WE SEE WHAT WE KNOW

But, do we know what we see?  I don’t think we do.  The other day I received a stunning photograph of my nephew.  Maryann Bates, an award-winning photographer and nominee of the Pulitzer Prize in Photographic Journalism, had taken it.  When I sent it to my family, my brother responded with “I’ll fix the glare so it’ll be ready for print.”

I laughed, because this is a trait amongst our family.  My grandfather was this way; my parents are this way, my siblings, cousins, and myself to some degree.  We could watch the greatest performance on earth by any given artist and know deep down how it could’ve been done better.

But then I started to think about it.  Backlighting (the process by which a light source is placed behind someone’s head, to give a glow around the edges, almost like they have a halo) is a classic trick in romantic photography.  The practice of backlighting has been used endless times by the world’s greatest cinematographers, portrait photographers, and painted by the Renaissance masters.

Yet, in this instance, the art of backlighting had been misunderstood and somehow defined as something needing to be corrected.  Was it possible that my brother hadn’t learned of backlighting?  Perhaps he’s never seen backlighting used in any photographs or artwork before.  This is hard to fathom but it does make sense, and brings me to wonder about how I see things.

When I look at something, I know what I see.  I take it in, and if it’s new to me, sometimes I’m excited, sometimes I’m sickened, but overall I take it in.  I try and learn about it so that I KNOW what I’m looking at.

I believe that the majority of the world does the opposite: they see what they know.  They see what they ALREADY know.  If they see something that they’ve never seen before, they define it as ‘bad’ or a ‘mistake’ or something that needs correcting.  By correcting the thing, they change what they see into something familiar to them, something they already know about.  And, once that thing has been changed into something they feel comfortable with, then they know what it is.

If someone has never been to an authentic Italian restaurant it is understandable that they believe Olive Garden is good Italian food.  If someone has never learned about different religions, or traveled abroad, or witnessed cultural diversity, it is totally understandable that they could believe that the entire world is exactly as their own city or town.  It isn’t their fault their perspective of the world is more narrow than others.  But, it does bring into question what are they teaching in schools, or in church?

Think about this, and tell me if you’ve ever been guilty of seeing what you know, instead of knowing what you see.

IS FILM A COLLABORATIVE … ART?

Filmmaking is NOT a collaborative art.  It is a collaborative PROCESS.  Those are two totally different things.  If you’re hearing this for the first time, it might seem shocking, but let me explain.

This goes across the board with any artistic endeavor, be it music, painting, or design.  Let’s use painting as the example.  One person can stretch the canvas, another person can mix the paint, but when it comes time, only one person can hold the brush—or it will look like it.  If more than one person holds the brush the painting will lack unity and the perspective will be off.  Then, of course, you can have another person sell to painting to a gallery, and yet another person at that gallery selling it to the consumer.

Sure, filmmaking by committee exists, and I have no problem with filmmaking by committee.  But people might confuse filmmaking by committee as a collaborate art—it isn’t.  It’s a collaborative process.  There always needs to be one person in charge—the head honcho—whether the director, a producer, or a studio executive.  If you have too many people making decisions, the end result will be chaotic and lack any kind of unity or focus.  Which sometimes happens, and we’ve all seen examples of the outcome.

When you’re about to make a film it’s very important to define who is the leader.  If you are merely a director who is translating what the producer tells you to do, you need to have a clear understanding of what that means.  And so does the producer.  You don’t want to wait until half way into your shoot and realize you’ve done it all wrong, that he’s in charge and you aren’t.

Once I was working with a make-up person who wouldn’t create the “faces” and looks I wanted, but rather, wanted to do it his way.  He said, “but this is my art.”  I replied, “No it isn’t.  This is about PROCESS.  It is your job to use your abilities to translate what I want, because this is my vision, my perspective.”  If we had our actors wear the make-up he wanted them to wear, the movie would’ve looked like a cartoon.  He had been hired based on his technical skill, not his taste.

On the flip-side, there are artists I’ve worked with that have an absolutely keen eye.  When we filmed THE CASSEROLE CLUB, I asked Jane Wiedlin to be my second set of eyes.  I value her opinion as an artist, and in this case, we had reached an aesthetic understanding of what we were creating, so I knew that if she had any ideas, they would be worth considering.  And they were.  Still, she knew I was in charge, but I gave her the freedom to speak up if she had an idea that could make the scene brighter, or point out something that didn’t seem right, or props that weren’t historically accurate.

As a director, if you can define your vision and share those definitions with people, chances are that when you set them free inside that spectrum, they will create something you love.  I usually like to make a list of rules that apply to every aspect of the process.  I make a “look book” that illustrates what we’re going for.  If you tell someone to make it “exotic” or “gothic” and not much else, they could come back with something appropriate for a Tim Burton movie, or at the other end of the spectrum, a look suitable for Twilight.  Neither of which may be what you want.  But, it isn’t their fault.  It’s yours.  Because you didn’t communicate effectively.  Remember: the meaning of communication is what the other person hears—not what you say.

It’s very important to illustrate verbally, visually, and in great detail, what it is you’re creating so that everyone’s on the same page.  Then, the collaborative process can be an enjoyable one.  But, remember, there must always be one person in charge and it’s important to define who that is right at the start.

SOUND MAKES A MOVIE

The sound quality of a movie is the single most important thing to focus on.  Audiences will tolerate inferior image quality if the sound is perfect, but they will not tolerate a perfect visual image if the sound is inferior.  Naturally, you want to have both the image and the sound as perfect as possible, but if you must throw more money into one or the other jars—pick the sound jar.

When I started out in the business there were specialty sound houses that produced and edited a movie’s sound.  Even if you had no money, it still cost around $50,000.  Of course, back then, we were shooting on film and had to imprint the final sound onto celluloid.  Today, since film is obsolete, and almost everyone can get a copy of ProTools, it’s possible to get the same level of sound quality those sound houses provided for a fraction.

I can’t remember all their names, but Lisa Hannan and Paul N. J. Ottosson worked at that sound house who did the post sound on my first film PEP SQUAD.  They were both incredibly nice people and also very talented.  I remember telling them I wanted my sound design to rival that of THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, that surprisingly cool movie with Geena Davis.  They agreed it would, and they did it, and the sound in PEP SQUAD is phenomenal.

Paul and I have continued to work together many times over the years, and he won back-to-back Oscars in Sound for THE HURT LOCKER and again for ZERO DARK THIRTY.  He’s the best in the business, and the lessons he taught me are immeasurable.

I’ll mention one thing he taught me during the post sound in WATCH OUT.  There’s a hilarious scene with Peter Stickles at a Lobster restaurant where the production sound had an echo to it (either because the boom wasn’t placed in the right location, or for whatever other reason).  On the reverse angle, the production sound of the other character, played by Matt Riddlehoover, was not nearly as echoey.  Instead of removing the echo from Peter’s shots, Paul added more echo to the reverse shot.  So the echo matched.

That is one lesson I loved, and that never occurred to me before.  You don’t have to have crystal clear sound, you just need to make sure the sound goes by smoothly so the audience doesn’t get sonically jarred from shot to shot, or scene to scene.  I then remembered all the “bugs” and “weather” sounds Paul used in my film FIRECRACKER.  Instead of removing the bugs, they added more.

It’s about how to take what would normally be considered an error, or a sonic mistake, and using creativity to solve the problem.  If you use this way of thinking, and have taken good steps during production to insure you’ve got at least a good foundation to your sound, you, like me, will never need to do any ADR.  I remember Paul telling me that my production sound on FIRECRACKER was better quality that the production sound in the blockbuster SPIDERMAN 2, which required a ton of ADR, and also for which he was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Another trick I learned about sound, is that if you remove the bass from the dialogue, it’s easier to hear.  Try this next time you’re in your car listening to NPR.  Put the bass and treble at equal, listen for a bit, then remove just a small bit of the bass.  See what I mean?  Or, rather, hear what I mean?

It’s also fun to play around with Foley.  And sometimes the absence of Foley.  In FIRECRACKER I wanted to have the mother’s character (played by Karen Black), have really heavy Foley – like the gravity in her world was intense.  On the flip-side, I wanted them to remove all the feet Foley when it came to the carnival world, so when the carnival singer (also played by Karen Black) walked across the room, it was as if she were floating, feet never touching the ground.  Of course, that is all absorbed subconsciously.  Most viewers never notice those kinds of things.  But, they’re fun to play with.

Creating sonic landscapes is just as much fun as creating the visuals.  Remember this next time you’re watching a movie, or making one of your own.

ACTORS BUYING ROLES

Lately there has become a huge controversy about actors buying roles, thanks to certain perks on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.  I understand the perspective of people who are against this sort of thing, but I can also understand the perspective of people who don’t think it’s a big deal.  Like me.

As an independent filmmaker (Happy INDEPENDENCE day, btw), I need funding in order to make a movie.  The amount of funding is irrelevant.  Even if you plan to shoot a movie for no money, or you aren’t paying anyone, you’ll still have to buy hard drives to store footage, and put gasoline in your car to move from one location to the next.  So when someone comes along and says, “hey, I can give you some money, but will you put me in the movie,” my response is, “Of course!”  If I said, “No, I’m morally against that sort of thing,” chances are I won’t be able to make my movie.  Or it’ll take longer to find the funding needed, and I’ll be wasting time.

I make sense of it by thinking about it as an investment.  Even if the person giving (ie. donating) money on a crowd funding website isn’t “investing” per se, they are investing in their careers.  How it is any different to spend $2,000 on headshots and acting classes when you can skip all that and just buy a role with it?

And in that same thinking, what’s the difference between that activity and someone like Jodie Foster creating a script for herself to star in?  I can’t think of one.

I know that if Stanley Kubrick was still alive and running an Indiegogo campaign, and for a $10,000 donation, I could go and be his script supervisor for two months on his latest movie, without being paid, fed, or housed, I’d jump at the chance.  And if I couldn’t afford it, I’d encourage any other filmmaker who could, to do it.  One would learn more than the best film schools combined, and it would cost a lot less.

If that scenario were true, some would say it’s unfair because all the script supervisors are out of work because I bought the job away from them.  I don’t feel badly about it.  After all, only one of them would’ve been hired to begin with.  A production doesn’t need to hire ALL of them.  So what difference does it make?

Likewise, when an actor buys a role, all the other actors out there who could’ve auditioned are now out an opportunity for work because somebody else bought their part.

I think it was the magnificent Rosanne who said, “Success isn’t something you’re given, it’s something you take.”

Going back to the Jodie Foster scenario.  Same thing.  Was she waiting around for someone else to develop and produce, and then cast herself as, NELL?  Nope.  She took the initiative and did it herself.  There are people out there who blame her because she has “privilege” because she’s a superstar, and all that.  How is her kind of privilege any different than someone who could afford to buy a job as script supervisor, or an actor who can afford to buy a role?  None so far as I can see.  Yet, why is it okay for celebrities to develop and cast themselves in parts, and it’s not okay for an unknown person to buy one as a perk?

Is the backlash directed towards the moral integrity of the person making these crowd funded movies?  Take me, for instance.  If I did a Kickstarter campaign, and offered a perk that for $2,000 you could be my script supervisor, would you call me a villain?  Would you say I’m out to take advantage of people?  I understand I’m not Kubrick, which is why my perk would cost a donation considerably less than his.  But I can assure you that the person who bought that perk would learn more on my set than spending $2,000 on seminars, books, classes, or anything else.  So isn’t that actually fair?  They’re helping me, and I’m helping them.  It’s a mutual arrangement, and one that I think is just fine.