a press aide said, "Sorry, but it's still being transcribed."

Don't contrast this with the seemingly adlibbed (and immediate Moment of Zen) George Bush comment I mentioned yesterday. Contrast it with the most distracting thing about listening to Bush read his speeches, the way he always pauses at what seem to be linebreaks on his index cards. It's almost like listening to Christopher Reeves on a respirator or to a lighthouse keeper who's conditioned to pause every five seconds, whether the foghorn's on or not. I mentioned this several months ago to a friend with very close ties to the Bush speechwriters, but I haven't been detained yet. All the same, I couldn't find any articles online talking about this Cageian Bushism. Am I the only one who hears this bomb's tic?

The reviews of Full Frontal are coming in, and it's not sounding good. Here's a broad cross-section from the global media: New York Press ("Even a bad Steven Soderbergh movie is worth seeing, and Full Frontal is worth seeing."); New Yorker ("...perhaps the most navely awful movie I've seen from the hand of a major director."); the New York Observer("...reminds me how new movies like Full Frontal bring out all the Old Hollywood in me. Still, I liked seeing all the major stars." [Andrew Sarris, apparently channeling a 13-year old girl]); and The New York Times (Quoting Soderbergh's own footnote back at him: "'This is exactly the kind of onanistic, self-referential game-playing the author insisted would be absent from this book. So is this.' And so is Full Frontal." "Full Frontal is rated R. It includes much swearing, two scenes of sexuality and the violent dismemberment of narrative continuity.")

Is this just typical overheated advance hype giving way to inevitably unmet expectations? I'm skeptical. With Full Frontal, there's a specific kind of advance hype, "Making Of " hype. Soderbergh is "getting back to his indie roots"; an 18-day bootstrap production with DV; Julia Roberts driving herself and doing her own makeup (!!). It included a tech-heavy feature on Apple.com and a hothouse "production diary" website.

Generating & satisfying interest in "how'd they do that?" is a tried & true buzz tactic at a film's release, or when it's released on DVD (where studios are learning how to cash in with war story-filled commentary tracks and carefully selected outtakes). Full Frontal. Stolen Summer. Goldeneye. Is it inevitable that heavy pre-film process promotion will yield a sucky film?

But no one's shown how to successfully capitalize on the meta- aspects of filmmaking in the early stages of the cycle. The interest is clearly there, at least for films with pre-identified fan bases (e.g., franchises, name directors, star vehicles); sites like The Force.net, Harry Knowles' AICN, and Kevin Smith's View Askew, as well as the remora-like programming of E! et al attest to that. Even as visionary newcomers seek the right balance between process and product, when studios show us how they make the sausage, the result (so far) is pretty unappetizing.

"The advantage of [shooting on digital video] is that nobody knows, or at least cares, that you're making a movie; the disadvantage...is that the end product appears to have been filmed through a triple layer of bubble wrap."
- from Anthony Lane's
New Yorker review of Tadpole, the latest from IFC Productions' InDigEnt.

Compare this to the complicated process Steven Soderbergh used to get "enhanced graininess" on his new DV movie, Full Frontal (from an apple.com article):

Finish
FotoKem received the final cut of the original movie in PAL video, de-interlaced it and converted it to files using a disk array. The files were shipped across the network to their film recorder, which had been calibrated to shoot on 5298 film to enhance graininess. A two-stop push during negative processing further enhanced grain and contrast. A double chrome-reversal process was used to create the final negative and print. The 4:3 images were matted and converted to a1:66:1 (European) widescreen aspect ratio for theatrical projection. Fine-grade bubble wrap was then placed over the projector lens at the press preview.

July 14, 2002

Traffic School

I may be the newest proponent of home schooling, home film schooling, anyway. Spent the afternoon watching the Criterion Collection edition of Traffic, which--in addition to three complete commentary tracks (dir./writer; producers, consultant/composer)--has a supplemental DVD with 25 deleted scenes, piles of additional footage (Soderbergh shot everything on two or three cameras) and editing, dialogue and film processing details. [Just stop dithering and buy it now. Amazon's at least as cheap as any store.]

1) I'd forgotten what a watchable movie it is, and how stylized it is, too. The characters are laid out with real economy, to the point that almost all the deleted scenes--even the interesting, good ones--seem superfluous. The supporting characters especially, like Michael Douglas' aide in DC, his daughters' friends, Selma Hayek's drug moll, even the witnesses in the kingpin trial, deliver these lines that successfully carry the whole weight of their characters.

2) Listening to Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan was as entertaining as it was educational. There were hi-larious war stories as well as great bits of insight. In the scene where the drug dealer's going at it with Douglas' daughter, it's a wacky revelation to hear Soderbergh describe shooting from under the sweaty, nude dude. ("You're a fine-looking man, Steven," cracks the screenwriter.)

3) Stephen Mirrione gives some really interesting discussion of editing, especially the building process for one of the most complicated scenes, the teen overdose with Douglas' daughter. In editing Souvenir, our scenes had a far less layered structure; it was more sequential. Of course, none of our scenes are as intricately edited as the overdose scene, which grows increasingly (seemingly) chaotic, but which turns out to have a complex, layered rhythm when you look at the editing timeline.

[As I write this, there's a character--a callous, crazy robber--on The Practice named Gavin Brown, which is (coincidentally?) the name of an art dealer friend. Did the writer or director have trouble getting on the waitlist for work from one of Gavin's artists? When I was subletting my apartment from a writer for Melrose Place, a pompous, materialistic Wharton MBA named Craig turned up for a few episodes. I found out she'd changed it from Greg because she liked me. Which reminds me of another friend, Euan, who's onetime roommate turned their swingin' life into a shortlived WB sitcom. The Takeaway: be careful of befriending screenwriters.

Welcome to the party! This week, another weblog launched documenting the conception, birth and life of an independent film. Cyan Pictures is the brainchild of two guys, Joshua Newman (aka "a veritable Doogie Howser") and Colin Spoelman (aka, a veritable Vinnie Delpino, I guess). As Newman notes on his personal site, self-aggrandizement.com, their's is the "the web's first moviemaking weblog." [of the week, I guess. I added them to the short list.]

They, too, are starting with a short and a film festival target (Sundance for them, Cannes for Souvenir November 2001). and have just posted the first public version of their script. I wish them all the best. Stay tuned. (via Kottke.org)

Yeah, yeah, I'm working on a post-preview screening post, but in the mean time, There's this crackup exchange from the courtroom where Woody Allen gave testimony in his lawsuit against his one-time producers and friends (as excerpted in the NY Times):


[Woody Allen] would have answered them at considerably greater length had Justice Gammerman not frequently, if good-naturedly, cut him off.

When Ms. Weiss asked Mr. Allen if he was now working on a movie, he replied, "Yes, and that's why I haven't been able to be here all the time, because "

" `Yes' is the answer," Judge Gammerman said.

Mr. Allen continued. "Because I have a film crew out now, shooting on the streets of New York, and I'm trying to "

"Stop talking," the judge said.

"Stop talking?" Mr. Allen asked, somewhat incredulous.

"Yes," Judge Gammerman said. "I'm the director here."

A few minutes later, Ms. Weiss asked Mr. Allen whether he considered his longtime business manager, Stephen Tenenbaum, a close friend.

"Yes," Mr. Allen said, "he's a trusted friend who "

" `Yes' is the answer," Judge Gammerman said again.

"She could ask you the questions!" Mr. Allen said to the judge.

"If I know the answer," the judge said, "I'll answer them."

May 23, 2002

Director's Headshot

One of the reasons I'd delayed submitting to some festivals was (of all things) my lack of a "director's photo (B/W)," which some festivals require. Last week, Roe Ethridge, a friend and artist whose work I've collected for three-plus years, took some photos of me. In the pinch, I scanned in a Polaroid and printed it out for the submission packets, but there are real prints on the way.


Roe works as a photographer for a huge pile of magazines. While the photos he took with Julian Laverdiere to develop the Towers of Light/Tribute in Light may be more widely seen, his extremely smart style shows through much better in the photo he took of Andrew W.K., which is everywhere, including on the cover of I Get Wet, and on T-shirts.


As if that weren't enough, he's got a show of his work at Andrew Kreps Gallery which got great reviews in Artforum, The New Yorker [note: time sensitive link], and The Village Voice[inexplicably, there's no link to their picks].


As if that weren't enough, the show's selling like crazy. I even got smoked when I was too slow to commit to a photo; the last one sold to the Mexican billionaire collector (you know the guy). Check it out until June 01.

August 5, 2001

Since I made the decision

Since I made the decision to actually go forward and shoot this film project (rather than just ruminate over it and periodically outline it), I've been watching films in slightly changed light. Now, I'm much more conscious of really parsing out:

what a director's intentions were,

when something was executed (i.e., writing, acting, directing, setting, editing, etc.)

how he/she did it (i.e., technical processes, decisionmaking process).

I basically have gotten into full "influence/tool/idea absorption mode. The result so far is a list of films I've seen or re-seen recently that have an impact on me and this project in some way (all links are to imdb and/or amazon):


  • Agnes Varda's The Gleaners - a simple, powerful movie--shot on DV--that basically pushed me over the edge to make this film.
  • Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - Bizarre if you get right down to it, but an essentially unique film that I've fixated on. I'm not making a bittersweet, technicolor french musical, though. [DVD]
  • Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life - unassuming, thought-provoking, frankly touching, and carefully made (Kore-eda interviewed over 500 people for the film and included some of these non-actors in the production). [DVD]
  • Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge - What is it about me and unconventional musicals? I was heartened that such a singular vision of a film could be realized, even if it's not completely successful. It blew me away in some ways, though. [soundtrack]
  • Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (Redux) - We saw it last night, first time on the big screen. Yow. Overwhelming. Whether it was just me, or the re-edit, or the big screen, it was definitely better than I remembered it. But basically, it's the diametric opposite of what I'm trying to do with this film. In so many ways. [DVD]
  • Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line - I can't seem to stop watching this movie, whose release got so overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan (it seems silly to put them side by side for anything now...). It makes me want to shoot quavering fields of sun-dappled grass, though. [DVD]
  • Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue - a 10-part made-for-Polish TV masterpiece of subtle, yet extremely deliberate storytelling based (somewhat thematically) on the Ten Commandments. Kieslowski's sense of narrative and of portraying the inter-related nature of individuals' lives and actions is an inspiration. [DVD]

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    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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