Tuesday, October 30, 2012
OK, another little story: In 1989, fully under the sway of Errol Morris and Gates of Heaven and a bare-bones aesthetic that relies chiefly on talking heads, I decided to make a documentary. The premise was simple, not to say narrow: I pointed the camera at fans of the Grateful Dead and at fans of the Velvet Underground, who told their stories of how those bands had changed their lives.
I had, of course, scarce resources and thus zero budget and went in well aware of other constraints as well, such as that my interview subjects had to live in and around where I was living at the time, Seattle (when I should have been in San Francisco and New York). But I did what I could, hoping that serendipity would connect the dots: wrote to publishing companies to get the rights to music (received a very nice letter from Sylvia Reed), advertised in local alternative publications for interview subjects, and worked the word of mouth the best I could. I signed on with a public-access cable-TV channel, which provided equipment and even technicians and medium-grade video stock. It was free, but added more layers of complexity in terms of accommodating and coordinating schedules—not just mine and those of the people I wanted to interview, but now the crew and even access itself to the equipment had to be scheduled weeks out.
Long story short, the whole thing became a nightmare almost instantly. As a journalist I was accustomed to making appointments for interviews, showing up with my cassette recorder, and doing it. But Making a Movie, with all its baggage and the intangibles of cameras and crews and specific locations, was different. I found that a surprising number of people (and/or flaky fan types) made the commitment and then simply never showed up at the designated time and the place. For one session, no one showed up at all. We had to run around shooting secondary footage we weren't entirely prepared for that day. The subjects who did show up as often as not were problem attention whores. Then I had a cameraman who was a lout, to put it charitably, barking about problems with virtually no impulse control. With no sense of how to approach an interview, he intimidated many of my subjects all the way back down to the incoherent basics of introversion, and ruined some good interviews.
All this was new to me and turned me into something of a nervous wreck for a little while there. When the project had reached the stage where most of the footage had been shot and transferred to VHS and I was starting to comb through trying to impose structure for the editing, I happened to pick up a copy of Day for Night from the library. I must say that I am approximately as fond of movies about making movies as I am of fiction about writing fiction, which is to say not much—but this was just a matter of fortuity, a kind of lifeline when I most needed it. For the three weeks I had it I looked at it most days, usually after a few hours of looking at my own raw footage and making notes, and it made me feel better and inspired me. It helped me (as we may hear Henry Gibson advising shortly) keep a-goin'.
Truffaut obviously draws on his own experience to create scenes that are hardly unusual—actors and crew misbehaving, spoiled takes, difficulties of managing resources, fighting constantly to keep the project cohesive in the big terms, and a continual gnawing anxiety and sense of being overwhelmed and drowned by details. And then, through all that, those fleeting moments when something goes just right, perfectly so, and everything feels absolutely worth it. I don't think anyone has ever caught all of this better than Truffaut does here. The clip at the link, for example, shows the difficulty of getting even just one take right, and yet also shows how, paradoxically, even as the main player in the scene becomes more and more frustrated, she is also drifting further and further into her role, doing it better and better. The fascination for such things, I'm pretty sure now, remains a big part of what keeps people attempting one of the most difficult things there is to do—make a movie.
Necessity for multiple takes [video deleted]
Phil #11: Les Quatre Cents Coups (Francois Truffaut, 1959) (scroll down)
Steven #11: King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
I hasten to add that the documentary that came of this story, called Warlocks, was very much a low-budget first effort—raw and amateurish, shot on video, but with its moments, such as a song about Lou Reed performed by one person. Some of the interviewees are interesting people to look at and listen to. The documentary almost works at several points. I have a certain fondness for it that is matched only by the fierce embarrassment I felt the last time I took a look a few years ago.