Thursday, September 30, 2010


It has most definitely been a long and productive time since I last posted on Cine Medias Res. While I harbor no illusions about the breadth of my audience at this humble blogspot, I do know that there are a happy few of you who comprise the depth of my audience and, as such, I'm sorry to have left you so in the lurch.

In any event, I thought the least I could do was tell you that I did indeed get a short film made, it is indeed not bad by half, and it is indeed going to be seeing some kind of festival life once it's finished -- though to what extent remains to be seen. Oh: and I am indeed in five-digits of debt as a result. And that's just the debt, not including what I spent that I could actually afford.

C'est la vie.

Until I have a finished film for which to post a link here, I'll simply add a sort of "creative" summation. I wrote the following as part of my thesis submission in June. I've done quite a bit of work on the film since then, in numerous small but crucial ways, such that the final film will no doubt look like the film I discuss having made in the below, but won't exactly feel like it.

Bear that in mind when reading the following about my June 01, 2010 edit of DESERTERS:

I am a cinematic storyteller. Which is to say, I tell stories through the medium of film. The goal of my evolving process is to move away from the disingenuous aspects of the post-music video & -commercial visual language, and reconnect to the Aristotelian and Aesop-ian roots of dramatic storytelling. All of this via the moving image.

Storytelling is by necessity a populist art, the goal being to communicate with the largest possible audience. So I’ll make no bones about it: the only modern referents whose work holds much interest for me are two unapologetically populist visual storytellers: Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. That said, I draw a considerable amount of my creative guidance from the pillars of 20th Century filmmaking: guys like Alfred Hitchcock & John Ford, John Huston & David Lean, Billy Wilder & Elia Kazan, and Sidneys Pollack & Lumet. Hitchcock and Ford in particular had an ability to construct by turns disciplined and playful stories, each told with a visual rigor that communicated clearly without being vanilla. The breadth and depth of their combined filmographies provides a creatively rich well for the aspiring professional filmmaker to draw on. This is a well I have only begun to fully explore.

Following these examples, I start with the story. The majority of the time spent on DESERTERS was spent studying, conceiving, and developing -- to the best of my abilities -- a strong story. From that solid foundation evolves both the basic visual language and the dramatic tenor of the performances. As the director, it is my job to orchestrate a push-pull dynamic between these two aspects of filmmaking, an orchestration that aims to arrive at a creative harmony. Equilibrium. DETENTE.

The fundamental rule of visual construction for this project was simple: no hand-held photography. "If the camera is moving it will be on a dolly. If it is not moving it will be on a tripod…” were the first words shared with my cinematographer. And we stuck to them, however in need of a crutch we may have been at points. This forces the visual storyteller to focus more on composition and content, relieving us of a technique that in the best of hands amounts to little more than punctuation.

From that simple declaration, I moved straight into casting and rehearsals. Rehearsals at their best are a process of discovery. The actors and I work the text, combing it for issues to fix and strengths to exploit, first through discussion and table readings, and then through physical staging. In the case of DESERTERS, the two-character argument that comprises the bulk of the second act was a particularly difficult nut to crack. But like the best staging solutions, when we added the physical obstacle of the door, the actors’ beats fell into place like dominoes. The only work left to do was simple finessing.

When we’re comfortable with the rhythm and staging of the scene, I have the actors run their blocking by rote, while I use a still camera to compose as many different kinds of shots, with as many different lenses, from as many different angles as possible. I may take over 150 photos during a two-minute scene, all while keeping in mind two things: 1) Ford’s methodology of composing for the master; and 2) Hitchcock’s principle of “image size” orchestration (essentially: save the close-up for the moment it will create the greatest possible impact). The construction of the final shotlist is derived from this surge of stills, and represents a distillation of an improvised process. After collating the stills from a run of a scene, I may run the same scene again at the next rehearsal to address missing shots or to try a different point of attack in the staging or visual language.

At the end of this preparatory process, the hope is that the script, performances, and shotlist are all working in unison, the one neither fully at the mercy of the other two. Though we will always return to the story and the basic dramatic throughline or “armature”, the intent is to have developed a complete vision in which all parts are serving the whole.

Our homework done, we shoot. Directing on-set is a lot like an improvised endurance test: you craft your plan to the best of your abilities, yet everyday presents a potentially-crippling challenge you couldn’t possibly have foreseen but in hindsight seems clumsy to have overlooked. Locations and actors come and go; what worked on the page and even in rehearsal doesn’t work on the day; you lose the light; you lose the crew; you lose time; you lose your mind. So you adjust fire, always keeping in mind the end product. “Does it work? Do I buy it?” If so, we move on. We shoot. And shoot. And shoot. And then, maybe, we re-shoot. We averaged no less than six 12-hour days during the DESERTERS shoot.

On one day in particular, we worked for 16 hours, including the striking of the set. That we were able to get not only usable but quality material in the latter 1/3 of this day is a huge testament to a vetted plan of action and a dedicated cast & crew.

Editing is a process that still possesses a bit of alchemy for me. I tend to read a lot by editor and sound designer Walter Murch, not just because he is good, but because he is also the most out-spoken of any cinema editor. Hitchcock’s image size principle returns to mind as well. In all, it is a process of selecting the best takes, and moving from one shot to the next in a way that follows the beats of the story and performances, and balancing those beats with the need for tempo and momentum in the telling. The final part of editing tends to be the culling of other takes for little bits that could be useful somewhere or could replace a quick cutaway. In the case of DESERTERS, these allowed for the creation of what could be called epic similes: the insertion of out-of-context shots to create thematic contrast, plant visual fuses, and/or illustrate a character’s thought-process. In a way, these similes feel a bit like cheating – they’re out of the modern film playbook, and don’t feel quite of the fabric of the piece, however well-woven they may be. Ultimately, they’re substitutions for material I failed to write clearly enough or failed to get on the day – whether it be an insert, a close-up or an additional beat out of the actor.

The final stage is the design and mixing of the soundtrack, generally regarded as the filmmaker’s last chance to affect the telling of the story. I pushed my sound designer well beyond the point of exhaustion in the hustle to record additional dialogue, get foley, mix sound effects, and create a smooth mix-down. After three-straight days of work on both our parts, even with working to the absolute last minute – we still failed to lay-down a final soundtrack. The sound for the body of DESERTERS is only the temp track. Sound has always been my greatest weakness and it is probably this piece’s greatest failure – but it wasn’t for lack of trying. All I can do is learn from this particular mistake and push-on with the creation of a polished mix-down apart from the my thesis exhibition.

However flawed the resultant product, a viewing of DESERTERS will show pretty definitively that I’m not particularly interested in art for art’s sake or any other Art World “movements” to speak of. I mostly just want to make a good movie that a functional human being can emotionally connect to, invest in, understand, and -- just maybe -- enjoy.
For comparison's sake, the June 01 edit ran (with credits) 18m19s. With credits, the current (Sept 30) edit runs 16m48s. That may not, at first blush, sound like a helluva difference, but when you consider the 18:19 edit was already a rather brutal culling of an initial 22:00+ edit, you should have some idea of how compressed things are becoming. In effect, I've cut-out more than 1/4 of the original cut, without losing virtually any story.

Enough said for now. More updates as they're available. If a single soul has read any of the above, let alone this far, I'll say only this: THANKS.

Erik LeDrew