Sep 092011

I took this picture at a remote gas station in rural Missouri recently, as a man nearby vomited his hangover from the open door of his pick-up truck.  The gut wrenching sounds he made were pretty distracting, and told a story all their own, but I put that story out of my head.

I grew up near a cornfield.  In fact, across the street behind our house, it was corn field as far as the eye could see, and sometimes I’d wander out there.  The corn stalks were high and I couldn’t see over them.  When you’re inside that, it’s disorienting.  It might as well be dark.  You can see your own hand in front of your face but not much of anything else.  Beyond the cornfield was a forest.  Beyond the forest were various trails.  Beyond the trails, another forest, then dirt mounds.  I didn’t technically live out in the middle of nowhere but the cornfield and the territory beyond it was its own world, cut off from everything, and it allowed me to fantasize that I did.

I’ve always liked stories about simple people who live out in the country.  I don’t know that people who live out in the country are particularly simple, but in my fantasy films they are.  Everything around them is quiet and still and they imagine different lives for themselves.  These people don’t have internet access.  They still have land lines.  A movie theater several miles up the road plays one movie at a time, long enough to allow itself time to really fatten in the mind.  The people in this landscape would be at home in a Willa Cather story.  A cornfield is like the ocean to them; they look out into it and it seems too big, too forever, to wrap their minds around.

In my film I think this character would be a guy, probably early twenties.  It’s clear he isn’t going to leave.  He’ll spend his whole life there.  Maybe he’ll get into some kind of trouble.  Probably not.  I’ll leave the secret meth lab to some other filmmaker’s action-packed scenario.  It’s probably deadly to make a film about this guy because nothing much happens to him, but I like the nothing much part.  I like the idea that he does whatever it is he does, every day, one day like the next, with only subtle variations.  Maybe he’s secretly in love with someone or something.  Maybe someone who works at this gas station.  He goes there every day to buy something he doesn’t need but pretends is essential.  And this person he’s secretly in love with looks at him from the other side of the counter like the cornfield, totally inscrutable.

 Posted by on September 9, 2011
Sep 052011

The following scent memory was sent to me by “Spike”:

“For as long as I can remember my mother has had an old bottle of YSL Opium EdT in the original rust lacquer splash bottle, and as a child I always loved to steal a sniff of it every now and then. I don’t know that I associated it with luxury necessarily, although as I grew older and learned about Yves Saint Laurent and the history behind Opium I’m sure I started to, but more than anything Opium embodied glamor and decadence to my young nose. The drama of it just always seemed so far beyond what I knew in my every day life. I suppose the fact that by the time I was old enough to remember smelling it my mother had stopped wearing it added to it’s mystique, like it was simply too dramatic and sensual to wear whenever you felt like it. Even back then I knew that Opium required a certain context to work, darkness was a must and smoldering makeup finished off with an immaculately lacquered manicure was preferred. There was always this aura of something really bad-in-a-good-way about Opium, something forbidden, dangerous even. If any perfume was responsible for shaping my tastes as I’ve grown up Opium is it.”

 Posted by on September 5, 2011
Sep 032011

Today I’m editing the interviews we filmed a few weeks back to go in the video section, after premiering them on various blogs.  I forget how much I like sitting down talking to people this way.  Years ago, back in NYC, I published a zine (remember those?) which was basically a collection of interviews with people who interested me.  I’ve always been interested in back story and this kind of conversation gives you the opportunity to home in on details you wouldn’t normally find out about people: the things that have happened to them; the people they’ve known; where they’ve come from, basically.  I don’t tend to like magazine or television interviews so much because they cut out all the interesting stuff.  You lose all the pauses, the hesitations, the mistakes people make when they try to articulate their experiences.

I would do these all the time if I could.  I would bring a camera and a wireless microphone everywhere I go.  Often I’m with someone and I wish I could capture the moment on film.  We conducted these interviews at my house but ideally I would roam around and shoot at any number of places.  You capture a lot about people when you get them in their own environments.  It isn’t always about what they’re saying; a lot of the time it’s about the space they’re in and how they feel and act in it.

I read this story by Willa Cather this morning called “Two Friends” and it reminded me what I like about interviewing people.  The story is about a small town and the friendship between two of its most distinguished citizens.  They’re older men, and every evening, after they’ve finished work, they meet outside the bank one of them owns, where they sit and talk into the night.  The narrator is a young boy or girl who gets to know them through their conversation, and relies on it for various reasons.  The sound of their voices, all the subtext of their conversation, the mood of them sitting there in the dark.  Eventually, they have a disagreement, and all those past conversations take on a different kind of importance, because they hold clues about things that don’t exist anymore.

Some people get supremely uncomfortable when you try to interview them.  That can be pretty fascinating, too.  I once subjected my aunt to a fusillade of questions about my grandfather, trying to get to the bottom of things no one had ever wanted to talk about.  There was the story you heard about my grandfather and the story people knew but wouldn’t verbalize.  My aunt answered some of my initial questions with short, one or two word answers.  She didn’t want to go there but her reticence made me that much more curious, and I persisted, until she abruptly informed me, with a dramatic gesture at her throat, that I was bringing on her gastric reflux.  She excused herself to go to the bathroom.  She hadn’t really told me anything but I felt like I got a lot out of her body language and her refusals.  I don’t typically want to make people uncomfortable, and it’s no fun really to interview someone who doesn’t want to be interviewed, so at this point I stick to the willing as much as possible.

Somewhere, I have interviews I conducted with my maternal grandmother, where she talked about the time in her life I knew the least about.  I get the sense when talking even to the most candid person that I’m not always getting the full story.  Often you’re getting the story your subject wants to believe, and it’s been rehearsed in her mind and in conversations over the years.  I felt that with my grandmother.  I felt she was narrating her life as she wished it had been – not just the good stuff but the bad, the slights she’d suffered, the betrayals.  All of those were viewed very subjectively by her and used to support and preserve her sense of self.

(The title of this post is a phrase from the story “Two Friends” by Willa Cather)

 Posted by on September 3, 2011
Sep 012011

When I was making the first three episodes of the WOMAN’S PICTURE series, I never really thought too much about how likeable the characters might be.  I found them interesting, even fascinating, and that was enough for me.  Enough to spend several years working on.  I couldn’t always figure out why they did what they did, or what they were thinking, but I didn’t mind not knowing.  It wasn’t an obstacle for me.  It was a driving impetus, if anything.  I think the only character we as a cast and crew spent much time thinking about in these terms was Miriam Masterson, the shopping network hostess played by Ann Magnuson.  Even with Miriam I didn’t take excessive pains to make her likeable.  I was more interested in making her human.

I’m often surprised by audience reaction, because the more I make films the more I learn about what people expect of their characters, and more viewers than I anticipate generally seem in some way to require a fundamentally likeable character.  It isn’t that I want an unlikeable character.  A lot of the time, it’s just that the term seems pretty elastic to me, fundamentally, and it seems strange too that anyone would expect every character in every movie he sees to be some sort of imaginary cipher or surrogate friend, or every filmmaker who falls short of fulfilling that expectation to apologize.

When the first three episodes of WOMAN’S PICTURE played in LA several months ago, an audience member remarked that the women seemed passive.  Was I making a statement about women in the south?  Do I think they’re all that way?  I got the impression he didn’t find them particularly likeable, that he couldn’t relate to them, and my first question was, Why do you feel that’s necessary?  This isn’t the way everyone reacts to the characters I create, any more than the three characters he mentioned represent all women everywhere, or at least in the south, where I live and think.  But the issue of likeability is a sticking point for some viewers, consistently, and has been no matter what I produce.  I think these people and I probably just like different kinds of movies – and maybe are interested in different kinds of people.

I don’t actually think that the majority of the characters in WOMAN’S PICTURE are passive.  I think the movie has a peculiar pace.  It takes its time.  The characters aren’t particularly transparent.  And that can be frustrating for someone raised on another kind of material, where motivation is spelled out and dramatic action is bookmarked.  It’s interesting to me that this viewer thought the women were passive in WOMAN’S PICTURE, when it’s the men who prevaricate, pout, waste money, and lay about on the couch watching TV.  For me the women are strong in the series.  They’re pushing through things.  They’re taking a lot on, often by themselves, and seem pretty enigmatic to me.  Ultimately, they’re the kind of people who deal with the obstacles created by people finding them unlikeable.

When I start thinking about likeable film characters, I start thinking about likeable people in real life.  I don’t know a ton of them.  I like a lot of people – I like enough – but if I sat down and evaluated, let alone really observed, the private moments and everyday practices of the people I know, I’m not sure I’d come away thinking they were always the most decent, sensible, or principled sorts.  Most of the people I know expend a lot of effort trying to explain themselves and justify their actions, but only the actions I see.  They do a lot I don’t see, things they don’t have to explain and can allow to remain a big question mark.  What do people do when no one’s around to judge them?  They don’t worry too much about being likeable, I don’t think.  They’re engaged in the business of self-preservation.  I’m not sure a film should be any different.

When I was growing up, someone I loved often said to me, “I love you, but I don’t like you.”  I think people in families or who are close, or intimate, often don’t like each other, and that’s beside the point, or missing the point.  My private answer to that statement was always the same: “Why should your not liking me, or your inability to like what you love, be my problem?”

(The above still from the WOMAN’S PICTURE episode INGRID shows Calpernia Addams as the title character, keeping her thoughts to herself.  The title of this post is a quote by Robert Wilson Lynd.)




 Posted by on September 1, 2011