Monday, July 15, 2013

An Introduction to You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory

Note: In April, I directed my senior thesis film, titled You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, which received an Advanced Production allotment last fall from the Tisch School of the Arts. In order to receive the allotment, I had to pitch my film to Professor Yemane Demissie and the class in November. The first part of this blog entry is comprised of my pitch for the Advanced Production Workshop class, and the second part is comprised of text from my IndieGoGo campaign to fund the film (which was launched in February).

You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory Promo Video from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

The Pitch

To say that my Intermediate Narrative film The Wheels is auto-biographical would be somewhat accurate. The specific events in the movie never happened, but the film does kind of reflect how I feel about a lot of things, and maybe it represents some of the things I wish I'd said to my father, who passed away when I was eleven from alcoholism. But interestingly, making that film became a way of understanding him, and by the end of it, I actually feel more sympathy for his character than for the son. So, I don't know, maybe that says something about why we make these films.

My new film, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, is about Charlie, a socially inept twenty-six year-old who compulsively confesses every detail of his anti-social behavior to his mother, Hazel, with whom he still lives in Harlem. When his mother asks him to finally move out of her apartment, Charlie is forced to confront his greatest fears – losing his only life witness and living in a world without his only friend and confidante.

In the latest version of my script, there is no mention made of Charlie's father, but the implication is there - if his father so easily disappeared from this world (as an older draft stated, aside from an obituary and a few pictures around the house, you'd never know he existed), what's to stop Charlie from being forgotten completely, too? Particularly when the people around him – his girlfriend, members of his family, friends who abandon him – are, as he puts it, dropping like flies? At the end of the day, the only person who knows his life story, who has been a witness for his entire life, is his mother.

The film directly addresses so many of my fears and anxieties - of dying without being remembered, the need to be liked or to impress in social situations, fear of abandonment, the necessity of archiving and preserving memory, and wanting to have someone by your side who knows your entire journey, from start to finish. Psychologically, I'm not sure I can say where all of these obsessions come from. Maybe it is from losing my father, or watching the size of my family dwindle down to just a few people. At the beginning of this semester, about two months ago, my mom's sister, my aunt, passed away, and suddenly all of my worst fears embedded within this script were reconfirmed. If anything, that’s made me feel even closer to the project, and more certain that it expresses something that truly matters to me.

The way that the character in my film, Charlie, handles the loss around him isn't exactly mature. He's a self-obsessed character if there ever was one - crying out for love and attention from friends by acting like a buffoon, and then, knowing his behavior was unacceptable, confessing his behavior to his mother and expecting forgiveness, never once thinking of her struggles.

Along with the other three films I have made at NYU - With Love, Marty (2011), The Wheels (2012) and Jake the Cinephile (2013) - this new film represents part of a cinematic biography, with each of these movies dealing with a different aspect of my obsessions. These are all stories of alienated outsiders and social pariahs, of young men with strong, rigid moral codes, and the films concern their disenfranchisement with a world that doesn't share their values. You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory is the culmination of so many of these common concerns and themes.

In With Love, Marty, Marty obsesses over a new romantic conquest every few weeks. His desperate behavior drives his friends away, and his obsessive quest for love culminates in an ill-advised trip across the city to profess his love to a young woman he barely knows. She rejects him, and his night ends in disappointment. The obsessive behavior in The Wheels is the father’s unstoppable drinking – it destroys his relationship with his son, but he can’t seem to help it.

Disappointment plays a large role in these movies. In The Wheels, the son is continually let down by his father, and by the film’s end, he has distanced himself from his dad, not allowing himself to get hurt again. In Jake the Cinephile, Jake prefers watching films to having actual relationships with human beings, because the cinema has never disappointed Jake. When Jake tries to start a relationship with a young woman, his obsessive behavior eventually drives the young woman to throw him out on his feet. To Jake, though, this is simply a re-affirmation of what he already suspected – that people are disappointing and unreliable, and the cinema is his only true friend.

More than anything, though, these four pictures all seem to revolve around characters who are forced to come to terms with their unsustainable way of living. These men are pulled away from their comfort zones and pressured by outside forces to change their way of life. More often than not, however, they eventually retreat back to their original behavior.

When I think about why I've written these pieces, I think about the scene in my Advanced film where Charlie, in an act of desperation to form a connection with someone, goes overboard and starts overwhelming his realtor friend, Jim, with his deepest insecurities and fears. Jim becomes very uncomfortable, and withdraws from the conversation. And I think maybe that's what I'm doing with my work - reaching out and hoping that someone will understand me, or at the very least understand how I feel (without alienating them, hopefully, as Charlie alienates Jim in the film).

So what's different about this new film that I want to make in Advanced Production? If this is the same self-obsessed character making the same mistakes, why make another movie about him? This is what I want to address first.

Working with Yemane in this class has made me even more aware of how my movies deal explicitly with resistance to change. This theme has evolved over the four movies in a significant way. In With Love, Marty, I do believe Marty changes, even if only by a small degree. The Wheels, however, is pretty bleak. The father reverts completely back to his original state by the end of the movie – there is no indication that he will get sober. Jake the Cinephile is trickier. Jake loses both the girl and the cinema, and at the end of the movie, he comes face-to-face with himself for the first time. Is that progress? I don’t know.

Now that I’m aware of this reoccurring theme, however, I’m inclined to do something a little different with You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory. At face value, the ending – in which Charlie moves back in with his mother after being asked to move out – would seem to represent a total retreat back to Charlie’s comfort zone. However, I’ve always viewed the ending a little differently – I think that Charlie has learned how much his mother means to him, and how scary it will one day be for him to let go of her. Rather than moving out, however, I believe Charlie deals with this fear by treating his mother differently at the end of the film, with more care and compassion. Yemane and I have talked a lot about Charlie's journey here, and it's become clear that, although you can't expect Charlie to change radically by the end of the film, maybe we can see a character who is ready to listen to his mother.

Maybe it is unhealthy for mother and son to live together for the years to come. But the end of my Advanced film poses the question, what if they truly need each other? What if Charlie learns, over time, to be there for his mother, as his mother is there for him? There’s a strange sense of comfort, if not hope, in that ending, that I don’t believe exists in the other films. With this movie, I want to work toward a new kind of ending – something that’s still true and perhaps a little melancholy, but one that also acknowledges growth and, perhaps, hope.

Inspiration and Style

I'm going to cross over here to inspiration. With all of this talk of guilt, confession, social anxiety and obsessiveness, there's one filmmaker who I really respond to over any others, and that's Martin Scorsese, who is the king of the cinema of loneliness.

The visual style of Mean Streets (1973) is a big influence on the bar scenes in my movie, not only because they are stylistically similar to what I want to achieve, but also because the beginning chapter of Mean Streets was a major influence on me when thinking of how to introduce my character in my script. In one of the opening scenes in Mean Streets, we follow the protagonist, also named Charlie (Harvey Keitel), through the bar and observe his behavior with his friends. In this scene, Scorsese introduces the camera’s subjectivity toward Charlie, and the bar is also used to represent a world of sin. Look at the way Scorsese follows Charlie steadily as he dances through the bar and makes his way onstage to dance with the woman – this is not totally dissimilar to the kind of subjective camera movement I would like to do in my scene, perhaps when my Charlie walks up to the bar and starts ranting to the bartender, doing his Jack Nicholson impression. We also learn quite a bit about Scorsese’s Charlie based on his interaction with his friends – he’s immediately separated from the rest of his friends because he insists on punishing himself, or testing the fires of hell, by holding his finger above an open flame. We then understand that Charlie exists in a more emotionally conflicted universe than the people around him. We’re introduced to both his physical world and his internal, emotional world.

There are two very different worlds in my Advanced film. The first world, of course, is the world of the bar. It will be drenched in red light – open, spacey and a kind of platform where Charlie can go wild with his behavior. The lighting and production design in this scene will emphasize that we’re looking at this bar as a kind of hell for Charlie (very similar to Mean Streets). This is the world of sin, the world of Manhattan – the world away from his mother. The bar stands in contrast to the later scenes in Harlem.

The other world, of course, is that small, cramped Harlem apartment where he lives with his mother. These two environments will stand apart drastically with the film’s production design, as the apartment will be full of furniture, scattered boxes on the floor, and dirty clothes. My hope is for the apartment to convey a real sense of confession, as if Charlie is in a dark confessional booth, defeated by his own behavior. It is almost as if Charlie, squeezed into that Harlem apartment, is forced to come to terms with his inappropriate behavior, whereas the wide-open bar is a playground, where he is free to act like a buffoon and go wild.

The Campaign – The Crew and Logistics

I'm incredibly lucky to get to work with so many people who have been on my creative team for the past three films, as well. Our incredible crew includes producers Erica Rose and Harry Tarre, cinematographer Benjamin Dewey, sound mixer and sound designer Bobb Barito, and production designer David Jaffe – many of whom did outstanding work on my previous films. (Current Jack here – take a look at Ben’s latest cinematography reel below, which features footage from You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory and The Wheels).

Ben Dewey 2013 Cinematography Reel from Benjamin Dewey on Vimeo.

The Impact

We truly believe that if you help us, you will be part of a great and powerful movie. Without the proper financing, however, the film cannot be made. The costs for film equipment, location fees, transportation, and meals for the cast and crew, among many other things, are overwhelming, and outside financial support is critical to the successful production of this film.

As I’ve been making more movies and working with slightly larger budgets, with each new film I think I’m getting closer to achieving what I want in terms of style. For one, I’m trying to incorporate more and more expressive uses of camera movement. Jake the Cinephile is really where I started dipping my toes into a more subjective, expressionistic kind of filmmaking, experimenting with a moving camera – and that’s what I’m hoping to really embrace and expand on with this new film.

My Intermediate Narrative film The Wheels won the Best Student Film award at the 2012 Metropolitan Film Festival of New York, and was an Official Selection of the 2012 Coney Island Film Festival. The film also received high praise from professors at the Tisch School of the Arts. My previous film, With Love, Marty, was an Official Selection of The 2011 Big Apple Film Festival, the 2012 World Music and Independent Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and the Emerging Filmmaker’s Series in Rochester, NY.

We already have an incredible ensemble of actors line up to star in the film, including Mike Wesolowski, who will play Charlie. Mike is a senior in the Atlantic Acting School at the Tisch School of the Arts, currently studying acting under Alec Baldwin. Mary Goggin, an extremely talented actress who has acted in films such as Little Children (2006), will be playing Hazel.

What We Need & What You Get

We need your help. As you can imagine, as a senior thesis film, the scope of the picture is far-reaching. We truly want this to be a film where New York City itself plays a key character in the story, and so we are shooting in many different locations around the city – including a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, a bar in the East Village, a restaurant to double as the Times Square Olive Garden, another restaurant in the West Village, along with several night exteriors in midtown Manhattan and Harlem.

Our budget includes fees for these extraordinary locations, additional equipment rentals, transportation costs, anamorphic camera lenses, and meals for an entire week of shooting. The shoot begins in a little more than one month, and in that time, we need to raise as much money as possible.

As I head into rehearsals with the actors and continue pre-production with my longtime collaborators, I cannot tell you how much I would appreciate it if you would consider contributing to this campaign. We will not be able to make this film without your help. And if you are among those who were so generous to contribute to Jake the Cinephile last summer, I’m so excited to share that film with you in the very near future.

We are working as hard as we can to make this picture a reality by April. Any donation you can make – however small – would be absolutely incredible. Our deadline is quickly approaching, but with your help, we know that we can make this film. On the right, we have listed the perks for contributing to this production. (Current Jack here - thank you so much for reading about my new film, and lastly, please take a look at our wonderful Steadicam operator Patrick Morgan's reel, which includes footage from You Can't Put You Arms Around A Memory):

Patrick Morgan Steadicam Reel Spring 2013 from Patrick Huw Morgan on Vimeo.