Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Secret Recipe to Mom's Famous Chicken Soup

There they are.  The entire family.  That's an historical moment.

I took this picture while my brother Richard and his family were here on their adoption mission.  I shot it within a local cafe using a digital camera -- I think it makes a stunning family picture. 

So, to Caleb, Richard, Patrick, Katrina, and Tina -- Merry Christmas!

                       *     *     *

Thoughout my years of growing up at home, my father had a hobby.  During his free time, he puttered in his bedroom, playing with his reel-to-reel tape recorder.  Once 8-track was invented, my father quickly obtained the necessary equipment.  We soon were entertained by recordings of the latest church hymnsing as it looped through the machine again and again.

Did I mention that I grew up without radio?  It wasn't permitted.

We could hear that hymnsing no matter where we were.  For my father personally wired the house, putting speakers everywhere, including in his body shop, located in our garage.  As we unwillingly taped up our neighbor's sedan for a paint job, we could listen to the latest elementary school programs through the speakers.  Did I mention each tape looped?

Yes.  Be happy for small blessings.  For example, thank goodness we didn't have radio or television.  If so, we would have had to listen to the latest, cheezy disco hits, been forced to understand the link between the Dukes and a pair of Daisy Dukes.  I'd even have been exposed to the inherent sappiness that is Country music.

Actually, that analysis is still pretty accurate. 

Back then, I disagreed philosophically with my parents -- I thought they were way too out of touch with culture.  They believed that practicing faith meant being separate from the world.  That belief shaped every other belief and social practice they chose.  They still maintain these beliefs today.  For which I respect them.

But I still kind of disagree with them.

                       *     *     *

I'm in the midst of pre-production for the pilot episode of my comedy short:  The Discount Kid.  This means I'm staying in Los Angeles over break.

I have an unusually long holiday vacation this year -- it started on Friday, December 16, and I'm due back in the classroom on Tuesday, January 3. 

I need this break.

I started it, of course, in the classic way:  by catching that infamous Cold-in-Your-Chest, which has nailed more than one person out here.  So I spent my weekend on the couch, sucking down tangerines while absorbing Western films. 

By Sunday, I had recaptured my energy.  I've more or less quit coughing since then.  And tonight, I made my mother's Famous Chicken Soup.  No one makes it better than she.

I'm allowed to be biased, right?  The secret, by the way, is in the broth.

                       *     *     *

I'm slowly building my team of collaborators.  My goal is to use the series of Channel 101 films I intend to submit this spring (one per month) as a team-building exercise before my producers and I budget any real money.  We're using primarily creativity to create each piece.

That goal recognized, the reality is that no one actually does a zero-budget film.  One must use a DV camera, and tape, and have access to editing equipment.

I've come to peace with the money I will spend by accepting the fact that this is a practical film education for me.

For example, I just spent the most worthwhile $120.00 of my life by paying a superb teacher, Ken Stone, to teach me how to edit dv film professionally in Final Cut Pro 5.  He's a superb teacher.  He even runs a web site committed to answering questions from Final Cut Pro users.

Over Monday and Wednesday, I spent 12 hours in his studio listening, practicing, asking questions, being tested -- the most intense class I've ever taken. 

But I actually finished a short film (1 minute and 48 seconds long), complete with a simple story line.  I used split edits, created a sound track, practiced sound editing principles, and even used a dissolve.  Being able to manipulate what was on the screen to create an emotional experience was absolutely exhilarating.

In between introductory lesson I took on Monday, and the mostly practicum lesson I had on Wednesday, I raced through a superb book on Final Cut Pro:  Editing Techniques with Final Cut Pro by Michael Wohl (2004).  Surprise.  It is actually well written, easy to read, with excellent analogies that help you understand.  And best of all, it teaches sound principles of editing.

If I ever had any doubts about whether I should continue to pursue my goals as a filmmaker, this experience eliminated them.  Stone is a mentor who doesn't throw out compliments lightly, so his praise at the end of the short "course" was a powerful incentive to persevere.

I've said this to my friends, and I believe it.  One of the reasons I was able to capture basic skills so quickly in Final Cut Pro 5 is because of my the years of experience I had with Adobe Pagemaker as a yearbook advisor.  Different programs, similar intuitive demands.

Incidentally, this does not mean that I've mastered Final Cut Pro -- far from it.  I've just gotten started.  But I know how to talk about editing, I can complete minimum editing tasks on Final Cut Pro, and I better understand how to deliver good takes to my editor.

Most important, working in it is SO much fun.

                       *     *     *

Research for The Discount Kid means watching a lot of Western films.

The most thought-provoking have been the films of Sergio Leone.  Everything is so stylized -- very different than American Westerns.

I think it's the perspective behind the films.  American Westerns are hopeful -- the films of John Ford felt good about the fact that we conquered the West, essentially taking the land from Native Americans.  John Wayne makes no apology for what we did.

By the time you get to the Spaghetti Western, things have changed.  A post-war weariness pervades Leone's films -- pessimism defines his characters.  Instead of white versus black hats, we have the forerunner of the Tarantino protagonist:  violent, cool, and amoral.

And his films are brilliant.

                       *     *     *

So how to create a directing style that works for our comedy Western?  After all, we have an incompetent hero who calls himself "The Cheapest Shot in the West."  Somehow he wins, but never in the way that he expects.  His primary antagonist is Savage Sam, a close relative of Yosemite Sam.

When the art design team met this past Tuesday, we looked at the comedy found in James Lubin's script, and decided that our production design would use cartoon touches, even though our characters are live.

If you look at the film Leone loved most, Once Upon a Time in the West, you realize that he is creating a fairy tale -- based on an American myth called the West. 

For example, I didn't realize until recently that the whole concept of the fast draw was invented by Hollywood in the early twentieth century.  Was it Clint Eastwood's comment on a track of The  Outlaw Josey Wales who said that  a man in the old West would never have carried his gun in a tied-down holster -- he would have stuck it in his pocket.

But who cares.  No one in that era of Western movies actually cared about reality:  the emblems of the American myth were far more interesting.

So rather than trying to make our Western feel real, we are deliberately creating something as fake as a cartoon:  costumes in primary colors, establishing cranes shots over a scale model of the Arizona town of Rawhide, exterior shots taken at the tourist recreation of Rawhide, a very fake cow in our Very Small Corral, and toy guns that look fake and sound very real.  I suppose it's a form of deconstruction.

But all this sounds like a research paper, and this five-minute pilot will be anything but.  It's going to be funny, and it's going to tell a great story of a bumbling hero who faces overwhelming odds.

But you can see this when you view the film on Channel 101 during the last week in January.  At least I dearly hope so.

Wish us all luck!  And if you can, and if you live in the area,plan on attending the screening at Cinespace on Hollywood and Vine, the evening of the last Sunday of the month.

                       *     *     *

One more note:  I'm really pleased with the production team that is coming together.  They're talented and committed and loyal.  They're hard-working.  I'm so completely honored to be working with them.

I'm still looking for several critical players, but some quality people have expressed interest.

Putting this team together has given me flashes of deja vu.  Probably because it's all about defining roles and helping my team see how the entire puzzle fits together. 

My background and training has been in the theatre, and the roles on a movie-making team are different from those found in the theatre...yet not so different. 

For example, the responsibilities of my AD (assistant director) are very much like those carried out by the stage managers I've worked with in the past -- it's all about people.  And planning helps.  But instead of blocking out each scene with your actors on stage, you storyboard every camera shot on paper.

Thinking through these connections has also made the process of directing less intimidating (Ah, I've done this before!), and gives me confidence.  Just as I began directing in the theatre by mastering technical direction (The Music Man, Steubenville), so I'm beginning my work in film in the editing bay.  

Once you get the connections, it all feels very familiar.

                       *     *     *

Tomorrow morning (Thursday), I'm heading out on a scouting trip with my art director.  We're looking for key exterior locations, checking out several model/toy shops.

I'm psyched about the chance to possibly work with model trains again.  I deliberately set this in the post-Civil War era because it's got those very cool smokestacks on trains.  We'll see.

The following evening, we'll be spending a significant block of time storyboarding the script.  This job is very much like blocking out a show on stage, except that it's just you and the artist creating the storyboard, rather than the entire cast.

I'm determined to have every shot planned out ahead of time so that my shoot will fly by like lightning, so that the actors won't lose their forward momentum.  The last thing they need is me not knowing what I want to do next.

Everything I've read indicates that the most successful directors are those who have a clear plan to follow.  Actors hate waiting around.  It drains them of their energy.  I'm going to do my dangdest to avoid that.

                       *     *     *

On Christmas Day, I'll be doing another run to Phoenix, Arizona to spend time with an old friend, Glendon Yoder, and his family.  I'll leave at 2 AM, missing the slow-moving traffic patterns that haunt the freeways during the day.  I should arrive just in time for church services on Christmas morning, followed by dinner.

Spending time again with Glendon and his brothers has been very fulfilling.

When I was 20, I moved to Phoenix to teach school.  I spent a lot of late nights playing Rook with Glendon and his two brothers.  This past Thanksgiving, the four of us played again (I actually won).  This time, however, the conversation was very post-teenage. 

We discussed real estate, business, etc.  Around us flowed conversations and movements of their daughters and sons -- a lot of family members packed into Glendon's and (wife) Deb's brand-new house.

Glendon's parents are supposed to be there for Christmas, as well.  I haven't seen them in over 20 years.

The day after, we'll do a quick trip to Rawhide to shoot exterior shots for The Discount Kid.  You can have more than one reason for a vacation jaunt, right?

                       *     *     *

It sounds like I'm not doing much other than preparing for the shoot.

Well, you might be right.

It also seems like there are going to be a lot of people involved in a project that will only run less than five minutes.

That's true too.  But why do something that is this much fun all by yourself.  For me, joy comes through collaboration.

I loved the comments of Walter Murch, who edited The English Patient, among other films.  In an interview with Michael Wohl, he talks about his childhood fascination with recording bits of reality, and making those bits tell a story.

Before this week, I never made the connection between his love for sound, which he recorded on reel to reel tape recorders (he still loves to putter with the sermons he recorded by George R. Brunk in the 50s), and my love for moving pictures, which I record on a dv camera.

Ironically, my father could have written this: 

At a very early age, I fell in love with the tape recorder. 

What I loved about it (and this is true about film editing now) is that you could instantly capture a fragment of reality, and then you could manipulate that fragment and juxtapose it with other fragments in unpredictable ways.

That was intoxicating to me in the early 1950s, and it still is in the early twenty-first century.

I also love the collaboration, working with other people... (523).

                                                                -- Walter Murch


paulajlambert said...

Great photo and great entry, Steven. Really interesting. Have a wonderful Christmas in Phoenix, and best of luck with "The Kid."

cloudlessangel13 said...

Hope you are enjoying the preparations and I hope you have a nice time in Pheonix.  How was the scouting trip?