In Praise of Barry Levinson & in being Inspired…

I recently viewed the film “The Survivor”, and before I realized it I was captivated by the film and its characters. The film starts off with a man on a beach looking out into the ocean. It shoots back to his past and how he and his girl were separated by the Nazi’s. Not much dialogue happens. It’s all told in images and sound. Right there is where something felt familiar, and it was only at the end of the film were my feelings confirmed. The movie felt familiar & the film felt like a Barry Levinson film. As the film progressed we are introduced to the main character Harry Haft. A survivor of Auschwitz who had a brief career as a boxer i the early 50’s. The movie drew me in and the characters came alive for me. The story was based on real events and yet it became a haunting indictment of the guilt a surviver feels on what he had to do to survive & how it haunts him until he faces the demons that prevent him from enjoying life. Levinson is no stranger to character driven films. “Diner“, “Tin Men“, “Rain Man“, “Avalon“, & “Liberty Heights” are all of some of Mr Levinson’s films. To name them all would take most of this article so I’ll just let you wander over to IMDB and look at his credits and hopefully watch a few of his films.

But why did the film “The Survivor” ring familiar to me & why at this point of my life. For the a long time I’ve been trying to write something that was real to me. Something that matters to me. Half based on my dad and half based on his & my own experiences. For some reason Levinson’s film said something to me. Why? Why would a film about a survivor of Auschwitz ring a bit true to me. My father you see served in the German army and surviving the war some how broke him in ways I could not comprehend. My experiences with him and of the stories that came out reluctantly painted a picture that the film “The Survivor” also hit on. Guilt. When faced with a horrific situation you do things that you may not like just in order to survive, and guilt is a haunting and devastating soul crushing thing to come out of. So Levinson hit a nerve that I really never explored. Of course an Auschwitz survivor is someone who has experienced utter horror, yet most human beings who experience such horrors never are the same. They become a bit broken until they put that horror behind them and even then it sometimes rears it’s ugly memories. PTSD, survivors guilt:

“Survivor guilt (or survivor’s guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor’s syndrome and survivor disorder or survivor’s disorder) is a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others could not.” – Wikipedia (survivors Guilt)

There are different types of survivor guilt, including general, parental and survivor guilt with specific incident. General survivor guilt refers to feelings of guilt associated with living and going on after someone else dies or is killed

I’ve been going through old home movies and some recordings that my dad did. Even some old letters he wrote during the war. I’m still wrestling with the different mediums and how to get them into digital form. It was Levinson’s film that made things click with me. Maybe the written word is not a good medium for me to try and write something about my dad. Maybe it was already there in the films and recordings my dad left behind.

There’s always something driving me. A buddy of mine once said “I know you need to do something” & that he’s right I do. As a creative I need to create, but I’m a victim of not enough time. Movies are my art form that I revel in & yet I never thought I could make something like a documentary about my dad & myself. I did do a video about my mom when she passed. I had filmed her throughout the years and asked questions about her life and dad’s life and that became a short film about her. I had material I could shape such as the interviews and pictures I when over with my mom. Of course my parents are more complex than I realized and I don’t have all the answers on why they did what they did. I may never know. Mostly due to my inexperience of questioning my mom about things that she would not ordinarily talk about I didn’t get as deep as I’d have liked. Through the conversations we had throughout the years and the things that both my mom & dad told me I can only extrapolate their experiences to a certain degree. It’s harder with my dad because of the person he was. So it’s been a deep dive into family history and playing back old memories of my own experiences with my dad & mom. Levinson’s films are character driven. They are very real and that’s what makes them so unique and watchable. It was his film that started a domino effect in my head & suddenly my screenwriting teacher’s phrase came to mind (Nadja Tesich). She would say “it’s in your head”. Meaning the story you want to write is trapped in your head and it’s what you know. Those are always good stories and the most interesting, so now I’m traversing memory and the films and recordings of my dad and trying to find the story that seems to be calling me, yet the story still alludes me.

Its frustrating to say the least, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. We get ideas from various different inspirations for me its in movies & photography. I’d love to do another narrative film someday soon, but the resources are currently lacking, so I’ll work with what I have. All I know is the more filmmaking I do the better I get at it, and not doing what I’m good at just plainly hurts.

I’ve been silent here on this website for awhile and that’s because life interrupts. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, are these events are to be enjoyed. My father was so haunted by things in his past that he let some of those good times pass him by. After all one should enjoy your present and try to enjoy them with people you love. The film and its history of my families history seems important to me. It something I’d like to share with my boys, and just maybe I can gleam some knowledge about my own existence, and maybe just knock down or push aside some of those ghosts that hold me back.

For me movies are more than just entertainment. It is many things, and I continue to try different techniques in film & be inspired by films like Levinson and Jonas Mekas. There are too many stories to be told, and so much more to learn. I’ll try to make this more informative and share my knowledge of filmmaking & the process. I’m not done yet and I’d like to do more.

Thanks you Mr. Levinson for showing me what good cinema looks like and that it can inspire someone like me. I highly suggest seeing Mr. Levinson’s earlier work. He did win an academy award for “Rain Man”, but I really liked “Avalon” a lot & “Liberty Heights” is an instant favorite for me. I am also a big admirer of the TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street”. Mr. Levinson was one of the executive producers for the show. Hopefully till next time maybe I’ll have more to show about the work in progress. Till then keep watching movies and get inspired by whatever inspires you. A good book, a piece of art, a photograph or just a poem, whatever it is don’t let life grind you down. Always be inspired. Till next time….


Filmmaking: Trade or art form?

I’ve been working on a short film about my mom. She died recently and I have over the years recorded mom talking about our family history. I being an only child wanted to preserve the history for my children, so they would get an idea on where and how we came about. Of course this history has been hard to get a handle on. I had my mom talk about things that I had questions on, but as her dementia became more and more prevalent the more I worried about losing it all. We all don’t realize that our parents had a lives before us, and that they had dreams and aspirations as well, so I wanted to document this. If anything for me and my family and maybe their families someday.

What I needed to do is warm up those filmmaking skills I had learned so many years ago. Of course things and technology have changed, but I have kept up with the technology as best I could. I first downloaded DaVinci Resolve which I found really great, but there was a problem. Some of my footage was on Digital video tapes. Those small cassettes we all shot with on our Sony’s & Cannon cameras back in the 80’s and 90’s. I also had some 16mm film that I transferred to tape which needed to be digitized. DaVinci does not handle archaic formats well. So I broke down and bought Adobe Premiere. I am familiar with Premiere since it was one of the first non-linear editing software I used in my career. But some time has gone by, and Premiere has become a monster. It can do many, many things, and Adobe has made many improvements, so I needed to tech up, and I am still in the process of doing so. Digitizing stills, videos, and audio has become a crash dive into the new Adobe Premiere, and at times a frustrating & invigorating experience.

So how much is filmmaking a trade and how much is it an art form? Filmmaking requires many skill sets. The more you know about those skill sets the better filmmaker you are. My dad had always wanted me to learn a trade. “Learn a trade and you can go anywhere in the world” he said. Be a world citizen and learn about the world. That’s what was drilled into me, and somehow I did that but instead of plumbing or some other trade I learned the rudiments of making a film. From film cinematography to film editing I became more and more entrenched in those disciplines then most. I had good teachers but technology moves on and things change. I bragged that I could teach filmmaking to anyone in 20 to 30 minutes, and yet it would take you a lifetime to master it as an art form. While filmmaking has it’s trades it is also an art form which you can create by mastering several filmmaking disciplines.

I learned that or am learning that as I edit together my family’s history. Digital film has become more and more easier for the average person to learn. It is that which I find so fascinating and fun. Here I am a college graduate with a degree in film production, and I feel inadequate behind this software, yet I find a community on-line where I can get answers quickly to my film production problems, and with every piece of knowledge I fall more and more in love again with filmmaking.

I have known many excellent technicians, but there is something else that is needed to become a proficient and GREAT filmmaker. That is experience and the knowledge of creating a GOOD story. You can be proficient in editing and cinematography, but if you don’t have a good story all you have are interesting images, set to dialogue and /or music.

I find myself frustrated and antsy on NOT knowing it all, but I find myself telling myself to look at the story. The mechanics of piecing it together will come. As I am editing my little film I find myself getting more and more inspired, and this little film is becoming bigger and more intricate as I go. The story is dictating the technique, and that’s an interesting development. Is filmmaking a trade or art form? I say they are both, but the master filmmaker will use both his skills to create a piece of art that will be bigger then what he/her thought it was. Learning the mechanics is a basic step in creating film. The better armed you are the better you’re film will be.

So back to this little film I am doing. What I thought would take me a few weeks may take me longer. The materials I have on hand dictate what and how the film will develop through those months, but by pushing the software & hardware further one learns the craft better & being inspired by the work is something a filmmaker can only aspire to. No matter where you are in your career be inspired and get excited by the work. I hold no illusion that the film will play in a multiplex soon, but what I find inspiring is that maybe somewhere in the distant future a descendant of mine might sit down and look at the film, and see and know better from whence they came from. They then can point to that crazy great grandfather as inspiration, and maybe that’s as good as it gets, but for now I feel inspired and inspiration is the mother to good work. In the end that’s all we really need to become good artists who have something worthwhile to say. Be inspired everyone.

Independent means your on your own…

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When your an independent filmmaker you are your on your own. Hopefully you have developed a team, or know individuals who can help you lighten the load from producing your film. I say YOUR film because YOU were the one who started down this road. If you are a director slash producer you’ll need to get down in the trenches and start assembling your team. Films are not made by committee. Making films is an autocratic way of life. Having a team is great, and helpful, but you are the General of this army. Go forth and get ready to take command.

Now that being said having a small producing staff helps. Everyone has maybe a speciality and that helps. I have come to the conclusion that GOOD films are made by a dedicated cast and crew. I’ve actually looked at movie production history, and the films that are superior to all the rest are because the production team had enthusiasm and believed in the project. A lot of these films were from first time artists who had something to prove and who had a vested interest in making a film that would stand out.

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In future posts I’ll try and go through those films histories. But I’ll leave that for some other time. What I’m trying to say here is that when you’re making an indie film you may need to rely on outside individuals who have skills that you need to compensate.

I used professional actors. I held auditions after looking at many headshots of actors. I did not ask anyone for money. I find it appalling when I hear of productions NOT offering compensation, or even not paying for the actors transportation. I know I’ve been labeled a nice guy, and you know what they say about “nice guys”? But I’m not a nice guy. I’m trying to get other people involved in my project. Its that simple. If the people I get become my friends all the better. But I first I need to figure out a budget, and before you shoot make sure you have enough to get the film in the can.

A film production unit is more then just a bunch of artist working to create content. They become a family. Yes! I said it. The F word, and that F word is “family”. I know that’s crazy. But it’s true, and no truer in independent filmmaking then in any profession I can name. It’s what makes filmmaking that special vocation. I can’t state it strong enough. Like any family there can be dysfunction in the family, but you as a good producer & director know how to head off problems before it becomes a problem. You need to be part therapist, and part artist.

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We worked seriously hard on “Deadly Obsessions”, but as you can see by the picture above there was time to clown around as well. It’s the key to esprit de corps, and trust me you’ll need that when doing an a film no matter if it’s a independent or a studio based film. Treating filmmaking like a straight business proposition is not what gets your film made. Roget Corman’s film’s had hungry artists working for him. They pushed themselves to make the best film they could. Just by recognizing talent Corman’s films may have not been cinematic marvels, but they were entertaining and cheap. It’s how Corman survived for so long. Recognizing talent is the key, and developing relationships is a key to making a good film. I’ve been involved where people don’t really care and only want to make their film footage quota for the day. Needless to say those films go into the dustbin of cinema never to be seen or heard from again. There is a whole lot more that goes into a successful film, but your first hurtle is getting it made, and a lot of films just fall apart and are never made. I’ve seen it, and I’ve been a party to it. It hurts when your film fails to grow wings and get off the ground. There is more talk in this industry then there is action. It is what seriously makes me cringe and has prevented me from making more films.

Alone my film stock budget was about over 5K, and I managed to get a discount. In order to process the film, and transfer the sound to mag track it was another 6K. I knew all this and kept the spending to a minimum, yet still I paid people. I had a few days to shoot, and then the money would dry up. I had to work a day job to get more money for post, and it was me who was working on post production. How else could I save money. I resurrected an old 6 plate flat-bed and finished on film. It was the cheapest way to go at the time. Posting on video would have costed me a fortune, so film was the only alternative. You see why I despise others who keep talking the talk and never pony up. The above picture is me at the end of shooting. That smile is releif for making it through the slog of production.

I really, really admired Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez for making their low budget films. Now days you don’t need film stock. But memory cards to fill up, and hard drives to back the footage. I really think you can still get a feature done nowadays for little money, and that you can do it in stages to keep the costs low. Keeping it simple helps. Limited actors, limited locations, and keep the crew small. From the picture above you can see I had limited lighting equipment to light a scene, yet my crew and I made it work. I really think you ca as well. No matter the budget. It’s more possible now then it ever was. So go out there and be the next Coppola, or Spielberg. Don’t think because you don’t have the money you won’t be able to produce your film. Make your resources work for you. Take some time off. Coordinate your talent and crew. Spend on the things that matter, and you may attract people who BELIEVE in your project. It is time consuming, maddening and throughly invigorating, yet you’ll enjoy ever moment of it.

That itch…

I tried writing this blog entry a few times, and always delete it when finished.   I’ve been wrestling with the question of who I am now, and where I want to be.  Maybe it’s because I’m marking another birthday or maybe it’s just my existential part of me screwing with my psyche.  My interests and my passions have not changed, but as I grow older the energy I have is a bit more precious.  I have other things I want to do and some of them are not in the filmmaking arena.  So when I say I’m a filmmaker I wince a bit.  I’m a bit more then that, and this dance I do is exhausting at times yet there is always that urge to create or to tell a story.

So yeah if you’re a filmmaker, writer or musician you’ll get that itch to do another song, film, or novel.  It is inevitable, but as you grow older you’ll interests will wane and at other times you’re energy will be divided among other things.  Life is complex and sometimes there doesn’t seem enough time in the day to do what you want.  Today’s society really is a lot different then it was 20 or 30 years ago, and before you say “oh God it’s one of those posts” let me assure you I’ll try not to be the old man on the porch yelling at the kids on the lawn.

What I mean is that there are so many distractions in the world now.  One of these distractions is social media and this thing we call the Internet.   I say to myself I’m doing things, and yet am I?  Blogging, posting photographs, and twitting seem counter-productive  Or are we just hamsters running on a wheel in our cages?  I sometimes feel that all this noise around us could be tampered down, and even ignored and it would all be for the better.

Doing things because you like to do them is probably the best reason in doing them, but if you’re trying to seek fame maybe you’re not doing it for the right reason.  The old saying: “you want to make God laugh, make plans” is so very true.  Social media makes us all have a voice.  That’s the illusion.  We’re all special, yet there are so many voices out there that we seem to be drowning ourselves out.  There is so much content out there on the Internet that a lot is never seen or heard.  I am amazed how sometimes I find some really interesting information, music, or even art by people that are inspiring.  It’s a good feeling when you find out that you too are not the only one who thinks, or feels the way you do.

In today’s society if you really want to be heard and want to make a film there is little to stop you.  The tools are all out there, and it is not too difficult to make new music, post videos,  movies, and/or publish.

We’re in an era where making content is all that you need to get attention  There is a plethora of content some interesting and others not very.  What did Andy Warhol say that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.   Maybe we should change that to 10 minutes because on the Internet there is always something new every 5 to ten minutes.  The 24 hour news cycle has conditioned us to be always on.  throughout the day we are bombarded with ads, commercials, music videos, and how-to videos 24/7 which I’m afraid only feeds our anxieties.

Those anxieties can hold us back and make us doubt ourselves.   For some of us it’s never the right moment.  Its not the right time, the right equipment or the right people.   How many of you have said when I get more money, or when I get better equipment, or when I find that special actor or actress then I’ll do it.  I hate to say this but they’re all excuses.  Do what you can now and worry about it later.  As an artist you grow, and one grows by learning from your successes and mistakes, and I guarantee you you’ll make more mistakes then success.  It’s our fears of our mistakes that hinder us.  By learning from those mistakes you become a better human being, and a better artist.  Can I just plainly say it: “mistakes makes you a better human being”.  I fail at things.   I’ll admit that right here, but I try and learn from those mistakes, and try not to repeat them.

So why take advice by someone like myself?  Certainly I have not reached the pinnacle of the moviemaking world.   Picasso painted in obscurity throughout his career, but he did what he loved and his works endure today, and are very sought after.  I am in no way comparing myself to Picasso, but only using him as an example.  There are many ways to measure success in life.  You should not define success by how many likes you get, or how much your work is shared.   Having a family is a real plus, and when I mean family I don’t mean it to be the traditional family we are conditioned to see in the media.  Families can consist of friends, and family.  Having that support group can certainly ground you.  It’s not always about yourself.  I learned that many years ago.  I have seen many people doing their own thing, and finding success in that.  I will in another post try to direct you to others doing their own thing.   I try to enjoy what I do.  It isn’t easy and the work, home, career balance is a tricky one.

Long ago someone said to me that it’s all about the work, and I sort of agree with that.  It’s also about what you leave behind.  Family, friends, and colleagues are just as important then the stuff you create.  In fact they are much more important in life then you think they are.  Believe me making great music or making that stunning film won’t give you satisfaction unless you get to share it with the ones you love.  Life is way to short and maybe you succeed or maybe you don’t, but the one thing I can say is that they’ll be no better joy then joy that is shared.

Now what about that itch?  That instinct or urge to create?  I can tell you that it always is there especially if your the artistic type, but things happen, and sometimes maybe you just want to watch sunsets or hold your lover’s hand, and maybe just play with the kids.  It’s all good, and worthwhile.   Don’t compare yourself to others.  Be your own person, and don’t let that blinding ambition blind you to the joys of life.  The joys are many, and it is a very short life to begin with.  Don’t waste it.  The journey is just as important as the destination.  Okay that’s my two cents now go have some fun.

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