Monday, December 6, 2010

Too Much for Berlin?

For many filmmakers, the film festival rejection letter is very familiar. It usually includes some florid language about how many great films they've received, how few time slots they have, and how agonizing their decision was to cut your film out of the running. The cliches are carefully constructed so as not to reveal anything at all about what they actually think of the film. It leaves filmmakers with the self-destructive task of second-guessing every decision they made. Every shot, angle, cut, etc. becomes suspect.
I am not immune to this line of reasoning. In fact, I've become a bit of a pro. In the long wait between the film's submission and the festival's decision, I've watched "A Modest Suggestion" numerous times, each time taking careful note of all the tiny problems that only a director would notice and filing them away somewhere in the back of my mind. When news came this morning that the Berlin International Film Festival will not select "A Modest Suggestion" this year, that nit-picked list came to mind, a devilish reassurance that I shouldn't be disappointed by foregone conclusions.
That is how it usually goes. The optimist in me submits a film, the masochistic pessimist prepares in advance to justify rejection. But this time, things are different.
"A Modest Suggestion" is a film about anti-Semitism. The kind of anti-Semitism that swept through Germany barely a lifetime ago. In this case, could there be a reason beyond my self-assessed list-of-doom? Is the film... perhaps... too much for Berlin?
I don't want to dwell on German cultural sensitivities. Having never been to that country, I am just about the least reliable analyst of its tastes and anxieties. That said, what does it mean for a film about anti-Semitism to be "too much" for anybody?
I typically hear the phrase "that film was too much for me" or its shorter cousin, "that was too much!" in reference to violence, gore, and other forms of extreme deviance on screen. For many of us, seeing people getting ripped to shreds on screen is a difficult, unpleasant experience (even though we know it's fake!) Why is it unpleasant? I'm sure there are film theorists who have approached this question before. I've been out of college for a few years, and haven't kept up with the world of film criticism as much as I would have liked, so I'll venture a few suggestions of my own here (with apologies to anyone who has already come up with this stuff before me).
First, there's the obvious: When we lead our daily lives, we typically don't see dismemberments or decapitations. I imagine most of us don't see much physical violence at all. Maybe a scuffle outside a bar now and again? The sight is disturbing because it's unusual -- it's strange, it deviates from our understanding of the world in a way that clearly doesn't bode well for those of us who like our limbs right where they are. Of course, seeing people flying in movies is lots of fun, and that certainly deviates from our understanding of the world. There's a cinema secret here: We love to see optimistic visions of an alternative to our reality, but we're uncomfortable with pessimistic visions of it.
So, why do we still see (and in some cases love) so many films with brutal death, destroyed societies, worlds ruled by robots, etc.? Many of those stories (especially those adhering to Hollywood's narrative sensibilities) always set up those worlds in opposition to what they could be. There is always some sort of hope, some sense of the cinematic world's "upward mobility". Even if there isn't a 'happy ending', we are at least presented with a word of warning, one which (if heeded) will prevent our real world from degrading to become like that of the film.
That leads me to my second thought on the question: We are repulsed by extreme deviance on screen because it is precisely not extreme deviance. Somehow, when we see a bloody dismemberment on screen, or a horrible dis-figuration, we see something real, a hint of our own fragility. Often, these moments pass quickly, moments in a battle. We are reminded not only of how fragile we are, but of how forgettable we are. Godzilla rampages, and no one really cares about the thousands of people crushed by his awkward feet. If we see them, in gory detail, getting crushed, we are forced to remember them, and forced to remember that we don't care, and that if we were there, crushed by the monster's feet, who would care about us? Deviant images come in other forms, of course (and much of it is defined as 'deviant' by culture's expectations). Sexual perversion (and in some cases, merely sexual explicitness) can make people uncomfortable because it may express things whose expression 'polite' society prohibits. We don't want to admit to being human, and therefore subject to all sorts of desires and thoughts that are beyond our control. When we see those expressed on screen, it can sometimes feel like a mockery of our self-control.
These two approaches to understanding our aversion to extreme images and scenes in movies may seem to contradict each other. We don't like them because they are alien to us and because they remind us of ourselves? But I think that is precisely what may be happening with "A Modest Suggestion" in Berlin.
In the film's first few minutes, a character poses the question, "Should we, or should we not... kill the Jews?" In a culture that has worked so hard to grapple with its own history of extreme anti-Semitism, this very question does more than just raise eyebrows. In Germany, the merest hint of anti-Semitism is dealt with in the most severe terms. Such a blatant question is truly alien to contemporary German society. This very line, though, paraphrases a critical moment in German history, calling to mind not only the Wannsee Conference, but the almost scientific developments of Germany's anti-Semitic policies that led up to the Holocaust. But the strength of the film is not just that it is a reminder of a painful past. We are all guilty of framing our understanding of the world in categorical terms. In this very note, I talk of "Germans" as if they are all cut from the same mold, a string of blond-haired, blue-eyed gingerbread men. We have to talk this way, because it is how we learn. We see a pattern repeated once or twice, and extrapolate from that an impression of the whole. What happened to Jews in Germany could happen again anywhere, even in Germany, unless we learn to be self-critical, to acknowledge the coarseness of the definitions we create.
Bigotry is human. It is an extreme expression of the flawed way in which we understand the world. All too often, I've seen mechanical, robotic attempts to overcome bigotry. Celebrities such as Mel Gibson or notable personalities like Helen Thomas are told to keep their mouths shut. "They shouldn't have said that!" I hear. If this is the way Americans react to bigotry, I can only imagine that the censorship is more severe in Germany. But it doesn't change anything. To the bigot, the thoughts remain, and there is no one around to say "no, that's not true. That's a ridiculous statement." A Modest Suggestion attempts to do just that: to undermine bigotry by revealing the fundamental illogic at its core. I had hoped that the film would be welcomed in Germany, but perhaps there is still too much anxiety. Perhaps there is still too much stock put in silencing anti-Semites, rather than in educating them, or at the very least, undermining the foundations of their bigoted opinions. I can only guess. Perhaps someone will respond to this with alternative ideas? For now, I'm left to contemplate the festival's response to "A Modest Suggestion", and to wonder, "Was it too much for Berlin?"

Saturday, November 27, 2010

So what’s going on with our film now?

Fans & friends are asking: “Where and when can we see A MODEST SUGGESTION? What’s going on with it now?” Well, here’s the route we’ve planned. We submitted the film to two big film festivals. If the film is accepted, we’ll work with distributors to decide where and how they will distribute the film. Only then we will know how and where it will be shown. I would guesstimate that our film will be available to rent or purchase by mid-2011. Of course we will keep you updated as information becomes available. - Israel Orange

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Modest Suggestion -Composer’s Perspective

Composing the music for “A Modest Suggestion” was an absolute joy!
My involvement began with my friend director Arnon Shorr. I had worked with Arnon in the past on a short film project, and we had kept in contact over the last few years. When he told me some months ago that he was considering doing a feature film, I immediately expressed my interest in scoring his project. Well, one day I finally got the okay from Arnon to do the score, and now I am very proud that my name and music is attached to this project.

Arnon had in mind to give the soundtrack a “Spanish feel.” I immediately sought out my friend Richard Peterson who is an extremely talented and versatile guitarist who can play Spanish style guitar with aplomb.
I used some of Richard’s improvisations as a “foundation” to work with on some of the tracks, and then I composed other tracks without the guitar based sounds. I think the results satisfied Arnon’s vision for the music, and “marries” to the film nicely.

The Composing Process:

I received the script a few weeks before the actual shoot, and began to compose some Spanish-themed material based on certain scenes from the script. This particular way of composing for film is not that unique; sometimes composers get a cut of the film to work with, or, we receive the script prior to the filming like I did, or, sometimes it’s a little of both. Besides composing themes based on the script alone as scenes were being shot and edited, I then received a 20 minute cut of a portion of the film to work with. A few days later I received the “locked picture” cut of the entire film. Naturally, I had to find the places where the pre existing music cues that I wrote would fit in, as well as write some new cues based on my receipt of the balance of the film.
This was accomplished in a very compressed time schedule because the film was shot in 9 days after 98 pages of script, and then had to be edited, sound mixed, and pressed as a DVD for entry in the Berlinale Film Festival in Germany, just a few short days after the shoot was finished!

It was definitely crunch time!

As I had completed portions of the score, I forwarded the music to Arnon for his approval. He was reassuringly complimentary and supported me all the way. When a director likes a composer’s work, there is nothing better.

The film is now in the very capable hands of Executive Producer Mark Jaffee who is in Berlin to promote our film.

I wish Mark and the rest of the production team the best of luck with this very important and timely film.

“A Modest Suggestion” will go places!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Aaah! We're talking like the script!

Earlier today, Mark revealed that he's now asking for "a picture of the landscape" from people.

Since we started rehearsals, it has been hard not to fall in to the back-and-forth rhythms of Ken Kaissar's fabulous and quirky dialog.

It seems the bug is spreading: I'm uploading a large file, the completed locked picture, for the composer to use as a guide when creating our music. It's taking a long time, so I sent him an email to let him know. This was his response:

A)That makes a lot of sense, can't slow down the upload.
B) Oh sure, he's right.
C) He is?
D) Of course he is, these things take time.
A) Yes, he's right; and time is important. I mean after all, all we have is time.
B) Exactly.
C) 100% right.
D) So what do we do now.
C) Donuts?
D) Oh sure, eating donuts is a great time passer.
C) Right.
D) Donuts it is.
A) Good.

Thanks, Leon!
-Arnon Shorr

Monday, October 18, 2010

30 pages in two days... again!

Today, our seventh shoot day, we wrapped another grueling pair of days. They were challenges, but they were planned challenges, and we beat the odds.

Some background: The general rule of thumb, I am told, is that Hollywood movies aim to cover two to three pages of a script in their average shoot day. Television shows, which have a cumulative running time that far exceeds a typical film's two hours, tend to shoot faster, covering six, sometimes eight script pages a day.

Sheer financial necessity often forces independent productions to cover more ground in less time. Actors, crew, equipment and facilities often charge by the week or by the day, making each additional production day an instantly expensive proposition. "A Modest Suggestion", for example, which is scripted just short of one hundred pages, was scheduled for ten shoot days, roughly ten pages per day. This turned out to be merely an average -- some days would require much more of our cast and crew.

We had set ourselves up with an additional challenge: we had scheduled a lengthy, difficult scene for our first and second shoot days. On top of that, our second day included an additional scene at a different location (which means the cast and crew showed up in one place, shot for a while, then re-located en-mass to our studio). We had roughly thirty pages to cover.

The first days of a shoot are notoriously unstable. Talented people in numerous disciplines are thrown together, often for the first time, in an attempt to create meticulously detailed puzzle pieces, the individual shots that will eventually combine to form a motion picture. Everyone has their own way of doing their job, and their own expectations of how everyone else should do theirs. It can be a challenge on any production, and it usually means the going is slow, sometimes flawed, and often frustrating.

We had our fair share of frustrations on our first day. For me, a lot of it involved learning the rhythms of such a large, compartmentalized crew. I also had to learn how to communicate my careful planning to the crew and production team -- my storyboards and shot lists have made production move very smoothly, but on day one, I still hadn't figured out how to express my meticulous plans to the people around me who needed to understand them. By lunch, we had fallen behind schedule significantly, and I was instructed that I'd have to speed things up.

I tweaked the shot list frantically during our lunch break. When we were called back on the set, I felt the tension mount as the lights went up, the camera rolled in to position, and the microphones swung over the actors' heads. The shot list was organized a bit better, and the cast and crew seemed to have a better sense of each others' patterns and needs. Perhaps lunch had helped them all relax in to the job? Somehow, we got very close to completing our shots that day. We had fallen behind, and we pushed an hour in to overtime, but we got close.

That night, I sat down with our first assistant director to review what remained of our scene. There was a lot left to cover, and we'd only have half a day to cover it, since there was that other location shoot in the morning. We shuffled, tweaked, and shifted shots around, trying to figure out the most efficient order in which to get what we needed. We came up with a new shot list and called it a night.

The next day, on the set, as actors pulled in, and as the crew started rigging their gear, I frantically hacked at the shot list, changing and shuffling our shooting order again and again, continuing to streamline the day's plan.

On set, the team seemed better prepared for the day. By know, they had gone through a busy day together, and had learned a lot about each other. The first day was like oil in the joints, making day 2 flow very smoothly. Needless to say, we caught ourselves up and finished shooting that big scene by the time we wrapped our second day. In those two days, we had covered roughly thirty pages.

It's easy to credit the shot list for something like this. Shot lists require discipline and organization, but not much art. Here's roughly how it works:

A movie or scene is composed of all sorts of shots -- individual camera angles that combine to convey a narrative. Think of the typical movie conversation between two characters. You start out seeing both of them talking. Then, you see one of them, saying something. Then, you cut to the other one, responding. Cut back to the first, with a retort, and back to the second, with a reaction. You might think that movies are shot like that, too: first, the wide shot of both actors, then a shot of one, saying one thing, then a shot of the other, saying the next thing, then back to the first actor, and so on. If we worked that way, we'd still be shooting that first day's scene. You see, every time you move the camera, you've got to worry about the lights, the set, continuity, etc. Everything has to be re-set, moved, turned around, or fixed up. It takes a while. Instead of working this way, most filmmakers will try to group the shots they get together. If, in our example, we get all of the first character's lines and reactions, then reset our camera just once for the other character's lines and reactions, we've only had to re-set things once, but we've got the same amount of footage.

That's the basic principle of shot-listing, as I see it. If the camera is pointed somewhere, you might as well get every possible shot you'll need from that angle before you move the camera somewhere else. Since the scenes in "A Modest Suggestion" are very long, and involve four or five characters moving a lot through the set, the shot-listing was complicated, and often required combining moments from the beginning of a scene with moments that take place ten minutes later, at the scene's conclusion. Jumping back and forth across these scenes is not easy, and that's one of the places we got lucky.

Our actors have been absolutely incredible. Their careful preparations gave them such a keen understanding of their characters and of their scenes that they could almost instantly glide in to and out of each moment. They may try to be modest about it, but their preparations paid off. The shot list was arranged in such a way that we didn't have to reset the cameras, but that would have been meaningless if it had taken us ten minutes to remind the actors of how their characters should behave and interact every time we jumped across a scene. Because of their preparation, the shot list worked.

The crew was also fantastic, especially once I learned how to communicate my shot list to them. There are still a few kinks to iron out, but at this point, it doesn't take two minutes for me to explain a shot before the camera is moved, the lights adjusted, and the sound team brainstorms the best microphone placement. Once we're up for a shot, we're up for everything else that needs to be shot from that position -- that sequence of shots is called a setup. The shot list makes it possible to get through setups quickly, but the crew is the bridge from one setup to the next. The shot list reduces the number of times we have to reset the camera, but when we do, the crew makes that process flow like water.

Now that we are a week in to the production, it happened again. We just wrapped another 30-page pair of shoot days. This time around, our shot list was more carefully refined -- I had been working on it with the 1st Assistant Director since late last week. The actors were even better prepared, having worked together in character for what adds up to roughly half the movie. And the crew, of course, had become a family -- a very functional family!

So, with two shoot days to go, I am already looking back at what we've accomplished with a great deal of pride. 30 pages in two days is an enormous accomplishment, and we've done it twice. Don't let anyone tell you it's impossible! But don't try it without careful preparation, or without a brilliant, hard-working, dedicated team at your side.

-Arnon Shorr

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day 4

So far so good, actually amazing! We’ve been now on the set for four days, not straight because we had one day off on Wed, and today we completed day four of shooting! Being on a set of a feature film and living the motion with such nice people is almost like having a new family. It’s not a job; it’s not a vacation, nor a hello and bye at the local supermarket, but an experience. A production team works like a functional body; everyone has its productivity task and makes sure the final product is special and perfect. For me, these are good days, and days to remember.
– Israel Orange (Producer’s Perspective)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Mountain Climbed - By Israel Orange, Producer

Often, after watching a film I would wonder, what is the magic of film that creates a masterpiece? What makes a film so special? I can NOT say I have a clear answer to that yet, but what I do know after working tirelessly on our film is that a ginormous amount of work goes into every single film, every single minute of every single scene, every single frame; lots of effort, time, finances, meetings, people, artists, thoughts, props, heart, blood & soul, go into every second of every piece of footage shot. Eight months ago, I sat with Arnon (director) talking about this project, wondering, how in the world can we make this happen? How can we cross this humongous bridge with only a dream? Is it really possible? How can it be done? We sat together for hours, day after day, sipped LOTS of coffee, tea and chocolate milk, and planed endlessly, creating a budget, a time frame, a schedule; modifying, revising, clarifying, pushing meeting after meeting, not relenting! By every means, it was not an easy process and no easy task. But today I felt proud; a feeling that was gripping. Literally! Today, as I watched Arnon for the first time on the set, sitting with these amazing actors, in the boardroom, directing this new film, I had a sense of calm, a feeling of awe, knowing that every minute, every meeting, and every effort that went into this project was so truly worth it. These are really exciting days for me! – Israel Orange, Producer.

Reflections: Day One

Things are running like clockwork. Here's how I know:

Yesterday, we did a "tech scout" ("tech recce" is another term for it), basically me visiting our locations with the DP, AD, producer, making sure we have a sense of how to tackle them when the time comes.

Our office hallway location was nice, but there were stirrings of trouble. By the time we got home from the trip, an email awaited us: the major Jewish association that owns the building and that coordinates the financing for the organizations housed therein decided they didn't want to have anything to do with our film, so, we can't shoot there.

You'd think a major Jewish organization would be interested in supporting Jewish artists, especially when those artists are tackling such important subjects as anti-Semitism and bigotry. But no, they didn't want to make waves. Fine.

What does this have to do with us running like clockwork?

Today, I showed up on the set for our first rehearsal. The actors arrived, and we got started. We worked 'til lunch, took a break, and worked some more, refining and polishing the lively banter that characterizes so much of this film. Eventually, five o'clock rolled by. Actors went home, and things got quiet.

I sat down with our DP, Rich Waganer, and with our production coordinator, Stacie Jones Gentzler, to talk through the day. While I was working with the actors, they were busily discussing solutions to our location problem. They presented me with options, we picked one, and that was that!

Losing a location just days before the shoot can be very hard to recover from for a little indie film. Since we've got so much of the project's needs already lined-up, and since we have the right people on board, ready to tackle any challenge the moment it presents itself, we were able to recover very quickly, without missing a beat. For me, the amazing revelation is that I didn't really have to do anything. I could trust my producer, my production coordinator, and the rest of the team to step in and solve the problem while I was busy with the rehearsals themselves.

I've never been able to pull myself away from parts of a production like that before. Making short films, I've always had to wear every hat, and to be the chief troubleshooter for every department (mostly because there weren't really departments, just well-meaning folks lending a hand). This isn't to belittle all the fantastic people I've worked with before, of course! It's just that somehow, here, our team seems to have formed in such a way that everyone can independently work to support the production. People are solving problems, troubleshooting, addressing issues, and making things happen without too much of a push from the top. The best part is, we seem to all be making the same movie.

I couldn't ask for anything more from my team. I'm looking forward to the collaborative adventure that the next few weeks have in store.

-Arnon Shorr

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On the Verge

As we creep closer and closer to the start of production, I've been doing my best to keep a level head about everything. I don't want to get too excited -- the movie isn't a movie yet, and it won't be a movie for a while. There's still lots of work to be done before we get to that point.

But, yesterday, I had a brief emotional moment when I walked in to the studio. The set, its walls built up, its paint dry, with some pieces of furniture already in place, looked fantastic. What's more, it looked like all the sketches, models and diagrams that have been floating around my apartment for the past several months. When I walked in to that set for the first time, I couldn't contain the sense that 'this is really happening'.

There's something very powerful about building and shooting in a set. So far, almost everything I've worked on has involved shooting on-location, with minimal adjustments to the rooms being used. Now, for the first time, I've been able to dictate the dimensions and demeanor of the space, and through that, of the film itself. I determined (with help, of course), the colors (which are very intentional, and meant to go entirely un-noticed), the shapes, the very furnishings of the space that encompasses so much of this story. I won't know 'til the film is ready if I've done it right, but it's thrilling to know that on this film, more than any I've shot before, will consist entirely of products of the combined imaginations of my team -- products that I need to coordinate for the screen.

Tomorrow, when the actors step in to that space for their first rehearsal, I'll really get a taste of what I've been preparing for all these months. Think I'll be on cloud 9? It'll be far below me. But of course, there's more work to be done. It's not a movie yet!


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Confined Spaces (thanks Scott Feinberg!)

Since I began pursuing this project, I've been warned many times that a film like this runs the risk of coming across as 'staged' or 'theatrical' -- I've been encouraged to expand it to new locations, to write in new scenes, to take it much more outside the boardroom. My friend, Scott Feinberg, an industry analyst and guru behind just noted that this year in particular, there are quite a few highly-regarded films that take place in confined or claustrophobic spaces. I feel like I'm in good company!

Of course, looking at the careers of successful filmmakers, their first films are rarely large-scale, multi-location spectacles. Their films tend to be confined in some way. Lumet's "12 Angry Men" is an obvious one to look at, but also Spielberg's "Duel" (which put him on the map) takes place on a desert highway (sure, they move a lot, but the car and the truck really don't change setting at all). The economics of this are interesting in their own right, but I think the real secret is that these are films that really test their filmmakers. You can't just shoot your way through a dull scene and hope to cut to the next location quickly, before the audience gets bored. You have to make every shot, every angle, every moment count. That's really one of the things I've found so thrilling about "A Modest Suggestion".

Anyway, we'll see if Scott adds "AMS" to his list next year...

-Arnon Shorr

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bio – Ken Kaissar (The Writer)

Ken Kaissar was born in Ramat Gan, Israel. When he was three years old, his family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he developed a precocious understanding of the term “Red State.”

He received a BFA in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University, and an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. After college, Ken spent a few years directing plays in various festivals such as The Women’s Center Stage Festival at The Culture Project and the American Globe Theatre’s Festival of New Plays. He also directed a new production of Ibsen’s A DOLL HOUSE along with a handful of other new plays.

Finally, in 2002 he started devoting more of his time to playwriting. His adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s THE CANTERBURY TALES was commissioned by Columbia University and premiered in 2008, and his ten-minute play CEASEFIRE (about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) was a regional winner in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. His other plays include, THE MAN STANLEY, THE VICTIMS OR WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO ABOUT IT, RECIPROCAL VELOCITY (finalist in the Ashland New Plays Festival and the Texas Non-Profit Theatre Production of Original Plays Contest under the title CREATIVITY), and NUDE STUDY. Ken now resides in Yardley, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy. He is an adjunct professor of theatre at Rider University, Neumann University and Stockton College.

Through the experience of promoting A MODEST SUGGESTION, Ken has learned that he gets the best results when he uses the pseudonym Moshe Feinblum.

How A Modest Suggestion Came To Be - Ken Kaissar

One day in playwriting class, my teacher was explaining that a writer’s work should reflect their philosophy towards life. In other words, by reading someone’s writing, we should understand how that writer understands the world in which they live. Do they think people are intrinsically good or evil? Are they conservative or liberal? Pessimistic or optimistic? Materialistic or hedonistic? Are they for abortion, or pro-life? Socialized health care, or capitalist health care?

And in this laundry list of possible views that could be reflected in a writer’s work, he said, “Should we kill the Jews, or should we not kill the Jews.”

My teacher of course was intentionally raising an absurd question to make a point. He is in no way anti-Semitic, but is actually quite passionate about people from all backgrounds. But he was trying to exaggerate the sick and twisted thoughts that lurk in people’s minds. I think he was trying to help us tap into our dark side. Everybody knows that great writing comes out of a writer’s dark subconscious mind.

But in that moment, my mind stayed on that terrifying question: “Should we or should we not kill the Jews?”

I started to imagine a scene in a corporate board room in which four executives engage in a cold and calculated cost-benefit analysis to see if it’s actually beneficial and cost effective to kill the Jews.

I intended the scene to go on for about ten minutes. Ten minutes became twenty. And at the end of the first scene, I decided, “okay, now we have to see them interact with a Jew.” And then I thought, wouldn’t it be “funny” (that’s the sick and twisted part) if they decided that this Jew isn’t Jewish enough. And the piece quickly became a statement on ethnic identity, and what it really means to belong to a people, in this case the Jewish People.

A Modest Suggestion is not just an absurdist look at genocide and bigotry, but also a statement on what it means to be a Jew. Or, to put it in a more universal way, what it means to belong to any nationality or ethnicity.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

SketchUp and Storyboarding

I've been using SketchUp as a tool for storyboarding on this project. It's my first attempt at storyboarding anything without actually drawing each frame by hand. Initially, I considered keeping the entire process digital, exporting individual images from my 3D model of the set for each shot in the film, creating a digital sequence that would serve as a sort of animatic. That process was a bit of a flop. If there was a button I could press that would basically snap a photo of my view in SketchUp and save it as a sequentially-numbered image file (perhaps with the option of adding some notes?) that might have worked out better, but as things go, it's such a tedious process to align each shot, and to save each individual file.

Instead of this, I devised a hybrid method that combines my tried-and-true pencil-and-paper method with the promise of digital previsualization.

First, I sat down with the script and devised a general visual approach to each act of the narrative. This "lens plot" (inspired by Sidney Lumet's approach, described in his wonderful book, "Making Movies") served as a guideline for what shots I would or would not include in a given scene.

Second, I took that "lens plot" and used SketchUp to create most of the shots that I would use -- in this instance, medium shots, wide shots, shots with very few angles. I made about ten or twelve image files, and printed them all, nine images to a page. I cut these out and arranged them in stacks.

Third, I storyboarded. Instead of drawing a shot by hand, I grabbed a picture from a pile and taped it on to my storyboarding page. I wrote in notes, drew in arrows for camera movements, and folded the little papers to form tighter shots.

Aside from the obvious benefit to my writing hand, this process had an aesthetic impact, and will have a logistical impact as well.

By having before me a limited array of shots, I was 'forced' to tell the story from a limited number of vantage points. Rather than confining me, this limitation allowed me to approach the scene more fluidly -- every available shot is part of a broader scheme, so, in a way, any shot I choose would be "correct". I didn't have to worry so much about whether a shot would fit in the scene's context. I only had to focus on the way each shot related to its immediate context, and to the character and the moment.

The logistical impact may be obvious -- by limiting my choices of camera angles, I'm also limiting the number of setups that will be necessary on the set. This will give us more time to focus on performances, and the nuances of camera position, lighting, sound, etc.

Now that the first act is storyboarded, I've got to think about how to approach the 2nd and 3rd acts. They involve more movement, both in terms of the characters and in terms of the camera. Will this approach work for these more fluid scenes? I'm not entirely sure yet, but I'll find out soon...

-Arnon Shorr
Director, "A Modest Suggestion"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Competition?

There are people in Turkey spending $10M on an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel action film (the latest in a series, actually).

Politics aside, this is scary stuff. The earlier "Valley of Wolves" film, released this past January, is little more than a contemporary rehash of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", using modern-day Israel as a thin metaphor for the Jews in that anti-Semitic text. The Mossad kidnaps Turkish children in order to convert them to Judaism? Are you kidding me?

(Thanks to Rafi Farber for bringing this to my attention!)
-Arnon Shorr

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Book's Cover

It's early yet to be discussing promotional graphics, but brand identity is important, so we're discussing it.

We're looking for feedback on our Man-in-a-Chair graphic. Who does it reach? Who gets it? Who doesn't? Is it effective? Is it flat? Is it dynamic? How should it change?

Mark, our executive producer, is an absolute expert in the marketing world. Since I am not, I'm looking to get a broader perspective on this design, to see if there are folks out there who can help me look at it through a different set of eyes.

So, what do you think?


Friday, August 13, 2010

Our set, as per "SketchUp"

They say "seeing is believing"

My previous experiences in the director's chair have all been "on location". Even when I'd work in a studio space, I'd be working with it as a studio space -- in other words, I've never had a set built for a film.

For "A Modest Suggestion", we're building a set. It's an exciting prospect, to have that kind of creative control over the space these characters will inhabit, but it presents some interesting creative challenges.

In the past, whenever I wanted to get a feel for a space, I could usually just walk in and look around. Right now, the set is just a schematic -- there is no room to enter, there are no walls to look at, and even if there were, they're not painted the right colors yet.

If I can't see the set, how will I plan what you will all see in the film?

To tackle this new challenge, I've employed several tools. I created a three-dimensional scale model of the set in Google's "SketchUp" software. That has been my primary planning tool. In the software, I've even set the "angle of view" to match our camera's widest setting, and I've maneuvered the screen size to match the 1.85:1 aspect ratio we'll be using for the shoot.

It's a neat start, but it's not enough.

Our production designer, the multi-talented Smadar Livne, built a scale model of the set out of foam board paint, tape and maybe a little glue. She even built little tables and bookshelves for it! The physical model will come in handy when we start to talk about where everyone goes and how to fit people and equipment in the space. I've even been tempted to set it up with stuffed animals and take photos with my cell phone to mimic some of our shots, just to see if I could use it as a 'sandbox' of sorts in which to play with possibilities.

As I type this, my printer is humming away, printing small images I snapped from the "SketchUp" model. I got medium shots and medium-wide shots of all the characters -- these are the angles I'll predominantly use in the film's first act -- and I'm printing them out right now. They're printing nine to a page. I'll cut them out, and use them as little templates that I can tape directly in to a storyboard. Luckily, the little 3D people in my model don't have faces, so I can draw those in based on what the shot calls for.

In the end, all I need is to be able to see the film in my mind's eye before we get to the set. If I can do that, using all of these tools, and if I can organize my vision in to a coherent, orderly shot list, we'll breeze through production in no time. That's the plan, at least...

-Arnon Shorr

Monday, August 9, 2010

Should we... or should we not?

What’s so funny about anti-Semitism? From Mel Brooks to Quentin Tarantino, filmmakers have sought to explore the wildly funny and the darkly comedic sides of the 20th century’s definitive genocide. Some used it to mock the perpetrators (“The Producers”), while others used it as a mode of cultural revenge (“Inglourious Basterds”). Some used comedy to celebrate the human spirit that could triumph over such darkness (“Life is Beautiful”), and some used it to help an entire culture grapple with its own difficult past (as in a slew of German films since “Goebbels and Geduldig” aired in 2002).
What about “A Modest Suggestion”? This film, based on Ken Kaissar’s fantastic play, cuts to the heart of the matter: genocide is funny because it doesn’t make sense. Kaissar’s corporate characters, who begin with the question “should we or should we not kill the Jews”, quickly find themselves questioning stereotypes and struggling with the very question of Jewish identity. When they can’t come up with a good reason, they come up with a bad one. What starts as a logical conversation devolves in to a jumble of emotion and intellectual laziness.
That’s what makes “A Modest Suggestion” so unique. It addresses not the criminals, nor the crimes, but the pseudo-philosophizing that ‘justifies’ hatred, bigotry and murder. I am not aware of any films that have examined this so directly or creatively as Ken’s work. That is a big part of what thrills me about bringing “A Modest Suggestion” to the screen.

So, can a depiction of anti-Semitism's central question function as a satirical critique of itself? You know what I think -- what do you think?


Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Casting, the Characters, and Counting the Cents

How do you cast a comedy about anti-Semitism?

I'll have an answer to this question one of these days. For now, I'm content to simply let the question linger.

We're currently in the midst of a meticulous casting process, involving web-based auditions, as well as a thorough casting session through Baltimore's Betsy Royall Casting. I've seen some outstanding auditions, and if I had to decide on a cast now, I think the result would be a team of actors I'd be honored to work with.

That said, things aren't 'perfect' yet. On one hand, they'll never be perfect. There's no such thing. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to cast a wider net.

Since there's still time, Mark (our Executive Producer) suggested we open up auditions to actors in New York. It'll be my first time tapping such a major production market for talent, so the idea is very exciting. Casting out-of-town actors has its price, of course, but I doubt we'll find ourselves filling every role with a New Yorker, especially considering how much I like some of the local guys. That said, the penny-pinching, money-conscious producer in me has some reservations.

Either way, we'll see how it goes. By this time next week, I imagine I'll have some very new perspectives on this stage of the process.

-Arnon Shorr

Controversial Film to Shoot in Baltimore

Exciting, would be an understatement for the film I’m currently producing, A Modest Suggestion.

I remember back in February 2010, Arnon Shorr, (who will be directing and who is co producing) called and asked me to view a script he just read. Into the first few pages, I smiled, then laughed, and then laughed some more, when I was done reading, I just had to read it all over again, and laughed more.  

I called Arnon back, and before I got to say hello, he said, “so, what do you think?”, “I absolutely love this script,” I yelled out! It’s amazing! What an explosive masterpiece!"

After I calmed down, Arnon asked me, so, are you ready to make this into a feature film? And I remember looking at the phone, thinking, did he just say what I really thought he said?!

And cameras roll in 53 days!

--Israel M. Orange, Producer