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July 30, 2010

Commentary With Kids

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To say that the saga of preparing the St. Nick DVD is neverending implies that it's been a source of stress these past six months, when in fact it's merely been a footnote in my mental list of chores. I hope our distributor forgives my laxness. Today, I logged one of the final extra features - a commentary track with Tucker and Savanna, both of whom showed up looking about a foot taller than when I last saw them (as they were about to hop on a plane to Athens).

They didn't talk through the whole movie - which is fine, since I'll be intercutting their commentary with my own - and Savanna fell asleep at one point, but it was fun to watch it with them and hear what they thought about it after so much time had elapsed. Turns out they'd blocked a lot of the production from their memory. Hopefully that's not a slight against me.

The above still is from a different extra feature, one which Clay Liford will be well pleased to see included. I think we've put together a pretty well-rounded release that doesn't demystify too much of whatever vague gauze of enchantment the movie might cast. Too bad it's all for a dead format.

Posted by David Lowery at 10:53 PM | Comments (1)

July 27, 2010

Start Dates

We had a pre-production meeting for Pioneer the other day, and in doing so talked a little bit about the feature I want to make next. I mentioned that I'd like to shoot it in February. The next day, filling out some paperwork, I found it necessary to get a bit more specific, and settled on February 2nd. I feel safe saying that, for some reason.

Just over three years ago, I noted that I'd set a start date of October 6th for the beginning of principal photography on St. Nick. I wound up being about four months off. Hopefully this won't be a case of indirect proportionism.

I do know that, come that eventual start date, I'm either going to shoot quick and fast and elegantly on a 5D with a good lens package, or slightly more slowly on good old fashioned film. We'll see what opportunities present themselves between now and then.

Pioneer casting takes place this weekend. There are only two people in the movie, so we're already fifty percent done.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:43 PM

July 25, 2010

On Teaching

While embedded in the jungle, I received an email asking if I might be interested in teaching a two-day cinematography workshop at the Dallas Museum Of Art, immediately upon my return. The class would be geared towards high school students, and the curriculum would be up to me.

Now, an intractable tenet of my personality is that, regardless of whatever misgivings I might have, it is well nigh impossible for me to say no to any given proposition. So in spite of the fact that I wasn't necessarily jumping at this particular opportunity, I swallowed my jet lag and a few days later found myself at a podium in front of a gaggle of teenagers, holding a copy of Bresson's Notes On Cinematography (I had decided to use his more inclusive definition of the art as a jumping point, you see) and listening to crickets chirp.

It wasn't exactly that bad. Still, the idealized version of myself I pictured striding to and fro in front of those kids (wearing a neat blazer), breaking down the theory and practice of the craft into colorful building blocks of erudition, never quite materialized. Instead, the real me free-associated his way through an opening lecture, giving an unintentional primer on the pitfalls of nonlinear structures. Later, in trying to demonstrate the importance of lenses in realizing one's mental images, I couldn't get the lens adapter on our model camera to discharge the 50mm; I quickly backpedaled, all the way to an early break for lunch.

My dad is a professor, and a natural pontificate; I always thought that I might have the same knack for conveying ideas, but standing up there at the front of the room, trying to explain F-Stops and shutters and three-point lighting, I felt incredibly frustrated. Both towards myself and my inability to be lucid, and towards the students for not already knowing what I was talking about. I want to teach people who understand where I'm coming from. By the same token, I like to direct actors who already know what I want and don't need me to explain things to them. I can explain things to them, but by the end of those explanations we'll all be confused and unsure and filled with grave self doubts. Better to affirm, I think, than to teach from scratch! Tabula rasas are not my cup of tea, kids don't care who Bresson is and it was too hot to wear a damn blazer.

That was the first day. On Day 2, things got better.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:37 PM | Comments (1)

July 20, 2010

Amazon


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Just got home from a whole bunch of the above.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:11 AM

July 19, 2010

Audrey in New York (and the New Yorker)


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"Ross is something of an indie Robert Altman, with his huge cast of characters and plaited strands of dialogue, and he has a sharp and comic eye for intimacy, domesticity, and practicality."

Audrey The Trainwreck opens on Friday, June 23rd at reRun Theater, a new indie cinema and restaurant in Brooklyn. Frank's film is the inaugural release - quite the vote of confidence! - and it'll be showing all week long. In the meantime, the first bit of press has seeped through the cracks of time: this review in The New Yorker is apparently from next week's issue, but what's to stop us from reading it now? A little film like this needs all the word of mouth it can get.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:00 AM

July 15, 2010

Iquitos

1. The director of this documentary I'm shooting brought down a copy of Fitzcarraldo, and I watched it last night for the first time in a long while. There's some dynamic shift that occurs when one recognizes a location in a film, and it's only intensified when that location was until recently completely alien. What was once abstractly exotic is suddenly tactile, pinioned to a periphery that is bigger than the screen. The blanket of humidity and heat, for example. The stench of sweat and trash and filth that mingles over the course of a morning with dead flesh. The ex-pats over whom the city lords a primitive appeal. The dirt, the grime, the sinking histories, the clouds of exhaust and, beyond that crumbling balustrade, the river.

2. We were well into the jungle, carrying one camera and a set of sticks deeper and deeper into the brush (and by deeper I mean with my city parlance perhaps a single kilometer inward - it doesn't take much to impress me). I was glad we didn't have a dolly and track with us. Our guide stopped to show us a tree, and as we stood there learning about the properties of its bark we heard the sound of a creek burbling in the distance. Which there was, but strange, we thought, that we hadn't heard it before. It grew louder in our ears as we spoke, as if it were suddenly rushing harder and faster. And then louder still, growing now not in force but in proximity. It was physically moving closer to us, and closer still, and it was no longer a creek at all but a river, cutting a strong and sudden swathe through the jungle. Then it was upon us, but it came swelling not from around our feet but from the canopy over our heads.

3. We hired two policemen to escort us down into the slums, where the neighborhoods stand on stilts above the high water marks. Children ducked after us, watching tentatively and then gradually growing brave and tiptoeing in front of the camera. They giggled and laughed and began to show off. We stole their souls, every last one of them.

Posted by David Lowery at 10:54 PM

July 9, 2010

Rip Off

As an addendum to my last post: watching Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, which was one of those movies I couldn't quite believe I'd never seen before, made me think of this quote from the Times' story on Christopher Nolan the other day:

Having been affectionately accused of ripping off elements of Inception from Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais’s classic work of New Wave surrealism, Mr. Nolan said he watched that film for the first time only recently. When he also noticed some unintentional parallels, it prompted a bit of self-analysis.“Basically what it means is, I’m ripping off the movies that ripped off Last Year at Marienbad, ” Mr. Nolan said.

If I hadn't seen the Cimino film, I'd probably have been just as widely accused of ripping it off with my next feature. So now that I have seen it, is it my responsibility to cop to the charges, or just stay my innocently derivative course?

That next feature is still being written, but it's at the point where I could, if I wanted to, start looking for locations, and money to shoot at them with. In the meantime, Pioneer is set for a start date of September 11th. I need to finish casting it.

* * *

Also nice to see in the NY Times: a look back at one of my all-time favorites, Jarmusch's Dead Man, by A.O. Scott. Somewhere there's a DVD that needs dusting off.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:55 PM | Comments (6)

July 5, 2010

Heaven's Gate

In lieu of fireworks in the hills of Virginia this year, I spent the 4th of July having an all-day personal retrospective of Michael Ciminio's early works. I'd just finished Steven Bach's Final Cut, about Cimino's ruinous production of Heaven's Gate, and after cringing at (and thrilling to) its scandalous accounts of hubris run amok, I had to see the film for myself. I hadn't seen any of Cimino's previous films, however, so I decided to start at the beginning, with Thunderbolt & Lightfoot.

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This movie is just awesome - a bromance heist picture that fits right alongside the work that Robert Altman and Hal Ashby were producing at the time. It's ambling, masculine and beautifully written (George Kennedy's utterance "You'll be dead soon anyway" is one of the most villainous lines of dialogue I've ever heard). Like Altman, Cimino favors the use long lenses and tracking shots to cover entire scenes in single takes with gently shifting compositions, lending the picture that sort of offhand precision that's so distinctive of 70s filmmaking.

The Deer Hunter, however, is another matter. There's nothing ambling or offhanded about it, and all of that good spirit has dissipated. Certainly, it is a powerful and terrible experience, but it also feels misguided. Cimino seems intent not on making a film about Vietnam, but using Vietnam to make an Important Picture. It is so portentous, so weighted with its own aspirations to be an American Classic, that it ultimately rang false. And as harrowing as they might be, I don't buy the Russion roulette sequences, either as plot devices or as metaphors. And they set up an unnecessary fourth act that does little but expose the heavily grinding wheels of the plot.

That said, the sense of intention, as overwrought as it may be, is impressive. Were I to have seen it at the time of its release, I would have eagerly looked forward to the refinement of that visions, and the complete fulfillment of Cimino's initial promise.

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In retrospect, perhaps the first sign of what went amiss with that next picture was in the early creative decision to change the title from the more modestly evocative The Johnson County War. If Bach's account is to be believed, there was no modesty to be found in any of Cimino's decisions prior to the first screening of Heaven's Gate: he intended to make a masterpiece, intended to be paid his due for bringing his vision to the masses, and would not suffer any suggestion counter to what he understood to be his own brilliance.

What's sad is that Cimino really was a good filmmaker and, for what it's worth, Heaven's Gate, isn't a bad film. For the most part, I liked it more than The Deer Hunter. I found its pace agreeable, its photography stunning and its simple template of a story well suited to the historical context to which it was applied. It's been criticized for being dusty, smoky, imperceptibly ugly to look at, and I don't know what film those critics were watching (perhaps they merely peeked in during the battle scene in the last two reels). And at just about four hours, it's not unbearably long; it's just lax. The economy of visual storytelling which Cimino displayed in his first two films is frequently foregone in favor of one gorgeous image stacked upon another, to diminishing dramatic effect. To boil this down to one example: we are offered the following image of Ella and Averill, in an iconic embrace, followed by another exactly one scene later.

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The two cancel each other out, taking with them whatever unique information each hoped to impart. And so it goes, scene by scene, for much of the movie, which sets out to be an American epic and winds up just as much a footnote as the Johnson County War itself. But still: that doesn't make it a terrible film. Had it not been for the game-changing manner in which it was produced, it would have come and gone, somewhat innocuously, and been remembered better than it is today. Had the picture lived up to Cimino's own inflated impression of it (had it actually been "bigger than lunch," as he told one overworked and hungry crew member during production), his hubris would have been overlooked right from the get-go. Six years earlier, Stanley Kubrick had gone quite a bit overbudget on Barry Lyndon and in spite of the film's failure at the box office, all was forgiven; one year earlier, Coppola negated all his negative press with Apocalypse Now. And twenty years down the road, David Fincher and Michael Mann do the same on an exponentially larger scale, and it is regarded as the price of artistry. That studios give them that privilege is partially due to a model Cimino helped usher in; by destroying the old guard, he denied it for himself. He was not a perfect director, making it all the easier to fault him for his wretched egomania - but taken simply on the terms of his film, it's hard to say he deserved exactly what he got.

Look at that same film in broader context, however, and the fact that history has relegated Cimino to the status of cautionary tale seems slightly less unjust. If Bach's book is to be believed, he reaped what he'd been sewing. I haven't seen any of his subsequent films, but were I to base my opinion solely on those first three jutted up against the text of Final Cut, I couldn't rightly say whether the squandering of his promise is something worth bemoaning.

Posted by David Lowery at 9:26 PM | Comments (2)

July 4, 2010

A Long Summer Job

The only real job I've ever held was as a projectionist, and here is why. As a burgeoning filmmaker growing up in Dallas, I attended with great interest to the press received by local heroes Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson upon the release of Bottle Rocket in 1996. I clipped articles about them from the paper, and in one of them noted that Owen Wilson had worked as a projectionist at a local theater during high school. The delineation here seemed instantly clear: from projectionist to Sundance to Hollywood career. I made immediate plans to follow suit, plans which were curtailed for about a year on account of my being fifteen. But the instant I was legally employable, my mother drove me to the AMC Grand - the first megaplex in the country, which had opened its doors the previous summer - and filled out an application. I also snuck into Albert Brooks' Mother and Alan Parker's Evita while I was at it, hopping from one theater to the next and fomenting a habit which would, some ways down the line, lead to my downfall.

I worked over the following spring and summer as a concessionist and in the box office, suffering through the indignities of popcorn butter and customer service with the single-minded goal of making it into the projection booth. By September, I'd risen through the ranks on a campaign of incessant politeness, and was trained as a projectionist, both by a kindly manager and a charming girl named Emma, who possessed a pierced tongue. I learned fast. By October, I'd left the floor behind, and for the larger part of the next seven years, I made those dark, cavernous corridors of the booth my home.

This was where I wanted to be. It was, to me, the perfect job (and perhaps it says too much about me that my idea of ideal employment never paid me more than 6.25 an hour). I didn't have to deal with customers. I rarely had to talk to anyone at all, in fact. And I took great pride in the fact that I was the final arbitrator between the filmmaker and the big screen. I handled the film - the physical film, the 35mm celluloid, which I spliced together reel by reel, building up calluses on my fingers where it would run through them. I loved it. My memories of that time are bound to that place. Watching films in piecemeal from the little port windows. Wandering lonelyhearted up to the roof. Sneaking a crush in through the back doors. The history of my adolescence was threaded through those projectors and wound up on the new film reels that came in each week, which I'd build up on Thursday nights and screen for the employees, and myself, and my friends. I remember one night when an invitation I'd passed on to two or three folks to see a private midnight show of Dark City spread like wildfire, resulting in a theater full of about 30 people I didn't know. This was my version of a high school party.

There was also the matter of free time. At night, working the closing shift and waiting for the last movies of the night to end, I would labor over screenplays. I wrote my very first feature length script up there, in fact, an epic saga of displaced youth entitled - naturally - The Projectionist. This script no longer exists, and thankfully so, but I recall that in it was expressed a certain discontent with the way the small cinemas I'd grown up with were being replaced by giant theaters too corporate to be called palaces.

And indeed, the AMC Grand itself was soon supplanted as biggest theater in the country by another megaplex fifteen miles West. Sometime after that I quit, moved to yet another theater, worked there throughout that glory year of 1999, and then made an attempt to move up in the world. I retired on the eve of the millennium, made my first movie, met my best friends, got a job on the periphery of the film industry (driving film and video equipment to locations), gave college an initial try, had my first kiss, got my first apartment - and then, six months later, I was back at my parents' house, and back in the projection booth at the AMC Grand. I guess I'd been taking things a little too fast.

That was the summer of 2001. I would go on to work at that theater for another three years. I was part of the old guard. I knew the place like the back of my hand, and I could see that it was falling apart. And just the company wasn't putting any care into it, my own sense of ownership over my duties gradually diminished. There were too many times when I was the only projectionist running all 24 projectors - a feat I was both proud of and, conversely,recognized an excuse to do inferior work. If they didn't care, why should I? I still wrote on the job a lot. I also slept. I looked for any excuse to undermine managerial authority. I was a good projectionist but a lousy employee, and so when one of the managers saw me sneaking my brother in through the back door to see The Triplets Of Bellville on a snowy Valentine's Day in 2004, he called me to the office and fired me.

All of this comes to mind now, upon the recent news that the AMC Grand is finally closing its doors for good. I don't remember what the last movie I saw there was - Wall-E, perhaps? I'm not going to miss it. I got what I needed out of it, although not what I initially expected. I can still thread a projector with my eyes closed, and I'll take that skill and set it aside alongside hundreds of memories: fire extinguisher fights, sledding down auditorium steps, babysitting a print of Titanic, splicing naughty frames into romantic comedies, staying up all night running movies for myself, summer evenings on the roof and making out in the back row with the girl I'm going to marry.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:20 PM | Comments (2)

July 2, 2010

More Comedy

One good thing about being in LA is that it allowed us to get together with Barlow, edit our Dirty Britches promo and show it to our agents and other pertinent folks.

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Editing this piece wasn't exactly a laugh riot. Within about an hour or two of cutting the footage together, I lost my hold on the humor of it all, and had to proceed based solely on a theoretical understanding of what can, technically, be funny.

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Thankfully, we learned one very important lesson in the process: flatulence is still hilarious. Just when I was about to throw up my hands and commit myself fully to melodrama, I decided to add a well-timed sound effect - a grace note which saved the day for this old fuddy-duddy of a filmmaker.

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Posted by David Lowery at 11:03 PM

Summer Travels

I finished editing Bad Fever last week, and over the last two days of cutting I was simultaneously making incessant and increasingly stressful phone calls, trying to coordinate a last minute trip to Los Angeles. By Sunday morning I was in California, by Monday afternoon I was in an office on the Universal lot and by Tuesday...well, by Tuesday I was taking solace in the fact that the following week I'd have another chance to perfect what I hadn't quite gotten right the day before.

I fly back to Texas next Wednesday. The following Saturday I embark upon a journey to Peru, where I'll be journeying into the jungles outside Iquitos - into Herzog territory - to photograph something determinedly shamanistic (I spent Tuesday morning driving around Pasadena trying to get caught up my yellow fever shots and whatever other inoculations I need in order to be admitted back into the country after a week spent tramping through the Amazon basin).

And then it's back home, for hopefully a longish, quiet stint. Which is what I always say. It's in my nature, said the scorpion.

Posted by David Lowery at 5:21 AM