American Nobodies

31 08 2010

I was in Tacoma, Washington last week.  The reason for this is that Philip Cowan of The Grand Cinema in Tacoma had decided to put on an event showcasing the work of the young filmmakers selected by Filmmaker Magazine for this year’s 25 New Faces list.  13 of the 25 made the trip to Tacoma and very quickly it was clear that this would be a remarkable experience.

Often independent filmmakers – and I would say independent artists as well [although I do not think of filmmakers in general (and certainly not myself) as artists, but that’s for another post] — work in isolation. So to emerge from that isolation and find a group of like-minded folks from Michigan and Florida and Nashville and New York and Amsterdam all showing their work and all lacking the usual ego and preciousness related to it all, well, it must be what a meerkat feels when he eases his neck above ground and sees his other fellows all safe, uneaten and ready to begin the day.

Added to the sense of community I felt there was also the experience of watching each other’s work together.  I hadn’t seen any of the films previously. Each one was — in its own way and in turn — remarkable.  It is unbelievably flattering to know that people see Sparrow Songs on par with the work of the others on the New Faces list.

Still, at the risk of singling two guys out I want to mention in particular the American Nobodies series that Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian are doing.  These two guys are from Davis, California, which is a small city south of Sacramento that houses UC Davis, and is a central hub of California’s farming community.  It’s hard to get much further outside the Los Angeles – New York film system than that.  And despite or because of their own isolation they’re making some of the most striking and consistent work I’ve seen in a long time, not the least of which is their 24 part American Nobodies series.  The films, all 2-3 minutes in length, profile one person (we’re only given their first name) as that person in their own words speaks about themselves or their work.  In watching these what struck me immediately was the irony inherent in the title.  “Nobodies” has an aural similarity to “nobility” and swapping the requisite two syllables gets to what the series is truly about.

What’s more is that as the divide between political class and the rest of us continues to grow fathoms deep there’s a frequent habit of mainstream reporters congratulating themselves anytime they even interact with anyone who doesn’t make six-figures.  David Brooks – who I bet hasn’t made his own lunch once in his life – and Gail Collins put this oblivious tic on fine display here. There’s none of that with Rod and Robert’s work.  They neither trumpet themselves, the work or their subjects but rather simply put it on display.  The result is a collection that follows in the vein of Studs Terkel or Kai T. Erickson showing Americans in the present moment as they are.

It was refreshing and energizing to meet filmmakers similarly interested in documenting the American experience and creating a form in which to do it that works to remove any barriers or mediation between the viewer and the subject.

If you have a chance check out the series here.  It’s not This American Life, it’s much more than that.


Working Away…

4 08 2010

Here’s our post-production set-up on the latest Episode.

It’ll be up on Monday (Aug 9).

A little into the month, I know,  but we’d rather wait for a Monday than drop it on a Thursday or Friday.

The Approach or Nervous All the Time

27 07 2010

Before I really dive into this post I want to take a second to acknowledge that a lot of good things are happening with Sparrow Songs and we’re grateful for all of them.

The first bit of news that’s equally exciting and rewarding is that this year we’ve been named to Filmmaker Magazine’s annual list of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.   I’ve been a fan of the magazine and its ground-eye view of the work of independent film for a long time so it’s really flattering to be a part of this list.

The second piece is that we’ve got a Kickstarter campaign going for the project and we’ve already raised over $500.  That support and the feeling of people literally investing in the project feels great.

All that said, it’s another month, which means in the process of making a short documentary we’re back at square one.  The calendar doesn’t care if we’re on the front page of The New York Times, the clock is ticking and there’s a film to be made.  Right now we’re mired in the most nerve-wracking phase of the whole process which I think of as The Approach.

You have an idea, you can see how all the pieces will fit, there’s the potential for amazing visuals, you might learn something about yourself by making this, the audience may learn something about life by watching it, all this good wonderful stuff is going to happen when you make this, it’ll be hard but we’ll pull through and then we’ll all eat pizza and drink a beer or two.

Okay, but this is a documentary and that means a subject is involved and unless you’re Ken Burns or Jaques Cousteau that subject has a living, human component.  The only way you can make this film is if you somehow get this person (or worse, these people) to agree to make this film with you.  And you know what?  There is an inverse-proportional relationship between your level of excitement about the project and their apathy toward it.

For a long while I’ve wanted to make a piece about the poet Gary Snyder.  He’s the last of the living Beats, he’s lived his life according to a beautiful and rigid set of beliefs and his understanding of man’s relationship to the natural world is revolutionary and ancient.  I’ve read most of Snyder’s books and read his collection of interviews earlier this summer.  It’s not out-of-bounds to say that he’s one of my heroes.  Earlier this month I contacted the publicist at his publishing house, had a great conversation and composed a sincere email to her about our aims for the piece. She forwarded the email to Snyder.  Five days later he said no.

Three or four days after that I started kicking around an idea for a different piece.  It wouldn’t be interviewing one of my heroes but it held the chance for me to explore a question that I’m trying to work through in my own life.  I did research on whom I needed to contact, sent emails, got responses, sent more emails and set up a meeting.  During a meeting like this – or more often a phone call –I do my best to explain Sparrow Songs and to convince the person I’m speaking with that this is an honest attempt to understand the lives around us.  I have no credentials, no real professional presence; I’m just sitting there trying to reassure them that this piece about their lives isn’t going to be sandwiched between videos of a cat fighting a roomba.  You do your best, shake hands and leave the room. Then wait.

That’s where we are at this point in the month.  I’m supposed to get an email any minute now letting me know if we’re on for a three-day shoot or if I need to scramble and start the process all over.

I don’t think there’s any corollary to this in narrative filmmaking.  You may not get a location or an actor might fall through, but you never have to ask a character’s permission to tell their story.

The whole thing creates a certain Zen-like attitude toward the stories themselves.  You learn that the more force you apply the less likely you are to get the results you want and when you do hear a ‘no’ you can either drive yourself crazy thinking about how great the piece could’ve been or to trust that there’s a different piece you need to make right now.

That being said, the waiting is never easy.

It’s Not About the Camera, or Our Workflow, Pt. 2

28 05 2010

In the last post I detailed the technical basics of our workflow. As I mentioned, a lot of people – friends and strangers alike — email me to ask about the camera and the look we use.  The questions spiral out: is the camera is easy? What kind of mic-rig do we employ? How big is our crew?  How much lighting does Michael do?

I answer all of these questions because I appreciate the interest in the project and in our techniques, but the actual truth is: none of this matters.   While the camera we use (the Mark 5d) has gotten a lot of attention in a lot of circles, it’s no more important than what type of pistol grip we use for the microphone.

We’re in a period when the technology to produce moving images is changing drastically every six-months.  Six-months ago it was the Red One, now it’s these HDSLRs and six month’s from now it’ll be the Epic or some other oddly named tapeless camera.

Unfortunately – and I saw this a lot at film school – there’s often an inordinate amount of faith put into the technology being used, and by this I mean there’s a sense that if you somehow use the cutting-edge camera your work will simply be better.  That’s not the case, and I don’t think it ever has been.

A couple of years ago there were literally thousands of people using Panasonic’s HVX200 to shoot narrative films, but there was only one person who could make it look like this. And while James Laxton’s work on that film is flat-out great, none of it would’ve really mattered if Barry Jenkins wasn’t able to illicit intimate and lived-in performances that matched the film’s palette.   Without having spoken to them about it my guess is that their choices – in terms of camera, crew and workflow – came about organically and by necessity.

And that’s the way our workflow has emerged.  We shoot the way we do because most of the time we’re a crew of two people – Michael and myself (with the very capable Jon Schwarz helping shoot at times).  To do this we need both a camera and a sound rig that are mobile, don’t attract attention and can record high volumes of footage without having to offload the data all the time.  That’s how we came to this camera and that has in turn influenced the aesthetic.  (Read more here).

This strikes me as being just what I’m driving at: through this project I’ve learned to relax and go where it takes us in a number of ways but one of the crucial ones is learning that your necessity drives your aesthetics and the work gets a lot better when you accept that.

With that I want to offer a quick thought and a little praise to the visual steward of these films, Michael Totten:

What strikes me – pretty much every month – about Michael’s cinematography is that what he chooses to focus on is always reflective of the larger themes at work in the piece.  He’s there with me listening to the interviews and feeling the energy of the people and the space and then somehow intuits the right image to reflect what’s being touched on — or better yet — what’s going unspoken.

He does it month in and month out, and with an eye like that, it doesn’t really matter what camera he’s using.

Episode Six – L’Arche

14 04 2010

The secret of L’Arche is relationship: meeting people, not through the filters of certitudes, ideologies, idealism or judgments, but heart to heart; listening to people with their pain, their joy, their hope, their history, listening to their heart beats.

– Jean Vanier, L’Arche founder

Two things I’ve found that tend to make people uncomfortable are (1) being around the disabled and (2) talking about God.  This episode has both and the two are not unrelated.

[If you haven’t watched the episode yet, please do.  You can see it here or here.]

Prior to visiting this house and even during the initial visit I was uncomfortable being around the ‘core members’ – L’Arche’s term for the disabled members of each household.  During our interview, Rita (the young assistant) said that this was natural, “All normal social interaction goes out the window with the core members, there’s no filter, it’s all emotion.” And while I think that that may be a part of why I was uncomfortable I think another piece is that to interact with the core members is to rest one hand firmly on the barrier that separates the normally-abled with the disabled.  You feel the struggle to communicate you feel the urge to be understood and you see all the ways in which the disability prevents that very understanding. You repeat your words and you ask for words to be repeated.

If the interactions were to end there –with frustrations and a sense of nothing more than the barrier between the two of you — then the feeling of discomfort might make more sense.  But humans are adaptable creatures and the desire to relate to one another is innate.  This is one of the beauties of L’Arche. if you spend enough time with someone (anyone) you’ll find a way to communicate. And sure enough another form of communication emerges — through touch and pauses and looks and the energy you carry in your chest.  And through this way of interacting a kind of holistic, (small ‘c’) catholic, whole-body conversation begins.

I found this way of relating to be as calming as it was intense.  Your focus to both your internal world and your external world becomes more acute.  It’s an incredibly calming and peaceful experience.  My hope is that this finished piece reflects that movement from a kind of uncomfortable chaos to a place of sustained quiet that comes about for reasons that aren’t entirely understood.

A few notes about the piece:

  • I first came to know about L’Arche and Jean Vanier through this interview that was done by Krista Tippet for the NPR show Speaking of Faith.
  • For more information on L’Arche or to donate or volunteer please visit the website,
  • I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this piece, so I’ll probably do another post on it.  If there’s anything you’d like to know you can always email me.

What Work Is

8 03 2010

This month we faced a familiar foe in getting the film done – our work lives kept getting in the way of the project.

I’m a firm believer that where you are emotionally and physically when you create a piece gets written into the project and that was certainly the case with ‘Donuts.’ During the week when I was cutting it and recording the voice-over – in our reading nook with an assist from our cat, Ray Ray – I was also working  55 hours at my day job.  Each late night rolled my exhaustion into the next day, until the last night when I’d slept maybe fifteen hours in four days.  Now when I look at the piece – rested and less critical – it carries a certain weariness and seems to be about a certain weariness.  Tang’s emerges as a kind of way station for the worn out and marginalized and that’s certainly how it felt.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: Michael and I pay for Sparrow Songs out of our own pockets. This involves paying for equipment rental, software buys, travel, etc. along with our rent and food and the occasional gifts for our attractive and bewilderingly supportive wives.

Both of us work in the film industry, toiling away on  outside projects all in an effort to squirrel away a little money and time each week to devote to Sparrow Songs.

For me that means working as an editor on an urban dance movie for a studio.  That’s not to say that there isn’t heart and passion involved in the film – there is, it’s just different.  Films like this are assembly line projects and I’m just one craftsman sanding a piece of the table as it passes by on its way to being stained.  I’m getting paid to be a part of it and people will pay to see it.

Sparrow Songs exists on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum: no one is paid to produce it and no one pays to see it.  That’s all by design but oddly the free nature of it seems to add to its value rather than detract from it.  If we were to charge for the episodes suddenly any criticism or questions about the episode would seem less like the sharing of ideas or inquisitiveness about the product, and more like a customer complaint.

To put it another way – there’s a great moment in the film Rivers and Tides during which Andy Goldsworthy stops in a snow-covered field, gathers two fistfulls of snow and tosses them high high into the air.  The snow drifts back down, refracting the winter light, shining, sparkling.  It’s an action no different from a child working paper into a boat and setting it down a small stream – it has no real purpose other than as both an expression and creation of a certain sense of joy.

To both the creator and the viewer it seems to say only one thing, “This moment, this moment, this moment, this moment, this moment…”

False Starts or How We Ended Up Making a Piece About a Puppeteer

5 02 2010

False starts come with the territory.

False starts are inevitably part of the creative process.

My guess is I’m not alone in this.

False starts – the inevitable moment between the flicker of inspiration and it’s snuffing by the hands of reality, fate or your own standards – are unavoidable.  I know several people who’ve gotten knee-deep in projects only to have funding pulled or have a subject unexpectedly pull out or — even worse — come to understand that some one else had taken on a similar project and knocked it deep out of the park.

All of this is normal.  But, when you’ve set out to make a short film a month, a nonfiction film at that, these flame-outs and witherings are unmerciful.

Our portrait of Bob Baker in Episode Four was not our first attempt this month, nor was it our second, it was our third.  Early on in the month we were working to go as far from Porn Star Karaoke as possible to tell the story of a community that cultivates compassion on a daily basis both as a service to the world and as a spiritual exercise.  We still hope to do this piece (possibly, next month) but two days before we were set to travel and shoot we got word that due to some hesitation, shooting this month would not be possible, that was on January 21st.

Scrambling to come up with something else we landed on the idea of shooting my friend and extraordinary musician Emily Lacy’s site-specific residency at LACMA.  From the jump this posed a couple of problems for me: 1) We already did a piece about a musician and about a musician in the same Eastside / Machine Projects milieu and while that is a truly great world, for this project to take the shape that we’re hoping it does our world needs to be broader than that.

We actually shot a beautiful small segment with Emily — which we’ll post at some point – but all in all we knew it wasn’t there.

So feeling a little hungover, and more than a little defeated we drove down Wilshire Blvd.  At the point where Glendale crosses underneath the 110 we saw Bob’s theater and I pointed to it, looked to Michael and said ‘What about that?’

A week later we were shooting in the space.  The story we found there is – to me – well worth telling.

The beauty of the whole thing is that in making a piece about lessons learned from frustrations and disappointments we were learning lessons from frustrations and disappointments.

It helps to be reminded of that, to know that in making these films — month in and month out – there’s more to be learned than how to generate views or drive web-traffic, there’s something else at work too.