Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing War & Peace in Bumper Cars # 1: The Rhyme and Reason for Jealous Jerzy

(This will be, I hope, an on-going blog series within the Cinetarium about filmmaking, inspired by a quote from Stanley Kubrick: "Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write 'War and Peace' in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.")

Now that you've seen the Jealous Jerzy short film trailer, you might be asking 'what gives? I came here to the Cinetarium for movie reviews! I want my metaphorical money back!'

Well, every so often, as in the next few weeks, I got to get my pimping-my-movie going, as my short film is getting its world-premiere screening at the Queens World Film Festival in Jackson Heights, NY!  It's playing March 5th 12 PM at the Jackson Heights Cinema 1,2,3 in JH, and it'll be playing before another feature film there at the festival.

It's exciting times, and I hope to get as many people as possible there.

But what is Jealous Jerzy?  It's a short film, of course, but what of it?  How did it come into being?

I think that one of the things is that I had not made a dramatic effort in a while.  I had just come off doing a comedy, a successful one all things considered, called Lines of Glory, and felt I needed a change of pace.  I also had some ideas about the nature of jealousy and more-over the nature of projection: how we as people end up projecting our own fears and insecurities and hate on to those around us, especially those we're closest with.  Some may do it in subtle ways, and others may just have it consume them from time to time, based on a look or a gesture or a conversation.  But is there more than meets the eye to a person?  How much do we really know about the other person in our lives, even if we love him/her, if we don't know ourselves well enough?

Following on the kind of dramatic tone that I had with my first short film, Infidelio (now on Vimeo finally btw), I wrote the script, but this time in a change of pace from strict realism as I had in that film (save for some trickster-stuff being that it was my first short film and wanted to move the camera a bit) this would be more stream-of-consciousness.  The protagonist is doing a pretty mundane activity, walking to get some Chinese food, but he does two things that sets off the drama of the piece: 1) what's in his mind that keeps him second-guessing himself as he walks along, and 2) what he leaves behind on a computer screen for his girlfriend to find, which is something not so much a twist but a carefully staged reveal.

The reveal: Jerzy and Thora are from the hood and up to no good!
So most of the film is a subjective experience, one where a character has this worst-case-scenario thing going on.  Maybe his girlfriend Thora did cheat with her boss.  Most likely, not.  The inspiration if I can pinpoint it to one source would be in Eyes Wide Shut.  While under different circumstances than her- in Kubrick's film Tom Cruise's doctor has no reason to suspect his wife of infidelity or basic mistrust until she unloads a story of feeling hot for a sailor on vacation, so he imagines what she might have been doing with him as he walks around the streets of NYC at night - it's a similar motif.  I may have taken it a step darker in that Jerzy has no exact reason given (then again it's a short film, only so much time to reveal such things) to suspect Thora.  But then again, do any of us?  But it happens, even, I'd bet, people like Ossie and Harriet or the Beaver-Cleavers or Ronald Regan.

I worked that into being the narrative structure, yet I like to think of the script, and the subsequent film, more like music.  It moves along to a rhythm, bodies move and punctuate one another (so to speak) in an office where it's supposedly after hours- Terry, the boss, lowers the blinds as Thora is at her desk in a tight white blouse- and there is no one around.  My cinematographer and I shot this regularly, but then in post production went into the color correction to make sure that it was with a slight tint of orange.  A love for Vittorio Storaro's stylistic preference for it, maybe, but more than that it was to emphasize, but not so over-the-top as, say, Kubrick did with his full-on blue tint of imagined sex scenes in EWS.  The intention is for a dream-like affectation of lust, and this given further emphasis with slow-motion (but not super-slow, we cranked the speed just slightly away from 24fps so that it's like half-slow-mo).

and sometimes some odd-ass angles like this
The shoot itself went over quite well; we had to move it down to a couple of weeks past the original intended start-date, yet everything came together quite quickly, I should add, having written the first draft near the end of January of last year and then shooting it in the first weekend of March.  It was a fine cast, with perennial Whiplash film favorite Zack Abramowitz in the lead (also doubling as producer), plus Audrey Lorea, found after the usual route of read-throughs with actresses.

Why her is quite simple: Audrey is that damn-good of an actress for a role that requires some ambiguity, even near the end when Thora's rightfully pissed, and a certain look for the part.  Not to be shallow, but as a director you do have to cast for a certain look for a role.  Sometimes talent can supersede that, but really the way an actor looks, how reaction in the face makes its mark, some improvisation, and how he/she will look in relation to how you pictured it in the script, are all big factors.  Frankly, I couldn't have cast someone who was, how shall I say, "homely"(?), but at the same time not super-attractive.  It's a delicate balance as it's a face and attitude and (yes) body that would correspond with what Jerzy is feeling: in love but protective, and who would be with a guy like Jerzy.  In other words: natural.

And from Zack what I looked for was something a little different; after so much comedy in the past couple of years, between a webseries (Losers) and a short film collaboration with myself (L.O.G.), I wanted him to flex some dramatic muscles.  Thankfully he was not only up to the challenge, when I sent him the script saying simply "just take a look, if you'd like a part let me know" (I could have equally, frankly, seen him in the part of Terry the boss as well), he jumped at the chance to play Jerzy.  Perhaps it was a personal connection to the ideas or the character, or just wanting to work with SuchaSwellGuy(TM) again.  But it was just a case of everything clicking.  And subsequently the actor hired for Terry, a mostly comedic actor with awesome chops (not mutton chops, just like good talent and skills and timing), John Holloway, rounded up the cast as the one who is given just a little character - "Take a card, take a few, hand em out, spread the word" (wink) - and rolls the story forward.

On top of this the technical side of things were exciting and, for me anyway, ambitious: access via the sound operator (and, ultimately, co-executive producer) to an HVX camera, which is a cut above my usually dependable DVX camera, with picture quality that is practically 35mm-film worthy (and indeed we also had access to a plethora of lenses for the camera), some cool features despite being a big beast, and a damn good DP to do it.  I merely need to direct you to his cinematography reel for the man's full credentials, but if anything he was probably my closest collaborator in terms of bringing the vision to total fruition.  With a good array of lights and lenses, complex but workable ideas on how to move the camera and create some dream-like poses, and one moment in particular inside the Chinese restaurant that was all his own idea (the camera 'wipe' from down the papers and up into the 'imagined' scene), this was the clincher.

So, for two days and two nights we shot - not all night, mind you, we all had to get back to bed at some point - and it was sometimes hectic.  At one point the location for the front porch of Terry's house fell through, and so my house's front porch had to double, luckily we hadn't yet shot there, so the backyard could double as Jerzy's place, with a great flood-lamp at the ready.  At another point as Jerzy went to town at Terry with the fight scene and the "WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!" line, which was shot in multiple takes, a neighbor ultimately came outside and yelled "HEY! We're calling the cops!!"  To which Zack, bless him, responded practically in character "Hey, we're makin a movie here!"  If he'd become Jimmy Smitts that would've been the end of it.  But it was 9:30 PM on a Sunday night, some kids somewhere were sleeping, so we quieted down... somewhat.

Punch-Drunk Acting 101
Sometimes, as with most films, shorts, commercials, etc, there was waiting around.  Sometimes the schedule fell behind for this reason or that, in hindsight no one's total fault though in the moment a frustration close to root canal (Time is be the great enemy, Chaplin might've written or something).  Sometimes a technical glitch stalled things.  Sometimes an actor just needed a few moments to get in the right mood.  At another point the actors playing Thora and Terry went off for an hour to just talk and get-to-know-you stuff so they could get to the sex scene.

It also carried some surreal quality as I was shooting it at my very office (at one point my driving instructor, I run a driving school in the day-time on weekdays, came by just to grab a sandwich, and actors may have been in just their underwear at this point).  But it was also always professional, albeit the lot of 'That's-What-She-Said' jokes flying and other things such as 'Harry S. Plinkett' references to the Red Letter Media reviews.  There were more pizza rolls in spirit there than on any other film production that day.

But where am I getting at?  The production itself - it wrapped after a hectic two days and two nights, and yet everything needed was gotten.  Then came the task of editing.  Unfortunately there was one misstep, my fault, which was that the HVX had a system where the footage was saved on the camera on little cards which one had to upload quickly on to harddrives (or a hard-drive) since the little cards were not so sustainable as to be able to hold on to them for very long, especially as they weren't mine as well as the camera.  The original editor, bless him (gotta stop saying that), was cool as hell about the process and I looked forward to working with him and still do in the future, but it didn't work out just due to the technical shit of having a hard-drive set for a certain editing system for the moment, and then not working with another (DAMN YOU FCP!!!)

Zack to Editing System: ZACK SMASH!
That, too, worked out eventually, as I reconnected with an old friend, and the editing on that took several weeks.  Oddly enough I might have done more editing than he actually did (and you know who you are out there), yet he still deserves all of the credit for setting the right tempo and mood, editing some key scenes, and teaching me the basics of how to edit again after not doing it for five years.  It was what true collaboration is about, doing some experiments, trying others, criticizing helpfully and discarding some material altogether (i.e. my second unit crew shot loads of footage for the fight scene on the porch, all but one or two shots were discarded for the simplicity).  And finding some nuggets of cinematic gold.  He also helped me with my current company logo, which will now be put before all Whiplash films and shorts.

The film is done, and now on the festival tour (or trying to be, it's hard out there for a short film in a climate where it's ever so easy to make them, much more so than feature films).  This one in March is the first, then the next one is in May.  It's one of the most exciting times for me as a filmmaker, as the process still keeps rolling along.  Despite having a finished short and a wonderful trailer for it (and now in two versions, one with music featuring Angelo Badalamenti's "The Pink Room" off of the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me soundtrack, and another with a blues song, one "approved" for Youtube, by John Lee Hooker), it still is a process, getting it out there, trying to find its audience.  That is the unspoken 'fourth' part of filmmaking after writing, shooting and editing is what comes with the audience, when you can sit down with them or, in the more marginal sense, when they sit down and watch it at their computer or, hopefully one day, on their DVD players.  And I hope that keeps going on throughout this year.

Tales from the Filmmaker... may continue at another scheduled time.  Till then, happy watching. :)

PS: Can't neglect the score to the film by Rob Sbar, and how meeting him via Indie Film Nights (a networking group, yes, who knew those things worked!) made for a fruitful collaboration that is just stunning.  The guy is basically a rock star, but can do most music scores one can think of.  And his name is Rob Sbar, how cool is that?  Saying his name even brings to mind going to a corner bar owned by Rob, hanging behind the barstool and smoking big cigars.  Or something like that.

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