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February 15, 2007

Guerilla Filmmaking

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Have I mentioned that The Wife and I are shooting a film? Well, we are and we aren't. In fact, a super-talented dynamo of a young director-friend is. But it's a kind of collaboration between the three of us nonetheless. The three of us co-wrote the script, and we all contributed cash to our movie's epic budget. Please don't ignore the ironic tone. That's "epic" as in "mid four figures."

We're actually in production right now, midway through a two-week shoot. And we're really in production too. We have call sheets, a rented van, lights, production assistants (four), performers, and everything. These days, thanks to video and computers, it's amazing what you can do for next to no money -- provided, of course, that you're able to bum apartments, offices, and props, and that you can find talented crew-people and performers who'll work for free.

In any case, expect the occasional bulletin from me over the next ten days about what I'm finding guerilla filmmaking to be like.

  • First point: I've learned that what we're making isn't in fact a "low-budget" movie. One of our production assistants has informed me that the term "low-budget" these days means a movie that costs from 500 grand to ten million dollars. Our pocket-change production is more accurately referred to as a "micro-budget" movie.

  • My main reaction to the adventure so far has been: Wow, what an exhausting lot of work it is to make a movie! Thank god our young director is such a well-focused powerhouse. Even for something as small-scale as our movie project, there's a tremendous amount of labor to do: making arrangements, getting people to show up, wheedling and cajoling, etc. Not to mention the physical work of laying down cables, moving lights and cameras from place to place, and covering every available surface with gaffer's tape. Thank god for ambitious young people. Without 'em, would we have movies as an art form at all?

Although the film is by now 110% in the hands of our director, The Wife is fully involved with the filmmaking too. She helps hash out details and arrangements, and she contributes to the production by playing caterer as well as producer. "Good food is key to a happy set," one of our more experienced actors told me on our first day of shooting. Since The Wife is an excellent cook and a firm believer in large servings and ever-present and plentiful grazing matter, our sets have been very cheerful ones.

Me, I show up when my work schedule permits. When present, I mainly try not to trip over cables. When the time seems right, I haul something from here to there. I've made a few bottled-water runs. In between these crucial contributions, I hang with the actors and the crew and do what I can to help people feel cheery and loved. It isn't hard, given how appreciative I genuinely am of their efforts and talents.

Here's hoping the movie itself will be half as amusing as the making of it has been. We expect it to run around 30 minutes long; we'll try to place it in some film festivals and then we'll put it on the web, where it'll exist as six webisodes. Great new word: "webisode."

Oh, another couple of observations:

  • As often, I'm knocked out by how wonderful actors and performers are. They pitch in, they make daring choices, they expose their emotions and bodies, and they really become characters.

    I know the usual thing is to consider actors to be mere interpretive artists. But they often strike me as the most creative and imaginative people of all. This isn't a completely quirky and personal reaction, by the way. I know a famous editor and novelist who has written some plays, and who has been every bit as blown away by actors as I often am. "They're the purest artists I know," he / she said.

    For all their dizziness, actors are usually able to swing into the imaginative work faster than anyone else. It's quite incredible the way they can turn the incandescence and inspiration on. Hairstyle, clothing, laughter, voice, movement, timing -- they consider 'em all, and turn 'em to expressive advantage. They're also better than most people are at taking feedback; in fact they're usually grateful for it.

  • Seeing your work brought to life by performers is a special high. It's fascinating to see what the performers and director bring to the material, and bring out of it. One or two rehearsals and you've lost track of the fact that you wrote the scene. It takes on life, and you start watching what's before you objectively -- but objectively in a positive, we're-making-something-here way, not in an English-class intellectual-critical way. (Remind me what the point of seeing anything in an English-class intellectual-critical way is? I lose track.) Once you give over to the process, fiction writing that hasn't been taken over, embodied, and walked off with by actors starts to seem a little incomplete.

  • It's loads of fun hanging out with actors and the crew. Crew people work hard, and they manage to combine a blue-collar salt-of-the-earthness with real enthusiasm for movies. They're Real People, but Real People minus the usual Real People aversion to art and ideas. They're Real People who are eager to discuss David Lynch's latest, and who are smart and funny about it.

    Our actors are, as you'd imagine, sweet, fizzy, and uninhibited. Make that beyond-uninhibited. This ain't the suburbs, no sirree. They want to show off their sex appeal, they want to talk about the drugs they did last night, and they want to giggle about gossip and sexual indiscretions. If you aren't turned on by your actors, well, they won't quit until you are. Essential M. Blowhard tip for successfully hanging out with actors: Master the art of appreciating sexiness while maintaining your cool in the face of it. A bit hard on the nerves -- but in a good kind of way!

Hanging out on a set is nothing like hanging around the usual corporate office, let me tell you. It isn't much like hanging out with book-writers, those crabbed introverts, either. There's no censoriousness; moviemaking people are almost all into raucous good times. They like being physical; they insist on acting it out.

It's deeply satisfying how little the activity of filmmaking conforms to the fantasies of "making art" that teachers, critics, and the media encourage. Despite the craziness of the adventure, filmmaking is an intensely practical and sweaty activity: cables, costumes, sightlines, reflections, coverage. What you're involved with from minute to minute isn't anything lofty or philosophical. It's more like cooking or carpentering. It's making do with what you've got, which often isn't anything like what you'd hoped to have. It's hair, makeup, line readings, light. It's hoping you'll get by with what you can manage. It's doing your best to make sure it'll cut together in the end.

Final reflection for today: It's easy to understand why so many on-set affairs happen. Movie people -- even microbudget movie people -- are sexy and spirited; movie projects are fun and absurd; the hurry-up-and-wait quality of on-set time means that a lot of mischievous people tend to get a little bored sometimes. Uh-oh. And, since moviemaking is a kind of make-believe anyway, why not indulge in a slap and a tickle?

Still, my mind keeps returning to my initial observation: the huge amount of energy that moviemaking demands ... I'm left thinking that if I'm ever to make a movie that's really my own, it's going to be the world's least ambitious movie ever. A cast of one -- or maybe two -- people ... The action all confined to one set .... A final running time of, oh, maybe five minutes ...

These days, I'm afraid that I'm into minimizing the effort.



posted by Michael at February 15, 2007


I shall eagerly await your webisodes!

Some guys have all the fun...

My stepteens have a good friend who has been making "home movies" for several years now, since he was a freshman in high school. He is in Vancouver now studying his craft for real.

A toast to all my micro-film heroes!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on February 15, 2007 10:07 PM

Well, the two characters and one set theme was the basis of some movies, like "Sleuth". They lasted longer than five minutes, though. Maybe TV commercials are more your speed.

It's interesting how you describe actors, for just as in any profession, the "bigger" they get the last frollicking they seem to be. I think of stories like Daniel Day-Lewis or Gene Hackman remaining completely in character all the way through filming. Not so fun when they play intense unhappy men. Or Liz Taylor only sweetly emerging from her limo once the space heaters had been set exactly one foot apart all the way to her trailer, as her contract required. Or Debra Winger or Barbra Streisand who want to "discuss" and "rehearse" endlessly. As Sydney Pollack has said---"it takes a special kind of patience."

Think about coddling insecure stars in the midst of hauling things around and trying to get a shot---any shot---before the sun sets. (I think of Richard Dreyfuss apparently filming a certain amount of "Jaws" drunk, because there were just so many hours to kill while they tried to get the shark to work). Maybe then when we say "Why didn't they do THIS in that scene?"--it's because they could barely get what they got in the can!

Have fun.

Posted by: annette on February 16, 2007 1:13 PM

Best of luck with your project, Michael. I'm sure it's trying much of the time, but watching talented actors shape and embody your script must be a terrific high.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 16, 2007 2:40 PM

I think Stanley Kubrick once remarked that making a movie is the second most complicated feat of logistics in the world, after a major military campaign. He also had no patience for assistants who didn't keep pads of paper handy and write everything down. I guess you'll agree with that sentiment now, huh?

Congratulations on your project. Sounds very amusing, if exhausting. Look forward to seeing the final product.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 16, 2007 7:11 PM

C. Pattie -- Thanks! Sounds like your young buddy is a good few steps ahead of The Wife and me ...

Annette -- Maybe very slow, unambitious TV commercials ... It's interesting, all that stuff you learn about stars and egos and such, isn't it? Our experience on this no-budget thing has been about 98% very good. I wonder if we've been lucky, or we chose our performers well. Or maybe the egos and bad behavior start to kick in when there's real money involved ...

Rick -- Thanks, and yes it is a high to see actors take our characters over. It also puts a fun kind of pressure on you as a writer, along the lines of "Good lord, that's a good performer! And lordy I love her just for showing up and taking part. I really owe it to her to give her something interesting and fun and substantial to do!"

FvB -- I'm learning! (Note to passersby: FvB did a lot of talented and ambitious super-8 filmmaking back in the '70s...) Not much, and not that I'm capable of really learning these days. But it's fun to witness anyway. One of the most interesting things is just how freeing the combo of YouTube, Macs, and video is. No need to "make it" in the industry, or line up studio time, or do anything but go about things your own way. Very different than when we were movie-crazed kids. I wonder how we'd have done had we had these new low-budget media-making resources.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 16, 2007 7:46 PM

In 2000, I bought a $3k dv camera, plus lights, cranes, dolly, etc, and plotted a 12-hour serial -- starring friends and family who would work for free, and shot mostly in a 100+ year old rustic hotel and the surrounding snow-covered mountains.
The project fizzled, getting

Enjoy it while it's happening, Michael.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on February 17, 2007 12:27 PM

Hmm -- a less-than sign caused half of my comment to dissapear! repost:

In 2000, I bought a $3k dv camera, plus lights, cranes, dolly, etc, and plotted a 12-hour serial -- starring friends and family who would work for free, and shot mostly in a 100+ year old rustic hotel and the surrounding snow-covered mountains.

The project fizzled, getting less than 2 of the planned 12 hours "in the can" -- but those two months or so of writing the scripts, loading up the van, setting up the lights, mics, and cameras, directing, and acting -- were the most fun I've had.

Enjoy it while it's happening, Michael.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on February 17, 2007 1:59 PM

Have you seen the documentary "American Movie"? It's about a rather eccentric independent filmmaker trying to mount a production in his home town of Milwaukee. It's wonderful, you should check it out.

Nice to see you connecting with what you love about the arts. Your postings on other types of artists are so often negative. I don't think it's writers fault that they're less fun to be around than actors. Writing is by its nature more arduous, isolating, and neurosis-producing than more collective-type arts. The addition of the Romantic "cult of the individual genius" on top of that made it worse. One nice thing about screenwriting is that it is often done in groups, reintroducing the cooperative quality to art and perhaps lessening the egotism.

Posted by: MQ on February 17, 2007 2:29 PM

Wonderfully engaging piece.

Makes me really want to see the webisodes.

Posted by: dougjnn on February 17, 2007 6:38 PM

Michael – Sounds like you are having a lot of fun. Good luck with your project.

I agree with much of your take on actors. There two persistently boneheaded questions to actors (which for some reason more often comes from women interviewers rather than men) which always make my teeth hurt. The first is “What actors inspired or influenced you.” The second is “Are you like the character you play?” Barbara Walters and her cohorts on “The View,” for example, almost always ask this of their actor guests.

And yet when I read more probing interviews or biographies of actors, you more often find that they are fired up by performing, not by watching the work of any particular actor. The recent New Yorker profile of Cate Blanchett is a great example of this. Apparently, the piece is not online yet, but here is a short highlight:

Others cannot even remember how they got into acting, or were surprised to find that they wanted to be actors after doing something else. Still others, like Michael Caine, got into theater as a way to meet hot babes as much as anything else. Caine also talks about the sexual hierarchy of the theater companies (the leading actor an actress could sleep together, as could the junior male and female lead, and so on).

As for actors being like their characters, or basing their work on their personal experience, Peter O’Toole (from a recent Charlie Rose interview on PBS) gives one of the best explanations on how good actors approach their roles that I have ever heard (thanks to Wikipedia for this):

The challenge for the actor is "to use his imagination to link to his emotion."

Also, I think in a way, such diverse works as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Children of Paradise,” “The Red Shoes” or “My Favorite Year” give an idea of how an intensely practical and sweaty activity like making a play, a ballet, or a TV show, gives rise to something magical.

I also ran across a blogger, Sheila O’Malley, who has put together some very interesting longish pieces on classic actors. A lot of good stuff.

Here is an anecdote on Cary Grant: Cary Grant describes being a little kid (named Archie Leach) and having his chemistry teacher (a sort of mentor to him) take him to see the acts at the Bristol Hippodrome. This was a revelation to the young Archie Leach. He lived a poverty-struck narrow life, in the slums of Bristol. But when he went "backstage" - he saw another world entirely - a world where class distinctions blurred (something very attractive to him until the end of his life):

The Saturday matinee was in full swing when I arrived backstage; and there I suddenly found my inarticulate self in a dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things. And that's when I knew! What other life could there be but that of an actor? They happily traveled and toured. They were classless, cheerful, and carefree. They gaily laughed, lived, and loved.

The full blog entry can be found here:

She also has a lot of fun stuff on Carole Lombard and Clark Gable:

She also has some interesting comments and anecdotes on the art of acting:

Also: If you'll notice, the best actors are the ones who don't know how to describe what it is that they do.

Spencer Tracy's advice to other actors? "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture."

Robert DeNiro is incredibly inarticulate when it comes to the craft of acting. "Oh... you know ... I do my homework ... I want to be truthful ..." etc….

Stella Adler, who had Marlon in her acting class, said, "Sending Marlon Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school."…

All of this "Method" preface was just to say that one of the things that Cary Grant does - and what he does so well - almost better than anybody else - is listen. He is always listening. Bad actors do not listen. Bad actors can be bad actors in MANY different ways - but one thing they all have in common is that they DO. NOT. LISTEN. They are consumed with self, they are trying to come off a certain way, they are going for an effect, they are thinking about their own experience, and not listening to the other actor. Listening is the most important thing….

Because what happens is - is if you are really listening to the other person in the scene with you - then they won't always say things the way you might expect them to say it - and you'll have to react. But you'll only be able to react if you notice them in the first place.

Humphrey Bogart. To me, he is most interesting when he's listening to someone else talk. Watch his face. Watch him take the other person in, have internal responses to things - you can see all the stuff he isn't saying. His face can be READ. We SEE his thoughts, his feelings, his responses ... But this is only because he's listening….

I've worked with very very "heady" actors. That's what I call them. No matter WHAT I do - their response will not vary. They have planned the whole scene out in their head beforehand. Sometimes it's fun to mess with that, especially if I'm annoyed. I'll change blocking. Just to mess up their little program in their head. I will randomly burst into laughter whereas the day before I hadn't laughed - just to see if they respond. It's hostile, but whatever. Can't stand working with headcases.

Posted by: Alec on February 18, 2007 1:10 AM

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