Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In Review: LDSFF'09 Part 4: Edwards, Meyer, and Flynn

In order to prevent this series from going on forever, I'm going to consolidate a bit. This post will consist of highlights from two of the presentations at the festival. The first was by Annie Edwards and Sally Meyer, among whose contributions to the event this year was teen mystery film Minor Details. The second presentation was by veteran actor, director, and producer Michael Flynn.

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

Filling the Gap

I've ony got a few minutes - not enough for a review, but this has been on my mind a lot lately, and I wanted to get it out for discussion.

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

In Review: LDSFF '09 Part 3 - Dragon Hunter

I'm glad I finally have a chance to get back to this. Sorry it's taken so long.
Being at the same time as the 24 hour screenings, I didn't think I was going to get to see Steve Shimek's Dragon Hunter. Probably because of popular demand, however, the festival's producers decided to put in in the TBA slot immediately after the 24 hour films. So I stayed.
I have to disclose that I tend to be a sucker for fantasy, and was consequently predisposed to like this film. I was intrigued by it to no end. A Mormon film about hunting dragons? How "Mormon" would it be? Would it be an overwrought morality tale? A complex allegory? Or nothing of the kind? How "big" would the film be? Would it look like a Hollywood fantasy-action movie, complete with realistic CGI monsters and carefully choreographed fight scenes? Would it be more like something you shot in your backyard with sock puppets? The posters certainly didn't look that way. I had a lot of questions and didn't know quite what to expect, but I was excited to see it nonetheless.
Because I'm not very good at summarizing plots, I've pasted the synopsis from the festival site below:
Orphaned as a baby when his parents were killed in a vicious orc attack, Kendrick of Elwood was raised by his elder brother, Darius. Though only nine at the time, Darius devoted his life to Kendrick's care and to purging orcs from their land. As Darius grew into a great warrior, he sheltered Kendrick from all possible harm. Now, after years of absence, a new danger emerges, more lethal than the threat of orcs or men. Reports of dragon attacks spread like wildfire through the panicked land. In memory of his mother's prophesies of a mighty Dragon Hunter in their bloodline, Darius leads Kendrick on a perilous journey to the castle of Ocard - the Dragon Hunter training grounds. Will dragons completely decimate the countryside? Only the Dragon Hunter will decide!
In spite of being patterned after films like The Lord of the Rings, this film, to paraphrase Maclain Nelson, its executive producer and star, was not the most riveting action-adventure movie ever. It was made to make money, Nelson said in his presentation later in the festival. Fantasy, he pointed out, does better in foreign markets than in the U.S., and so, for Americans, does not lend itself to art for art's sake. This, however, does not mean that quality craftsmanship is not involved. In fact, the very first thing I noticed about the film was the stunning cinematography-a-la-T. C. Christensen of the opening sequence in particular. I was surprised later to learn that not only was the script submitted by a student, the film was crewed entirely by students to keep costs down. Nelson and his team essentially said to the BYU media arts department, "We want to do a fantasy film. If you can come up with a script we like, we'll produce it."
This might just be every film student's dream come true - although not necessarily this genre - and I have to applaud Nelson and his associates for making the offer, regardless of other considerations.
Getting back to the film, let me say a few things generally to answer what I imagine some of the surface questions about this film may be.
The special effects were good enough to not be cheesy. The fight sequences were shot in such a manner that I never knew who was hitting whom for all the quick cuts, and motion blur. It was a bit melodramatic and slow-moving, but not unbearably so. Many of the characters could have been taken from any number of other fantasy films (or even video games), notably the orcs and the overdone, heavily painted, scantily clad female elf. Who really goes on a battle quest dressed like that? Honestly. The main protagonists, Kendrick and Darius, were original and well done. I particularly liked the captain of the travelling band the two brothers meet up with, though his name escapes me. The character played by Isaac Singleton, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame is also pretty good. The story has potential, but doesn't always live up to it.
With that out of the way, there are two aspects of Dragon Hunter I'd like to discuss particularly: the language, and the intertwined moral themes, namely courage and the motivation for fighting.
A lot of fantasy films have every character speak in British-like accents in order to get an archaic sound to the words. At the very least, they try to eliminate accents that are clearly modern, such as the distinct speech patterns associated with people from Brooklyn. They also avoid modern slang, contractions, and other linguistic artifacts that might give the piece too contemporary a feel. While the effectiveness of this approach is debatable, it is nevertheless a common creative choice. Although some actors did have (it seemed) native accents, this was not the format of Dragon Hunter, in which the main protagonists noticeably sounded just like everyday Americans - though not crudely so, and I spoke with Nelson individually to ask why.
He said that he didn't feel such language lends any extra credibility to a fantasy film. Indeed, my linguist sister-in-law once told me that people in medieval times probably sounded more like Americans than Britons, although popular perception is the reverse. Nelson didn't think the choice hurt the film at all, and I, after getting into it, agreed. But I do remember being surprised by it, nonetheless. For the first several minutes, the world created effectively by cinematography, costuming, and sets, was made less believable by the sound and content of some of the lines. In many cases, good or fairly good acting made up for what I considered somewhat weak dialogue.
And yet, aside from being occasionally forced, the primary reasons I considered it weak go back to this same concept of setting and perception. I don't think the accents would have thrown me as much if the words being spoken had sounded less modern. With the conglomeration of voices and speaking styles in the film, the return to everyday English felt out of place at times, especially since the characters who did this did not do it consistently. Some lines, in content and delivery, sounded tailor made for a big fantasy action film. Others sounded like they were written for a suburban sitcom. This is probably a realistic reflection of life, and it ended up being a minor issue, but it was harder for me to commit to the film because of the language.
Courage and Fighting
Here I want to shift gears a little bit. While I want to discuss these themes as they apply to the film, I want to also discuss them as they apply to the LDS filmmaker.
Dragon Hunter opens and closes by making assertions about the relationship between courage and fear. In the beginning, Kendrick admires Darius' bravery, but Darius claims to have none. Instead, he claims that his will to fight comes from the fear of what will happen if he doesn't fight. In many cases, this means that he simply fight to stay alive and to kill his attacker. In fact, he's devoted his life to hunting orcs for this reason. His primary motive in life is the fear of dying at the hands of an orc. Therefore, he becomes an orc hunter. The topic of his daring deeds and those of others comes up repeatedly in conversations throughout the film.
In almost every case, the person in question denies fighting out of valor or some sense of right or righteousness, and instead cites fear, vengeance, hatred, or plain necessity as the driving motivation. Regarding fear, I want to make it clear that this is not fear for the welfare of others, but simply an (arguably) utterly selfish concern for one's own life. In the end, when Kendrick becomes the legendary Dragon Hunter and devotes his life to bringing about their extinction, he monologues the same reason Darius gave. He chases down and confronts dragons because he is mortally afraid of them.
So how does this apply to LDS filmmakers? I wonder if sometimes we have these same motivations for creating our art.
For example, no one is surprised to hear an LDS filmmaker express a desire to combat the immorality common in Hollywood films, or at least provide an alternative. We tend to applaud and encourage these desires because we want more beauty and goodness in the world. But how many LDS filmmakers (or viewers, for that matter) are motivated by fear of the influence of immorality in their own lives or the lives of others? Do we combat these things to avoid being destroyed by them? Is that an appropriate motivation?
Similarly, like a masked vigilante, do we harbor a deep hatred of filthy entertainment and want to see it eradicated? Do we view the battle as inevitable or the alternative to fighting as unacceptable? Have we or a loved one been hurt by it so that we desire vengeance? This may not be common, but I doubt it's impossible.
Further, how do we define the dragon?
I don't propose to answer these questions for anyone, but I think we would do well to ask ourselves why we make films and why our audiences want them. Are any of these motives at the core? If so, is this appropriate from a personal or gospel perspective?
Closing Note - including spoiler, in case you care.
Dragon Hunter provides, if nothing else, a lot to think about. Let me say one other thing really quickly. I often have a hard time with seeing LDS actors who have been in official Church films playing roles in worldly movies. In Dragon Hunter, the villainous "wizard" who tries to control the dragon and gets eaten - a topic which might make for a good post another time - is played by (I'm terribly with actors' names) the same guy who plays one of the apostles in Finding Faith in Christ. For some reason, I couldn't take him seriously as a demented, bloodthirsty maniac. He always seemed like an apostle in costume. However, if I had seen the two films in reverse order, I have a hunch I may have felt differently. What do you think about that? Does acting in Church films limit an actor's credibility in other roles?