Tuesday, June 28, 2011

You May Say That We Ain't Free, But It Don't Worry Me

Starting in July, I have an internship with Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas - the creative home of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who I have long admired (particularly because of his ability to not only write, direct and produce his movies, but also to edit, shoot and score many of them, as well). Until my internship starts, I have been wrapping up post-production work on With Love, Marty (my friend Jonah Greenstein is writing the score to the film), as well as working on a new film project with my friends Brian Schwartz and Catherine Schwartz, two extremely talented people with whom I went to Austin High School (Brian and I were in quite a few plays together as Red Dragon Players). I've also been reminiscing about some of my great New York City experiences this past semester that I've neglected to mention in my earlier blog posts.

I wrote in length about my immense love for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris in earlier posts - two films that I have no doubt will place very highly on my year-end top ten list (I'll add a third to that list - Mike Mills' wonderful Beginners, with Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent giving memorable performances in a moving love story). In particular, The Tree of Life is a movie that continues to live with me - I mean it sincerely when I say that, watching the film, I felt inspired to someday attempt to make something as personal and philosophical as Malick's movie - that is, of course, if I have the benefit of being a filmmaker many years from now. The Tree of Life is such an artful piece of personal filmmaking, and it's the kind of movie that gives me the hope that, one day, I can make a film that furiously and passionately grasps at the lingering questions from my childhood, the death of my father and the story of my youth. Just don't expect a fraction of the cinematic poetry and grace that Malick brings to The Tree of Life.

As I'm slowly catching up with things after the whirlwind of last semester, I wanted to post some films made by my friends from over the past year. Below is a link to my good friend Alexander Fofonoff's third Sight and Sound: Film project The Sailor of Tomorrow, in which I appear as a disgruntled dock worker (Alex and I were in the same Sight and Sound: Film crew, which also included my great friends Jonah Greenstein and Benjamin Dewey). Here's the film:

In January, my roommate Bobb Barito and I saw Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore starring Olympia Dukakis on Broadway. This incredible production was directed by Michael Wilson, who, along with Tony-nominated actress Hallie Foote (daughter of the late playwright Horton Foote), will hopefully be speaking about the actor-director relationship at one of Tisch New Theatre's Master Classes in the fall (I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mrs. Foote over the years through my friend Bolton Eckert, starting back in 2006, when I attended Mr. Foote's 90th birthday party with Bolton and his family in New York City).

In March, my good friend and collaborator Benjamin Dewey and I saw the newly restored 35MM print of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) at New York's historic Film Forum, which was just a breathtaking experience. I've seen the film countless times (dating back to when I was eleven years old and just beginning my life-long obsession with Scorsese's work), but it's never looked as beautiful as it did at Film Forum. I've seen beautiful prints of Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) before in theaters - not to mention seeing Scorsese's incredible output in the 2000s upon their original theatrical releases (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shine A Light, Shutter Island) - but never Taxi Driver. And, I'll tell you, there's a haunting power in watching that film and living in New York City. I look at the picture a little differently now - it takes on an entirely different meaning and context (not that the New York City of the 1970s resembles the New York City in which I live in 2011 at all, really - but still, there's an added resonance).

The past few months - both in New York and in Austin - I've been able to watch some great new releases worth seeking out in cinemas, including Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, a gorgeously filmed, immersive mood piece that seems destined to become an art-house classic; Dan Rush's Everything Must Go, a wonderful, moving portrait of an alcoholic, with a lead performance from Will Ferrell that should do for him what Punch-Drunk Love (2002) did for Adam Sandler; Submarine, a wonderful coming-of-age movie with the heart of Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) and the style of a French New Wave classic; Joe Wright's strangely hypnotic Hanna, which features one-take action sequences that put the heavily-edited, incomprehensible action scenes from most Hollywood movies to shame; Jodie Foster's The Beaver, worth seeking out for Mel Gibson's extraordinary performance; J.J. Abrams' Super 8, a wonderful throwback to a better kind of summer blockbuster; and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a fascinating, meditative documentary exploring the inside of the Chauvet Cave in France, which features prehistoric cave drawings more than 30,000 years old. Did I mention that the film is in 3D? Leave it to Werner Herzog to make extraordinary use of 3D technology.

Since I've been in Austin, I've been catching up on re-watching some old favorites and some films I've overlooked through the years, including Niehls Mueller's
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), a great film that proves that Sean Penn is unquestionably the best working actor today (together with his work in Mystic River and 21 Grams, his performance in this film represents the best output in the span of one year of any actor I can recall); Martin Scorsese's thrillingly entertaining The Color of Money (1986), where Paul Newman has never looked so cool; Robert Altman's revisionist western
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), starring Warren Beatty as the kind of brash 1970s antihero that makes me love that decade's cinema so much; and Joel and Ethan Coen's debut film Blood Simple (1984), a movie that demonstrates that these brothers knew how to make a movie better than anyone else around right from the start.

I have to spotlight two recent Scorsese viewings that just left me floored. I re-watched his first feature film, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1969), which started out as his senior thesis film at New York University, and developed over the years until its theatrical release in 1969. The movie is full of the same raw energy and kinetic liveliness as Mean Streets (1973). Everything is here in his first feature - the thrilling use of pop music, the Catholicism, the guilt, the male awkwardness, the social discomfort, New York City, a wonderful performance from Harvey Keitel - in other words, it's the kind of movie I live for! It's full of the immediacy that has always drawn me to Scorsese - his uncontrollable need to tell you this story right now, because it's so personal, so close to his heart, and if he doesn't get it out there - well, then, how else can he get you to experience what he experiences?

The second Scorsese film is last year's documentary A Letter to Elia, Scorsese's loving tribute to Elia Kazan, the filmmaker who inspired Scorsese more than any other. The film is especially powerful because of Scorsese's close, personal connection to Kazan's pictures, if not Kazan the man. Watching the film, I couldn't help but recognize Scorsese's loving adoration and respect for Kazan as the same adoration and respect I feel so strongly for Scorsese. There are many quotes from the film that haunt me, particularly the following one, in which Scorsese describes his friendship with Kazan:

"There was a kind of understanding between us. I mean, I never tried to tell him how much his films meant to me -- I don't think it would've been fair. When somebody's work has touched you that deeply, you can never expect them to understand how much they mean to you. It had to stay between me and the pictures. Those pictures mean so much to me that I can't imagine where I'd be without them. And when the lights dimmed, I was standing in the wings and I looked at the images from his tribute reel. It was an overwhelming feeling. It was as if I was seeing layers of my own experience, my own life, unfolding right there up on the screen. So, Elia, it always had to stay between me and the movies, and the only way I could tell you how much you meant to me was by making movies.”

I may never know Martin Scorsese personally, but if I ever do have the chance to know him, I think I will feel the same way. Scorsese's work has touched me so deeply and defined every aspect of my life for as long as I can remember. I don't think he will ever understand how much he means to me - he is a sort-of father, a father I've never met, but one who understands me. And so, if I am lucky enough to make pictures for a living, it will be my way of telling Martin Scorsese how much he meant to me and how his films are like a piece of my own personal history, embedded in my mind like my own experiences. And perhaps, one day, I can make A Letter to Marty. But, you know, even an hour-long documentary of the sort couldn't ever really hint at how he's shaped my life and the way I look at the world.

In honor of Scorsese, here's my Vocalization sound project from my Fall 2009 Sound Image class at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts - in which I provide all of the voice work. After years of listening to Scorsese talk about his films, I've had time to work on a Scorsese impersonation:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

And Now I Know Spanish Harlem Are Not Just Pretty Words To Say

Why make With Love, Marty? During the second half of my spring semester at NYU, I was swamped with Sight and Sound: Studio projects, the Tisch New Theatre mainstage production of Last Exit No Toll and many other projects (not to mention classwork), and so naturally it seemed like an unwise decision to make an outside-of-class movie, especially considering that I wanted to not only direct the project, but also star in the film. The script was sixteen pages long, and to make the movie properly, it would involve shooting at a number of hard locations, including Columbia University and a crowded New York City bus stop. Ultimately, I chose to make the movie not only because I have long wanted to take advantage of the incredible camera equipment and facilities at Tisch, but particularly because I have the privilege of knowing people who were excited about the project and who were willing to do everything possible to make the film that I wanted to make. If I were anywhere else in the world other than the Tisch School of the Arts, I could not have possibly assembled such an incredible cast and crew, full of people so eager to collaborate that they gave up their time, talent, energy and sleep for the sake of the movie. There is something about the collaborative nature of film (and theatre, for that matter, too) that really inspires me. By the way, the poster above was created and designed by Benjamin Dewey, who was also my cinematographer on the film.

There were also, of course, the artistic reasons for making the film. I love writing about loners. I love stories about outsiders and people who are trying very hard to be a part of a social group. My scripts always reflect the way I feel about something, to a certain extent. As an actor, I also tend to write characters modeled, more or less, on myself, or at least characters that I think I could play well - and oftentimes, writing these stories and these characters help me understand myself better. Admitting this is a double-edged sword, though. When people watch With Love, Marty, I don't want them to think that this story is autobiographical, because it's not. And yet, I wouldn't have been so passionate about making the film if it didn't represent a certain aspect of my personality. I am not Marty by any means, but it might be fair to say that his behavior is a highly exaggerated example of how I have felt at times in the past.

I finished writing the screenplay for With Love, Marty shortly before my Spring Break, and during my break I reached out to my friends and classmates who I had worked with in the past to see if they would be interested in making this outside-of-class project. My cinematographer, the incredible Benjamin Dewey, was my loyal collaborator from the very beginning. Shortly after I returned from Spring Break, he and I met constantly to draw storyboards and make shot lists for every scene in the script (sometimes during our Monday night shifts at the Post-Production Center, where we both work as Teaching Assistants). He assisted me in purchasing the appropriate lighting equipment, and he also provided the EX1 camera, tripod and sound equipment necessary to shoot this film. My roommate Bobb Barito was also on board the project from the very beginning, both starring in the movie (as a character modeled on him, named Bobb) and agreeing to serve as Sound Mixer and Sound Editor for the film. During the shoot, there were scenes where Bobb was acting and therefore could not do sound, and my friends Andrew Griego, Adam Boese and Jeremy Keller graciously offered their sound-mixing and booming skills during that time.

For the opening interior apartment scene, I wanted to use the apartment of my good friend Mike Cheslik, whose apartment on 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue has become a sort of permanent film-set this past semester (it's almost a rite-of-passage to shoot something in his apartment at this point). Not only did I want to use his apartment, but I wanted to cast him in the film, along with our friends Jon Annunziata and Justin Levine, as versions of themselves (the characters are named Mike, Jon and Justin). They were all incredibly willing participants, bringing so many ideas to the table and showing off some incredible acting talent. Long before shooting the opening scene of the film - in which Bobb, Mike, Jon, Justin and I riff and make lewd jokes in the apartment - the five of us gathered together to go through the script and re-write that opening scene, essentially, with our improvisations. You can imagine that these were very fun screenwriting sessions - everybody was trying to be as hilarious as possible, and I included the funniest, most relevant bits in the final screenplay. I cannot thank Mike, Bobb, Jon and Justin enough for their hilarious work in both forming that scene in the final script, and for their eventually hilarious performances on set.

My producer, Erica Rose, was so incredibly helpful in getting this project off the ground, and not only did she keep me focused, help cast the film and set up auditions with actors, organize cast and crew members with daily call-sheets, gather extras for a large party scene and help me find filming locations, she also served as my Assistant Director on set, always keeping me on schedule (she acts in the film, too, in the small role of Rose). Erica recommended that I have an Art Director for the film, and the wonderful Madeline Wall came on board to help us. Madeline is responsible for all of the art, make-up and much of the costuming in the movie, particularly the interior scenes. She sent out specific instructions to our party extras on how to dress for the hipster party scene at Columbia University (her work with glitter and face paint stands out in this section of the film). She was present at all times during the shoot, also working as a Boom Operator, Gaffer and any other position we needed.

After having some production meetings with Erica and Ben - where we made shooting schedules, divided up responsibilities among the crew and assembled necessary equipment - it was time for me to cast and subsequently rehearse with my actors. The scenes featuring Bobb, Mike, Jon, Justin and me were easily rehearsed, not only because we are all good friends, but mainly because my character in the scene is mostly silent as everybody else is fraternizing, and so it was easier for me to forget about my performance in rehearsal and really focus on directing my friends. However, the more serious scenes in the picture - particularly the ones where my character is the most emotionally vulnerable - required a different kind of rehearsal.

Erica suggested that I audition an actress named Alexis Gay for the role of Kellie in the film, and from the moment she walked into the audition room, I knew she was perfect for the role. I rehearsed with her privately twice, and we discussed the complicated interaction in the film between Kellie and Marty. Our final scene together in the film - the most important part of the movie, really - is such a painful and discomforting scene that it was a difficult task for me to direct her and simultaneously perform in the scene as this anguished, slightly delusional character. Thankfully, Alexis was so naturally receptive to my direction and understood her character so well that it made the process considerably easier for me.

I had another separate, private rehearsal with Karen McFarlane, an actress who auditioned for the role of the elderly Lucille. Karen was brilliant. Lucille's scene in the movie is relatively short - she's only onscreen for about a minute and a half - but her role is critical. I'll admit, I was worried that Erica and I would not find a fantastic older actress who fit the part, even though Erica posted a casting call online weeks in advance. But when Erica brought Karen into the audition room and I read through the scene with her, I knew she was perfect. She was incredibly flexible with her schedule, too - we were scheduled to shoot her scene at 10:30 PM on the evening of April 24th at a bus stop near Union Square, and it started pouring down raining shortly before our call time. We had to reschedule to another date, and she could not have been more understanding (we ended up shooting the scene at 11:30 PM on a Friday night - and I'll tell you, we had to fight against some rowdy late-night crowds). It was a joy to work with Karen, and I think she's terrific in the picture.

An exact shooting schedule went something like this - on the evening of Saturday, April 23rd, we shot the Columbia hipster party scene in Erica's dorm room at Gramercy (doubling for the interior of a Columbia dorm room). Lee Gold and Jon Annunziata were on hand as Gaffers for the evening, and we had a great group of party extras who were extremely patient. The shoot took about three-and-a-half hours, mainly because Ben and I had planned a complicated tracking shot following Marty into the party and through the dancing crowd of hipsters. One of Ben's most beautiful shots is in this scene - a medium shot of Alexis, in full party attire, with her back to a window overlooking the nighttime traffic on Third Avenue.

The second night of filming involved shooting the scene between Karen and me at the bus stop, which ultimately took about two hours to capture. This was a difficult scene for Bobb (as the Sound Mixer), because the bus stop by Union Square was certainly not quiet at 11:30 PM on a Friday night. It certainly didn't help matters that we had, more or less, taken over a public bus stop in one of the most popular spots in Manhattan. Later that night, Ben and I wandered around the West Village and picked up some beautiful exterior shots.

The final day of shooting was the pressure cooker - we had to shoot about seventy-five percent of the movie in one day. We shot day-for-night in Mike's apartment from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, which included the opening scene of the film, the last scene of the film and a critical scene between Bobb and me that sets the story in motion. Then, after a short break, my crew and I met at Columbia University around 7:00 PM to shoot the scenes between Alexis and me, as well as all exterior Columbia University shots. The exterior Columbia scenes look absolutely beautiful, thanks to Ben's outstanding cinematography and a little help from C0lumbia's stunning campus. After that, we were more or less wrapped with the production, aside from a few smaller shots that required fewer people on set. It was an exhausting and rewarding day thanks to the incredible work of Ben, Bobb, Erica, Madeline, Alexis, Mike, Jon, Justin, Andrew and Jeremy - I could not have possibly asked for a better production experience or a better creative team.

For the post-production process, I edited the film using Final Cut Pro in the editing laboratories at Tisch during the last few weeks of the semester, seeking input constantly from other students. Shortly before he left to return to Colorado for the summer, Ben color-corrected my picture-locked cut of the movie in a suite at Tisch, and the movie looks incredible because of his talent and hard work. I have since handed over the picture-locked cut to Bobb, who is currently working on the sound design. My good friend Jonah Greenstein offered to write an original musical score for the movie, and I couldn't have been more thankful for his offer. I know he will do brilliant work.

Anyway, that's a fast breakdown of the production of With Love, Marty. I'm enormously excited to screen the final product for anybody who wants to see the picture, and I am so lucky to work with such dedicated and talented people at the Tisch School of the Arts. I love making movies, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have made this particular one.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Film Review - The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is a miracle, a picture consumed by the wonder, amazement and beauty of life that surely feels as personal to its creator, writer and director Terrence Malick, as it does to so many of the people who have left the theatre moved and haunted by its power.

Watching the film on opening night in Austin with a packed audience (many of whom worked in some capacity on the film, which was shot in Smithville), it was not unlike taking in the grand spectacle of The Lion King on Broadway for the first time as a young child. It is an overwhelmingly emotional experience.

How many people will see this film and watch in awe as memories of their own childhood flash before their eyes? I know I did. The story concerns Jack, an eleven year-old boy raised in Texas in the 1950s whose wondrous and carefree childhood slowly gives way to a more troubling, complicated understanding of human nature as he loses his innocence. You can see where I might find some similarities (as long as we’re swapping the 1950s for the 1990s). As he grows into a disillusioned adult (Sean Penn), he struggles to come to terms with the two ways through life: the way of human nature, fierce will and determination, epitomized by his father (Brad Pitt, in a hauntingly understated performance); and the way of love, compassion and grace, epitomized by his mother (Jessica Chastain).

But Malick’s movie extends back to the beginning of time, offering us beautiful sequences depicting the creation of the world that call to mind similar scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I’ve often wondered how audiences would respond to 2001 if that film were released in theaters today. The answer has come. Our generation now has our own 2001 – a mystifying, extraordinarily ambitious epic that forgoes narrative filmmaking almost entirely. But as film critic Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey “[lacks] Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling” present in The Tree of Life. Indeed, this is a film driven by small, powerful human moments. Pitt, Chastain and Penn’s performances are oftentimes completely wordless, but they linger in the mind days after having seen the picture. As much as I love Kubrick’s film, the same cannot be said for its characters.

This is a film that requires patience and respect for Malick’s vision. There were boos and hisses from some audiences when 2001 was first released in 1968, and The Tree of Life has received similar reactions (even at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or). But these are films that live beyond their audiences, masterpieces that aren’t easily digestible for the masses.

I’ve seen the film twice now, and both times the ending – a glimpse of everyone in Penn’s life coming together and journeying together to a sort of afterlife – is equal parts beguiling and soul-stirring. I left The Tree of Life full of hope – not just spiritual hope, or the hope of someday understanding all things – but hope for the future of cinema.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Film Review - Midnight in Paris

Thank God for Woody Allen. In the midst of an almost unbearable summer full of 3D superhero garbage and brainless sequels, he has given us his latest film Midnight in Paris only seven months after the release of his last film, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. The middling critical reception to You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger bewildered me – of that film, I wrote: “Allen’s characters face existential dread, find comfort in ridiculous paranormal spiritualism, destroy their relationships with one another and learn the hard way that, in terms of romantic relationships, the grass will always be greener on the other side.” Powerful stuff, but for some reason, American critics weren’t impressed. Perhaps it’s because Allen offers us, on average, one movie per year, and aside from Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), most of them aren’t nearly as good as his masterworks from the 1970s and 1980s.

Well, so what? A middling Woody Allen film is better than ninety-nine percent of everything else out in current release. Not that I would consider You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger a middling film in the least, mind you.

Fortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that Midnight in Paris is the funniest and most endearing movie you’ll see this year – critics and audiences alike are recognizing the film as Woody Allen’s finest work in years. Owen Wilson gives one of his best performances as Gil (the ‘Woody’ character), an American writer visiting Paris with his fiancĂ© (Rachel McAdams) and her unbearably uppity parents (Allen’s depiction of McAdams’ conservative family would seem harsh if it wasn’t so, I don’t know, spot-on).

Gil, bored with his status as a hack Hollywood screenwriter, yearns for the Paris of the 1920s, when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso walked the streets and tossed ideas around in cafes. And so it happens that, while Gil is walking alone through the city after midnight, Paris magically morphs into that era, and Gil quite literally hangs out with the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway and the rest of the gang. Along the way, he falls in love with Picasso’s mistress Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, who perfectly embodies all of the beauty of Paris in any era.

The joy of this film is discovering all of this for yourself, and so I’ll refrain from saying anything else, except that Allen’s work with the Surrealists (including Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali) is brilliantly absurd. With the playful and fantastical premise, Allen is free to wrestle with large ideas in a very funny manner (not dissimilar to his work in 1985’s wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo).

Along the way, Allen takes playful jabs at the current state of Hollywood screenwriting, Tea Party dimwits, and pseudo-intellectuals alike (Michael Sheen is perfect as that guy – you’ll know the character once you see him). This is a film that assumes you’ll catch the joke about Luis Bunuel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), or the jokes about Hemingway’s speech pattern (he talks the way he writes). Allen doesn’t bother explaining them to you because he’s not interested in pandering to the lowest common denominator, and in today’s cinema of digestible fluff for the masses, that’s quite an achievement.

More importantly, it’s a wonderful movie about nostalgia, a force so strong and bittersweet that Allen has devoted an entire film to the subject. Gradually, our protagonist learns that all people feel disillusioned with their own time and place, and secretly yearn to live in the idealized past, no matter the current era. It’s Gil’s (and Allen’s) own discovery of this truth that lends Midnight in Paris its poignant insight.

For this particular Woody Allen fan who holds Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) close to my heart, I mean it when I say that Midnight in Paris is as wonderfully poetic, sad, touching and funny as anything Woody Allen has ever made.