Thursday, July 15, 2010


Post-production is the worst.

It's the element of filmmaking I have the least experience with. As an actor, when you wrap on the set, your work is done. So for most of my 20 years in the business (when I say that, don't I just sound like the biggest show-biz hack? I feel like I should have a half-smoked cigar sticking out of my mouth while I regale you with tales of vaudeville), I've been able to walk away and kick back until there's a finished product. Directing - especially working on this low budget level - means investing time and energy into something that, personally, already feels done.

All of which is to say, Dungeon Master post-production is taking a long time. Lots of begging favors from friends, and trying to figure out workflow and technical components that boggle my mind: editing, sound design, color correction, score, mixing...it's endless and exhausting, and we've still barely begun.

So in the midst of all of this, what did we do?

We went ahead and shot another short.

This one Shiloh and I didn't write. Alex and her writing partner, Chad Crone (who also acted in Dungeon Master) whipped up this gem of a script in a few days. It was such a funny little story, we all decided to say, fuck it, let's shoot this in a weekend. And we did.

It's about an actress that takes her job a bit too seriously.
Well, way too seriously. It's called Method.

On the set of Method

In many ways, this new short was in response to the things we've been writing about on this blog: film length, size of production, and camera format.

In my last post, I talked about how it can be good, festival-wise, to have a very short, funny film - and that's exactly the category that this one falls into (well, definitely short, hopefully funny). The script was only 8 pages long.

And the amount of locations, actors, and art elements was limited, meaning we could shoot it for no money with only about six crew members. We actually had to resist the temptation to tell some of our friends about it, because we were afraid that they would want to jump on board and help out. We were determined not to let this one grow into a big production.

And we shot on the Canon 5D, Shiloh's digital still camera that he discussed in his camera posting. Moreover, Shiloh decided to be our Director of Photography, a pretty huge leap for him to take. Because it was a small scale production, we all felt comfortable with that decision. And he knocked it out of the park. Our grip, lighting, and electrical departments were comprised of him and Mallory Morrison. These two worked their asses off, and the footage looks incredible.

[Sidenote about the 5D: this camera is taking over independent filmmaking. I acted in two shorts in June that were shot with it, and our friend begins shooting his feature film this month with a 5D. The days of crappy lenses in video films are over. Everybody's little movie is going to have a pretty cinematic look...and focus issues. Because the depth of field is so shallow on the 5D (which gives that great filmic look) pulling focus becomes incredibly important. Don't be surprised if you start going to festivals and see lots of "out-of-focus-then-in-focus" style films. And just smile and nod when the director says it was a creative choice. That's our line, too.]

Even though it was small and short, Method was a hectic shoot for me. Partly because I've been so busy on other projects (including the post on Dungeon Master) that I felt like I didn't have enough pre-production. And also partly because on set, my two usual co-conspirators, Alex and Shiloh, were both very busy with other roles - Alex with acting, and Shiloh with cinematography.

But we pulled it off, and like our Obama commercial two years ago, it was thrilling to see how much falls together when you fly by the seat of your pants. It's not easy, but rewarding.

There's a lot of filmmaking that is technical: light, lenses, film stock, blocking, sound, etc. Then there's a lot of filmmaking that is social: communicating ideas, motivating others, incorporating good ideas, etc.

And somewhere in between, there's a pure instinctual sense, an ability to make it up as you go and just kind of know when something works or not. This sense is the most important attribute a director can have.

The paradox that interests me about this ineffable "instinct" is that while I think it's incredibly important, I would never, ever suggest that budding filmmakers focus on it - or even think about it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not diminishing the value of instinct, I'm simply suggesting that its pointless to worry about. It's much more important to focus your energies on what you can control.

For instance, I love Werner Herzog, but man, this is some bullshit.

(I fear that his Warren Commission Report and Rabelais recommended reading is not tongue-in-cheek at all).

Basically, he's saying the most important part of filmmaking is an enigmatic, unteachable, "rogue" sensibility - and he's inviting you to come listen to him wax poetic on this idea for a weekend and pay him a lot of money, and he will...teach you this?

I agree in spirit, but his logic is ridiculous, if not morally questionable (the filmmaker's equivalent of simony?). Yes, there are such things as talent, taste, and sensibility - things an individual brings to a set, or to a blank page, or to an editing room - but these things are formed by the wonderful and unknowable alchemy that is experience plus instinct. And they're utterly useless without craft.

You'll notice that all the best filmmakers have spent years geeking out on film sets, working on little projects, or messing around with cameras. Then their talent, their taste, and their particular sensibility can take form when they step up to make their own film. The worst filmmakers have a good idea, have that "rogue" personality, and they sit back waiting for their awesome movie to appear. Guess what? It doesn't.

I'm not a huge fan of art-to-art metaphors, but here's one: jazz musicians improvise, it's an essential part of the art. But it would be naive to assume that those improvisations are without study or form. It would be equally naive to think that the motivating force behind such moments of brilliance is something teachable.

Anyway, the coolest and simultaneously most terrifying part of making Method was that because we were so strapped for time, locations, and budget - we had to fall back on instinct. We were riffing a lot: making up shots as we went, layering the story on the fly, and finding comedy spontaneously as a team. Every day began with a foreboding sense: "There's no way we're going to get everything we need." And everyday was punctuated by surprise: laughing our asses off at something Alex did, or jumping up and down because we nailed a cool shot.

So the obvious question is, did it work?

And the only answer I can give is, who the hell knows.

I have no clue if we hit "an ecstasy of truth" (to quote Werner again), I only think about this whole instinct thing too late.

Like, you know, when I'm writing on this blog.

But for better or worse, this little film was certainly an exercise in relying on our guts - we didn't have time for anything else.

And personally, I know I need to learn to ride that kind of emotional roller coaster a little better - I tend to get incredibly stressed out and forget that 20 years in the business (there's that half-smoked cigar in my mouth: "Hey kiddo, I ever tell ya about my days as a carny?") have actually informed me in ways that I'm not aware of, and built up some scar tissue that passes for instinct.

There's all sorts of things informing your work that you never have to think about. And whether your instinct (or the accumulation of your particular experience) adds up to great filmmaking or crappy filmmaking is absolutely besides the point. Why belabor whether you have talent, taste, or sensibility? The real question is, do you want to make something?

Then the show must go on.

Natalie Zea and Travis Shuldt play fellow actors playing detectives,
Marcus Harwell is a cop.

Alex, Beverly Hynds and Johanna Jenkins get interrogated, I feel important with the slate.

Shooting in a hotel room can get crowded

Sometimes, what we do feels very close to porn.