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.

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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.

 

Down Thunder Road with an American Girl

I’ve felt for a long time that rock n’ roll, maybe more than any other form of music, is about encouragement. It’s a way for people to come together in a feeling of joy and community. The message of rock often has a sadness to it, an acknowledgment that pain is inevitable and that these wonderful, youthful things that we’re celebrating will fade whether we want them to or not, but the dominant idea is that we can overcome this pain, and that new joys are to be found going forward.

Of course, rock isn’t all this way. lt can be unrelentingly gloomy, but for the most part, the main themes of the genre are renewal and a celebration of life, and for me, the two songs that capture this most clearly are Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl”

So, what’s the point here? Why am I writing about these songs? They’re hits. We all know them, what more is there to say? Well, I’m not really writing about the songs. I’m writing about what they showed me, what I learned from them about how to deal with life’s trials and appreciate its blessings.

Petty starts the studio version of “American girl” with suspense-building guitar licks and an excited “Shah!” it’s a perfect opening. lt tells you “get ready, this is gonna be a journey, it’s gonna knock your socks off !” by the time he’s launched into his brief, perfectly compact story of a young woman “raised on promises” we’re completely invested. We want to know where this girl, with her moxy and her irrepressible drive to lead a more fulfilling life, is going to go. Where does she end up? Where we all do when we chase our dreams, in a place of regret.

She stands alone on her balcony remembering a lost love and thinking about the wonderful things that she just barely missed out on, but like we all have to do, if we want to face life, she finds the courage to move on. She’s able to find the strength within herself to move past life’s disappointments.

Springsteen’s song opens similarly. His quiet harmonica is backed by Roy Bittan’s gentle, introspective piano. As he begins to sing, he gives us a story of two people who feel stuck in life. Whereas Petty’s heroine arrives at a place of regret, and has to figure out where to go from there, Springsteen’s characters are already in a place of regret when the song begins. They’re deeply dissatisfied as they whittle away their days, and they’re determined to discover better lives as they hit the road with nothing but their love for each other and the clothes on their back. As the lyrics progress, getting more and more desperate-but at the same time more and more hopeful-Springsteen, and his famed E-Street Band, build from their quiet beginning to a crescendo of resistance to the idea of a stagnant life. These two lovers may not find anything out there, but they have to try.

It took me years to learn this lesson. I’m still learning it. I have to re-enforce it on a daily basis. Especially growing up in an environment where my peers sent me a message that I could do nothing. I fell back on other people for far too long. It wasn’t until around last year that I really began to believe in myself and make my own mark. I made my films, but I didn’t believe in them, I didn’t think I could do anything worthwhile, because I didn’t believe in-or even really feel-my own ability to grow. I thought I’d always be this frightened little boy, relying on whatever scraps of love and creativity I could scrounge from the big bad world. lt wasn’t until late last year, when I faced the trauma of being betrayed by an old and treasured friend, that I began to truly face my past, and believe in the possibilities of my future.

That person’s betrayal hurt me, physically as well as emotionally. I suffered back pain for days as a result of what they did, but as I pushed through all that stress, all that pain, all that loss, to find the comfort and love of family and true friends on the other side, I found my own way.  I began to realize myself. I wasn’t a scared little boy. I was a tough-fibered adult who could make his own way in the world. I was a genuinely gifted artist who could create something worthwhile that might do people some good. I was a loving and loved son, brother, and friend. It took me so long to get to that place, and I’m not there all the time, but whenever I lose it, I find it again, and the fact that we can not only get to those places, but also get back to them when they slip from our grasp, that’s the message of Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band . . . the message of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers . . . the message of rock n’ roll.

-Ben J.

Time

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you, no one told you where to run, you missed the starting gun”.

Pink Floyd are a group that have always been a core influence on my life, following suite with my deep rooted love for music. I feel in some ways that borders on cliche if it weren’t for the fact that their music has been embedded in so many stages of my life. As is a portion of the subject matter of my next film, their music quite literally saved my life as a teen during a time of emotional turmoil and rash decision making. Albums like Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle, Atom Heart Mother and Animals have all had their defining moments in my life. Like the hot summer day sitting out on the deck at my friends mom’s vacation home listening to Animals for the first time, or taking in the nostalgic tones of Summer ‘68 during long drives through the countryside.

A few months ago I was spinning my vinyl pressing of Dark Side when I was hit by that familiar wave of melancholy associated with music and lyrical passages that dig deep at your soul. It was during Time that I had begun to reflect on the difference between this stage in my life in contrast to the last 10 years as a whole. A lot of thoughts and memories hit me at once, from thinking of drifting connections between old friends, the places I’ve lived and things I’ve experienced as well as the relationship that’s evolved between my wife and I and how I’ve shaped up as an individual and an artist. I thought about the time spent in college studying the career path I’ve been working toward the last 4 years and how I’ve grown little by little with every project. It becomes increasingly surreal to think back 10 years ago to who I was and what I was doing then, as I am no longer that person nor am I in even remotely the same place.

“Every year keeps getting shorter, never seem to find the time” are the lyrics that hit me the hardest at this point in my life, as I try to squeeze more and more out of my days. Never before have these words meant so much to me. Every day has become a contest of prioritizing the actions that define both my life and who I am when I come out the other side. I’ve wanted for some time now to become a sort of master of my reality in ways I never aimed to achieve, as I thought it was only possible through creation of art. But as I dig deeper and continue an everlasting search through my soul and the principles that I live by daily, I feel a stronger connection with both time and my ability to manage the limitations we’ve allowed it to set upon us.

But no matter how well I feel I can manage how I use my own time, there will never truly be enough to fit in all of our goals, expectations and dreams. Coming to terms with this has been instrumental I feel to how I manage myself, putting first things first and trying to no longer allow myself to fall into poor habits or using my time for things that truly have no benefit on the person I strive to be.

The other night after a long day out of the house working on multiple projects throughout the day, I received a phone call from my brother while making dinner. He was stressed and needed someone to talk to. My immediate reaction was something of frustration as my expectations for the evening were to relax as soon as I finished cooking to utilize the time between work and sleep as much as I could to my own benefit. We had talked about some of these things in fact, and in so led me to realize for myself and his sake that happiness requires time and attention along with everything else we do from day to day, and to pay attention to how that time is managed is just as important as the rest of the noise that fills heads.

We will never regret making time for the people we love and care about in our lives, as it’s far easier to regret filling our time with only things trivial matters, work and the stress of everyday living.

That said I am still no master of these principles nor of my reality. I don’t truly think I ever will be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth working toward. A flaw I am working on every moment I can is not taking the effort to just enjoy the ride for all that it offers. Take in and breathe the journey instead of getting choked up on it. This might mean slowing down the output of some projects and artistic endeavors that I normally feel the compulsion to finish as fast as I possibly can. But if it means longer lasting satisfaction when I look up and down the road of progress, I think I can manage the time.

-Alex S.

Ben Johnson’s Review of “Opening Night”

Opening Night
Directed by John Cassavetes in 1977

John Cassavetes called his 1977 film “Opening Night” “The Finest movie he’d ever had anything to do with.” While my respect for Cassavetes is undying, I can’t agree with this statement. In fact, I would say that it’s the weakest of his films I’ve seen so far.

The film follows the emotional breakdown and artistic epiphanies of theater actress Myrtil Gordon, played by Cassavetes’s wife and frequent collaborator, the wonderful Gena Rowlands.

Myrtil begins to question the nature of her roll in the play she is about to put on after she sees a young fan being fatally hit by a car. The film tackles the emotional journey that this event causes her to take—a journey that leads her to discoveries about herself as a person and as an artist. The film wants to be both a commentary on the nature of art (and acting in particular) and a depiction of a woman coming to terms with her own feelings of inadequacy.
The problem with the movie, though, is that we never really see exactly where those feelings of inadequacy come from. Cassavetes keeps the focus so much on the staging and premier of the play, and Myrtle’s crisis of faith as an artist, that we get hardly any sense of her personal life. It’s obvious that a very deep, painful wound is driving her, but what is that wound? Cassavetes never lets us know. This could be very effective, if the point of the film was that Myrtle’s own repression of her pain caused the audience not to know what that pain is, but that’s not how it plays.

Cassavetes seems to think that Myrtle’s psychology is entirely clear to the audience, but we get no sense of what drives her, other than dissatisfaction with the part she’s playing, and a vague insecurity about aging that is expressed through hallucinations of the fan she saw killed. Her deeper feelings are barely explored. Even with an actress as great as Rowlands giving everything she has for 2 and a half hours, when all is said and done, Myrtle seems a lifeless, empty creation.

What made Cassavetes a great filmmaker was his treatment of character. His best movies, like “Faces” and “A Woman Under the Influence” hold up after almost 50 years as devastatingly honest portraits of human behavior. “Opening Night,” on the other hand, plays out as a movie far more interested in process than people. It almost feels like a betrayal of what Cassavetes stood for, and, for a director who continues to be renowned for his clear-eyed integrity over two decades after his death, that’s a real disappointment.

– Ben Johnson

Thank You

Post production is beginning to slow down exponentially these last few weeks as I wrap up the color work on Way Out Of Here. That leaves us with sound design next, helmed by my good friend and collaborator Brian Sloss. This will be the stage that really bring the whole film together. From the very beginning of development on this project, sound has been in major consideration for how this project will flow in the edit.

Having said that, the downtime from focusing on the edit of the film has left me to reflect on everything my team and myself had gone through to bring this film to life. I’m beyond humbled that I’ve been given an opportunity by so many to bring such a personal story to life. I want to take a few moments now to thank all of these people for their contributions to this film. We had a killer team who all deserve recognition for their hard work, talents, and the overall support and trust they put into me to see this through.

Thank you to my amazing cast on this film, first off. Miles Dewar, thank you for taking on a complex and painful role. You put so much of yourself into the character, as well as into his internalized torment. Zoe Clifton, thank you for the same, but for really externalizing the context of your role that isn’t seen within the film. In just a few moments we know Sasha has been hurting for some time, and that’s not easily done. Your expressions and cadence read so well on screen. Tucker Case, thank you yet again for another stellar performance. Screentime and context of your role aside, it’s effectiveness is there and drive the tone of the film. Janna Shields and Frytz Mor, thank you both for your flexibility with utilizing your sharp improv skills and undeniable wit. I can’t wait for you to see how your roles fit into the overall experience of the film. And lastly Colin Brush, Derrick Floyd and Erick Slabaugh thank you all for melding easily into the scenario we put your characters in. It’s simple, straightforward and effective.

Now, onto the crew I was lucky enough to put together. It takes a village to make a movie, and I couldn’t have asked for a better village if you ask me. Thank you Shelby Smout for being such a supportive and resourceful co-producer. Keep up the good work because I have no doubt you’ll be using these skills on bigger opportunities someday. Anna Lee Davis, thank you for always putting 110% effort into what you do. Thank you for feeding our team as well as being a badass key set PA and coordinating with us through pre-production . A bit non-traditional, but your ability to adapt is admirable and deserves praise. Thank you Micah Knapp for your support with getting everything we needed on set as my assistant director. Your drive to create bring a warm presence to any production. Thank you Bogdan Darev, for always being supportive and being a part of this journey since my first film out of college. Having you help behind the scenes as the second assistant director offered a calm and friendly environment for cast and crew alike, and your energy is something I never want to be without when taking on these sorts of creative endeavors. Thank you Matt Shanafelt for your ability to take on my ideas while always being comfortable with suggesting a compromise that best benefits the film overall. You have a great eye and talent for setting a mood. Thank you to our camera team, Seth Halleran and Justin Vinall. Your combined skillsets and ability to communicate made it so we ran as smoothly as possible. Thank you Brittany Delph, for being on set with us as our camera PA and media wrangler, as well for your continued support through post production. I am very grateful for your assistance in understanding Davinci Resolve more clearly. Thank you Matt Rush for your lighting expertise, I am incredibly happy with how you and Shanafelt worked together to develop the emotional tone of the film from a visual perspective. And thank you to our grip and electric team that made all of Matt’s plans possible, Jake Waluconis and Louis Ziob. You are two high quality human beings and extremely hard workers. Thank you to our sound team, Taylor Delph and Brian Sloss. I love how much you both care about your work and making sure things sound as good as they look. I can’t wait to see how it all shapes up in post. Thank you to our art department team, production designer Mariya Apostolava and our art PA’s Lela Wulsin and Hannah Becker. The world that we lit and framed wouldn’t have existed without everything you all put into making it so. Mariya, thank you for being a long time collaborator and for your abilities to tap into the essence of character and the worlds they inhabit. Thank you to our two hard working production assistants, Jake and Kyle Love. You both always have such a positive energy on set. Everything you guys have done to keep the production moving smoothly was instrumental to getting what we have now in the edit. Invisible to most, but without good pa’s a production can easily lose it’s footing. Thank you to Brenden Noll for being our onset behind the scenes photographer. The pictures I’ve seen so far look great and I’m very happy to have this documented account of the film’s principle photography to share with the world over time.

Lastly, there’s a few others I feel the need to give a proper thanks to. They may not have been on set with us or along throughout pre-production but their support was still huge. Thank you to Ben Johnson, my business partner and a key supporter of the work I aim to put out into the world. Thank you for talking the voice in the back of my head out of some not so strong ideas I had during the writing process and throughout pre-production. Couldn’t do it without ya bud. Thank you to Allen and Jill Johnson for believing in this and past projects. Each one has been a major stepping stone of progress in my craft and I quite literally could not have gotten here without you both. And of course, my wife who has supported me in her own way on everything I do and every step taken on this journey.

I hope I did not forget anyone, and would gladly edit this to include you if there is someone I spaced out on. Every small ripple is felt in the creation of a film, and so one last thank you to everyone involved. I can’t wait to see this film complete and begin sharing it with the world.

Thank you for your time,
– Alex S.

Lessons We Learn From Art

I think art, as in the process and the journey, holds itself up as one of the best teachers we have available to us. Creating as a whole is one big learning process that contains so many challenges and lessons that it’s hard to not let if affect the very core that sits at the center of you. Over the last 5 or so years I feel so much of my growth has been rooted in the artistic process and that I wouldn’t quite be the person I am now or even the one I’m aiming to be if it weren’t for these experiences gained and endured while exploring my own creative voice.

Practicing patience and allowing myself to not feel overwhelmed by the process has been huge, as I remember how many often I’ve gone into these projects feeling small or panicked by how much needed to be done in such a short amount of time. I’ve let these things consume me time and time again, but each time has been a distinct learning experience in managing these feelings in a more effective way.

We are soon about to hit the three month mark on the post production calendar for Way Out of Here, and I’m starting to get that unique and nearly indescribable itch I get when my expectations aren’t totally met when faced by the nuanced chaos of day to day life, and I just want to see the progress made in a sort of timelapse mode. It’s a lot like when I am writing freehand in a notebook, and I am in the middle of a thought but also want to be done writing the thought down, and my hand starts to feel fidgety and anxious. We are at the point of focusing on the color grade and sound design simultaneously, so things are still moving at a reasonable pace, but since this project has been a lot of “firsts” in terms of workflow and the type of footage we are working with, the pacing of the process has begun to take its own shape entirely.

That said even with some technical flubs and troubleshooting, when elements begin to show their flourish and the end result is in sight (moment by moment), it has been one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had so far in making a film. It’s these moments that remind me what I’m ultimately working for, and that it doesn’t matter how long or what it takes so as long as I allow myself to be receptive of what the process is trying to teach my along the way.

If you go back to the top of this post and look at the image, you’ll see stills from three of my films. Stagnant, Burden and Way Out of Here. Each containing a distinct part of myself and where I was at that point in my life. Each with a touch of the personal growth I was going through at the time, buried under all the elements that make the films what they are. I couldn’t be more grateful for these experiences, and even more so that I have this opportunity to share them with you.

– Alex S.

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