Thursday, January 16, 2014

pioneer spirit

As a little girl, I always dreamed of being a pioneer. Rather than dressing in sparkly princess outfits like other girls did, I wore long skirts and aprons, planted wheat and baked mud pies with my cousins at the playhouse on their farm. My great grandparents on both sides were real pioneers; they crossed the ocean to make a new life for themselves and their descendants in the immense and inhospitable Canadian Prairies, never to return to their homeland. The courage this must have taken them was not lost on me, even as a young child.

Today I stumbled on this photograph of Canada's first woman prospector, Kathleen Rice, and was struck with that old familiar call to adventure. Rice was recently inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame for her discovery of Manitoba's first nickel deposits. Like my other hero, Amelia Earhart, she eschewed the security of a husband and family life, blazing her own trail in a male-dominated profession. I couldn't help but recall how I romantically once pictured myself living in some remote setting with a team of huskies and a shotgun for protection, and how far my actual life seems from that dream. Looking out the window of my office today at the gridlocked highway of large city, for a moment I felt I had failed.

Then I remembered a phone conversation I had a while back with my 85-year-old grandmother. Feeling lonesome and homesick, I told her how I often missed her and everyone back home, and how I was sorry for leaving them. She simply replied, "Don't feel guilty. Just do what you have to do."

What defines a pioneer? In my view it's someone who leaves behind what's safe and familiar in order to pursue their dreams. Seven years ago I left my home and family, moving to the city with the dream of making a feature film. I haven't realized that dream yet, but there is still time--it's not a race.

Unlike Ms. Rice, I had the good fortune of finding a partner to share my adventure with, and although we may not live in a cabin in the wilderness I like to think of myself as a bit of a pioneer after all. I'm sure that Kate Rice and Ameila Earhart had more than a few moments of regret in their loneliest hours anyway; one of them crash-landed somewhere in the South Pacific and the other died penniless in an old folks' home in Minnedosa, Manitoba. These pioneering women were not defined by having fulfilled their dreams, but rather by having pursued them. That is, I am convinced, an attainable goal for anyone, myself included.



Wednesday, October 30, 2013

fear and loathing in the happiest place on earth

In a world where fiction films are scrubbed clean of logos by the producers for fear of being sued, it is truly refreshing to see someone stick their neck out. The makers of Escape From Tomorrow certainly did, by shooting most of their psychological horror comedy on-location in Disney theme parks without permission from the notoriously litigious corporation.  

Reviews I've read of the film were mixed, focusing on its effectiveness as a parody. There is more to it, however, than an attempt to skewer Walt Disney Corp. The film tells the story of a father's downward spiral in the "Happiest Place on Earth" after he just learned he lost his job and can no longer provide for his children. It is superbly scored and visually rich, shot in cinema-vérité style black and white close-ups with low-fi but effective special effects. Although the script is a bit uneven, the overall effect of menace and the omnipresent theme of fantasy run amok more than make up for its shortcomings, in my view.  

As described in this interview, the story idea was inspired by writer/director Randy Moore's own childhood visits to Disney World with his father. The opening scene, in which the main character (father Jim White, played by Roy Abramsohn) is deliberately locked out on the hotel balcony in his underwear by his resentful young son, foreshadows the climax. In other scenes, Jim ogles a pair of French teenage girls, gets inebriated at an Oktoberfest show, and slurs out an apology to his wife and children after drunkenly puking out the side of a ride. Moments like this, though couched in an absurd fantasy, still have depth and strangely even ring true to life.

Filmmakers often like to say that their work speaks for itself, but in the 21st Century, when backstory about a given production is readily available and great spec scripts are often inspired by first-hand experiences, I think this movie's context is just as important as its concept.

Escape From Tomorrow is in theatres now. If you're a fan of cult classics, I highly recommend getting out of the house and supporting the box office rather than streaming it illegally. At the risk of sounding preachy, in order for films like this to get made there needs to be a market for them.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

street scenes

Recently I've become fascinated by two artists whose work is inspired by that ultra-practical yet creepily voyeuristic technology we've all become familiar with in the past few years: Google Street View.

The first such artist is Montreal's Jon Rafman, who seems driven by a documentarian's compulsion for magnifying reality. The result of what must be hundreds of hours spent poring over Street View searching for remarkable scenes, his work confirms that constructing narratives out of images is a basic human impulse. We look at the puzzling and/or surreal moments he digs up, such as this:

...or this:

...and immediately start imagining who these people are and what they are doing, or what the circumstances were that led up to that moment. Our natural curiosity makes us want to know what happened and what happens next, like we do when we're decoding a fictional story.

The thing is, these aren't fictional characters. These are real people who probably live in the area close to where they were captured by the Google Street View camera's "9 eyes", their faces and license plates blurred to avoid litigation. These folks were just going about their daily realities or clandestine activities when they became suspended in time by the serendipitous passing of the Street View Vehicle, to be pictured in that geographic location forever (or at least until Google decides to update its Street View images).

The act of traveling the streets of the world and discovering traces of its bizarre ephemeral events via the internet is one feature of the Street View technology that captures the imagination and gets creative juices flowing; Tre Baker of Google Street Scene flips that concept on its head and painstakingly recreates the Street View aesthetic to pay hommage to scenes from fictional films.

A movie shoot is essentially the act of immortalizing a non-existant world. A production takes over a location or a backlot somewhere, constructs a piece of a fictitious universe, then records it in a certain light, for all time, on film. People are often dismayed when they visit locations from famous movies only to find that they don't look anything like they did on-screen (one such example being the monastery tower in Vertigo, which was actually a model matted into the shot in post). Baker, who by day is an online editor for a publishing company in Arkansas, treats us to snapshots of moments our favourite films as though they actually occurred in the real world. Baker told me that what he enjoys most about making these "is watching something once larger than life, a scene from the silver screen, come back down to earth almost literally. And it's not just the little arrows or the blur patches. It's turning these film scenes into what resembles our real lives."

With regards to the street addresses, Baker says "I have never tried to be factual or accurate. I've seen others say that I'm staying true to the locations, but more than 50-percent of the time, I'm making them up." He points out that, "Movies are rarely filmed where they're set," and says he hopes that "the reader can suspend their disbelief a little." I think he's succeeded in this; because the addresses are mostly fictitious, there is no disappointment in finding out that the location does not fit the movie in our memory, only the fun of recognizing a long-forgotten scene or iconic character with his/her face blurred out.

Furthermore, moments such as this:

...or this:

...remind us of how closely tied the cinema is to roads. Virtually every film ever made has a street scene or highway in it and the symbolism of roads fits perfectly with the Hero's Journey so often repeated in narrative cinema. A movie's setting is just as important as its characters or plot and contributes just as much to its effect and meaning, much as the real places in our lives contribute to the fabric of our identities.

Baker says, "When Google Street View first appeared, and after you had checked out Times Square or wherever, you probably headed to your house. After that, you looked up your childhood house, your college dormitory. It's all there on the Internet now. Not only can you see these places, but you get to see them through the eyes of a third-party. You can't get much more impersonal than the Google Street Car. You may still miss your grandmother who passed away in 2009, but there she is, still in 2007 on Google Street View, just another blurry figure tending to her garden. So bringing Jack Nicholson or the Tenenbaums' house to that same level is an interesting and fun challenge."

Sometimes Baker's movie scenes appear more believable than the images taken from the real Street View, but plausibility is beside the point. Whether they choose to assume the stance of documentary or fiction, these two artists are using a technology intended to help us navigate our world in a fascinating way: to reflect on human beings' obsession with narrative and place.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

art of life

If you're not familiar with the work of legendary documentary filmmaker Les Blank, who passed away on Sunday, you need to rectify that situation.

Burden of Dreams, about the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, is probably his best-known work and is far better than the fiction film whose production it documents. His many short verité pieces on both obscure and famous musicians including Sprout Wings and Fly and The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, are remarkable and uplifting portraits of people who live to make music. His light-hearted documentary experiments Gap-Toothed Women and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe are studied in Film courses as prime examples of California avant-garde cinema of the 1970s and 80s. His aptitude as a camera man was immortalized in the 1968 Hollywood classic Easy Rider; he shot the handheld, psychedelic acid-trip sequence in the New Orleans cemetery, which is easily my favourite part of that film.

I was lucky to have met Les and to have had my work judged by him seven years ago at the fantastic Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. He was a notorious "man of few words", but finally after seeing each other at numerous parties, we did engage in some small-talk. He said he was saddened that the music-making rural Louisiana of his early films was now all but gone thanks to Wal-Mart and satellite TV. He talked about swimming in the ocean and, late in the evening, he quipped that he'd like to put me in the sequel to Gap-Toothed Women. I told him how much I enjoyed seeing his work (the festival had screened an extensive retrospective) and he said he'd enjoyed my film too. I couldn't have been more thrilled, until my film was given an award for Artistic Vision at the end of the festival. Coming from him and his fellow jury members that was, to this day, the single greatest compliment I have ever received as a filmmaker and remembering that moment has gotten me through a lot of dark times.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Les Blank and his films; he had a love of life and a documentary sixth-sense that are truly rare among filmmakers. I hope that the flood of recognition he is getting now will introduce many new people to his work, and I hope for his sake that there is beer in Heaven. RIP, Les.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

lessons learned

OK, as you've probably guessed, I had no time to write while I was away in Banff at Women In the Director's Chair as I had promised. My stay there was exhilarating, inspiring and exhausting but more than anything it was busy! Now that I'm back, I can still make a top-ten list of the things I learned while there. So, here they are:

10) Be respectful but not overly polite. (Or, as our fabulous acting teacher put it, "Don't be so fucking polite!!") Everyone on set is there to make your vision happen, so don't waste their time over-apologizing and pussy-footing around. That being said, I still believe it never hurts to say please and thank you.

9) Be generous with everyone. Don't be annoyed when people have a million questions for you and don't expect them to guess the answers! Answering questions is your job. Take the time to make sure they understand what you want them to do. Chances are they're giving you their all, so give them yours!

8) Make sure everyone knows why you're telling your story. This may not sound important, but it is. If you have a personal connection to the material, your producers, keys and cast at least should be aware of it.

7) A director is like a psychologist. They must quickly figure out what makes each actor tick and be able to relate to them on that level.

6) Allow actors some "alone time" on set to internalize your direction. Don't overload them, but don't abandon them either.

5) Don't go into your close-ups too early in a scene; it leaves you nowhere to go, cinematically.

4) If your protagonist doesn't have a lot of lines in the scene, allow them a lot of reaction shots. This is how the audience knows they're the protagonist and they will empathize with them more.

3) Always ask yourself, "What is the central conflict of the scene?" If your scene's central conflict isn't clear or doesn't link up with the central conflict of the film, it may not be necessary.

2) "An ounce of behaviour is worth a pound of words." Another nugget from our acting teacher; it's equally true on-set and in the edit suite.

1) There are no unimportant moments. Every look, every breath, every blink is a moment of drama. Suck the marrow out of each and every one.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

rocky mountain adventure

Greetings, dear readers and Happy New Year!

I apologize for my long absence. I had been taking a break from this blog to look after my more pressing projects of never-ending grant proposals and scriptwriting.

I am pleased to announce that I'll be a participant in the upcoming Women in the Director's Chair Workshop at the Banff Centre and will be leaving for the "Blue Canadian Rockies" tonight. While respecting the confidentiality of the workshop I will try to blog a bit about my personal experiences and any revelations that may occur. In keeping with the hopeful tone of my last post, I hope I may enlighten you while I grope towards my own enlightenment.

Stay tuned for more about this once I reach my destination...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

new hope

After a summer of soul-searching in which I almost totally lost interest in films and filmmaking on both a personal and general level, this fall I find myself awash in new hope.

What were the reasons for my despair? For a time it seemed that everything I liked about the cinema--shooting in celluloid, the collective experience of watching with an engaged audience in a dark theatre, an auteur's uncompromised (but unpretentious) vision--was going the way of the dinosaur to be replaced by digital video, "second-screen" at-home viewing, and the popularity contest of crowd-funded content. On a personal level I was creatively frustrated, having recently walked a long gauntlet of rejections, and was considering giving up the ghost.

Then, this fall, things finally started to turn around. I finally got a few breaks and was reminded that trying to make films is not always just an exercise in self-punishment. Some mainstream movies came out that actually looked interesting for a change; I was encouraged. Then, last night, I saw P. T. Anderson's The Master and my new hope for the cinema was truly affirmed.

This incredible screenplay was perfected by Anderson over 12 years, brought to life by stellar performances from Amy Adams, Phillip Seymore Hoffman and especially Joaquin Phoenix, and shot on 65mm film (!?!) Needless to say, I was in heaven. Better still, the audience in the multiplex where I saw the film actually broke out in applause at the end (something I've never seen happen outside of a festival) and even the teenagers next to me sat through the whole thing attentively without flicking on a single smartphone screen.

Make no mistake--this is not a hopeful movie. It is disturbing, complex and ambiguous--and yet its existence fills me with hope. Brought to us by "angel" investor (and my new hero) Megan Ellison through her new company Annapurna Pictures, The Master is proof that auteur cinema is still possible in this day and age.