Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blog 11: The Director

Earlier I had mentioned that I chose not to direct Travel Day, which was my original intention a few years ago. Now I'll tell you why.  I picked Travel Day from my stack of 24 spec scripts for one reason.  It had "elements" attached. Elements are part of a package when trying to finance a movie. Actors, director, writer, all of those are elements. Since i was only one element, Travel Day had two Academy nominated actresses, which makes it more realistic, it's not just me and a screenplay. Nobody cares about that.

All I needed now was a director to add another element. And there was only one person who came to mind.

I met Shirley Petchprapa in the summer of 2008 after she had read a script I had sent responding to her posting on Mandy, the website for film jobs which includes people looking for screenplays.  We got along from the beginning, shared politics and a good sense of humor. And I marveled at how she had made an adapter to mount 35mm lenses on her digital camera. You need to understand I was a cameraman before I became a writer and I could never even begin to build that adapter.  I was totally in awe of her tech skills from that moment, twisting the old Tom Cruise line, "you had me at the camera adapter".

Shirley is smart, street-wise,  a tough New York city filmmaker focused and hard working. We talked for well over two hours and have never really stopped talking since then.  We came from different generations of movie history, I was raised on westerns and steadfastly know The Searchers as one of the best films ever made and am generally more "analog" in my filmic knowledge and methods,  Shirley is more  digital and "non-linear" in her ideas and structure, using methaphors and favoring arthouse movies.

For the record, I did see Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage... all 4 hours!

It didn't take me long to figure out the combination of an aging boomer from remote northern Canada with solid L.A. writing credits and a focused young urban filmmaker with endless energy would make an interesting film at the very least, a really great one at the best.  Our original meeting was, ironically, her idea, she was looking for a writer and had read a screenplay of mine and wanted to work with me on a new screenplay.  We tried out a couple of ideas but none seemed to work for either her or me.  During that time, we also discussed two of my screenplays that Shirley liked, and the possibility of making them. But the idea of finding money for a film was not particularly attractive.

Then I had to go to Canada as my mother was in bad health. She recovered amazingly and I returned to L.A. with a newfound prospective on life and living. It was then that I decided to make a movie, I wanted to take control of my life rather than wait for a job to materialize, two Academy actresses were interested in the lead role and I wanted Shirley to direct it. 

She is one of the few truly talented people I have known and respected. If you read my blog on talent, you will know I use that term rarely. Okay, the camera adapter helped, and the hand-held stabilizer glide/cam she built from scratch was amazing. But it was more than that, Shirley had a "director's eye" as they call it,  she has the ability to compose the frame with delicate care and sense what a scene could convey to the viewer in a way I rarely saw from the many directors I worked with. 

Shirley also genuinely understood the story,  in fact her director's vision, which is basically  a few pages outlining how the director plans to visualize the movie, revealed that she knew the characters in a way I never envisioned. Nobody has the same insight into a character a writer has created but when a director's or actor's sensitivity and perception suggest taking your characters and story to a higher level, any writer is not only pleased with that but also inspired.  

Out of the 20 or so director's I've worked with, I rarely experienced that, most of them do what we call "coverage"which means they shoot every angle and hope the editor can cut a convincing story out of all that footage.  it's the easy way.

I saw this as an opportunity for both of us that doesn't always come along and hoped Shirley did also. We have had our disagreements but none lasted long as we still laugh about them. I think we liked and respected each other enough that we managed to overcome the usual creative differences that occur in projects that are intensely personal like Travel Day.  While it was my baby at first,  it was now being handed over to Shirley. 

And so our little movie package begin to grow, we had four elements, writer, director, producer and actresses. (Academy nominees, remember, not just your average actors)

Now all we had to do was raise $900,000.  

(See Shirley's work at her website, just click on the Materials link for her reel)