David Riker is currently in post-production on what will be the second feature film he has written and directed, “The Girl.” His first feature, the highly acclaimed “La Ciudad,” began as part of Riker’s work as a student in NYU’s graduate film program. Among his other work in between those two projects, David won awards for screenwriting on “Sleep Dealer.” David provides personal and professional perspective for Chapter 5: Personal Expression and Studio Production.
Abbie Cornish and Maritza Hernandez in David Riker’s “The Girl”
Did you have any early inspirations to use moving images to communicate?
I began taking photographs as a young teenager and remember building my first darkroom in the boiler room of our house, and standing there, sweating, as I tried to teach myself how to wind my negative film into a Patterson developing tank. I may have been thirteen years old. None of my friends were interested in photography but I befriended the owner of a photo lab and he began to take me under his wing. My camera – first a Kodak instamatic, then a Brownie, and finally a 35mm Praktica SLR– became my closest friend, a kind of magic carpet that seemed to open up a new universe to me.
Writer and director David Riker
In what ways did you first become involved in making movies?
It was much later before I began to make films, and the journey was not an easy one. My early love for photography was later given direction when I began to see the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Donald McCullum, the great documentary photographers. Suddenly, photographs seemed vital to me in a new way. I was at university at the time, and an activist in the anti-nuclear movement, and I began to document the peace movement in the United States, Europe and Japan. By my senior year I had assembled a large portfolio of images and was dreaming of one day joining the Magnum Photo Agency, home to so many of the greats.
But then I had a strange epiphany. Looking through my portfolio one day I realized that I didn’t know the names of most of the people I had photographed. I didn’t have an address, or any way to contact them. I realized I knew next to nothing about the subjects of my photos. The photographs had visual integrity, and some of the images were quite strong, but I couldn’t help feeling that they were lacking in some fundamental way. I wanted the people in my photos to speak, and I felt that I had somehow rendered them mute. In what was one of the most painful experiences of my life, I put my camera down and stopped taking photographs. Then, after some delay, I realized that if I wanted the subjects to speak I would have to begin making films.
David Riker, at right, directing “La Ciudad”
How did you move on from those initial steps? What were some useful lessons you learned through your first experiences with motion pictures?
The first footage I ever shot was on a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex; the longest shot limited to about twenty five seconds. But I was still using the camera as I had my still cameras – I filmed footage of Puerto Rican children breakdancing, of women trying to shut down the Wall Street Stock Exchange, demonstrators protesting the US war in El Salvador. But I still didn’t know the names of the people I was filming, and the Bolex was silent.
A few years later, Sony introduced the Hi-8mm Handycam and I rushed to make a documentary – for the first time with sound. Over the next few years I made a number of documentary videos, teaching myself along the way, but realized that I needed to deepen my understanding of film. I knew that great films were capable of stirring the deepest feelings, but I didn’t know what the secret was to their power. I was twenty seven when I enrolled in graduate film school.
In your feature La Ciudad, you shot the film in black and white. Were you inspired by any particular filmmaking traditions to make this choice? How do you think this decision helped to establish a unique style in the film and particular storytelling values?
At film school in the early 1990s, students learned their craft by shooting on 16mm cameras and editing on flatbeds. There were no digital non-linear editing systems. In the first year everyone was expected to shoot in black and white, and the films were silent. Frustrated at first that I was still working without sound, I began to realize that the key to cinema is visual language. And slowly, deliberately, I started to learn its vocabulary and rules. It was a second epiphany for me, like uncovering some long-hidden mystery.
“Bicycle Thieves” by Roberto Rossellini
It was during this period of intense discovery that I began to make my first feature film, La Ciudad. I was inspired in part by the Italian films made right after WWII, the so-called neo-realist films – Paisan, BicycleThieves, La Terra Trema. These were films that seemed to reflect life as it was really lived, but with a lyrical voice. Unlike many contemporary ‘realistic’ films that were using a gritty, handheld style, the neo-realist films were eloquent, the choice of images — deliberate, striking, even poetic. I know that as I struggled to find an articulate language in my own film, the images from these masterpieces were hanging above me like golden signposts.
When you approach writing a screenplay, how do you develop a sense of ways in which the visuals will help to communicate the story?
It is tempting, when writing a screenplay, to think in images, and to some extent it’s necessary to ‘see’ the film as you’re writing. But the essential task of the screenwriter is not to visualize the film but to understand and control the dynamics of the story itself. The craft of writing a screenplay is separate and distinct from the craft of directing a film.
What has been your experience of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process?
All filmmaking is collaborative, and this makes it one of the most complex and powerful of the arts. Many of us know that Avatar was made by James Cameron, but we should also know that he was assisted by a crew of more than ten thousand. For reasons too complicated to discuss here, the director has been elevated above all others in film.
I think the most important experience for young filmmakers is to learn as many aspects of the craft as possible – to understand the unique challenges of the writer, the cinematographer, the gaffer, the sound recordist, the actor, the editor. A composer must learn each of the instruments before composing for an orchestra.
Read Full Post »