VANITY ON THE CLOCK

If you’ve worked on a film set, you know how important it is to remain on schedule.  The art of scheduling a movie accurately is really one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process.

In order to schedule a movie, clear communication needs to take place between the crew and cast who will shape it.  Some DP’s will want to spend hours lighting “that shot” while some actors want another hour to prep for the scene – and soon you’re behind schedule.

The first thing I do is limit the DP set up time.  If he or she has truly given it some thought, there will be an easy way to light nearly any scene in less than 15-30 minutes.  On any given budget.  But, it takes the self-discipline to be able to sit down and plan it.  If you wait to decide what to do until you show up on the set, you won’t know what you’re doing until you get there.  In that case, you will not be prepared and it could take a long time before the camera team is ready to get the shot.

Another thing I do is tell my actors to show up Make-Up and Hair ready.  In some cases I have hired a hair and make-up person, but I tell them to be in charge of their own schedule.  And if Hillary needs to be camera ready at 3pm, she should be on set at 3pm.  It’s the responsibility of the make-up artist and Hillary to make sure this happens.

Preferably there won’t be any make-up or hair person, and each actor can just be responsible for doing it themselves.  If my actor isn’t comfortable doing it on their own,  they can hire their own make-up artist.  I’m happy to give the artist credit in the movie, but they most likely won’t be a part of our overall schedule and planning process.

I understand that everyone wants to look his or her best whether it’s in front of or behind the camera.  The DP wants the best lighting, the actors want to look their best, the props, costumes, all of it.  Each person wants to achieve their best.  And I think that’s great!  When I’m directing something, I want it to be the best possible experience for the viewer.  So I totally get everyone wanting to be and do his or her best.

What I don’t understand is how few people are really willing to take responsibility for themselves to make sure they achieve their goals.  I sketch storyboards before showing up on the set.  There’s no reason the DP can’t look at them and design his lighting plan in advance.  There’s no reason the actors can’t look at them and know which side of their face will be seen.

I made my storyboards available to the cast and crew of FIRECRACKER and I believe only about four people (out of 42) looked at them.  Karen Black was one of them.  There was only one moment Karen didn’t like where I was putting the camera.  But, I told her that now wasn’t the time for that discussion.  The time for conversation was all those weeks earlier when we went through each storyboard together.

Since I filmed FIRECRACKER, I’ve never had an unorganized shooting day.  And I’ve never been behind schedule.  Even if I’ve experienced a scene running over the pre-planned time, I average about an hour ahead of the scheduled wrap time each day.

Yes, it is possible to make a feature film wherein you don’t have to work 12-14 hours a day.  The trick is to check vanity at the door, really communicate with clarity and focus, and work with people who love taking responsibility for managing themselves realistically.

WORDS AND IMAGES

Roberto Rossellini, the director, and Isabella’s father, once said, “Do you know how many words it takes to adequately explain an image that will register, in your mind, the total meaning in a split second?”

Let’s think about that for a moment.

I don’t know the answer to his question, but my first thought is that it would take an enormous amount of words.  There are endless ways to describe something.  Those of us who have studied scene analysis from already completed movies know that a simple five-minute scene might take an entire day to film.  Stepping back another level, we examine the script for that scene and discover it’s only a couple pages long.  And when we examine the script used during the filming, we discover how little of what we see on screen had been previously written.

Films are made up of pictures, which spawn emotions and tug at our full understanding of feelings and perspective.  Even when the viewer is looking at the same scene, each person will be watching it from a different history.  People come from different backgrounds, different upbringings, and each have different viewpoints.

There are only a couple reasons I can see for a screenplay.  One is to communicate to the actors what they will say and (to some degree) where they should stand, move or sit.  Although the director, or each actor, may change that to suit the actual location of filming, or rhythm of the scene when its played out.  Another purpose for a screenplay is to keep track of the skeleton of the story.  If the skeleton is solid, and the foundation secure, the scenes themselves might end up in any number of possible outcomes.

It is totally possible to shoot a movie without using a traditional screenplay.  If you intend to do this, my advice is to work with really great actors.  Especially if they have any kind of writing background or improv coaching.  Actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy joined their director Richard Linklater with Best Screenplay Oscar nominations for the BEFORE SUNSET and BEFORE MIDNIGHT movies because they made those movies in this fashion.

I’ve recently started working on a similar project and am extremely excited to experience what it’s like to work in a world like that.  There is something ultimately freeing about it, and that excites me.

STRUCTURE is the best word I can use to describe prepping for something like this.  Each scene has a purpose.  Every scene in a movie starts at 1 and ends at 3.  There will always be a 2 in between.  Of course you can just decide whatever is the most obvious way to get from 1 to 3 and use that, but you might find there are several ways to move through 2 that will still lead you to 3.  So why not film the alternative 2’s and decide in the editing room which one works the best?

Sometimes there is no time or budget for this kind of filmmaking, and I understand that on certain days during your shoot you might not have that kind of ultimate freedom.  But my suggestion is to find that freedom whenever you can.  And remember that freedom is what makes a truly independent filmmaker.

THE “INDEPENDENT” SPIRIT AWARDS

Did you know that the word “independent” as used by the media, Hollywood, and most filmmakers has actually nothing to do with the true definition of the word?  Did you know that the term “independent” is actually used by those people as a description for a new genre?

If there were any doubt in your mind, you can now rest easy.  Here’s proof.

Your “independent” film is eligible for consideration at the “Independent” Spirit Awards if your film cost less than $20 million.  That’s right.  TWENTY Million Dollars.  (I laughed out loud when I read that.  Literally.  Beyond LOL.)

If Film Independent had any real interest in celebrating the art of true independent filmmaking, they would limit the budget ceiling at $250,000 including post work.  A film made for anything greater than that amount should never be considered.  On that note, they should have a special prize for films made for less than $50,000.  (Currently the ‘no budget’ film category considers any film made for less than $500,000.)

Film Independent does not define “independent” solely on financial terms.  I bet you didn’t know that Film Independent considers a big-budget studio-made film an indie “if the subject matter is original and provocative.”

That means the word Independent is just like Comedy, Drama, or Thriller.  It’s now a genre.

[In terms of financing, Film Independent looks for “economy of means” and “percentage of financing from independent sources.”]

Uh huh.  I bet.

[The film needs to be American, which means it has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in at least two of the following categories: director, writer or producer.  For example, Saudi Arabia’s Oscar entry “Wadjda,” with a Spirit nomination for best first feature, is an American co-production, while the directors of Danish-British-Norwegian docu “The Act of Killing” are U.S. citizens.  Alternately, a film can be considered American if it is set primarily in the U.S. and at least 70% financed by U.S.-based companies.  Everything else is considered international.]

That seems okay to me.  Although, I’d open it up to the International market to be fair.

[To be eligible for the Film Independent “Independent” Spirit Awards, a film needs a commercial run in the calendar year or to have screened in one of these six designated festivals: Los Angeles Film Fest, New Directors/New Films, New York Fest, Sundance, Telluride or Toronto.]

[Nominations for the Spirit Awards are made by committees for three areas: American narrative films, international narratives and documentaries.  The committees include filmmakers (directors, producers, actors, etc.), film programmers and critics, past nominees and members of the board of directors.  The final awards are voted on by the entire Film Independent membership.  In 2013, there were 43 committee members looking at 325 entries.]

So there you have it.  The word “independent” as it relates to movies has been totally redefined.  It no longer means what it says in the dictionary.

DENNIS HOPPER’S HOUSE

Pulling up to his compound on a side-street in Venice Beach, California, not far from the beach, I was struck by the surreal corrugated metal façade.  If I hadn’t known he lived there, it would make sense that someone offbeat did.  And the white picket fence out front, planted firmly with tongue in cheek, was the perfect touch.

My dad, Clark, was with me.  We were ushered in the front door and navigated a seemingly endless row of classic cars, luxury cars and more cars.  At the end of the parking area we climbed a flight of stairs that was open to the second floor, with an enormous ceiling probably 20 feet high.  As we climbed it became brighter and brighter, and I took notice of the original Warhols, Basquiats, and other incredible pieces of modern art.  (Later I would learn that his collection was vast, valued at $10 million.)

My favorite lesson was finding out Dennis shot two bullet holes through an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong.  And, instead of Warhol freaking out about it, he called Hopper “a collaborator.”

At the top of the staircase I was surprised at how plain his house was.  Just one big space with dining area on one side and sitting area on the next, kitchen beyond, and a doorway to the bedrooms.  Hopper’s then wife Victoria was in the kitchen and greeted us as Hopper came in from the back wearing sweats and a hoodie.

I’d brought him a gift.  A coffee table book of photographs called BACKYARD VISIONARIES.  Dennis grew up in Kansas, down the street from my grandmother’s home in Dodge City.  He loved the book.

The first thing he told us was that he thought FIRECRACKER was one of the best scripts he’d ever read.  I presented him with my storyboards of every shot of the entire film.  He carefully read it, commenting how amazing this film would be.

He proposed coming to Kansas for five days to play the character FRANK, and then we settled back and spoke about life and other interests.  Dennis had been in negotiations with Lehman Brothers (the former global financial services firm) to produce 10 feature films for $10 million each.  Lehman would bankroll the venture for $100 million and Hopper would be in charge of the slate.  Hopper asked if we could use FIRECRACKER as the first of these projects.  I was over the moon.  “Of course we could,” I said.  And we shook hands.

(Eventually the Lehman deal fell through.  Lehman changed their offer to Hopper and said they only wanted to put up $50 million, telling Hopper he had to come up with the other $50 million.  He told them to forget it.)

At some point during the discussion Victoria turned on the television and we watched in horror as reports came in that the Concorde had crashed on take off in France.  My sister and I had flown the Concorde back from the Cannes Film festival when my film PEP SQUAD had premiered.  We talked about how incredibly small it was inside and how anyone over six feet tall couldn’t stand up straight walking down the aisle.

Dennis Hopper was a fascinating man and a super nice guy.  He was complimentary of my work and gave me some damn good advice.  It’s a shame we didn’t have the chance to work together before he became ill.  When I learned of his passing, I took a moment to remember the Backyard Visionary he was when he started out making art and movies, and I smiled.

Dennis Hopper's house

Dennis Hopper’s house