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GRACE & FRANKIE
Jun 06

Grace & Frankie and The History of Modern Cinema:
(Warning:  For Film Geeks only)

My Director's Notebook - Grace & Frankie Episode 209

Normally when I get a gig on an episodic television show, I’ll watch all existing episodes, read all scripts un-produced, and maybe do some filmic research in the vein of the show itself – e.g. before directing Brooklyn 99 it’s possible I stole a shot or three from Serpico, The French Connection, and Midnight Run.

But Grace & Frankie provided a unique opportunity. Instead of watching films about older characters happening upon catharthis in their seventies (Cocoon, Calendar Girls, Grumpy Old Men, and God forbid I’d have to sit through Amour again), I decided to dig deep into the epic resumes of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

Lily Tomlin in The Late Show. Sam Waterston in Interiors.

This became my source material, my bible, my inspiration: the long, varied and often overlapping careers of four living legends. What I discovered is as good a history lesson in modern cinema as any class you can take at USC or the Learning Annex.

Grace & Frankie Ep. 209 - Table Read

Note:  I’m sure between them they could share more revealing intersections with the great artists and technicians of the last 50 years in Hollywood. No doubt they could amaze you with a thousand small-world coincidences that capture the journey of their collective lives in an industry built on relationships and often redundancy. But they’re not writing this blog — I never thought to ask them — though maybe I should have. Instead, you’ll just have to live with my stream of consciousness, which may or may not lead you to this postulation:

The small degrees of our separation are beyond our comprehension. As the philosopher Heschel says, and I’m paraphrasing, it’s not that we don’t understand all that is, it’s that we can’t understand. Usually we regard as meaningful that which can be seen or expressed. But this ignores the vast realm of our experience. It ignores the ineffable – that which can’t be seen or is difficult to express. He encourages being in awe of this mystery. And the path to awe is to strive to make the invisible visible. Though sometimes it’s the other way around – being in awe forces you to see things you hadn’t seen before.

((For more on this theme I point you to Magnolia (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson — who, incidentally, is an uncredited director on Robert Altman’s, Prairie Home Companion (2006) which stars Lily Tomlin, who made her film debut in Altman’s Nashville (1975) opposite Michael Murphy, who plays the ethically enigmatic lawyer in Magnolia.))

So in an attempt to make some of the invisible visible, let’s start at the beginning.  The following should be read fast and with great cinematic enthusiasm:

Jane Fonda’s first film role was in Tall Story (1960),  co-starring Anthony Perkins of Psycho (1960) fame, who appears in Murder on The Orient Express (1974), directed by Sidney Lumet, who besides directing Dog Day Afternoon (1975),  The Verdict (1982), and Jane Fonda in The Morning After (1988), was the godfather of sound editor Leslie Gimbel, whose work includes Light Sleeper (1992), which was directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver (1976), which stars Harvey Keitel, who was originally cast as Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), before being replaced by Martin Sheen, who had previously starred in Badlands (1973), produced by Edward R. Pressman, the producer of True Stories (1986), which stars John Goodman, who gives a legendary performance in The Coen Brothers’, The Big Lebowski (1998), which is narrated by Sam Elliot, who makes out with Jane Fonda at the end of my episode of Grace and Frankie.

Speaking of my search for connection, the big Lebowski himself, David Huddleston, not only guest starred on my second episode of Andy Barker P.I. (2006), but co-starred with Sam Waterston in the Lincoln Center revival of Abe Lincoln in New York. Sam Waterston has played Abraham Lincoln three times on film, including the 1988 mini-series Lincoln, which was directed by Lamont Johnson, who directed Martin Sheen in The Execution of Private Slovak (1974), which co-starred Gary Busey, who appears in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) with Jeff Bridges. Everything comes back to The Big Lebowski.  You’d think I was making jokes until you realize that Jeff Bridges starred with Jane Fonda in the aforementioned The Morning After, and with Sam Waterston in two films, Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Rancho Deluxe (1975), which was directed by Frank Perry, who also wrote and directed Hello Again (1987), which starred Shelly Long, who later that year made Outrageous Fortune (1987) with Bette Midler, who later that year shot Big Business (1988) with Lily Tomlin.  Big Business was photographed by Dean Cundey, who in addition to shooting Back To The Future (1985) and Jurassic Park (1993), also shot Road House (1989), which stars The Big Lebowski’s Ben Gazzara who I read lines with in a play in Connecticut in 1991 with Al Pacino.  Heres a story about it.

Al Pacino didn’t remember me when I ran into him in the lobby of CAA in 2004. And he passed on David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers in 1988.  Coincidence? Cronenberg directed The Dead Zone (1983) with Martin Sheen, and The Fly (1986) with John Getz, who stars in Blood Simple (1984)and appears in this episode of Grace & Frankie in two scenes with Martin Sheen, who stars in a mockumentary I made in 2002 called The Zucker Follies, where he performs the opening monologue from Apocalypse Now – though when I asked Martin about it, it’s unclear whether he had any recollection of the beautiful 30 minutes we shared.  Martin Sheen and Lily Tomlin worked on 4 seasons of The West Wing together, though neither of them were in my episode, so whatever.  Though Sam Waterston was in my episode of The Newsroom and I met Jane Fonda in the hallway before a take and she was lovely, so we’re back on track.

Who says you need Kevin Bacon to play this game?
Kevin Bacon appears in JFK with Martin Sheen, which I saw with my college girlfriend in 1991. She believed Oswald acted alone and subsequently didn’t enjoy the film, though she did like Annie Hall (1977), a movie in which Woody Allen breaks up with Carol Kane for similarly denying a conspiracy.  My relationship fell apart for other reasons. Woody Allen and Carol Kane both make an appearance in my short film, Searching For Allison Porchnik (1997), though Woody never returned the favor — as you’ll notice I am in not one of his movies — three of which star Sam Waterston and three of which were shot by famed Swedish cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist, who shot Agnes of God (1985) with Jane Fonda, who, as you know, starred in Nine-To-Five (1980) with Lily Tomlin. Nine-To-Five was written and directed by Collin Higgins who wrote Harold and Maude, directed by Hal Ashby, who directed Jane Fonda in an astounding performance in Coming Home (1978), which was written by Waldo Salt, the writer of Midnight Cowboy (1969), directed by John Schlesinger, who directed The Believers (1987) with Martin Sheen — which is out of print, by the way, and nowhere on streaming, so if anyone has a copy, I’ll get it back to you.
This is all to say, get started on Grace & Frankie Season 2 on your Netflix and pay particular attention to Episode 9, written by the brilliant Nancy Fichman and Jennifer Hoppe. You may see compositions vaguely reminiscent of moments these actors have fallen into before. But just so I prove the old adage true — “it’s not where you get it from, it’s where you take it to,” you’ll notice significant shifts:
For example, in this staging here, I put Jane Fonda on the right side of the bench, to avoid comparison with her position opposite Maximillian Schell in Fred Zinnemann’s, Julia (1977).
Or in this case, you’ll notice I changed the make and model of automobile, so as not to muddle my episode with The Great Gatsby (1973).
And to avoid confusion with The California Kid (1974) where Martin Sheen is looking right — in Grace & Frankie, Martin Sheen is looking left.
Finally, if you’re looking for blatant theft, Jane Fonda kissing Sam Elliot is pretty much a direct lift from Jane Fonda kissing Robert Redford in Electric Horseman.  We don’t like to say stealing, we like to say homage:
Addendum:
When I got the call to direct Grace & Frankie, I had begun teaching a film class for women directors in my living room  - mostly because I had broken my arms in a bike accident, had to turn down a couple gigs, and needed to keep my directing mind sharp.   And also because I know a variety of women writers, and since there’s no better time to be a woman filmmaker in the history of filmmaking, it’s been good times giving them the tools necessary to direct their own work.
The first class I taught, inspired by the great visual design teacher, Bruce Block, was on the graphic structure of Klute, the 1971 thriller, directed by Alan J. Pakula, who would go on to direct All The President’s Men(1974), Presumed Innocent (1991), and the great comedy Starting Over (1978), with yes, young Kevin Bacon, and Burt Reynolds, who stars in Smokey and The Bandit (1977), directed by Hal Needham, who got his start as a stuntman on Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman, who would win the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which was written and directed by Robert Benton, who made a delightful movie you should watch, called The Late Show (1977) starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin.

A taught thriller, Klute set the look and the language of urban darkness, grit and decay that we associate with Seventies Cinema. The whole film is shot in flat space to achieve the effect of claustrophobia;  despite the large, populated, open city, these characters are trapped – trapped in their own self-imposed isolation, and ultimately, for a brief moment, with each other. Gordon Willis, the director of photography, who’s next film was The Godfather (1972) believed in lighting only what he wanted you to see to tell the story.  The result is a specific darkness, that had previously never been a part of the language of cinema, and to this day, influences generations of filmmakers.  Watch Klute and David Fincher’s Seven (1995) back-to-back, then call me.

I told Jane the convenient timing of my Klute class and she said, “what’s a Klute class?”   So forty-five years after the release of Klute, I sat Jane Fonda down and talked her through the visual design of the movie she won her first Oscar for — frame by frame.  She loved it.  I suggested to my wife, that this was as good a moment as any to retire, but she reminded me that she’d like a bigger house.



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PHOTOS 2015
Dec 31
As ambitious as I might be in my professional life, I let my photographic life find it’s own rhythm.  There are times when one must not strive for much more than a cup of coffee, some good music, and a stroll – with or without fitbit. It’s in these places, both phsyically and spiritually, that I shoot.  I never have to shoot.  I want to shoot.
It also helps to be invisible.  Or ignored.  Not sure which is which.  I’d like to think I’ve got a Ninja-like camera presence.  But it may just be that no one notices me.  Being ignored grants a certain kind of immunity.  It allows me the freedom to see without provocation or interruption.
Here’s some of what I saw.  Offered with commentary:
—–
15.  JODI BALFOUR – THANKSGIVING

Jodi Balfour, genius actress, gracious host and stunning person, caught in between slicing the turkey and not burning the gluten free biscuits. She and Alex Ashbaugh threw an orphan Thanxgiving for those lingering in LA without family.  One could argue this is even a better situation than your actual family, what with the absence of ghosts and grievances.  The difference of course is that there was no bitterness, no history, no pleasantness lingering under the unpleasantness, no promise that no matter what is said or unsaid, they’ll still be here for you tomorrow.   Instead, a group of new friends — God’s atonement for family — that were wonderful in the moment, and then dissolved by evening’s end.

14.  PUERTO RICO – ARICEBO – HOSP-TAL

When the Affordable Care Act was implemented, the funding for Medicare Advantage – the backbone of the Puerto Rican healthcare system -  was reduced by an annual amount of over $1 billion.  In 2015, the island received approximately 30 percent less funding than it did in 2011. The latest 2016 cuts will take funding on the island to a shocking 38 percent below the national average.   In addition, a steady stream of doctors — more than 3,000 in five years — have begun to leave the island for more lucrative, less stressful jobs on the mainland.   The Puerto Rico Medicare Coalition, local government officials, pharmacies, hospitals, and patients have worked tirelessly to reverse this dangerous trend — so far to no avail.  For more information and to sign the petition to get Congress to act, please visit The Puerto Rico Healthcare Crisis Coalition.

13.  LINDSEY BROOKE KRAFT – IMMIGRANT

Lindsey Kraft‘s mother’s parents were from Czechoslovakia and Poland, escaping to the United States after the Holocaust.  Here she poses unknowingly as the rightful extension of her immigrant past.  During WWII, Poland lost disproportionally more people than any other country — over 6 million of its 35 million people were killed.  The fact that Poland was liberated by the Soviets and consequently turned into a communistic country posed a danger for Poles who were still abroad fighting along Western allies during the war.  Those displaced were primarily political prisoners, dissidents, and intellectuals from refugee camps all over Europe. Many in this group, who were educated and committed to assimilating into American culture, separated from Poland and aligned themselves with the middle-class in America. Czechoslovakian migration mirrored this pattern, seeing a surge with the communist takeover in 1948. Immigrants assimilated into American culture and quickly lost interest in the language and old country ways of their parents and grandparents, preferring to speak only English and marrying spouses from other ethnic groups – which is presumably how Lindsey eventually got here.    I’d like to think that they kept their recipes.  I can almost taste the potato soup cooking inside the kitchens in the house behind her.

12.  CARRIE MALABRE – CASBAH CAFE

Carrie Malabre – brilliant actress and excellent maker of chicken pot pies –  in the now defunct Casbah Cafe, which after twenty years of service to the loyal patrons of Silverlake, became embroiled in a bitter legal battle with their landlords over rent and property rights  In a bizarre rant published immediately after the closure, the Casbah family cites media complacency, shifting neighborhood demographics, and corporate greed.   Casbah was a nice place to people-watch, sip on a Chai latte, and buy some cheap trinkets for a sad friend.   But Silverlake all the while was and is becoming a thriving culinary scene — and as is often the way in these tales, the demise of legacy restaurants is just a part of natural selection.  I’m glad I got this shot when I did, because in Los Angeles, it’s rare to find painted windows that offer such lovely foreground.

11.  AMILCAR RIVERA – PROP MASTER EXTRAORDINARIO

Amilcar Rivera, the best prop master in Puerto Rico.  And for all I know, the world.  The look in his eyes betrays a desperation to detail.   Either that, or a frustation with the director for working everyone too long and too hard. But not my fault really. We had 116 scenes to shoot in 14 days.  Of course, the director’s job is to take accountability.  So I guess it’s my fault. Sorry, Amilcar.  I like your glasses. And despite all the stress and the multitude of props on our pilot, Amilcar was patient and kind no matter the circumstance. As the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso said, and Amilcar proved, “Be kind whenever possible. And it is always possible.”

10.  PINONES – DAMAGED FILM

Film that has been immersed in water is in severe danger of having the base separate from the emulsion. This means that the part of the film with the image on it will come away from the plastic backing that gives the film its shape. The film is also at risk of being contaminated by mold growth and debris from the flood water.  If you are lucky, all that will happen is that the emulsion surface will become patchy and will result in some noticeable flaws when the film is processed or printed.  Ironically, this film only became important to me when I got it back and saw the brilliant effects of water damage on an otherwise serviceable image.

9.  SANTERIA – DOWNTOWN

In the pilot of THE CURSE OF THE FUENTES WOMEN, a young cuban girl named Orquidia, visits a local Santeria priestess to put a spell on her sister Esperanza, who has betrayed her by stealing her husband.  From then on, successive generations of Fuentes women suffer in love.   Mariana Da Silva played Orquidia with the perfect mixture of vulnerability and righteous vengeance. Santeria is a syncretic religion of Caribbean origin that combines traditions of the Yoruba slaves with the Roman Catholic faith of Spanish plantation owners.  The enslaved Africans from Nigeria were converted, but the Catholic church in Cuba was surprisingly tolerant of ethnic traditions and allowed African groups to create their own clubs or Cabildos.   African slaves began to secretly appoint Catholic Saints as proxies for their own Yoruba deities.  The result was Santeria – which means “veneration of Saints.” Whether Santeria has the power to impose multi-generational curses is subject to debate, but I’m not in a position to doubt.

8.  ACE GALLERY – SILHOUETTE

Ace Gallery has been Los Angeles’ longest running contemporary art gallery since 1967.  Ace Gallery occupies the entire 30,000 square foot second floor of the 11-story Wilshire Tower, an Art Deco Building, first opened on March 15, 1929.  And inside the building, a 73 yr old man named Ruben Pardo, operates one of the last manual elevators in Los Angeles.   Eleven hours each weekday and nine hours each Saturday, for forty years.   Ask him “how’s life?” and he quips, “It has its ups and downs.”   Lindsey Kraft (my Polish/Czechoslovakian actress friend) and I rode up with Ruben to the Ace Gallery where we took this shot.  Ask Ruben why he loves this job so much and he says, “By observing, you can learn a lot of things. You can learn how to be an electrician, a gasoline attendant, a parking attendant …,” he says. “For the hard stuff, like plumbing and doctors and lawyers and all that high career, you have to go to school. But if you observe, you can teach yourself a lot.”

7.  REBECCA MCFARLAND – STUDIO

This year, my wife, partner, and the brilliant mixed media artist, Rebecca McFarland won the Atwater Village Artwalk with her painting Margo, opened her first art show at Pilates and Art in Echo Park, and is featured in the January 2016 issue of Cloth, Paper Scissors describing her process, her materials, and the spiritual healing that can occur through art.   Her contemporary portrait series captures haunting and romantic images of beautiful women in decoupage, longing for something beyond the canvas, who silently share their strength while trapped in time.  Here she works on Olivia, a celebrated piece in her recent show.   As for me, thanks to all this, I started Pilates and am currently feeling more aligned.

6.  THE NEW GROUNDLINGS

It’s rare that I get to ask the subjects of my photos for commentary, but since this was such a momentous occasion, there’s nothing I can say that I didn’t already say by taking the photo. So here’s Heidi Gardner and Andrew Leeds:

Heidi:  At this moment I was rehearsing for what would end up being my last performance in the Groundlings Sunday Company.  I cried that night telling my friends and colleagues that I finally felt like I was doing something I loved. I didn’t feel stuck, just tremendously happy. And the guy holding my hand is one of my greatest friends. I get to write and perform with one of the nicest and funniest people on the planet. The very next day we found out we were Groundlings! A dream come true. This photo makes me feel lucky. Lucky to be on that stage. Lucky to be next to Andrew. And lucky to be doing something I genuinely love and adore.

Andrew:  I love this picture because it shows a great partnership.  Heidi and I met a year and a half ago in the advanced lab at the Groundlings. At first, I rubbed her the wrong way, but as time went on, we found a similar sensibility.  We started writing together. This photo was taken the final night of our year long run in the Sunday company.  It was a sketch we worked hard to get right.  It might have been the sketch that got us into the main company – something that neither of us ever truly thought would happen.  When I look at this picture I see two people supporting each other and committing to some pretty stupid ideas.

5.  SAM ELLIOT & JANE FONDA – GRACE & FRANKIE

At the time I got the call to direct an episode of Grace & Frankie, I was relatively incapacitated from a bike accident and had started teaching a class on visual structure to keep my director’s mind sharp and my pain at a distance.  My first class, inspired by the great film teacher Bruce Block, was a study of KLUTE, the 1971 film directed by Alan J. Pakula, photographed by Gordon Willis just before he shot THE GODFATHER.  It featured Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, in a groundbreaking performance as Brie Daniel, which won her the Oscar for Best Actress.   Klute is arguably influential as the film that created the visual language which we associate with seventies cinema: psychologically motivated subjective camera work where light falls only on the objects and people the filmmakers want you to see, where an urban and moral decay permeates the design and mood, and the use of heightened sound, foreshadowing, spacial relationships and lensing, convey claustrophobia, fear, and a voyeuristic nihilism.  Though Grace & Frankie, a delightful comedy on Netflix, doesn’t require the same graphic purpose or gymnastics, I did have the chance to talk with Jane at length about the visual cues in Klute that shaped the minds of a generation of filmmakers.  It was so thrilling, I might retire. And I got some APOCALYPSE NOW stories from Martin Sheen, wild tales of shooting with Walter Matthau on the set of HOPSCOTCH from Sam Waterston, and a primer on how to stage a great character mystery/thriller/comedy by talking to Lily Tomlin about the making of THE LATE SHOW with Art CarneyRobert Benton‘s first film before he went on to write & direct KRAMER vs KRAMER.  More important than all that, I worked with tremendous actors, Sam Elliot seemed to think I was cool, and I made a funny, touching episode of television, written by Nancy Fichman and Jennifer Hoppe-House, coming soon to Netflix.

4.  SAUL LEITER INSPIRED – ECHO PARK

Because photography is a place for me to be autonomous, I rarely apply rules to the endeavor. I got rules all day long elsewhere. And since Saul Leiter is one of my favorite photographers,  I decided to emulate the form, which required the use of foreground, color, space and line in ways I hadn’t previously explored. Leiter moved to New York in 1946 intending to be a painter and through his friendship with the abstract expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart, he quickly recognized the creative potential of photography. Though he continued to paint, exhibiting alongside Willem de Kooning, Leiter and his camera sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging subtle portraits of a lost city.  Echo Park is no substitute for Manhattan in the 1950s, but on the correct lens with a carefully composed illusion, one can obscure surroundings and create an urban pastoral.   I don’t know if I’ve done this, or if Saul Leiter would approve, but I started to construct something new in my own work.

3.  HALLOWEEN DOWNTOWN – TEXTING NUN

In a downtown Los Angeles crawling with vixens, sluts, pimps, and sex-kittens (these differ from vixens with the inclusion or exclusion of leopard print and whiskers), I felt a little safer on these dangerous streets when I ran into this fake nun (or this real nun who happened to be lost on Halloween).  Halloween is a Catch-22 so I stay out of it.  If you end up winning “best costume,” you’re inevitably ridiculed on your own social media for trying too hard. And if you don’t win, you’re just unoriginal — or worse, by your own account, tonight’s undeserving loser.  So I got dressed up as George Clooney in A PERFECT STORM (Jeans, Plaid Shirt) and remained invisible and observatory.  I did see a priest, but found no comfort there, presuming of course he was on his way to an Exorcism, what with all the spirits of the departed returning for the night to wreak havoc on the desperate and open souls who pleasure seek in the macabre.  I’m happy instead to wander aimlessly in neighborhoods I don’t belong.

2. HALLOWEEN DOWNTOWN – FERGUSON COP

When India Baker, a registered nurse in real life, crossed the street in her sexy cop outfit, I was spotted.  She came hurtling towards me and said, “You wanna shoot?  Let’s shoot!” And then struck the pose you see before you.   Turns out her intention was to be anything but sexy. Hailing from Ferguson, Missouri, she thought there’d be no costume more frightening than a Ferguson Police Officer.  If you’ve been under a rock, or sick of reality, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri.  The shooting prompted protests that roiled the area for weeks. On Nov. 24, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury decided not to indict Mr. Wilson. The announcement set off another wave of protests. In March, the Justice Department called on Ferguson to overhaul its criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in constitutional violations.  Ferguson is just par for the course in a society that glorifies violence, turns a blind eye to institutional wrongdoing, and sanctions any act by law enforcement, no matter how misguided or wrong.  This state-sponsored violence is a necessary ingredient in any totalitarian regime to ensure a compliant and fearful populace.   We need more India Bakers, exploring their creative spirit to make important issues part of everyday dialogue, more civilians using the most unlikely opportunities to draw attention to hypocrisy, more people promoting consciousness by speaking truth to power in all its forms.

1.  WOMAN DRINKING TEA – FAKE CUBA (PUERTO RICO)

This was part of a shoot in Puerto Rico that was supposed to look like a Cuban cafe in the 1960′s.  I hope to shoot cafes in Cuba for real before there’s a Starbuck’s on every corner.

Notice the one bubble of damage on her right shoulder.  I got lucky with this roll.  And remain lucky to be alive and shooting.

Thank you for visiting this site.  More to come in 2016.   Happy New Year!

 

 

 



4 Comments


RED BAND – THE END
Jan 01
(thoughts from a tv show with lukewarm ratings)
                                                                                                   
If you don’t build it, they won’t come. I realize only now that I haven’t posted in this space in a year.  My visitor count is down to zero, but who’s counting.  I don’t write on this blog for world views or domination.  At first glance this might seem lame or lazy, considering the pressure to be relevant in the digital space — but energy is not endless, and as I’ve devoted most of my energy this year to making a TV show called RED BAND SOCIETY, I am absolved.

Octavia Spencer on the set of Red Band Society

                                                                                                                                               

It’s a lot harder to make a good TV show than you might think.  I’m not looking for sympathy or compliments.  And I use the word “good” here with hesitancy.  What I mean is something artistic, though I similarly want to avoid a discussion of what art is or isn’t.  Art ultimately is the work an artist produces.  If you’re an artist, you will make something artistic, regardless of the conditions present and the sweat and toil it takes to make it. In the case of a network TV show, with dangerously looming air dates, limited resources, over-ambitious scripts, it takes a village.  You just have to pray that your village is filled with artists — and absent of even one idiot. 
                                                                                   
Every set is different.  As a guest director on other projects, I can only ride the waves of the sea before me.  It doesn’t matter how collaborative or willing I am to participate.  If the existing hierarchy wants less of your thoughts than you’re thinking, then you give what you can.  As an executive producer, I often suffer the illusion that I can set the tone and other people will miraculously bend to the breeze I’m blowing.  Of course, the energy on any set is a function of many things beyond one man (or woman).  Billy Wilder said, “you can tell from the dailies what the crew had for breakfast.”  When shooting in Atlanta, with it’s preponderance of fried chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy, our dailies must’ve looked amazing.  So we can’t blame catering for the ratings.  

Charlie Rowe and his bald head play LEO on Red Band Society

                                                                                                                                        

Mostly, the vibe on set is a function of the combined energy of all the cast, crew and miscelleaneous personnel who have gathered to approach the tremendous task before them.   As well-intentioned as the majority of a crew may be, all it takes is one unconscious, misbehaving non-professional to ruin your whole day – or put you in jeopardy of not “making your day.”  Note: The expression “to make your day” in film production is not a reference to anything Dirty Harry might be encouraging you to do at the risk of your own life – it is instead the responsibility of the director to complete the planned work for the day: i.e. to “make the day.”  In the case of a network TV show, this is almost always 7-9 pages of scripted work – which includes anywhere from 3-15 scenes containing 1-12 characters with sometimes questionable dialogue – or at least dialogue that every actor at some point questions.  You have to make time for these questions, you have to take into account how long it takes for actors to get ready, the time it takes to light a set in more than one direction, time for duplicate wardrobe in the case of stunts or coffee spills — you have to subconsciously prepare for alternate takes, alternate staging, alternate alternates, and then consider time to actually shoot the thing, which in the aggregate of a 12hr day, probably adds up to about 3.5 hrs of actual work on film.  And if nothing goes wrong, you might – maybe – probably not – make your day. The tone on the set partly determines your chances of success.        
             
Sometimes you get lucky.  Red Band Society was lucky.  This isn’t to say it was without struggle.  Who needs to work without constriction?  What I mean is there were no divas or hypochondriacs.  We never waited for an actor to come out of their trailer or to finish a text. There were no camera operators who yelled “cut” because THEY didn’t like the shot.  The sound department accommodated noisy jewelry and extras with clunky shoes without cursing me out — as far as I know.  No one whined, no one didn’t get it, or pretended to not get it, so that for a minute it could be all about them.  We were instead a community of artists, craftsman, storytellers, striving for excellence: 100 perfect strangers who had the ability to work as a group toward a common vision, even when at times, what with many creative changes, that vision became extremely blurry.  

Ciara Bravo gives an amazing performance as EMMA, a girl struggling with Anorexia.


And we were strangers.  At first.  And perhaps ultimately we will remain.  But in the process, we had become something more – a family?  Is that too much to project onto what some may see as just a gig? Wherever we had arrived from separately, there were certainly sacrifices — and conceivably the biggest sacrifice of all was coming to Atlanta — away from our home, our spouses, our children.  And why?  We’re all looking for fulfilling work.  A job that provides a deep sense of purpose – something that reflects our values, passions, personality.  This feels like a modern invention.  Philosopher Roman Kznaric observes that “for centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents or nurtured their well-being.  With our material prosperity, we’ve come to expect more from life.” We still like money — now we want meaning as well.  But isn’t work, hasn’t work, always been mostly menial?  The latin labor means “to toil” and the french travail derives from tripalium, an ancient Roman instrument of torture.  Aren’t we supposed to grin and bear it – put up with the bullshit at work so that we can get back to “our real lives?”  Trouble is, the hours are long, the weeks and months blur into each other, and time spent with unfamiliar persons slowly becomes your very real life.  

Zoe Levin is the rebellious and cold-hearted KARA. Smoking is bad for you.

Some gigs are torture.  Some are bearable. Most are what you make them.  Red Band Society was a blessing.  Though it remained unspoken, we all showed up with a paltry discrimination between work and play – between labor and levity.  We just got up in the morning and pursued our individual and collective interpretations of quality, and left it to whomever was attending this soiree to determine if we were working or playing.  Even after the news that we would shoot no more than 13 episodes, we could’ve just done the work, but we kept on keeping on with our found spirit, knowing that though weeping may endure when we’re done, joy cometh in the morning!  We knew what Rocky Balboa said to his son in Rocky Balboa (the last and perhaps best installment in the franchise since the first one):  ”Nothing will hit you harder than life.  And it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.  How much you can take and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done!”
 
The ratings say we lost, but I say we won.  I don’t know if the three remaining (and amazing) episodes will air.  I don’t know if there will be a second season.  I don’t know if Charlie Rowe will ever grow his hair back.  I do know that we stumbled upon something that you wish for, and then unwittingly carry with you after it’s done.  Robert Frost writes that “a poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.  It is never a thought to begin with.”  Perhaps it was the promise of the brilliant pilot that put a lump in our throats — maybe the exuberant energy of a cast of young people who lacked cynicism and regret — maybe it was homesickness.  Whatever the reason, we didn’t compromise, we didn’t waste time. We worked.  With joy.  If there’s some artistic merit to it in the end, so be it.  If not, we still had a blast.  

 

Rebecca Rittenhouse is nothing like NURSE BRITTANY

Jim, our PA. He locked that set up like a fly in amber.

Astro Bradley is in fact Self-Made. Check out his new rap album on Spotify.

Darren Kagasoff is the resident bad ass.

Eric Henriquez, a very handsome AD.

 

Tracy Zigler, Script Supervisor. She sees everything.

 

Joe Pennella. Italian for great DP.

 

Crystle Clear Roberson. In charge of me and everything.

 

Chris Campbell, Steadicam, B Cam, Wears a Suit.

 

Nolan Sotillo, Griffin Gluck, Zoe Levin, Dave Annabel recover from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

 

Dave Annabel on the day we said goodbye.

More Villagers in Next Post.  Happy New Year!

 



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PHOTOS 2013
Jan 01

 

You’re not going to see photos in this collection of the devastation left by a tornado, or new born pandas at Chendu Research Base, or people being rescued from a collapsed building in Bangladesh. I’ve not been witness to violent protests in the Ukraine, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the Aurora Borealis. For most of this I am thankful, though I wouldn’t mind hanging with a new born panda. What you see below are everyday moments that I hope capture something more than the moments themselves.   As a photographer I’m always dealing with things that are continually vanishing.  And no amount of effort or fancy job description can make these things re-occur.  Instead, I must be alert, patient and ready to strike.  To paraphrase Henri Cartier-Bresson, shooting photographs is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.  Let’s pray that’s what’s happened…

Since a good photograph should require little-to-no explanation, I’ll only comment if I think my yammering is relevant to the effect or power of the image.

20.

Ben Caron. January 2013

This shot became the cover art for Ben’s album “Climbing Ladders.” Available on  iTunes.  Or visit Ben’s site here.

19.

The Kid. February, 2013

I’m not big on child portraits.  Seems too easy, unless they’re in the circus.  But this kid is the wisest old soul I may have captured all year.  He’s 64 in this photo.

 

18.

Morgan Nichols & Julie Kline wait for a subway in Brooklyn. August, 2013

Now I want to remake THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR.

17.

Woman on Brooklyn Bridge. July, 2013

 

16, 15, 14, 13.  VINTAGE TROUBLE:  It’s been a stellar year for the Rock & Soul band Vintage Trouble.  I was lucky enough to photograph them on several occasions and direct the music video for their hit song “Pelvis Pusher.”

Ty Taylor performs at The El Rey Theatre, April 2013

Rick Bario Dill gets ready for Vintage Trouble's performance on The Tonight Show, February 2013.

Richard Danielson and his daughter on the set of Vintage Trouble's Pelvis Pusher video, May 2013.

Nalle Colt performs at The El Rey Theater with Vintage Trouble, April 2013

12.

Liz Allen celebrates her New Year's Eve marriage to Scott Rosenbaum, December 31, 2012

Though this photo was taken in the final hours of 2012 in Los Angeles, it was already 2013 on half the earth.  So the judges rule it – permissible!

11, 10, 9, 8, 7:  ON SET

Jeff Daniels on the set of THE NEWSROOM. May, 2013

Andy Samberg on location during the filming of BROOKLYN 99. August, 2013

Wendi Mclendon-Covey on the set of THE GOLDBERGS. September, 2013

Dylan McDermott on location during the filming of HOSTAGES. July, 2013

Kelly O'Sullivan & Maura Kidwell on the set of SIRENS. October, 2013

Loved these two hilarious actresses.  You can too — Denis Leary’s and Bob Fisher’s new show SIRENS premieres March 6th on USA.  Starring Michael Mosely, Kevin Daniels, Kevin Bigley.

6, 5, 4:  PORTRAITS

Ali Liebert

Amy Pietz

Lauren Ensler

3.

Ellie Knaus at 9 Months. August, 2013

2.

Rabbi Leonard Beerman signs the Ketubah. The real moment Rebecca McFarland and I were married. June, 2013

The Rabbi requested I put the camera down shortly after this photo was taken.

1.

My Wife. Twenty minutes later.

 



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CLEAR LINES
Sep 20

Ty Taylor performs with Vintage Trouble at The El Rey Theater in Los Angeles

This will come off as more than slightly biased, and undeniably self-serving, but as a lover of music everywhere, and a lover of women and supporter of women’s rights, I must speak freely.  While I do that, or shortly after, you must vote for Vintage Trouble to win Ryan Seacrest’s “Indie Song of the Summer” and you must do it immediately: the contest is almost over!  Now, I am not encouraging you to vote for Vintage Trouble’s track “Pelvis Pusher” to be the Indie Song of the Summer because I directed the music video–or because it’s better than “You and I” by Paper Route (it is!). I insist you vote for Vintage Trouble’s “Pelvis Pusher” because it’s a conscious alternative to the culturally indoctrinated song of the summer, Robin Thicke’s mysoginistic rape anthem “Blurred Lines.”  Thicke himself calls those allegations “ridiculous” while also saying, “what a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before.”  He states his intention was to produce a party track which “blurred the lines between men and women and how much we’re the same.”  Like all songs of the summer, Thicke’s groove is infectious and offers the promise of permissive interaction, but the groove is where the seduction ends.  With lyrics like, “I know you want it” (sung 18 times over the course of the song), which reinforces victim-blaming rape myths (saying “no” when you really mean “yes”) and T.I.’s cat call to “give you something big enough to tear your ass in two,” Thicke and company have written lyrics that reinforce beliefs of objectification and the dismissal of female assertion.  If you need any further proof, exhibit A is the video for Blurred Lines, featuring clothed men enjoying the prancing bodies of naked women, and which only gives voice and language to the men, while one woman purrs, or maybe she meows.

As an alternative, I give you “Pelvis Pusher,” a good old-fashioned barn-stomping rock-and-soul groove in the spirit of Ike & Tina Turner, which, in a more effective and subtle way, speaks to a true blurring of the lines between men and women. Pelvis Pusher encourages you to dance without inhibition; to move your hips, yes in a dirty and sexy way, but in a way where women can strut and shake their stuff and men can join in with equal abandon. With lyrics like “rock the bottom of your back, like a baby’s cradle. get ready and willing, I know that you’re able,” Vintage Trouble captures a provocative but harmonious experience between man and woman.  In it’s simplicity, it is reminiscent of a time already past, while still being more forward thinking than its contemporary agitators.

“Pelvis Pusher,” ironically, has the more crude title with the more elegant message, where “Blurred Lines” is a relative innocuous title with a salacious execution.  And since we’re comparing, neither song is necessarily musically its own.  ”Blurred Lines” is pound-for-pound the same groove as Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.”  Thicke has pre-emptively sued the Marvin Gaye estate so as not to incur penalties (not sure how this works, but I may remake The Godfather and preemptively sue Francis Ford Coppola), and Pharrell Williams denies the connection outright, stating that “one’s minor and one’s major, they’re not even in the same key.”  Also, by the way, they’re both major and I think they’re both in G.  But whatever–it’s got 177 million views on youtube, so shut up. Meanwhile, Pelvis Pusher’s underlying rhythm is reminiscent of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” but Vintage Trouble makes it an original composition that perfectly captures the soul of the music which inspires them, while creating a whole new groove.  Like I said, I’m biased. But I’m also right. “Blurred Lines” is a catchy track and Emily Ratajkowski has remarkable eyes, but the lyrics and the message are regrettable. “Pelvis Pusher” is a viable, sexy, rockin’ alternative which can still get you mutually and consensually laid.

p.s. I don’t throw around the term “rape anthem” lightly and I don’t blame Robin Thicke all together (though I find him unconscious at best).  Mohadesa Najumi offers a clarification in The Feminist Wire.  She says, “Rape Culture is the condoning and normalizing of physical, emotional and sexual terrorism against women and girls.  It is the production and maintenance of an environment where sexual assault is so normative that people ultimately believe that rape is inevitable.”  Now, most rapes are illegal in US jurisdictions, which doesn’t sound like an advocation of rape, but fewer than 1/5 of reported rapes (less than 54% are reported) are prosecuted, and only 3 of every 100 rapes leads to jail time.  This is not outright, but tacit complicity at least. And this is the world into which Robin Thicke brought “Blurred Lines,” which isn’t any more lyrically egregious than a lot of music in the hip-hop genre, but it’s cultural appropriation by a rich white man makes Thicke more visible and therefore more responsible.  Perhaps the topic for another entry… meanwhile, Vote!



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PAINTING THE LIPS
Mar 21

I don’t paint.  This is not to say I can’t paint.  Though I’ve never really tried.  I took a drawing class once at LACMA. Some words I might associate with the class:  ”tedious,” “frustrating”, “i’m a failure.”  The dude would say, “here’s how to draw an eye,” then proceed to draw the most amazing life-like eye.  Then i tried.  Not an eye.  I would have to write “an eye” underneath it so you’d know it was an eye. “Eyes are hard” the dude said.  But so are ears, legs, shoulders, noses, anything really when you’re working in portrait.  My almost-wife-Rebecca’s focus lately has been portrait.  And as she excels at the form, I’m left to wonder if i should even try.  It’s not like I have some great compulsion to be a painter, but as an artist in other disciplines, I’d like to think I could handle a brush, kind of like I’d like to think I can play the guitar.

Sometimes Rebecca will email me photos of six things she’s painted before lunch.  So I leave the painting to her, the way people should leave the comedy to the comedians. And then one day she got stuck.  She only comes to me for an opinion when she knows something’s off. And though I can’t/don’t paint, I can often spot the area that’s sticking her (the blessing and the curse of always having an antagonistic relationship with the work).  In this case, it was the lips.  They didn’t go with the angle of the face.  And not in a Picasso sort of way: more in a ‘the lips don’t work with the face’ sort of way.  And as I stared at the painting, something happened.  I was overwhelmed with a sort of artistic confidence; an all-knowing omnipotent approach to the canvas. And for the first time in this young painter’s life, I knew that I could paint.  And she let me.  She must’ve recognized that often the best way to get past our road blocks is to let someone else drive for a minute. So I picked up a paint brush and I went to work on the lips.  I sat there for probably the most focused 30 minutes of my ADHD riddled life.  Not only did I reshape the lips, but I found a rhythm in the texture, in the pressure and line of the brush, so that the lips weren’t lips at all, but a series of carefully made decisions, all equally necessary to get the lips just as I saw them.  And if that 30 minutes was any indication of the bliss that’s possible in the process of creating, then it’s no wonder you hear so many stories of depressed artists finding salvation in their work.  And when I stood up and stepped back, I had nailed the lips.  Rebecca still didn’t like the painting and has yet to finish it (maybe my lips suck), but for me, it was an astounding occasion: one of those moments you have in your twenties when you’re stoned and have an epiphany and the universe is music and all things are possible.  But now I’m 40, and though I have moments of artistry in my work, I find most of what I do is craft building: it’s skill, it’s practice made visible.  It’s a giant muscle born from repetition and hopefully good taste. But rarely, do I get to paint the lips.

Check Out The Lips

originally posted on Rebecca’s blog, The Art Life.



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TOP TEN NETFLIX 2012
Mar 12

 

An old film professor of mine used to say, “Everyone in the world has two jobs:  what they do, and movie critic.” Even Truffaut was a film critic before he was Truffaut.  And as I steal from him often and without footnote, here’s my stab at Job #2.

Now that the Oscars are behind us, and you’re less likely to finally watch AMOUR than you are to seek out new ideas, I present some here:  Volume #1 of my TOP TEN FILMS on NETFLIX STREAMING.

I’ve heard people complain that what Netflix streams is limited and not current.  To that I say timeless is as current as it gets, and the offerings here are just that.  I encourage disagreement (though you’ll have few), but more importantly, I welcome your own suggestions for Volume #2.

I read a tweet recently that said, “Movies are shit.  Bacon is magic.” Well then, these movies are bacon!

 

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011, USA)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi allows you to imagine what it would be like to be the best in the world at something: the sacrifice, the almost monastic devotion it requires to be the single greatest practitioner in your chosen craft.  David Gelb’s debut feature is a portrait of Jiro Ono, an 85 year old sushi chef who runs a tiny restaurant in a subway in Japan.  A movie as much about food as about dedication and craft.  It will inspire you to find both your purpose in life and the nearest sushi restaurant with at least one Michelin Star.  Jiro has three.

WARRIOR (2011, USA)

A fight movie so skillfully made, so visually exciting, so emotionally complex, it’s too limited to call it a fight movie.  Tom Hardy is sensational and brutal. Nick Nolte mumbles his way back into magnificence.   Director Gavin O’Connor delivers a purposefully clichéd family drama with compassion and honesty.  And the fight scenes are fucking awesome.

NOBODY KNOWS (2004, Japan)

Ultra-naturalism at its finest and most devastating.  Inspired by actual events known in Japan as The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo this story about a mother who deserts her children in a small Tokyo apartment is a quiet heart-wrenching masterpiece.  Director Hirokazu Koreeda is ridiculously subtle, measuring the details of the mother’s infrequent visits by her daughter’s fading nail polish. The performances of the children are perfect.  You’ll forget you’re watching a movie.  It’s better than cinema.  Or maybe that’s cinema.

POINT BLANK (2010, France)

This is how to make a thriller.  Start with a bad-ass chase.  Kidnap a dude’s pregnant wife.  Then put in another chase.  And another twist.  Then let them pile on in escalation and great style with little regard for plot or logic (though it all makes sense in the end).  Fred Cavaye’s fast paced film rises above your average chase thriller by creating rich, real characters.  By the end, you’re emotionally invested and you can barely catch your breath.  A lethal combination.

THE BLACK POWER MIX TAPE (2011, Sweden)

Stokely Carmichael.  Angela Davis.  Huey P. Newton.  Bobby Seale.   Stars of the Black Power political Movement who have faded into historical memory are brought back to electric life through recently discovered and never seen 16 millimeter footage taken by Swedish television journalists in the 1960’s and 70s.  Filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson, who discovered the forgotten film, stitches it all together with contemporary audio commentary by Erykah Bahdu and Questlove, who lend their interpretations and provide a modern relevance.  Profound, furious, articulate, these icons will light a fire in your soul at the injustice in the world.

THE GREY (2011 , USA)

Liam Neeson survival movie.  It lacks a male rape scene, but there are wolves and they’re mean as shit.  Also, Joe Carnahan’s best work.  Mature, stunning, vital.

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (2010, South Korea)

The Professional meets Taken.  Sort of.  Not highly original, plays the genre conventions safe, but director Lee Jeong-beom infuses every moment with an atypical ferocity and tension.  The story of a man hell bent on revenge and out to save a little girl is so rich in characters and momentum that you’ll hardly notice the sentimentality that creeps in when things get tender.  And since that happens so infrequently, you might as well enjoy the unnecessary slo-mo and syrupy music when it does.  The title is reminiscent of the best of Sergio Leone and the Eastwood figure here has no faith in the local authorities when a little girl who he’s befriended is kidnapped by a local gang who frames him for her disappearance.  So he takes matters into his own hands, which incidentally are literally scarred with the suggestion of a violent and well-trained past.  Won Bin is tremendous in the lead role, and even better when you realize he played the handicapped son in Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother.  This thing is not only guns blazing, but contains the best knife fight I’ve seen on film in as long as I can remember.  And I can’t remember any other knife fights.  Besides Eastern Promises, Desperado and Commando.

 

THE PASSION OF ANNA (1969, Sweden)

The final film in Bergman’s “island trilogy” after Hour of The Wolf and Shame, The Passion of Anna is a poignant psychological exploration that moves more with the rhythms of life than the rhythms of drama.  All three films explore the nature of human isolation, but this one does it in a middle-class setting with desperate, lonely, defeated characters.  Sounds depressing.  But instead, it’s alive.  The passion of the title is not sexual, but rather refers to a kind of spiritual exhaustion that comes when you realize it is impossible to be alive and keep your purity or even any consistency.   Bergman’s third color film, shot by the incomparable master Sven Nyquist (who in addition to shooting almost all of Bergman’s films, went on to shoot The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Crimes and Misdeameanors, Sleepless in Seattle, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), The Passion of Anna is a work of sustained richness and drama with no discernible climax.  It just sort of is.  Like life.

HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994, New Zealand)

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s stylish, kinetic, haunting masterpiece, it’s time.  This mesmerizing portrait of two girls in 1950’s New Zealand who form an intense and unhealthy bond which ultimately leads to disaster, introduced Kate Winslet to the world and established the 33 year old Peter Jackson as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.  By adding an almost operatic flare and dark comedy to an otherwise gruesome tale, he turns this into a work of pure imagination.  As a bizarre and ironic postscript, the release of Heavenly Creatures in New Zealand created quite a media stir as journalists went in search of the two women the film is based on: though Pauline was never found, Juliet Hulme was discovered in Scotland where she is a bestselling murder mystery author.  I saw this movie in my first semester of film school and began to understand maybe for the first time the freedom one has with a camera to tell a story.  Seeing it again was a much needed act of re-inspiration.

GHOST (1990, USA)

It’s free.  It’s amazing.  Whoopi Goldberg wins an Oscar for her performance.  You love it.  Ditto.

 

 

 

 



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CULT: A DISSECTION
Feb 15

Matt Davis, Jessica Lucas, Alona Tal & Robert Knepper in Cult

 

I’m not a fan of horror.  It scares me.  I know that’s the point.  But I’m already disturbed as it is, so I don’t need more unsettling images in my head.  I’m doing just not fine, thank you. Also, I saw Halloween when I was too young.  Maybe I was 10.  Michael Meyers (even typing his name feels like a sort of summoning, and that’s NOT my intention) gave me nightmares for weeks.  Because as you know, he’s still out there, so logically to a 10 year old, he could very well be in my closet.  And to a 40 year old, also, in my closet.  Since then, I have avoided horror as a genre. I just watch When Harry Met Sally on an endless loop.

Yet I’ve always known that many of my favorite directors got their start in horror: John Sayles wrote Piranha, followed by Alligator and The Howling.  Oliver Stone cut his teeth on Seizure with Herve Villachez, and The Hand with Michael Caine, about a cartoonist who’s severed hand takes on a life of its own.  Peter Jackson started with an alien invasion movie appropriately called Bad Taste before doing the comically grotesque Dead Alive. And the list goes on:  Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby), Brian DePalma (Carrie), Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13 and The Terror), David Cronenberg (Shivers), etc…  In my own work, I’ve gravitated towards a sort of naturalistic heartfelt comedy. I think.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that, my old screenwriting professor said “our job as filmmakers is to make people laugh, and cry, and shudder in fright.”  And up until now, I haven’t made anyone shudder.  At least not because of anything I’ve done on film.

So when I got Rockne S. O’Bannon’s creepy script for Cult, I saw an opportunity.  I could study horror movies as part of research for a job.   I didn’t have to watch them as much as dissect them.  And by dissecting them, they wouldn’t scare me.  At least that was the theory.  I started small with things that were more thriller than horror: Jonathan Demme’s Silence of The Lambs, David Fincher’s Se7en, Adriane Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.  But because Cult is genuinely disturbing,  I had no choice but to dig deeper.  And darker.  It was time to face my fears.  This is where things went wrong.  Because if you try to dissect Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, or Dario Argento’s Suspiria, or Friedkin’s  The Exorcist, the very spirit they were trying to capture, reaches through the screen and torments your very being, no matter how clinical your approach.  I’ve since reimbursed them by liberally paying “homage” in my lighting and color and staging, in the hopes that those same spirits would invade your consciousness when you watch Cult.  Is this too much to ask from a TV audience on The CW.  Probably. But man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for?  Or hell, for that matter.

The thrill of horror movies is something enjoyed statistically and primarily by younger audiences.  They’re more likely to seek out intense experiences and stimulation.  Once you get into your 30’s and 40’s, life is scary enough: divorce, unemployment, children, marriage.   So The CW is the perfect place then for this kind of distress.  In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes narrative terror, as “the finest emotion.”  But part of that refinement is the safety that comes with knowing that even though you’re scared, you’re going to walk out of the theater in one piece and without demonic entities attached to your soul.   Or so you think.  And there’s a sort of ethical relativism to most horror films, which also provides a kind of assurance:  the young virgins who have sex too soon will die; the philandering couple that moves into the house where the murder occurred will die; and don’t you know you’re not supposed to pick up a deranged hitchhiker…because you’ll die. Ultimately there’s safety in seeing our most existential fear, that we’re all screwed anyway, dramatized in a work of fiction.

My hope is that Cult makes you feel unsafe.  For starters, it’s about fans of a cult TV show that start re-enacting the grizzly events on the show itself.  In a perfect dystopian world where TV shows act as propaganda, real fans of the show Cult will similarly lose their grip on reality.  This is a dangerous prophecy and most unlikely, but the possibility sits in your subconscious like the threat of Nuclear War or a Russian Meteor.  Hopefully, even in its most mild incarnation, there will be a sense of disorientation when wondering where one show ends and another begins.  And as far as Cult’s central premise, it’s very possible that you’re not watching TV, but TV is watching you.  That’s enough for me to wear pants when tuning in.  And I suggest you do the same.  Cult premieres Febuary 19th at 9pm on The CW.

You’re Next.



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BOMB SHELTER SESSIONS
May 04

- At the Vintage Trouble show last Thursday night at the El Rey, i wished so desperately that i had my 1973 Nikon, a 180mm prime lens and some 1600ASA B&W film. oh the grainy compositions and soul shaking artistry i could’ve captured of Ty, Rick, Nalle, and Richard! but instead, i had my iPhone.  and after a busy day tweeting, texting and calling to check on my sick possibly dying grandmother, i was left with 10% battery by the time the curtain opened on Vintage Trouble.  i had two choices: just enjoy the show (a ludicrous idea for someone who is trained not just to observe, but to capture, to record, to document life, so that i might manipulate it later into an interpretation of life that could, if i’ve done my job, at least illicit some emotional reaction, and more preferably, incite a riot),  or i could put the iPhone to the test until it died, knowing that when it did, i would have no choice but to just sit back and enjoy the show;  a restless prospect, since i’ve not been trained conversely to simply participate in life — i.e. if i don’t have a camera or a notepad in my hand, i’m sometimes unsure of how to just be. but that’s perhaps a story for another blog post.  or my therapist.  meanwhile, what you see here, is the 4 minutes of footage i was able to grab on the best camera I had with me — of Vintage Trouble bringing the house down in Los Angeles.

 

i should also mention that two unique things happened, one while i still had iPhone battery, and one after i was left alone with just my racing heart and Ty Taylor.
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the first is that without a long lens, i was forced into wide shots where Ty and company were little specks of light in the distance.  i tried to get close at one point, but the lens on the iPhone is ugly and revealing without foreground or depth.  and as it turned out, the scope and visceral energy of the crowd allowed me to capture in wide shots what i was experiencing emotionally in the close-ups i couldn’t take.
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and the second thing is this:  when you observe your artist friends perform in their element, in their bliss, there remains a part of you, unconsciously, that reminds you that you “know” that person; that as good as this performance may be, it’s just another moment in your friend’s long sordid wonderful life, to which you are a witness.  but on this night, all that pretense dropped away, and i was witness for maybe the first time to Ty’s greatness the way you might be witness to Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or James Brown;  their moments of transcendence aren’t grounded by my knowledge of them, precisely because i don’t know them. and in this moment, i didn’t know Ty either.  and now, strangely, gratefully, i feel like i know him in a whole new way.
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Vintage Trouble‘s album “THE BOMB SHELTER SESSIONS” is now available on iTunes! get to know them.


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BEN GAZZARA: 1930 – 2012
Feb 05

It was the fall of 1993. I had recently graduated college and was selling shoes at A&S, a now defunct department store across the street from Macy’s, while subletting the basement of a brownstone on 90th & West End.  My friend Jason had gone off to Paris to study mime or make love to french women, and his apartment became available just in time for me to receive a message, meant for him, that would change the course of my life. It was an offer to be a production assistant on a two man play in Connecticut with Al Pacino, who had just won the Oscar for Scent of a Woman, and Ben Gazzara, who I was about as familiar with as I was with Lee J. Cobb.  Since the intended Jason was MIA, the job was mine.  At the start, I spent my days fetching black coffee for Mr. Pacino, which was a great career advancement from fitting men’s shoes in Herald Square. But soon, it became clear that years of 3 martini lunches, or maybe it was just life, had taken its toll on Mr. Gazzara’s memory, and I was quickly promoted to line coach.  When rehearsals moved from 8th ave to the theater in Stamford Connecticut, Gazzara insisted that I travel with him in his limo every morning so we could run lines in the car. But we never did.  He preferred instead to regale me with stories of the Group Theater and Brando’s jealousy of James Dean, and his time with Preminger and Jimmy Stewart, and the monotony of his brief stint in television, and the great creative renaissance of his life with Cassavetes, and Falk, and Rowlands.  At night, I would study his movies, and every morning, as i hopped into that limo, I would be prepared with questions.  These rides to Stamford were the beginning of my education in film, and with Ben’s encouragement, became my inspiration to pursue something resembling something.

During rehearsals, as Pacino grew more frustrated with Gazzara’s laissez-faire approach to memorization, I began to run the whole play with Gazzara doing my best Pacino impression, hoping all the while someone would fire Pacino, and let Ben and me just do the play.  One evening, I shared with Gazzara Pacino’s widely known fears that Ben wouldn’t be ready for opening night. Gazzara told me the story of Ethel Waters, a jazz singer, who was cast as the lead in a broadway musical in the 30′s. She was notoriously unprepared, forgetting her lines, and cues, and dance moves, and when the producers threatened to cancel the show, she famously told them, “when the moon comes out and the fucking begins, I’ll be there.” Gazzara informed me he shared this sentiment with Pacino, and that it had assuaged his concerns. I asked Pacino if Gazzara’s story had comforted him. He said, “yeah, Ben told me he’d be there when the fucking begins..and I said, “you’re an asshole.”"  Still, the play, a portrait of two middle-aged artists, their 25 year friendship, and an incident that would come to end it, was served by their off- stage sparring.  And when the moon came out, Gazzara was there, the show was a great success, and in the men’s room on opening night, I got to pee next to Christoper Walken.  But perhaps the best advice I received in those three unforgettable months was on a drive home late one evening.  Gazzara, who was on his third, and final, wife, said to me, “whatever you do, marry a woman who can cook: sex fades, but cuisine is everlasting.”  Eighteen years later, I ran into Pacino in the lobby of CAA. He didn’t remember me. Shortly after that I saw Gazzara in a brilliant production of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing.” Backstage, I reminded him of our time with Pacino. Aging and frail, he said, “oh yeah, I remember that prick, how’ve you been?”  If he could hear me now, I’d tell him I’m about to marry a woman who can cook.  

 

Here’s a lovely Obituary by David Hudson, with great youtube clips of Gazzara’s time with Cassavetes…

 




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