Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Circumstances By Which A Work of Art is Produced

This is the poster of the film I wrote and directed. You haven't heard of it, because, although finished, it never got released. This is an example, as good as any, on how an independent film comes to be.

I'd always wanted to make films - not just work in a movie theatre, showing them.

That's why I began working in movie theatres, after all. Most of my theatre friends and I would talk and dream about the films we always wanted to make. About 4 years ago I worked in a theatre with a projectionist who owned his own 16mm camera. One thing led to another, and I ended up making a feature, shot on film.

This was not a small undertaking. By design. The marketplace for short films was astronomically competitive, even then (YouTube was still only a glimmer in someone's cathode ray tube). You posted your shorts on AtomFilm (for free), to be lost in the noise that even then had become legend in the Internet age.

If I got a feature together, I thought I'd have a better chance of getting attention.

A good way to be successful at such an endeavor is to show people what they haven't seen before. A good way to not go broke is to use the resources at your disposal.

So my producer and I figured out a way to shoot a movie in the movie theatre where I worked - and it took advantage of both these strategies. I worked at a beautiful '30s art deco theatre, We planned to film at night after we closed, from midnight to 6 or 7 am., throughout the ornate building; no having to go out into the streets or worry about permits, having complete control. The theatre afforded us a variety of locations (the lobby, the auditorium, the attic, the offices, the roof, even the back dumpster pit).

My "one-set" film wouldn't be so claustrophobic, and the theatre gave us instant production value - a $1 million set.

No matter where you work, someone thinks, "They should make a movie about this place." Sure, most places have a story, but the secret is to make it interesting to the rest of the world. My co-writer's inspiration was to have a hitman get a job in a movie theatre.

A hitman in a movie theatre. Then you could make a genre film with guns, guys in trench coats (and tap into the Tarantino mania that was already subsiding by 2002), as well as have all that post-modern self-referential film stuff film buffs love to put in their first films. Especially my film.

It was called "Usher." I brought all the info I learned about films and filmmaking to bear, and planned a film simple, thematically engaging, and easy-to-shoot.

A lot of people told us we should make a horror movie, but I didn't see the challenge in that (I was wrong; I since understand the profound challenge of doing that properly). We were also told we should shoot on digital to save money. But "Usher" was a film about movie theatres - it had to be shot on film.

(Digital didn't have the look or flexibility - in a mere 4 years, it has become much more resilient, but not profoundly less expensive.)

Regardless, our film budget was only about $20 thousand, with another $10k for post - my producers thought they'd be able to get an editing suite in LA for free, making post very inexpensive.

Our schedule was for 8 weeks, mostly nights and some days on the weekends, so we could continue to go to school or work. I would work in the evenings, then shoot from midnight on, staying up all night. The people we needed would come in in shifts, so not everyone had to stay up all night.

Except for me and my cameraman. But we were artists. Committed.

Our actors were local, and cast to type - the quiet one had no lines, the goofy guy was charged with acting goofy.... Smart, right? We bought 6 hours of raw stock, intending to shoot at a ratio of only 4-to-1. No more than a couple takes of each shot, and no wasted footage. Time is money, film is expensive, and being underprepared was the worst crime we could commit.

I came up with a simply-told drama about a hitman who suppresses his true violent nature, working around the teenagers in a movie theatre, while exploring a more thematic concern of how an "artspace" (a movie theatre, after all, is basically a museum, in which you are surrounded by man's art: films, architecture, design) can change your outlook on life.

He slowly becomes morally confused then finds himself lost in a teen-centric environment.

We didn't intend to have any big action sequences or gunfire (just a little). It wouldn't be that kind of movie. Yeah, it is a little too pretentious. But doable. We boarded and shot-listed everything. I knew exactly how it would all cut together. We had 2 read-throughs, which served as rehearsals...and to get the most awkward parts of the script changed or deleted.

A staff of almost 100 people ended up volunteering for various functions. But people, like machines, don't always do what you expect them to do.

On the first day of shooting, my cinematographer's car battery died and he was late to the first night's set-up.

(To be continued.)

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