Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Partially, this is because kids (of all ages) can be easily indoctrinated by films, and this risk is increased by the viewing approach that says "I like this movie. I should watch it again."
We also try not to let our kids do much screen watching at all until they're at least a year old. We just want their tiny brains to be somewhat grounded in what the real world looks, feels, and sounds like before we start introducing them to fantasy worlds of any kind.
Both policies have born fruit, I believe, but we have been partially unable to keep certain repetitions from our girls. Sometimes they will wake up before my wife and I do in order to watch a movie they love (although this doesn't happen often) and other times they will see the same thing two or three times while visiting family for a day.
I'm interested to know, what policies do your families follow (if any) in regards to watching movies in a home environment - even if it's not your home? How do they differ for children and adults? What results have you seen?
Friday, September 4, 2009
A new project of mine, which you’ll be able to read about on my personal blog soon, has gotten me thinking about the various attempts we’ve seen at Book of Mormon movies. There have been a lot of films with plots based on stories or characters from the book, and even more sharing Book of Mormon themes. We’ve even seen films with original stories set either partially or completely in Book of Mormon times. But it seems to me that depictions of the events in this book of scripture have been the rarer than those of other books, including the Doctrine and Covenants.
This leaves me asking why? Here are some possibilities:
Recreating any extensive or believable version of Book of Mormon culture/setting requires money. We know just enough about what these things may have looked like to have certain limited expectations, which leads me to my next point:
2. Precedent vs. Lack of Historical Data
Church productions like The Testaments and a host of seminary videos have created Nephite and Lamanite looks that we seem to have adopted as official, if not authentic, as evidenced by films like Passage to Zarahemla. At the same time, we don’t have nearly the wealth of information about these societies that we do regarding, say, the ancient Jews. So Bible stories are a lot easier to depict from one perspective because we can establish legitimacy through historical accuracy. Restoration stories are even easier than the Bible. Because we don’t have third party descriptions of clothing, armor, weapons, architecture, social habits, etc, that we can definitively associate with Book of Mormon cultures, much of what we see and hear in a film of this type is essentially made up. This brings an element of world building autonomy to Book of Mormon films that is generally absent from other scriptural stories.
3. Faking the Scriptures
That freedom can be a little uncomfortable when you’re dealing with scripture. For the most part, anyone who is interested enough to make a serious Book of Mormon film will probably be Mormon, so there would be a vested interest in representing the material well. Doctrinal accuracy would probably be a prime consideration, as would realism. But audiences are also looking for a way to visualize scripture stories. As has been discussed in this forum before, however, filmmakers aren’t really authorized to take on the role of scriptural interpreters for everyone. No matter how much a filmmaker tried to stay away from it, many LDS audience members would probably view the film expecting to see the scriptures – as they personally understand them. I’m sure you can see the problems with that. A notable exception may be the Liken the Scriptures series, which avoids this issue by targeting children, making their films the cultural equivalent of a “My First Scripture stories” book, rather than the book itself. The musical numbers also help with this differentiation.
4. Wrong Types of Stories and Characters
The Bible – particularly the New Testament – gets put into film all the time, and the filmmakers don’t generally have the burden of developing the main characters too much. For one thing, one of them is nearly always the Savior, who for much of the world needs no introduction. Additionally, the New Testament is very vignetty, if I can make that a word, and lends itself in some ways to disjointed, fairly shallow storytelling. Again, the characters and events are so well known that for many audiences this doesn’t really hurt the film. We expect the background to be already built. Not so with the Book of Mormon.
First of all, most of the major stories require a longer telling than New Testament episodes. Additionally, to really develop a character (let’s take Helaman), several chapters and/or books of scripture need to be covered, but the stories don’t always transition nicely. Filmmakers would need to add supplemental (read: fictional) material, which could be viewed as a no-no. This is one reason I think the makers of The Testaments were wise to stick to fictional characters involved indirectly in actual events. You notice that none of the western characters in that film actually come from the scriptures with the single exception of Christ. Honestly, I wondered why for a long time. I mean, you see the real apostles and others in the scenes in the Holy Land, but once you get to the
Then again, given the popularity of Book of Mormon based novels, I may be wrong.
Anyway, I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, so what do you think? How do you depict Book of Mormon events in a movie, and why haven’t we seen more of it?
Thursday, August 27, 2009
I'm about to embark on a four-week workshop to help the scouts in my ward get the Cinematography merit badge, for which I'm a counselor. We're having a mini film festival at the end to showcase their work. I'm really interested to get these kids' reactions to the world of filmmaking. I'm wanting to push involvement in the local filmmaking scene for those who are interested - particularly emphasizing awareness of LDS filmmaking - and I'm going to try to get a group of these kids to come down to the next LDSFF in January to participate in the 24hour marathon. I don't want this activity to be too driven by my agenda, but it seems I've got a real opportunity here and while I don't want to abuse it, I also don't want to miss it.
I'm wondering if any of you have any ideas or suggestions on how I could structure the workshop to make it meaningful beyond the scope of just another merit badge (like the easy and almost obligatory Basket Weaving), which is often all these things turn into, unfortunately.
Anyway, I'll post anything relevant that comes from this, but what do you think?
Friday, July 17, 2009
Ryan Little's Forever Strong has been compared to other popular sports films such as Remember the Titans and Rudy in ways both flattering and dismissive: flattering inasmuch as the film tells an inspirational story in a way that resonates with a wide variety of audiences, dismissive because it does so in a fairly formulaic manner – the formula in question being established and entrenched by movies such as these.
Both points are valid. Comparing Little's effort to the ostensibly larger, more widely known productions is more than an insecure attempt to turn a broadly targeted LDS film into the movement's flagship (see how Hollywood that was! Did you notice Sean Astin? Aren't Mormons great filmmakers?) or to ride the more famous films' coattails to financial or social success. Forever Strong really does have as good and universal a message as Titans even if it's not as emotionally charged as that film's racial elements can sometimes make it, and the two demonstrate many other similarities. And while Sean Faris' character Rick Penning doesn't share Rudy's overlooked underdog status, he does have certain obstacles to overcome before he can really belong on a team that is as famous in high school rugby as Notre Dame Football is in its sphere. All three films, and many others like them, utilize the medium of sports to teach lessons and tell stories that should transcend the realm of athletics and the ages of the players.
True it is also that the film is predictable. No one is surprised when the troubled Penning lands in a correctional facility, when he reluctantly agrees to join the Highland team, when the team suffers from his influence, when a teammate helps him see past himself, when tragedy involving that same teammate strikes, when the coach demonstrates both firmness and compassion in teaching life lessons, when the transformed Penning is confronted by his old life, when that life conspires against him, when he and his father share an emotional moment or two of forgiveness, or when (in slow motion and presumably against the odds) Penning himself scores the final, desperate, last-second winning goal. The average American moviegoer could probably give a good general outline of the film without ever having seen it.
But neither of those things (the similarity or the predictability) matter because neither of them say anything about the value of the film. The latter argument begs the question, what is wrong with following a formula in telling a story, particularly if such a formula helps an audience to identify its place within the story? Does knowing the end from the beginning make the journey meaningless? Why would we ever watch a film more than once if this were the case? The “that's been done before” philosophy would prevent the telling of a great many important stories if it were allowed to. This is not to deny the importance of new perspectives and innovative approaches, but rather to assert that tradition can provide as fertile a storytelling matrix as does frontier.
Are Remember the Titans or Rudy either worse or better because Forever Strong is like them? It could be argued that Little's film lacks originality, but this is simply a function of coming after so many others. Even if the genre was picked for the commercial potential demonstrated by movies like Titans and the “hook” was that hey, this is a rugby film, we've never seen that before, does this imply that the new offering can't be better than the old? I personally don't think Forever Strong is the “better” of the films I've mentioned, but the point is that it could be – even if every page of its playbook was taken from something previously done. It could still be better because the story, as real life Highland Rugby head coach Larry Gelwix says, is true.
The story has some important differences from the films mentioned above, however. Unlike Titans, the plot of which revolves around the coaching staff and is narrated by a child, focusing on the game of football as a microcosm of racial relations, Forever Strong focuses on a single player's personal life, telling the story from his perspective and somewhat downplaying the importance of Rugby in the transformational process. Unlike Rudy, in Forever Strong, the change in the team (coach included) is minimal – at least in terms of screen time. It's Penning converting to the Highland way, not Irish being made flexible by the tenacity of a small zealot.
This is one way in which Forever Strong, though not uniquely Mormon, fits comfortably into the developing tradition of Mormon film: it is essentially a personal conversion story, including themes of forgiveness and redemption. Penning is redeemed as he accepts the higher lifestyle of the Highland philosophy, from which his father has also, unbeknownst to the son, fallen away. It's interesting that Penning Sr.'s life of bitterness stems from the belief that when he was on Gelwix's team, he was played in the wrong position. This is exactly the same hurdle that Penning Jr. has to overcome in his very first game for Highland, when he learns that he is being placed somewhere other than his traditional goal-scoring post. His wounded pride at not being the star impacts the entire team and they lose the game through lack of effort,an unacceptable outcome to Gelwix.
Penning Jr. does not repeat his father's mistakes, however, and his personal redemption, which holds true even when he is framed by a former friend and jailed falsely, leads to the same change of heart in his father. Their spiritual atonement is made complete by the forgiveness the former extends to the latter as their teams (Penning Sr. coaches his son's former team) are about to face each other for the championship.
None of this happens, however, before Penning Jr. gives a perfect illustration of the LDS understanding of repentance. First he realizes the error of his ways, second he physically abandons his bad behavior (kicks a ball in which he's been hiding his drugs over the correctional facility fence), and third, he confesses his sins to the appropriate authority – in this case coach Gelwix. His probationary period is set (he can't play in the next game), but he is also promised future blessings (he is made co captain of the team). Ironically, Penning's repentance leads to his early release from his now irrelevant correctional sentence, which takes him from the Highland team and thrusts him back into the midst of the very environment he has just learned to forsake. His refusal to return to that lifestyle leads to the framing mentioned above. In the final game, he completes his repentance by asking forgiveness of those he has offended (his father).
Redemption also comes to coach Gelwix after his philosophy is challenged by Penning Jr.'s rebellion. At one point, the coach poses the thought to his wife that if he can't help Penning, it may be time for him to quit coaching. Clearly, the outcome indicates that Gelwix's usefulness as an instrument of change is far from expired.
Finally, “Q,” Highland's other co captain is brought to redemption by the converted Penning Jr.'s example when he admits first to Penning, and then to Gelwix that he has been cheating in school, in violation of the team's honor code.
One of the staple messages of the film is the importance of forgetting oneself in the quest for team victory. The definition of “team” can be variable. Gelwix's philosophy states that while being honestly beaten is undesirable, it is acceptable so long as the best effort is given. Accordingly, as mentioned, a key requirement is that players accept and magnify their positions on the team. Penning learns to accept that his role is not to score, but to support the team in other ways. This lesson, which embodies the transformation his attitude has undergone, is contradicted in the final seconds of the championship game when the already injured Penning fends off and evades repeated vicious attempts to disable him and scores the winning goal. That this is expected in a film of this nature has already been observed, but it might seem more consistent in this case to have Penning provide a critical assist to the goal, or to play a very minor part in the winning play. For him to rejoice in the desired outcome when it was brought about by the team's unity rather than his direct actions would reinforce the message rather than undermining it. The pacing, framing, and length of the critical shots are such that Penning's big play seems to be a one-man drive without regard for or awareness of teammates who may be in better scoring position.
From a certain perspective, however, the point may be moot. Gelwix instructs all his players that “it doesn't matter who scores. It only matters that we score.” If Penning has truly become converted to this teaching, then scoring any goal – even the winning goal of the championship game – holds no personal glory for him above what is shared by the team as a whole. That it was him who scored wouldn't matter. If this is the case, the scene in question has no inconsistency. My limited understanding of rugby prevents me from saying whether the goal represents Penning usurping the role of a teammate or simply being in the right place at the right time.
What I can say is that this scene feels inconsistent because it narrow the film's focus back to the game level – if Penning can only score, he will win the game. The transcendent lessons have been forgotten in a momentary push to make the play. While this deviation bothered me, it doesn't detract from the film's overall consistency enough to be a serious flaw.
Coach Gelwix is an admirable man, that much is clear from the brief exposure I've had to him both in person and via this film. Although he isn't the crux of the story in Forever Strong, he is the source of the influence that transforms Penning's life. The DVD tries to capture that influence in a special feature entitled Life Lessons with Coach Larry Gelwix or something like that. The feature is interesting for several reasons. From one perspective, the interview Gelwix gives demonstrates how extensively his personal philosophy is written into the film's script and how ably Gary Cole capture's the man's character in his performance. Many lines and moments that I initially thought were dreamed up by the studio turn out to actually be common sayings and real depictions of this dynamic leader, which helps to give the film its credibility.
But most of that credibility comes from the fact that the story is true, as Gelwix unreservedly declares it to be. Hold on a minute. Just before that he said that the events in the film were composited from experiences of more than thirty years of coaching, and that they didn't happen all in one season. Then how can the story be true? Gelwix explains that, too. He says that the truth of a story – or any statement – has nearly nothing to do with the actual words (or other direct meaning carriers like film images) used. Instead, the story operates on true principles, the coach claims, which is why it can, in spite of being factually inaccurate, be true. This is why Christ's teaching in parables doesn't turn him into a liar. It may be that no nobleman going into a far country ever had the same experience with his stewards that the man in the parable of the talents had, but that hardly makes the parable false. So with any story.
To greater and lesser extents, the elements of a DVD share a symbiotic relationship. The special features, the previews or advertisements, the menu design, the navigation can influence the viewer's experience, and therefore interpretation of the film. Unlike theater viewing, DVDs allow the user to control the pace, timing, and content of the experience, I hope you'll forgive my speaking about my particular experience with this DVD.
I'm a believer that a work of art should be taken on its own terms and does not need the context of the artist's biography, previous works, etc. to be understood. Those things can certainly impact how art is viewed, but they do so by making the work in question a part of a larger story – no longer a story unto itself. This means that the emotions, impressions, and interpretations the audience associates with the work are not actually responses to the art, but to framework in which it is placed. It's the difference between beholding a breathtaking vista from a high mountaintop and thumbing through the photo album of all the family vacations, including that one.
The photo album effect is what DVD special features often try to do to a film. In addition to experiencing the art, you can learn about the “making of” and get to know the cast, crew, and other individuals outside of the context of their roles as artists or contributors. The Life Lessons section of the Forever Strong DVD introduces the viewer to the real Larry Gelwix, which has two distinct effects. First, it makes an already somewhat preachy sports-as-life film (a genre in which it can be hard to avoid preachyness) even more didactic. Second, it grounds the film's theatrical elements in reality. Not often do we get to hear exactly which events in a “based on actual events” film are actual. It sort of does what the ending of Tim Burton's Big Fish does for the protagonist's wild life story – it lets us see the humanity behind the mythology.
Regarding the first effect, I should mention that Forever Strong is not preachy in the sense that it shoves the philosophy it advocates down the viewer's throat, only in the sense that it takes a distinct stand on the issues it handles. The title of the Life Lessons feature lets the viewer know what to expect, so there's no reason to be surprised that it feels like a young adult fireside.
The presence of this feature on the disc may constitute a sideways attempt by Little (or someone else involved in the production) to satisfy the LDS impulse to use media and art as a missionary tool. You can enjoy the movie without feeling like you're in Sunday School, but if you would like to know more about the teachings of Larry Gelwix... The opportunity is there, and religion finally comes into it when, in one of the final segments of this feature, Gelwix characterizes his coaching methodology by saying “you can't do the Lord's work in the devil's way.”
There is no LDS-specific proselytizing that I observed, by the way.
But as far as I'm concerned, this may be a perfectly good way for LDS filmmakers to get their stronger gospel ideals into their productions. Life Lessons is distinct among the features on the disc because it's the only one that doesn't feel like it came from a fan site. It carries a sober, inspirational tone in that it openly preaches what the film attempts to represent in application.
The other features – viral videos, trailers, and the obligatory outtakes and bloopers are standard DVD fare, and that's okay.
One thing that felt missing from this DVD: previews. I'm often annoyed by them, particularly as they include more pitches for non-film products, but I confess that I was hoping for a look at the director's next project, some upcoming offerings from Candlelight, or something. Instead the disc firstplays the main menu and there is no option I could see for anything else. Disappointing to my cultural Mormonness, not very Hollywood-like (in spite of repeated claims that this was a major Hollywood release), but not a very serious flaw, if it was one at all.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
The short film competition is probably one of the best parts of the festival. I love the format, first of all, and to see ten or eleven of the films right in a row is great. This year, the competition was broken into two segments with about twenty films total. I won't discuss them all, but you can read synopses and get credit information here.
Let me briefly run down my impressions of the most memorable of these films (for me), in no particular order.
The Teller's Tale by Jared Parker and Jared Cook
This is a charming story that is great for anyone with children. It captures the magic that can exist when a father is involved in his childrens' lives and imaginations. Because I love to read to my daughters, this touched me.
The Skeleton Dance by the
While I found the animation on this one a little bit disturbing, it represented an encouraging and inventive effort by some talented young students.
Face to Face by Spanky Ward
This plain bothered me, and not in an introspective, constructive way. I don't know Mr. Ward (although I see his Craigslist ads all the time), but this seemed like a masochistic attempt to get us all to connect with our inner psychotic murderer. Coming to terms with your dark side is fine, but I thought this was a bit over the top.
In the film, a man is confronted in his home by an evil stranger who looks just like him. Predictably, over the course of their conversation it becomes clear that they're two sides of the same personality. The good self ends up embracing the murderous actions of the bad self, and, as far as I could tell at one viewing, embracing his evil nature as well.
True, we all do some things that we're ashamed of. We might even hide them from our consciousness as the man in this film did. But I just think Face to Face takes too bleak a view of human nature. We're not all murderers at heart, and when we come to realize our mistakes, most of us still desire to overcome our weakness. The absence of atonement here would be interesting if it were deliberate, but it seems unlikely that this was the case. Instead, this film simply gives up on human goodness and tells us all to go ahead and go to hell, since there’s no other place, really, although I doubt that even that was deliberate. My biggest problem with this film is not that it has dark and difficult themes or that the ending is unhappy; it's that the film seems utterly devoid of any constructive virtue. It denigrates both the main character and the audience.
Fifty Cents by Ali Barr and Sally Meyer
I thought this was an enchanting tale of the young learning from the old, and vice versa. Sally Meyer's gifts for short form writing come through here.
These Words are Mine by Robert Higginson, Brian Higginson, and Carol Lynch Williams
I'll take an extra minute on this because it applies to us as artists. This is a wonderful story of how an "impossibly horrible" writer uses her words to send the messages she's too shy to speak outright. The writer's boyfriend is reluctant to act as critic for her latest story because he doesn't want to endure its badness, but also doesn't want to hurt her feelings. He comes to understand, however, that although the words may be ill-chosen, the message is heartfelt, and it's for him.
In the Church, we have a high tolerance for people who are well intentioned but awkward in their execution. We almost expect people to be blunderers because, after all, the Lord looks on the heart and we certainly don't claim to be qualified for our callings do we? Our wills to be humble turn us all into this cute writer who does her best but invariably fails. What we hope is that those we're ministering to will understand our intent and not get caught because we're not mighty in writing. In LDS film, we similarly see a lot of attempts by people who mean well, but lack the polish of seasoned professionals. My question is, is that okay, expected, or even desirable?
The Edge of the World by E.R. Nelson
This is the second animated entry, and teaches a rather blunt lesson about recognizing what you have and being content with it.
A Piece of Infinity by Janine and Jamie Sides
This was probably the closest I came to shedding tears during this competition. It is an absolutely heart-wrenching look at relationships lost and the hope for the future.
Unhinged by Nick Stentzel and Diane Mayne
Like These Words are Mine, this film takes a look at art and relationships. This time though, the artist's obsession keeps his relationship from becoming meaningful, but he is awkward in art because he has no time for love. He almost loses his girl and his art, but he finally learns to let her in and finds the inspiration he's been looking for.
Best Wishes, Love Adele by Whitney Donald
A touching look at misunderstandings and forlorn hopes of romance, this film stands out because it takes a compassionate look at certain issues related to aging. I love the charitable ending, in which the doubters learn that the old man is big-hearted, rather than manipulative.
Mind the Gap by Kristal Williams-Rowley and Marcy Holland
This was the winner of the competition, and deservedly so. It centers on Sara, the daughter of a railroad engineer whose train is the weapon in a classmate's suicide. Sara struggles to deal with her feelings of bitterness towards the dead girl and her sense of injustice at the victimization (not for the first time) of her father, who copes with his own feelings by keeping a collection of small items found on the bodies of the people he has hit. Not only does this film reveal some startling statistics about the railroad industry, it openly confronts some difficult issues that are not often addressed simply because they are not obvious. The storytelling is superb. I was left feeling unsure whether this was a purely fictional film or a docu-drama. The film is beautiful, difficult, and in the end, uplifting.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Perhaps because he has the perspective of an informed outsider (both in filmmaking and Mormonism) the audience's expectations were high. While Stevenson didn't speak much about the LDS film movement itself, his comments were interesting and, I think, important in that they demonstrate a kind of solidarity that can be had between LDS and non-LDS filmmakers.
This dark, funny, romantic, and charming film is about Charlie Silvercloud, a 24-year-old Native American young man who believes he is under a curse. Charlie's father and grandfather, you see, were killed by milk trucks on their 25th birthdays. Only a few days away from his own expiration date, Charlie is settling his affairs and making arrangements for his funeral - doing such things as looking for a comfortable coffin, selecting burial a burial plot, etc. He is completely resigned to his fate, having grown up his whole life being taught by his mother to expect it. While both of them would like to avoid it (they have every milk delivery route in the city mapped out with red zones indicating unsafe times and places), both view the event as inevitable.
In the course of his preparations, Charlie meets a young woman named Bessie Smith, who is also coffin shopping, though she says it's for her mother, who is dying of cancer. Bessie also happens to be a daughter of the family that owns the city's milk production plant. The movie shows the development of Charlie and Bessie's relationship and how, together, they face issues of life, death, tradition, fear, and love.
I couldn't possibly say what the best thing about this movie is. I was personally struck by the message portrayed in the film's bookends, which frame the story of Charlie's curse as a morality tale being told by an elderly Native American man to a younger tribe member who is trying to get away from the reservation and therefore his heritage. Apparently, the Silverclouds' history of being killed by "pasty white" milk trucks began when the first of them left the tribe to live in the city. The old man telling the story is a humorous but wise character, and racial prejudice is not the point of his comments. Instead, they point out that by turning our backs on our cultural heritage, we reject not only our ancestors but our identities - our very lives. Having served a mission among members of an Indian tribe that has all but disappeared, I found these scenes accurate (per my experience) and deeply moving.
In his presentation, Stevenson spoke about films being culturally true, saying that the purpose of our storytelling tradition is to pass on our values and traditions. Hollywood, while faithful at first, has done this in ever poorer fashion, he claimed, and asked those there to consider their "celluloid footprint," which is not so much what they are taking from the world through film as what they are leaving it. Are we creating "fast food cinema," or producing something more wholesome, sustainable, and true?
Stevenson shared an anecdote that describes another of the film's strengths. After screening Expiration Date at a previous festival (this was the film's 84th - no, that's not a typo) he was approached by a woman whose 12-year-old child was suffering from a terminal illness. With tears in her eyes, she explained that she had been coffin shopping for her son only earlier that day, and thanked Stevenson for his film because it gave her hope. In her words, "it affirms life."
"That moment gave me all the reason to be the filmmaker I am," said Stevenson. He recalled feeling unworthy to be in that woman's presence, but grateful that his film could bless her in such a way. The real reason for making films, he said, is embodied by that experience and countless others like it. The payoff is not monetary.
A few other themes Stevenson discussed were community among filmmakers, the availability of independent film, and how LDS cinema can succeed. Regarding the first, he said that those who want to make good films should support each other. "Send a filmmaker $20 if you've seen his film." Gestures like that make all the difference in keeping people going, and develop a sense of common cause that is strengthening to everyone.
On the second topic, Stevenson gave some eye-opening statistics. He said that about 25,000 films are made around the world each year. About 500 of those are Hollywood productions. Only about 600 films per year get wide distribution, including all 500 made by Hollywood. So good independent films are getting made, but they are not getting to us. In order to help rectify this, Stevenson and some associates have started a group called Official Best of Fest, which offers collections for sale of fourteen to twenty award winning independent films, both short and feature length. Current collections include Chick Flicks, Films that Will Make You Laugh, Films that Inspire, Films about Love, Short Films for Children, and three smaller Date Night collections that come with chocolates.
Finally, Stevenson encouraged LDS filmmakers to focus on their storytelling abilities, seek a narrowly defined audience, and find a neutral storyteller for their films. He gave the example of a child, saying that since a child's primary question is "am I safe?" children make good universal narrators. Everyone can relate to the perspective. He views the current LDS market not as sparse or disinterested, but hungry - very hungry. Finally, he encouraged LDS (and all) independent filmmakers to embrace piracy. Anonymity, he said, not copyright infringement, is our enemy.
Monday, June 1, 2009
While there is one presentation that I'd like to focus on individually, I think I'm going to try to cover the others all at once. This is for two reasons. First, I don't want this series to take all the way until next year's festival to finish, and I still have some actual films to review. Second, several of the remaining presentations can be summarized with brevity, even by me.
Lets get started.
Seth Packard and Ben Lakey
For those of you who don't know, Seth Packard is the writer/director/star of Hottieboombalottie, a film about a teenager with (from what I've seen) self-image issues, raging hormones, and a number of other problems, which at the time of this presentation was gaining popularity in the festival circuit. I've most recently seen Packard give one of the few decent performances in Chris Heimerdinger's Passage to Zarahemla. His role, while minor, stole the show, in my opinion. Ben Lakey played almost as big a role in Hottieboombalottie's creation as Packard did.
Their presentation consisted of clips from the film coupled with advice for filmmakers trying to be successful - which is probably all of us. While I have little love for the film itself, much of their experience seemed useful to me. I'll repeat some of it here:
Packard is primarily an actor (and a talented one), and this film was an attempt at promoting his acting career by providing himself a starring role. This focus would have made it easy for him to surround himself with others who could do most of the other work, but this is not Packard's philosophy. Instead, he began with the assumption that the best way to make a successful movie was to know everything about what it takes to do so, which seems both reasonable and obvious. However, many people seem to think that having the idea for a movie is enough. Once the right idea comes along, everything else falls into place. Packard would argue that this just isn't so.
While his career focus didn't remove him from interest in the other aspects of filmmaking, it did make him an actor's director. Packard would give input on each performance, but allow his actors to make the final decisions. Every movement was designed to add meaning to the film. A lot of stupid things happen in the script, but Packard and Lakey emphasized that actors can't interpret their own roles as stupid or their performances will be phony. They have to believe that their characters really would act in the way that the script is telling them to, even if it is outrageous. The director can have influence in this regard.
As Lakey observed, most filmmakers have three goals: to make it cheap, make it fast, and make it quality. Only two of these can be accomplished, he argues, and on Hottieboombalottie, the standard sacrificed was speed. Packard's approach relied heavily on storyboarding, which took four months compared to the six it took to write the script. Shooting took 18 days. Much of the funding came from family members, and Lakey says they were careful not to pretend to know more than they did.
In order to save money, rehearsals were held while the crew was setting each scene, and only Utah actors were cast.
A few other points of advice:
- Plan really well and it works.
- A realistic post budget is important.
- Keep a low-stress environment: no yelling.
As I mentioned in my post on that subject, Maclain Nelson is the Executive Producer and star of Dragon Hunter, and also appeared in other films at the festival, such as The Sinking of Santa Isabel, Father in Israel, and Dianatha's Crossing. For those who don't know what exactly an Executive Producer does, Nelson says that it's like being in charge of sales. He puts the money together.
Nelson graduated from BYU in 2003 and began, like Packard, as an actor. Nelson believes that filmmaking is about networking. After a failed audition for the LDS adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, he asked to be a volunteer gopher. Over the course of the production one thing led to another and he ended up as Assistant Director. He accomplished this by being the type of person who says "yes" to every problem and works hard to do it.
In Nelson's mind, there's no difference between an independent filmmaker and an entrepreneur. He says you should realize what you're good at and find other people to do the other things. A good film needs talent at artistic, technical, and business levels. He also says you should make your own films your way, rather than imitating someone else's style.
When forecasting the success of your film, Nelson says you should pick others in the same genre that have been huge successes, failures, and moderate performers, and average them. Then be honest with yourself and others about the risk involved. Your pitch should send the message, "Film is risky. We'll put money in the right places, manage costs better, and bring more money in."
Because he believes that the hardest part of making a film is making the money, Nelson gave the following points of advice/insight/encouragement on the process:
- Make a list of anyone you can think of who might be interested in investing in your film.
- Have a solid business plan.
- Start an LLC for your film.
- Keep meetings with potential investors to 15 minutes.
- People are interested in film investing, so they will meet with you.
- Keep your contacts
- Sell investment units - don't try to get all the money from one place.
- Most investors will buy one unit even if it's a little higher. They don't like partial units or multiple units as much.
- If you don't have a big name actor, keep you budget under $500K unless it's a genre piece.
- Big actors will work for less money if they like the script and if you can be flexible with scheduling (this was how Dragon Hunter got Issac Singleton - not a huge name but a recognizable face).
- You only need one name actor, and with a $500K budget you can get it.
- Make a list of the actors you want and start contacting them in order of preference.
- Give them a week to respond before moving down the list.
- Start small.
- For musical (and other talent) find people who are hungry. Local/smaller bands are eager to get their music in a film and won't want outrageous sums of money for it.
- Get an IMDb Pro account
For foreign distribution, Nelson suggests a Park City company called Kowan.
A few things to look forward to from Nelson's company: a sequel to Dragon Hunter called Dragon Hunter: Legend of the Hidden City, a vampire movie, a western, a musical. Not much more info on any of them than that.If you're looking to get a script produced, Nelson accepts submissions at maclainnelson[at]hotmail[dot]com.
Because they don't really have much to do with the purpose of this blog, I won't be in-depth about these, but there were a couple of technical presentations about the RED camera and Visual Effects. The first was by Alan Williams and Zach Helton. Williams is a Digital Intermediate Producer at Universal Post & Cosmic Pictures. Helton is from Digital Cinema Tech.
This presentation was interesting, but from a state-of-the-art perspective. One comment the presenters made that is worth mentioning was regarding the importance of storytelling. They see actors and directors as necessary evils in the telling of a story - an interesting point of view. The presenters also reiterated Ben Lakey's comment about quality, price, and speed, and how a film can only have two of them in its favor.
Other that that, I'll only say that if anyone reading this is considering using the RED camera in a film, either of the gentlemen listed above can help you procure one and they would be happy to assist in your post production as well.
The VFX presentation was given by the good folks at Bluefire Studios, who did a number of effects shots for The Errand of Angels. They gave suggestions for setting up effects shots with the goal of lowering post production costs.
This presentation was by Anne Seward Hansen from the Screen Actor's Guild and Marshall Moore of the Utah Film Commission. They spoke about producing films in Utah - specifically how the UFC's rebate program (at the time it was 15% of every dollar spent) helps bring productions to the state.
Again, because it's not as much to this forum's purposes, I'll just give a couple of bullet points.
- It's in the state's best interests to have lots of productions and big productions.
- Yay Utah! stats: Utah was 4th in the nation for production last year, the film industry created 994 jobs in Utah in fiscal 2008 and generated $36 mil. in revenues.
- The minimum you have to spend to get a UFC rebate is $1 mil., but that will be lowered soon.
- Utah is the only state in which a union film and a non-union film can be shot side-by-side without restriction.
- Rebate is changing from 15% to 20%.
- The $500K cap on the rebate is being removed and it will now be structured as a tax refund instead of a cash rebate.
- 35 of the 38 submitted films have been approved - those that weren't were so trashy they didn't fit the state's values.
- Ratings are not discussed in the approval process.
- It may be possible to package several low-budget films from a single funding source in order to meet the minimum spend.
Last One I Promise - The LDS Film Forum
This would normally merit a post of its own, but I snuck out partway through to go to a different presentation, so I only have a little bit to report on.
This years forum was moderated by Gideon Burton and included presentations from Cathy Cowley and Katherine Morris. No doubt I'll do no justice to their thoughts and preparation by summarizing what little I heard.
Cowley's and Burton's comments can probably best be encapsulated in the questions they asked, which may merit further discussion here, but which I can't begin to answer without waxing long-winded and boring. Cowley contemplated the formal presentation of our identity (as in a eulogy) through film and asked, "Who do we want to think we are and try to become?"
Burton extrapolated with this query, "What aspect of our identity must be present in a film to call it LDS?"
Morris spoke about Paradox a-la-Terryl Givens. She claimed that Film offers a good medium to explore the disintegration of sacred space that Givens discusses in his works. This concept is basically that rather than separating everyday pursuits from spiritual reality, Mormonism eliminates the difference. Morris further said that because we think of film as a secular medium, sacred things portrayed thereon can be hard to receive.
It was at this point that I left the room, so I'm sorry to cut this off when it's finally getting interesting. Perhaps I can return to the subject in more depth later. What's left is a discussion of the presentation by Rick Stevenson, a non-LDS independent filmmaker, and reviews of several films. For now (assuming anyone has actually finished this post - thanks, if you have) I'll leave you to ponder.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
One of the most interesting presentations to me was made by Christian Vuissa, founder of the festival and an influential figure in LDS filmmaking. His most recent film, Father in Israel, premiered there and is now coming more to the public. But this film was not his main topic of interest to me.
Vuissa made some observations about the state of LDS filmmaking, which I will try to summarize here, along with describing an economic model for producing films that he believes to be sustainable. Those familiar with the financial end of the film industry will know that such a model has never yet been found - or if it has, it has not been widely accepted. I'll deal with that model as thoroughly as I can, but not until the end of this post.
Among other things, Vuissa noted that traditional carreer expectations of new filmmakers have reversed themselves. Instead of working their way to bigger and better productions, many new entrants desire to have the "big one" be their first one. Indeed, some seem to judge filmmakers more strictly by their early works than their later ones. If a first film (particularly a first film after the maker's schooling is completed) is not exemplary or incredibly successful, its creator is clearly not cut out for filmmaking and should go back to whatever he or she did previously. I have seen this attitude reflected in the reviews of several critics, aimed quite harshly at actors who try their hands at directing. While the critic's role, as discussed in Fellini's Otto e mezzo, may well be in part to prevent the creation of films that ought not to be, such a role should be played in a way that it fosters, rather than destroys, personal and professional development.
Audiences also, said Vuissa, are more critical now that the novelty of LDS cinema has passed. Additionally, their expectations are trained by Hollywood, the low budget films of which are more expensive than the least thrifty LDS films. In the popular mind, the amount of money spent on a film often seems to be a predictor of its quality.
Yet money is an essential part of filmmaking, observes Vuissa. "If you're afraid of money, you can't be in film," he said. Nevertheless, he argues that a quality film can be made for $200,000 - an amount that allows the possibility of profitability - and can be shot in about 15 days with a 10-12 person crew. Because of the "first-timer" status of many LDS filmmakers, Vuissa proposed the formation of a foundation to support their work and development. A $20 million fund, said he, would produce enough interest to produce four or five films each year so long as they remained within the constraints he described. Not every film would have to be successful for the fund to continue, which would allow growing filmmakers to make mistakes without being driven out of the industry. The goal would be to groom these artists with a mind towards creating excellence in the LDS filmmaking community. An attitude that is not self-serving, but seeks cultural preservation and productivity would be essential to the success of this venture.
Vuissa's proposal, while it may have been received as largely hypothetical, was not, to my mind, intended that way. That this is the ultimate answer to the growth of LDS cinema I doubt. No single organization, individual, or fund could or should be looked to as the source life for the movement. Improvement must (will, I think) come from many places, both assumed and unexpected, or else stagnation will not be far behind any innovation, no matter how revolutionary. But I feel that Vuissa's idea put into action would be a step in the right direction. So I ask these questions in closing: what can we do to make this fund a reality? And perhaps more importantly, what else, apart from this foundation, can be done?
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Although Edwards and Meyer provided many insights into the production of Minor Details, I would like to focus on some of the more general film making tips they offered in the hopes that they may be useful to those who read them.
Being herself a ubiquitous name in screenwriting credits for this year's selections, Meyer had much to say on that topic. Edwards contributed other insights. I think a list may be the most concise form for the presentation of this advice, so here goes:
1. Write small scenes. This makes it easier to rearrange and cut things together in post-production, which keeps options open. Preserving your options is always a good thing.
2. Expose yourself to the work of others. Meyer said, "If you want to write, read, read, read."
3. As a writer, don't get in the way. To again quote Meyer, "Once you hand the script to the director you stand back because it's his vision."
4. Be aware of other productions being shot in your area or it may be difficult to schedule crew members, particularly where hair and makeup are concerned.
5. As a writer, don't force an interpretation on the director or the actors. Write in a way that enables their artistry instead of limiting it.
Such was the general thrust of the presentation, as I picked up on it. I hope these topics will inspire some discussion here, as I don't do justice to any one of them. This list doesn't represent the whole presentation, but I'll cover much of the rest of it in my review of Minor Details.
Those of you who have met Michael Flynn may agree with me that he has a powerful, but not necessarily threatening presence. When he speaks, it is easy to listen. Much of his subject matter was related to finding the passion in a film and in life (a distinction he hardly made), and he related the first section of it to acting specifically. According to Flynn, art is what is left over when all the uninteresting bits are squeezed out of life. Only the passion remains, and that is art. An actor, he claims, is paid to communicate that passion, and so must be capable of sensing the finest variations in it, be they related to vocal inflection, tone, or some other nuance. According to Flynn, this obligation extends to all participants in the production of a film. He says that when a particular scene doesn't "work," it is often because someone involved (an actor, the director, the editor, etc.) wasn't "listening" to its passion. With his perspective and presentation style, Flynn transported the process of making a film to a most paradoxical sphere in which participants are simultaneously floating in turbulent, volumetric clouds of emotional connections and bracing themselves in the solid, packed earth of technique, technicality, and realism. He insisted that rhythm helps a film transcend the ordinary, but also advocated the necessity of variation.
From here, Flynn's remarks took a turn towards LDS cinema in particular. He spoke to the high moral standard placed on Mormon filmmakers. "If the Mormons are doing the film," he said, "it has to be so unbelievably squeaky clean that it boggles the imagination." In saying this, Flynn was not disparaging cleanliness, but speaking to the artificial constraints sometimes placed upon LDS artists by others' ideas about what it is to be LDS.
This expectation may drive Church members in the industry who want to produce something other than institutional films to any number of measures, including producing films that have no LDS-specific content, but still hold to a theme harmonious with gospel standards. Flynn made an observation about this approach when he described the area between LDS specific content and popular emulations of Hollywood as "no man's land." The problem with staying away from too much LDS-ness, he says, is that Mormons don't care about these films because they aren't representative of them, and other people don't care because they don't recognize anyone associated with them.
After speaking to some of the difficulties involved with making financially sustainable films (a popular topic this year that I'll deal with in my summary of Christian Vuissa's comments), Flynn concluded with this thought: "It's a shark-infested pool..but the nice thing is, come on, you're making a movie!"
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Some people are critical of LDS film that seems too naieve, simplistic, or restricted. They say it demeans the art or that it misses larger opportunities. Others complain about LDS filmmakers who want to push boundaries. Concerns of doctrinal correctness and gospel faithfulness can come up with this last group. Yet others are a mixture, wanting to represent all aspects and do justice to evil as well as good without coming close to the edge in what is actually depicted. This more moderate group may be called wishy-washy or double-standarded or hypocritical by some.
This isn't the best summary, but I think you see what I'm getting at.
So where do I fall? That's the problem. I don't know. I'm always trying to consider new ideas on this, hoping to find the one that fits for me. I love complex art and I believe in paradox and helping raise everyone to a higher sphere. I also think LDS art has the obligation to deal with serious issues. With our gospel perspective, who else can do this as effectively as we? I also agree with those who say that we shouldn't be preachy. I like the point of view that advocates exploration and representation without indoctrination. I remember the counsel of Brigham Young, quoted often by me, that you don't need to commit one sin on a journey to the depths of Hell in pursuit of truth and wisdom. But I realize we have been counselled to avoid the appearance of evil, and eschew those practices that, though technically innocent and potentially advantageous, may cause others observing us to stumble or go astray. I have a great desire to produce clean art, although I've struggled with what that means, exactly.
My point is that this is a tough question. But I also want to make the point that there's room for everyone. You may not like the Liken the Scriptures series. He may think God's Army was blasphemous (as I was told when, as a missionary, we were counseled not to see it). She may argue that the Halestorm collection is damaging to public perception. I may say that depictions of certain things have no place in our productions.
Yet the Lord works in diverse and mysterious ways. He also looks on the heart. Who are we to second-guess the inspiration - recognized as such or not - of others? Let's try to be tolerant and even cooperative, supporting each other in success and failure, because all of us - each of us - is filling a gap. Together we make the whole.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
This is pretty lousy, especially compared to many other films in the competition, but then...
Nevertheless, my cast and crew of more-or-less first-timers made a heroic effort.
You should know that I suffered a severe hardware failure shortly after the festival, so I lost some of the content from the original. I was able to recover it, however I tweaked a few things to include in a demo video to a prospective client. This is the new version, but it's almost exactly the same as the old, just with lower thirds added and the (nasty) keying improved very slightly (barely perceptibly at this size, really). I also had to redo one of the (terrible) effects shots. Other than that, it's identical frame for frame. Can you tell I'm nervous about posting this?
Hi, now that you all know what I look and sound like in "real" life. Nice to meet you. Needless to say, we didn't win anything. I'd love your feedback, though.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
For those unfamiliar with it, the Marathon starts the Friday before the festival screenings begin with a registration meeting. Teams of filmmakers (no more than five people per team, cast and crew) meet to sign up and find out a theme, an object, and a line of dialogue that must be included in the film. This year, the theme was sacrifice, the object was a match, and the line was, "Let me be your..." From the time the meeting ends, the teams have 24 hours to produce a completely original three-minute short film based on the criteria. Anything over three minutes is disqualified, but a film can be shorter.
41 films were turned in this year.
An interesting side note: at the opening meeting, the question arose as to whether a person could be on more than one team. The issue was put to a vote, which came down in the affirmative. I noticed several people in multiple films at the screenings the next Thursday.
Speaking of screenings, I had no idea what to expect from the films when I showed up for them, but I was amazed by what I saw. Filmmaking of the highest quality was represented there. Many films were so polished that they easily could have been competition shorts. The creativity with which the theme, object, and line were used was vast.
I saw there a friend of mine, Todd Smith, whose films have won audience choice awards in past festivals. We grew up in the same ward, and I hadn't seen him for some time, which made the encounter more enjoyable.
One thought I had going into the competition was that it would be easy for filmmakers to take a comic approach, seeing how tightly regulated the competition was. I thought comedy would be a crutch for many groups, because it could help to mask flaws created by the tight schedule. While a lot of the films were funny, I was impressed by how few seemed immaturely so. On the other hand, many of the films dealt with subjets seriously and well. I was surprised, pleasantly, to see that a ridiculously tight production schedule and inflexible content guidelines (the three required elements) did not seem to stifle either creativity or quality. In some cases, the opposite may have been true.
Some of the films included There's Waldo (Todd's group), a sort of "Where are they now?" film about the red-and-white-striped cartoon icon; 'Fice: the Musical (parts 1 and 2); The Infinipede Space Monster from Outer Space, a spoof on the original Star Trek and sci-fi in general; Gold is Not Enough, another musical with a spy themel; Malaroli, a personal favorite of mine; and many more.
It's hard to review any one of these films independently, since they were all so much a part of each other. The 24 Hour Filmmaking Marathon represented the entire range of LDS work: from first-time filmmakers to experts, from comedy to drama, from narrative to documentary, from traditional to experimental. Although there were a few moments that I personally felt were in poor taste, none of it was bad. In fact, it produced some real gems, as good as anything else that played all week, and in some cases more meaningful.
As Christian Vuissa said of it, one of the most important things about this competition is that it gets filmmakers making films. It strips away all the traditional excuses. No one expects an appreciable budget or big-name actors. Few actors were widely known, even within the LDS community. No one I knew of expected to win based on prestige. I would bet that few expected to win at all. I don't want to get into too many disclaimers about how I don't know what other people were thinking and feeling, but, as far as I know, the only things anyone expected were to have fun, be friends, work towards perfecting their crafts, and create something good. And while there was certainly an air of competition, that is exactly what happened.
Read about the winners here.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
The 8th annual LDS Film Festival concluded last Saturday at about 11:30 PM. The only exception to that is the script workshop, which is this weekend. Since I won't be attending that, I'm ready to start reviewing. I thought it would be appropriate, before delving into the specifics of what happened there, to offer some general observations about the festival this year that made my experience memorable. First and foremost for me was the difference from last year, specifically in how I felt while there.
Let me give you a bit of history. I've said often to my wife that going to the festival last year was the best thing I'd ever done for my career from a spiritual and professional perspective. The reasons for that are many, but I won't go into them here. It was at that festival that I first heard of this blog. I started following it and when Trevor asked for contributors a bit later, I jumped right in. My life has changed dramatically as a result.
So I might have been expecting a similarly inspirational experience this year. I got it, but not until the awards ceremony. Most of it came as I talked over the phone to my sweet wife on the drive home. And it was not at all what I was thinking of. Instead, most of this year's festival felt like what it was - a business conference. I've run A/V equipment at countless events for many companies and industries in the past five years. This festival was only different from those in that I had a personal stake in it. That made it more interesting, but not always more exciting. While it wasn't drudgery by any stretch of the imagination, I found myself thinking and feeling with less uncorked enthusiasm and more quiet staying power. It was a good feeling, but one that required a certain degree of tenacity.
One of the first things I noticed in looking over the schedule was that there seemed to be far fewer films this year that were built around a specifically LDS, spiritual theme. There were exceptions, of course, such as the flagship film, Christian Vuissa's Father in Israel. My biggest regret of the week is that I didn't get to see that one. There was also One Man's Treasure, (a missionary film), Mario's Conviction, (a film version of From Mobster to Mormon), and Dianatha's Crossing (set during the "invasion" of Salt Lake City by Johnston's army). But the majority of the feature-length films were either non-specific in their spirituality or simply secular. To be fair, several of the special screenings (too long to be competitive shorts, to short to be features) did have LDS content, and in rich supply.
Let me admit at this point that I didn't see most of the features and special screenings, since I was attending the filmmaker presentations. I did see some. But these are the impressions I got from looking and listening and talking to people. If I'm wrong, please correct me.
I also want to say that I think that's something I'll do differently next year. Although I was eager to hear the presentations, I don't think I got as much out of them this year as last. Maybe it was the subject matter, but I don't think so. I think next time I would like to see more of the work of my associates there, and hear less, if necessary, of their commentary.
Speaking of which, that was another difference: I had associates there. Last year, the only person I knew was Brandon Smith, who was the first director I ever screen acted for. He works on Christian's films now. This time, before I even walked in the door Thursday night, a member of my 24 hour film making group told me that someone was there who wanted to meet me. I was stunned. It turned out to be Brent Leavitt, who I've interacted with online, but never met until then. He does excellent work on his Sun Swing Studies, and was a volunteer that night. In fact, an intermittent conversation I had with him throughout Saturday was possibly the single most inspirational event of the weekend for me. I also had the opportunity to see Brandon again (always a nice thing) and meet and speak to people like Maclain Nelson (actor and executive producer), Christian Vuissa (filmmaker and festival founder), Russ Whitelock (composer), Arlen Card (composer), and others whose names I didn't get.
More genres were represented as well, from teen-mystery to political activism to high fantasy/adventure. The short films were as stunning in their variety as they were in their quality. They were easily my favorite. Even the 24 hour films, of which there were 41, including my first-ever festival entry, showed incredible talent, skill, and creativity. That's not a description of mine, by the way, which was among the dimmest candles of the evening.
All in all, I saw 65 of the 100+ films that screened there and attended 9 hours of presentations in less than three days. I think the most important thing about the festival is that it shows that film making in the LDS community is alive and well. People are producing, and they're producing quality films.
The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement, as one professor of mine says, but Latter-day Saints in this field are showing their drive to be productive - even prolific - and to strive for the same progression in their art that they strive for in their souls. More thoughts on this will come out in subsequent posts, but I think I'm safe in saying that the gloom and doom predicted by some for the LDS film movement couldn't be less accurate. I think we're going through a period of introspection, experimentation, and maybe even captivity of sorts, but we will emerge stronger than before. Why do I think this? Because if the festival impacted others the way it did me, then LDS filmmakers are more determined than ever.
Friday, January 23, 2009
I don't want to miss either, but I obviously have to choose. I can't. So I'm asking you. Because I'm inevitably going to end up writing about whichever I go to, I want to know