My second major film started out as an exercise; basically, I wanted to film a killing, to see if I could create the tension that I felt could make my audience actually be scared. I didn’t know if I could or would ever make a film like it, but because at that time I was being heavily influenced by Rodriguez, Tarantino, and Tony Scott, I thought that a murder on screen would be an interesting thing to shoot.
I did not write a script for the untitled film, though, because it didn’t need one. The entire idea consisted of a girl (my sister) packing her things to leave her house, but when she opens the front door, two killers (my two brothers) are standing there waiting for her. One of the killers strangles her in the doorway, while the other enters behind him, closing the door to the house. I think I then would have them leaving the house after a fade to black, and then the whole film would be over; no dialogue, no writing of any kind. Everything was in my head.
Essentially, the only reason I came up with this idea was because I knew I could shoot it; both of my brothers were going to be in town at that time, and so it was just the right circumstances. Really, I just made sure that I built the film around everything that I had available, since I knew I’d have to shoot it pretty quickly. My family, myself included, wanted to spend as much time with my brothers as possible, and me filming wasn’t helping the situation.
On the day of the shoot, though, my perfectly planned idea became something so much more, and quite different, especially in tone. I wanted to film a shot of my bothers (who are actors) driving up the the apartment from inside the car, but they wanted to add something to it, and so they began a dialogue about how they had just ordered a pizza (in real life, we had, in fact, just ordered a pizza, and were trying to get in as much filming as we could before we had to go pick it up), and that it’d be done in fifteen minutes. One asked the other whether they’d be done with the killing in that time, and the other basically said “Of course,” because he was the Louisiana Strangler, and he strangled in Louisiana time (which is quick). From that point on, the entire mood of the film changed. I had been sitting in the back of the car with my sister and my brother’s girlfriend they kept quietly laughing while the filming was going on (none of which, thankfully, is captured on the film).
Back at the apartment, I filmed my sister throwing her things into a suitcase, scribbling a quick note, and then coming down the stairs. In the film, the girl happens to be coming down the stairs just as the killers are walking up to the doorway, and when she opens it, they are right there. The scene becomes very tense. I slowed the footage down during the killing, as she was being strangled, so it would add to the effect (something that I think, in this case, as opposed to Natural High, was the right choice). The killing itself is actually quite menacing, as the music swells, and the girl is just staring straight ahead into the Louisiana Strangler’s sunglasses. I also am still proud of the lead up to it, in which they both approach the doorway at the same time, because I was able to build a large amount of tension into just a few seconds of real time. I still think it’s one of the most “movie-like” scenes I’ve ever filmed. I then filmed my brother closing the door with a long shot away from the house. Finally, I filmed them getting back into the car, both of them looking a little worn out.
It was during the filming of this, though, that one of my brothers (or maybe me; I don’t remember who) came up with the brilliant suggestion of making the killers late to pick up the pizza, because they took too long killing the girl. This then lead to the longest single take I’ve ever shot, which must have been about eighteen straight minutes (the film itself is twenty), in which the killers get pissed at each other while driving around the neighborhood, trying to find the pizza place, all the while discussing wearing sunglasses, their boss (Don Jahnucustacutta, one of the best and mot ridiculous improved names I’ve ever heard), the differences in their methods of killing (one strangles, while the other uses his knife), what the term blood money means, whether Coke is better than Pepsi and Sam’s Choice and more. At one point, they realize that they don’t have the money to pay for the pizza, and so they go back to “that broad’s” house and steal her credit cards (true geniuses, these hit men are), simply because it was a Sunday, and even if they got paid by the boss, they wouldn’t be able to cash the check. Also there is a lengthy discussion of barbecues, and a killer called The Hippo, who kills people by sitting on them. Really, it’s one of the most ridiculous conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to, let alone filming.
The acting in it, while hilarious, is completely outrageous, too, in the sense that the killers do not start out with accents of any sort, but, by the end, they are speaking with full-fledged, incredibly fake Boston accents (which is rather peculiar, since one is clearly from Louisiana). There are also now-famous lines in our family circle, such as “There’s fuckin’ ducks in the road!!!” Really, the film just became one massive you-had-to-be-there in-joke, which, I think, might still play as hilarious to some people outside the family, but I am not sure.
I ended the film in the only place that I could, with a reconciliation after the argument. Really, I had no control over what was going on in the car; I had just planned to shoot a little closing segment, and it turned into eighteen minutes of hilarity. There’s no music during the entire thing, and I zoom in and out of their faces (because what else can I do, sitting in the back seat). It was probably the only film that I’ve ever filmed in which I let it get out of my hands so much, and which let the creative process be determined by others, too. It is one of the most-watched films that I’ve made, and I am very proud of it, although it ended up being twenty minutes of something I never really intended on shooting (the entirety of what I originally wanted in the film is about the first two minutes, if you take off the narration of the killers discussing pizza, and the quickness of the kill). I know that I said that I never really wanted to make a film like this, and I didn’t, but I feel that it was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on, and I wouldn’t have the final film be any other way.
Natural High was the first scripted film I ever made; the idea came out of sheer boredom, the want to make a movie, and the fact that I wasn’t in school that day. Basically, I sat down for about four hours and churned out the longest completed screenplay I’ve written (to this day, even), which was fifteen pages.
The story revolves around a girl named Prissca and her best friend Sanders (played by my sister and myself, respectively); really, there’s not much story. Basically, the two friends just hang out for the day, until Sanders has to get home. It was more of an exercise for me, to see if I could not only write the screenplay, but to actually sit down and come up with how to shoot it. I was fully prepared to shoot the entire film. Sadly, the day I would see it fully realized would never come.
The story - Prissca comes home from school, checks the mail, gets something to eat, and then gets on the computer. A little while later, her friend Sanders shows up, and they proceed to watch TV, do Karaoke, deal with a door-to-door salesman, play video games, etc. Finally, as dusk begins to approach, Sanders must leave Prissca before her mother comes home from work. It is a sad parting.
This film didn’t work out for many reasons; first off, my sister is not one who liked to star in my films, and so she became irritable quickly, which is something I can understand, as I was a very inexperienced director, and she was on her weekend, some of the only time she had to do something more productive than make a film with me. It has been the hitch to my filmmaking ever since; thankfully, on my later films, while she still didn’t want to participate, she did it anyway out of love (so I assume). When we essentially finished shooting the first few pages of the script my sister no longer wanted to participate, so I had to ut the script down from fifteen pages to four. Really, it tells even less of a story now than it did before, because it suddenly just cuts off after the two finish watching TV. Also, at later times, I wanted to re-shoot a few things, and, after strong begging, my sister did help, but we had cleaned up the house, and so one is able to notice small continuity details from one shot to the next (which is less bothersome when I watch it than it was when I was filming).
Now, had all of that happened, but I had still been a good director, maybe the film could still be looked at with some joy; sadly, this is not the case. At that point in my life, I was under the Robert Rodriguez “shoot stuff with interesting angles” school of filmmaking, and so I chose to film the movie using various elements that had absolutely no reason for being. For instance, at one point, I speed up the film, and then I slow it down, because I thought it looked cool. Yeah, some director I was. Also, I couldn’t shoot a dialogue scene to save my life, and so I had very awkward camera set-ups when Prissca and Sanders sat on opposite couches discussing what to do. Basically, I made it so that they were never in a two-shot, and it was almost always POV-type shots, in that the other person was looking directly at the camera. Essentially, this screwed up eye-lines, which never matched. On the re-shoots, I put myself at a different camera angle, one that worked even less, and I used the light from the camera itself, which gave those shots a weird glow, while the shots of my sister talking were from the previous day, and they looked much more natural.
On top of everything, though, was my horrible acting. Man, I thought I was good, and maybe I am, on stage. On film, though, or at that time, at least, I couldn’t act to save my life. Watching it now is like watching some very low-budget film in which even the low-budget actors were too good for the material, and so I had to settle with myself. It’s truly horrible to watch.
Editing was a pain, because I had only edited a little before, and I had to use iMovie. I guess, now that I think of it, it wasn’t so bad, because iMovie is essentially for either novices, or people with no money, and I was both. Most of it was pretty easy to edit, or, at least, in the beginning section, because that was the more well-thought out part. Then, though, came the later portions, with the horrible dialogue shots, and everything, and I just didn’t know what to do. It was the first time I realized why editing can be a pain: You do not know how little footage you have until you get into the editing room. I did as best I could, which is to say that I did alright, I guess. Essentially, it still looks like hell, but what can I do now?
The soundtrack was fun and easy. I had been working in Garageband, and I’d already laid out what I thought were okay tracks; sure, it’s not some masterpiece of music, but some of it is certainly better than what’s on screen.
Lastly, I recorded a commentary track; this is what pisses me off today the most. When I listen to fifteen year old me talking about film, and the reasons in which I did things, I can’t help but feel angry that I thought that those reasons equated to good filmmaking. I kept talking about shooting something in a certain way because it was more “visually interesting,” which, nowadays, I don’t think I’d do, unless it helped get an idea across. I mean what was I thinking? I sounded so stuck-up, too, like I thought I knew everything in the world of film; clearly, I didn’t. I didn’t know there was ever a man called Ingmar Bergman, and so that says something right there. What did I know? Not very much, and it shows through when one watches the film.
When I look back at the film now, all I can do is think with nostalgia back to that time. Really, it wasn’t so great, but there is a little in there of what will become of me as a filmmaker as I grow-up, so to speak, into the filmmaking world. Was my first film a masterpiece? Hell no. Was it sub-par? Not even. Was it a piece of crap? Probably, but I do think it was necessary to make that film, so that I could move past that stage. Nowadays, I like to think that I plan my films out better than that.
Note: The actual idea for the film, now that I think of it, was inspired by the idea of Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season, in which some friends spend the day together, and they deal with the world around them. My film, I’m certain, would have been vastly different, and nowhere near as good, but I liked the idea a lot, and so I went with it.
|—||Robert Bresson on making movies|
Is seeing a film ever optional? As in, if someone puts on a film, whether you want to see it or not, that you haven’t seen, should you ever turn it down? I used to think, of course, because there were so many films that I simply did not want to see; many of them were ones that my mom or my sister wanted to watch, usually girly-type films with ridiculous teenagers being “fun.” Really, some of the films are not bad, but many of them are just not my cup of tea.
In any sense, though, should one turn away from a film? I do not think so; sure, you may know already that the film is bound to suck - the camera-work will be hokey, the acting will be stilted, the direction lackluster - but does that mean that you should pass it up if you’re given the chance to see it? No, I do not believe so.
Essentially, every viewing experience one has with a film will affect his viewing experiences down the road. Watching a good film might make you look harder at other films you cherish, or make you see for the first time just what a film can be. On the other hand, though, watching a bad film does not hurt. It adds to future experiences, in that one becomes more aware of just how much better another movie looks in comparison; perhaps it will give him the craving to search out new, better movies, to get over the bad taste of the previous one. In any case, watching any film helps one in his quest for good movies.
Now, this is not to say that one must see every single film that is playing in theaters, or that one must go out of his way to watch bad films, but that, if given the option one day of watching a film or not watching a film, he should choose to watch, rather than turn away from, a new viewing experience. Personally, there are plenty of films playing right now in theaters that I wish never to see; if, though, I was faced with the situation of yes or no, I should probably take yes.
Lastly, I know that some of you are probably thinking “Yes, but it wastes time and money, and that’s not worth it.” Perhaps yes, and perhaps no. I do believe that, if you are absolutely serious about film, you will make use of the time in which you spend watching a film learning, and, in that, the waste of time never really is a waste of time, after all.
Thanks, Sam! I saw this, and all I could do was laugh! Perfect!
This is one hell of a question; to this, I usually respond that a film is images moving on a screen - nothing more, nothing less, and I do believe that this is the case. When the awards season comes around, and films get nominated for Best Picture, and the like, it seems that no one takes into account that there are plenty of other films out there that are just as good, in their own right, as the films that are nominated for such awards. Basically, the majority of awards center around narrative films, ones that tell a story in some way or another.
This does indeed bother me. When Christopher Columbus’ film version of Rent came out, I was quite shocked to note that Roger Ebert, my all-time favorite critic and film-lover, said that no one could make a worse film then the one the character Mark had made (which plays as the movie itself ends). Now, I think this is quite unfair, because the form of film that Mark was making was not that of a story, or if it was, it was telling the story of the city and the people, even while not being explicit about it. His little short film was capturing life, friends, the world as a whole, and, with that, I think he did a good job. I do not understand how one can call a film of that nature bad, simply because it goes against the grain of how most films are made.
Personally, I will not sit here and write that I absolutely adore avant garde cinema, or at least anymore than I do narrative films, because I don’t. What I will say, though, is that a film needs to be looked at almost objectively, as it’s own being. One cannot rate a film against another, because of the vast number of differences between the two films, such as the reason for the film’s existence, or any possible variables that make a film different from another. When I rate a film on The Auteurs, I do so not against other films by the same filmmaker, or of the same genre, but as the film itself should be rated (in my opinion). When looking at a film, to determine whether it is, in one’s mind, good or bad, one must come to realize what the filmmaker was attempting to do with the film, and ask himself whether the vision was accomplished or not.
So, to answer my title question, all I can say is that a film is exactly what the maker intends it to be, whether it is full of ideas, whether it is full of action, whether it is deranged, whether it is heartfelt, whether it is brainless, or whether its outer shell shows no resemblence of reason at all. A film can capture life, a film can capture death, a film can capture truth or lies, a film can capture knowledge and wonderment, a film can capture anything that a filmmaker wants to get across. Whether it is good or not is a completely different matter.
Note: While I do think that a film should not be rated against another, I tend to find it difficult not to make lists praising one film over another. In this sense, I do not believe that I am really saying that one film is better than another, but that I think one film accomplished itself better than another.