I’ve long favored films that feature smart, articulate characters battering each other with words. I like screwball comedies. I like Judd Apatow. I adore BROADCAST NEWS and I’m a sucker for an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.
It’s not hard to understand the hegemony of dialogue-driven, plot-heavy films. Movies begin with screenplays, and screenplays come from writers. But to proceed from the written word can push a visual medium towards acting like literature. Or radio theater.
These days, I’m finding myself more exhilarated by films that act like something else. Movies that move less, and linger more. Where characters may follow smaller dramatic arcs, but they are more finely observed. Films like Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT, Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (or last year’s AMERICAN HONEY), and Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN.
I will admit to some see-sawing in my seat during CERTAIN WOMEN. The film teetered on the line for me at times, probably crossing it during Michelle Williams’ arid little segment. But then Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone came along and more than redeemed things. Their silent horseback ride may be the most sublime thing that happened at the movies last year.
AMERICAN HONEY is probably an hour too long, and it doesn’t have an ending. But I kind of loved it. Even if at some points I felt like I was trapped in that van with those kids. Road trips require patience, and a taste for staring out the window just watching things go by. Your mileage no doubt may vary. But really, any film unspools as a collaboration between the filmmaker and you, the viewer. The less that happens onscreen, the more time there is to ponder what does. The question is, how much work do you want to do? How active a collaborator do you want to be?
In the past year I’ve also been catching up with the work of the late Chantal Akerman. After JEANNE DIELMAN (3 hrs 45!) and JE TU IL ELLE, I’m thinking Akerman may have gone too far toward rarefaction. With her long, static takes and prolonged silences, her narratives advance in such tiny increments they sometimes feel like a dare. I watched both films in a state of amazement, commingled with boredom and antagonism.
Enduring a three-minute shot of woman’s back as she scrubbed a bathtub, I wondered if I’d be a hopeless philistine if I called bullshit and turned the damned thing off (I didn’t, and made it all the way to the meager, if startling, climax of JEANNE DIELMAN). Akerman’s films are like homeopathy, there’s so little there. And like homeopathy, if you feel like they are working, it’s probably all in your mind.
…resolutions? What the hell do I know about resolutions? When I look at my life, it’s totally un-resolved. It’s been that way since at least 1991, when POV bought my short film and gave me the notion that maybe, just maybe, I knew what I was doing with this filmmaking thing. Since then, I’ve only gotten better: at writing, at directing, hell – at thinking and working – and yet, after all the films and scripts and accolades and awards junking up my bookshelf I have yet to break through and actually get someone to to sign on. To stick their neck out. To look at the work and say, “Yes, John, we see what you see. We support it. We want it to grow. Here’s a chance. Here’s your shot.”
There have been close shaves. At the Austin Film Festival, after winning top prize for a screenplay I co-wrote, I was sure we’d met the producer who was going to Change Everything. So sure, in fact, that my writing partner and I did a free rewrite for the guy. I know, I know… and I even knew then: never, ever do that. But this was different. We had a deal. We’d shaken hands, we’d had drinks together. We were working together! We bashed out our rewrite in 3 weeks and called the producer and what do you know, we couldn’t even get him on the phone. The alcohol buzz and the Austin magic dust had both worn off. He was back in L.A., and the force field was back up. He never even looked at our rewrite.
But, no matter. I just keep plugging away. Occasionally I say “I don’t need anyone’s permission to make films,” or something brave like that. And to some extent, that’s true. I keep making my own way, far from everything, with no mentorship and no process and no guidance except for my own sense of how things should be, which, in my defense, is so very very strong it’s been enough in many cases to carry me from concept all the way through execution, and resulted in a good film. When I toured the festival circuit with The Life of a Dog I was mobbed after screenings by people waving twenty-dollar bills, looking to buy DVDs. Vindication is sweet. It’s not the reason for doing things, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Clearly as much as I love creating things, my identity as a creator of things is for me fraught and fettered by all kinds of emotional crap. I know my condition is far from unique among creative people – in fact, it’s probably the norm. There is some comfort in this. (Actually there’s a shit-ton of comfort in it.) Nevertheless, I am often beset by anxiety. Sometimes I get tired, or depressed, or angry.
There’s no cure. This kind of life is a chronic condition. As miserable as it sometimes makes me, I can’t imagine stopping. So, since it is the season for it, let’s tally up some accomplishments and lay some plans for the future. Therefore:
Things I’m proud of for 2013:
My first foray into crowdfunding was an unqualified success. I put up a promo video explaining what I wanted to do, and people believed.* We raised over $22,000 to make my short film, NEW. Fully $5000 of it came as a matching fund, which we were singled out to receive by Rose Kuo, who was at the time Executive Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Making the film. Given the length and complexity of the script and the money and time available, NEW the short film was ambitious. What’s on the screen isn’t at every moment a perfect distillation of what I wanted it to be, but it’s pretty damned close. I learned a lot.
Directing my first-ever sex scene. Hey, not only can I watch that scene without cringing, I actually like it. Cherry popped!
Working with the best actors I’d ever worked with. And my lead actor telling me I was the best director he’d ever worked with. People on my crew telling me NEW was the best film they’d ever worked on. And, the grip who got choked up watching us shoot the big scene, when he realized the subtext of a character’s line.
My wishes and goals for 2014:
Finish NEW the short film.
Finish NEW the feature screenplay. Concurrently, so when the film is out there being seen, I’m ready with a polished script in my hand.
Find help. Making NEW the short film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In this production, we found the edge of impossible and skated on it. I lost 10 pounds during a six-day shoot. (There’s got to be a better way to lose weight.) I simply could not make a feature film using the same methods. So, once the screenplay is done, a concerted effort must follow to get it out there and connect with people who can help me get it made. Granted, I’m much happier hunkered down alone with my crayons than bragging about myself to strangers, but selling yourself is part of the job, too.
Make more films. More little ones, rather than fewer big ones. I am not prolific. I expend huge amounts of time and energy on ambitious projects. My latest short film was written in the summer of 2012. 18 months later, I’m in post, and will be, into early next year. And so: make more films. Hell, don’t even call them “films” if that’s too much pressure. Grab a camera. Shoot some video. Have fun. Remember fun?
Remember fun. Remember to have some.
Read more. Books and screenplays, that is. Fewer emails, Tweets and Facebook posts.
See more films. Old ones, and new ones too.
Go to bed. Turn off the internet, and go to bed. And since you are now rested, it will be easier to get up earlier (leaving the email and the Twitter OFF), and to write for a least an hour every day before you go to work. (And when you get home at night, get some exercise, too, OK?)
Look outside myself. Finally, I resolve to think about myself less. Not in the sense of neglecting myself. In the sense of turning off the negativity when it starts. Dismissing myself from that activity. You are excused from introspection. Look around, instead, at things and people. Listen, too. But remember that words are not the be-all and end-all of filmmaking. Images are. Don’t disappear up your own inner monologue worrying about character arcs and turning points and backstory and dialogue. Talk is cheap, but a picture is worth a thousand words. So look at the world. Look at what people do. Look at art. Doodle. Daydream. (And if I remember to do this one, the “have fun” part will probably take care of itself).
Happy New Year.
* When I say “I” it’s not to imply that NEW was created single-handedly. My heart still brims with gratitude toward the people who helped me, but I’ve thanked them elsewhere, and profusely. This blog entry is all about me, so – back to me.