First Looks

A little taste of what we’ve been doing lately. Rebecca Morris and Willie Repoley.

Like a Grain of Sand

So, if you’ve read this blog at all (and don’t feel bad if you haven’t), you know that I’m gearing up for my third feature — a small but noble project called Rods & Cones. It’s been an interesting process of development — collaborating with the principal actors and crew to create a story in which our characters can roam free.

In the time-honored tradition of Robert Rodriguez, we crafted a tale that fit our available locations, talent and general story-world, and worked hard to fill in the details. One decision led to another and suddenly a full-fledged saga emerged — one which is hopefully as rich and compelling as any big-budgeted drama.

In a recent interview with Shane Carruth, the mastermind behind the very interesting low-budget indie Primer, he mentioned how many folks would tell him how good his movie was — for the money in which he had to make it. It was almost as if they were patting him on the back, telling him, “Not bad — for a person with developmental issues.” Carruth wisely made a decision: All of his budgets would now be a secret, because in the end it wasn’t about the money — it was about the ideas and the execution. “This thing about the budget,” he said, “I never want to hear those words again.”

What’s really interesting, though, is how much the world around us seems to rise to help us once we get going and gain momentum. A location scout with several crew members recently ended up fortuitously solving several problems at once — some with near complete randomness. It’s almost as if the world around us wants us to make a creative project come to fruition. People sense our drive and our commitment and want to help; they admire our energy and want to be involved.

But just as important is how a project accretes positive attributes like a pearl forming around a grain of sand — little by little, bit by bit. One decision leads to another, which in turn affects the whole, leading into yet another generation of decisions and positive developments. Flexibility is key, of course, as is a team of dedicated people you trust. And a little luck. But ultimately a story and a project develops that is as strong — or perhaps even stronger — than one which is toiled over in isolation for years.

In the end, it’s about the drive, the energy and the desire to get something done. “Enthusiasm,” William Blake once said, “is the all in all.”

Love and Theft

As artists, we’re constantly on the lookout for new inspiration. Sometimes that inspiration comes from other art, and sometimes it comes from odd places — an aging house cat, or a grocery store display, or a particularly terrible car commercial. But most often, it’s the artists who came before us that we look to take from and emulate.

Bob Dylan famously said, “Good artists borrow, but great artists steal.” At least he was said to say that. Most likely he stole it from someone else.

Artists do steal. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin stole from countless bluesmen. The classic early 20th Century blues belter Ma Rainey stole from the raunchy vaudevillians that came before. Bruce Springsteen stole so completely from Dylan that he made it his own. Stanley Kubrick stole from filmmaker Max Ophuls, and Stephen King stole so exhaustively from Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft that he is himself now being taken from. Paul Thomas Anderson started his career by imitating Scorsese and Altman; nowadays, with his films taking on a more elliptical and mysterious approach, he’s claimed to be taking from any number of black and white films on Turner Classic Movies.

In my own artistic career, I’ve learned it’s best to steal from the best — to go back to the first well. If you steal from a secondary source, you’re basically regurgitating already chewed food. You want primary sources … or at least as primary as you can get. Shakespeare, of course, stole from everybody in his day, but is considered a fairly reliable primary source. And James Joyce is a reliable primary source, even though he was in turn influenced and swayed by any number of writers that came before.

The point is, of course, to not rely on secondary sources of inspiration. Don’t steal from Green Day — steal from The Sex Pistols, or better yet, Muddy Waters. Don’t take from Patty Smith — or even Jim or Van Morrison … visit Rimbaud. Don’t write a Brett Easton Ellis kind of book, write a Saul Bellow kind of book, or maybe, if you’re feeling randy, even a Balzac kind of book.

Try to steal from — to be influenced by — the things that became iconic in their time. It matters. Your own voice will be so much more vital, so much more necessary, than if you look to watered-down and anemic sources of inspiration.

REDRUM

Back in the 1980’s, there were a series of murders that saw ‘REDRUM,’ the phrase from Stephen King’s (and Stanley Kubrick’s) The Shining scrawled on the walls of the crime scene. It turned out that a bunch of kids — and one in particular — had committed the murders. At the time, people tried to blame King and Kubrick for the killings, saying that the kids who did the awful deeds were influenced by this awful book. King rightfully denied it, effectively saying that if his novel had never been written, those murders would have happened anyway.

Kubrick, of course, was no stranger to this phenomenon. When A Clockwork Orange was released in England in 1971, there were a series of violent copycat incidents that caused him to pull the movie from circulation, and the film was never publicly shown in England again until recently. In a sense, Kubrick — that most uncompromising of film directors — compromised.

Of course, more recently other pop culture sensations have been blamed for wrongful acts — horror movies, Dungeons and Dragons, pornography, rock music, Barney and Friends. But it was generally agreed by the mainstream that all of these cultural curiosities are not causing anything, really; they just hold up a mirror to society. The issue seemed to be put to rest.

But now we have an anti-Muslim ‘movie’ that seems to have caused an uprising in the Middle East, and led to the murders of four Americans. As reprehensible as that ‘film’ is (I hesitate to call it that), I have to point out that it didn’t cause anything. The anger and the intolerance in those Libyan militants’ hearts caused the violence. Their actions are their own.

Once again, art and free speech remain inviolate.

Black Curtain

Despite the incredibly high level of creativity going on in Asheville, North Carolina, this city where I live is actually a pretty small town. There’s an unusually robust population of prominent writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers (cough) and craftsmen who ply their trade in this larger than life, smaller-than-you’d-think mountain burgh.

One of those artists, the musician Ben Lovett, has been known primarily as a film composer, but last year he released his excellent indie rock debut CD, called Highway Collection. Perhaps because he’s so entrenched in the film industry, he once pledged to make a short film accompanying every song on the CD. And now, those short films have been so uniformly excellent that they’ve actually taken on a life of their own. Each one is a collaboration with a new director, in a unique and uncompromising style. (You can enjoy some of this previous work here, here, and here).

I met Ben about a year or so ago in a local recording studio, and was immediately impressed; not only was his music excellent, his 12 minute film Ghost of Old Highways was a brilliant example of compelling and gorgeous indie filmmaking, North Carolina-style. In other words, right up my alley. So I let him know if he needed another collaborator, I was willing.

He took me up on it. Recently, we completed shooting on Black Curtain, his next magnum opus. Over the winter, I pitched him an idea — a series of ideas, really — that can kinda be summed up as Edward Gorey meets Eyes Wide Shut. Set in the Edwardian Age (not the 1920’s as it may seem, but the 1910’s — the age of the Titanic), my concept revolved around spiritualism and seances, and elegant people who become more and more depraved the more you look at them. There’s a sickness there, a dark underbelly that contrasts and makes all the elegance come alive. (You can see even one of the images from my pitch here.)

Ben took those initial concepts and ran with them, creating a twisted narrative that’s both heartwarming and sinister at the same time. As we set about creating this production, it became bigger and bigger; soon we had a cast of close to 100 people, with a crew of 60-something folks, mixed with both Asheville veterans like Producer Kelly Denson, Production Designer Shane Meador and Art Director Christi Whitely, and a full crew from Atlanta, led by Director of Photography J. Christopher Campbell.

For our location, we were lucky enough to secure the Masonic Temple here in Asheville — a 100 year old building that, thanks to the Mason’s somewhat secretive nature, had been closed for many decades to outsiders, and was thus preserved as neatly as a time capsule. Gloriously eccentric, with the original furniture and lighting fixtures still in place, the building was perfect for our needs.

The production itself was surreal. Huge and complex, with teams of makeup and wardrobe personnel, the halls of the entire building were busy with costumed extras and technical crew carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars of high tech film equipment up and down the antique stairs. One bleary early morning I found myself approving various young women who were eager to get naked for our camera.

The result will be a gloriously elaborate and eccentric short film that will fit in nicely with the work Ben has previously done.

Watching all of this unfold, I got that visceral thrill that writer-directors experience when the quiet images that they formed in their heads — often sitting alone in an office or spare bedroom, staring at a blank wall — suddenly come to life around them. You can see the excitement in the performers’ and the crew members’ eyes. There’s no feeling like it. This is why we make movies.

My Favorite Reads, #1

It’s become a recent meme to ask writers, filmmakers, artistic types, etc., their favorite books, movies, records, and so on. I’ve even had a few requests for some of my own. So in response, here’s the first installment of My Favorite Reads.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. Called ‘literature for fantasy geeks,’ The Magicians attempts to fill that odd niche between Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Dungeons and Dragons. It almost succeeds. Concerning a young man in modern NYC who’s chosen to attend a secret school for magicians, it’s as much about the pain of growing up as it is about learning to cast spells. It also illuminates how the real world is just as fraught with mystery and danger as the magical one in which we hope to escape.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Which literate Southerner has not read — and come to terms with — Flannery? Funnier than Faulkner, darker than Welty, a spiritual ancestor to artists as diverse as David Lynch, Bruce Springsteen and every so-called ‘Southern Writer’ since, O’Connor is the queen when it comes to unsentimental, semi-grotesque small town clarity. Though she writes about the 1950’s provincial South, somehow she’s still relevant, perhaps because she always saw things not as they seem to be, but as they are.

Elric of Melnibone, by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock has been called the best post-war British fantasist, and this is his response to what he saw as Tolkien’s too-chaste good guys and too-swarthy bad guys. Moorcock’s Elric is a weary servant of Chaos, a self-deposed Emperor of a sick and depraved kingdom who wreaks havoc on his and his loved ones’ lives. Inventive, twisted and tragic, the Elric books are full of sixties psychedelia and the single coolest artifact in all of fantasy literature, the malevolent black sword Stormbringer.

Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. Winner of the World Fantasy Award in 1985, this novel details a strange old forest outside Herefordshire, England which is a lot larger and a lot more mysterious than it seems. Once a person is able to ‘get inside’ the wood, the rules of physics change, and history (both real and mythical) is a lot closer than you realize. Told in simple, elemental language, the true strangeness of the story is only gradually revealed, and the ending is perhaps one of my favorite codas of all time. Where’s the movie?

This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. A memoir of growing up under a sociopath in rural Washington, Wolff’s writing is so elegant and so simple that practically any tale composed in this manner would have been riveting. As it is, Wolff’s story of a boy’s coming of age under great hardship is so well-written that when I finished it and moved on to another book, it felt like a car leaving a well-tended interstate and suddenly careening off onto a rutted dirt road. Amazing and beautiful.

Rotters, by Daniel Kraus. Looking for a good young adult novel mainly just to see what the genre is like, I stumbled across this odd tale and couldn’t put it down. I’m surprised that’s it’s even considered YA, because it’s so dark it rivals pretty much anything I’ve ever read by Stephen King. Utterly unpredictable, and depicting a fascinating and richly-imagined subculture of morbid grave robbers, the book is a horror story told by a child. You won’t forget the images the book forces upon you. Even when you try.

Greenpeace

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from an old friend. A talented documentarian who’d lived near Asheville years ago, she’d since moved to Washington DC, and had become one Greenpeace’s head video producers. She couldn’t tell me what the call was about — cell phones aren’t secure enough, I was informed — so we set up a Skype meeting a few days later (it seems Skype is indeed encrypted and secure).

I was asked to be a part of a team making a video for Greenpeace. They were planning an event in Asheville where they would sneak into a local Progress Energy power facility, climb the unusually enormous stacks, and hang a banner protesting the fact that this coal plant used mountaintop removal coal. Progress Energy had done a very good job convincing the local community (I was among them) that the plant was one of the cleanest in the nation. Progress had installed ‘scrubbers’ on the stacks that made them emit primarily steam, but what they weren’t telling us is that the pollutants were being directed into onsite ‘coal ash ponds’ instead of the sky. A fair trade, I guess.

Greenpeace’s primary plan was for 16 activists to storm the plant and break into teams. One team would climb the coal conveyor belt, stopping it, and hang a banner. The more daring team would climb the 407 foot tall tower and hang a huge banner that was visible from the nearby highway.

I was to be positioned with the media team and the local news folks, and give Greenpeace the sort of ENG footage that would fold in well to a video press release. It would be a long day, I was assured. The activists would undoubtedly be arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespassing, so it was a waiting game how far they would get before the party was over.

We arrived before sunrise, while the activists were slipping inside the facility. There was lots of time to talk to the other Greenpeace folks, who I found to be spirited, knowledgeable and extremely polite. I consider myself a fairly informed individual, but these guys were in another class — they’d devoted their lives to changing the world. I quickly realized it was best to just soak it all in — their internal culture was very specific and quite fascinating. It was time to be a fly on the wall.

To make use of several ‘news cycles,’ the climbers had plans to spend the night up on the tower (it was well below freezing), but their bedrolls were apprehended in the rush, so the shoot was shorter than it was hoped.

After everyone was brought in, I was asked to go to the local detention facility where the climbers were being processed, and interview them as they came out. They’d been on a real adventure, and you could see the light in their eyes. They were ebullient — risking death, incarceration and civil disobedience (which is harder than it sounds) in order to speak out on principal. To say I admire them is an under-statement. I realized I looked up to them — indeed, the entire Greenpeace team did. They were heroes.

That night I went back to their rented house for the after party. A rural mansion fit for a rock star was crowded with 40-odd Greenpeace members eating Thai food and celebrating their victory. Though I was tired, I was happy to be there, and to have been a part of it.

One of the questions I ask myself before I accept a video job is, Will the time be well spent? Is it worth it? In this case I can answer yes. Yes, it was.

Underhill Rose

Underhill Rose is a North Carolina-based country soul band comprised of three gifted women: Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed, and Salley Williamson. Incredibly talented, fun and uncommonly cool, these chicks can write, sing and play with amazing grace.

I was surprised when they asked me to direct their first professional video (on the recommendation of the incredible rock photographer Sandlin Gaither). At first I was a little hesitant — I knew we had few resources, and musicians this good can often be so wrapped up in themselves and their own schtick that it wouldn’t have been fun. But these women were so nice, so charming, so real that I had to say yes, even though I knew we had hardly any tools and toys to work with beyond basic camera equipment and our own good intentions.

The song is called “Who Brought The Sun,” of course, and so I set about creating a whole shooting palette and motif built around the sun — sun flares, coronas, shadows, sunsets and so on. And of course the day of the shoot turned out to be completely overcast, not a shred of actual sun in the sky, not a shadow to be found down below.

But we went out to a field in Western North Carolina near the campus of Warren Wilson College, and shot a video in about two hours. With Aaron Morrell doing the Director of Photography duties and myself as Director, we captured several performances with two Canon 7D’s as the sun went down behind a ceiling of clouds.

Recently, the video premiered in Asheville, and the girls played a show. Aaron took the photographs below. I drank beer. I really love my job.



I’m pretty okay with cloudy days now.

Organization


I’ve been working on my novel lately (yes, it’s going very well, thank you) and have mainly managed to avoid the bogged down feeling writers sometimes get when they take on a large project. My first novel, the unpublished Harvestman, suffered from that fate — it took me years to compose it, primarily because the task was so big that often I just didn’t know what happened next.

This is similar to the problem screenwriters run into when they wade into Act II of a script. There’s so much white space up ahead that it’s daunting, and that fear (the only thing I can call it) can very easily shut your creativity down. And you get stuck.

So I did some research and found Scrivener’s, a software tool that helps writers get organized. Notes, storyboards, images, web links, et cetera are all easily categorized and filed away, so they’re always close at hand. Having the ability to access all that info (rather than a long, messy document with all sorts of formats and files) really does help in the writing process. It allows one’s (okay, my) imagination to bloom, to work unfettered of the worry of organization.

Disciplined idea management, I’ve learned, is key; the last thing a writer needs is to be unable to access or reach a certain place in the imagination just because she can’t find it, or heaven forbid, forgets about it. These are castles in the sky we’re building — one chain of conceptual logic depending upon another, and to lose potentiality just because we weren’t able to keep all of the ideas distinct while yet supporting each other is unacceptable.

So, I’m not trying to make a commercial for Scrivener’s here. Rather, I’m hoping to highlight the value of keeping good — and well organized — notes. It’s like a map — good to have a well-presented, realistic view of where you are, and where you’re going.