A Film By … Lotsa People

by John CampbellFor better or worse, just as the proscenium arch is often seen as a writer’s medium, film is often seen as a director’s medium. The auteur theory posits that in the best films often there is one intelligence, one guiding individual who makes the majority of the decisions and is essentially responsible for the film’s … well, everything. Think Godard, Hitchcock, Kurosawa.

That theory is complete bullshit.

In movies you’ll sometimes see the title, followed by the oft-repeated words, ‘A Film by’ so and so. I can’t think of a more pure form of masturbation aside from just going into the bathroom alone and just making it happen. There are fewer attempts at communication that have less meaning. Most any live-action movie not directed by the weirdly-obsessive Stanley Kubrick is actually a film made by at least several, if not many, people. Countless decisions (thousands?) are made by the participants, only some of which are performed by the director. The rest are made by the so-called ‘crew’ — the ones who don’t get ‘a film by” next to their name.

These are the wardrobe folks, the stunt guys, the hair people, the cameramen — who alone make any number of in-the-moment decisions that account for the ‘look’ of the film. And this does not include the incredibly important — even globally crucial (in film terms)– contributions of the writer.

Its tragic that writers often get the short shrift in film, because as we all know, without a script there is no movie. Without the ideas behind the images, there’s no story. Without a story there’s no content. Filmmakers like Ridley Scott, David Fincher, even Tim Burton — incredibly talented directors who are often claimed as visionaries — don’t write their own scripts. The projects are essentially originated by someone else. The ideas come from elsewhere. Auteurs? Not even close.

Writer-directors like Kevin Smith or Paul Thomas Anderson are probably closer to auteurs, though Smith famously eschews the ‘a film by’ credit as well. He recognizes that even the ‘cable-pullers’ (as he calls them) contribute to a film.  PTA does include the ‘A film by’ tag on his movies, but where does that leave his Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit?  Was PTA responsible for that wonderful, almost hallucinogenic imagery that went along with There Will Be Blood?  Did he choose the F-stops and the lenses and the way the afternoon sun illuminated the dust just so?  Probably not.  Its fair to say that PTA didn’t shoot the film himself, thus accepting help from another creative contributor.  Thus ‘A film by PTA’ is simply a misnomer. Is Inglorious Basterds ‘a film by’ Quentin Tarantino?  Where does that leave the sublime Christoph Waltz, not to mention my buddy Manny Millar, who created Waltz’s hairstyle?

At best, directors guide, act as a stylistic mentor or point the right way for the countless craftsmen on a team to follow.  But hardly any micromanage so much as to make every decision.  Even Steven Soderbergh, the rare director who lights and shoots his own movies, must rely on countless others to make choices about how their own departments should run smoothly.  Even micro-budget movies (which I know all-too well) are full of decisions being made by the few other filmmakers on staff.  The actors alone are making countless on-the-fly decisions which ripple out to affect the entire movie.

Few art-forms are as collaborative as film.  That’s why most filmmakers like it — if we were truly interested in only our own vision, we’d be writers, who actually do chase a singular vision in their heads.  The rest is self-aggrandizement, ego and self-promotion.  The rest is, as John Campbell’s artwork at the head of this column so succinctly explains, a great big ‘Look at me.’

Day Job

Here’s a fun little video teaser I created for The US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS for short. I was hired by a Western North Carolina production company to create a video about Native American and Alaska native children — specifically, children’s health care. Shot here in WNC and in California (Hoopa Valley, up near Eureka) on the venerable old HVX200. Additional camera by Rod Murphy.

On Making a Southern Indie

The American South is the only part of the US that has officially lost a war.

deliv01Well, okay, prior to Vietnam, of course … and the present hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. But believe it or not, the Civil War, fought a hundred and fifty years ago, still haunts the American South and gives it, among other things, a huge cultural chip on its shoulder and an outsider’s hunger for legitimacy.

That makes the South an odd place to practice the art of film. The gorgeous landscapes, the vast, incredible history, the rich and varied subcultures notwithstanding, feature films made about the American South are usually created by people who come in from ‘Fly-to Country.’ Generally, these crews arrive from New York or LA, set up in the most typical locations, the actors adopt ridiculous accents, and the director says ‘Action!’

I’m exaggerating, of course, but it does sometimes seem just that bad. Like any foreign occupation, these crews arrive with a sense of superiority and more than a handful of preconceived notions, most of which are romanticized versions of something they read in a Flannery O’Connor short story (or worse, saw in a movie influenced third-hand by a Flannery O’Connor short story). Like any region, the real American South is much more complex and less exotic than the idealized version plodding around in peoples’ heads.

I have directed several ‘Southern’ films. My next movie, a supernatural thriller called The Mourning Portrait (written with Patrick Greene) will be produced by the excellent folks at Belladonna Productions and has been in development for some time. Thankfully, no one involved has brought up ‘The Accent.’ A period piece, there will be trouble enough finding the proper locations and vehicles and such; worries about visual cliches and dropping the ‘G’s at the end of words are gladly not part of my challenges.

On film, for better or worse, the South has been often fetishized into a ghost of itself – either the rural lowclass drag of gun racks and trucker hats, or the steamy steel magnolia high rises of cities like Hotlanta. Perhaps the most egregious sin perpetrated on the South in film is the dreaded ‘Southern Accent.’ Even the best actors are not immune: Much as I admire the late Natasha Richardson, her dialect in Nell seems to be just one stretched, flattened vowel away from slipping into parody. Other actors sometimes fare better – usually the British or Australians (Cate Blanchet in Billy Bob Thornton’s The Gift is still the best southern accent this writer has ever heard).

Not to say there haven’t been great filmmakers from the South. Florida’s Victor Nunez is an example of a regionalist that gets it absolutely right – the shifting, prismatic qualities that make up a place. His Ruby in Paradise, or Ulee’s Gold, beautifully capture the Florida of its time without being overt about it. It’s just another movie set in another well-drawn place. Billy Bob’s Slingblade feels pretty right, too. Of course, he’s from Arkansas.

Arkansas’ David Gordon Green has lived in the South, and gets it okay – his George Washington was startling precisely because it showed black kids lounging around in the Winston-Salem sun without relying on a hip hop soundtrack. Jody Hill’s East Bound and Down (the first season, anyway) got the New South absolutely right – the strip malls, the car lots, the half-empty, suburban McMansions wilting in the North Carolina heat. Memphis’ Craig Brewer did okay with Hustle and Flow – the accents were a bit chewy, but the locations were right on.

Jim’ Jarmusch’s Mystery Train tried to get Memphis right, but ended up just mythologizing it. Which is okay, as long as we don’t pretend that that’s what Memphis is really like (same goes for New Orleans and Jarmusch’s Down By Law.) A better Memphis filmmaker may be Kentucker Audley, whose post-mumblecore Open Five just premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival. From what I’ve seen, Open Five looks to be stunningly authentic. And Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories also got its regionalism right, as well.

Paul Thomas Anderson explored the San Fernando Valley in several films – does that make him a regionalist? What about Scorsese and his fascination with Little Italy? (His Cape Fear – and the venerable DeNiro – are among the Southern Accent Worst Offenders.) This year’s indie darling Winter’s Bone takes place in the Ozarks, but can’t it also have taken place in rural Wisconsin? Frozen River was memorably placed in upstate New York – but it would have been just as effective unfurling near the Lummi peninsula on the Washington/Canadian border.

So my task on The Mourning Portrait is to make a believable Southern film … without being too Southern. For a time, we discussed shooting The Mourning Portrait on the other end of the Appalachian chain – up in Nova Scotia. The mountains are different there – smaller, rounder, odder. But there’s a ghostliness to the landscape and the architecture was utterly magical, and I knew right away that it would work. The film’s region would technically have changed, but the essence would have remained the same. We may have lost some of those lazy cultural touchstones – banjos, people talking about hollers and ‘cricks’ – but that’s not an entirely bad thing.

I was happy to consider placing my erstwhile Appalachian film in another locale, because I know that in general, film — perhaps the most purely escapist art-form — is excellent at pulling viewers in and allowing them to live vicariously in another situation. So to explore exotic locales and take people to places they’ve never before been to – that’s part of the gift of movies. It could be shot in Denmark and still have the same power, right?

And let’s not pretend that other regions in the US – whether the dusty, coyote and harmonica-haunted Southwest, the hip-hop cops and barrio gangs of LA, the blues clubs and cold weather badges of the Second City – are immune to cliché. It happens everywhere.

So it’ll be okay if people call The Mourning Portrait a Southern film. That’s cool with me. But really, it’s just a movie that takes place in a place. Just like every good movie.

And anyway, where do you live?

Writing Violence

rvMany writers have found a weird correlation between writing about violent acts, and experiencing violent acts. Some people can watch violent movies for hours and go play with their kids on the playground, while others of us end up disturbed and bothered the rest of the day. The same thing happens, I’ve found, when a writer like myself actually sits down to imagine, then write on paper (virtual or otherwise) a violent scene.

I’m writing a script now about a very disturbed group of people. Not long ago I wrote a key turning point scene and had a really bad day because of it. Part of that was because, in conceiving it, I had to go to my own dark side and dig these things out from my own psyche. I had to live through the dark moments before I could express them to the reader and viewer.

Stephen King has often spoken about writing scary scenes and how they gave him (often wonderful) chills. I wonder how he felt after writing some of his ultra-violence, like Cell or Survivor Type. Is he bothered for the rest of the day? Was Tarantino giggling during the writing and filming of the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs? What about Romero? Was all that blood spilling (and sinew-chewing) fun to create in his movies? I suspect so, but there’s a part of me that cringes when I think about the sheer horror of what he’s creating. It must be really hard to walk away from something like that unmarked. What about Cormac MacCarthy and The Coen Brothers? Were the writing and filming of No Country for Old Men‘s darkest scenes easily accomplished?

I remember an interview with Stephen King (yes, I love him; he’s pretty much a constant presence in my household) where someone asked him about the glory of his own imagination. He agreed that it was cool, but it was horrible, too. Whenever he worried, for instance, about one of his children in a car accident, he not only saw the crumpled car, he saw the kid, in bloody detail — wasted and devoured by metal. Imagination is great, he asserted, but it’s terrible, too.

When I compose my own ultra violent scene(s), my adrenaline pumps, my heart rate is up, and I feel literally awful. I like my characters. I want them to succeed. I want the bad guys to lose. But when things work out the other way, I can’t imagine other writers are gleeful, or at the very least, unmoved by those terrible events. Granted, as storytellers, we do what we have to do to tell the stories we want to tell, but that doesn’t mean we don’t suffer for at least a little while afterwards.

Creative summer storms

revisiting-nebraska-splashWe all usually look up to and model after our own heroes. It’s a timeworn way to get things done — Like what he did? Do the same thing!

As all my buddies know, I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. One of the things I like best about Springsteen is that he’s always been a very intuitive artist, able to pick up on his own faint creative signals to get busy making new work. Nebraska was a part of this, as were several other of his major works — quick projects that blew up like a summer storm while he was supposedly toiling away at a longer-term project.

clockworkIt happened to Kubrick, too — A Clockwork Orange was a quickie movie meant to clear his palette after he tried to get Napoleon up and running and was unable to. He seemed to need a fall-back project that, instead of the years of pre-production that he had spent on Napoleon, just came together like melted butter in the bottom of a pan. And it did.

That happens to me quite a bit, too — I’ll be toiling away on some ‘masterpiece’ that I’ve been writing for years, then another project comes in, blows through really quickly, gets produced, shot and finished …. all the while the so-called ‘masterpiece’ just keeps getting more and more laborious … My first film Sinkhole was a fall-back project after another larger movie didn’t go. Alison was a quickie movie that came through and all I had to do was listen and take notes. It practically shot itself.

What is it about these summer storm projects, these back-door creative endeavors, that make them easier and quicker to get finished? Some of these summer storms are true masterpieces — Clockwork and Nebraska among them. Is it the lack of the weight of expectations that frees one up to do the job? Is it the lack of second-guessing that makes the project soar so high? Is it luck? Is it the fact that often these projects are ‘perfect storms’ of happenstance and creativity?

My answer is ‘All of the Above.’ Second-guessing and over-analyzing really do kill creativity. As do too many expectations of where your project will lead. Sometimes the creativity flows better if you don’t really know where you’re going … and you don’t care, either.

The trick is to listen to these voices, and let the projects steer you where they may. And not every summer storm project will blow you away — sometimes you get a dud, and sometimes you end up with Nebraska. But if you never listen to the possibilities, you won’t ever learn where they may take you …