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.

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.