THE OBSERVER EFFECT

Until I directed “Occupying Ed” I had a rule: never let the screenwriter on set during filming.  Why?  Because I knew—even though I’m very confident when it comes to staying focused while directing a movie—the presence of that extra set of eyes would sneak in and prevent me from being able to focus 100%.

Even if that screenwriter promised to stand in the corner and keep still, silent as can be, I would be aware of their presence.  Even if it were a small number, there would still be some kind of percentage of my focus wondering if they liked what they saw, liked what they heard, and so forth.  And, it would be doubly difficult to rewrite something in the middle of the scene if certain words just weren’t flowing as well verbally as they did on paper.

I like the freedom to rewrite a scene while we’re filming, and having the ability to feel the natural flow of what comes from letting the scene organically change when needed.  Having the screenwriter present can sometimes cause a challenge in that process.

What I’m talking about is The Observer Effect.  Which, I just learned, is an actual thing!

According to Wikipedia, The Observer Effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.  It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.

An example of The Observer Effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards.  Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds.  Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious.

On a film set, observers have a great influence on the process regardless whether they are screenwriters, production assistants, other actors, or camera crew.  It is because of this my new rule is: keep the sets closed at all times.  From everyone.  No one should be there on set but me.

Okay, I’m kidding.  I won’t go that far.  But I do think it’s a wise move to limit the numbers of eyes on a film set.  Actors are delicate creatures (cough) that need to feel safe in their environment so they can do what they do.  Same goes for directors, cinematographers and sound people.

Really there shouldn’t be anyone else on set that doesn’t need to be there.  On occasion for a tricky move, it’s important to have assistance and various crew people on hand.

Sometimes, of course, The Observer Effect is so minimal it’s as if there is no effect.  When we filmed “Occupying Ed” the screenwriter Jim Lair Beard and his wife, Christine, were extras during some scenes.  And you know what, it was an absolute pleasure to have them on set and to share in the experience.  I never once felt like my focus as director was in any way compromised.

That experience was so lovely that it changed my mind about The Observer Effect.  But, it’s still true: You can never purely observe anything because the presence of the observer changes the thing.  Keep that in mind.

EDIT WHILE YOU WORK

An effective way to save time and money during your production is to be aware of editing during each process.

The first time I’m aware of editing comes at the beginning, when I’m doing a shot list, or storyboards for the film.  I can see in my mind how the scene will be cut together, and how the rhythm of the shots will affect the pace of the movie.  Of course some of these ideas will change during the actual filming process.  But, overall, I get a really clear sense about what the viewer will experience at this early stage.

If I get the sense that the scene will end on this shot, or that shot, or in a certain moment, I will make a note in the screenplay.  Sometimes this means crossing out entire sequences.  The screenwriters I’ve worked with in my career are usually fine with this, but I can understand how sometimes screenwriters might react in a negative way.  My advice: just don’t tell them.  Or, have an agreement in place to begin with that you have creative control.

If I know I’m not going to use a particular shot in the final movie, why bother wasting the time or money on the set by filming it?

Perhaps not every person who considers himself or herself a director can see this, or know this ahead of time.  I’d suggest that if you can’t foresee what the viewer will be going through, you aren’t equipped to be a director.  Cause I really believe that’s the whole point.  In that case, perhaps you should turn your attention to working in another aspect of filmmaking, or perhaps take up film criticism professionally.

Being involved in the editing process is the easiest way to get the hang of rhythm, timing and pacing.  Every director should be his or her own film editor at least during one phase of the editing process.  It’s okay to have help on technical matters, and to bring in additional editors for multiple points of view, but the director should know when to stop the scene, where to make the cut.  Having that knowledge will help shape the way you write and film your movies.

Back to the set.  There was a scene in my film OCCUPYING ED where Holly Hinton and Christopher Sams are lying on the floor playing chess.  There’s a great subtle dolly move inching closer and closer to them throughout the scene.  When the dolly stops, she calls out checkmate, and that’s where the scene ends.

However, in the screenplay the scene continued.  There was another page of dialogue and a couple of jokes.  I didn’t think the jokes were funny, even though everyone else on set disagreed with me.  I thought about filming the rest of the scene in order to test this later (had each test viewer thought the jokes were funny, maybe I’d keep them in even if I didn’t).  But, I decided to not film them, and to just end the scene at checkmate.  It just felt right.  I knew that even had we filmed the rest of the scene as it was written, I’d be cutting it out in the editing room.  It made no sense to waste the next 45 minutes shooting the rest of the scene when I knew it wouldn’t make it into the film.  I decided it was best to just go on to the next shot, the next scene.

If you’ve only made a couple of movies, and aren’t confident yet you can do this, my advice is to go ahead and shoot the scene as it’s written, and decide later.  After you’ve made more than a dozen or two movies it’ll become second nature, and you’ll feel great about saving the time and money on set.

FINDING COMPOSERS

I think music can make or break a movie.  I’ve seen a lot of movies that have really crappy soundtracks and music that is, well, just horrible.  If you are hunting for a composer to do your score, make sure they are the right person sonically.  I mean, they might be a great musician but ask yourself if their particular style of music fits with the tone of your movie.

Johnette Napolitano, the singer from 80s band Concrete Blonde, did the score for my first film PEP SQUAD.  I knew she was the right person for the cheeky campy sound I was going for with that film, and she did a haunting vocal version of America the Beautiful she called “Amerika.”  It was her first film score, and it was fun to work with her on it.  I even came up with the idea to incorporate drum cadences, which were recorded by our local high school marching band.  Pleasant Gehman was working on a spoken word album with Kristian Hoffman at the time, and Johnette had a recording of Pleasant’s “Super Mega Zsa Zsa,” and played it for me.  As soon as I heard it, I fell head over heels for it.  The totally insane part was that when I placed it into the movie, the song fit the scene perfectly, beats actually happening on certain cuts, and ending at exactly the right moment.  Total synchronicity.

Different composers have different methods of working.  Johnette made several variations of each theme and left me in charge of where to place them in the film.  Whereas, Justin Durban and Lindsay Ann Klemm, the composers for my film FIRECRACKER, scored music to fit the actual scene or sequence in question.

Also working on FIRECRACKER was The Enigma (using the name Paul Lawrence).  The Enigma had previously made some music with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and composed some of the music for the carnival sections of the film.  My dad Clark played all the Chopin Nocturnes you hear in the movie.

Then I met the genius Rob Kleiner.  Rob is a talent beyond talents, and a great guy who is a total pleasure to be around.  Some of you know Rob from his work with Cee Lo Green, on the song they did for one of the TWILIGHT movies, which earned Rob a Grammy nomination.  Rob and I first worked together on WATCH OUT.  Then he did the incomparable score for STUCK! and then CASSEROLE CLUB, CULTURE SHOCK, and FAR FLUNG STAR.  Rob’s sonic brilliance comes into play as another character in each movie.  His music can be subtle or big, but always right in tune and in step with the rhythm and tone of each given film.

I’ve worked with dozens of other artists who have given me songs for inclusion into different scores.  THE WOODLANDS is Samuel and Hannah Robertson, who create absolutely breathtaking stuff.  Samuel also made a solo project called QUIET ARROWS, which is equally arresting, and a couple of his songs became part of the OCCUPYING ED score, which was composed by Kevin Peirce.  (Kevin appeared on my debut album Hypothermia, which was released in 1999).

Even if you don’t know famous musicians, it is totally possible to find super great music out there.  My advice is to keep in mind that the right music will make your movie awesome, and the wrong choices could make it horrible to sit through.

Also keep in mind that just because you like a song, doesn’t mean everyone else will.  So I encourage you to share the music with other people before including it in your movie.  Just in case.

IN WITH THE NEW

Each New Year’s Eve I try and be in bed as early as possible.  My favorite thing is to celebrate by having a great dinner and having a really nice sleep.  That way, I can wake up feeling refreshed and focused, ready to start the first day of the New Year in clarity.  It’s also quiet—no calls or emails to answer—because most everyone else stayed awake waiting for midnight to roll around, and are likely still asleep.  It’s really a wonderful way to start the year.

2013 was a wild ride, to say the least.

In January I produced and directed my 13th feature film – a romantic comedy from Jim Lair Beard’s acclaimed screenplay OCCUPYING ED.  It was a welcome diversion from the pain of being blind-sided, betrayed and abandoned by my partner of 14 years two months earlier.  I was dreading the new year, but with the help of a new film and some great new friends, I managed to repair the broken heart, keep my spirits up and navigate into a new future.

While I was producing the new film, I completed my previous movie, FAR FLUNG STAR, which was filmed in Hong Kong.  Critic Richard Uhlig calls it, “a Visually-stunning gem, a NORTH BY NORTHWEST for the digital age.  This caper film doesn’t let you rest for a second.”  What a compliment!  You can watch the film here: www.Vimeo.com/ondemand/farflungstar

FAR FLUNG STAR premiered at London’s Raindance Film Festival in September, where I met up with my mom’s cousins Karen and James Lowther.  Karen is an author (her amazing new book THE PERFECT CAPITAL is out now), and James is co-founder of M&C Saatchi, one of the world’s largest ad agencies.  The Lowthers invited me to stay at their country house called Holdenby.  It was magical.

While in London I also taught my first Masterclass on Maverick Filmmaking to actors and aspiring filmmakers.  Teaching is an inspirational experience and I’m looking forward to doing it more frequently.

I also traveled to Santa Barbara, the wilds of Maine, Paris France, and even down to Texas (where I spent a surreal weekend at a festival with my friend Jane Wiedlin, her man Travis, and Rutger Hauer and his wife).

2013 also brought the passing of my dear friend, the legendary Hollywood actress Karen Black.  Karen starred in several of my films and became a dear friend to me over the years.  While losing her to a rare cancer was heartbreaking, reflecting on her amazing life and career and the fun we had together has been inspiring.  Karen planned her own funeral, and it was the first funeral I’ve attended that was actually fun!  Sure, everyone was moved and in tears, but the stories we all shared were hilarious and everyone was laughing out loud.  To have known Karen, and to have had the privilege of being one of her “insider” friends, has made my life immeasurably richer.  Though I will miss her, the support and encouragement she gave me will live with me forever.

I come to the end of 2013 feeling renewed and invigorated.  What started off fairly depressing has ended with much hope for the future.  Between several new film projects, some commercial work with 502 Media Group, the new teaching gigs and a new editing suite featuring the latest in technology, I’m raring to hit the new year with gusto and with creativity cooking on all the burners.

Join me!  There is no better time to finally put that pen to paper and write that script you’ve always wanted to.  Start a new project!  Travel and see something magical and expand your horizons!  Eat a wonderful meal with friends and dare to dream the impossible.  There is proof all around you that those seemingly impossible things are just within reach.  So grab them.