Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Lights, Camera, Action...Finally
I directed my first film on Saturday and it only took me 22 years.
It was about three minutes long, it took place in a narrow hallway, and while it will never be mistaken for Gone With the Wind to me, it's a classic.
I've been taking this digital video course on Saturdays and for the second class the instructor gave us a short film to shoot, handed us a camera and kicked us out into the hall so we could get busy.
I have written screenplays, both long and short. I have been on the sidelines of several shoots where the actors say my words, more or less, while a director tells them what to do.
I once saw David Mamet on a talk show discussing his experience as a screenwriter for Brian DePalma's The Untouchables. He said he felt like an aunt on the set and I can see why. You believe you have a right to be there, but you get the distinct feeling you're in the way.
I've been dreaming about this since high school, after watching a PBS program called "The Men Who Made the Movies," a fabulous series covering the life and times of such great filmmakers as William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, and Alfred Hitchcock.
I had even given myself a deadline to direct my first film. I decided I must be in the director's chair by the time I turned 26 because that's the same age as Orson Welles when he directed Citizen Kane.
I'm 48 now, so you can see what I think of deadlines.
The Early Days
I had shot some abysmal footage in a high school film class and never edited the thing, much to the teacher's consternation. I did a cool little black and white crime story in college that included a tracking shot that I did with a borrowed wheelchair.
But then I made some other piece of junk in that class. I didn't plan anything on that one and it show. I just shot some slo-mo footage of my sister leaving our house. Take it from me, it was a mess. And then after that...
Well, I became an aunt. I wrote scripts, took notes, planned great films, but I never got behind a camera. I had talked myself into believing that I couldn't do it, that I couldn't direct a film.
I didn't say it in those words, but I sent myself that message loud and clear: stay in the background. You write, you don't direct.
But here I was after all these years, behind the camera, expected to produce results. I couldn't make excuses, I couldn't complain that they were destroying my script. I was the top dog.
The story was simple. One person in an awful hurry bumps into a second one. The first goes down and angrily fends off the second person's attempt to help him up. The first guy dashes off while the second one heads off in the opposite direction...holding the first guy's watch.
Okay, so it ain't The Seventh Seal, but it was mine, or at least one version of it was mine. There were three of us in the class, so we all played parts in each other's films in addition to directing our own flicks.
I was the busy, impatient guy in both films--is this typecasting, or what? I did a good job of hitting the deck, having taken jui-jitsu many moons ago and having been raised Catholic and thus hungry for all sorts of pain.
So I did my first acting gig and then it was time for me to direct my film. My mind went blank. I looked at that buttons on the camera and I could not think of what to do first.
"Uh...How Do You Start This Thing?"
I was afraid to touch the damn thing, sure I would break it or start some terrible chain reaction accident that would shut down the Eastern Seaboard. One of my classmates, a very nice Indian man, started helping me out and the terror faded as I went along.
I show my first scenes and then moved the camera for the reverse angle. I found my other classmate, a woman, was telling the Indian gentleman what to do, so I sort of cleared my throat and told him to stay still. Then I gave him my directions.
Nothing personal, honey, but this is my masterpiece, not yours. You'll get your chance soon enough.
I found I liked directing, I liked making decisions. When I shot the last scene, where the Indian man walks off with the victim's watch, I didn't think he was holding the watch properly.
I could barely see the watch in the viewfinder, and since that was the punchline of the whole damn story, I really needed to have it prominantly displayed.
My two classmates started to walk away and I very politely said, "hey, let's shoot the last scene one more time." And then I told my actor exactly what I wanted. No screaming, no temper tantrums.
I didn't run off and lock myself in my trailer, mostly because I didn't have one, but still, I didn't have to be rude to get what I wanted.
Then I replayed my footage in the monitor and I was very pleased indeed. I was now a director.
Then it was time for another acting gig. Earlier in the day I had seen myself on the video monitor and I couldn't resist the urge to do a little shadow-boxing as I watched myself on the screen.
So for my second turn as the rushing guy, the woman directing me suggested I do some of that business as I walked down the hall.
To calm myself down, I chugged down the hall punching the air and singing "You're Not the Boss of Me." It worked. I felt comfortable in front of the camera as I did my Type A guy routine.
To Be Continued
This Saturday we're going to edit our videos and I'm looking forward to taking this bit of visual clay and sculpting out a story. It's going to be cool.
I told everyone about the shoot, including my 18-year-old niece, Kristin. And it turns out she's having her own brush with greatness. She told me she will be appearing in her high school's production of "Les Misérables" this spring and I was estatic.
"What part do you have?" I asked excitedly.
"Oh," she said matter-of-factly, "I play a whore."
Well, my goodness, isn't that nice? My lovely little niece, whom I used to bounce on my lap, with whom I used to play horsey,piggy back, and peek-a-boo, now all grown up and portraying the town strumpet.
I just can't tell you how proud I am right now. And I know somewhere up in Heaven, my mom is looking down and saying, "oh, look, there's my little whore!"
Oh, well. Maybe some day my niece and I will work together. Maybe I'll be a big-time director and she'll be a famous actress, and I'll have her play such great women as Cleopatra or Madame Curie, or Amelia Earhart.
Or maybe I'll be grinding out zero budget quickies and I'll tell her to go down to the end of the hallway and steal that guy's watch.
But she won't be playing a hooker, that's for damn sure.