Hey folks, Harry here... that poor sequined wearing sap sipping swill watching an endless run of amateur and professional-hopefuls' first films... and loving every minute of his assignment is MASSAWYRM. I see the M-man from time to time in Austin... his eyes sometimes bleeding... sometimes laughing... sometimes... well... due to the authorities in this great country I can't comment upon his state sometimes... but be sure of one thing... Those animals on the side of the road? NOT ALWAYS ROADKILL!!! Well, the man has to... consume more than just video and dv right? I didn't think so either, but apparently flesh is needed to keep the Massawyrm active.... sad... here's this week's look at the films that deserve to be looked at, but that noone really has yet. ENJOY....
Hola all. Everyone's favorite chain-smoking, Dr. Pepper swilling, cloned-from-DNA-found-on-the-Shroud-of-Turin independent film reviewer here for my weekly installment of undistributed goodness. That's right, after a week of films at the theatre, I settled in for an uninterrupted marathon of indie goodness (and pain, oh yes pain) beginning Friday night and ending Sunday Night just in time for my posting deadline. Eating in front of the tube, I managed to work my way through a solid 20 films, taking breaks only to smoke outside and digest each film, and of course the required amount of sleep as not to think some of this before me was but a lucid, waking dream sent from the planet Xorgrath in an attempt to test the limits of Human mental stability.
And, well, I had an epiphany. Suddenly I understood. My spirit animal, The Great Thunderwyrm of White Sands, appeared before me and took me to a whole new level of understanding within the concepts of independent filmmaking. I was enlightened and further understood the nature of the beast I will be wrestling with for the term of my stay here at AICN. My spirit quest took me from the realm of the truly tainted cinema, steeped in cliche and goals unattainable on modest budgets to the realm of the indie elite, filmmakers boldly rushing forward with embarrassing budgets and what is considered by most to be inferior equipment and managing to churn out some excellent examples of art.
I've often wondered what, exactly, differentiated a bad film, a good film and a great film as far as independents are concerned. Why do I love one film and hate another, even when essentially, they are the same film. Finally, I've found my answer, there on my bedroom floor in the stacks of films sent my way. And now I'd like to share that answer, and the films that brought me to this realization, with you.
Concept. The answer lies within the concept. Not necessarily the concept of the film per se, but the filmmakers concept of what they are trying to attain with the film and their concept of what they can do with the equipment and funds they have. Seems simple enough, right? Most of you are probably thinking, "Christ in a bucket, Massawyrm! You didn't know that?" No. I knew that, but it wasn't until now that I realized what it took to overcome that. What little bit of information can change the path of a filmmakers career forever, if only someone told him/her. And now, for you indie filmmakers busting your hump out there, this is for you: Massawyrm's Abridged Guide to Not Sucking Ass.
First I'd like to speak about the various mediums with which the Indie film community has to work with now. The four contenders are DV (digital video), HD (high definition video), 16mm film and of course the ever popular, and enormously expensive, 35mm film. For most Indies, 35mm is out. It's just too god damned expensive. So the decision then falls on one of the other three. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, which every filmmaker knows, but what is not commonly said is that each medium is perfectly viable, and yes, commercially viable. If done and marketed correctly.
I'd say a good half of the tapes I receive are DV alone. But most of what I receive comes with a cover letter saying something to the effect of "well, we had no budget, so we shot on DV. We hope to one day make a real film when we can afford 16mm or 35mm." And therein lies the first mistake. When you make a film on DV or HD and you treat it like a film on DV or HD, you will most likely fail. Why? Because you have set yourself up to think "I have a video camera on my shoulder, and this is how you use a video camera." Just because you are using a DV camera, does not mean you have to shoot from your shoulder, or shake it about like you're either channeling Lars Von Trier or having an epileptic seizure. The great thing about handheld DV cameras is that they go anywhere, and I mean ANYWHERE.
When Spike Lee shot Bamboozled, he often used up to nine cameras at once to shoot a take. Okay so you have a DV camera. Does anyone else you know have one? Hell, if you're shooting with fellow film students, you're bound to have access to at least 2 or 3. Set the cameras up all over. Have a guy on a ladder for a crane shot (ala Rodriguez). Tape one to a setpiece, like a desk, pointed up at the actor (ala Bamboozled). When you operate with multiple cameras at once and you get that PERFECT take, you then have your multiple angles to cut back and forth from. One long, perfect take with multiple cameras can be edited together and make the entire scene, without driving the editor mad from trying to match up movements and vocal tracks. This is something that can't REALLY be done on low budget films using 16 or 35, because the cameras and film are way too expensive and not readily available. But with DV, its totally viable.
No, DV, does not look the same as Film. Not at first. You see, the great thing about DV is the editing potential with various programs. If you are an indie filmmaker looking to shoot on DV, before you spend a dime on production, shell out the cash for Great editing software. Don't just skimp on that and hope your vision will come through. Sometimes the difference between a good and a great film is in the editing. I'm told some of the newer editing progs actually allow you to add film grain to your picture. Grain. The only real difference between the look of film and the look of DV. Just something to ponder.
Now, back to the big problem. How do you get a DV or HD film to look like a REAL movie? It's very simple. Shoot it like one. Here's a little homework assignment. Watch Clerks. Then Immediately after watch Unbreakable (its out on video and DVD Tuesday). Compare and contrast the Visual styles. Clerks pretty much has none. The only reason it really succeeded was that it had an AMAZING script and had an inventive concept that we had never seen before on film (turning the concept of retail clerks on its ear by making them the smart ones and the customers the idiots). Unbreakable has TOO MUCH visual style, so much so that certain scenes become gimmicky by the very nature that many of the shots are too inventive and become distracting. Again, it succeeded because it told a story in a way we've never seen it told before. Now, envision the film you want to make and find a happy medium between these two stylistically. Tracking shots. Pans. Looking up or down at the characters. Reflected in mirrors, bathroom fixtures, windows. Just because DV cameras were designed to rest on your shoulder or in your hand in the standing position does not mean you have to stand there, ten feet away with your subject in the center of your viewfinder. Be inventive. That's what independent filmmaking is about.
Which leads me to another major failing of Indie film projects. Think invention, not convention. Just think about all the great indie films of the last ten years. Why were they so good? Momento, Tigerland, Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, Swingers, Bamboozled, Eve's Bayou. Why are these films all so damned good? Because they all told stories in a new manner, in a manner the studios were afraid to tell them. Joel Schumacher shot a Vietnam war film for a million dollars on 16mm. How did he do it? He told the story from boot camp, back home, and showed us a side of the war no movie ever had shown us in full depth. Momento told us a story out of conventional order; Pulp Fiction and Res Dogs did the same thing in a different way. Eve's Bayou told a story about blacks in the south that really didn't focus at all about BEING black; it was just about being. Bamboozled discussed racism without pointing any fingers, instead turning the finger back on itself, and it made the strongest point of any of Spikes films. These indies worked because it wasn't just people in front of a camera. Just because Swingers and Clerks LOOK like its just guys in front of a camera, doesn't mean it is. Look deeper. See the story, the characterization. See the originality.
Which brings me to my first film this week (finally). "Chasing Kevin". This is a fun little short Mockumentary about an independent filmmaker obsessed with Kevin Smith, so obsessed in fact that he raises money and shoots his own feature entitled "Employees" about the trials and tribulations of Foot Locker clerks. Then he stalks Kevin Smith. This film sports appearances by Kev-bo himself as well as Jason Mewes. And its just damned funny.
The great thing about "Chasing Kevin" though, is that its not just a parody of Kevin Smith and Clerks; it also makes a great statement about indie filmmakers and their want to emulate those who have come before them. Rather than emulating them, however, sometimes they end up merely imitating them. Remember the glut of indie Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction clones that came out in the mid 90's? All those gritty, noir Hitman movies that now line the video store shelves of the action section. Well, this mocks that whole phenomenon as the lead ends up in an asylum, placed in a special filmmaker ward for those indie filmmakers who have gone too far. Alongside Quentin, Spike and P.T. Anderson wannabes, the protagonist finds what it really means to be independent.
This film showed at Vulgarthon 2000 (Kevin Smiths Film fest) and really deserves screentime at almost every film fest out there. It has a great deal to say about indie film and does so in a fall down funny manner that shorts programs often need. It's never preachy, just funny and inventive.
Check out the production company's website and see a five minute clip of "Chasing Kevin" here http://www.toomanynicknames.com
Too Many Nicknames Productions
112 E. 36th St
New York, NY 10016
Next I'd like to talk about production values. Now, production values are often mistaken with how much you spend on your film. This just isn't the case. Production value is how much it LOOKS like you spent on your film. Accomplishing this requires pure ingenuity. This is actually how many of the greats proved their greatness to the execs in Hollywood. Here's a prime example: James Cameron. I know what you're thinking "But James Cameron was never an independent filmmaker!" Well, once upon a time, the great we now know as James Cameron, was little Jimmy Cameron, an artist working at a small company that was hired by Roger Corman to work on one of my deep fried favorite films "Battle Beyond the Stars" a sci-fi action remake of the Seven Samurai made for $2 million. Now, once they realized that Cameron was the most brilliant person in the company, they promoted him to art director where he really showed his stuff. For the interior of one ship he glued egg crates to the walls and spray painted them gray. When they were lit, they had a great, futuristic effect. Cost? A couple bucks for the egg crates, glue and paint. When the background wall of a ship seemed empty, he glued together some piping and knick knacks on a board and painted them. Viola, instant control panel, negating the empty space. He did this all on a shoestring budget (most of the two million went to film, the big name stars (at the time at least) and the equipment used to film the space motion shots. Be inventive.
Which brings me to my next pick for this week, a highly inventive feature titled "Twelve". Its a gritty, sci-fi thriller about a man who wakes up one morning suffering from total amnesia. He then strikes out to discover who or what he is and why he has no memory. "But Massawyrm," I know your thinking "We've seen that done a million times!" Yeah, well you've never seen it POV. That's right, this entire film is shot Point of View from the protagonist. We only see him in reflections and on video tape. "Twelve" puts you in the role of Zach Taylor, seeing through his eyes, learning about the twists and turns of the plot as he does, and yes, even falling for his girlfriend.
The POV gets a bit gimmicky in the beginning and its a little tough at first to adjust to the style of shooting, but once the film gets going, it really gets going, and you accept what you're seeing and how its shot for what it is: Clever, inventive and ballsy. The sci-fi is dealt with in an original manner as well, utilizing ideas and concepts over special effects, kind of like a gritty, New York style, low budget Gattaca.
I really got caught up in the story, but mostly what drew me in was the acting. These actors really did an awesome job of putting you in Zach's place, looking into the camera as if really looking into your eyes, showing honest emotion and confusion over Zach's situation and really bringing out the terror and horrific nature of the plot Zach is involved with. Lauren Fox (Zach's Girlfriend) is just plain amazing. The range of emotion this woman shows with her facial expressions alone is just plain riveting. You literally start to fall for her yourself as you see her character as this real, flesh and blood, three dimensional woman the likes of which modern film tends to run short of. This film is flat out grit and concept, that has a real human heart beating within it. Films like this are rarities. Purely original and highly entertaining. Writer/Director Daniel Noah has a real winner with this one.
I'm not exactly sure what this was shot on or what the budget was; all I can say is that it looks GOOD. If this was done on HD, it was polished up digitally (I do know there were some digital effects) or its either really good 16 or straight up 35. Very well done in that department.
Due to its highly experimental nature, this film is perfect for Festivals and would make a great Arthouse release. It's really something different and special.
427 Broadway, second floor
New York, NY 10013
And now I'd like to talk about a weird surreal little film about a man who wakes up in a bathroom suffering from total amnesia. "Hey, wait a minute! That's what the last one was about!" You're thinking. Well, yes, except the similarities end there. This is more like a Twilight zone episode, except with deep existential (there's that scary word again loyal readers) ponderings into the nature of self and art. It's just downright weird, but in the end it all makes sense and gives the viewer an explanation and something to think about.
Shot entirely on DV for a budget of $500, "Oratorio of the Grotesques, op.7" is hands down the best shot DV film I've seen this side of Bamboozled ("My god! Why must he invoke the name of that Spike Lee movie every god damned time he talks about DV?"). This film has a large range of style to it, from quick cuts and inventive camera placement, to long, well done tracking shots. Oh yeah, and this was shot by a High School Film productions class. Yes. They just graduated and churned out a wonderful piece of indie cinema.
Helmed by Jr. Autuer (that's the last time I'll call you that, promise) Tristan S. Cook, who wrote, directed and DPed this 56 minute film, Oratorio proves itself to be that great festival film that showcases just what you can do with DV and how good it can look. Except in a few low light scenes (DV's biggest weakness) this film easily can be mistaken for good HD or 16mm. It's clever, witty and just plain freaking weird. But the creative use of camera placement is what really pushes this film over the edge. As the film takes place entirely in a bathroom, one would imagine that there would only be so many ways to shoot the same room. But everytime you think Tristan's run out of places to put the camera, BAM! there's a brand new place.
The acting is well, well, it's high school students. Nothing particularly bad, but no really amazing performances. It's definitely on par with most independently produced films, except the film actually works in the acting as part of story (you'd have to see it to understand). Very cool stuff. I can't wait to see what develops from Tristan Cook in the next few years. He's already leaps and bounds above many other indie film makers out there. Keep an eye on him, and if Oratorio comes to a nearby Festival, see it (or if you are a festival, show it).
And finally folks I present to you a brilliantly made, fun little short called "Farmer McAllister's Thinkin' Machine" that is one of the most amusing shorts I've ever had the privilege of seeing. I just couldn't wipe the smile off my face while it was on. Farmer McAllister gets fed up of his wife nagging him all the time, so he goes out to the toolshed one night and builds himself one o' those danggummit new fangled robots to do all his chores. Hooowee! Is this film a hoot an' a half! I really love this short. I just can't stop thinking about it. It was shot beautifully, evoked a wonderful cartoonish mood, while it remained totally original the whole way through. This puppy has twists and turns there is no possible way you could expect.
This is like Hee-Haw for film school students. Its awesome. Festivals, you need this short. First Rites, you need to put this on one of your shorts collections. this ones just too good to pass up.
Farmer McAllister's Thinkin' Machine
3248 Alafaya Club Dr. #302d
Orlando, Fl 32817
Well, I'll get off my soapbox now. I hope there's a few of you out there that have found a small nugget of useful info or inspiration. Go out there and make me some art! my stash is running low.
If you'd like to help replenish Massawyrm's stash of indie goodness and maybe get yourself some free press read by all the right people, then please send your works of genius to:
3408 Red River
Austin, TX 78705
Until next week my indie loving friends, Smoke 'em if ya got 'em. I know I will.