A Chair is a Chair is a Chair

Have you ever heard someone comment, “My, that’s a bad chair!”?  I doubt it, for there really is no such thing as a ‘bad’ chair or a ‘good’ chair.  There are simply different levels of craftsmanship involved in making a chair, and, of course, a variety of finishing techniques and overall aesthetics.  Some chairs are spit out on an assembly line by the thousands, while other chairs are made by hand.  Some chairs have cushions, some have armrests, and others even have accessories (i.e. little cup holders, rocking abilities, foot rests, etc.).  In any case, it remains a chair.  The purpose of which is to be sat upon.

The people who sit on chairs all share the same activity.  They sit.  Sure, some people have poor posture, but in general, I can’t see how someone could be a ‘good’ sitter or a ‘bad’ sitter.  Never do people go to a dinner party and loudly complain, “Francis, look at the way you’re sitting in that chair!  It’s bad!  Just awful!”  In fact, it makes me wonder, how, exactly, could Francis be sitting badly?  His rear end is fixated on the seat!  Both feet are on the floor!  Sure, he’s got a bad back, which makes him lean a little to the left, but nevertheless, Francis *is* sitting in the chair.  The only way, from my point of view, Francis could fail in his sitting, is if he weren’t sitting at all!  It would seem to me that only when one stands is it appropriate to attack their ability or talent to sit.  “Francis, you’re NOT sitting!”  Perhaps those few people who, in their attempt to sit, miss the chair completely and plummet to the floor, are guilty of poor sitting, but the indignity of missing the chair would seem to be punishment enough, without adding insult to injury by bringing their failure to their attention.

Like the people who fail to sit in chairs, I believe it’s only acceptable to attack an actor when he or she has failed to appear in a film.  Michelle Pfieffer, for instance, is bad for failing to appear in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Likewise, so are Whoopie Goldberg, Demi Moore, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon and all the other actresses who didn’t appear in that film.  Shame on them.

Don’t get me wrong – some actors look great in any movie, while others do not.  Jodie Foster, for instance, looks equally as great sitting in a plush sofa from Eddie Bauer as she does swiveling on an Eames with black leather ottoman.  Other people, like Ned Beatty, for instance, aren’t necessarily the best looking sitters.  There are some people, without a doubt, that should avoid sitting on certain chairs.  But that is all about looks, not general sitting ability.

Movies, it can be argued, like chairs, are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – they simply have different levels of craftsmanship.  What’s the difference in how Thomasville, Broyhill, or Ethan Allen chairs are made?  Very little that I can see.  Sure, the shapes and textures differ, but they seem to be built in the same fashion.  Much like films made by committee, they seem safely appealing to most, and, I agree, manufactured with skill (read: they aren’t going to fall apart).  Ron Howard’s movies are like these.  So are Martin Scorsese’s for that matter.  There is nothing more or less exceptional about either.

Some chairs, like those sold at Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, are constructed with equal skill, but have aesthetics (and prices) that appeal to a different buyer.  Alexander Payne makes this kind of work.  Clint Eastwood reminds me of Eddie Bauer.  And don’t get me started on Robert Redford and his overpriced Sundance clothing line!

Marketing and selling a motion picture is just like marketing and selling furniture.  Pottery Barn needs to sell thousands, if not millions, whereas Eames is happy to sell a few hundred.  BLAIR WITCH, while poorly made, still sold millions.  That movie in particular is just like furniture sold at Wal-mart.  And in retrospect, the people who buy furniture at Wal-mart are, probably, not going to buy an Eames.  And, like an Eames, EYES WIDE SHUT, while one of the best-crafted motion pictures ever made, didn’t appeal to the masses.

Within all of these examples lies genre.  The genre of Pier 1 furniture is a very different genre than that of Broyhill.  Quentin Tarantino films, which resemble Pier 1 (read: often made with cheap components), tend to fall apart a lot sooner than, say, a Broyhill nightstand, which has the solid construction of a Francis Ford Coppola film.

You can tell what kinds of films people like by taking a look around their living room. What kinds of furniture do they have?  Do they prefer to sit upon a chair made of plastic, mesh, wood or steel?  Do they sleep on an air bed or a top of the line Sealy?  Where do they eat dinner – on the floor, on the sofa, or at a solid oak dining table?

On my street we understand movies are like pieces of furniture.  We know what separates a Horchow from an IKEA.  We acknowledge there are similarities and differences.  But whether it’s manufactured by the thousands or made one at a time, the bottom line is – it’s only a movie.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)

DIRECTING SEX SCENES

Some people say there’s nothing sexy about doing a sex scene.  I’d like to say that’s true, but the truth is, sometimes they can be incredibly sexy.  Perhaps they aren’t doing it right.  Anyway, one of the tricks to filming a sex scene is almost exactly the same trick as filming a scene with gruesome violence.  Basically, anything that is supposed to be graphic should always follow this rule: less is more.

Give the audience something to feel and they will feel it.  If you show it to them, they will not feel it.  Instead, they will look at it.  The more they see, the less they feel.  Whereas, if you limit the graphic shots, you will give the audience a visceral reaction to what you’re showing them.

In my film WATCH OUT there’s a scene in the end where the actor playing Jonathan Barrows cuts the toes off a Britney Spears type popstar played brilliantly by Jillian Lauren.  The only reason this scene works is because the graphic visuals are kept to a strict minimum.  I think there are three times we see something graphic in that scene, and each shot is less than a second.  The narration and sound effects create something so gross and violent that the audience doesn’t really know that they are, in fact, not really seeing anything.

The best sex scenes are done in the same way.  The more you hear breathing, see shots of skin in the shadows, and careful camera angles to avoid seeing anything explicit, the more erotic it will be.

In my film CASSEROLE CLUB, the sex scenes are primarily raw and gritty, not really all that sexy, but rather, off putting.  The story is about the destruction of relationships, so the sex in the film needed to be treated in a gritty way that is more realistic than most slickly shot sex scenes.

Filming those scenes with actors can sometimes be difficult but they don’t have to be.  One of the tricks is to get the actors together and ask them what parts of their bodies are they comfortable with, and what parts of their bodies are they uncomfortable with.  Most people know their own bodies well enough to tell you from what angle certain shapes or features are accentuated, and which angles to avoid.

If you can bring your actors into the creation of the sex scene (or a graphically violent scene), they will be more comfortable in the process of filming it.  It’s also a good idea to keep them as relaxed as possible or else it will show on screen.  Unless the intent is to show nervousness, in which case, I might avoid getting them involved in order to accent their nervousness.

If you’re doing a sex scene with a woman who loves her breasts but hates the way her butt looks, or a guy who loves his ass but doesn’t think his abs are good enough, it can be really fun to use these obstacles as fuel.  Don’t think about them as obstacles, but rather, an exciting experiment in creation.  How can you storyboard a list of shots that gives the actors what they want, and also the audience what they want, without compromising either side?  I love challenges like those.

It’s also a good idea to have a closed set when doing any kind of graphic scene.  There’s no reason for every person to be present.  In reality, you only need the DP, the director and the sound guy.  Gaffers and grips, Assistants and the like, can easily step outside for the take and return immediately after the shot.  The less people present, the more comfortable the actors and the better the scene will be.

WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK? (Part 1 of 2)

Over the years, as I’ve worked on different projects, and gained more knowledge, and experience, I’ve learned a great deal about perspective and how movies impact people.  I’ve also learned a lot about how writers, actors, and other creative people feel about things.

Once, I finished a feature with a certain leading actor who was simply riveting in his role.  But his perspective was different.  He thought his performance was horrible, and that he just sucked.  I was flabbergasted because his performance was so well done, I didn’t understand why he couldn’t see it.

I learned that his own internal feelings were affecting his ability to see the situation from way up in a hot air balloon, looking down.  And, it wasn’t until the accolades started coming in that he began to understand that he did a good job.  He even won a few awards.  Still, though, there’s an internal struggle that keeps him from appreciating what he did.  And I suspect he’ll carry that with him for many years, until he’s able to one day see what he did, and know what he did.

It’s the not-knowing that causes the greatest hurt inside.  For that leading actor, he wasn’t experienced enough to know what he saw.  So in that not knowing, his fears crept up and lingered.  On the flip-side, the experienced actors in that same movie knew what they saw, both in their own performances and also in that leading actor’s.  They assured him he was fantastic yet he didn’t really believe them.  Why?  My hunch is that he didn’t believe in his own perspective enough to trust theirs.  Or mine.  And so he remained in that self-doubt, and self-unknowing.

I sent the guy a note explaining to him that his performance was incredible.  He performed exactly how I wanted and directed him to do.  By telling me he thought his acting sucked, he was also telling me that he didn’t respect my vision and that he didn’t trust my perspective.

I told him that I understood he didn’t like, or didn’t understand, his performance, but that when he disagrees with my assessment that he did exactly what I wanted him to do, director to actor, it is incredibly insulting.  He apologized and told me he didn’t want me to take it that way, but it was too late.  He’d already said it.

It was his first time at the Rodeo.  I knew that, and I know that he probably won’t fully begin to understand the perspective of what a movie is until he’s done several more.  But, his fear that gripped him over the first one is probably a reason why he hasn’t done any others.

When I first started making movies I hadn’t fully grasped what it meant to hear the influx of opinions after I’d finished a movie.  It gave me a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress.  Until I learned that there was nothing I could do about how other people perceived things.  What I needed to do, instead, was stay true to my own perspective.  And by staying true to my eyes, my perspective and in my clarity, I have been able to build a confidence that it essential for any artist.

A film is a work of art.  And, like art, there will be people who love it and people who hate it and people who walk past it on the wall and feel nothing about it at all.

Be true to your own perspective.  And, keep going.

WRITE A MANIFESTO

When I’m casting and crewing a movie, before I take a look at anyone’s skill level or talent, or resume, I insist they read and sign a manifesto.  Only after I receive the signed manifesto will I consider working with them.

This manifesto is a brief history of who I am, what I’m about, and what it’s like to work with me.  About 75-80% of people who read the manifesto are moved by it, and are more excited than ever to climb aboard.  But, the others walk away offended and irate.  Some have even written threatening letters to me in response to reading the manifesto.

It doesn’t matter who likes it and who doesn’t.  But what matters is I’m weeding out the types of people who I don’t want to work with, and the personality traits that simply won’t get along with people on the set.

This is why I believe it’s a good idea for everyone to make a manifesto.  Tell everyone from the get-go what it’s going to be like.  Be honest and direct.  This will promote clarity and focus and you’ll avoid all the problems later on.  There will be no surprises, and everyone is on the same page.

In my case, unless it’s absolutely necessary visually to the film or character, I insist that all the actors do their own hair and make-up.  It omits the need for a make-up artist, saving money, and will save hours of time each day on your shoot.  I explain this in my manifesto and anyone who is incapable of doing their make-up, but agree with everything else, will sometimes write and ask if there’s someone else in the cast or crew who might help them.  Those cases have happened, and I just tell the actor it’s their responsibility.  If they want a friend to do it, or if they want to hire a make-up artist to come and work on them personally, that’s fine with me.  I’ll even give them a credit in the movie.  But they won’t be on the payroll, and they’ll likely need to feed themselves.

Let’s say you’re doing a movie like CASSEROLE CLUB where you’re going to rent a house that everyone will stay in together.  You’ll want to explain that in your manifesto so that everyone knows they’re going to have to share a bathroom (or will they have a private one), or whether or not they’ll be sharing a room with someone else, etcetera.  I’ve known filmmakers who fail to explain this until their actors show up on location, and each time they tell me, “I’m afraid they’ll quit if I tell them.”  Which always confuses me, so I reply with, “Yes, but if they’re going to quit, do you want them to quit now when you have time to recast, or would you rather wait for them to quit when they show up at the set and you have no time to recast?”

Always be honest, and let people know what they’re getting into.  If they don’t like you, and don’t like what you’re doing, that’s okay.  It’s better to find out before you’ve invested any time working with them or getting to know them.  There are millions of people out there who would be great on your crew or in your movie.  Find them instead.

I also like to incorporate a questionnaire with my manifesto.  Some of the questions are, “Would you share a room with someone” or “are you on any kind of medication which affects your ability to drive a vehicle” or “do you have any food allergies?”  This will help pair people up who are okay to share rooms, and select single rooms for people who don’t want to.  It also helps to know if someone has a food allergy so when you’re planning meals, you can make sure to have something for them.  On that note, I think that food allergies are meant to be taken seriously, but if someone says they just don’t like to eat meat, even though they do eat it from time to time, there’s no reason to mark them down as vegetarian.

My manifesto changes for each movie, so I’m not going to post it publicly.  But if you’re interested in reading it, shoot me an email and I’m happy to share it.

KAREN BLACK

I first met the actress Karen Black in 2001 when I stopped by her house to try and persuade her to star in my film FIRECRACKER.  She knew I was coming, so she let me in.  I was instantly hooked on watching her body movements and facial expressions.  There was something about her entire being that reminded me of a wild cat… like a panther or a jaguar.

She seemed to float on the air, feet never touching the ground.  I would later remember this and encourage the Oscar-winning sound designer Paul N. J. Ottosson to remove Karen Black’s foley from one of her characters in FIRECRACKER so she would appear to subconsciously float, otherworldly through the film.

Karen eventually agreed to star in FIRECRACKER and we went about making the film.  She was an incredible trooper on set.  One of my favorite scenes is when her character Sandra leans out of her gypsy wagon to talk to the young boy.  During filming, when it was time to reverse the camera and get the kid’s shot, it was nearly 5 AM and we’d been filming since long before sunset.  Several people on the crew were worried about getting Karen back to her room so she could sleep but she stood firm, and refused to go.  She wanted to stay and be there to act with the kid who was being filmed.  She was a total pro.

In the years after FIRECRACKER came out, Karen and I remained good friends and I’d look her up every time I was in Los Angeles.  We always daydreamed of another project and when we would be able to work together again.

In 2008, Karen was being honored at the Macon Film Festival and they were to show my film FIRECRACKER, so I was flown in to present it with her.  It was such a lovely town, we decided to make a movie there.  Screenwriter Frankie Krainz had just finished his ode to film noir women in prison movies, and Karen said, “I’ve always wanted to be in a women’s prison movie and no one’s ever asked me to be in one.  Isn’t that peculiar?”  So we decided to make STUCK! together.

At first I’d thought of casting John Waters’ muse Mink Stole as the part of the Next Door Neighbor Lady, and Karen as the bible-beating shooter on death row for gunning down an entire fleet of tax collectors.  Karen really wanted the part I had in mind for Mink, and eventually I convinced Mink to take the part I’d originally had in mind for Karen.  It ended up being a great switch, and both women were perfect in their roles.

One of my favorite moments during the filming of STUCK! came when we were shooting a scene near the end of the film, where Karen’s character is riddled with guilt.  In that room, on the set, we turned to each other after a take and looked around.  It was just the three of us.  Karen, me, and my sound guy.  I made the comment about how amazing this was, this experience.  How intimate and real and honest.  She smiled and said, “THIS is filmmaking.”

I am so very lucky to have been able to work with her and to be her friend.

Last week Karen Black passed away after a long battle with ampullary cancer, a rare form similar to pancreatic cancer.

The days leading up to her death were filled with lovely texts and email exchanges.  One night, I sent her this text:

“I had a cry for you today.  In your honor.  I was sitting in my editing room, which is the same room you loved, on the second floor, with the North facing windows.  And I smiled.  And felt your love and support.  And I hope you can feel mine for you.  You are a treasure.  After work I like to go outside in my yard and look up at trees, see the leaves and the branches.  All those shapes and lines.  You once taught me its important to do that after sitting at a computer.  You also have taught me the gift of collaboration.  I shall never forget those incredible moments creating with you.  I love you with all my heart.  Now.  Next.  And then some.  Cheers, my dear.  To YOU!”

She replied with kisses and was eager to hear about what I was working on next.  It was such a blessing to have had the chance to say farewell to her personally.  And it was so lovely to just keep on going.

Please, everyone.  Take a moment and watch this clip of Karen’s most memorable films.

Our film FIRECRACKER is now streaming on demand.

Dear Karen:  Know that you are loved and will be missed.  Thank you for being one of my collaborators, one of my cohorts and my friend.