Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Fountain

It's very rare I see a "grey matter" film, which is a film so densely packed with motifs and themes that my brain reels with the information it's receiving. Darran Aronofsky's The Fountain is such a film. After a half hour, I had to pause the film—too overloaded to continue—and return to it a couple of days later.

When I first heard about The Fountain years ago, I remember the production running into lots of problems, ending with the studio pulling the plug, and ultimately deconstructing and auctioning off all the sets. Two years later, Aronofsky recast and refinanced the film at half its original budget and shot in Canada instead of Australia.

Here's an excellent synopsis of it:

The Fountain is an odyssey about one man’s thousand-year struggle to save the woman he loves. His epic journey begins in 16th-century Spain, where conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman) commences his search for the Fountain of Youth, the lengendary entity believed to grant immortality. As modern-day scientist Tommy Creo, he desperately struggles to find a cure for the cancer that is killing his beloved wife, Isabel (Rachel Weisz). Traveling through deep space as a 26th-century astronaut, Tom begins to grasp the mysteries that have consumed him for a millennium. The three stories converge into one truth, as the Thomas of all periods—warrior, scientist, and explorer—cones to terms with life, love, death and rebirth.—Source

On the DVD's special features, I watched Hugh Jackman doing rehearsals and gained instant respect for him as an actor. These are rehearsals and Jackman is committing himself completely to the moment even though the rehearsal will never be in the finished film. Whenever I hear an actor say they prefer not to do rehearsals because they feel it "ruins their spontaneity", I think of the dedication of actors like Jackman, where you can actually see the strength of their success: they enjoy performing and are unafraid to immerse themselves in the "unknown" to find that perfect performance.

Anyway, it's not hard to see why Aronofsky has said, "I feel like every movie I've ever made, ever action I've ever done, has been for the sole purpose of making this one film." He put his heart into The Fountain, and it shows. Make sure you see The Fountain... and be ready for your head to start spinning.

This film is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The lighting and composition is amazing. The production and costume design is meticulous. The makeup is realistic. The CGI is flawless. Excellence is a word reserved for Aronofsky's level of filmmaking.

And Aronofsky's clever use of motifs and themes is simply astonishing. Hair symbolizes life. Death and life are interconnected. The characters move from darkness into light. The bright amber nebula encases a dying star. The spaceship is a sphere, like an egg or sperm impregnating the nebula. The tree sap is white and creamy, like breastmilk. On the motifs alone, Aronofsky has done a remarkable job.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Umpqua Bank Shoot

Had a fantastic gig the last couple of days working with Umpqua Bank. They were shooting an internet commercial to promote their small business outreach program and hired Teak Motion Visuals to do the job. From the moment I received Teak's highly organized call sheet—including contact information for everyone on cast and crew—I knew the shoot would run very smoothly... and I wasn't wrong. The crew had zero personality conflicts, the A.D. never raised his voice, and we still knocked off over 90 setups in less than two shooting days. Exceptional work. Can't wait to work with these people again.

Here's a slideshow of the photos from the shoot:

Monday, May 14, 2007

Breakthroughs in Acting

I love actors. I mean, honestly—actors have a lot of guts to get up in front of a group of strangers and pour out their most intimate of moments. Few know I'm a member of S.A.G. (Screen Actors Guild) because I'm not very interested in being in front of the camera anymore. Still, I've had some great learning experiences while working on stage and screen...

The play was Wrong Number and I'd landed the role of a Desk Sergeant who begrudgingly takes an emergency phone call from a panicked bedridden woman. Our director took me through my dialog over and over and could tell I simply wasn't getting it. Finally, she stopped. Thought a moment.

"I saw you doing a card trick earlier. Would you be able to teach it to us?"

Puzzled, I fetched my deck of cards.

Turning to the cast, our director said, "I want all of you to act like Kindergarten kids: you have almost no attention span." Turning to me, "Your job is to keep our attention. Go ahead."

After about five seconds, I knew I was in for a bad time. After 20 seconds, the "kids" were banging on the ground and crying in boredom. And at 30 seconds—I snapped.

Can't quite explain it, but something inside went a little berserk. I screamed at my director, furious with her for putting me in this situation, for humiliating me like this. I got up in her face, livid. Everyone in the room was wide-eyed and still. Out of my peripheral, someone even glanced at the nearest exit.


"Now do your dialog," she said.

And I did. And it was awesome. That day I learned how to tap into my emotional side... without doing card trick for kids.

To improve my onscreen acting, I also took acting classes at Weist Barron. If you're a theatrical actor, it's easy to forget that film is an intimate medium: instead of projecting to the top balcony, the actor must frequently play to a close camera. Weist Barron was good for teaching you that, but also useful for rehearsing videotaped monologues and sides.

One time, they gave everyone sides to memorize for the next day. When it was my turn, I still wasn't totally off-page and stumbled all over the place. Worse, my nervousness was compounded by my growing self-inflicted humiliation. I re-started my read. And then started again. And again. It was awful.

Then our coach did the best thing possible for my acting—she told me to forget the lines, to freeform, to act as if there were no lines and nothing I could say was wrong. Absentmindedly, I clicked into a conversational tone and all the "lines" came naturally. Using freeform was like a door had been opened inside me.

My mother, an actress in her own right, used to drag me along to her acting classes, some of them held at the once famous A Night At The Improv and other classes with our agent. One poor actress from the Bronx said the word "saw" like "sore". Our agent, Gloria, stopped the class immediately—"Say that again."


"There's no R in saw. Say it again."


"Can't you hear that? You're saying sore, not saw. Try it again."


That's when it hit me—acting is like being a mirror. Life looks at you and your reflection should be indistinguishable from reality. When you can't reflect reality well enough, people become distracted by the "smudge" on the mirror. Your job as an actor, then, is to mimic reality with zero deviation. If you can't do that simple task, you're fighting a hard battle. I suppose you can learn to hear nuances you've never heard before, but you have to be somewhat talented to do it past the age of seven—most major learning slows down after that age, as I understand it.

Years later, I had the good fortune of getting accepted into LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which was a treasurehouse of acting tips and tricks. Because LAMDA specialized in Shakespeare, we performed the Bards' plays after learning all our new skills. One helpful acting tip was "translating" all our lines written by Shakespeare into modern lingo, into lines we would have said ourselves. If we wanted, we could even memorize those lines as well. The point was not only to understand the meaning of the words, and then feel that meaning, but to pay attention to our inflections, our cadences, our natural emphasis. After that, reciting Shakespeare was easy.

I'm not ashamed to say I'm a formalist when it comes to an actors knowing their lines for a film. As a writer, you write lines, you anguish over the number of syllables, over punctuation, over awkward dependent clauses... you get each word just right. And then, as a director, you do rehearsals and realize that the lines don't work perfectly so you go back and incorporate your actors' natural rhythms and expressions. And when you finally strike that balance, you finally lock down the script and insist the actors know every line in their sleep.

Some writers don't want their words mangled. Some directors don't want to diverge from the script. Some actors don't want to overrehearse. And none of those people are me—films are neither stage plays nor novels: they are organic and collaborative. And knowing lines doesn't quash creative choices, but liberates an actor from poor choices. When you learn anything new, you struggle to find the pattern that works, but once you do, your brain shifts into autopilot and you find the zen of the moment. Frankly speaking, acting is no different than golfing or typing: you learn the technique through massive repetition so you don't think about the technique while you're creating art. Of course, improvisation can get great results, too, but that's more a hope for a happy accident and I believe more happy accidents happen as a result of extensive preparation, rather than in spite of it.

Friday, May 11, 2007

America Needs a Fat Tax, part 2

Occasionally, Chris ads a witty comment to my blog, but on my America Needs a Fat Tax post, he pulled out the stops. My reply was so long that I wanted to repost it, but it made no sense without his comment:

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond; life has been pretty interesting lately! Anyway, here goes:
First, the costs of obesity to the health care system have been vastly overstated, largely by groups who support various social engineering schemes. Those costs that do exist could be cut by reducing the heroic end-of-life care that most Americans receive. The last couple of weeks of life are more expensive than all the years that came before.
Second, the reason that these health care costs may indirectly affect you as a taxpayer is precisely because of the social policy interventions that you're advocating, particularly blanket mandates for insurance coverage. If insurance companies were allowed to offer consumers actual choices, then these costs could be adequately priced in. For example, at my employer, there is a surcharge for health plan participants who are overweight.
Most importantly, due to inefficient tort laws, health care insurance is one of the largest components of the rise in health care costs over the last twenty years.
The infringement of personal liberty that you refer to is not due to people doing what they choose with their own bodies. The infringement comes from the state deciding that I should have to pay for their choices. Further coercion doesn't fix this just as two wrongs don't make a right.
To continue with the outcome-based portion of the argument, it's useful to remember that these kinds of social "fixes" only lead to more problems -- the Law of Unintended Consequences. A problem we're avoiding talking about now in the Social Security system (by the way -- WTF? -- "nobody ever complains" about the Social Security system? C'mon). A better analogy would have been the tobacco industry...
Another point to consider is that a fat tax would almost certainly amount to a regressive tax on the poor. The relatively wealthy people shopping at Trader Joe's probably wouldn't pay much at all, while the day laborers, truck drivers, and fast food workers themselves who eat fast food at lunch would pay the most. It seems a little callous to demand that the poorest and least educated people should pay an ignorance tax, but since the state does the same thing with tobacco I suppose it's not an entirely inconsistent position. At least the lottery they run gives you a choice to not play.
Anyway, leaving costs aside as you tried to do (but came right back to in the very next paragraph of your response), even if the outcome-based arguments were against me I would still be against your proposal. The government's job is not to maximize the public's health, but to maximize liberty.
I find it ironic that the person who was the subject of your original post is decidedly NOT obese, and hence not a part of the "problem", and yet she would be obligated to pay your fat tax for her indulgence along with the porkers you are targeting. How is this tax in any way fair to her or the other millions of people who don't eat too much?
If you want to "encourage" people to lead healthier lives, I can think of many non-coercive ways to do so. To demand it from them by using the force of the state is the very definition of the nanny state. It is right of you to recognize that fast food is bad for your body and, if eaten to excess, will make you fat; that is exercising your reason. And it is right that you rant about it on your blog and encourage others to see the truth you've discovered. That is exercising your liberty. But using the state to coerce virtue takes the exercise of reason and liberty away from those you're coercing, whether you want to make them eat better, follow the teachings of the Holy Book, or enslave them to build the Worker's Paradise. The point is that you are not persuading people or educating them or removing obstacles for them to change themselves. You are forcing them, with the power of the state, to follow your dictates instead of using their own reason. That's what I'm against.

As ever, Chris, you take this all to a whole new level. Awesome.

While I concede some of your points, allow me to rebut:

1) End of life measures are one size fits all—gastric bypass surgery is only for those who can't put a fork down. End of life measures have almost nothing to do with willpower: we all deserve a shot at getting a few more hours on the planet if we can. (The exception to end of life care is a liver transplant recipient who starts smoking again—they shouldn't get another liver transplant.) What people choose to do with their bodies should influence (to some degree) the level of care they receive. This is why overstating the costs of obesity-related illnesses is moot. And besides, my doctor wife would say the costs are substantial, basely simply on the patients she sees every day.

2) I would agree that the tort laws need reforming. Not big news, but significant.

3) I don't think I ever said my personal liberty was being infringed upon because of other people's choices, but because of the costs I must pay because of those choices. If you take money out of your own pocket, I don't really care. If you take money out of my pocket (when it can be avoided), that pisses me off.

As for unintended consequences, I know full well that a fat tax might substantially cripple the fast food market, at least temporarily, which would have a global economic impact. The problem is that until someone says different, fast food companies are primarily in business to make money, not to make Americans healthy, which is a fundamental flaw in the system, in my opinion. Of course, consumers should choose whatever they want—it is their choice, after all—but that approach has left America in the grips of an obesity epidemic. At some point, you have to ask yourself if it's a good thing to make PCP or heroin legal—allowing consumers total freedom of choice is not always a good idea and the government does have some responsibility to step in and nudge people in a certain direction, if only for their own good. Lest we forget, longer living taxpayers are longer paying taxpayers. Denmark, for example, has outlawed all trans-fats, and Danes undoubtedly live longer lives as a consequence.

I used the Social Security system as an example to show how the government can play a beneficial role in improving national welfare even though it means money forcibly taken out of one's paycheck, the closest allusion to "forcing preferences on people at the butt of a gun". However, nobody complains about social security because everyone admits it's in the best interests of the nation, just as (I think) a fat tax would be.

A fat tax would surely have many unintended consequences, but I'll gladly take that new set of problems over our current set of problems because what we're currently doing is no longer working.

4) I don't buy the "taxing the poor and ignorant" argument, and never will. People have to eat something and when revenues from a fax tax subsidize healthier foods, healthier eating habits will emerge. In an ideal world, fast food chains would instantly wise up and make healthier fast food. If day laborers have a choice between a Subway $4 turkey sandwich at and a McDonald's $5 Bacon Double All-Beef Cheeseburger, which lunch will these blue collar souls choose? They'll make better eating choices and live longer with fewer health problems—how is this a bad thing? And if Subway's non-fatty sandwich were also subsidized by fat tax revenue, then that $4 turkey sandwich will become $2, which nerfs the financial burden that "taxes" the poor and ignorant. Problem solved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm a strong supporter of California's cigarette tax. Normally, I'm not fond of the government legislating personal liberties, but the California's cigarette tax revenue subsidizes anti-smoking campaigns (are they still doing that? No idea.), which rests squarely within the government's mandate to safeguard the public from the health hazards of second-hand smoke. Higher prices for cigarettes means fewer smokers, which is an intrinsically good thing, in my opinion. Higher prices for fast food means fewer fast food eaters. As long as fast food is so unspeakably unhealthy, expensive fast food is also an intrinsically good thing.

As for the "government's responsibility is not to maximize health, but to maximize liberty", here we must agree to disagree. I've lived in France and though their economy sucks ass, nobody can afford to eat expensive fast food all the time. Europe leans more towards maximizing health over liberty and they live healthier lives because of it. It is time to emulate that model.

And yes, anyone who eats fast food is subject to paying the fat tax, porkers or not. You wouldn't offer first time smokers their first pack for free, would you? A fat tax would act as blanket fee discouraging recidivists and first-time users equally.

Finally, the crux of the argument: reason vs. coercion. While true that many non-coercive ways can encourage people to lead healthier lives, America is still in the middle of an obesity epidemic. When do we admit our current actions have not gotten results? Besides, what reasonable person would smoke two packs a day knowing that it would probably kill them by an ugly disease? What reasonable person would intentionally gain 300-500 pounds? Many people, while sometimes reasonable about their actions in a detached and abstract way, do not show reasonable behavior in their daily lives (myself included!). Quite the contrary, they might admit they know what they're doing is wrong, but have no palpable disincentive to stop. A fat tax is that clear barrier to bad habits because when you have to choose between paying rent and eating fast food 50 times a month @ $10/sitting, you start to reevaluate your lifestyle choices.

People are going to do what they want to do. A bill to charge a fat tax will probably never get passed because fast food lobbyists will browbeat any attempt to pass it, or not enough Americans will support it. And that is true choice—America will decide for itself whether or not they need a fat tax to help them "kick the habit". Until then, the undereducated and unmotivated will continue their self-destructive behaviors unchecked. If a nation of blimps with a crippled health care system is truly the result of freedom of choice, then I hope it get gastric bypass surgery within my lifetime.

To read all this, you'd think I'm a gung ho socialist, I bet. In many areas, like when France bullies Apple to change their iTunes business model, I feel market-driven decisions are infinitely better than government interference. However, laissez faire economics does have its limits when it comes to public health and freedom of choice does not extend to letting people ingest arsenic on a daily basis. We know, as we knew with nicotine, that fast food causes health problems... so why aren't we doing anything to stop it?

In the meantime, I enjoy hearing dissenting views if only because it gets people talking about the issue.

Thanks, Chris!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Best Shot of The Day

Sunday's shoot of In Double Dutch had one extremely memorable shot: when one character shoots another character, the actor was going to use a blank in their gun to get a realistic effect. I told the actor we'd be doing a dry run first, without any live blank at all... just to help them block out the scene.

But I lied.

We told everyone, discretely, that her gun was actually "weapons hot"... that is, we told everyone except the actors. (We also had a tenacious firearms consultant who would not have agreed to this unless it had been safe. He observed everyone's movements, ready to intervene if anything were to go awry.)

Two cameras were trained on her final shooting position: one close, one medium. Her shocked expression and natural gun recoil were so real I can remember hearing a collective gasp in amazement from the crew.

We even have a clip of it from our videographer's camera:

All the behind the scenes footage was shot by Steve Papineau, whom you can actually see here holding the boom. Thanks, Steve!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

3,000 Decisions

Brad Bird described his experience directing The Incredibles as a series of surreal daily meetings with animators where he'd make constant, and mundane, decisions: "How tall should this table be?" they'd ask him. "What color wood? Do you want any decorations on it? Oh, you want candles? How many candles? Are they halfway lit? What color are they?" And so on. For months. Then one day Brad gets to work one day and the film is almost entirely done. He said it was like "throwing tiny pebbles every day into this massive bottomless pit and then one day you look in the pit and it's suddenly full."

On Sunday, I directed In Double Dutch and I felt like Brad Bird: by end of day, I had made close to 2,800 to 3,000 decisions, and in any given minute, I had as many as 10-12 different people asking me how I wanted something done. With that kind of hectic pace, there's no time for sugar-coated etiquette—it's about how quickly information gets communicated: "How about we do this..." becomes "I want you here." It's not about being prickly, it's about economy of words under deadline. It's business. In fact, it's so easy for people to get their feathers ruffled using this dictatorial tone that I try very hard to build morale among cast and crew by creating a highly organized shoot, by respecting deadlines (well, as much as possible!), and choosing to work with playful people who know when to hunker down. Overall, I try very hard to make sure everyone enjoys each other's company during down time. Then, when say I want something, everyone knows the "please" is understood.

Yet no good shoot goes unpunished... our original location fell through less than 36 hours before we rolled the first take. Having already rented our equipment, it was too late to postpone the shoot. So I had to throw out all my carefully planned blocking diagrams and camera setups and improvise on a set I wasn't familiar with. Fortunately, 7 weeks of rehearsals and years of filmmaking experience worked in my favor... I'm confident we got all the shots we needed without ever crossing the line. Any pickup shots we still need are merely par for the course—no director I've worked with has ever shot everything they needed on the actual shoot day, and even if they did, the editor draws up a list of shots they need to complete their rough cut.

Losing a location so close to the shoot day also reminds me how important it is to have "reaction plans" prepared so you don't react in panic mode. For the same reason, stockbrokers are told to brainstorm every conceivable nightmare scenario ahead of time and then draw out a sensible plan of action—instead of acting out of fear in the moment, they simply grab their "reaction playbook" and work their way down the list of action items. For a filmmaker, the nightmare scenarios are, What happens if my sound guy gets into a car accident and all his equipment is destroyed? What do I do if someone trips over the tripod and drops the camera? Whom do I call if someone gets injured on set? Knowing in advance what to do if any of your cast or crew can't make it to set really helps offset a high blood pressure.

Video footage coming soon of the shoot. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

In Double Dutch

The last six to seven weeks have been preoccupied with pre-production prep for a short I'm directing tomorrow—In Double Dutch, by Meaghan Sinclair. In Double Dutch is a modern noir about a woman being questioned by a nosy cop and the nasty consequences that follow. We're shooting it in 2.85:1 anamorphic, which means it's going to look like Star Wars or The Matrix. With Audio Oasis' Dave Losko doing sound, the final product will look and sound about as pro as you can get without shooting in a studio and spending 40K. Did I forget to mention the actors have been rehearsing since late March? We're graaaaaaavy.

Honestly, I wasn't expecting our short film to get its crew so heavily populated but we've been fortunate to crew up some pretty great people with pre-production lasting so many weeks. I mean, just look at our roll call—

Rob Granados, Lead / Executive Producer / Producer
Meaghan Sinclair, Lead / Executive Producer / Producer
Charlie Holiday, Supporting
Ross Pruden, Director
Raymond Dussault, 1st A.D.
Sean Boncoto, D.P.
Dave Losko, Sound Production Mixer
Jim Munch, 1st A.C. / Key Grip
Cesar Huitron, 2nd Camera
Aimee Mann, Script Supervisor (Actually, that's Aimee CARR, not the singer from Till Tuesday.)
Rob Thomas, Firearms Supervisor
Michelle B., Makeup & Hair (Sadly, she was called away due to a family emergency).
Leslie Goodman, Makeup & Hair Asssitant
Steve Papineau, Behind the Scenes Videographer
Russell Young, Set Photographer
Everett Blix, Associate Producer
Krystal Kashuba, P.A.

I'm not even including our post-production crew, which will be another two or three people. Orson Welles was right—it is easier to be a writer or a painter!

Pictures of the shoot to be posted later this week.

Friday, May 04, 2007

America needs a Fat Tax

After reading Kristen's blog today, I couldn't help but repost my reply to it; the topic is simply too important.

Our country is out of control, eating itself into oblivion, cutting physical education classes, offering sub-standard school lunches. It's embarrassing. I mean, seriously.

About ten years ago, I got a ticket for running a red light—on my bicycle. I remember pleading to the cop's sense of the absurd: "Come on, man... I'm on a bicycle. Do you think I really need a ticket for this?"

He smiled. "I'll tell you the same thing a cop told me when he caught me speeding years ago—the only way I know you'll change your behavior is if I hit you in the pocketbook." That was a $275 lesson and I've never run a red light on my bike again. Lesson learned.

Anyone can learn new behavior if the stick is painful enough. If there's a tastier carrot, even better, but the stick has to hurt, too.

We need to make fat food unpopular. We need to make it expensive. I know that might have massive implications for the fast food industry and my response can be summed up in two words:

Sod off!

KFC, McDonald's, Taco Bell... all you guys can blow me. You're giving Americans loaded guns and saying we're pulling the trigger ourselves. Okay, I'll give you that... so let's price the guns at $1000 instead of $100 and see how that affects the equation.

My idea is a fat tax. I explained it in Kristen's blog today:

The pendulum has reached its apogee for our adoration of fat food and the trend is ever so slowly coming back. It may take a generation of people getting diabetes and gastric bypass before we start to realize that our health care system carries the greatest financial burden of bad dieting, which means we all pay for everyone's bad choices.

My wife thinks I'm crazy, but I have the solution to this fast food mess—a fat tax.

Here's my theory: you tax the restaurants for using all the stuff that makes people fat, like all the saturated fats. The more customers buy the food, the more tax they pay. The goal of a fat tax is to make fast food expensive and unpopular... and then use that new tax revenue to subsidize healthy food alternatives which are more expensive than fast food. That eliminates the "but you're taxing the poor" argument because you'd be driving poor people to buy a 99¢ smoked turkey sandwich on wheat, rather than a chewy fat pill like a double-bacon cheeseburger.

Of course, a fat tax would be incredibly unfair for big businesses and their profit margins, but you have to ask yourself when enough fat American is enough; government is meant to represent the people's interests—NOT big business' interests—and (sadly) the only way the average citizen permanently modifies their behavior is when it hits them in the pocketbook.