Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I’m adapting a play by Durham author Robert Wallace for a short film.  The play is a set piece in a kitchen between a 68-year-old Mother, returning from her 50th high school reunion, and her Son, who has stayed home to babysit his Father (her Husband) who is in the early stages of dementia.

In the play, the “backstory” of the Son is implied but not developed.  I felt the need to create more layers for the character of the Son.  Added is a brief moment when the Son talks to the Father (who is really incapable of understanding) about the possibility of leaving town to follow a woman in his life, before the Mother comes home.

With that planted in the back of the audience’s mind, the Son’s reactions to the Mother’s thoughts about her life, her husband and the future, take on a slightly more interesting aspect.  So far so good.

Last night we had a read-through of the play with the cast and - to put it simply - they pointed out another place where we need to allude to the Son’s situation.  It made total sense and it’s being added to the rewrite.

I try not to be too proud to accept a good idea from someone, and this was a clear case of a good idea.  It also underscores, for me, the range of the contribution that actors can make if they are allowed to.  We are all trying to breath life into this story and any change that enhances that for the film is welcome, regardless of the source.  I love the collaborative nature of this work.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Grave - March 2013 (not about film exactly)

I was a sophomore at Cranbrook School when my brother died.  He had some form of kidney disease that is probably curable or transplantable today, but was fatal in 1962.

He had had difficulties in his journey.  First, as a bookworm and budding intellectual, he was a total misfit in the public high school.  When my parents sent him to Cranbrook, I think that was a great step forward for him.  But he dropped out of Michigan and maybe dropped out of Wayne State (or simply took a few classes).  He seemed melancholy, I think, but had started to find his way a bit in 1961.  He was the assistant manager of what was then Doubleday Books on Pierce Street in Birmingham.  Working in a book store was a perfect occupation for him and I think it seemed like his troubles were behind him when he became ill.

I don’t remember much about his illness.  Six years older than me, we didn’t have a lot of things in common at that age (he was 21, I was 15). But he was in the hospital for several weeks; six maybe?  I was still a boarding student at Cranbrook, so I didn’t visit the hospital regularly.  I came on the weekends, I guess.  My Mother went every day, making a point to look nice and smile despite what she knew about his condition.

For reasons which I was unaware of, I was at home on the morning of February 26th.  I had been at home for the weekend; the 26th was a Monday and I guess I thought I was going back to school late that day for some reason.  (That would have been very unusual.)  Friends of my parents, Grace and Don Sass, came early in the morning and took my sister off on some play date (she was about 3 and 1/2 at the time.)  Then my parents told me - we were seated in the living room - that Jack had died the night before.  My face turned hotter than I had ever experienced and we sat together and cried.  I had never expected to hear that.

I don’t remember much about the following days.  His funeral was on Wednesday, which was “Headmaster’s Holiday” at Cranbrook - a kind of cabin fever break in the winter.  At the funeral, the family sat to the side, somewhat out of sight of the “audience” which included many of his friends from Cranbrook, who were, I think, pall-bearers also.  My only concrete memory was my Mother wincing visibly when my Grandmother McQuaid kissed Jack before the coffin was closed.

We drove to the cemetery and there was, I guess another piece of ceremony there.  I do remember seeing Harry Hoey, the headmaster, looking quite forlorn.  Nevertheless, we were able to joke that Jack would have enjoyed ruining the Headmaster’s holiday, as he had no great love for him or the school.

That was February 28, 1962.

Then I had a wonderful girlfriend, finished Cranbrook, college, graduate school.  I taught, l moved around, I had a cat, I got married and had two daughters, moved to North Carolina, had a career in high tech and made some short films.  I observed my sixty-sixth birthday.

On March 21, 2013, I drove from Cleveland, where I was visiting my elderly Aunt Ethel, to Detroit.  I came up Southfield, retracing my Father’s commute from the Ford Motor Company.  I crossed the city on Fenkell, past empty stores and trashy neighborhoods.  Getting to the better kept neighborhoods of Redford Township, I drove past the site of my old elementary school (a vacant lot) and past the location of a barber shop, now gone, where I cried when they asked how my brother was doing.  I toured Dow Road, the street we lived on in 1962, and glimpsed the country club where I swam many summers.  I headed up Telegraph Road - a bit gentrified by time, but clearly a highway with a lot of small industrial concerns.  Detroit is a factory town.

Grand Lawn Cemetery nestles into Telegraph and Grand River, which meet at an angle.  I’d spoken to the office before coming and they had a map for me.  The greyness of the late winter day and the sights of old familiar places, some cared for, some not, had already created a melancholic pre-disposition, I guess.

It took only a few moments to get to “section W” and then to locate “lot 173, grave 3.”  There is no headstone, only a simple marker in the ground with the name and life dates.  Time had pushed the dirt and grass in from all sides a bit.  I began to clear that away to read the entire marker.  I got an ice & snow scraper from the car and chipped away at the soil, exposing the whole marker and I shot photographs as I worked.  At one point, I made a photograph of the trees behind, thinking that, in an odd way, this has been his view of the world.  I also partially cleared off the markers for my maternal grandparents, buried a few graves away.

Perhaps it was the sense that there was nothing more I could do.  And it has to be also the memory of loss but I simply began to cry and then sob, finally just sitting in my car to cry.  I texted my sister, “thinking of you.”  She happened to be free at that moment and we exchanged some words.  Then I took a photo of the marker with my phone and sent it to her.  She was a great comfort in that moment.

It’s curious how little there really is to say.  I had a brother and then I did not have a brother.  I have lived three-fourths of my life with no brother, though always remembering February 25th each year.  (In the early days, when people at work still wore ties, I had a black tie I wore only on that day.) 

It is impossible to know what my life would have been like had he lived and impossible not to wonder.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Art films: "art of the moving image" screening at Duke

Last night I spent 90 minutes attending a screening of a dozen or so short films produced by students in the “Art of the Moving Image” program at Duke.  Please understand that I don’t know much about this program or how it relates to other film stuff at Duke, although it’s clearly not part of the documentary work going on in and around the University.

Quick summary: a lot of self-indulgent, semi-meaningless images thrown together.  There were several films that had coherence and meaning, mostly critiques based on showing advertising footage and contrasting that with reality (one on fast food, one on women’s images).  And one film wanted to be a documentary about folks trying to break into professional video gaming, but it suffered from the general artiness of the evening.

One film, a meditation on water - very very short - used what I am calling “artiness” to its advantage.  It put together a group of images that had some relationship both visually and content-wise.  It was kind of fun too.  But most of the rest of the films were - to me - sadly lacking in anything like emotion or engagement.  Many momentarily arresting images but simply thrown in or repeated endlessly.

Many of the filmmakers clearly have an eye, but I’m old-fashioned perhaps in believing that having an eye is not, by itself, enough.  There may be a refined, high culture place for films like this, perhaps a gallery in Soho or Dumbo.  But it’s a symptom of the disintegration of culture to me.  At one end are the Michael Bay films - hugely entertaining, hugely expensive - and at the other end are these montages of disconnected images.  Both fail (in varying degrees) to connect with the heart and soul.  One is certainly corporate, not personal and the other is (perhaps) personal to the degree that it is hermetic.

I want to make films in the middle of this.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A brief rant about IndieGoGo mistakes filmmakers make

Okay, it’s nice to see folks who are trying to pursue their goal of making a film.  And IndieGoGo seems like a potentially good way to help that process along.

But I’m stunned at how bad some of the filmmakers’ pages are.  One in particular set off this short rant.

Misspellings?  I would think that anything you are posting, especially in a solicitation of support like this, should at least be free of words not correctly spelled.  And free of words that are correctly spelled, like “turn” when you obviously meant the bird, “tern.”  Instantly, I suspect that the filmmaker lacks the intellectual and organizational skills to complete a quality film.  The suspicion could easily be wrong, but why give rise to it?

Much worse, fatal actually in my book, is the nature of the text and the video on the page.  It is hard to do one of these videos well, no question.  This one was basically the filmmaker / writer talking to the camera.  But what was my problem?

Mostly that there was very little real information about the project or the film.  The title suggests a horror film and the text supports that but with no proof points at all.  Both the text and the filmmaker (in the video) are saying that the film will be visually amazing, that the story is stunning and that great actors have been signed on to the project.

But, the video shows us exactly one still image suggestive of the look of the film.  The video starts with a long production company screen card / animation, the title of the film, one image and than just a talking head.  This is not a video that makes me confident the film will be visually attractive.

No team is mentioned or named either, and the filmmaker gives me no clue about his or her background, credentials, experience etc.

In other words, we are asked to believe a smiling face and a few assertions.  That’s not the way to sell anything of value, at least not to me.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Personal Film?

An insightful fellow filmmaker made a comment, watching my latest film (Endings) that got me thinking.  He said, quite simply, that he felt this film was my most “personal.”  In another forum, I reflected on this idea a little bit and I wanted to expand those thoughts here.

In the context of some discussion of the “conflict” between commercial films and “art” films, the thing that struck me wasn’t the commercial or non-commercial nature of the film, but the degree to which any production actually seemed “personal.”  In other words, in the film (or singing or performance) am I able to sense that there is someone who cares, who understands what is driving this?

I think there are plenty of commercial films (okay, maybe fewer than before) in which I can get a sense that someone cares.  Typically they are not the most mass market films.  I think everyone was having fun making Iron Man X, but it doesn’t feel personal to me.  Rabbit Hole did feel personal. Blue Valentine felt personal.  Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter felt personal to me.

So if I accept my concept that this quality of being personal - at least to some visible degree - is a distinguishing characteristic of authentic art as distinct from “empty entertainment” then I need to think about my options as a filmmaker.  And, like practically everything really important in filmmaking, I think it all comes back to the story in that troublesome and odd form known at the screenplay.  Which is why I’m not making a new film this summer - instead I’m devoting some of that same energy to three writing projects.  More about those projects in the future and probably an open invitation to read and comment on the scripts when they are ready.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

New blog, same filmmaker!

I was using the service "Posterous" which was a cool thing, partly because you could post by emailing the blog.  But they got bought by Twitter and have disappeared into the twittersverse at this point.  So welcome to the same old new blog.

I spent a couple days shooting for Kevin Richmond a week ago.  The most interesting aspect of this, dramatically, was a day spent shooting a kind of love story.  It's the story of a woman remembering her partner - how they met, how they dated, how they came together.  But only the woman remembered was present.  All of her action was directed to the camera, which was playing the role of the person remembering.  In other words, the entire sequence was POV of the person remembering her.

It felt like my directing background came into play strongly, as the actress and I - as cinematographer - played the scenes in effect.  At one point, as she confesses her love for the first time, I held out my hand to her.  It was not visible in the frame but it was the right gesture for the moment, for her to clasp my hand fervently.  And a great performance by actress Dahlia LeGault.

All in all, a lovely day of shooting.  And I learned something.  As always.