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Understanding The Work: Kurosawa and ‘The Cape House.’

5 Mar

Hey all,

Last week, I delivered a new draft of The Cape House to my producer Carolyn, and we are gearing up to start raising funds.

This got me thinking: I have to direct this thing.

Of course I’ve known that all along, but suddenly it’s becoming very real.

I’ve always viewed The Cape House as something of a thriller, believe it or not. A thriller about understanding your parents and understanding yourself. But I figured it would be a hard thing to do: how to make something so domestic and small feel thrilling?

Then I saw this.


Kurosawa uses composition, shape, and subtle performance to racket up tension, and clarify storytelling. No one has done it better. The second I saw this video, I e-mailed it to Carolyn and said ‘we need to show this to our potential DPs.’

But there’s also something deeper about this video, and how it relates to my life and my first feature film.

One of my first exposures to foreign cinema came at the public library in my hometown of Duxbury, Massachusetts. One summer, when I was about 15, they were screening Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai on an August night. My family was actually on the Cape that weekend, but my mother had to come home, and I asked her to drop me off at the library so I could watch the film.

It was an incredible experience. Watching the film made me realize how influential Kurosawa was. I recognized shots from Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan, and many more films I loved as a teenager.

After the film, there was a discussion about the significance of the film. It was my first exposure to cinephiles, and I was in heaven.

There’s no doubt that was a defining moment, and that Kurosawa is, as for many, an important figure in my life. That this video appeared around the same time I started picturing my film in my head feels pretty significant.

Coincidentially, High and Low, one of Mr. Kurosawa’s best films, is screening at MOMI this weekend. Check it out if you can. It’s amazing.

See you all soon.

Best,
Liam.

Understanding the Work: Collaborative filmmaking as the future.

28 Jan

If we reduce social life to the smallest possible unit we will find that there is no social life in the company of one. 

– Jerzy Kosinski

‘Purple,’ my short created in collaboration with the cast.

Hey all,

I hope you all survived the blizzard intact.

2015 is here, and I have big filmmaking goals. One is to shoot my feature, The Cape House, but another is to adopt a new way of working.

Almost 3 years ago, I made a short film called ‘Purple.’ ‘Purple’ was unique in how I made it. There’s a longer post about this specific subject on A-Bittersweet-Life today, but, briefly, I didn’t write a script before casting. I instead came up with a basic idea, cast the film, then, through rehearsal and conversations, wrote the movie in collaboration with my cast.

This is not a new approach. Many great directors, like Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes, have already done it or something similar. But it was a revelation for me.

I come from theatre (Yea, I’m the one rocking out). The best part of theatre, to me, was always rehearsal. Seeing the finished show open was always a rush, but there was never anything more exciting than a group of people in a room trying to solve dramatic, comedic and experimental problems.

This is the approach that I took with Purple. Four people in a room solving problems, writing the story on our feet. It was the most fun I’ve had making a film. Ever.

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The actors warming up before rehearsing for ‘Purple.’

However, traditional screenwriting dominated my short ‘Future Perfect‘ and has been the main approach for ‘The Cape House.’

But a few things have happened in the past few months, which have led me back to collaborative movie writing.

I am currently writing a film with writer/director/actress Victoria Negri, who has a feature called ‘Gold Star‘ in post-production. Victoria and I connected through twitter, and had a few long conversations over coffee. We talked movies and running. Eventually, I showed her a script I had written about the weird connections people make (and don’t make) while running in New York City.

Victoria was interested, but we decided to throw out the script as it was and start fresh. But we weren’t sitting in a room with pens and paper. We’d meet and talk. We tell each other stories about our running experiences. A huge part of this script is based on things people have said to us and thoughts and feelings we’ve both had.  It was informal, but focused. Every so often, I’d write down some notes.

As a result, what we’ve written feels true. Plus, it’s proven remarkably easy to get words on paper, something I’m terribly slow about. We already have a first draft after only 3 meetings, and I feel more confident about it than any script I’ve written this far.

This is a beta test of how I want to proceed going forward. Get a group of people together, ideally an already-decided-upon cast, several other writers, and experts/advisors on the topic, and have long sessions where we work together through conversation and improvisation. I believe the alchemy of people could get something really interesting going.

Most of all, I think it will get out of my own way, which has always been my goal. No idea of mine has been made worse by collaborating with others. It reminds me of why we tell stories, and why I wandered into a theatre when I was kid anyways: to meet and be close to others who understood me. The energy of collaboration always brings out my best.

I am also in the early stages of putting together a collective of filmmakers to make features. We are ironing out the details, but I am excited about its potential. More to come.

As it gets cheaper and cheaper to make films, more films are being made and less are getting equal levels of attention. Great films receive little-to-no traction. A good way, I believe, to counteract this trend is to give your team ownership on the film, thus getting them excited about the film. How to do that? Involve your team in the creation. Make them part of the conversation. Filmmaking is a social art.

So make it social.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out the post on ‘A Bittersweet Life.

Best,

Liam

Understanding The Work: #BKMediaMaker event (and Video!)

19 Nov

Hello all,

Last week, BRICArtsMedia, formerly BCAT, hosted a #BKMediaMaker event at their space on Fulton Street.

BRIC’s Mission:

BRIC presents contemporary art, performing arts and community media programs that reflect Brooklyn’s creativity and diversity. BRIC also provides resources to launch, nurture and showcase artists and media makers. BRIC presents contemporary art, performing arts and community media programs that reflect Brooklyn’s creativity and diversity. BRIC also provides resources to launch, nurture and showcase artists and media makers. We advance access to and understanding of arts and media by presenting free and low-cost programming, and by offering education and other public programs to people of all ages.

I work for BRIC as a teacher, consultant, media maker, and Videographer. More than that, I believe that BRIC is doing good work, and they are doing it in the place I call home.

The event itself was a blast. I knew a lot of people, met some new ones, and got excited about the future of media in Brooklyn. When I was asked to cut a video of the event, I jumped at the chance.

So, here it is:

 

Enjoy, and check BRIC out. If you’re thinking about becoming a #BKMediaMaker, there is nowhere more supportive or affordable.

best,

Liam.

#RealWorldArt: Brian Padian.

6 Nov

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Brian Padian directs his actors in The Black Sea.

Whenever I read about artists who are successful at making their own work, I always wonder ‘how the hell did they do this and live a real life while doing so?’ As a working artist, I find achieving a life/art balance to be incredibly difficult. I am always on the lookout for advice about how to do it. When my former theater professors at the University of New Hampshire asked me to speak to a group of artists about life post-school, I went to social media to get new perspectives. Over 40 people commented, and my friend (and blogger/filmmaker extraordinaire) Michael DiBiasio asked me to guest blog. The response was so good that I’ve decided to conduct interviews with working artists on a semi-regular basis.
November was supposed to be October’s subject, but October ended up so busy I didn’t get a chance to update the blog in all that time. I will be doing an update soon about the work that keeps me so busy, but in the meantime, check out my interview with Brian Padian! Brian is a filmmaker based in Portland I met on Twitter, and we’ve struck up a few convos. His first feature, The Black Sea, is currently out to Festivals. I interviewed Brian to hear about the film scene in Portland, his life in LA, and, as always, how he manages live and work.

There will be a follow up podcast interview with Brian in the coming weeks. Until then, take it away, Brian!

Liam (LB):Why did you decide to study film and become a filmmaker? What was it about the medium that spoke to you?

Brian Padian(BP): I always loved movies from a young age. I have profound memory of seeing certain films as a child in Manitowoc WI  (E.T., Annie, For Your Eyes Only, Star Trek 2) and the memory of watching them in the theater sometimes stands out more than the movies themselves. Film combines the best part of other forms – music, theater, writing, design – and when it works there is no better or more thrilling sensation. I’ve had feelings watching great films that no other form has matched. I also think there is something powerful about the shared experience of watching a film with others.

dinnerA scene from The Black Sea.

LB:Why did you leave LA to live in Portland? Is it easier to make films there?

BP: I was in LA for 7 years. After graduating from AFI I spent years in and around the film industry and writing and peddling spec scripts that never took hold (note: this is the norm for most). Despite my MFA in Screenwriting and despite a spec screenplay that got me repped and a lot of meetings, I was making the exact same amount of money (read: very little) and feeling just as much of an outsider looking in as I did the day I arrived in LA.  Success for an aspirant screenwriter in LA is a war of attrition and demands endurance but after all this time I began to see the importance of quality of life. I got tired of the daily grind in LA: the endless quest for parking, moving the car for the streetsweepers, the sunny polish of every person at every party, the thick smog of ambition that leaches into most aspects of social life. Plus traffic. For all these reasons (and for the sake of my marriage) we left Los Angeles for Portland. I’ve never looked back or regretted the decision. Portland is a smaller town (or ‘market’ depending on who you’re talking to) so the resources and opportunities are not as robust but the trade-off is a warm and mostly open community of actors, artists, and filmmakers willing to suport one another. It is a more relaxed environment to be sure. This is an oversimplification but in Portland the importance and quality of daily life exists peaceably alongside film/artistic pursuits, instead of being overwhelmed by them. It is a much better fit for me.

3) How does your day job help (or hurt) your ability to make films?

 BP: My day job is in City government and demonstrably non-creative. That said, it’s not the kind of job I take home with me or worry about at all outside business hours. This gives me a lot of freedom to write screenplays and make films while also providing a steady paycheck and benefits. For me there is a huge benefit to doing something non-film-related to pay the bills. Were I say teaching screenwriting for a living it would be just close enough to what I want to do creatively that it would trick me into thinking I was doing something creative when I was in fact doing the opposite,  if you follow that. The stark and arid nature of my day job (to put it generously) is a reminder of what I want to do in film and in that regard it gives me something to constantly push against. I am also in my early 40s not my early 20s so being rash and impulsive or being willing to sleep on floors and couches to hustle toward some artistic shimmer in the distance is a faint memory. Just not possible now.

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The Black Sea.

4) Between work, your projects, your family, how do you create a balance in your life?

BP: Without the support and understanding of my my wife – writer Margaret Malone – I would not be able to. She has been my stalwart ally and support through the years and gave me the freedom and space to write/direct/inhabit ‘the black sea’ for all the years it took, as well as all the short films I wrote/directed before hand. A lot of this is the dumb luck of who you marry/partner with. We’ve been fortunate to change/mature at the same rate and still share the same ideals and aspirations as our younger selves. It also doesn’t hurt that we both have artistic pursuits and goals and share an understanding of the process and what’s required in terms of time and energy. That said, we have two small kids at present so anything creative currently takes a backseat to more immediate demands. One example: I am only able to see a handful of films per year now and only a couple of those in the theater. Another: writing for uninterrupted stretches of time is not possible. I don’t want to imply that family is detrimental to being an artist because I think in the long term it’s the opposite: family forces an immediate widening of compassion and empthy and changes the contours of how you see the world. (Of course you’re too exhausted to do or make anything with that information in the short term.) So for me balance comes in accepting the present imbalance and having faith that one day equilibrium will return. Some days this is easier said than done.

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Brian’s a badass who shot 16mm on The Black Sea. 

5) What’s going on with your film?

BP: I am thrilled about the black sea, both with how it turned out and that we pulled off a feature on Super 16 with the smallest of budgets. And especially proud that the great work of the actors and my collaborators can now be seen and heard and appreciated. It took a long time to make this movie and it resonates on a such deep personal level for me that it’s difficult to be objective about. I suspect certain parts of the narrative and tone will be polarizing or off-putting but those are the types of movies I love.. We are now out to film festivals and waiting to hear if/where we get in. The film’s reception will dictate my next move with regard to theatrical/online distribution etc. All that stuff is new to me and there is a learning curve, especially with business models/options changing seemingly by the hour. Now that the movie is done I am lining up my next project/s – I have several feature scripts ready to shoot – and very excited to get them up on their feet. I am actively seeking producers and/or money, preferably both. Meantime I am also a founding member of Great Notion, a new Portland-based film collective comprised of myself and 3 other directors (Scott Ballard, Dicky Dahl, Edward P. Davee) which aims to support the work of its members and their narrative feature films. Each of us has a feature coming out in the next year or so. It’s an exciting time!

Thanks, Brian! We’ll be back with more from Brian next week! Until then, please check out the trailer for ‘The Black Sea.’

Finally, selfless plug: My film Future Perfect is streaming on Seed&Spark. Give it a watch, and check out a slew of other films. You can watch the trailer and the film HERE.
 
Thanks all! I’ll be back soon with a personal update about how my #RealWorldArt is going.
-Liam

Understanding The Work: The distribution of ‘Future Perfect.’

29 Sep

FP_Streaming

On Saturday, ‘Future Perfect’ premiered on Seed and Spark. I wanted to take a few minutes and write about how the film got from having no audience to being on an amazing platform like S&S.

Just about 2 years ago, I successfully raised funds on kickstarter to make the film. It was my first film with a budget of any kind, but like many first-timers, I hadn’t thought too much about the most important thing: distribution. I just wanted to make the movie. I hadn’t questioned, or considered, how I would get it seen.

Prior to ‘Future Perfect,’ I had had a few short films in festivals but nothing major. I assumed that was the only way to get your work out: get into a film festival, and that would be it.

Two things happened when I was in film school that made challenge my rather simplistic ideas about distribution. I’m glad they did. The first was having to come up with a topic for a presentation in my producing class, and I choose four-walling, which got me thinking about the idea of screening your film when and where you could.

The second was talking having a class with the wonderful Nancy Gerstman of Zeitgeist Films, who was the first to distribute films by Christopher Nolan and Todd Haynes. She has also distributed films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Guy Madden, and Margarethe von Trotta. Nancy offered sound advice, but beyond that, brought in wonderful guests like Rachel Grady, who self-distributed Detropia. It was master class in learning how individual filmmakers looked at their options and made bold choices.

All of this was happening while I was incredibly stressed. As often happens, I had run out of money to finish the film, and didn’t know where finishing funds would come from.

As I brainstormed how to handle the problem, I realized that what I was going through perhaps could be solved by screening the film as a work-in-progress.

But I needed an audience. Who would want to see my film?

During crowdfunding, I had called my hometown newspaper and they had done an article about me, which got some attention. I decided to try my luck again. This time, I contacted my local library, who agreed to screen the film. I screened the film and solicited donations to make the film. More importantly, the local newspaper did another piece about me, which will come in handy when I’m trying to get word out about my feature film.

I also contacted the NYC alumni branch of The University of New Hampshire, which I had joined the fall prior. They were eager and enthusiastic to screen the film, and we did a screening with the cast and crew, followed by a Q and A.

These screenings resulted in a little cash to help get the film through sound and color, but, more importantly, the response to the film was mostly strong. For the first time, a group of people had assembled to solely to see my work. And then asked me questions afterwards. It was thrilling, fun, and incredibly validating.

Then the festival rejections start piling in.

I started ambitiously. ‘No’ from Sundance, ‘No’ from Busan, ‘No’ from NYFF, and, most crushingly, ‘No’ from the New Hampshire Film Festival, where I had some connections. The head programmer sent me a note about how much she liked the film, but they had received many more submission than previous years (this was a common refrain).

The film continued to receive rejections, even from festivals with an Asian or Asian-American focus. I began to wonder if it was a crappy film. I became incredibly insecure.

At the end of the day, what I realized is that the film has a precarious problem at it’s core: it’s a film that deals with issues central to the immigrant experience (visas, etc.) but not made by an immigrant, which I think is significant.  I believe this tension, as well as it’s slow pace and lack of closure, make it a difficult film to program. In my mind, it’s well made, but problematic film with a tricky audience.

I also realized I can’t critique my work based on festival acceptance.

In December of 2013, frustrated with reaching for bigger festivals, I submitted the film to IndieWorks, which is a local event in the city hosted by filmmakers I know. They loved the film, and not only screened it at their event, but invited to be part of an online competition to screen at their end of year Best of Fest event. The film won the online contest, and screened with several amazing films at the event. I got to speak about the film, meet other filmmakers. It was a blessing. As a young filmmaker, being recognized by your peers feels great.

I wanted to keep the momentum going, because it’s much better to feel positive about your work than negative, so I began submitting to more film nights. The film screened at Encore IndieFilm Showcase in Portland, Oregon. Encore is programmed by Jason and Jeanne of Heliorana film, and they were nice enough to let me submit a brief Q and A video as well.

I also submitted the film to Portsmouth Short Film Night, run by Michael and Catherine of Film Unbound. I was able to go up to visit for that one, speak at the Q and A, and spend the weekend walking around Portsmouth, my college town, with my girlfriend. I took a screening and turned it into mini-vacation.

In July, the film screened at Videology in Williamsburg. Around that time, I was contacted by Seed and Spark about putting the film on the site, based on the recommendation of the programmers at IndieWorks.

I’m very proud of the road Future Perfect’ has taken. It has taught me some valuable lessons. Most importantly,

1)Know your audience and know your distribution goals before making a film.
2)Festival acceptance can say nothing about how good (or bad) your film is
3)The most important thing is getting eyes on your film, especially as an up-and-coming filmmaker with a short film.

Finally, Don’t wait for festivals. Show your film when and where you can. Make your audience, and get them ready for the next film.

I am in pre-production on that next film a family drama called The Cape House. It will shoot on Cape Cod next year, and I’ve already begun planning my distribution strategy and researching the press and people I want to get involved with the film. I need to make a good film, but I need to know how it’s going to get out there.

So keep your eyes peeled for that. In the meantime, watch the trailer for Future Perfect and please watch it, along with a slew of other amazing films, on Seed&Spark.

A brief update.

22 Sep

Hey all,

September has been a busy month, but BIG NEWS is coming this week.

A few changes have been made on the site:

I’ve streamlined the site, only making division between my personal films and media I’ve made for others.

I’ve also added a few freelance gigs I did over the past few months and will be adding more shortly. On the film side, I’ve added my short film Purple to the site. Purple has a lot in common with my feature, The Cape House, so I hope you enjoy it.

Also, a new #RealWorldArt will be making it’s way to you before the end of the month, with podcast (!!!) to follow.

Until then, enjoy this beautiful shot of my neighborhood from Saturday morning. I was on my way to help Michael DiBiasio and Rebecca De Ornelas finish their first feature, The Videoblogs.

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Liam.

Understanding The Work: How I’m learning to love storytelling.

29 Aug

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Coffee and note cards: my keys to writing.

I don’t know what made me want to be a filmmaker. I know a big part of it was feeling a kinship with the imagination of Terminator-era James Cameron and Spielberg. I know that I saw H-Man as a young kid and remained hypnotized by it. I saw Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and talked about it for 3 months, much to the daily chagrin of my fellow swimming students. I later became obsessed with all things Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, Tarantino.
I think the sheer scope of cinema and the emotions it elicited were central. However, I never fully fell in love with storytelling. While I think many of my favorite films tell great stories, for me it was always about the interaction of people, which is probably what inspired me to go out and become a theater director. I loved working worth actors and helping to craft performances. Theatre is beautiful in that, to me, it’s purely about actors and a stage. It’s a performance and driven by that necessity (That’s not to say it isn’t by story, but my interest was always in character and interaction).
I think my transition to film, which started when I moved to New York City in 2008 (also the summer where I spent an entire 4 month period in awe of a new Batman film, this time by Christopher Nolan), has been rocky. I’ve spent a great deal of time in my late 20’s and early 30’s watching films from Eastern Europe and abroad. Films that are driven much more by feeling and relationships. I wasn’t as concerned with story as I should have been (probably being too naive to realize that all of these elements must go hand in hand).

But, recently, something has shifted, and it’s come about for a variety of reasons.

What happened?

It could be the book I’m reading. It could be my ongoing difficulty in finding ways to comfortably define myself as a filmmaker. I’m not sure. Mostly, I think it’s the script I’m writing, which is the reason most of my posts this summer have been about other people.

As those you who have read this blog in the past know, I spent a long period of time struggling with my first feature film. After coming to the conclusion that I was just battling the realities of art as process, I took the advice of Richard Linklater and began slowing down my approach to writing. I remembered that, on my last film, the structure of that film came to me when I stopped working on the screenplay and started tossing around notes on notes cards.

So I did the same here. I walked over to Rite Aid and spent $15 on notecards. I had blue note cards, yellow note cards,  orange note cards, red note cards, green note cards, and pink note cards. I gave each character (my film features 3 major characters) a set of note cards for general notes, and finally, I took the 4 days the film takes place over, and gave them each a color (I had lots of colors).

Some of these cards saw no writing. Most of them did. I wrote the film out, scene by scene. From notecards, I went to my notebook, writing down extra details and creating internal monologues for each character based on each scene. After doing this for a few weeks, I sat down to create a true outline to expand on my notecards. What happened instead was a first draft of my script, over a month before my planned first outline and 3 months before my first script draft. And it wasn’t bad.

So why was this different?

Well, for one thing, I’d learned some lessons. But, I think, most importantly, I let myself sit in my experience. I didn’t rush to get to the end of the script. I didn’t become (too) impatient. I understood that there needs to be a methodical meaningful process to how I work. This is narrative. This was the  narrative of how I wrote my script. It was storytelling. I was telling myself a story of how to write my script. In telling my story, I surprised myself: I got through a first version of my script with a fair amount of ease and focus. I built a sense of momentum and I followed it through. By creating a system (the notecards) and deepening it (the monologues), I was able to create a narrative for my film and myself.

I teach editing at BRIC House in Brooklyn, and the material we use is some material for a program about a cooking store. On day one, once they have the basics, they being to create an assembly of the footage. Often they will begin adding cuts and making decisions, and I encourage them to wait until the material is fully assembled. ‘Why?’ they often ask. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know?” I often say back. You have to let the material work on you, and that requires working on the material.

So what’s next?

Last week I finished the first draft of my script, and decided to let it sit for a few days. By the time you read this, hopefully I’ll be back to it, and with the same sense of need to build a narrative around it: to create a process that leads to a deep investment, and then to surprise myself with where the story takes me.

I’ll update this soon. Have a great weekend.

Best,

Liam