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The Seed&Spark Blog

Towards a Poor Cinema, Part 1

March 19, 2015

• James Kaelan

 
"The spirit of harmony in the team turned out to be so important that at moments of crisis—and there were several—when the cameraman and I ceased to understand each other, I was utterly lost. Everything fell out of my hands and for several days we were in no state to go on shooting. Only when we found a means of communicating again was equilibrium restored, and we resumed filming. In other words, the creative process was controlled not by discipline and schedule, but by the psychological climate prevailing in the team."
 
— Andrey Tarkovsky, from Sculpting in Time
 
One of my favorite stories from Ray Carney's Cassavetes on Cassavetes concerns a television production from the late '60s. It was early evening, and a young man named Steven Spielberg—just 20 years old at the time—stood on the soundstage watching John Cassavetes act. During a break, Cassavetes approached Spielberg and asked him what he thought of the scene. "When Spielberg told [Cassavetes] he himself wanted to be a director someday," Carney explains, "Cassavetes proceeded to ask him how he would direct him in the scene he was playing, and then took that advice in the next take."
 
Cassavetes might have been an emotionally-driven, improvisational director, but he wasn't careless. If Spielberg had given him a clumsy note, we assume Cassavetes wouldn't have taken it. But, Carney posits, "No one was beneath [Cassavetes'] dignity to talk to and, just possibly, learn from—not even the 20-year-old kid standing off to the side of the shoot."
 
Too often, Cassavetes is incorrectly remembered for shooting without a script (an absolute myth; the screenplay for Faces was more than 200 pages long), and too rarely celebrated for his unprecedented—and still unmatched—ability to balance artistic dsicipline with cinematic freedom. He found blocking the action of a scene restrictive, but routinely shot the same scene for days on end. While working on Faces, he once famously rolled 53 two-camera takes of an 11-minute scene, then cut the sequence from the film.
 
Cassavetes required a completely collaborative environment in order to thrive, where he could amalgamate professionals and amateurs. "Creativity," he once defined, "is being able to work with understanding and cooperation and enjoyment with your fellow workers, your director, your writers, your fellow actors—your technicians..." He believed that to make a film you need to cultivate a team, with each member devoted to the same immutable ideal: When they've finished working on the film, they know they've "done the best work they can; and when they see the product come out... they know it's a product they can be proud of."
 
That's why, as a director, I find the Spielberg/Cassavetes anecdote particularly instructive. When Cassavetes approached Spielberg, he couldn't have forecast who this bespectacled, curly-haired kid would turn out to be. Your PAs don't often turn out to be unfledged moguls. But unless they should prove otherwise, consider them creative, hard-working, film-loving collaborators. Or better yet, select for those qualities. Technical skill is important, but if it comes attached to a poisonous attitude, that crew member becomes a weak link.
 
And Independence filmmaking—wherein a broad network of filmmakers share knowledge, resources, even audiences—I would like to posit is a weakest link sport. I'll explain.
 
In 2013, Chris Anderson and David Sally published a book on soccer, called The Numbers Game, in which they tested the efficacy of a litany of conventional tactics using statistical data collected from thousands of matches from Manchester to Dar al Aslaam. 
 
Like filmmaking, soccer is an endeavor rooted in tradition, whose contemporary expression reflects a very slow assimilation of empirical data perverted by confirmation bias. In other words, a soccer pitch—like a film set—operates the way it does because it's always operated that way, and the tactics have been profitable. If a team could perform more effectively and efficiently, economic pressure would've revealed, and subsequently favored, a markedly new strategy. And it hasn't. Yet.
 
Soccer teams tend to invest in offense. Goal scorers, in a sense like stars in a film, are considered the foundation of wins. Therefore tradition suggests they deserve the greatest investment. If Cristiano Ronaldo can earn you 60 goals across all competitions, in a season as he did for Real Madrid in the 2011/12 season (more than Racing Santander scored as a team during the same period)—or Matthew McConaughey can earn you 33 acting nominations for a single role, as he did with Dallas Buyers Club—legend suggests their value is nearly inestimable. 
 
But Anderson and Sally, having run the numbers, see this fetishizing of goal scorers as a potential distraction from a team's success—one that I feel applies to the film set.
 
[Our] figures bear out the idea that it is the strength of a soccer team's weakest link that determines how much success a side will have, or that games are more often decided by errors, breakdowns in communication, or finely tuned tactical systems falling apart. Soccer matches are defined by mistakes; it is only natural that the worst player on the team is most likely to misplace a pass or forget to mark his man and lay a whole week's preparation to waste.
 
Transposing the soccer analogy to film, let's make some rough translations. The producer, some necessarily objective distance from the shot-by–shot creation of the film, is the manager. Let's call the striker the star, the captain (usually a midfielder) the director, and the keeper the cinematographer. With that triumvirate (plus producer), we have the subject, the objective interpreter of the subject's action, and the chronicler of that action (in documentary this could all be the same person, but let's not get overly weighed down in a literalist exercise; that's not the point!).
 
The eight remaining players on the pitch, for the sake of completing the analogy, make up the rest of the key set members of independence film: production designer, costumer, gaffer, AC, HMU, script supervisor, sound mixer, PA, etc. (you can have more than eight key crew members, of course; but remember that Cassavetes did all his early work, including Faces, with seven).
 
Anderson and Sally's postulation that the true success of a team is defined by its weakest link, I should say now, applies only to a film set where the explicit goal is making art, where, to borrow from Tarkovsky, the aim is to create something that "turns and loosens the human soul, making it receptive to good." (This aim must not be confused with dispensing satisfaction—as when in any commercial film we feel some relief upon seeing the villain brought to justice.)
 
Any film set whose intention is to capitalize, to entertain a consumer with a salable commodity irrespective of the higher goal of making art, belongs to a different system, where movies are product, where their assemblage may require a machine-like precision—but no soul. On such sets, strongest link theory applies, and stars rule. That is not to say that a studio can't unravel because of disharmony (look no further than Susanne Bier's Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper-starring Selena, or John Frankenheimer's The Island of Dr. Moreau, for proof that there's no such thing as a sure bet). But by and large, Hollywood plays a different sport than independence filmmakers, one in which the metrics for success are strictly numerical—and therefore almost scientifically repeatable. You can buy your way to commercial success (see the Transformers franchise). You cannot buy your way into the Criterion Collection. 
 
An Independence film set unified under the banner of making art, in order to strive for—and by miracle attain—an ecstatic state, must function as a collective body, led but not coerced toward greatness. Such a coalition, bound together only by a common idealism, is a delicate creature. Should any organ fail, the body becomes sick and eventually ceases to function. The director and cinematographer may have a clearer influence on the final film than the PA. But what if your PA is a director when she isn't working on your film? 
 
There are filmmaking groups around the world testing exactly that hypothesis, and we're going to dig into their methodologies in search of some broadly applicable truths. The purpose of this column is to hypothesize about how to build an organic film collective capable of surviving while making art. Throughout the year we'll expand our definitions and proscriptions, testing them out as we go, and collecting anecdotes from you: our community! 
 
BECAUSE THIS SHIT IS IMPORTANT!!!
 
A portion of this article appeared in the MovieMaker Magazine 2013 Complete Guide to Making Movies.

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James Kaelan

Editor in Chief, BRIGHT IDEAS

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