The Film Will Speak to You

I’m 25, so to hell with this advice.  I’m not preaching, or trying to say I’ve gotten to the essence of cinema, or anything goofy like that, I’m just sharing something that I’ve learned that I feel might be able to help a few filmmakers in my position.

As a film director, one of the most reductive things you can do is ask “why”.

OK, so let me explain.  As an artist, you need to know your theme, your baseline, what your characters are about and what you want you overall visual style to convey, but the minute you start thinking in terms of what any individual shot is about, or why cut here, or why is that object in the frame over there, than you’ve killed your creativity.  You’re no longer making art, you’re doing math.

The way you tell whether something is right is simply by feeling it, does an idea or an image light your soul ablaze, make you jump for joy?  Well then, that’s the idea you go with, and if anyone asks you why you want to do it that way, just tell them that this is where your gut, or the universe, or God or whatever you want to call it has taken you, and they’ll eventually come around, even if at first they proceed with some reluctance.

A good film needs to be like visual music, flowing like water from a very clear source.  Worrying and nitpicking is no good in anything in life, at least that’s been my experience, but it’s especially bad in filmmaking, because cinema needs to be about being in the moment and sensing what reverberates with you, what moves you, and if you try and manufacture something that’s moving, it just won’t work.  On my last shoot, I got bogged down in “why?” several times during the preparation, I was constantly worrying about what every shot was saying, rather than just letting the film speak for itself.

Like I said before, it needs to be like music, every shot is a note, and the notes need to flow into each-other with ease, by all means, have ideas about the meaning behind the shots, but don’t sweat it if you can’t find the exact words, because the meaning will be there whether you can articulate it or not.  Sometimes, you might not even know what the meaning behind a shot is until you cut the film, and that’s fine, because the meaning is there, it’s just not tied to language, if it was, why make films?  Why not write novels?

The only “why” you need in moviemaking, generally, is “This idea excites me.” That’s it.  The deeper whys and wherefores are there, being dictated by the film itself, not by you, and once you see the film, you’ll realize that what you’d been doing all along, was following the spirit of what the project wanted to be.  It’s my belief that, once you’ve learned to do that (and I’m still very much in the learning phase) is when you’re a true artist.

– Ben Johnson

Advertisements

Beside Myself

This film has been a bumpy ride for all of us.  Re-shooting  alone is a heck of a thing for a short, but reshooting  it with the kind of anxiety we had (weather!) and admittedly a number of things that could have been better prepared, and the ways that the script intersects with my personal life that I’m still unpacking, led to an experience that took a lot out of us, and this may show you why it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about it.

The screenplay for this film is about 5 pages.  Writing it took me six months.  Balancing the needs of a coherent narrative against my desire to make a movie that was dreamlike and “outside time” while also trying to keep it as short as possible, made it probably the hardest of my scripts to write, and more than anything else I’ve done so far, I had to mess up, rewrite, rearrange and whittle-down until I had (and I can say this without feeling egotistical) the exact little gem I was after.  I almost didn’t want to make it into a film, the screenplay by itself felt so self-contained to me that the idea of filming it seemed like a kind of betrayal, but of course it had to be filmed.  It was a visual story, and there was no other way for the seed I planted to grow.

To do this I was blessed with an amazing cast and crew.  Our great cinematographer, Tom Ciaburri, was so on his game throughout the making of the film that I started calling him “Eagle Eye” to myself.  He really knows the mood and tone that I’m going for, and cares deeply about serving the story, so every shot we planned was carefully designed for real emotional impact, rather than to just look pretty.  If I had a central tenant to my beliefs about directing, that would be it, serve the story and create emotional impact.  That would also seem to be Tom’s central belief about camerawork, and I’m deeply grateful to him for that.

A huge thanks also to my long-time friend and partner in crime for this little company, Alex Sylvester.  He’s been so patient as a producer, the quality of the film being his top priority at all times. He went through so many difficulties and jumped through so many hoops to make this re-shoot possible.  Alex and I have been working together for as long as we’ve been doing films, but if his faith in me would ever falter it would’ve been on this project, but it didn’t (well hardly at all), he pushed forward, and made it possible against all odds (as corny as that sounds) for me to make the film I wanted to.  He also helped me structure the script to keep it from being to free-floaty.  Anyway, pal, thanks.  You’ve been really indispensable.  Then again, you always are.

I would be making a real mistake if I didn’t give a shout-out to our wonderful young leads, Jack Lindsey (Sam) and Peyton Pich (Janie).  These kids were everything I could have hoped for and more.  They were both so perceptive and took direction better than most adults I’ve worked with.  I was amazed by their shared talent to express deep and full feelings in just the tiniest gestures, like only the best actors can do, and by the depth of their understanding of the essence of this project.   Thank you guys so much for bringing all that kindness, humor and enthusiasm to the making of this film, I won’t forget it.

Huge thanks to our entire crew.  I can’t name you guys all here, but rest assured, your contributions were essential and are deeply appreciated.  The guys in the trenches like you are the ones who make any movies possible.  Thanks so much!

Lastly, this is a very personal film for me, so I’d like to take a minute to thank people who were not technically involved in it’s making, but who’s belief me and the project gave me the guts I needed to go on with it.  Many, many thanks to my dear friends Stephen Bosch, Emily Ross, and Xoe Amer for being some of my biggest artistic boosters, and especially to Xoe for suggesting that I change the bullying scenes I had in early drafts.  Also, endless love and thanks to my parents, Allen and Jill Johnson, for always encouraging their son to pursue his crazy dream of making films, and thanks to my good friend and colleague Andy Akada, for helping me make Janie a more fully-formed character.

Thanks, most of all, to the main inspiration for this movie, my twin brother Sam.  I know you’re out there, bro, making sure I’m OK, and I want you to know that wherever you are, I love you.

– Ben Johnson

Quick Update from the World of Pick Up Pre-Production

A sense of urgency is a necessary trait when you are working in film production. It’s a survival tool, and often is what gets you through some of the most challenging adversity when working on film projects.

That’s about where I am at the moment as we finish up last minute planning and tying up loose ends before we go into shooting pick ups for our film “Beside You”. So it’s with a sense of urgency that I write this week’s entry in between locking down some crew members and location information so we have a smooth two day pick up shoot next weekend. But once these last few bumps in the road are totally handled, we’ll be able to roll into our shoot with a solid footing and head on our shoulders (which, in production, often looks like a hydra between your department heads trying to coordinate multiple worlds to land on a common ground for the final product).

We will likely be radio silent the next week or two as we finish up preparations on our project, but there will be some exciting news to come in the near future, just you wait! Stay tuned 🙂

– Alex S.

Exciting Things Are Happening for Fresh Cup Films

The last several weeks have left me in a whirlwind of anxiety fueled excitement. A few weeks back it was announced that Way Out of Here was selected to screen in this year’s Hollyshorts Film Festival in Los Angeles. In the time since we received and accepted the official selection status, it seems like there’s been a nonstop drive to push forward on a handful of tasks and projects.

For starters, getting the film ready to show at the festival. We hadn’t had a DCP completed yet, and I haven’t had the luxury of time to really troubleshoot the process. But thankfully, the festival partners with a company who makes DCP’s for a relatively affordable price. That helped expedite the process immensely. Especially, since I wasn’t totally prepared to spend hours testing the waters on something that is the difference between showing our movie to the public (in a world-famous theatre no less) and NOT screening at this year’s Hollyshorts.

Second, I’ve been getting a handful of promotional material slapped together alongside planning my trip down to LA for the weekend. It’s only a couple of days away until our film screens alongside a handful of other PNW films and that feeling of “this is really happening” only grows stronger with each passing hour. Hollyshorts marks the first major festival (for shorts that is) that Fresh Cup will have gotten into. I feel especially honored that the film that got in is Way Out of Here, since it’s such a personal and intimate project for me.

Admittedly, I haven’t been to LA before this trip, so I’m equally as excited to enter the unknown and throw myself into the fire (hopefully not literally this time around…it is August…). I hear there’s so much to soak up in the greater Los Angeles area, I barely even know where to begin. I have a small itinerary set, but I’m embracing that I will likely change plans on the fly regularly throughout my four-day venture.

On top of that, we are working out ways to schedule and plan our pick ups for Ben’s film “Beside You”, which has been a slow and arduous process. That’s the other side of filmmaking, a part that takes up more than 2/3rds of what we do. But with what have already, it’s clear that we don’t only need these pick ups, we owe it to the strength of the story we have before us to make this the best film we can.  Once we’ve got these last few missing pieces shot, it’s only onward and upward from here.

And lastly, this is only a small taste of what’s to come for both films and some previous projects of ours. I have a lot of plans in the works at the moment, a lot of moving pieces and busy work to attend to. This of course has left me slow to finding time to give effective and worthy updates for you all. I am hoping that things will start to come into light sooner than later so I can fill you in on what’s got me so excited these last two months.

Thank you all for being a part of the journey with us, and I can not wait for the opportunity to have Way Out of Here’s world premiere be at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood this Sunday at 12pm.

Keep on keeping on,

– Alex S.

Awakening the Unified Spirit

One of my favorite routines from the great comedian Bill Hicks (1961-1994) is the one where he talks about sitting alone in a WaffleHouse, eating and reading a book.  A waitress walks over to him and asks “What you readin’ for?”  Not “What are you reading?” Bill clarifies, but “What are you reading for?”  “Why read when you can just flip on the tube?” She asks, “Cause it’s not the same!” Bill fires back.  “What do you think I’m reading? ‘Hee-Haw the Book’!?”

Even though Hicks died in the 90s, this whole bit perfectly sums up what bothers me most about the 21st century.  The obsession with speed and stimuli, computers get faster and screens get brighter by the day, while we get slower and more passive.  Less willing to do the work needed to live our own lives.  Why would we?  Our phones can do it for us!  We no longer take time to appreciate the beauty in small things, to find joy in every day details like a blue sky or the smile of a stranger.  We want to talk to a friend, do we call them?  No!  We send them a text of course!  Who wants to hear another human being’s voice?  What’s cool and trendy about that?

Art now has the lifespan of a fly.  I’ve actually heard people call Fight Club an “old movie”, when that film’s younger than I am!  The language is being degraded almost by the minute.  We have abbreviations for slang now, for crying out loud, and I don’t care how much of a rush you’re in, it takes no effort to type Y-O-U!

Whew.  That got away from me.  I know these are all gross generalizations, plenty of people still read, and human connection is still very possible.  I just worry that it’s getting harder and harder, frankly, because more and more people simply don’t care.  So many of us practically lead our whole lives on the internet.  Not bothering to think or question anything, and the way the internet is set up, this leads to one outcome:  Anger, and lots of it.  Hell, you just saw a heaping helping of it from me, and it’s not productive anger, it’s a double-edged sword that cuts you deeper than the person you’re attacking. The rage we feel towards each other over race, religion, gender and overall political affiliation is exactly what the people in charge want, because they know that as long as we’re at each other’s throats, they keep power.  The illusion of difference that they’ve fostered will stand firm, we won’t realize that we are truly all one, and we won’t take back our lives.  

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Hicks may have been angry, but underneath his anger, there was a deep-rooted hope for humanity, his apparent cynicism was due to so many people being willingly-manipulated, so many people lulled into thinking that a kinder, better world was a ridiculous idea, it just wasn’t in human nature they said, and as our governments continue to pit us against each other, they say it today.

Well, I for one think they’re wrong.  There will come a day, very soon, when all our weapons will be laid-down forever, racism and gender inequality will be a thing of the past, and good food and clean water will be readily available to everyone, all we have to do is come together.

How?  Well, we don’t do it with Facebook groups or “Hashtags”.  We don’t do it with youtube or reddit, we do it through great stories and art, we do it through feeling the beauty that exists all around us every day, in this world we are blessed to call home, and most of all, we do it through meaningful connections with each other, as thinking, feeling human beings, not 1s and 0s.

So take some time out of your day to leave your computer, turn off your cellphone and go enjoy the sunshine, or hell, a walk in the rain.  Have a coffee and drink it slowly, savoring the flavor.  Think about how lucky you are to be alive, to be able to enjoy the little things.  Say hello to someone, anyone, even someone you’ve never met.  Or if you don’t feel like talking, just smile at them.  You’ll make their day better for it.

And please, next time you go to a WaffleHouse, Make sure to bring a book.     

  

Worlds Beyond Words

My life has been something of a roller-coaster in the last couple of years, from finishing a film (always something to be proud of) to forming great new friendships and cementing older ones, from dealing with the painful but ultimately transient (well, mostly)  emotional hurdle of unrequited love, to avoiding the incredibly painful and undeniably permanent downhill plunge of suicide, I’m in a period of extremes in my life.  Which is probably why I’ve been feeling so inarticulate.

Oh, I could talk.  I could talk all day and night, but when I did, I felt like no matter how deep I seemed to be going, I didn’t even scratch the surface. I touched down on the runway for about 3 seconds, then I’d be  back up in the cloud cover, flying blindly with a dead radio.

I felt I had so much I needed to share with the people in my life, but I soon as I tried to tell them about it, it vanished into meaningless sound.  There was even a part of me that felt that film is not a good way to get these things across, because these things, these qualities, these emotions, are so much a part of who I am beyond any sort of physical realm, that to do anything to render them concrete would leave them empty, but film isn’t really concrete, is it?  As corny as this may sound, it’s spiritual, like music.  It leaves an impression on you that, to me, at least, proves the existence of a consciousness we all share that is based on compassion, rather than fear, no matter how bad things get in our physical world.

As I write this, I’m thinking of someone I used to think I’d have to write a book for in order to share the truth of what she meant to me, why all the inadvertent pain I had around her was worth it, how much she’s done to help me keep my faith in others and myself, how, when I’m with her, I feel the spirit of that deep compassion consciousness, but I don’t think can, nor would it help if I could, because when something goes beyond words, well, it just has to be felt.

We don’t really need words that much when we have the capacity for those kinds of transcendent experiences offered by film, music, and by loving another person.  Those say enough by themselves.

Breathing Fresh Air

A while ago, I was having a drink with my good friend Xoe Amer (the author of “Gas Station Elegy”, the short story I based my film “Away” on).  I’d been having a bad day and, as we chatted on about this and that, I felt the cloud of depression and frustration that had been hanging over me and getting heavier with each passing hour, lifting and being replaced by the warmth she sent my way as we talked.  This happens a lot when we hang out.  I once told Xoe that she was the human equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Sherry Darling” because she never fails to cheer me up, but something different happened this time.

“I want you to know,” I said, letting my gratitude all hang out, “That every time I see you, I leave feeling better.”

“Ditto.” She smiled at me. “You’re a breath of fresh air, my friend.”

Of course, I was touched, and I thanked her, but internally I was thinking “I’m a breath of fresh air?! What the hell are you smoking?!”  I was shocked.  I knew that I had been blessed with great friends and family members who gave me so much love and support, but I didn’t see myself as a giver.  I’d always felt that I owed something to the people who I loved.  They’d done so much for me, and I was so undeserving, I felt, that I needed to give them something in return, after all, I was just this vague blur of nothing, a time-waster, a space-filler, these people were full-blown people, so I had to work hard to be deserving of their time.  Since I thought this way, hearing Xoe say this hit me like a bowling ball.

As the days went by, I kept coming back to her words “You’re a breath of fresh air.” And I started to realize, that giving doesn’t always have to be concrete, it can simply be by presence, by simply being there in that moment, I was refreshing to her, making her life a little bit better.  The idea that I could offer people the same things they’d been offering me, by my existence alone, was and remains deeply affirming.

People too often feel that they have to give materially or take certain actions to justify their existence.  In fact, we don’t have to do anything of the kind.  The best we can do, on a day to day basis, is be as good and kind as we can be.  If we do that, love will come our way, and regardless of what else we do, it will be deserved.

Mental Health May

I don’t spend a lot of time talking too much about mental health in a public setting. It’s not something I’ve specifically avoided but in part due to how often I find myself over thinking, over analyzing and over criticising myself and my actions/thoughts/etc. But in the spirit of May being a month for increasing the momentum of awareness regarding mental health, I feel I should allow myself a place to express my thoughts on the matter.

This year has been a particularly tough one for managing my mental health, albeit mutually successful and rewarding. At the beginning of the year I had to quit seeing my therapist (at least temporarily) due to financial reasons and a new insurance plan. Disappointing on the surface, but I’ve done my best to make this into a challenge for putting the tools therapy had given me to the test.

Starting since last December I’ve been navigating my way through a looming depression that’s been hanging on a lot longer than I was expecting. Just about every time I’ve seen myself making my way out, I realized I had another chasm to make my way through. Again, on the surface it seems grim and painful but the silver lining to all of this is my strengthened understanding of coping mechanisms, self-awareness and the principles I want to live by regardless of how dark everything feels. I’m allowing myself more access to creative energy from these feelings as well as letting myself be more open without always defaulting to frustration and self doubt. But some days are better than others, and another lesson I’m trying to teach myself is that it’s okay to have those days so as long as you recognize them for what they are and to not let them affect your overall sense of self.

The other day for example I had a really poor day for my mental health. I felt as if my brain were moving 1000mph and like I had a million things on my mind but not a single thing was coming through or translating into something coherent. This lead into fighting with myself about letting it overcome my ability to do what’s right for me, trying to push through the noise and remain productive. Unfortunately in the moment I let the noise persist, but in hindsight I’m able to see something from it for next time. For one, I’ve been on new medication for my asthma, and those have always given me some trouble with managing my anxiety. The rest was the result of a feedback loop of anxious thoughts that can only be put to a halt by doing the things it tries to keep you from doing. That’s the hardest part, but once you can catch it in the moment it’ll become easier each time to put that energy elsewhere.

– Alex S.

Project Updates and Onto the Next One

Of all the stages that make up finishing a film, post production on a low budget indie project always feels like the least concrete. Even after setting grounded deadlines there tends to always be another thing to tweak. This mostly has to do with being my own editor and colorist, making the whole process sort of disorienting. So unlike the feeling you get when wrapping principle photography, which is often akin to reaching the peak of a mountain, wrapping post-production is more of a lurking, creeping feeling that hangs over me.

When you think about it, when shooting a film you have this constant sense of urgency attached to your decision making. Every minute that passes by is money being spent and people’s energy exerted. You are on a finite schedule that requires to use your time as effectively as possible, while practicing patience and compromise at every turn.

With post production however, especially with how I’ve always done things, there’s more freedom to explore what have and nitpick about how everything pieces together. There’s a different energy to it, something almost meditative. Since the edit is the final version of the story that makes it front of the audience, it means paying careful attention to every little detail that makes for the strongest film possible.

So just a few days ago when we finished up the final mix of sound design for Way Out Of Here I had realized just how far along we were with finishing this film. It had creeped up on me, when I started listing off what I knew was left on the to do list before sending this film off to festivals. Picture was locked, the color grade solid and I had already added the film’s credits. In fact all that was needed was to swap out the sound with the final mix.

This means it’s time for the next stage, festival submissions and giving the film as much exposure as possible. It’s exciting that we are done with post production, but it’s lessened by a side effect of this creeping sensation. I have a hard time feeling satisfied with a film’s completion until it sees the light of day in front of an audience. I’m ready to begin finding an audience for my work and feel this film will make for a strong statement to others.

In the meantime there’s still plenty to do as we get closer to shooting our next project and I begin to return to writing more regularly. Ben is cooking up another short with plans to shoot in the summer. I don’t want to give anything away as of yet about the story but I feel it’s going to be a beautiful piece of short form cinema. We have plans to shoot on super 16 again, which is always exciting. I’ve missed that sound of the film rushing through the camera as you go into a take.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the future our upcoming projects. I’m really excited by what we’ve been working on as of late and the messages I hope to spread to others through these films. I feel I’ve grown quite a bit as a visual storyteller, and feel energized by the sheer opportunity I’m granted to bring them to life and to others.

–  Alex S.

 

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑