Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Penelope Cruz is Sexier in Spanish

Abre Los Ojos (1997) was beautifully constructed. Imaginative and new and what good films are made of. It made you think and the best films always do. So when they decided to remake it in english as Vanilla Sky (2001) it made all the sense in the world. Most of the american audience would have never seen the spanish marvel. It tapped into the specific market. More so it used some of the greatest A list talent out there paired with an impeccable budget, to recreate perhaps what would have originally been the case if the budget was right. 

Someone watching Vanilla Sky might think that is was well made with all the bells and whistles of the original. It leaves a mark on you. It conveys the concept of Abre Los Ojos very well. Though it's only when you watch the Vanilla Sky without the original. Because once you see the original you would have to think a few more times before accepting the reinvention. 

First and foremost. Tom Cruise to replace Eduardo Noriega. Tom cruise with well, frankly, obnoxious quirks that scream crazy put in a role where he is supposed to be crazy. Doesn't work as well. He seems like he is insane and not someone who is suffering an intense loss of reality. Eduardo in his character is fighting to regain reality while Tom is merely creating the psychosis that his character is. It's the difference between believing you're crazy and actually being it. Because when someone has a real loss of reality, they believe themselves to be perfectly sane. Eduardo conveys that feeling that the world around him is crazy very well. While Tom suffers more self doubt of sanity. 

The choice of Cameron Diaz was actually a good one. Since from the start there is something insane about her. It seems like there is something wrong and when the audience realizes that she is insane it all comes together quite well. She has the quirked laughs that Tom has but for her it makes sense. She is not the main character and her insanity should be foreshadowed. She does an amazing job at the character, perhaps even a bit more so than the original. 
The other choice is not really a choice at all. Penelope Cruz plays the same role. In a serious film with such depth it wasn't the right choice. She is  an amazing actress but mostly when she is speaking spanish. Her accent and uneasiness with english make her a sub par actress, and in a film this intense that doesn't work as well. She was breath taking in Abre Los Ojos but in Vanilla Sky there is a dis-genuiness to her character. There is a certain subtle nuance that she loses when she tries to talk in english. 

Then there are the many character explanations and studies added that may make this a big budget film but don't make it better. Sofia was a million times better as a mime and an actress that pretends, then as a dancer. Doesn't fit the character quite as well. The extra lines added into scenes just fill up empty silences that were so much more powerful when Abre Los Ojos played. The character of the friend was ill adapted in this version. There seems to be too much glamour like the appearance of Steven Spilberg which is extremely unnecessary.

The original captured a certain truth, reality that the re make lost in its pursuit for glamour and blockbuster status. However it is hard to say that Vanilla Sky wasn't a great film. It's only in comparison that one can realize its shortcoming. The original idea was perfect enough that it you don't completely lose the beauty unless its horribly reenacting. They both play out well but the originality and the reality of the first one doesn't transfer. To most this might be a negligible difference but to those of us gearing to understand film better, it might be the difference between hitting the bullseye or coming kinda close. 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Making "Pork Chop Night" - (Part 1: Production)

Let’s have a little discussion about Production; is there a standard way to make a film? The answer is an overwhelming NO.

On May 1st and 2nd I shot my short film “Pork Chop Night”. I wrote and directed it (I haven’t shot anything of my own in almost 4 years) and through Kickstarter I was able to raise $1,000 to fund it. The script was 18 pages. We shot it in just two days- two 8 hour days (not full days by traditional industry timelines). In those two days I was able to get all the shots I wanted and then some, I was able to get the performances I wanted from my actors and then some, I got some gorgeous lighting and sound…

18 pages… 2 days…

The more common belief is 4 to 5 pages a day when making a film. And sometimes, depending on the production, that is the case. Location moves can take up to whole hours away from your day; depending on the amount of gear, you’re looking at an average of maybe half an hour to break down the gear and pack it, up to half an hour to move, and another ten to fifteen minutes to load into the new location and another half hour to set up (again, depending on your gear). I had one location for Pork Chop Night. My crew was incredible; all people I’ve worked with before. They’re very professional, very experienced and were more committed to getting me the shots I wanted than I was expecting. I was worried about aggravating them to move a set up because of our tight time constraints (our lead actor, Phil Berry, was in a play an hour away), but they were more than willing to take the time to get the shots I wanted and to make them look good, and thanks to my incredible Gaffer, Brandon Meadows, they look great. The boy can light a set like I’ve never seen and he’s not willing to settle for “good enough”. The last thing I wanted was even the slightest shred of anger, frustration or aggravation on set, because that spreads like a virus- faster than a virus, and you’ll never really get the top quality you’re looking for, so I tried to make the set as lax (yet professional) as possible, I think we achieved that and also had some fun. Long story short; I like working with these guys, they like working each other, I want to do it for every production, and most importantly, we actually have fun together.

All funding went to paying crew and data storage, that’s it.

I had a very small crew:

1 x DP – Mikel Wisler (also my editor)
1 x 2nd Camera/1st AC – Bryant Naro (not part of my original plan, but a great bonus)
1 x Gaffer – Brando Meadows (If you don’t hire this man, you’re a fool)
1 x G&E Swing – Brian O’Connor
2 x Sound Crew (Boom and recordist) Mike Lamantia, Jr. & Frank Raposo
1 x Part Time Still Photographer – Diane St. Laurent (who also provided the food)

So that’s a crew of 7 people.

What I didn’t have:

A 2nd AD
A Production Manager
A Script Supervisor
Production Assistants
A Production Designer (although Robert Jachim gave his opinion on my art direction, as well as some amazing Storyboards done by Tara Howe)

Did I need these missing crew members? Not really. It would have been great to have them, but the Production suffered no loss in their absence.

As for my actors:

Phil Berry
Jen Arvay-Kefalas
Tyler Scotti
James McCoy
Charles Lafond


The actors gave me the performances I needed. My method for directing actors has changed over the years and definitely varies project to project. For this short, I gave them the background they needed to understand their actions, but allowed them to develop their own personalities. I’m a minimalist in that regard; I will rarely tell them what I want, but I will definitely, always tell them what I DON’T want. I believe that’s the best way to allow them to develop themselves for this project. If what they gave me didn’t work or didn’t fit, we did another take and by telling them what I thought didn’t work, they were able to portray what I was looking for; even going beyond.

Tyler and James, the child actors, were much more intuitive than I was expecting. I had only one problem; James (who was also a backup for another child actor) would often look at the camera, so we did the most takes with him more than any other actor, but I was able to get what I needed from him and then some. He had what I can only describe as “a reserved and thoughtful cuteness” that was inescapable. So much so that he couldn’t turn it off, and that only became an issue in one scene where I had originally hoped to have him be a bit “meaner” However, thanks to the quick wit of Jen, she was able to work his cuteness into the scene and it actually came off as more organic and natural than I had originally written.

Tyler had an incredible energy and was anything but camera shy. He hit every note right on and memorized his lines with incredible ease. He and James were the perfect “Good Cop, Bad Cop” pair of brothers and had wonderful chemistry together.

Phil and Jen also had a great chemistry. Due to Jen not being local, this was the first time they had actually been in the same room; they really had no rehearsal and after the first scene they had together, you’d be hard pressed to tell. Phil has a natural temperance that I was extremely happy to see and lucky he possessed; it gave him a natural connection to his character; a husband and father with a secret he was ashamed of, but should really have been anything but. When he needed that temperance, he had it full on, when he needed to turn the energy on to be on the offense, he had that hidden under his welcoming smile. He gave me a performance I had hoped for and definitely one I was not expecting; I couldn’t be happier. Phil also gave us one of the most memorable bloopers I think I’ve ever seen, so I’ll try and put that up on YouTube and Facebook as soon as possible.

Jen, I had worked with before. I knew what to expect, I knew what I was getting and I also knew she could do things I wouldn’t expect. She was never once shy to express her opinions, which I always welcome (and prefer) and, like Phil, would always hit the note we were looking for. She had a naturalism that allowed for Phil to play off of very well. Both actors wanted to give me more than one style of delivery, whether to flex their own muscles or to test my limits, and I couldn’t be happier.

Also, a special mention to Chuck Lafond for just being Chuck, which is all he needed to be for the role he literally “phoned in”.


I can’t really talk about the crew and the shots without referencing the other. I have nothing more than praise for my crew. I had worked with all of them before and they get better all the time.

Lets start with the camera. Mikel Wisler had recently purchased a Canon t2i, which he shot one short film with before “Pork Chop Night”. He was initially supposed to be the only camera, but through Brandon Meadows, we also welcomed Bryant Naro to set with his Canon 7D. (Both the t2i and 7D are the new video DSLRs) Naro had been doing a lot of test shooting with his camera and was very, very eager to actually shoot a project on it so he was more than happy to drive down from New Hampshire and help us out.

Both Mikel and Naro knew those cameras in and out, and sweet lord, it showed. We moved from sticks to handheld so frequently that their setups were less than a minute, their focus pulls were possibly record breaking and their ideas were always taken and put into place, I don’t think I ever said “No” more than once, and that one instance was simply because of a matter of time. Their handheld work is really something else. Most of the shots were on sticks and handheld. We had 1 jib shot and 2 dolly shots, although I had originally planned three, my lack of any cohesive shot list made me forget about it, however, we actually filmed the same scene in a different and simpler, more straightforward way, and I actually like that better.

However, the beauty of these shots were not simply camera, but also lighting. [I’ll admit that I actually have a handicap as a filmmaker; I’m colorblind (although I’ve always felt it should be called Color Confused)- I do horrible with flesh tones & shades, and I’m absolutely blind when it comes to color temperature (unless its extreme).]

Brandon and Brian were a great team, and as I said before, Brandon can light a set like no one I’ve ever worked with and with time to spare. We were somewhat limited with our equipment, but honestly, you’d never be able to tell. Brandon is quite receptive and was able to interpret my sometimes inarticulate desires for shots. Well, actually, let’s not be that self deprecating, as the clock ticked closer to Phil’s departure time, I became less descriptive in what I wanted, but again, Brandon could easily tell what I wanted, which was really nothing complex. He could also communicate with Mikel and Naro very well. They merged into an unbeatable camera department, the T-1000 of camera departments.

For sound we used a boom. Originally I wanted to use lavs as well, but after talking with Mikel and Mike, we decided against it for mostly practical reasons. Rather than go on and on about how great a job Mike and Frank did, I’ll keep it simple, perhaps the most simple and descriptive compliment when it comes to Sound in a film; it didn’t suck. Audiences of all types can follow just about any kind of cinematography and camera work, but they really can’t forgive bad sound, and I don’t blame them; I’m with them 100 percent. Nothing says amateur more than bad sound. Nothing. My biggest fear on anything I work on is sound. Especially in New England. Outside of Boston, good sound is hard to find. The experienced crew pool is quite small, but there was no chance in Hell I’d risk bad sound, so I scoured the North East looking for good sound and found it in Mike and Frank. We have yet to edit the film, so I can’t speak to the final product, but the mix I heard on set was music to my ears and one could easily pick up ambient sounds that should be more than easy to fix. So again; the sound didn’t suck!

Also, a special thanks goes out to Diane St. Laurent and Steve Lisi for providing food and taking some stills. I would have done the food myself if they hadn’t volunteered, and that would have taken some time.


My initial motivation for shooting this short was simple; its been almost 4 years since I shot something of my own, I’ve been a work-for-hire on everyone else’s projects for so long now and I was going absolutely nuts. I needed to recharge my batteries and shoot something, and soon, or I might have started to slide and get complacent, and we can’t have that, no sir.

The plot is relatively simple; a husband is hiding something from his wife, and while she tries to get it out of him, the kids are left unsupervised with the house to themselves. The kids and adults go through a role reversal. I missed working with actors, so I wanted to shoot something with some dialogue. This short isn’t anything experimental (don’t worry, I’ll do some crazy experimental stuff soon, believe me) and I wasn’t pushing any boundaries. I wanted to give audiences something they can relate to, something simple with simple humor and some beautifully composed shot. I wasn’t trying to say anything more than wanting people to think about how they talk to each other and how much time they put into what other people might think about what they think about. There’s nothing dark in this Short, nothing demanding, I’m not asking much from my audience other than their attention and appreciation for our work. We want to take this to festivals and get it to the right audiences, not EVERY audience, but the right ones; the ones who, again, appreciate the little things and would like a good chuckle at the antics kids can go through when unsupervised.

I couldn’t be happier with the shots we got, the work we did and the team we had. I look forward to having all of you see it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Wait That Rabbit… Was it in His Hat The Entire Time?

Magic can neither be created nor destroyed. True or False? False. Magic can always be created and destroyed. Magic is illusion and when the curtain subsides and the reality is revealed, the magic loses it's power. It falters and becomes something less than even normal. The first time you see the sham behind the curtains, you feel a loss. A loss of your imagination, of perhaps something greater than you. It's shattering, its akin to the loss of childhood, of the carefree subreality that we search for long after we are all grown up. 

Films are magic. There are explosions and beautiful moment encoded in one another to create this surreal life that can only be measured in magical terms. No matter how realistic a film is there's always something magical about it. At least the good ones. There are extravagant battle scenes and rainstorms that you might have never seen. Things that you may have once imagined as a child. Good films have enough realism to fool the adults into believing in the magic that they create. 

Superhero films and fantastical films in the recent years have exceeded every budget limitation that one can think of. How is it that they get away with it? You can have a scene with lightning and no rain to signify a storm, or you can have both. Why would a studio waste money to go for both. Well, simple, it creates another world, adds another dimension. It's like asking why the magician pulls out a row of handkerchiefs instead of maybe a dozen. It enhances the illusion. It hides the magician better. And it gives life a tint of surrealism. 

No one needs to know the grueling hours of work on a set, or the countless retakes. As long as there is that one perfect take that will get the right emotional reaction out of the audience. To capture that perfect moment when everything comes together and ignites on screen. That is the illusion of film. It's breathtakingly magical, in a way life most of the time falters. There are unimaginable amount of people and illusions being perpetrated during filming and post so the audience may experience it without a single hiccup. 

So next time you go to the movies and do the film world a favor. Just breathe in and breathe out all your knowledge of film making and behind the scenes. Enjoy the illusion for what it is and the film making community would be grateful to you for your participation in the act.