Tuesday, December 8, 2009
There's even a brand new post ready and waiting for your reading pleasure!
All the best.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Fascinating, wince-inducing article in The Guardian this morning - about how a first time producer spent several million on a piece of work that, after struggles including his lead actress' hair going on fire, and his lead actor refusing to die properly on screen, may (or may not) see the light of day next April. City trader Robert Fucilla wanted to be famous, so scraped the cash together to get a movie made - an endeavour that deserves to be applauded, no matter what the outcome - it's HARD to make a film; and we the family of 'The Insatiable Moon' have discovered, one of the hardest aspects is getting finance for a project that might seem unconventional. Now, to me, a person who read and has been in love with the novel for the past 12 years, the story of a homeless Maori with serious mental health difficulties who believes he is the second son of God and labours under the conviction that his Father has called him to impregnate a disillusioned housewife so that she can give birth to the future of the human race, well that is of course PERFECT material for a film. Not unconventional at all...
Alas, people who say they know how these things work aren't always so sure; and so our little film has had to struggle to surface in the same waters that disproportionately soak bigger films with bigger budgets. But, as we enter the fourth week of production, I'm glad to say that we're swimming upstream, and doing just fine. Last Friday's shooting schedule was tweaked due to some of the heaviest rain I've ever seen (note to self: make sure you get the right bus next time; you know, the one that doesn't leave you ten minutes walk from where you need to be, in the middle of a torrential downpour and without an umbrella); but in a swift and deft decision our director and crew moved to an indoor location and got some lovely work done. Today we're shooting in a house, and so there will be significantly fewer people on set than when we were shooting scenes of a public gathering last week. The sense of family and relaxed relationships mingles with a commitment to professionalism that deserves to be compared to far larger scale productions. Reading the article about Mr Fucilla's film, which appears to land in the middle ground between a labour of love and a folie de grandeur makes what's happening here in Ponsonby seem both more exciting and more challenging: it's HARD to make a film, and so we wish Mr Fucilla well, and hope some of the goodwill being expressed on the set of 'The Insatiable Moon' will somehow transfer to anyone struggling to get their movie made today, wherever in the world they may be.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Tom on set with Director Rosemary Riddell
There was a time when the term ‘independent film’ was a near-guarantee of quality or at least interest – making a film like ‘sex lies and videotape’ or ‘Reservoir Dogs’ required so much superhuman effort that it was a miracle if they were even finished. Distributors, alas, needed an economic reason to invest, rather than merely their aesthetic sense, and if your small film with no stars didn't happen to be lucky enough to attract the attention of a wealthy gatekeeper, it wasn’t likely to be released.
It was easier for big-budget special effects-laden extravaganzas to get seen simply because audiences can be trusted to flock to them simply because we all want to see ever more spectacular ways of destroying New York, or to the latest film starring whoever happens to be really famous at the moment merely on account of the fact that they're in it. Without the stars, or a decapitated Statue of Liberty for much of the audience, there is no show. Or so the superficial received wisdom goes...
Independent film-making eventually adopted major stars, and you’re now as likely to see a marquee name in an independent film as you are to see a well-known character actor from the 1970s in a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. The lines have become blurred – indie has become cool, and of course, indie has become far more accessible than ever. The equipment has never been as cheap, the opportunities to learn from the internet never more available. Everybody wants to make a movie. And sometimes remarkable things occur when people put the resources of time and talent and money to the service of a human story. Tom Burstyn, Director of Photography on ‘The Insatiable Moon’ has been on both sides of the indie/corporate canyon, having shot more than 70 movies, and worked with actors including Oprah Winfrey, Matt Dillon, Jessica Tandy; he shot Paul Newman’s late classic ‘Where the Money Is’, a vastly underrated, smart little film, and has worked on massive mini series such as a recent endeavour to represent the life of Marco Polo on screen.
Why, then, do we find him in a small Baptist church on Jervois Road in Ponsonby, shooting with a hand-held Fig Rig, only using two lights, and with a crew small enough to fit in my living room?
One obvious thing about Tom is his love of the local, so when we sat down for some food to talk about his philosophy of cinema, it was for the most amazing bowl of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup I’ve ever had. He had some mint spring rolls, but they sat quietly on the plate while he talked at length about what he calls 'frugal film-making'.
Tom’s critique of the status quo could be summed up as his view that ‘Producers are too often obsessed with gimmickry rather than being interested in expressing an idea’ – so fifteen lights and computer generated graphics and an exploding suspension bridge take precedence over the way the breeze is bending flowers and the look in a character’s eye. ‘The system of film-making is fear based,’ he says, with the ultimate fear being that the film being made won’t turn a massive profit for whatever bank owns it. Of course, the possibility of profit is partly determined by how much is being spent on the movie in the first place; and fear, you might imagine, and creativity do not happy bedfellows make.
Hence Tom’s passion for frugal film-making; a manifesto rooted in the notion that, as he puts it, once you have ‘a good script, a good director, and a good cast…artistry is taking things out, not adding them’. (You can read more about frugal film-making here.) Tom’s made two films with a crew of two; so ‘The Insatiable Moon’ must feel like a riot; but as I’ve observed him work over the past few days, it’s clear that his unruffled demeanour pays dividends among the rest of the crew. Too often film sets and other creative endeavours are full of anxiety; writers will perhaps contend that you need this – that a creative foment can occur when you take a work seriously enough to be anxious about it. Fair enough – but I think us writers would also say that, for the most part, it’s up to us to feel the anxiety and turn it into words before we arrive on set.
The principles of frugal film-making being applied to ‘The Insatiable Moon’ certainly make it a set not driven by fear; but it doesn’t diminish the quality of the work either – the actors are given room to breathe because they’re not worried about being in the right position vis a vis an invisible Godzilla that will be painted in later; and they’re not worn out by unnecessary multiple takes. The people embodying the characters of the people on Jervois Road go in, incarnate their lines, and the crew collect the information. Tom Burstyn once wrote a document called ‘Kamikaze Film-making: A Sociopolitical Manifesto on the Enlightenment of a Film-Set’; I’m not sure what the ‘kamikaze’ was referring to, because I think he’s slaying myths about the way movies are supposed to be made, rather than shooting himself (or anyone else) in the foot.
BTW - comments are now open for business on the blog: please feel free to add your thoughts below. Hope you have a great day!
Thursday, December 3, 2009
‘It’s f***ing not a f***ing movie, it’s a f***ing deal.’
Pip Piper is not that kind of producer. Having worked with disenfranchised youth on the streets of Birmingham, Pip got into film-making the textbook way: by accident. Called on to provide some visuals for a social justice initiative, his steps into the world of cinema were organic and surprising. Seven years ago he found himself at a table with Mike Riddell, as they toasted the gentlemen’s agreement to turn Mike’s words into the film we’re now making. It’s been, as they say, a long and winding road, with more than its share of setbacks; but one principle has guided the process, and it’s not the assertion that this is ‘not a f***ing movie’ nor is it merely ‘a f***ing deal’. It’s the principle that Pip summed up for me when we had a breakfast meeting yesterday (he may not be that particular kind of producer, but he still is a producer, so a breakfast meeting was inevitable. He paid,though.)
Pip cares about stories and journeys that tell the truth about people. Simple enough, and perhaps easy to ignore or dismiss in an age when ‘Transformers 2’ seems to suggest that stories about robots are more compelling (Let me declare an interest: I felt that watching ‘Transformers 2’ was the cinematic equivalent of sitting beside a person obsessed with changing the TV channels every 30 seconds, remote control in one hand, while hitting me in the face with a shovel in the other.) Let’s assume that ‘Transformers 2’ is an anomaly,and that what people really want is to see stories that reveal the truth about life – that we see in cinematic narratives and characters, journeys that remind us of ourselves; that we observe brokenness and redemption, joy and laughter, horror and despair, and the little shafts of light that dapple through the branches of whatever forest we happen to be missing because we’re so preoccupied with the trees.
‘The Insatiable Moon’ aims to be a film full of this dappled light; Pip Piper is a producer who wants to create the conditions whereby that light will be captured, so that the rest of us can see it, and say ‘Yep. Life’s like that. Isn’t it fantastic?’
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Let me introduce myself - I'm the new ghost writer for this blog dedicated to the revelation of how 'The Insatiable Moon' went from being an idea in Mike Riddell's head, to a novel, to a screenplay, and especially a film. As Mike wrote yesterday, I'll be writing the blog (mostly) from now on, leaving the film's writer much needed extra time to deal with one of the many surprises each day brings. We'd love the blog and facebook page to be places for conversation and anticipation about the rising Moon, so please do feel free to comment here or there. I'm delighted to be able to use some of my vacation in New Zealand to drop in on set and will do my best to keep you posted about what's happening in and around the making of the film.
This morning, my second observing the set of ‘The Insatiable Moon’, I was walking up Ponsonby Road on the way to the church where one of the pivotal scenes was being shot. Walking through mild rain and high humidity, to the emotional soundtrack of mild annoyance at being highly lost, having taken a wrong turn from the Production Office. Had a bag of strawberries in one hand – one of the pleasures of being here from the US/UK is the fact that I’m experiencing my first December summer, and therefore get to eat fruit that went out of season where I live a couple of months ago, and my MacBook bag in the other, looking forward to what would unfold in the church as one of our beloved characters makes a speech that we hope will be something audiences remember for a long time after seeing the movie.
But it wasn’t meant to be – I was stopped in my tracks by a bloke wearing a long black leather coat, also carrying two bags, eyes hidden behind massive dark glasses. As he passed me, he let out an agitated scream: ‘WHERE ARE MY CIGARETTES’. The surprise made me jump, feel a little uncomfortable, and it was a few seconds before I could focus my thoughts. Who was this man? Why was he screaming? Screaming for the location of his smokes, on a wet Ponsonby afternoon? People sat at the sidewalk cafes looked up at him, and then at me; some tried to conceal a smile – let’s face it, a bloke shouting on the street is funny in the way that someone tripping on a pavement is funny. It’s a natural reaction to the misfortune of others. But it’s also unfair. What was strange to me was the fact that the pity of the crowd seemed reserved for me, rather than the poor guy who’d lost his Pall Malls.
I remember first reading the novel ‘The Insatiable Moon’ twelve years ago – it was the Clinton era, the year the Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature ‘Hard Eight’ was released and had to compete with ‘Men in Black’ for an audience; the year Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died; and a time when the New Zealand film industry was yet to receive global attention in the form of a shot in the arm from J RR Tolkien. One of the motifs to which the book returns again and again is the place of marginalized people in our society, in the story, on Ponsonby Road. Blokes who walk up and down the high street screaming for their cigarettes, part of them trapped inside the complex labyrinth of mental health difficulties and God knows what else. The film being made here in Ponsonby is part love story, part drama, part postmodern religious epic, and part whatever you want it to be; but one of the most beautiful things about it is the fact that it focuses on people that usually get sidelined by the stories that often get told at the movies. It’s about the occurrence of magic in everyday life; it’s about the sacred and profane meeting each other, and being mixed into something new that becomes far more than the sum of its parts.
The ostensibly innocuous moment when I was confronted by a guy shouting for his cigarettes collided with my need to get to the set to see what was happening next. And on the way, I remembered something that one of my favourite actors used to say. The sadly late, and undeniably very great Jack Lemmon used to close his eyes just before the cameras rolled, and repeat a mantra that got him in the right zone to perform, to create on screen the heightened vision of reality that always occurs when movies work. His two words could serve as the motto for what’s happening here, as a motley crew of people dedicated to very-hard-working the vision to fruition, in the hope that together they may make a film that entertains, compels, challenges, inspires, makes the audience feel grateful to be alive and maybe just a little more ready to see each other for what we are; in short, to turn a story of ordinary people on Ponsonby Road into something that transcends our sense of just what is ordinary. I think Jack Lemmon might be right at home here. His two words? Magic Time.