Archive for the ‘Close-Ups’ Category

Matthew Myers has served as a producer on such notable independent movies as Then She Found Me (directed by Helen Hunt), Griffin & Phoenix, and Speak (starring Kristen Stewart), as well as the upcoming Ned Rifle, by noted indie director Hal Hartley and featuring Aubrey Plaza.  Myers began his career as a Unit Production Manager, including supervising production and post-production on Hartley’s award winning feature Henry Fool.  He also produced the film adaptation of author Katherine Paterson’s novel The Great Gilly Hopkins, directed by Stephen Herek and slated for release in 2015.

Did you have any particular inspirations relative to moviemaking early in life or during your years in school? What was your initial path on the way to becoming a filmmaker?  

Great Gilly Hopkins David Wintersteen

Matt Myers (at right) demonstrates the finer points of producing to David Wintersteen on the set of The Great Gilly Hopkins

I get asked this question a lot.  I have to say that The Wizard of Oz and the original King Kong were two of the first pictures I remember inspiring me to take a closer look at the mechanical creativity of film production. As a kid I was obsessed with deconstructing those movies—how they worked narratively, emotionally…and physically. Those two pictures made such an impression on me and really captured my imagination. I remember watching them on television every year with my grandfather, who was a big movie fan. He had first seen these old classic pictures in the cinema during their first runs and read about them extensively. He ruined the illusion of the Wicked Witch of the West melting in front of my eyes by informing me that they just tacked down her dress and lowered her through the stage floor. That blew my mind and I became extremely eager to learn more about ‘the man behind the curtain’ so to speak—the physical production.

In what ways did you first become involved in making movies?

I was in Pittsburgh, freshman year of college. I was 18 years old and I was strolling along downtown, and I just wandered into a low budget MOW (Movie Of the Week for TV) called Alone in the Neon Jungle starring Suzanne Pleshette and Danny Aiello. The director was Georg Stanford Brown. I saw all these trucks, lights, tons of people on the street and I kind of just crashed the set. I worked for free for a couple of weeks in the wardrobe department whenever I could make it or skip class (nobody turns away free labor!), and then, eventually, they gave me a little money to dress the cop extras for big crowd scenes. I was hooked immediately.


Produced by Matt Myers

How did you move on from those initial steps?  What were some useful lessons you learned through your first experiences with motion pictures?

I had never been on a movie set before as someone who was actually doing the work—actively participating in what goes up on screen. I had only casually observed movies being filmed, but being part of a crew, even in the lowest possible echelon, flipped a switch for me. I learned that this was a business. A real business that operated only by the physical labor of a lot of people whose livelihood depended on it. And by and large, even though it was a job it didn’t feel like a normal job, and that’s what really appealed to me. Even today, I still can’t believe they pay us the kind of money we get to work in the movies. And it’s hard work. Very hard work. But when it’s all done, there is a real satisfaction to it, a genuine sense of accomplishment. And you can’t wait to do it again.

Initially, you worked as a Unit Production Manager. How was the transition to Producer?  

It was a gradual process. As a UPM, you bring a specific set of craft and management skills to the table (and everyone has their own style about this); but basically, you have to be the adult in the room who knows the machine, how it works, how much it costs, etc. And typically you are reporting to a Line Producer or other supervisors who are the architect of the production plan. The job of the UPM is to manage, plan and execute at the most detailed level—the smallest of details to make the picture. The Line Producer (and often the two jobs are intertwined at lower budgets) is (hopefully) linking those small details to the larger and more complicated goals and creative ambitions of the picture, as they are collaborated upon between director and crew.

8207_10151186844563808_1817079830_nAnd how did you like working as UPM?

Being a UPM can be a fun job. And, like anything else, it can be hell. It depends on the movie, and who your collaborators are. Generally, it’s a great job to have—particularly if you are a member of the DGA which I happen to be, still—because the pay is excellent and the benefits are solid.  Being a UPM is like being the manager of the rock band, so it’s a great place to get to really know the business in all its permutations, and to really understand the complexity of filmmaking as an enterprise.

Speaking of this enterprise, do you have any particular examples of problem solving to illustrate your work?

Problem solving: so many to solve!  Everyday is a problem solving exercise where you don’t have enough time or money to accomplish what’s written in the script or how the director wants to shoot it.  Our job in the production realm is to collaborate and compromise, while remaining faithful to the narrative objectives set out in the shooting script.  Example: The script says “And the villain dangles our heroine over a fish tank full of snapping piranhas”.  Well, it turns out 1.) we can’t actually do that practically on camera because obtaining piranhas is difficult in many places due to various laws, 2.) it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty that we can get actual piranhas to “snap” on command to articulate the specific jeopardy suggested in the script and 3.) we can’t afford to do a full blown CGI-Post VFX gag, which is really the only good option to solve the problem.  So, then we start having the conversation: “What is the point of the piranhas in this scene?  Why is this here in the script?  What’s the storytelling goal here?”  Which then delves into all the juicy fundamental aspects of screenwriting, storytelling, plot points, character, etc.—all the stuff we love to sit around and talk about in film school!  So, this is the creative challenge: how to articulate a sense of what the script is asking for in the scene (in this case a sense of outlandish jeopardy for the heroine) but somehow still make it work within the context of the dramatic narrative—and do it all on budget and on schedule!  Ultimately, after considering many other options—snakes, bugs, alligators, etc.—we settled on….knife throwing!  An inexpensive stunt gag with monofilament wires, reversing the shots and removing the wires in post.  Still outlandish, but do-able and affordable!  Problem solved!

As a producer, what are the most important skills you need in order to succeed?

The feed that helps to oversee the process

Dogged perseverance! A solid sense of storytelling. The ability to multi-task while keeping your eye on the prize. You need to be good with people, know how to communicate effectively and delegate responsibilities and you must be able to spot talent and know it when you see it. Producers have to also be consummate sales people—knowing the marketplace, its industrial trends and models and how to convince others of the potential of a movie within that context. And, most importantly, you have to be a good audience. And be able to take boatloads of rejection—because you are Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill, only to have it constantly roll down on you. For every 100 tries, you finally manage to get it over the hill and it’s a movie.

For many people, when they hear the word “producer” in a person’s title, they think that it involves having, raising, or managing money. In what ways is that accurate or inaccurate?

David Mamet famously said in State and Main that an ‘Associate Producer’ credit is what you give your secretary instead of a raise. During the Golden Age, there was a single producer, usually assigned by the studio, to oversee a particular production on the lot. That producer understood all aspects of filmmaking—script development, budgeting, scheduling, casting, marketing, distribution, etc. Nowadays, you see 20+ producing credits. Most of these folks have very little direct involvement in the actual making of the film while some make a tremendous contribution on a daily basis. What’s happened is that there has been a lot of fragmented specialization in the producing realm and thus a proliferation of various types of producing credits—now there are creative producers, dealmaking producers, line producers, hedge fund producers, talent manager/producers, etc. – all prefixed with ‘Executive’ or ‘Associate’ or ‘Co-Executive’ or ‘Supervising’. Anyone who has access to money, resources or talent, labor, tax credits or physical production management is essentially—by default—a producer. And so a lot of the meaning behind the titles gets diluted—executive, associate, co-whatever. They’re all involved in some way, whether they found the money, spent the money or developed the script. But it’s very hard to discern who is ‘THE Producer’. Because they are ALL producers and nobody can produce a movie all by themselves any more.

In our study of media arts, a great portion of our work deals with the collaborative process. In what ways does a producer facilitate this process and how can producers encounter difficulties in moviemaking?

Matt Myers on the set of The Great Gilly Hopkins with author Katherine Paterson

Matt Myers on the set of The Great Gilly Hopkins with author Katherine Paterson

Ideally, a producer is intelligently assembling the artistically and commercially appropriate constellation of stars and talent to make the picture. It’s like throwing a good dinner party. You want to bring together the very best combination of elements, people, resources and creative energy to make the movie the very best it can possibly be, and hopefully, the most critically and commercially successful it can be. As with any creative enterprise, it’s all about the people you bring to the table. The right actor can breathe life into your protagonist, just as the wrong actor can kill it. The right director will have the best vision to helm your script, the wrong director can sink the ship. And so on with every single person involved in the collaboration down the line—from the DP, the Editor, the Production Designer, the Gaffer, the Sound Mixer, the Composer, the production support team—EVERYONE. The difficult thing is: being able to discern talent, yes; but also who is right and who is wrong for the job. There are so many talented individuals out there, but that doesn’t mean they can all play Moses or beautifully shoot your script in 30 days, right?

Can you illustrate any distinct challenges you have faced in your career?

The biggest challenge I always face is keeping focused on the goal. It’s very easy to become distracted with all the politics that govern a movie production, especially when there are millions of dollars involved. The more money, the more politics. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t care about how hard it was—they only care about an excellent picture. Sometimes, there is a lot of disagreement about very specific details in the film—and these details can be very important some of the time, and they can also be minor. But, the challenge is really to keep everyone rowing in the same direction to achieve the best possible end result. That’s the challenge of leadership and management, at all levels of production. You want the crew to support the director creatively, you want the crew to support the budget economically and you want the distributor of the picture to support the marketing and distribution in an intelligent way. All three of those things are tough to do. The challenge we always face is trying to work within limitations—you never have enough money to do what you want to do. So how do we persevere to tell the story? How do we turn liabilities into assets? How do we be creative within very specific, very rigorous constraints?

Filmmaking MindsetI think the best way to illustrate the challenges of filmmaking is to show this popular image that tells us “Filmmaking Mindset: You can only have two sides of the triangle, not three.”

When you approach a production, what are key steps in the process that you can highlight to us?

The first step is to outline where you want to be with the movie a year from now. Once you get the greenlight, the clock starts ticking right away. We begin with the end: when is the soonest we can bow the movie at a key, major A-list film festival? What does the circuit look like for us based on our start date? What is the target launch date? Sundance? Cannes? Berlin? Venice? Toronto? We work backwards from there because the festival circuit is like a river that keeps on going without regards to the undulating calendars of film production. Once we have that in hand, we can start outlining the most important dates on our calendar: start of pre-production, the dates of our tech scout, first day of principal, last day of principal, picture lock date, final mix date, color correct date, etc. All the way through to the end. You have to impose deadlines—time is money. It’s easy to get myopia—so you have to force everyone to look at the movie from the 30,000 foot view from soup to nuts. Because—as I’ve said—it’s a business. An enterprise. And if the movie is the “product” we have to have an end date in mind. The next step is then to organize all the elements: hiring crew, location scouting, set construction plans, casting supporting roles, closing actor deals, managing cash flow, legal and financial issues, guild and union contracts, tax credits, etc. etc. This is a lengthy pre-pre-production process that typically starts months before actual pre-production begins. And the less money you have in your budget, the more time you need to prepare because you can’t just throw money at the problems.

From pre-production to production to post-production, are there any other facets of the creative and collaborative process that you would like to stress in terms of their importance.

Speak_filmMy god, they are ALL important! Every little gear moves every bigger gear until the whole watch moves to keep perfect time (hopefully). The most important thing to remember at each phase is: what movie are we making?  Never lose sight of that.  It’s easy to get lost because the process is so slow to get moving, and then suddenly a year goes by at the speed of light and you’re stunned that it’s suddenly coming to an end.  We work for years sometimes to obtain a very narrow window of access to the professional production apparatus, and then it all has to be accomplished in a very short period of time.  Filmmaking is an expensive paintbox to play with, just in terms of professional labor, so the most crucial aspect is to never forget the goals of the picture when you get bogged down in the granular details.  Sometimes it feels like the machine is more important than what the machine can make, that the paint brush is more important than the painting…and that’s when everybody needs to take a big step back and remind each other what exactly we’re trying to accomplish.  It’s like a mosaic and everyday we are working on one tile at a time—but over and over we have to periodically try to see the full picture.

What have been some of the most fulfilling experiences of your career? Are there any particular moments that stand out to you?  

Matt Myers on the red carpet at Cannes with his wife Jacqueline Bussie

On the red carpet at Cannes

Standing on the red carpet at Cannes with my wife for Henry Fool which would go on to win awards—feeling utterly stunned that all the hard work translated into this moment.  We felt like Cinderella.  A strange, but exciting feeling.  I felt so proud that I got to be involved in that movie. Then the standing ovations and the realization that the movie no longer belonged to us—it belonged to the public and, fortunately, they loved it.  Speak at Sundance when victims of date rape came up to us and thanked us for making the movie—that they no longer felt alone in the world.  In that moment, I genuinely felt that movies can really change lives, and that the movie really profoundly touched people.  Yeah.  Those two moments stand out.

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Pamela Gray, screenwriter of Conviction and A Walk on the Moon, among other credited and non-credited work

For Chapter 7 of Moving Images — titled From Page to Screen – the Close-Up Interview offers insights and perspectives from screenwriter Pamela Gray.  Gray’s first major feature film credit was for a story that had deep autobiographical roots for her: A Walk on the Moon.  This movie featuring Viggo MortensenDiane Lane, and Anna Paquin was the directing debut for Tony Goldwyn and has the distinction of ranking in top 10 lists of most romantic movies ever.  Her most recent major credit is the highly lauded script for the movie Conviction based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, also directed by Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell.  Among her other credits are Music of the Heart (an “inspirational teacher” movie directed by horror expert Wes Craven!) and teleplays for such shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation

You began your writing career as a poet.  What inspired you to start writing screenplays? 

A few years after getting a Master’s in Poetry Writing, I began noticing a shift in the content of my poems.  I was losing interest in writing about my own experiences, and I started to write about – and write as – other people. My poems were turning into monologues or character studies, whether based on people I knew, imagined characters, or people I’d read about in newspapers, saw in photos, etc.  At the same time, I was yearning for a larger canvas as a writer.  My poems felt like disconnected quilt pieces, and I wanted to work on a whole quilt.  I began writing plays, and while I loved the creative process, I still had one other dilemma to solve:  how would I make a living as a writer?  I could not find the answer until I took a sit-com writing class just for “fun.”  Suddenly I realized that I wanted to be a Hollywood writer.

A Walk on the Moon, directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Viggo Mortensen, Diane Lane, and Anna Paquin

Describe one of your original screenplays.  What was the inspiration for the story? Did the initial idea evolve much during the writing process? 

The Blouse Man (the winning Goldwyn script) is set in a Catskill Mountains bungalow colony (a working-class Jewish resort) during the summer of ‘69, and tells the story of a Jewish housewife who has an affair with a hippie.   Her awakening and transformation impact her marriage and her children, especially her fourteen-year-old daughter who’s coming-of-age.

My inspiration was my own history of spending all my childhood and early adolescent summers in bungalow colonies, and as an adult looking back, I was fascinated by a world that very few people knew about. During the week, it was only women and children, and the husbands/fathers came up from New York City for the weekends. In addition, while the tumultuous Sixties were going on, the bungalow colony world seemed to be trapped in the Fifties. I had a vivid memory of watching hippies pass the bungalow colony on their way to Woodstock during the summer of ’69, and I wanted to create a family story set against the backdrop of these colliding worlds.

In all the years of rewriting – up to and including production – the initial idea remained the same.

Describe a screenplay that you wrote as a work-for-hire, based on someone else’s idea or early draft.  How did that creative process work?  

I was given a one-line idea by a studio executive, and asked to write a screenplay based on that idea.  I began by creating the main characters, figuring out the world they lived in, what they wanted, what their obstacles would be to achieving their individual goals, and I did the same for the secondary characters.  I was then able to start thinking about a way to turn that idea into a story with three acts, and I brainstormed the story beats without really developing them in detail.

I had to “pitch” these ideas and characters to my producers and executives, and then incorporate their suggestions until they agreed I was ready to write the screenplay. Once I was writing the script, and the characters were coming to life, I was essentially writing an original screenplay that resulted from my own vision and imagination.

Conviction, directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell

What are the most important facets in creating a good story for the screen?  Do you think those aspects are the same for features and short movies? 

Beginning writers often don’t know what their story is, what it’s about, who it’s about, who their characters are, what their characters want, and what actions those characters will take to reach their goals.  Writers also need to know what obstacles their characters will face, how they’ll deal with those obstacles, and how they’ll ultimately succeed or fail in reaching their original goal or a different goal that developed during the journey.

Beginning writers often start scripting before they’ve taken the time to clarify the story and to fully develop their characters.  This has a detrimental affect on the story structure as a whole.  The script meanders, and individual scenes don’t move the story forward; they’re often too long, too wordy, and lacking in conflict.

Beginning writers often rely upon dialogue instead of action and visuals to tell the story and move it forward -– and the dialogue itself doesn’t sound like it’s spoken by specific, individual characters.  There’s often “on-the-nose” dialogue, lacking in nuance and sub-text, or dialogue that just states exposition, rather than organically incorporating exposition in interesting, subtle ways.

Whether the screenplay is full-length or for a short film, writers need to take the time to do the preparation outlined above.  Rushing through a script will ultimately get in the way of the writer’s goal to create a great screenplay.

Directors, actors, editors, and other members of the production team all have a hand in shaping the story on the screen.  How do you see the screenwriter fitting into the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process?  

The ideal way for the screenwriter to fit is to have a good collaboration with the director from the start. Whether the two are working together to develop a new script or to improve a script that’s heading for production, this bond will make it possible for the film to incorporate both the original vision of the screenwriter, and the vision that the director brings to the project.

In the best-case scenario, the screenwriter’s opinions are included through pre-production – the director would welcome their thoughts about casting and include the writer in all rehearsals.  The writer would also be welcome to share thoughts on art design, props, wardrobe, hair and makeup.  Most importantly, the writer would be on the set throughout the production. At that stage of the game, the story is now in the hands of the director, but in an ideal world, the screenwriter would be there to rewrite scenes that aren’t working, to hear actors’ suggestions and requests for changes, and to make adjustments to scenes if the need arises during the course of production (changes in location, weather, scene length, actor’s schedules, etc.)

The screenwriter and the director should have an ongoing dialogue throughout the filmmaking process – albeit one in which the writer respects the director’s vision and understands that it is now the director who has creative control over the script.  The director can benefit from the writer’s ideas, especially because the writer continues to hold a vision of the work as a whole, while the director is faced with so many immediate demands that it’s sometimes not possible to focus beyond the scene being shot at that moment.

The screenwriter and the director should continue their dialogue during the post-production process.  After the director and editor collaborate to create a rough cut and an early cut of the film, the screenwriter should be invited to give input in the continuing evolution of the film – and that input should be taken seriously, whether or not the director decides to make changes based on the screenwriter’s suggestions.

I have been fortunate to have two such collaborations with director Tony Goldwyn, but I’m sorry to say that this is a rare occurrence.  More often than not, the screenwriter is cut out of the process before production begins.

What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your screenwriting endeavors? 

As a professional screenwriter, I am constantly challenged by my inability to retain control of my screenplays.  It’s devastating to pour my heart, soul, and sometimes years of work into a screenplay that doesn’t get produced.  It’s also heartbreaking to be “fired” off a project and to watch my baby be handed over to someone else to rewrite.

Once a screenplay is produced, it’s extremely difficult to watch directors, producers, and/or studio executives make changes that I find detrimental to the film. (This challenge also comes up during the development process, when I’m told that have to incorporate script changes I don’t agree with.)

And just when you think that you’ve experienced all the ways that screenwriting can break your heart, you can lose credit in a Writers’ Guild arbitration.  You are erased:  your name is taken off the poster, the DVD, the reviews – and you might even have to see the credited writer receive awards for a script that is partially –or significantly – the result of your work.  You see your contributions on the screen (if you have the guts even to watch the film) but no one knows you have anything to do with those contributions.  Even if you don’t like the finished film and feel a little relief that people don’t know you were part of the process, you will steal feel lousy every time you see the DVD in a store, or the film on television, and get reminded that,  as an uncredited writer, you will not receive any residuals.

Pamela Gray with Betty Anne Waters, whose story is told in Conviction

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in writing for motion pictures? 

While it’s definitely thrilling to see the name of my film on a marquee, and to watch people walk into a theater with tickets to the movie I wrote, I find production to be the most exhilarating part of the process.  For the first time, you’re watching the word become flesh.  Those movie moments you’ve lived with in your head are suddenly ALIVE. You find yourself standing on sets that were just one-dimensional images in your mind; you’re hearing actors say words that you alone spoke out loud in front of your computer.  And if you’re fortunate to have wonderful actors and a great director, you get to see an enhanced, improved expression of your creative vision.

Despite the heartache and struggles that this career can bring, I keep writing screenplays because of my desire to see my work produced, and to have my vision inform the finished film.  What keeps me going is my love of the craft of screenwriting; patience and persistence; the ability to handle despair; my belief in my own skill and talent; and my passion to tell stories.

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In Chapter 3 of Moving Images, sound is the primary topic of the unit, and the concluding sections deal with the introduction of advertising and a promotional project for students.   For the interview at the end of this chapter, I contacted a former student of mine who has gone on to a highly successful career in advertising.  Besides being an extremely talented advertising copywriter  and associate creative director at DBB in Chicago,* Kevin Goff provides another inspiring example: a very nice guy who makes it big.  Moreover, there are a couple of classroom moments from when he was in high school that I will never forget.  First, when we were doing an initial brief in-class project that is designed so that students can get their hands on the cameras and start getting used to filming, Kevin was in a group working at the back corner of the room, essentially a little closet that was about three feet wide.  In this cluttered, tiny spot, Kevin — who hadn’t really done much in video until then — directed this amazing little piece (and he was behind the camera) that immediately grabbed the viewer’s attention because he had a jaw-dropping sense of where to place and how to move the camera.  Later, his final project for this introductory course was exceptional: he created a take-off from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider video game that was dynamic, funny, strikingly shot, and clearly the work of a budding ad man: the twist at the end was that it was a “Got Milk?” commercial.  And this was made well before the Lara Croft movies starring Angelina Jolie!

Here is the full interview with Kevin Goff, whose credits include internationally recognized projects for clients such as McDonald’s, Capital One, Budweiser, and State Farm (and another).

McDonald’s “No Fry Left Behind” ad won many international awards

What drew you to working in motion picture communications?

I’ve always enjoyed the art of storytelling- be it written, or on film. Advertising provides me with the opportunity to craft stories around a variety of products and human truths. Every day is different, with a different challenge and a different story to tell. As a creative, that’s a fun playground to be in.

What were some useful lessons you learned through your first experiences writing and producing motion pictures?

There’s no right answer. But there are countless wrong answers. And you’ll eventually find countless examples where that’s true. For example, a joke on a script that we’ve been laughing about for weeks, even through auditions, comes out flat when the camera starts rolling. The belly laughs are suddenly replaced by crickets. There’s no explanation for it, but it doesn’t really matter why it’s happening. Because it’s not happening. And you better start writing. Fast. I highly recommend going into a shoot with a good list of prepared alternatives. (They’re easier to write when you don’t have the client, director, producers, and entire film crew waiting on you to be funny.) You never know – an alt may be better than what was originally scripted. But you won’t know until the shoot, or even until you start editing.

What are the standard key positions and the basic work flow for a 30- or 60- second spot?

As a copywriter, a project begins with us getting briefed. We’re told what the assignment is for, the message we’re supposed to communicate, and how much time we have to communicate it – 15, 30, or 60 seconds. It’s then up to us to conceptualize and write an effective, memorable, and entertaining commercial that can be completed on time and within budget. Many scripts will be written, and should one sell, we begin the production process.

Working with a producer, we’ll look at directors and find three or four who we feel are a good fit for the job. We’ll talk to each director about the script, discussing what we envision. After the call, the director writes a treatment for the spot. It’s the director’s chance to present what he envisions the spot to be, and how he wants to tell the story. The agency will take each treatment, and each director’s reel and recommend one director to the client. Once the client buys off on the director, a casting agency the director works with begins casting. We’ll eventually go through casting tapes of actors acting out parts in the script, selecting who we’d like to see called back for another casting session.  Once at callbacks, the director has a chance to work with the actors and we all get a better feel for their abilities and can better judge if they’re the best actor for the role or not.  At the end of the day, or days, the director and agency selects a cast, sometimes with back-up choices should the client have an issue with someone.  We’ll also go over the director’s shooting board and shooting locations, as well as props and wardrobe.  Soon, it’s time for the pre-production meeting.  While the agency and the director are all on the same page at this point, the pre-pro is designed to get client approvals on everything.  Once the client signs off on everything, it’s time to shoot.

Come shoot day, the director runs the shoot.  But the agency makes sure they’re getting the performances and shots they need.  While a spot often evolves for the better, the client bought a script, and the agency needs to cover what was boarded and sold.  That said, I’m still writing new lines on set as the camera is rolling.  You have to cover what you sold, but options are good, and those options often turn up in the final cut.

Capital One Triple Rewards sold by “Barbarians”

After the shoot, the film is sent to an editing house for an editor to cut.  The editor will cut several versions of the spot to show the agency, and from there, the agency chooses a cut and starts tweaking- trying different shots, adding frames to shots, etc.  This is also when music becomes an issue.  We’ll use scratch tracks as fillers, and eventually either hire a music house to score a piece of music, or find a piece of stock music to drop in.  On occasion, we’ll license an artist’s music track.  With a spot assembled, we’ll bring it to the client to sell the cut.  With the client’s approval, we move on to recording company to record voice-overs, and mix the spot.  The sound engineer begins sound design, adding ambient sounds, music tracks, voiceovers, and adjust levels of all sound, while the agency tweaks and approves it.  With the spot mixed, it’s on to another post-house for the telecine.  Here, the agency works with a colorist to color correct the film, and then finish it, cleaning up the film by applying minor special effects, and adding any necessary legal copy.  With the client’s final approval, the spot ships, and it’s onto the next spot.

Can you cite an instance when you were able to find a visual solution to a storytelling issue?  

I was working on an assignment involving a movie promotion for a major restaurant chain. I needed to find a way to tell a story that linked together the restaurant chain with the motion picture, and do it in a way that would get people excited to go buy the food and go buy a movie ticket. Additionally, the spot would be running globally so I had to find a solution that didn’t rely on dialogue.  Not surprisingly, months went by where no one was able to sell a script. If one side liked a script, the other side didn’t. It’s how these promotions usually go. Eventually I sold a script that satisfied everyone. It was a purely visual comparison of the similar sensory experiences people would enjoy while watching the film and while eating the food. For example, I compared how someone watching an intense action scene in a theater might grip the arm rest of the seat their sitting in, the same way someone might grip their bag of food if they were worried someone was going to steal it.

How do you balance visual storytelling in your pieces with the importance of sound in establishing tone and style and in communicating key information?

There’s more than one way to tell a story. You can do it purely through visuals, without any sound. But you can also tell the same story purely through sound, without any visuals. The balance of visual and sound ultimately comes down to the story you’re trying to tell and how you want to tell it. Any stimuli you choose to include, or choose to omit, communicates something to your audience. It’s up to you to determine just the right combination of stimuli to communicate your story in the most impactful way.

Sound is important in every project I’m involved with. From the music and sound effects, to the dialogue and voice talent, sound is vital to the communication. Music can evoke a variety emotions, add energy- or remove it, and even set a pacing for the film. Sound effects simply help explain what you’re seeing on film, adding a texture to the visual. Voice talent can be a challenge. Male or female. Old or young. And all the different voice qualities you can think of- the slightest variation of which can mean the difference between feeling authentic or fake, and getting laugh or getting crickets. It’s common to audition as many as 400 or so voices just to get the right one. Because without the right voice, the spot might simply not work. Sound is a sensitive thing. It usually works or it doesn’t. And you don’t usually know if it works until you see it put to picture.

What have been some of your observations of the filmmaking process?

Have an opinion. And have a reason for it. Because everyone has an opinion- some good and some bad. Listen with an open mind. Then listen to your gut.

Once you start shooting, anything can happen. Actors you thought could act- can’t. Lines you thought were funny- aren’t. You go from being ahead of schedule, to 4 shots behind. And weather that’s sunny and 80, is suddenly a flash flood washing your set away. Filmmaking is a fluid process. You have to roll with the punches and find solutions- fast.

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in promotional moviemaking?

Creating television commercials that make people think about something in a way they’ve never thought about it before. And in a way that doesn’t make them want to change the channel.

* Currently (2014), Kevin Goff is a Senior Copywriter at Arnold Boston, where he has produced work for Produced Work For: New Balance, Volvo, Carnival Cruise Lines, and ADT Security.  

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Nash Edgerton with camera operator Sebastian Dickens shooting “Lucky”

The interview for Chapter 8, The Production Process, is with a filmmaker who has been involved in an amazing range of capacities of media processes: as a writer, actor, director, editor, and in the role that originally started his career, stunt artist.  Nash Edgerton has also played a key role in one of the most interesting stories in movie production of the past decade or so, which has been the emergence of the group of filmmakers who work through the partnership Blue-Tongue Films.   This collective of young Australian filmmakers has sustained a very interesting working relationship to produce work that clearly revolves around the stories, styles, and objectives that interest and inspire them personally and as a group.  Among the highlights of Nash Edgerton’s prolific career are the shorts Spider and Fuel, and his feature The Square; he has worked on the stunts of dozens of movies and served as stunt coordinator on the upcoming Wish You Were Here.   In addition, his shorts Lucky and The Pitch are featured on the DVD with Moving Images.  His next short, Bear – which is a follow-up to Spider – premiered in competition at the 64th Cannes International Film Festival.  As a couple of final notes, one neat aspect of connecting with Nash as a contributor to this textbook is that I have used one of the original Blue-Tongue collaborations, Bloodlock, in my media studies and production classes for many years, and this short provides many enlightening lessons on the roots of Blue-Tongue films, their stylistic approaches, and the dynamics of their collaborative.  Finally, it was such a pleasure to be able to work with Nash: he was very generous with his time, materials, and attention, and so keen on sharing his respect for his collaborators and his love for his craft.

Did you have any early inspirations to use moving images to communicate? 

I watched a lot of films when I was a kid.  Seeing something that totally affects you, like horror films – I think what surprises me now, working on films, knowing what goes into it, the make-believe, is that I still get affected by films when I see them and that’s what’s really powerful about them.

From the beginning of your career, you have worked as a stunt specialist.  How did you develop expertise in that type of work?

I kind of got into it and learned it in an old-fashioned approach, learning from people that had done it before.  I would get the concept by helping out, and then get training by working with different people.  I think one of the most important aspects of it is being adaptable because there are things that are always changing and things don’t always go to plan or you’re working against time or weather or various other things.  As you work, you can get better at finding solutions.  Having learned to be adaptable, as director you can get better ideas on that day when you’re in actual situations.  I think that’s what helped me most in preparing to be a director.

Nash Edgerton performing a stunt for “Lucky” featured as the short for Chapter 4 of Moving Images

Your background as a filmmaker is rather unique, having moved to the director’s chair from starting as a stunt specialist and actor.  How did your work as a director unfold as your career evolved?  Describe your initial experiences overseeing an entire production. 

By the time I started directing I had been on a lot of film sets, so just by being on film sets I feel natural and comfortable being around a crew.  It’s quite daunting running the show, so the fact that I was comfortable really helped.  I think it’s always kind of scary trying to get your head around how to tell the story.  You have to make sure you can do as much homework as you can so you have an idea of how you’re going to approach the day of filming with fresh ideas. Filmmaking is such a collaborative process.  You try to hire the right people to be around you because they’re going to bring something to it.  The combination of you all is going to help you get the best of your day.  What I like about filmmaking in general is that it does take more than just one person to do it.  It’s working as a team made of different people who all have different skills.  It’s a combination of these contributions that creates what it becomes.

What were some useful lessons you learned through your first moviemaking experiences? 

The best thing I learned is to be open to accidents, to things going wrong or not your way.  Instead of resisting it, maybe it’s meant to be that way.  If you’re open to things that change or don’t go your way, maybe you’ll find a better idea.  Rather than just being disappointed because it’s raining or because you can’t have this tool or something is broken, there is always a solution.  It’s good to have a plan, but ideas are always evolving and part of it is always out of your control.  Embrace the chaos!

David Michôd, Spencer Susser, Nash Edgerton, Luke Doolan and Joel Edgerton of Blue-Tongue Films

You have worked with a team of filmmakers throughout your career, and you have helped to run Blue-Tongue Films, an independent production unit. How have your collaborative relationships been fruitful to you throughout your career?

Yes, there’s a bunch of guys that I work with, what’s great is that we all work on each other’s films, in different aspects.  I’m not always directing, like at the moment I’m editing, or I do stunts on them.  Luke (Doolan), who edits a lot with me, he sometimes shoots on my stuff, he’s also been directing.  What’s great is you learn from each other, and we have a good shorthand with each other that makes it easier.  They have a good way of challenging you and asking why you want to do something a certain way.  It’s kind of like a healthy competition.  It helps you to be the best that you can be and next time you want to do something even better than that.  Then they make something better, and it makes you want to do something better.  I like working with my friends.

On some of your films, you have served as writer as well as director.  How have you experienced the process of seeing a project move from inception to release?  What lessons have you learned from that process?

I find writing hard, to put it quite bluntly.  Ultimately, making something you’ve written tends to be more satisfying. Going from what’s inside your head, sharing it with other people, going through the whole process, I like that a lot.  For example, Spider was my idea.  I’ll explain my ideas to one of my friends or my brother, because I know I will like their writing of it better.  So Spider was my idea and it took David (Michôd) to actually write it out and flesh it out a bit.  I like to see someone else’s take on the idea.

When you have directed from screenplays by writers other than yourself, what input or developmental contributions have you made to them?  Have you found that scripts evolve significantly during production or post-production? 

For example, for films I have made with my brother what will usually happen when I read it during the process and the different drafts is that I will be thinking about it as a director.  If I can see it when I’m reading it, then I know how to make it.  If I can’t see it, for a particular scene, if I can’t visualize it then I fear there’s something that’s not working for me in it so that’s how I talk about it with the writers.  Rather than telling them how to do the scene I’ll say there’s something about the scene that doesn’t work.  I know it’s not right because I can’t visualize it.  By the same token, I’ll say what scenes I like – it’s as simple as that.  If I can’t see it, there must be another way of doing it or it doesn’t need to be there.  I’d rather say it at that point than try to shoot it without any idea on how to.

Nash Edgerton at right directing The Square

What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced in filmmaking? 

Usually on any kind of shoot day you get challenges, where you’re trying to get everything you need to shoot in that one day.  A lot of the time, I find that the start of the day is rather slow and the second half of the day you’re chasing your tail to get things done.  The challenge all the time is, if you have a plan like “the way I want to cover this scene is in five shots,” you have to be ready for complications.  There was a day we were shooting The Square in a small apartment, and we had gotten really far behind.  We were trying to get this scene, and my plan was to get five or six shots, and with the amount of time I had left, I was forced to try and cover the scene in one shot.  I think sometimes the pressure can help, and the way we ended up shooting it was way better than anything I had come up with before.  Because I was forced to do it in that shorter space of time, I got something better than I would have if I had all the time I wanted.  It’s funny because the pressure or the challenges you may face make you step up to it, or I’ve shot stuff where you try and figure out the best way to do it, and then you get home after the shoot day and then you figure it out.  Naturally, it can be pretty depressing because it’s too late, and you figured out how to solve it when what you should be doing is planning the next day.  Filmmaking is always ups and downs, but I find that there’s always at least one good thing that happens in a day, and it’s enough to keep you going.  Something good happened or something worked out how you planned it.  You try to savor that when other things don’t work out.

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in moviemaking? 

The most fulfilling part for me is when you screen the film for the first time in front of an audience and it works. The actual process of shooting is always challenging and exhausting – and rewarding.  When you’ve written something, you’re thinking about it, you’re planning it, you’re shooting it, you start to forget the freshness and enjoyment of when you first write or read something.  When you’re making it, you start to lose sight of what it was, and it’s not until you see it with an audience for the first time that you’re reminded of how you felt when you first read something.  You get to see it through other people’s eyes and through their reactions.  A lot of times, the hardest thing is to complete something you start, and if you do go full circle that’s when you get the reward.  If it doesn’t happen, you get to learn what works and what doesn’t.

With storytelling and filmmaking, I always try and make stuff that I want to make.  I try not to make something just because I think other people are going to like it.  I try to trust in the fact that if I like it, there are enough people in the world that someone else might like it too.  Rather than trying to second-guess what you think, you try to create movies for yourself and put yourself in the audience.  Hopefully you’re not that weird and someone else will like it too.

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Deborah Hoffmann, center, receiving a Silver Baton award at Columbia University (Charlie Rose at right)

For Chapter 6 of Moving Images — titled Recording and Presenting Reality — the Close-Up interview features insights from Deborah Hoffmann into the work involved in documentary filmmaking and the editing process.  Hoffmann has been working for the past few decades as a documentary editor and director, and her work includes the award-winning movies The Times of Harvey MilkComplaints of a Dutiful Daughterand A Long Night’s Journey into Day.  

Did you have any early inspirations to use moving images to communicate? 

When I was in college, I got very involved in still photography, and the one connecting thing – other than liking working with images – was that I got very involved with putting on exhibits, and I really liked thinking through the order of the images, so that viewers can have a specific type of experience going to the event.  That was the beginning for me.  It took a while for me to get from there to being involved in making documentaries, but I think that was where it began.

Describe the path you took to become an editor.  Did you initially plan on working as an editor?  Did you specifically choose to work in the documentary field? 

Things were not that well thought out for me.  A lot of my career was a bit of fumbling around in a series of accidents for me to end up where I ended up.  I did sort of fall in with a crowd of documentary filmmakers and because of my background as a still photographer, I initially was going towards being a cinematographer.  It just so happened that I developed a back problem, and I couldn’t deal with the equipment, so I shifted over to looking into editing, not realizing that sitting all day isn’t really that much better for your back.  Nonetheless, I found myself moving towards editing, and it was a really fortuitous change, because I love editing and am very well attuned to it.  So, slightly accidental, but I think it was meant to be.

During this shift to editing, what were your initial steps professionally? 

Because this was the 1970s, there’s a way in which my personal story doesn’t really translate to today. These days, I teach documentary editing at the graduate school level at UC Berkeley’s school of journalism. I never went to [film] school, I never studied documentary filmmaking, and I was able to find my way to make a career out of it.  I think that’s a lot harder today.  So, my path, I really don’t think, is what kids coming along today can do.  I began by volunteering as an assistant editor on a documentary in the mid-70s, and I got very lucky because very shortly thereafter I began volunteering on Dark Circle, a documentary about the anti-nuclear movement directed by Judy Irving.  They got funding very quickly after I began, and there I was, I had a job.  I worked as an assistant editor – and, again, this is dated stuff, because I was editing on film and I was doing a job that virtually no longer even exists.  I went from assistant editor to sound editor, and I was very determined and very devoted, and I was able to start making deals, “I’ll be assistant editor if you let me edit a scene.”  That happened on one project, then on the next project I edited enough scenes to be associate editor, and then I was off and running and editing film.

When you first started editing films for other directors, was there anything that surprised you about the process?  Any lessons that you learned from your early efforts? 

It’s a very delicate relationship. I remember very early on, when I was an assistant working with an editor, he said to me, “You know, the relationship between the editor and the director is more difficult than a marriage.”  And I’ve always remembered that, and there’s a lot of truth, not that it needs to be difficult, but it is a very complicated relationship, and of course when I became a director, now I’ve seen it from both sides.  Directors are handing over their baby, and that’s their point of view.  And the editor feels like, “I can really see what’s working and what’s not, and the director is too close to the material.”  So there’s that tension, and I think that this tension can be really helpful in film.  And when I teach the students that I teach, and they’re editing their own films, and I always tell them, “You are doing the most difficult thing possible.”  You go out, you round up the subjects, stand in the snow and rain to film them and go through all that, you become convinced you’ve got a masterpiece and every frame is wonderful.  And the person who didn’t do any of that and they’re just seeing what ended up in the footage – and not what the entire surrounding experience was – which can allow them to see more clearly.  So when you’re editing your own material, you have a unique challenge compared to when you’re editing someone else’s material.

Filmmaker Deborah Hoffmann with her mother, Doris

You have also directed documentaries.  What inspired you to do this?  Was your previous work as an editor helpful to your role as a director? 

Well, if I ruled the world, or at least the world of documentary film, I would make every director be an editor first, because I do think that you learn so much about what makes a scene and what tells a story by actually having to do it in the editing room.  So I felt it was really, really helpful that I had been editing before I was directing.  The first thing I directed was a personal film I made about my mother and Alzheimer’s, and that was almost not a decision, it was just an overriding need that I had to make that film.  So I did.  And then I thought, this is kind of fun, you get to make all the final decisions.  There was something very appealing about that, and so I thought of dividing my time between editing other people’s projects and directing.

As a documentary editor, what distinctive challenges do you face in contrast to editors of fiction motion pictures? 

Let me just say that I’ve never edited fiction features, so what I’m saying you can take with a grain of salt, but I think that a documentary editor has a much more thrilling job than a fiction editor because you really find a make the story in the editing room.  You do wonderful things as a fiction editor too, but you’re not sort of writing the story, and I feel that you really are doing that as a documentary editor.  It’s a wonderful thing, and you really can discover unexpected things in the editing room.

Could you comment on the process of editing documentary films and some of the ways in which you have experienced a particular project? 

Unless I was doing something historic that was mostly archival – and even then there would be current interviews – it was not a long time after the shooting process, and in fact, it was usually while the shooting process was still happening that I would be brought on.  So, I could start editing, we could see where the weaknesses were, and we could see what filming still had to happen.  I think that absolutely works the best.  I think this is also smart financially, for directors not just to film everything and see if they’ve got it later, assuming it’s not something where they’re halfway around the world and it’s a one-time thing.  But if the project is one in which you can go back and fill in the holes.

Long Night’s Journey Into Day, Produced for HBO Documentaries

Documentary filmmakers seek funding from a variety of sources, including institutional grants and foundations. Taking one movie as an example, how have you sought support for your projects? 

The biggest project we had to fundraise for was the film we did about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called Long Night’s Journey into Day.  I made that with my partner Frances Reid, we started that in 1997 and it was 90 percent funded by foundations and the remainder funded by individual donations.  We sold it to HBO and that’s how we got our finishing funds. But 1997 was a very different time economically than now, it was sort of a peak.  Here we were making a film about reconciliation, which was a hot topic then. Fundraising is never easy, but that was one of the easier experiences I know about. In fact, there was one foundation that responded to our request and said, “Actually, we want to give you more.” We were very fortunate, and I think right now it’s very tough for documentary films.  But right now, documentarians can be a one-man-band.  A lot of my students, they go all over the world, they take one crew person with them, and they do everything incredibly cheaply, and then they edit it at home with Final Cut Pro.  The expenses have come down in a lot of ways, but it’s still tough in a lot of ways.

What has been your experience of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process?  Are there particular relationships that have been fruitful to you in your career? 

It is extraordinarily collaborative.  I’ve been very, very lucky in that all of my collaborative experiences have been quite wonderful, in fact they are some of the most wonderful experiences in my life.  For instance, from the first major film that I was the editor of, The Times of Harvey Milk, the people I worked with on that have been best friends ever since then.  I’ve formed many long-lasting relationships, and I love that give-and-take collaborative.

What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your filmmaking endeavors? 

Most of them are economics.  If you’re doing your own projects, the constant search for money can really beat you down.  If you’re working for other people and you want to be working independently as I always did – that you don’t want to be working for a TV station or the news – then you are constantly looking for work.  You can feel very insecure a lot of the time.  It’s grueling work, but it’s thrilling work, so until you get burned out, your problem will not be that you’re unhappy at your work.

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in moviemaking? 

One thing I feel that I haven’t said is that sometimes I feel that there’s a selfish, cheating thing being a documentary filmmaker, because it was a way to go places and meet people that you would otherwise have no way of experiencing.  You have the excuse of making this film, and you meet the most fantastic people in the world.

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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.

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Below is the full text of the interview that was conducted with Hiro Narita for Moving Images.  It is featured at the end of Chapter 4: “Storytelling with Light.”

What first inspired you to make movies?

I went to art school and at the time I wasn’t thinking of getting into film. For the first ten years I worked as a graphic designer, and then by chance I got involved in helping filmmakers design movie posters and so forth. And then that led to, “Can you take some stills?” And then to, “Are you interested in filmmaking? Maybe you can shoot a documentary for me.” That led to moviemaking.

Now, having said that, when I realized that I was interested in visual storytelling with moving images, I remembered that when I was a kid I went to see these movies from everywhere, from America, from Europe (this is in Japan when I was little) without really knowing what they were, just because there was no other entertainment, you know. As soon as I had a dime or a nickel, I went. And even though this was a short period of my life, maybe just a couple years, that may have had something to do with it too.

Cinematographer Hiro Narita

But you drifted from graphic design to cinematography very naturally, because filmmakers were asking you to help on their projects? 

Right. In fact, I was almost 30 when I made the shift into cinematography. And it was not easy to make a living, just proclaiming yourself a cinematographer. I learned a lot from old master gaffers. They really taught me. I knew what looked beautiful to my eyes, but I didn’t know how to get it. So the old lighting masters would say, “If you use a 5K here and diffuse it, this is the kind of quality you get.” I learned most of my trade on the job.


How did you move on from those initial steps?  What were some useful lessons you learned through your early experiences with motion pictures?

I started to do some corporate slide shows, and that led to corporate identity films, and that led to more legitimate documentary films – not selling products, but selling personalities or ideas, telling stories or capturing emotions or whatever with moving images. That really was fascinating to me. I had to catch up with the technology, of course – I was always a few years behind the technology. But if you have the desire to tell visual stories, the equipment is just a tool, and I wasn’t embarrassed that I didn’t know how to load cameras, that I had to ask people to do it for me. I was constantly learning.

When I did documentaries and I was taking decent stills and so forth, young filmmakers would say, “I’m going to make my first film. Are you interested in working on it?” That’s how it started. In the beginning, I did all sorts of films that I don’t want to even mention, like horror films, boxing films. But those experiences really taught me what to do.

I think it’s the human story that I wanted to tell. I wasn’t interested in the corporate story. I didn’t care about this company selling a plastic-piping-whatever. Now, to sell that, I’m sure it takes a talented advertising mind. But I didn’t care about plastic. I was interested in human experiences, emotions. I was asked to film a documentary on children with leukemia. That really fascinated me. Just to see these young kids telling their experiences to the camera – brave souls, you know – just to see those images of people was much more fascinating to me than shooting beautiful shoes or… you know what I mean. Though some people are really great at it.

One of the first things I learned was how to establish relationships with actors.  Now, I saw – I mean, even today I see directors treating actors like props. That’s the worst thing you can do. Experienced directors know how to deal with actors, how to deal with their psychology and they know how to turn them around to perform for you, the audience. You have to let the actors feel that they’re making a contribution rather than just being told what to do. Young directors tend to say, “Well, this is my film, and I’m not getting it, I’m not getting it!” It really exhausts actors. Not to disagree with some great actors who have some incredible arguments and discussions before the camera rolls.

Star Trek VI, directed by Nicholas Meyer

You see, as a cinematographer, one of the first things I learned is to respect and appreciate what actors do. Some actors like to be helped by the cinematographer, they like to be told that if they turn this way they will look more interesting or whatever. And other actors don’t want to hear any of it because they know what they’re doing, you just put the camera in the right place and get it. Understanding the different types of actors, and learning how to communicate with actors so that they feel comfortable, is very important.

How do you work with directors and actors to balance lighting and movement? 

The cameraman is not the person who decides the actors’ movements. We participate. There are some directors who are more open to suggestions, but surprisingly some directors don’t want to hear any of it. That’s okay. Some directors are very visually oriented and they do express it, they say, “I’d like to see this scene lit only by the table lamp, no other light, very moody.” And if the director has such a strong feeling, then sure, let’s start with that and see what happens. I would try to support that idea. When I first read the script and interpret the scene and form a visual idea, I’m always telling myself, “This is only the beginning. Don’t force that initial idea.” I think it is important when you are a cameraman to discover. Some of the most interesting stuff that I see on the screen, I’m not convinced that the cameraman preconceived that imagery. He or she discovered it as the scene unfolded.

People think cinematography is about adding lights, but you also need to know how to take out lights. There are three schools. The first is that you start with total black and add lights. That’s a very slow way of lighting a set, but some fairly old-fashioned DPs insist on that kind of control. The second school is that you imagine where the natural light source would be. In a room, if there’s some northern light coming through a window, okay, let’s use that as a starting point. Or a night interior? Let’s start with that desk lamp. Then there is a third school: you can completely manufacture the lighting concept. By that I mean the lighting doesn’t need to have any literal logic. You can ignore the window, you can ignore the lamp. But if the lighting makes sense to the viewer, and it helps them respond emotionally, that’s good lighting. And sometimes that lighting has nothing to do with where the desk lamp is or whatever. It’s illogical, but it makes sense to your psyche. Now that’s the lighting that I began to learn much later. It’s been done for many years.

I recommend that people go see The Last Emperor by Vittorio Storaro. He has been doing this almost all of his life. On a cloudy day, he will have sun on some person, only one selected individual. Or in an early evening scene, when the sun has just set, he will have sunlight in only one corner of the screen. You wonder, “What’s going on?” But it looks so beautiful. In his interiors, you begin to see that not every window is lit, only selected windows have sunlight coming through. He said, “We don’t have to follow any rules. This visual world of cinema has its own logic.” I’m fascinated by that.

Regarding one of your films, how would you describe the style of Never Cry Wolf ?

I’m always asked in the beginning of the film, after reading the script, “What sort of visual style do you conceive?” And I say, “I don’t know. Why would I conceive the visual style even before shooting it?” I already question those people in my mind. You don’t tell actors… well, you might say to the actors that, “Your character is this and that,” but that’s only the beginning of the discussion, the beginning of the adventure. In the case of Never Cry Wolf, the only thing that Carroll Ballard showed me was a picture of a painting by the illustrator Maxfield Parrish. He just said, “There’s a magic hour in here, there’s no direct light but there’s a magic hour.” He didn’t say, “I want Never Cry Wolf to look like this.” He said, “Do you get this weird lighting? If we can capture that in our film, I’ll be happy.” But beyond that he didn’t say anything.  Even though it was a Disney film, he said, “I’m not making a Disney picture here. I’m not making wolves into cute dogs.” Which Disney wanted in the beginning. I was almost fired because I wasn’t using enough fill light on the wolves

Because more fill light would have made the wolves look cuter?

I guess so. More like an animated Disney film, where you see everything. Yeah, because they had never seen their animal pictures with silhouetted… (laughs).  When we started to shoot, we both responded to this landscape that was just out of sight – Alaska, Yukon Territory, British Columbia – the most incredible places. I’d never seen anything like it. And Carroll said landscape is a part of the characters in this film. To me, in that particular film, the landscape, the animals, and how people were seen against this incredible landscape created its own visual style. I mean, we weren’t conscious of it. Carroll Ballard is a very visual artist, and when we saw wolves running through the trees, the trees were just as important as the wolves. Now, if the director didn’t see it, just saw wolves running around, I’m sure it would have ended up a lot different film.

You would begin each day of shooting without storyboards, without plans?

Carroll never had storyboards. He would talk about scenes. I’d really like to see more directors think that way. “Here’s a scene in which this scientist is initiated into the wild animal’s world. This is an initiation scene.” That’s all he talked about. He maybe wrote on a napkin or something, but he never drew pictures, he never said, “Okay, here’s a guy and I want to see hundreds of caribou like this.” This is another thing that I really like to talk to young filmmakers about. Storyboarding, to me, is okay because you are preparing something, but you are preparing at the desk. I tell students that those things you draw are something you’ve already seen. You cannot draw something that you haven’t seen yet. Just start out with the storyboards as homework, but when you go to the set, ignore them.

Now the problem today is that producers want X number of pages shot. They’re looking over your shoulder: “We need to shoot five pages today. Do you guys have storyboards or a shot list?” They want a guarantee. You do have to be disciplined enough to say okay, you can finish this today. Because I’ve worked with directors who are so frightened that they spend all day stuck on the first two pages. So I can see that in order to meet that kind of requirement and pressure, it is great to have homework. For me though, the films with all these elaborate storyboards often end up visually dull. It looks like you’ve seen it, like it’s been done before. Though you can’t say that about Hitchcock.

I was about to say. He’s the famous example, right?

For him, the movie’s made once it has been storyboarded and the rest is a pain in the ass, dealing with actors and all that stuff. Because in his mind the beautiful movie is already there. That’s a whole different thing. I don’t think Hitchcock started out like that.

That was fifty movies later.

Exactly. And then that becomes his style. I don’t think he said, “I have a style,” I don’t think he’s telling that to himself. Anyway, we all start with some idea – we have to – but don’t let that crystallize everything before even a foot of film or tape rolls.

What approaches have you taken on some of your other films? 

James and the Giant Peach is a very different film. That had a predetermined idea. The animation part had to be storyboarded, because it takes so long and you can’t have any extra footage. So they already had a pre-cut animated storyboard before they shot. Their concept for the live action part was that it should look like a storybook, but no fancy stuff, and I agreed with them. It was storyboarded, but we had freedom. When a certain angle looked better, Henry [Selick] was open to doing it, rather than just recreating the storyboard. But in the case of that film, I realized the storyboarding was a legitimate process. Henry was very open. He even told me, “I don’t want you to talk to Peter Kosachik,” who was the animation photographer. “Don’t discuss anything. I don’t want you to have any kind of agreement or disagreement. Just go ahead and do your thing.” So, I don’t know. I don’t remember whether I had a visual reference. Sometimes art direction kind of determines visual style.

Still from The Rocketeer, directed by Joe Johnston

Like on The Rocketeer. The color of the set, color of the costumes, all had to do with capturing that period without making the film into a comic book. In fact the director said, “I don’t want to make a live action comic.” I tried to find the right color schemes. The production designer, a terrific production designer, already had his idea, but he was smart enough to say, “This is my idea and how could you enhance it?” I had been thinking of a period piece in the mid 1930’s. It was only the beginning of color movies, and most movies were black and white, but the posters were all in really wonderful color. I liked the greenish-bluish shadows. So I kind of took a cue from 1930’s movie posters. That’s how I think the creative process starts on some films.


How about Honey I Shrunk the Kids?

Honey I Shrunk the Kids was another one of those Disney concepts. Here’s a huge grass set, which they built. This is before digital computer animation, so everything for the visual effects had to be shot on eight-perf, bluescreen – very, very complicated. But anyway, my feeling with the grass set was that it should look real. I mean, if you look at actual grass, it’s dark in there, with maybe a slash of light. So that’s how I started. Disney freaked out. “We’re not making a horror film here. Lighten it up. Use a lot more fill light!” And I didn’t quite understand it, but I started to do it, because they complained. I started to add a lot of fill. We were saying, “Well, this is not visually exciting, but Disney’s not saying anything.” Then, halfway through production we got a message from Katzenberg saying, “I think I like the earlier version.” So we went back. In the film, some of the best stuff was shot in the first three weeks.

Why the ‘best’ stuff?

Because we weren’t hearing that comedy should look this way or that way. The director and I felt that part of the film should look really scary and foreboding, you know?

All cameramen have stories like that. I was talking to Vilmos Zsigmond, and he said he was almost fired twice from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, because of the way he was doing interesting stuff – scary, silhouetted figures.


Can you give us an example that illustrates how cinematography affects storytelling? 

The last picture I did is called La Mission. This is a film where the story is uniquely San Francisco, uniquely about the Mission district. And the temptation is to show the story through city landscape. But the director [Peter Bratt] and I talked about it and he said, “I’m not selling San Francisco. I’ve seen so many movies that have to have that shot of the Golden Gate Bridge or whatever. How can we show San Francisco without emphasizing it.” And he had some ideas. One was that we should show that tower, Sutro Tower, from different angles, not show it but it’s there, and we did, whenever we could, it’s in the frame for whatever reason. That’s the extent of “San Francisco.” The rest – the story takes place in the Mission, so we were very conscious of color, but we didn’t want to change anything. Capture it, but don’t change it. In the end, I think we succeeded. The color of the Mission District is there without us saying, “Take a look at this.” So the only thing that I would have done differently is that in some scenes I would have used light a little more differently to create a stronger mood. This project was shot in 27 days. I don’t think I used more than four lights a day because we didn’t have time to do it.

We would look for – Okay, let’s use this corner because there is sun here. Or if we put a small HMI from the window, that’s it. All filmmakers deal with the balance between aesthetics and economy, or the conflict between art and finance.  If we all became artists and all did things we want to see, it would take 200 days to make a movie, whereas you have to do it in 25 days. So that’s the nature of the beast.

You have photographed both big Hollywood studio productions and low-budget independent films. From a cinematographer’s point of view, is there much difference? 

No. My attitude is the same. In any given situation or project, I’m asking myself what is the best solution for this particular scene? In The Rocketeer, there was a two-story nightclub set. And when I saw it, I said, “I need hundreds of lights.” As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a technician, and I don’t know how to figure out how many 10Ks we need to hang there. So I go to a gaffer and I say, “I need to have at least a 2.5 exposure here, and I need to see this beautiful nightclub – but not overlit – and I think we ought to put some light in that pool.” So I initiate a conversation like that. That’s how I solve my problems.

But you can’t quite solve your problems that way if it’s a movie being made for $10.

Exactly. And if that nightclub scene is in La Mission, I tell them, “Okay, are you ready to spend $50,000 on lighting? If not, take the scene out of the script” (laughs). Or, you have a dark nightclub with a couple shafts of light. There is actually a nightclub in La Mission, and we used whatever light they had and added a few of our lights, so it worked out. You have to know how to make the best use of what’s there.

In the movie, there’s a kitchen scene, I think it is described as “Morning – Kitchen”, where the son reveals to his father, “I’m gay, this is how I was born. There’s nothing I can do.” And the father [played by Benjamin Bratt] says, “What do you mean nothing you can do? God created men and women.” It takes place in the kitchen.  Nobody stands up – maybe the son stands up once – they are all sitting. And I wanted to keep it very moody. Actually I had one light, a small HMI out the window, and the rest was florescent bounce. The director didn’t want to lose too much time setting up the shot, because he wanted more time with the actors. And I was thinking, okay, we didn’t know exactly what they were going to do, but I didn’t want lit actors going into darkness, so I kind of lit it flat, except the window.

Now, when I was shooting I wasn’t paying attention that behind the father there is a stove, which is white. If we had the money, we wouldn’t use that white stove in there, we would replace it, because white picks up light and gives a lot of unfortunate reflections. But we didn’t have money or time to replace it, so we left it. But because I used a little more even light, when I see the scene now these things really bother me – they are interfering with the performance. I wish I had cleaner light on the actors. I don’t think we even needed to see the kitchen wall, because we’ve seen it already, in the viewer’s mind it’s there.  I overestimated what should be seen. I should have been gutsy.

The audience has an incredible capacity to imagine and connect the dots, so the filmmaker has the freedom to make a kind of a leap without disrupting the flow.  Same thing with lighting.  If you’re watching dailies, you might say, “It’s kind of dark in the background,” but when the film is put together, all those worries are unnecessary.

But there must also be some sort of pleasure in working quickly like that? 

You’ve brought up a very interesting point.  When you are under pressure, your perceptions excel. It’s been proven. In the creative process, when you are under pressure – I’m not encouraging this – things happen. When the producer tells you, “You guys have to shoot this scene in an hour and a half. I know you have 20 shots – what can you eliminate?” then you start thinking really fast. I do think everyone needs to experience that heightened moment. I don’t know how it happens, I have no idea. I don’t want to exaggerate these experiences.

It happened a couple times on La Mission. The director said, “You know, Hiro, the sun is going down and we need to shoot this scene today on location, we can’t come back here. What can we do?” I looked at the shot list and asked him, “What is it that you’re trying to do?” He says, “I want to create this sensation, this and that.” And I said, “Well, to do that, for me, I don’t think you need all these shots. Go from there to there.” That’s how we solved the problem. I think we cut the shot list to at least half. There was no other reason to shoot all this stuff. Then, as Peter edited the film he realized, “Oh gosh, why do we need this stuff?”


Tell us about the relationship between the director and the cinematographer. You’ve worked with many of the biggest American directors of our time – Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. Do each of those people interact with the cinematographer in a different way?

In the case of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I did just a small segment, reshooting a scene with Harrsion Ford. Now Spielberg I think makes movies in the editing because he shoots a lot of different angles. We were shooting this one scene in the cave where Harrison Ford’s character wakes up and finds that he is surrounded by thousands of candles, and I think we shot like twenty different setups. And Spielberg thinks fast. In those days, between setups he would go play videogames. Then he would come back and say, “Okay, let’s go. Shoot.” Now, George Lucas was watching, and said to Steven, “If I were you I would do this in one shot,” and Steven looked at George and said, “But I’m not you.” In the end I think he must have used only three shots for that scene. But that’s how he approached moviemaking, I think, and he would make the decision in the editing room, he could afford to do it. Other directors make the decision on set. I took a much larger role in a film called Always, did visual effects photography, but in that case I didn’t have direct contact with Spielberg because there was a second unit director.

Give me an example of another director working in a completely different way than Spielberg.

Then there are other directors like Lynn Hershman. She always says, “This is a scene about this or that. Where do you want to put the camera?” And then I would say, “Okay what about this? This angle is interesting. What do you think?” And she would say, “Oh yeah, let’s shoot it.” Then she says, “Okay that’s enough, let’s go do another scene.” And I would say, “What if this scene is too long, where would you cut it?” “Oh, I don’t know.” And I would say, “I think we should shoot another angle, just in case.” This is how she and I work. She doesn’t care about the master shots and the close ups.  She says, “That language to me is uninteresting,” and I agree with her. So Lynn is another kind of director, and I came to enjoy that way of working because I like to find out what unfolds.

And what is she focused on?

She’s focused on a kind of perception, how the mind works. As you know she’s an artist, and she too is trying to find out, “How am I going to capture that experience that I cannot explain with words.” So that proposes an interesting challenge, a very different kind of challenge.

She leaves almost all the visual camera decisions to you? You guys did Conceiving Ada and Teknolust together?

And a couple documentaries. And of course very low budget. Like in Teknolust where [Tilda] Swinton plays four different characters, Lynn was adamant about not using any fancy visual effects. Instead we used split screen and photo doubles. That’s the challenge that I think was interesting.

Hiro Narita with camera filming actress Tilda Swinton

But it is just as pleasurable for you to work this way?

I enjoy in fact working on a project that’s not over-storyboarded. A shot list is one thing, but storyboards are another. Then there is another kind of director who is more into listening to dialogue, saying, “Oh this is going to work. Alright, all I need is a close up.” But if that’s the case, every scene throughout the film is a close up scene of talking heads. And he knows that that’s not a movie, so he knows we have to open it up and… you know. Every film is different.


You brought up with Teknolust this idea of fancy special effects. How do you think the advent of digital technology has changed cinematography?

It has made it technically a lot easier for us. I mean, I can make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes I can see a light stand or a c-stand in the finished shot, and rather than reshooting it, it’s cheaper to remove it digitally. If someone’s microphone comes into frame, I don’t worry about it. I’ll take it out.

Sometimes, in the final color timing of the film, I say, “Okay, this scene could be a little lighter, a little darker, more blue.” But your perception changes every day. Sometimes I show up the next day at the timing session and preview the previous day’s work, and I say to myself, “Holy mackerel, I must have been out of my mind yesterday.” And because of the technology now you can keep changing it, it’s so easy. If the contrast doesn’t look right, you can even change the contrast on the face.  You’re painting a scene and it’s endless. With a film, the film color timer would say, “Okay this is it, I can only change the exposure, I can’t change the contrast.” If the director can’t make up his mind this color timing can go on and on.

Putting aside post-production for a moment, do you feel that digital technology has changed the art of cinematography itself, that people approach the craft now from a different point of view?

There is a danger, from the cinematographer’s point of view, because in post things can change, I mean drastically. A color scene can be desaturated or saturated or made black & white. Sometimes I have no control. Like if the producer decides that, “I’m going to do the color timing in Seattle or New York, and I can’t bring you up there, can’t put you up in a hotel.” That means I’m letting someone else play with it.

That used to be a time-honored part of the cinematographer’s job.

Absolutely. It’s in the contract. I’ve seen a couple of my films that I don’t even recognize after the color timing, and it is sad to see them.

Do you have the sense that the safety net of digital technology makes cinematographers sloppier when they’re working? 

I think so. And yet I love new technology. I’m not exaggerating that ten years ago I absolutely believed that high definition was going to take over. They were saying, “No way, it’s not art.” Just imagine, first of all, black and white photography. There was no black and white painting in the Renaissance or any other time. Black and white technology was all that they could come up with. So photographers began to experiment and they saw that if they used a red filter the sky would go dark. Ansel Adams photography is beautiful, but it is so far away from reality. It’s not a realistic photograph. It’s manufactured. Then black & white photography became color, and people were in shock – “This is so anti-art! So gaudy!” Then we went into reversal film, and negative, and digital. Twenty years ago, people like Antonioni were saying that this is the medium of cinema artists. He was completely married to it.


He was saying that about what – about digital?

In those days it was not quite digital. Videography.


Antonioni thought video was the future?  


Riots from Zabriski Point

What did you do on Zabriskie Point?

I supplied a lot of riot footage, from the Chicago convention, San Francisco State. I shot one of the screen tests in San Francisco for this ACT actor, and he liked my photography. Antonioni asked the producer, “Can he work as one of the cameramen?” He had brought the Italian DP and camera operator with him, but he needed multiple cameras. And the producer found that I was not in the union and said, “No way that we can do this.” So Antonioni gave me a project to do: that if any kind of riots broke out, I was supposed to go there and shoot them as reference material.

So when the ‘68 riots broke out you flew to Chicago to shoot them for Antonioni? 

I was there! Chicago, Watts, San Francisco State – that was the longest, three weeks, I went there every day

You’ve been a cinematographer for thirty years and you’ve seen prevailing styles change. Do you have any gut feeling about where cinematography will go, stylistically, in the future? Has everything already been done? 

I think everything has been done. If you go back and see 30’s German Expressionism, they tried everything. Even here in the United States, in the 1930s films the lighting and compositions are magnificent. Because at the time, German Expression came out of not being able to afford enough lights, right? And so they thought, “Let’s create mood with shadows or whatever. And that came back to the United States with film noir, with, “The sets look terrible? Well, let’s not see it.” And that’s been repeated in everything from Scorsese’s films to Batman Returns.

I don’t think that in the human mind the desire to tell stories or the desire to hear stories has changed in a couple thousand years. Technology has changed. Now, whatever you think can be realized visually, which is just mindboggling. You can create King Kong in 1930’s New York more believably than if you had a camera there.

Our taste might actually go back to simpler film, I think.  It’s all visual style that changes, from fresco to oil to watercolor, but story hasn’t changed that much.  It may go through a few more changes. I think the problem now is that the younger generation is losing the ability to watch an hour and a half or two.  They think everything is 30 sec to 3 minutes. And unfortunately the industry is going to take advantage of it and create a whole bunch of three-minute films. They’ll think that’s the thing. That will be a shame.  But storytelling is not going to change.

Also, another thing for young filmmakers is to not separate the craft of editing, acting, cinematography and all those things for the time being. The more I work in the business, I see that they are all connected.  As much as I admire “Academy Award winning cinematography,” you can’t take over the story. You can’t have fantastic editing or great music but terrible acting. When the marriage between everything works out, then it’s a success.

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