Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Producer's List - Part One

A producer's responsibilities are many and varied, regardless of what medium they are working in, whether they are producing a film, television series, or an art exhibit. Producers must macro- and micro-manage, overseeing the big details - assembling the people, the places, the how and the when - and they must also look out for the small detail specifics, planning for every potential Murphy's Law disaster, allowing nothing to slip through the cracks along the way.

From conception to completion, a producer's responsibilities are all-encompassing.

While attending NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, majoring in film and television production with a minor in producing, I produced a number of student films. Through my varied experiences, and often thanks to trial and error, I've gathered up quite an extensive list of the dos and don'ts of independent film production, the must-not-forgets for anyone who finds themselves as the head of production on a shoot where if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Many of these bullet points are especially paramount when producing in a big city like New York with more rules and regulations and parking tickets than item lines in the budget.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that part one of this list has to do largely with transportation concerns. Driving and parking in NYC on a normal basis is a bitch, but dealing with the needs, size, and limitations of production vehicles on top of everything else is a bloody nightmare.
  • When working with oversized production vehicles, from cargo vans to 24' cube trucks, be aware of the weight, height and width restrictions on city streets, bridges, and tunnels. If your vehicle is 12' tall, you need an alternate route not involving the 11' high tunnel. Do the math.
  • Keep a list of all of the parking lots or garages able to accommodate your vehicle and know their hours of operation and restrictions. Be sure to make reservations in advance if the lots are likely to fill up fast. Have plenty of cash on hand - parking is often more costly than the vehicle rental.
  • In NYC, commercial vehicles are not allowed to park on residential streets overnight. As far as parking tickets are concerned, a vehicle is commercial if it has a commercial license plate or visible lettering on the vehicle's sides, advertising a service. Even if you rent a U-Haul truck for a personal reason, the truck is considered commercial. If your move (or movie) takes more than one day, be aware of legal parking around your residence.
  • It's near-impossible to find legal street-side parking for a compact car in Manhattan, much less legal parking for production vehicles. It's a good idea to pad your production vehicle budget to account for the price of parking and gas - but also the expense of parking tickets. You're bound to get at least one. Those meter maids are merciless.
  • Map Quest driving directions are misleading, especially estimates for how long it actually takes to get anywhere within city limits. Always account for rush hour traffic, road construction, traffic accidents, getting lost, and finding parking. And then some.
  • Leaving anything of value in production vehicles overnight or unattended is taking a big risk. Insurance won't cover theft or damage deemed to be the result of neglect (aka: leaving shit in the van), so if your equipment in stolen, you'll likely be in for more than the deductible, but for the replacement value of everything that's ended up on the underground Panasonic, Kodak, and Arri black market.
  • While the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, & Broadcasting can secure permits for parking and for shooting on city-owned property for your production (all you need is insurance and permission), the smaller your production, the fewer parking laws you are able to ignore and the less traffic you can interfere with - pedestrian or vehicular. Parking permits are only available for production vehicles, not for personal use.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Beowulf in 3-D

I went to see Beowulf in 3-D for $9 at a theater in Louisiana (about half the price of New York tickets!), and I was surprised to see that the theater had posted a sign stating that Beowulf, officially rated PG-13 by the MPAA, was not recommended for viewers under the age of 17.

PG-13 - Parents strongly cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
According to the MPAA, there's no mention of "17" at all. I was understandably confused by this bizarre movie math formula the theater had apparently invented:

PG-13 + (3-D) x $9 = 17 (??)

Of course I will attest that while the 2-D version of Beowulf may have belonged to the realm of PG-13, watching the film in 3-D gave the intensity of the violence a whole other dimension - pun intended. Although the third dimension is nothing more than an optical illusion, it is an illusion that amplifies the immediacy of the violence, allowing the action sequences to pack more of a visceral punch. The monster Grendel is particularly terrifying; his presence in the opening sequence is not only powerful in surround sound, but overwhelming in surround visuals. The fact that Grendel's attack on Heorot happens while our eyes are still trying to adjust to the new visual information only adds to its success. The other major battles were less intense, owing to the sometimes cartoonish animation, especially when the scenes were well-lit.

*NOTE* The 3-D amplifies more than just the violence - the mostly naked bodies of Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, and Ray Winstone (in varying degrees of hotness) are amplified here as well and several scenes may prove to be blush-worthy.

Beowulf worked well in 3-D, unfolding as an epic tale almost come to life. Although a few scenes were blatantly created to send the audience on a cheesy 3-D romp without furthering the story (i.e.: a rat climbs up to the roof of Hrothgar's hall where it is attacked by a hawk which carries its prey across the snow-covered land), for the most part the 3-D worked with the story, rather than against. I'm not sure I can say the same about the use of the motion capture CGI.

While I think that animation techniques applied to live-action performances work for trippy Linklater films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly (rotoscoping) or adaptations of illustrated children's literature such as Zemeckis' The Polar Express, it feels out of place in the epic Beowulf. With a cast featuring the likes of Hopkins, Winstone, Jolie, John Malkovich (isn't he animated enough already?), and Robin Wright Penn, and with the efforts to bring audiences closer to the story in 3-D, why distance us further from the performances with CGI?

There have been improvements in the technology over the last few years, but motion capture and CGI still fail on many points. The characters' eyes, especially Penn's and Hopkins' baby blues look hollow and unfocused, and not just because Hrothgar (Hopkins) is drunk most of the time. In the scenes that were more darkly lit - Grendel's attack, and Beowulf's encounter with the luscious, nude Jolie-demon - the CGI looked very realistic, almost as though the actors were really standing there, without the layer of animation and motion capture blue suits getting in the way. Other scenes were more cartoonish, distracting from the story, and ultimately making me wish that I was watching a "real" Anthony Hopkins stumbling around his meat hall inebriated, even if it means seeing his "real" naked rear-end in 3-D.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Juno, Classic Indie Charmer

Like Napoleon Dynamite in 2004 and Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, Juno (2007) is the little independent film that could, chugging up from oblivion and into the hearts of millions of movie goers across the nation. In classic indie fashion, Juno's slice of (slightly surreal) life is filled with quirky characters, off-beat dialogue, and a 1:1 ratio of pop culture references to minute of film.

It's impressive that an indie film about a pregnant teenager who decides to give her baby up for adoption has managed to garner major attention via word of mouth and critical acclaim, racking up a total of four Academy Award nominations (a tie with Little Miss Sunshine in 2007) - Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. How did this film, and others like it, manage to sneak past the Hollywood blockbusters and billion-dollar film franchises to infiltrate popular culture and eventually, DVD collections everywhere?

It's fun to root for the underdog, especially when the underdog is funny and charming.

In the title role, Ellen Page is a classic indie heroine: a witty fast-talker (ala Gilmore Girls), oozing with conviction, and so overflowing with cutesy colloquial slang that you're sure she's likely to burst, and not just from the baby. Yet even as she's smugly pimped out on the lawn of her would-be boyfriend, reclining in an arm chair with a pipe in hand, Page reveals Juno's vulnerability as she falters, unsure what to do and say next. She may be clever and she may be cocky, but she's just as three-dimensional as the rest of us - overwhelmed and insecure; a teenage girl who doesn't know who the hell she really is.

As a film, Juno is fairly down to earth, sticking to the feel-good comedy genre and shying away from the potential melodramatic plot lines that run amuck in most Hollywood/Lifetime "My Baby is Having a Baby" productions. The supporting cast is strong, with plenty of laughs to go around, although Ellen Page is the real standout. Some of the colloquial slang and euphemisms are fun, but Juno and her best friend Leah drop so many of them in "casual" conversation that it can be overwhelming. No real teenager talks like that all the time, no matter who they are trying to impress.

The film's most underplayed relationship, and perhaps one most deserving of recognition, is Juno and Leah's friendship. Leah is there for Juno from the beginning, acting as her confidant, passing no judgment, and supporting her through school lunches, ultrasounds, and the birth. High school can be especially hard for teenage girls (pregnant or not), and it's refreshing to see a character who actually does stick up for her best friend, despite the established peer rejection and Juno's pariah status. While Juno may be lucky to get her guy in the end, she's just as lucky to have a friend she can rely on, through pregnancy and beyond.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ode to the Buffy Musical

Last summer, I began watching the sitcom Scrubs in syndication, catching as many as four episodes per day in no particular order - season one, season four, season two, they were all funny. The series is brilliant, featuring an outstanding ensemble cast, ridiculous daydream vignettes courtesy of narrator John Dorian, and a musical episode aptly named "My Musical".

In the Scrubs musical episode, a patient at Sacred Heart hallucinates that everyone is singing and dancing around her, as though they are performing in a musical. Is she crazy or genuinely ill? Who cares! We are in for a musical treat, and the particularly ridiculous song about stool samples is bound to get stuck in your head at the most inopportune of times.
You see....
Everything comes down to poo!
From the top of your head, to the sole of your shoe
We can figure out what's wrong with you by lookin' at your poo!
As fun as "My Musical" is, it just can't compare to the ultimate televised musical spectacle, the quintessential Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "Once More, With Feeling".

Why is "Once More, With Feeling" so bloody brilliant? Let me count the ways (with bullet points!):
  • The episode was written and directed by Joss Whedon. Enough said.
  • Wait, there's more - Joss wrote the music and lyrics too!
  • Pop culture (and Broadway!) references galore.
  • There are no dubs here - the whole cast is really singing, inspiring countless fans to sing along.
  • Anya rocks out in a solo about why bunnies should be feared. (and for good reason too)
  • Buffyverse logic: singing + dancing = spontaneous combustion!
Mostly though, "Once More, With Feeling" is brilliant because it not only seamlessly weaves the reasoning behind the singing into the plot (a new demon is in town wreaking havoc, duh!), it also packs a major story arc punch with more character and plot development in 50 minutes than most series feature in entire seasons.

When the characters are forced to reveal their inner most thoughts through song, this is what we - and they - discover:
  • Buffy feels detached and discontent. Ever since coming back from the dead, she has failed to feel really alive ("Going Through the Motions").
Still I always feel
This strange estrangement
Nothing here is real
Nothing here is right
  • Anya fears bunnies - okay, not a big secret ("I've Got a Theory/Bunnies").
Bunnies aren't just cute like everybody supposes
They got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses
And what's with all the carrots
What do they need such good eyesight for anyway
  • In her love song, Tara boldly announces that she is under Willow's spell, not realizing that it's the literal truth as well as the figurative ("Under Your Spell").
I'm under your spell
How else could it be
Anyone would notice me?
  • Soon-to-be-married Anya and Xander reveal that they are full of insecurities, and like any couple, they bother the heck out of each other, foreshadowing a tragically doomed marriage attempt ("I'll Never Tell").
I lied
I said it's easy
I've tried
But there's these fears I can't quell
  • Spike's obsession with Buffy continues to grow as he encourages her to reciprocate his love, insisting he is the only one who understands her dark side ("Rest in Peace").
You're scared
Ashamed of what you feel
And you can't tell the ones you love
You know they couldn't deal
  • Dawn's excuse for becoming a klepto is that she feels ignored by the Scooby Gang, but can you really blame them? ("Dawn's Lament").
Does anybody even notice?
Does anybody even care?
  • Giles believes that he is standing in the way of Buffy's potential to fulfill her adult responsibilities, and the only way she can fully come into her own is if he skips town for good ("Standing").
The cries around you,
You don't hear at all
'Cause you know I'm here
To take that call
  • Tara discovers that Willow has used a spell to make her forget an earlier fight. Tara, already convinced that Willow is using too much magic, is heartbroken ("Under Your Spell/Standing Reprise").
Wish I could trust
That it was just this once
But I must do what I must
  • Buffy reveals that her failure to readjust/be happy is because when she was resurrected, she was ripped out of a heavenly dimension, and compared to that, living sucks ("Life's a Show").
Life's a song
You don't get to rehearse
And every single verse
Can make it that much worse
  • After the semi-successful "defeat" of the demon Sweet, the Scooby Gang feels lost and unsure, overwhelmed by all of the revelations of the episode - who wouldn't be? Meanwhile, Buffy concedes to a relationship with Spike, believing that she doesn't deserve any better ("Where Do We Go From Here").
Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear?
When we know home is near
We'll go hand in hand
But we'll walk alone in fear
Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Complete Sixth Season - $48.99

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Collector's Series - $164.99

Attending a theatrical screening of "Once More With Feeling" (ala Rocky Horror) and getting to sing along with fellow Buffy fans and Whedonites - PRICELESS.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

2008 Booklist

I love books in every way that it is possible to love books (legally, that is). I love wandering aimlessly in Barnes and Noble, drawn from spine to spine, analyzing titles and covers and back blurbs and inside jackets. I love buying books and carrying them around in my oversized purse - anywhere from one to three at a time. I love sitting (standing is more of a challenge) on the subway reading on the way to and from work, squeezed between two strangers, trying to keep my elbows tight against my sides as I flip the pages. And when I don't have books of my own, I love casually reading over the shoulder of the stranger closest to me, delighting when I discover that theirs is a book I have already read or when I eavesdrop on a particularly juicy passage.

So I find it surprising now, after having compiled my 2008 Booklist, to discover that I have never done this before. Why, if I love reading so much, have I never determined ahead of time what I will be reading next - before?

I believe the reason is that reading has always been a fluid experience for me. Although I try to read only one book at a time (more focus, fewer entangled subplots), I never really know what will strike my fancy next, after the last page has been turned. There are certain genres that I browse the most frequently - fantasy, teen fiction, novels recently adapted to film - but I never really know if I will follow an epic fantasy with a current New York Times Bestseller or wash it down with a nineteenth century classic. My shelves are regularly filled with 30-45 books I haven't read, but as I skim the covers, my fingers itching for inspiration, I'm just as likely to pick up one of those as re-read Harry Potter for the twelfth time and buy half a dozen new books next week.

Despite the problems inherent in making a list of books that are supposed to satisfy me for the next 52 weeks, I've gone ahead and made a list of 50 as a start - about half of which I already own and the rest being titles that have recently struck my fancy.

*Bolded means I actually got through them in '08!

  1. All Things Alice, Linda Sunshine
  2. All Things Oz, Linda Sunshine
  3. The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman
  4. Atonement, Ian Mcewan
  5. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  6. Belladonna, Anne Bishop
  7. The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander
  8. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
  9. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  10. Emma, Jane Austen
  11. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom
  12. Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  13. Gathering Blue, Lois Lowery
  14. A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray
  15. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J K Rowling
  16. The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler
  17. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  18. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
  19. I Am America (And So Can You!), Stephen Colbert
  20. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  21. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
  22. Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen
  23. Lucky, Alice Sebold
  24. Madeline is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
  25. Minority Report and Other Stories, Philip K Dick
  26. Mirror, Mirror, Gregory Maguire
  27. Naked Pictures of Famous People, Jon Stewart
  28. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  29. The Nanny Diaries, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
  30. The Nimrod Flipout, Etgar Keret
  31. No Plot? No Problem, Chris Baty
  32. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
  33. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  34. Rebel Angels, Libba Bray
  35. Redwall, Brian Jacques
  36. Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs
  37. Sebastian, Anne Bishop
  38. Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker
  39. She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb
  40. The Shining, Stephen King
  41. The Subtle Knife, Phillip Pullman
  42. Tangled Webs, Anne Bishop
  43. The Third Witch, Rebecca Reisert
  44. The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
  45. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
  46. Why Buffy Matters, Rhonda Wilcox
  47. Wicked: The Grimmerie, David Cote
  48. The Will of the Empress, Tamora Pierce
  49. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  50. Women and Children First, Francine Prose

I wanted to keep the list at 50, but of course I've already discovered omissions I had intended to include (Paradise Lost, Beowulf - preferably illustrated copies), and what about all of the deliciously wonderful books that aren't in print yet? Woe is me! This list may need to be a fluid one after all.