Adjusting to the Mise-en-Scène
Nine nonfilmmakers artists out of place make one in 48 hours
The 48 Hour Film Project came storming through Austin for the sixth time last month, leaving in its wake more than a hundred movie-makers, aspiring movie-makers, and dilettantes who had forsaken the comforts of both their creative approaches and their soft pillows to find out whether they had it in them to write, shoot, and edit a short film in the span of a single weekend.
A few of those dilettantes would be dilettantes because I asked them to be dilettantes. Figuring there might be something illuminating in watching a group of nonfilmmakers plumb the depths of an unfamilar medium amid unfavorable conditions - and having nothing better to do - I decided to assemble a team of my own.
The guidelines I set for this team were simple enough. Each member would be an established artist living in Austin who had little or no experience making films. Each would be assigned a role in the making of the film that related in some way to his or her particular abilities: A photographer might be the cinematographer, say, or a dancer might be chosen to be an actor. Then, on Friday, June 22, they would all gather together, and I would sit back and observe while they swallowed his or her pride and fear and well-watered aesthetic prejudices (not to mention lingering exhaustion) and bent their skills to the collaborative task of making a movie.
Miraculously, nine people agreed to take part. There was no pay involved and no other material incentive. In fact, just the thought of staying up for 48 hours straight, working with complete strangers in a foreign medium, might strike some as an obvious deterrent. But not for these brave souls. They said yes.
Lyn Wiltshire, a choreographer and associate professor in the Department of Theatre & Dance at UT, would be my director; Thomas Turner, a multi-instrumentalist and composer with the band Ghostland Observatory, would score the film; Jade Walker, a sculptor and director of the Creative Research Laboratory, would be the movie's art director; Robert Boland, a graduate visual-arts student at UT, would shoot it; Mack White, a comic-book writer and artist, would edit. Tiffany Love, who dances under the name Emerald Lovejoy with the Kitty Kitty Bang Bang burlesque troupe; Tasha Lawson, a principal dancer with Tapestry Dance Company; and Ben Webster, vocalist and mastermind behind the band Attack Formation, would act. And good Will Furgeson, two-time finalist in The Austin Chronicle short-story contest, would write the script. To Reel Women, the local film group responsible for bringing the 48 Hour Film Project to Austin, they would be known collectively as (my apologies) the Chroniclers. To me, they were, simply, my team.
This is the story of their lost weekend.
The tale of Miles Turner elevator operator, trainer, and unseen superhero begins its life in a small classroom on the first floor of the Winship Drama Building on the UT campus. With its nondescript carpeting, four long tables arranged in a square, sallow fluorescent lighting, and walls covered in long chalkboards, the room could be a classroom or conference room in any building on any campus at any college anywhere.
At a kick-off gathering for the festival that took place earlier in the evening, director Lyn Wiltshire reached into a hat and pulled out a genre assignment at random: superhero. Fair enough. According to the rules of the 48 Hour Film Project, at some point during our movie the line "How did you know I was here?" would have to be spoken; a fishing pole or rod would have to make an appearance; and some acknowledgment of a character named Miles or Millie Turner, trainer, would have to occur.
By the time I arrive at the Winship building, 20 minutes after the end of the kick-off gathering and weighed down with moviemaking equipment I had rented from Mopac Media, Lyn has already told the others about their guidelines, and they're deep into a discussion about superhero genre conventions capes and tights, superpowers and supervillains, square jaws and damsels tied to train tracks and about their shared desire to avoid them.
Gathered around those square-set tables, Lyn, Will, Tiffany, Tasha, Robert, Ben, and Jade engage in a group variation on what by all rights and traditions should be the most solitary of creative endeavors: the writing of a story. Three hours later, with a basic outline finished and a thousand ideas floating around the building, Will will sit alone in the hallway outside the classroom with just a laptop computer and the ticking of the clock to keep him company, and at that point, the story will be entirely in his hands. But for now, writing is a collaborative effort.
Ideas come in bursts, building on those that came before them or creating out of the air entirely new strands that either capture the fancy of the room and spark new ideas or die quietly underneath a flood of indifferent conversation. For a while, the movie they're writing is a comedy; for a time, it's a drama. Then it's back to being a comedy again. Lyn wants the hero to be unconventional, unassuming, perhaps even unaware of his own powers. One of the visual artists Jade or Robert suggests that a recurring comic book could be a visual motif to tie the film together. Tasha puts forth the idea that the movie begin with the camera scrolling backward through the path the hero will take through the course of the story.
Tasha, a tap and modern dancer, explains that this idea comes out of a choreography technique called "retrograde," which is designed to expand the creative possibilities of dance, challenge and liberate the minds of dancers, and disabuse audiences of their preconceived notions about movement and beauty. She describes its method in which dancers retrace the steps of an earlier part of the dance, only backward as a conceptual approach to creation that forces, through physical necessity, a change in mental and emotional perspective in both artists and their audiences. Starting the film with a visual version of retrograde, she believes, will set an immediate tone of willful experimentation and unconventionality and let audiences know they're in uncharted territory. To a roomful of artists searching for their own particular approach to filmmaking, the idea sounds like the opening of a door.
Realizing the story is beginning to strain under the weight of so many half-finished thoughts and threads (and aware that he's ultimately going to be responsible for making the whole thing actually mean something), Will Furgeson begins drawing elaborate diagrams on the board to trace the connections among characters as they pass through the film (see photo, left). The story involves three characters whose lives intersect unknowingly and who are all saved from imminent danger by unseen forces who might be either one of the other two characters or the mysterious Miles Turner, who might or might not be a superhero. Three hours in, and the storyline is so convoluted, with each character coming into contact with every other character unknowingly and each one saving the other's skin unintentionally, that the diagrams that litter the chalkboards are as confusing as the conversations themselves. It's as if the story has become a logic problem: Where is character A in relation to character 3 in scene five? If A didn't see 1 helping 2, then how can A possibly realize that it was S helping 2 rather than 1? I begin to think it's a good thing I chose a choreographer as my director.
As a fiction writer, Will isn't usually one for story diagrams; language is his entry into a story's mysteries. Essentially indifferent to the philosophical and descriptive regions of the storytelling universe, he compensates with a natural gift for communicating character through language and motivation through speech patterns. First he figures out what someone might say and how he might say it; only then does he bother to figure out why.
So, when Will goes off to his computer to write the film's script, he's already miles away from his normal process. Without so much as a line of dialogue in his head, and with an outline already crowded with Byzantine structural complexities and a thoroughly mapped-out story arc, he has to learn to adapt his slow-moving, introspective, voice-driven writing approach to the fast-paced, collaborative, story-based world of the 48-hour film.
For the first hour, things look bleak. This story can't work, he thinks. The structure is too complex, the number of characters too vast, and their interactions too complicated. Christ, he thinks, my last short story took me nearly two years to write, from its first flickerings to its completion. How in the hell am I going to write a whole script before morning?
His first response is the natural one: He decides to wallow in anxiety. After he masters that, he starts to format the script, mapping out the settings and character lineups for each scene. Anything to keep from actually writing something.
Then, an hour in: a breakthrough.
Calling on his instincts, he begins to imagine what a character like Miles Turner might say. What kind of words would he use to convey what's important to him? What is his voice? He begins to type an opening monologue: "If it breaks there's a number to call, this one here, but that hasn't happened in probably ten years, twelve years. It's not something to worry about." He decides that Miles must be an older man if he's training the Ben character and that if he is old and has been running the elevator for a long time, he must care about the work. His dedication should be his defining characteristic, he decides: his overriding belief in the value of his discipline. This is what the monologue will get across.
In the end, Will admits that the monologue is essentially irrelevant to the movie; it says way too much about a character whose emotional motivations are immaterial in the grand scheme of the story. But that doesn't concern him. That voiceover monologue is Will's key to getting past his writer's block; it allows him to escape the alien collaborative environment of the writer's room and move into the world of individual creativity where he's able to work.
When I arrive on set early Saturday morning, two hours after I left the night before, Robert and Lyn are already out by the creek behind the drama building filming the extended handheld shot that will become the film's opening retrograde sequence.
They're also establishing the basic framework for a relationship that will last throughout the weekend: a relationship of, let's say, good-natured contentiousness.
As a longtime choreographer, Lyn has come to see the process of working with her dancers as an essential part of the composition process. When she walks into a first rehearsal, she knows the choreography she already has in her head will go through a thousand variations and edits based on the abilities of her dancers, the limitations of the space, and any number of other artistic variables. The more information she comes to the rehearsal process with, therefore, the more choices she'll have during the inevitable editing or "chiseling," as she calls it of the piece.
Which is how she looks at directing, as well. She knows nothing about the people she's working with their skills, their adaptability, their desire to experiment so she'd rather get as much of them on film as possible and do the real creative work in the editing room, where all those possibilities will be there for her to explore and where she can really determine what exactly she wants her audience to see.
This philosophy puts her at odds with Robert, her director of photography and equal in stubbornness. Unlike Lyn, Robert doesn't place much value on the editing process. His works brilliant and original video-installation pieces that involve him setting up a camera on a tripod and filming himself improvising movements based on broad concepts like "floating" and "disappearing" against a pre-established background begin when he enters the camera's frame and end when he leaves it. There's no editing involved. He sets up his shots to determine exactly what he wants the viewer to see this much sky, this much land and as long as that framework is correct, anything he does within it is correct, as well.
So his instincts as a cinematographer are to try and capture perfectly the space in which a particular part of the story can be told and then let the actors create the story within that space. Ideally, there would be little need for editing, because each shot that you get would be perfect, as long as its design and conceptions were thought through enough beforehand.
It's clear early on in day two that these clashing ideals are going to determine, to a large degree, the success of the film. If these two can't find some sort of middle ground, it could be a very long and unrewarding couple of days. All over the building, you can almost make out the sound of fingers being crossed.
While Lyn and Robert feel each other out, Jade Walker wanders around the Winship building, looking for a bit of inspiration. As art director, it's her job to give the movie its look through sets, through costumes, through general aesthetic composition. Unfortunately, with the time limitations involved, and the fact that the majority of the movie is being shot either outside or in the relative blandness of a crowded elevator, Jade is beginning to feel like her artistic contribution to this project might be minimal at best.
As a sculptor, this isn't the way she works. When she makes one of her large-scale installation pieces, she starts with a piece of material or fabric and works her way out toward narrative and character. But this filmmaking process is exactly the opposite: Suddenly she's found herself in a position where she has a full story and a full cast of characters in her head and is expected to provide them some sort of aesthetic context. Yet she hasn't touched a single piece of material or devised a single color pattern. Her contribution to the movie is becoming vaguer and vaguer with every passing minute.
She wonders what the hell she's doing here.
On the second floor of the Winship building, there's an unconventional ladies bathroom. The first thing that catches your eye about it is the anteroom: a 3-foot-by-6-foot hallway, really, with nothing inside but a brown leather divan. Strange, Jade thinks when she looks in; one doesn't see that every day. Then there's the swinging door that leads from that room into the actual bathroom, a door with a small window right at eye level. Also strange: a window in a bathroom. And finally there's the bathroom itself, which is typical enough but for its color, which is unapologetically pink. What a truly odd space, she thinks.
I think I could do something with this.
Looking around the bathroom, and finally feeling a sense of the artistic possibilities of a physical actuality, she lets her mind wander. She begins to think that a scene should take place here, in this odd, pink bathroom with a window on the door, a scene in which we see Tiffany's character putting on make-up or maybe gazing at herself in the mirror. True, there's no such scene in the script, but Jade figures maybe she can convince the others that a brief sequence like that might add some color to their film, something outside the narrative that will give viewers a glimpse into the private lives of the characters and saturate them in the look of the film rather than just its story. If they say yes, she can come up with similar minireveries for the other characters in the film as well. Maybe she can find an excuse to get Tasha's character to dance or provide a space for Will's janitor to dream of better things. This could be her way to put her stamp on the project and give her a sense of how exactly her outlook might work in the movies.
Hopefully they'll say yes.
The majority of the movie thus far has been filmed in a small elevator in the drama building, but at 4:30pm, there's a mad rush down to Rio Rita coffee shop on East Sixth for an off-set shoot. We only have 30 minutes to film a scene (in which Tiffany inadvertently saves Tasha by dropping a handful of loose change on the floor) before a private party of 50 comes barreling through the door, each one of them indifferent to the struggle that goes into capturing truth on celluloid. The location's main shot is filmed lightning quick: Only three takes boom! boom! boom! and they're done. There will be no time spent on takes delving deeper into character motivation or psychology. There isn't time.
Tiffany's acting assignment for this shot is really less a matter of acting than it is one of balance and spatial configuration. She has to grab two large to-go coffee cups and her handbag and answer her phone while unwittingly dropping a handful of coins on the floor, which Tasha will then pick up. The acting is almost a happy byproduct of her physical responsibilities. It reminds me of what the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune said when someone complimented him on his performance in the final scene of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, a long scene in which real archers shoot real arrows at him, missing by mere inches on either side: That wasn't acting, he said; that was fear. The same is true for Tiffany (minus the threat of death): She's not really acting in this scene; she's just trying to make sure she holds on to what she's supposed to hold on to and drops what she's supposed to drop. Her performance grows from there. There is no stronger motivator for an actor than the completion of a simple physical task. As Tasha says, the first element in any quality performance, be it a dance or a scene in a movie, is simple presence of mind.
Ben Webster would agree, but he'd probably put a total indifference to the perils of embarrassment as a close second.
When he's onstage singing with his band, Attack Formation, Ben's showmanship comes from his lack of self-consciousness. He sways, and he throws his arms around him, and he bounces up and down like a kid. He sings when he has a mic in his hand, and he shouts when he realizes that he handed the mic to someone else. Though he's not the greatest singer in the world, he compensates with full-bodied, full-throated, unconscious enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that would quickly die if he allowed himself to worry about what other people were thinking about him.
So I didn't have any doubt Ben would make an easy transition into acting. My concern for him and my other actors is that their sense of duty to the vision of the director might impede their ability to feel artistically involved in the project. If you're sacrificing your ideas both to the will of the group and the whims of a director, exactly how can you say that your voice is being heard at all?
Ben is a collaborator by nature, and as he is with his band, all he's concerned about here is engendering the best possible situation among creative people he's interested in working with and living inside the process for a while. Everything else will sort itself out. If Lyn wants something from him, he's going to give it to her, even if he thinks it's terrible. When he's recording his voiceovers at the end of the day's shooting, standing for 45 minutes next to an enormous microphone while Lyn repeatedly demands that he speak slower and lower, slower and lower, until he's speaking his lines so slow and so low that it begins to sound like his voice is being recorded on the wrong speed he does so happily, occasionally exploding into brief paroxysms of comical self-loathing to keep the mood light.
The process is everything, he believes; ego is nothing. And regardless of how little you think you might be involved in that process, if you're a part of the building of something, there's really no way for your style not come out in the end. It's inevitable.
If you walk through wet cement, he tells me, your feet are going to be there whether you like it or not.
As the sun sets on day two, 27 hours in, an exhaustion sets in like fog on a harbor town. Shooting is wrapped, so all of the actors, along with Jade and Robert, drag their weary bones home, their jobs done. Lyn, whose job as director is just getting started but who hasn't slept since 5am the day before (she's already closing in on her 48 hours), retreats to her office upstairs to gather her thoughts for the next day's editing. It's 11pm. Mack White, our editor, will be arriving nine hours from now to begin piecing together the various strands of the day's work and trying to make sense of what's transpired.
The interim belongs to Thomas Turner.
Thomas is used to working in these kinds of conditions, late at night and by himself. As one-half of the wildly popular band Ghostland Observatory, it's his responsibility to create the basic rhythmic and chordal structure that his partner, Aaron Behrens, can then sing over and later slink around to onstage. This means that every night he locks himself in a rehearsal space in South Austin through the small hours, coming up with the foundations of songs that will be pored over religiously by thousands of devoted fans and ornery music critics. Here tonight, though, he feels he can create something that will probably pass far below most people's radars, so he feels free. When he walks into Lyn's office to start composing, he can see all the possibilities of a liberated creative experience splayed out before him.
As context, Lyn gives Thomas a brief overview of the story and shows him only the film's retrograde introductory sequence. He hears no dialogue, parses no character motivations, acknowledges no thematic content.
He just gets to work, which he does with enviable energy, striking keys on his synthesizer and twisting knobs on his mixing board. He begins with an arpeggiated string-and-bell melody that would probably sound more appropriate in a war movie or Noh theatre drama than a revisionist superhero comedy, but he figures since he was only shown one scene of the film, his teammates can't rightfully hang him if the score he writes doesn't match their desires. Besides, he isn't that concerned with making sure the music fits perfectly with the visuals in tone, anyway. That's the problem, he thinks, with so many film scores these days: They're too subservient to the emotional arc of the story, following it around like a lap dog, swelling with strings when someone dies, turning on the pizzicato when the mood turns lighthearted. Back in the cinematic glory days of the Seventies, composers like Ennio Morricone and John Williams would put an artistic stamp on the films they wrote for; they would write music that stood on its own and that people were affected by. Those old themes and motifs would get you excited, and every one of your senses would be satisfied. That's what I want to do, Thomas decides: create themes that get viewers' attention, that trigger something in their minds beyond mere empathy and inspire them to think differently about what they're experiencing.
And that's how, two hours after he first put on his headphones, Thomas has managed to turn a lighthearted comedy into an epic of looming doom.
As 1am turns to 2 and Lyn fights sleep in her office and with inspiration coming at him in a torrent, Thomas decides that the muses are with him tonight, so it would be best to just record as much music as he can and save the editing process for tomorrow. These nights don't come around often, so when they do, you've got to grab them.
The task of stringing together all the disparate shots, words, and pieces of music that bubbled to the surface over the course of the last 36 hours falls to Mack, a soft-spoken, unassuming comic-book writer and artist with a deep Texas drawl and a taste for the most elaborate conspiracy theories you'd ever want to hear. Strolling into Lyn's office at 8am on Sunday, he's the last cog in my wheel, the man who hasn't been around but who has been given the responsibility of turning our little piece of patchwork into a real movie.
As a comic-book artist, Mack isn't unfamiliar with the art of telling stories in discrete portions. For years he's been spinning yarns, panel by panel, about surrealistic cowboys, redneck mutants, and the wickedness of the Bush administration, and as far as he's concerned, the aim of both editing films and drawing comics is the same: to tell stories by simulating action and fooling the eye into believing it's seeing movement that's not actually there. In fact, he believes, the development of comics and films in the late-19th and early-20th centuries paralleled each other so closely precisely because the goals of the two art forms were so similar and because they both satisfied the desire of artists to better depict motion and more closely simulate visual reality. Together they helped shake the art world free of the constraints of placid, static painting.
When the time comes for Mack and Thomas to begin editing the music and fitting its grandiose themes into the film's seven-minute universe, something remarkable takes place. Every time Thomas chooses a track to accompany a particular piece of footage, somehow the music dovetails perfectly with the visuals onscreen. And this despite Thomas' never having seen the film, not even having had a conception while he was composing of how long particular scenes were or what visual cues they provided. Everyone in the room, even jaded old me, stands amazed as this happens over and over again throughout the day.
Feeling reflective on a Sunday afternoon, and marveling each time another one of Thomas' songs coincides perfectly uncannily, really with the closing of an elevator door or the pace of an actor's gait, Mack allows his mind to turn metaphysical. He imagines that on days like today, when the labor of nine creative minds is coming together so serendipitously, there must be a 10th one in the room. How else to explain the sheer synchronicity of what he's witnessing? For Mack, an artist more interested in the process of creation and the peculiar power of art than in any medium in particular, it's as if this mind is a force, the same force that predetermined long before any of us were born that this movie would be made in just this way by just these people. A die-hard materialist myself, I have a hard time understanding what he's talking about, but I wonder at his belief in the magic of the collaborative process and rest content in this new knowledge that God is, in fact, on our side.
At 7pm on Sunday, the film now officially titled "Vertical Miles" is turned in to the authorities at Reel Women and is out of the team's hands forever. Their collaborative dream/insomniac nightmare is over.
Two days later it screens, along with the 27 other movies that were made in Austin this year, at the Regal Arbor Cinema, premiering to resounding confusion. The story, which made so much sense on paper and on set (even in the editing room), is murky and disjointed on screen. It's unclear what the connection is between the three principal characters. The fact that Ben's character is both an apprentice to an apparent superhero and his nemesis muddies the waters even further. The team's decision to shoot the film both in third-person and first-person point-of-view shots leaves viewers unsure as to who's seeing what when. Plus, it's unclear whether the team satisfied their responsibility to make a superhero movie, because it's unclear if there's a superhero in the film.
Watching the movie for the first time, it occurs to me that despite all of the creative acuity and aesthetic conviction of the members of my team, the art of telling a story on film is an elusive one and, for all their experience watching movies, one they were ultimately unfamiliar with. Time and again throughout the weekend I saw story ideas develop that made perfect sense in the thinking and the telling but that never actually made their way coherently into the camera. Film is a language we can all understand but that few can speak. There's nothing intuitive about including establishing shots or cutaways in your day's shooting schedule, but it only takes a single viewing of your own film to realize that those are the shots that mean the difference between art and incomprehensibility.
There are a couple of consolations for my team as they sit there in the dark of the Arbor theatre, basking in the glow of their first completed film: 1) that the experience of making the film is filling them with a blissful indifference to any structural or aesthetic inconsistencies in the film itself (or as Ben once told me: Pieces of art can't ever be bad if you have positive memories of the process of making them) and 2) that almost all of the other movies in the festival are as incomprehensible as theirs is.
Another consolation, of course, is that the movie is done; that undeniably and forevermore, something was created, and they created it. In this lonely life, bookended by silence, what greater joy can we ask for?
The Top 10 shorts of the 2007 Austin 48 Hour Film Project will be announced on Monday, July 16. They will be screened at the Regal Arbor Cinema (9828 Great Hills Trail) on July 23, 7:30pm.
"Vertical Miles" will probably not be among them. However, you can see it right here (QuickTime, 49MB).