New Project News – Three Trembling Cities

3TC_Poster_3rdAttempt

We’re working on a new project, a web-series called Three Trembling Cities. The webseries delves into the lives of NYC immigrants juggling work, friends, romance, dreams and family expectations. Innovatively combining the stories of six fictional immigrants with docu-style interviews, Three Trembling Cities presents a deeper, richer story about the immigrant experience.

We just launched our Seed & Spark campaign for the project! Our goal is to raise $10K for the budget in the next 30 days. You can be a part of the team that makes it possible – head over to seedandspark.com/studio/three-trembling-cities to find out more, watch our pitch video, and contribute what you can. Thank you!

Little Earthquakes: The Best Movies I Saw in ’15

madya_apu My half-assed mashup of two of my favorite movie-going experiences, Apur Sansar and Mad Max: Fury Road.

By any account, I consumed a crapton of tv. Jessica Jones, Red Road, Daredevil, The Walking Dead, Orphan Black, Game of Thrones (oh and Helix and Defiance)… days of my life I’m not getting back were spent staring at the screen. But this wasn’t a passive experience – those were moments where I felt intimately connected with the lives of fictional people. Debarati and I talked about them as though we knew them. It’s that cliched tv-as-modern-campfire experience, and it definitely reached some kind of peak for me this year. It could be because I’m studying these shows with an eye towards breaking into the medium, or it could be that the creators are counting on the binge-watching experience when they’re crafting the stories.

On the other hand, it’s been a surprisingly lackluster year on the film front. I saw a handful of truly great features, most of them at least 25 years old (or older). But Avengers (especially), Spectre, Terminator: Whatever, and others… they were technically brilliant, good looking commercials, but had little lasting emotional value. And an even larger percentage of films – Ex Machina and The Martian come to mind – were gripping while I was watching them but really didn’t leave much of an impression later.

Surprisingly (or not), my most memorable film experiences of the year came from a handful of indie films and older, ostensibly more quiet films. So here’s the list of films I saw in 2015 that I will remember for years to come.

THE APU TRILOGY, Pather Panjali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar – three incredible films, made by Satyajit Ray, from 1955 to 1959. The trilogy follows the fictional Apu, from his impoverished childhood in rural West Bengal in the early 20th century, to his later childhood in Benares, to his adulthood in Kolkata. After many years of hearing how awesome these films were, I finally got the chance to see them projected, thanks to a new restoration that screened at Film Forum. Ray does more with a single shot of two children running through the field to see a train go by, than Joss Whedon did with $200+ million and all the CGI toys and top-drawer Hollywood talent that you can buy with that. The careful composition of each shot, the amazing performances, the fact that you feel like you’re a part of someplace you’ve never been – it’s epic filmmaking, but done in a very understated (and therefore underappreciated) way.

HEAVEN’S GATE, released in 1980, is famous for being the film that bankrupted United Artists, and ushered in the beginning of the end of auteur-driven Hollywood filmmaking. On the surface it seems obvious: it’s a slow-moving, not very action-oriented Western about a lawyer from Harvard who ends up on the side of small homesteaders, immigrants and cattle rustlers in a remote part of Wyoming, as they’re targeted by big-time cattle ranchers. An epic of American greed, as immigrants who are fleeing Europe try to scratch out a decent living, and are targeted by ruthless, bigoted businessmen… sound familiar?

Time has been kind to this film, as many critics slowly unpacked what was really going on with the film. There are many repeating visual and sound motifs – concentric circles, mazelike interiors that contrast with the wide-open exteriors, locomotion of various kinds (horses, carriages, railroads, roller skates). The visual density, the telling of the story through movement and sound, the moral ambiguity of many of the characters – those alone are worth seeing the film for. Again, I felt like I was living in Wyoming over a century ago. I wasn’t in the theater any more.

NIGHTMARE CODE: This is a sneaky indie sci-fi/thriller. At first, you might think it’s just a ‘found footage’ project, playing on themes that have been worn to death – the dangers of surveillance, virtual reality, and so on. But it’s much more interesting than that. A troubled hacker trying to get out a big legal mess takes on a job at a startup. He’s tasked with finishing up their sophisticated behavior recognition software prototype, right after their lead programmer went postal and shot half the staff and himself. But the code proves to be far more than just predictive – it seems to be changing the behavior of its programmers, and not for the better. This film tells its story using split-screen security cameras, webcams, body cameras, and computer screen, in a way that’s really effective. The acting is really great – you feel as though you’re in a real startup shop, with folks trying to cope with real development problems. The realism makes the spooky goings-on that much more effective.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is amazing. It had no reason to be anything than a stupid action film with lots of over-the-top effects and no depth. It was a license to print cash. Instead it had a heart, a real point of view, incredibly well-done characterizations (especially considering the sparse dialog), and yes, awesome action (achieved through a magnificent combination of practical effects, CGI, and let’s not forget the sound design)!

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, the director’s cut. When I saw the original version – 2.5 hours – back in 1990, I was both bored and intrigued. After seeing Wings of Desire, I was in love with Wim Wenders and thought he could do no wrong. But the film was so muddled and gave me no real anchor to guide me with. I could tell there were some great ideas floating in there, and had heard rumors that there was a longer cut out there.

The completely restored version, presented this year at MOMA, was amazing. It clocks in at nearly 5 hours, but you’re not bored at all. Instead, you’re incredibly grounded in what’s going on. The ostensible plot is about a woman who’s drifting through life in 1999, and gets seduced by, and then chases, a mysterious man who’s carrying around a camera that can record reality for playback to the blind, while the whole world is waiting for a potential nuclear disaster (a satellite carrying a nuclear payload may be crashing to earth). The plot takes the viewer from Europe through America to Japan to the aboriginal homelands in Australia. The themes of the film carry you through the wonder, fears and joys of modern life and tech, issues of community vs. individuality, the struggle to distinguish between the real and the virtual (and the real environment of dreams versus the virtual reality of our concept of nature). It’s a deep, dense movie, well worth the evening.

JESSICA JONES – yes I know it’s not a film, it’s a TV show, but hear me out. This is the project that will forever change the way we look at the superhero genre in film and tv. The craft on display is amazing – the performances, fight choreography, direction, lighting, sound design, music… but it’s the multilayered story that makes it work. By opting not to do another “the world ends if we don’t stop the bad guy,” the show instead delves into the internal world of the characters. It seems like it’s about a hard-drinking PI who is trying to take down a clever psychopath with a special talent for manipulation. But it’s also about the nature of abuse and manipulation, and the damage that abusive relationships can cause to one’s psyche. It’s about the difficulty and high cost of doing the right thing, when society as a whole rewards ‘following the program’ (even when that program turns you into a killer, a la Nuke, or a victim, like Patsy).

IMAGINE I’M BEAUTIFUL – this is a really tense, slow-build psychological thriller, written, starring and produced by Naomi McDougall Graham, and directed by Meredith Edwards. Without giving too much away, it’s about a young woman, Lana who comes to the city and answers a roommate ad. She moves in with the very troubled Lana, and the two slowly form a deep bond. But their friendship turns and twists in unexpected ways, and you’re kept wondering where the hell is their relationship going? It’s a great handshake of style and substance, made more amazing by the fact that it was made on such a low budget.

At first glance these films seem completely unrelated. Pather Panjali, Imagine I’m Beautiful and Nightmare Code were low-budget first features. Mad Max is part of a franchise, with top stars and made by George Miller, who’s pushing 70. Until the End… and Heaven’s Gate were both regarded as mid-career commercial and artistic failures at the time of their release. Jessica Jones was a thoroughly collaborative effort, produced by the Marvel machine (which has had better years, frankly).

But what unites all these films is their focus on what Tori Amos called, in her fantastic album and title song, Little Earthquakes. “Oh, these little earthquakes / Here we go again / Oh, these little earthquakes / Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces.” When you listen to that song (or just about any of them on the album), you’re shown that someone’s sanity and life and dreams can matter as much as the whole world’s, and can depend on the simplest of things. Stolen fruit, the one tree that’s still standing in a marsh, the lucky find of a typewriter in a commune… these films, like little earthquakes, obliterate boundaries. I’ve never been to Apu’s remote West Bengal village, nor did I grow up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But while I was watching them and for some time afterward, I wasn’t here in NYC in 2015 anymore; I was standing next to Apu while he was walking down the tracks by his apartment, or hanging on to Furiosa’s rig for dear life. These films accomplished the miracle that the medium has always promised and seldom delivers – to connect you to someone else, somewhere else, and change you in the process.

At some point I’ll write about the great TV I saw in 2015, so stay tuned! Happy new year!

When Is the Director Done?

Made In NY Bus Poster!

Found In Time has just been released on Amazon, and user reviews are starting to come in. They confirm something that all of us suspected from the beginning – that this was a film that would divide audiences. Those who were expecting something more straightforward would be frustrated; those who could deal with more ambiguity would be happy. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about either attitude, by the way. Ambiguity can be a terrible thing (see Prometheus).

We’re still waiting on some festivals to get back to us, and our foreign sales rep, Summer Hill Films, is taking it to Cannes next month. We’re also still exploring other domestic distribution options – DVD, BluRay, and a soundtrack album.

But most of that is the work of the producer, at least in theory. At what point is the director done with a film? Is it when it’s wrapped? When post is finished? When it’s out at festivals? When it’s available online or in stores? The producer is on for the whole ride (unless the producer is only working for hire). What is the director’s role in this brave new world of the artist/entrepreneur?

J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of the tv series Babylon 5, somehow managed to write most of the 100+ episodes, EP the show, supervise the sound mix, run the online forums on AOL (hey, it was back in the day), and then went on to write follow-up movies, supervise comic and novel adaptations, and answer fan mail. At what point did he say ‘I’m done?’ The show went off the air sometime in the late 1990s but still has a loyal following. Until Firefly and Battlestar Galactica came along it was the gateway drug by which I introduced my non-geek friends to sci-fi. Does he still feel as connected to the show as he did all those years ago?

I’m wrestling with this issue now because I’m in the process of getting back into the director’s chair again for Bitter Child, but I don’t want to abandon Found In Time just at the moment when people are starting to see it. It’s been part of my life so long that I’m not even sure how I would go about leaving it… and yet whenever I work on Bitter Child part of me feels guilty. It’s an odd conundrum, and very different from what I’ve faced before.

By the time my first film, Caleb’s Door, was finished, I was really ready to be done with it and get on with the next project. That was a hundred internet years ago, when social media was just gaining traction and distributors were starting the now-familiar pattern of picking up films for a song and then putting them out into the marketplace with little if any promotion. The idea of the filmmaker taking up the promotion baton was seen as counterproductive (except for documentaries). Festivals were the main avenue for promoting a film.

I moved on to another project (which fell apart), then onto Found In Time. And the funny thing is, that while there are a lot of books out there on how to make your film, there are fewer on how to finish them, even fewer on how to distribute them, and none that I know of about how to do whatever happens after distribution. So I never really went through this before.

I can tell you that it’s a difficult process emotionally to untangle oneself from a project once its “finished,” and make plans for its entry into the world. Whenever I read the negative reviews, I wonder if I’ve made the film too inaccessible or too vague. Or I think that the marketing is off. Or I wonder if there’s a more ‘targeted’ distribution avenue out there.

Working on Bitter Child (and my television project, The Spectral City) is great, but it adds to the tension somewhat. It’s hard to work on more than one project at a time and give each one the proper attention and energy. And with The Spectral City, some more early-stage projects, and the need to make a living all jostling for attention. keeping sustained focus on any one thing can be difficult.

I still wake up every day happy to be in a position to make films and write and express myself, so don’t get the impression that it’s all doom and gloom. My grandparents and parents never had a chance to really pursue their artistic passions as fully as they would have liked. So I’m very lucky. This feeling of uncertainty about what my role is in regards to Found In Time – beyond being a sort of internet-age carnival barker (or wheatpaste band poster brigadier) – is something that’s akin to being a parent, I guess. We’ve raised the kid, and now it’s time to let it go and take on a supporting role in its life.

Happy 2015

VIDEOLOGY SCREENING

Miami Sci-Fi 2015
As a fitting start to 2015, we’re returning to Brooklyn for a free screening at Videology! Join us on Monday, January 5th, @ 10pm at this unique bar/video store/screening room in the heart of Williamsburg (308 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, 11211). For details and RSVPs hit up the Facebook event page.

MIAMI SCI-FI

After that you can catch the film at the Miami Sci-Fi Film Festival! It will be screening Friday evening, January 23rd, at the beautiful beach-side Regency Hyatt. For details and tickets, visit Miscifi.com!

2014 IN REVIEW

As 2014 draws to a close, we salute all the wonderful people we’ve met along the Found In Time journey. Our family, friends, cast, crew, location owners, vendors, fans, festival programmers and staff, distributor staff… it takes a city, never mind a village.

This was a year of promoting and delivering the film, which has proved to be nearly as much work as making it was. We did a lot of research on promotion and publicity, and scored some great interviews and reviews – in “Starlog”, in Sci-Fi Saturday Night. We brought home four more awards, from Art of Brooklyn, Intendence, and Phoenix Comic-Con. We had some special screenings in non-festival venues – conventions, sci-fi meetup groups, and college campuses. We signed up with a foreign sales agent, TomCat Films. Our domestic distributor, Green Apple, worked tirelessly with us to get the film ready to go out on all the various platforms.

It was also a year of new beginnings. Every producer, at some point during a project, begins to yearn for something new. I certainly did. This year we launched two new projects – a supernatural war mini-series, “The Spectral City,” and a low-budget supernatural thriller, “Bitter Child.” While “Bitter Child” may get made first, we’re going to try a different approach – keeping two projects in the air at once.

We also – at Chaotic Sequence – expanded our efforts at film education. We’re still pushing my book on preproduction, Preparing For Takeoff, and pairing it up with one-day seminars on film prep. We’ll be doing more one day seminars in 2015 – on preproduction, visual storytelling, and more.

WHAT WE LEARNED

Probably the hardest part of 2014 was keeping so many irons in the fire – two projects in development, a book and workshops to push, a film to deliver and promote, and the everyday grind of making a living at budgeting, writing, teaching, and consulting. I’m at a point where I need to make some decisions as to how much effort to put into which projects, while having to acknowledge that I can’t do it all. So one of my goals for 2015 is to DIWO – Do It With Others. “Found In Time” was a wonderful collaborative experience. Now I need to replicate that on a larger scale.

Have a great new year!

Three Weeks From Release…

Some cool things are happening.

Awards!

We won the Best Sci-Fi Feature at Phoenix Comicon, and Best Sci-Fi and Best Audience Sci-Fi awards at Intendence Film Festival! Thank you to Intendence and Phoenix Comicon!

Made In NY Marketing Campaign Ad

We qualified for the Made In New York Marketing program, which means NYC will print and put up 250 subway and 20 bus shelter ads for our film – at no cost! Here’s a pic of our team looking over a rough copy of the subway poster:

Made In NY Marketing Poster Team

Screenings

We’re organizing some non-festival screenings in September, October and November, timed to the release of the film. Stay tuned and we’ll keep you posted.

I know we haven’t written a ‘how-to’ or diary entry in a while. Things are a little hectic right now. We’ll post more in-depth pieces in a short while.

2013: Overhyped & Underrated

Spring is coming!

This was a great year for films, television programs, webisodes, shorts. I saw a ton of great material, either streaming online or at festivals. I didn’t go to mainstream film screenings as much as in years past. I also watched a lot of day-and-date programming at home.

I have mixed feelings about streaming. The quality is still pretty terrible to my eye. Just pop a BluRay or ordinary DVD into the player (if you can still find the remote), hit play, and you’ll see what I mean. Wow – blacks that look black as opposed to milky gray. No dropped frames. No noise in the image.

On the other hand, the quality issues tend to melt away when weighed against the convenience of watching films right away. And it’s also given me the opportunity to watch some more obscure or older films in a low pressure way (hey, it was part of the subscription, so if I don’t like it I can just hit stop). I’ve also developed the (possibly) bad habit of binge-watching tv.

It sounds like I’ve finally caught up with 2009, right? Well, that’s interesting in and of itself, isn’t it? Streaming has become so ubiquitous that to talk about it seems weird. It’s an interesting example of what O.B. Hardison called “disappearing” – when something becomes thoroughly integrated into the mainstream culture, it disappears. No one talks about jump-cuts, nonlinear narratives, stereo, widescreen, color, or even CGI (yes, we talk about it, but it’s no longer a “gee won’t this be great one day” thing) anymore. But those were each revolutionary techniques/technologies when they first came out, whose impact is still resonating in how we make and watch movies today.

On the other hand – and maybe this is a side-effect of getting older – I see a lot of things that seem ‘new’ that really aren’t. I’ve been online since 1985, first on BBSes and then on bitnet. The social experience is nothing new to me. Streaming is a like a return to the VHS era, when we recorded shows and films and then binged-watched them at parties.

In film this past year, we also saw a lot of things that seemed new that weren’t. Stanley Donen and Vincent Minelli would have liked the color scheme of Spring Breakers even if they felt nothing for the subject matter (though the film does recall one of Keanu Reeves’ first films, River’s Edge). The Place Beyond the Pines and Prisoners feel similar to films made during the ‘New Hollywood’ years (late 60s-early 70s), especially in terms of the acting style, pacing and themes. And don’t get me started on Lars Van Triers. Tarkovsky, Tarr, Bergman, Goddard, and others were pushing the language of film long before he showed up, and were doing it in more interesting ways.

This is not to say I didn’t like Place… and Prisoners; on the contrary I thought they both were amazing films, and daring each in different ways. But they weren’t necessarily new. That’s okay though. I liked Elysium too, even though it’s a fancier version of Metropolis. It’s good to rework and reexamine themes from time to time; sometimes the remakes/reboots can actually become their own, fresh creations (Batman Begins is a good example, leading to The Dark Knight). I think though that it’s become harder to make anything genuinely new. The endless stream of reboots, while nothing new for Hollywood (The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland, Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, were all remakes), does seem to be getting more circular and self-sustaining. Independent filmmakers who want to do something a little different are having a harder go of getting wider recognition for their work than during the ’90s.

Anyway, enough rambling. Here’s my annual Overhyped and Underrated list for 2013. Keep in mind that the overrated films weren’t necessarily terrible, just overpraised or praised for the wrong reasons. And the underrated films weren’t necessarily fantastic, but were more deserving of praise than they received. But first, a quick look at my favorite indie films of this past year. One of the things they all had in common was that they were ambitious, had a lot of heart, and weren’t afraid to mix genres and expectations around.

FAVORITE FESTIVAL FEATURES

Lonely Boy (dir. Dale Fabrigar): A film about a young man suffering from debilitating schizophrenia? When I heard about this and about the fact that it was playing at 9am at the Phoenix Film Festival, I was like “hell I think I’ll skip it.” I’m SO GLAD I DIDN’T. This is a fantastic film – funny, serious, heartwarming, heartbreaking, stylish, beautiful, gritty. It’s like five films in one. Go see it! http://www.lonelyboyfilm.com/ – it’s playing in film festivals and will be coming out sometime this year.

Channeling (dir. Drew Thomas): This is a very stylish, quick-moving sci-fi thriller. The main conceit is that there’s a device that looks like a contact lens that allows you to ‘stream your life.’ Sounds great, except when big money’s involved, things go haywire. People vie for sponsorship dollars on their channels, doing more and more outrageous things for increased viewership. But when one of the self-made ‘stars’ gets killed, his older brother decides to investigate – and finds himself in a deep web of crime, corruption, and celebrity gone haywire.

Found. (dir. Scott Schirmer): OMFG. This is a fantastic horror film, a coming of age story, a meditation on the relationship between real and film violence, a family drama… all in one movie. What does a young kid do when he finds out his brother is a serial killer? What does he love his brother? How did he get that way? Does he have that in him as well? This is an movie that’s not gratuitous (though it is gory), that takes its time with its characters, that’s beautiful to look at. Foundmovie.net

The Invoking (dir. Jeremy Berg): Saying this is a horror film doesn’t really do it justice. The premise sounds familiar – four friends go to a remote rural property that one of them, Sarah, inherited from her estranged family. She doesn’t remember much about the place, and what she does remember isn’t good. But then something really interesting happens – the film begins to creep you out by what it doesn’t show you but only suggests. When Sarah starts seeing things, is she remembering events, participating in them, making them up, or doing something completely new? Is the place haunted on some level, or is she? It eschews simple jump scare tactics for a more thoughtful, under-the-skin approach, and it pays off big-time. The Invoking‘s Official Site.

Leaving DC (dir. Josh Criss): The found footage genre is ridiculous in many ways – why not just put the damn camera down, right? But here it totally works. A consultant with OCD moves out of Washington DC, and starts sending ‘video diaries’ of his new life in a remote dreamhouse in the woods back to his friends in his old OCD support group. Now that he’s finally clear of the city and the distractions, he can work from home! Except that something in the woods seems to be seriously screwing with him at night. Is it some side effect of his meds? Is it a projection of his anxiety? Is it some local kids screwing with the new guy? Or something else? Over the course of the film you see the poor man disintegrate, while trying as best he can to make sense of what’s going on.

Menschen (dir. Sarah Lotfi). This is a short film, unlike the others. But I can’t wait for the feature-length version. It’s the story of an Austrian captain who ‘inherits’ a boy with severe Downs syndrome, while trying to keep what’s left of his company alive at the end of World War II. Instead of doing the expected thing – killing the boy – he takes him under his wing instead. It’s a great film, made for peanuts, and shows what a talent Sarah is. Menschenthemovie.

OVERHYPED

Gravity: What? What’s wrong with you, Arthur? You love space, you love the lead actors, you love ‘2001’, you love Cuaron? What’s not to love about this film? Well, I give it credit for giving me an amazing experience – there were moments during the film when I was literally on the edge of my seat, gasping for air or feeling like I was tumbling out of control. And it was great to see a film give the finger to Hollywood – an action film carried by a leading woman over 40! BUT, the story just… wasn’t there. It’s almost like a thrill ride or a video game. I like playing video games and going on thrill rides. And the movie succeeds on that level. But I expected more from the folks who’ve done such fine work in the past, injecting political commentary, meditations on life and existence, and even humor into what could have been “average” fare.

Star Trek: Into Darkness Some good action scenes, but a completely generic mess of fan-service slop plus plot holes, lens flares, and a weird attitude towards violence. It glorifies violence in every shot (look at those people getting sucked into space! Look at that beautifully-rendered crash) while declaiming it in wooden speeches.

12 Years a Slave – but not for the film itself. This is a film that I think has been massively misunderstood by critics, who either have dismissed it as ‘cold’ or have fallen all over themselves in what I can only think of as some form of guilt. What it truly is is a beautifully nuanced look at how our society (both past and present) makes us complicit in slavery at every level. Slavery invades Solomon’s body first, but then it takes his mind and his soul. Like Polanski’s The Pianist, it’s only by virtue of sheer luck that he survives.

The Way Way Back: A fun, feel-good movie. But nothing super-special. If anything, it almost felt like a by-the-numbers reworking of earlier coming-of-age films. Again, that’s okay, but I guess I expected something… more.

About Time: This did get a lot of grief from critics, but it was also overhyped in some circles. The big problem I had is that… nothing happens. A film about time weirdness should have something happening, right? Some tragedy or another? The cast was lovely, and I will happily watch Bill Nighy in just about anything, but this felt like a second draft of an outline for a film rather than a film.

UNDERRATED

12 Years A Slave – What? Well, here’s the thing. A surprisingly large number of critics gave this film a hard time for being ‘too clinical.’ Others suggested it was ‘too stiff.’ To me, that’s its main strength. Instead of going for a gauzy, designed-to-death Spielberg schmaltzfest, the film steps back a bit and lets the subject speak for itself. The best moments in the film are the quietest, when we see the sometimes large, sometimes subtle changes slavery is making in Solomon’s psyche.

Elysium – Critics picked on this one for all sorts of crazy reasons. The one I most frequently encountered was that the film wasn’t subtle. WTF? Did they SEE District 9? What, exactly, was subtle about the mech fight at the end of that film, complete with a flying pig? Subtlety isn’t Blomkampf’s strong suit. Blowing up shit while delivering a balls-out indictment of a corrupt and unjust system is what he’s good at, and that’s exactly what we got here. And why do critics always so easily put down films that talk about class issues, exactly? I could’ve copied and pasted reviews of In Time into those of Elysium.

Europa Report – This is a great sci-fi film, and actually makes good use of the found footage conceit. It’s a post-mission analysis of a corporate-sponsored manned trip to Europa, what the crew found there, and how fucked up the mission got at various stages. Most of the footage comes from on-board ship or spacesuit cameras, plus interviews shot before and after the mission. Did I mention that it’s meticulously researched? It’s tense, interesting to watch, beautiful to look at, and cost the lunch money of Gravity, while also managing to deliver a more complex story. The worst thing about the film is that it came out the same year as Gravity.

Prisoners – this is an amazingly tense, dark thriller that should have gotten a MUCH bigger boost than it did. I really don’t want to spoil it for you.

Pacific Rim – this is not the second coming of cinema. But it’s the first time that a heavily-CGI-based action film got me excited in a long time. The globe-spanning message was great (we have to stick together to overcome this) plus the crackling fight scenes were just wonderful.

To The Wonder – a LOT of critics hated this film, and I can understand why. The Olga Kurylenko’s manic-pixie girlfriend act gets a little old after a while. But it’s an amazing film nonetheless – a depiction of the emotional life, with all the plot drained out. In a sense, it’s the kind of film you really have to be the right state to appreciate. Your emotions will interact with those of the film’s characters in ways that are largely invisible when watching a more conventional film.

The Place Beyond the Pines – Great film. You think it’s going to be a heist movie, then it turns into a smalltown-corruption story, then it becomes a coming-of-age drama, then a multi-generational saga. It’s so many things, packed into one film, that you want to applaud the sheer audacity of it. I can forgive the done-to-death Ryan Gosling blue-collar performance (I think he’s got a closet full of them at this point).

There’s a lot more to talk about, but this article is already too freaking long, so let’s move on to 2014 and a better year for everyone, everywhere!

2013 – What a Year!

Happy Holidays and New Year!

Happy new year to everyone! The year kicked off with a couple of great pieces of news: first, Found In Time had its New York City festival premiere at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of their ongoing NewFilmmakers NY program, on January 2nd. The attendance was a little sparse, but pretty damn good considering it was just after the new year and we were in the beginning stages of a really crummy winter storm.

Secondly, Preparing For Takeoff got a really nice review in Pro Video Coalition (PVC). Head over and read it if you get a chance.. PVC is a really terrific site, and features reviews, articles, tips, and news about the film and video world. It’s a great resource for indie filmmakers.

OBSERVATIONS ON 2013:

2013 was a pretty amazing year, by and large. It was a bit overwhelming at times. Found In Time played at nine festivals and got picked up for distribution. Along the way we created a seemingly endless amount of key artwork, for the poster, flyer, postcard, DVD slipcase, DVD cover, online ad, etc. Preparing For Takeoff, my book on preproduction, was also published in 2013. Promoting it to bookstores, conventions, review sites, indie filmmakers, and colleges took a while but was very rewarding. Somewhere in there I rewrote an older spec script, and started working on some new projects. Oh, and I started teaching a course on production management, something I’d never really done before.

One of the casualties of all this newness was the downtime I had two years ago when Found In Time was wending its way through post. It’s been harder to find time to reflect, exercize, and meet with colleagues and friends. I find that I miss it, and so one of my 2014 resolutions has been to carve out more downtime. It’s the only way to recharge and come up with new ideas.

PROFESSIONAL OBSERVATIONS:

The good and bad news is that filmmakers are finally waking up to what’s going on in their field, namely that they’re getting pushed into the same position that musicians found themselves in about ten years ago, and writers have been in for even longer. The demand for media of all types is rising, but the payoff for the media creators is getting smaller each year. That would be acceptable if the cost of living was manageable, but it really isn’t anymore. Education, healthcare, rent, food costs – pretty much all the necessities of life have become insanely expensive, even more so in the big cities that are often meccas for creative people.

The good news is that film folk are individually and collectively trying to do something about this. I’ve noticed a lot of camaraderie among filmmakers, and less competition. There’s been a growing awareness on the part of writer/directors of the critical role of the producer. I’ve seen crowdfunding take off in a really big way. Filmmakers have embraced (for better or worse) the idea that they have to think about distribution from the get-go.

The bad news is that marketing and promotion are difficult enough to do when it’s your sole job. When you’re also responsible for creating the thing you’re marketing, it becomes difficult if not impossible. To run your art as a business, you have to dedicate time to the following:

  • Working on new projects
  • Making and following up with contacts
  • Distributing projects that are “finished”
  • Marketing and promoting projects (both new and old)
  • Taking care of the office (paying bills, ordering supplies)
  • Bringing in/chasing after money

Each of these requires a different skill set, and a different type of concentration. The soft underbelly of all this is the art itself. After you’ve done all your social media work, fired off emails to friends, put together a little pitch document for your latest project, put the artwork together for your film’s postcard, and done some paying work (that’s hopefully film-related), how much energy/time/concentration do you have left to sit down and write your next script? Or even read your next script? And yet, people are doing it, often by forming small teams. I saw a lot of three and four-person “families” at the festivals this past year, and it’s a good sign.

THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT, THE TV CIRCUIT

This past year marks the first in many where I think I spent more hours watching TV shows than I did actually going to the movies. I usually watch one show at a time, because that’s all I can budget for. This past year, however, I watched Game Of Thrones, Orphan Black, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, and too many specials and webisodes to mention. This is a great time for television!

This was also the first year I saw more consistently awesome films at festivals than in theaters. I was terribly disappointed by most of the studio movies I saw in theaters, and even many of the so-called indie movies were just rehashes of various formulas with an “alternative” soundtrack. On the other hand, the films I saw at festivals – both shorts and features – were captivating, surprising, engaging, and entertaining, and managed to be all those things on shoestring budgets. Most of these films are going straight to DVD and digital.

This, frankly, sucks. The big screen still has a place in our culture, and it shouldn’t be reserved for high-budget dreck like Star Trek: Into Dumbness, or even enjoyable rides like Pacific Rim. Have we have become too enamored of spectacle, and identify it with the big screen too much? Can’t we still appreciate how wonderful it is to see a truly indie movie in a theater with strangers laughing, crying, clapping and oohing all around you? I remember seeing Francois Truffaut’s Small Change in an arthouse theater in upstate New York as a kid. It was as momentous to me as seeing Star Wars in the theater in the Bronx a few years earlier. There’s still a place for a theatrical release for really small films, but we may have to fight a bit to make it work.

THE YEAR AHEAD

Found In Time will be released this year by Green Apple Entertainment. Beyond that it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. We’re still looking at festivals, sci-fi conventions, and alternative theatrical venues for the film, and are contemplating a trip to the Cannes Marketplace to get acquainted with the woolly world of foreign sales agents. The future can be guaranteed to bring more change, at a more rapid clip that was thought possible. Here’s to a great year ahead. Let the adventure continue!

Rethinking The Word ‘Visionary’

It’s been a while since I dipped into the ‘critical’ role. Generally, while I like (and read plenty of) film criticism, I’m less sure of my ability to write it. Also, I’m constantly afraid that it will make me very self-conscious in my own work.

But, I feel like I have to speak but, because something is bugging the shit out of me, and it has to do with the advertising (and to some extent) the fan-boy reception and criticism of Zack Snyder as a ‘VISIONARY.’

Zack, I don’t know you, but I have seen most of your films. I feel that you, Gaspar Noe (Enter The Void), Sophia Coppola (Lost In Translation), Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight), and a few other filmmakers belong to a particular class of artists. You have impressive technical skills, and are trying to embrace bigger themes in your work, while working within a system that seems to actively discourage anything of the sort. That does make you special among many film directors who seem content to waste their talents on complete crap, or try to make a go of it entirely outside the mainstream system.

However, it doesn’t make you a visionary. Because, in order to be a visionary, you have to have a VISION.

What do I mean by this? I mean that, as an artist, you have to reach beyond what we know and accept as part of our consciousness, dig into what’s ‘out there/in there’ – the endless, constantly unfolding universe – and bring back a new paradigm, nugget, something, anything, that suggests a better/newer/alternate way of being, thinking, loving, living, making. In literature and philosophy, think of Ovid, Dante, Blake, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung… more recently, Djuna Barnes, Pynchon, Deleuze, Adrienne Rich, Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, Samuel Delaney, Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman. In art, think of Picasso, Matisse, Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois. In music: Dirty Projectors, John Cage, Arvo Part, The Boredoms, Bjork, Bill Laswell’s Last Exit, PJ Harvey…

In film and television: Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, David Lynch, (sometimes) David Cronenberg, Maya Deren, Kieslowski, David Simon, David Chase (what’s with all the Davids?), Hayao Miyazaki, Julie Taymor (sometimes), Wong Kar-Wai…

Feel free to argue with some or all of my choices. Not all of them produced consistently visionary (or even good) work. But what unites them (at least is my mind) is that, regardless of their choice of medium, subject matter, technical acumen, critical reception or box office score, they bring something back from the edges of our existence, and thereby broaden our sense of what’s possible.

Other visionaries: the filmmakers I’ve been meeting this year on the festival circuit. The filmmakers behind Sader Ridge, Found, Channeling, Menschen, Lonely Boy – just to name a few, and just at one festival (the Phoenix Film Festival) – are exploring new places, on budgets that are far less than Zack Snyder’s personal bottled water supply. Are the works technically perfect? No. Who cares? They have the vitality that unites great art, from the shamanic cave paintings at Lescaux to Basquiat to Ralph Ellison to Arvo Part’s Tu Deum.

Being a visionary doesn’t guarantee success – sometimes it means taking years of exploration, exile, scraping by on day jobs, scratching away at ideas, throwing a lot of crap out. It’s risky and maddening and sometimes you’ll die before everyone realizes who amazing you are. But if you want the frontier, to connect with what made you want to do this as a kid – it’s there, waiting for you.

So use this word with care. If you aspire to visionary status, spend some time working in the dark. And bring us back something new.

2012: The Poor Got Poorer

Happy New Year 2013!
2012 will be marked as the year that the world leaders were confronted with the effects of poverty on a global scale, and essentially shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs on it.

Instead, we watched as the participants in the various democratic movements of 2011 – the Arab spring, continued protests in Iran, strikes in China, the Occupy movements here and abroad – were systematically beaten, terrorized, arrested and otherwise coerced by the established powers and their police/armed servants. Another year passed while people in the U.S. and Europe were kicked out of their homes, went on welfare, declared bankruptcy, and made to suffer austerity cuts, while the rich people who put them in that position walled themselves with lobbyists and lawyers and defeated nearly every measure to hold them accountable. Another year was wasted while our two-party system deadlocked on key issues. In the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) we see trends toward increasing political oppression, and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. But that’s okay, because their economy is “growing.” When we see something growing uncontrollably and eating up resources, we usually call it a tumor.

The sheer scale of the suffering is difficult to appreciate. Fifteen percent of this country is on food stamps, and it’s suspected that a larger percentage is eligible. The “real” unemployment rate is in the double digits here, and in the 20s and 30s in big chunks of Europe and the Middle East. Instead of lifting people out of poverty, our economic/political system is pushing people into it.

Poverty is probably worse than just about everything except slavery, rape and death (though it often includes all three). It’s a self-perpetuating limit of personal and societal potential, and it’s completely unnecessary. We have enough food, water, energy, shelter, clothing, medicine and basic human services to go around. The super-rich and even the middle class would barely feel the pinch. Instead we address poverty as a criminal problem – through citations, fines, arrests. We judge poor people’s behavior in ways we would never judge our own (I can’t believe he spends his welfare money on cigarettes, says the guy slurping down his $5 artisanal cupcake with a $5 Starbucks coffee). When we talk about educating people out of poverty, we speak about “math-and-science” and “high skills job training” as though they were a magic panacea, while cutting out other programs. But since we’re hell bent on deunionizing our workplace, in exactly what way will high mechanical/science/math skills help them? And in any case, shouldn’t poor kids be given the same level of choice as rich and middle class ones? Maybe some of them would like to be able to make a living one day as artists, teachers, therapists, historians, anthropologists… we need people in those professions too!

Anyway, this isn’t a blog about politics, but one about movies. But there is a connection. Everyone I know in the film business is trying to make do with less. The budgets are shrinking, and so are the salaries. There’s a wider gap between independent films (shot on a Canon 5D and getting no theatrical or a tiny release) and gargantuan ones (shot for and projected in 3D, getting huge releases). The quality of the films, however, is completely independent of the budget, but IS rather tied directly to the talent of the people involved.

Films addressed the issue of poverty in many ways. Some by offering escapism, some by confronting it head on, some by doing both. Some of my favorite films had nothing at all to do with reality (Cabin in the Woods) while others did (Nothing But a Man). The fact that the latter film came out in 1964 is both a testament to its art and very troubling.

So here’s some observations about movies I saw this year, which may include some that were released in year’s prior (hey, it’s my blog, my rules).

THE OVERHYPED

Paul Thomas Anderson is talented. He knows how to use his tools and how to get great performances out of his cast. But I always feel like there’s something missing in his films. And by midway through the second act of each one, I’m looking at my watch. Having seen the The Master, I now know what’s bothering me. He doesn’t know when the scene is over. I’m not just talking about editing (though that’s part of it) – hell, I love long, slow films – but development. Things build to a certain point in The Master but then they just stay there. It’s like watching a Meisner repetition exercise that goes on for too long – you’re bored, then you’re engaged again, then bored again. Give me some progression, please! Frankly, Down And Out In Beverly Hills and Henry Fool covered the same territory but were both more interesting to watch.

Prometheus: I had to shower and watch Alien again to remind myself that, once upon a time, Ridley Scott made smart, middlebrow films with meaningful visuals. Ignoring, for the moment, that everyone is an idiot in the film, including PhDs, corporate CEOs, and spaceship crewmembers (except for the replicant). Ignore the plot holes, weird shifts in tone, and the pitiful dialog. How about the visuals, which everyone applauded? I wasn’t impressed. Think of LA in Blade Runner, Japan in Black Rain, the Bronx in American Gangster or Europe (giving way to the desert warmth of Jerusalem) in Kingdom. He excels at creating a sense of place and embedding his characters in that place. But there’s nothing really behind the visuals in Prometheus. There’s no subtext to anything, for that matter.

The Hunger Games: I really wanted to love this movie, but I could only just like it. All the elements were there, but the whole thing felt rushed. The pacing was completely off. The over-reliance on close-ups meant that we barely saw the larger picture – literally and metaphorically. The CGI was shockingly cheap. The use of shaky-cam made it impossible to really get a sense of the geography of the space, which is, you know, important in a film with action. And worse, it was deployed at moments when I really just needed to see the characters and get to know them better. The film felt almost completely leeched of any of the political/social critique that is so obviously present in the books. Interestingly, the “poor” who are being oppressed are largely invisible in the film. Since we spend most of the film in the capital and on the field, there’s no real context to anything. And Jennifer Lawrence (who is a very fine actress) is given very little to do. Whenever an emotional moment comes up it’s soft-pedaled and smothered in music. I kept thinking that John Carpenter would have made a much better movie on a smaller budget. Or frankly so would Kathryn Bigelow. Explain to me why she isn’t directing the other movies – they are RIGHT up her alley (violent, visual, allegorical, action-with-subtext).

The Bourne Legacy: Jeremy Renner is a kick-ass action star, and Rachel Weisz is a great partner. They should do more movies together. But nothing happens for the first hour of this film, and then we’re thrown into a soupy mess with some great set-pieces and no real stakes.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows: A couple of years ago, Guy Ritchie managed to combine the light-hearted scruffiness of Snatch with Sherlock Holmes, and gave us an engaging film, featuring a decent mystery, some great performances, and a solid sense of place. For the sequel, he decided to go all Matrix: Reloaded on us and gave us more more more louder louder louder. The only detecting I could see going on was on Noomi Rapace’s part, as she tried to figure out where she belonged in the Holmes/Watson sandwich.

The Dark Knight Rises: And then goes back to bed. Seriously. I felt like I was watching a well-written but boring graduate thesis on Batman and social structure, instead of a movie. The show/tell ratio is crazy. The pacing is dreadful (oh, looks like we’re going to see some action – no, sorry, we’re going to stop and talk some more now). The movie takes forever to take off and has no energy at all (there’s no chemistry between Batman and anyone else, even Alfred, and Michael Caine is trying his best). And after three movies Nolan still doesn’t know how to stage hand-to-hand combat well (except for the end boss fight, which then ends with – you guessed it – more talking). See They Live to see how it’s done, please.

THE UNDER-APPRECIATED

John Carter was fun. A lot of fun. It takes a while to get going, but like Cabin in the Woods I felt it treated the subject matter with the appropriate level of B-movie energy (though it was not as well-written as Cabin). Interesting subtext, too – two civilizations are being pitted against each other while another (the Tharks) is exploited by both, and yet another is reaping profits behind the scenes. For the first time in a while, I felt like I was watching something epic in scope. It has problems – the ship-to-ship combat is a lot of badly-edited explosions, and the film needed to be longer (yes, longer) since they were trying to pack so much stuff in. But it’s not the disaster all the critics made it out to be. It’s also funny. Lynn Collins is smoking. And Willem Dafoe is nine feet tall with four arms. What more can you ask for?

The Avengers: Okay, what am I smoking? How is this an under-appreciated movie? But while a lot of attention has been paid to the (admittedly awesome) meta-dynamics of bringing all these different characters together, and the rather spectacular battle in the third act, what makes the film work are the quieter moments in the second, where Wheedon actually spends some time developing relationships and characters. He mixes genres, shifts comedic/dramatic tones without missing a beat, and apart from some very shameful stereotyping (not all Germans go to the opera, and not everyone who lives in Calcutta is poor with goats and black and white TVs in their yards) makes it all feel fresh. The other thing that doesn’t get as much mention is the ambiguous way it treats American power. It seems very pro-American at first, but as the film progresses it questions American hegemony (apparently, the high command at SHIELD felt that New York City was expendable, and Nick Fury is not an unalloyed force for good, but rather manipulative when he has to be).

Total Recall: This wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch. The original is still quite entertaining, and the social/political points it makes are so fresh that the remake doesn’t really update them so much as just redecorate them. But it’s beautiful to look at, there’s some great set-pieces and good performances, and it does manage to be both fun and make a point (as the best of sci-fi does).

OTHER EXPERIENCES:

Nothing But A Man (1964) was amazing. A film about the destructive effects of racism and poverty made nearly a half-century ago, the film felt fresh and alive. I wish I could say it felt like a period piece, but you could make the same film today (the main character is fired for trying to organize the workers at one of his plants, hello Michigan) without changing much except some small details.

Devoured (2012) – I saw this at Shriekfest. It’s not what you think. I don’t even know how to describe it exactly, but it seems like it’s going to be a horror movie about a restaurant worker trying to save money for her son’s operation, who’s being haunted by something/someone in the place. But there’s a lot more going on here. The lynchpin to the whole film – apart from the solid cinematography, editing, and sound design – are the performances. The actress playing the lead, Marta Milans, will hopefully be on everyone’s speed dial by next year.

Sidewalls (2011) – This is a fun dramedy with some serious undertones, taking place in Buenos Aires. A young man and woman suffer from various forms of urban anomie, living in buildings opposite each other but never quite meeting. Dealing with internal and external separation form the bulk of the film. While you kind of know how it’s going to end, it’s a well-written, often surprising journey.

Many of the best things I saw this year were on TV – Game of Thrones, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead (sorta) – and in short form at Shriekfest and online (too many to mention). Television and particularly cable tv has become, over the last fifteen years, an awesome dramatic storytelling venue again. I’d love to see movies do the same thing – if we’re going to have a three-part Hobbit, why not a three-part Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Transmetropolitan?

Anyway, here’s to a better 2013 for everyone. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward all. Happy new year!