Friday, March 7, 2014

Confessions from an Angry Artist #2: Playing Russian Roulette

This month marks six years since I attended the New York Film Academy.  The program was short, only twelve weeks and all evening courses.  Short, however, does not mean easy.  If you've never prepared yourself for anything, prepare yourself for filmmaking.  It is not easy.  It is not for the weak and it is not for lazy individuals.

Filmmaking is a collaborative effort.  It takes more than one dedicated person to make a decent film.  And there are so many different pieces to put to the puzzle.  As far as my fellow students were concerned, most of them (and there weren't many of us) just didn't seem excited nor did they seem dedicated.  I'm not saying they were all disenchanted.  It costs $3,500 to enroll and I'm sure that unless you're spending your parents money you're going to want to make the most of the funds you've spent. 

The teachers were good, but everything was so rushed because of the short schedule that you never really felt as though you were getting a good lesson.  In one class, they brought two cameras out and let us get the feel for them.  We marveled at the little buttons and knobs.  We looked through the view finder.  We held the piece of machinery in our hands, making sure not to drop it.  It looked like the scene from 2001 when the monkeys are examining the bone, in awe of it's... I dunno... all mighty power? The teacher then gave us a haste lesson on how to use the Panasonic DVX100.  After that class you had a feeling that we'd need to know more.  A lot more.

Our writing classes were good, and the classes on direction were good too.  I made it a point to listen intently in these classes.  The editing classes, which is what I was looking forward to the most, lacked in everything.  One guy walked around trying to answer questions from a jam-packed editing suit.  Some of the hands that were raised remained that way; our questions never answered.

This post isn't meant to undermine the NYFA, but more of the trials of tribulations of a student filmmaker.  The courses are meant for those who have no clue as to what is going on in filmmaking.  But for the wanna-be student coming down the pike go out and pick up a book or two on the subject before enrolling.  You'll be better off. 

So, the classes started on March 10th and we were out shooting our first projects in two weeks.  For our first project we were to shoot a two minute continuity film.  We were instructed that the two minutes had to have one continuing scene without time lapses.  No dissolves, fades or any other transitions were to be used.  We couldn't use sound, so dialogue was out of the question.  The night before our shoots, we were given another short lesson.  We all had mixed emotions of anxiety and excitement.  There were many questions that night.  We were also teamed up in groups picked randomly by the teacher.  Each group had four people: a director, cinematographer, AD (assistant director) and a grip.  My group was Annie Feld, Sid McAbee, and Adrian Cores Del Rio.

That weekend was busy.  We all would alternate jobs on four separate film shoots during the course of the weekend.  On Saturday we planned to shoot Sid's short first, followed by my short.  Since it was all in one location (Sid's apartment) we wouldn't have to lug around all the equipment.  I was the grip on Sid's shoot.  I set up lights and helped out with continuity.  Adrian ran the camera and Annie was the AD.  That shoot went pretty smooth.  Then came mine.

My idea was to shoot a film about a simple game of Russian Roulette.  It would meet all the requirements.  No bullshit, just one continuing scene.  Easy as pie.

After Sid's shoot, Adrian got sick and went home.  He was supposed to be one of my actors.  The other actor I casted never even showed up.  I was embarrassed and felt really lost.  I had no friends to call.  I had no backup plan.  I was alone. 

Sid and I had to act.  There was just no other way.  And Annie, who was growing very impatient by the second, took the camera duties.  Annie and I didn't hit it off at first.  She wasn't pleasant to work with.  And I'm sure I wasn't pleasant either.  She felt that I wasn't prepared enough.  She kept complaining about me not having a shot list.  I'm not sure having a shot list would have mattered for a shoot that was basically in the same room with the same clothes and the same props with the same two actors.  It all seemed unfair given the circumstances, but in filmmaking you have to understand the world.  Under the trenches it gets difficult.  It was freezing that day, no one had any experience and by the end of my shoot we were all exhausted.

This was Sid's first acting attempt.  It was mine too, but I had to direct and help set up the shots, plus make sure the lighting was just right.  The camera shots were basic enough: mostly locked shots of Sid and myself.  For the Russian Roulette scene I gradually moved the camera closer as the game went on.  My favorite scene was handheld in the elevator.  The camera looks up at Sid and myself.  We don't interact, we just look forward with stoic expressions. Those few seconds I love the most.  As far as the props, we had a fake cap gun, a screw that substituted for a bullet, and two briefcases.  Nothing more, nothing less.     

We finished the film in about five hours.  We packed up silently and headed in our separate directions.  I couldn't wait to get home.  I stood at the train station in Harlem and felt like I had failed.  I didn't see myself as an actor and I wasn't sure how the overall picture was going to look.  That night I didn't remember any redeeming qualities in that days shoot.  It all felt like a fucking train wreck.  I went home feeling as though filmmaking just wasn't going to be for me.

A few days later I compiled my footage into Final Cut Pro and started to edit.  This is when I started to get excited.  The film actually had a good flow to it.  The cutting was good and invisible.  My acting wasn't bad and Sid's was really spot on.  He looked like a genuine badass.  Annie's camera work could not have been better.  I pieced this little project together and at the next class I presented it to the group.  It was met with mixed reactions but that's fine.  I don't mind criticism.  I was just glad it was done.  I never would have thought that something good would have came from that shoot.   I was wrong.

Near the end of the film it does get bloody.  Somebody loses this battle of Russian Roulette.  I just won't tell you who.  The blood and brain matter was all my wife's idea.  She cut up some bananas and threw them into some fake blood.  The end result is pretty convincing.  She did a great job and I can't thank her enough for it.

The film sat around for a couple of years.  I actually wanted to make the film a little more presentable so I contacted Billy Slusser.  Billy and I have been friends for a long time.  We kind of have a creative chemistry when we get together.  I sent him an email detailing the scene and told him I wanted a score track to accompany the film.  He didn't see one second or image of the film.  What he created for me was magical and invaluable.  I realize now why people thought Halloween was boring before John Carpenter's simple, yet masterful score was added.  Music is everything in a film.  Billy's score is essential to this piece.  It does everything a score is supposed to do.  There's atmosphere, intrigue, depth, ominous, and something incredibly eerie to it.  I'm very proud of the end result.

Do you ever think about making films?  It is very possible and something that is fulfilling.  The destination is great but the journey is way more interesting.  If you want to do this muscle up, get out there and learn.  That is the only way.

Thanks to Annie, Sid, Adrian, Jackie and Billy.


RK Hook

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