Jury Coordination and Notes

Archive for February, 2019

Director’s Close Up: Independent Spirit: A Director’s Roundtable

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

At this year’s perennial favorite, 2019 Spirit Award-nominated directors discuss their craft, their journeys as artists and the ways in which they have been able to balance their artistic integrity while making movies that resonate with audiences.

Director’s Close Up Independent Spirit: A Director’s Roundtable 
By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 16

The grand gem of Film Independent’s Annual Director’s Close Up event is “The Independent Spirit: A Director’s Roundtable.” Hosted by Film Independent President John Welsh, this year the panel featured premiere directors from the industry including Bo Burnham, Debra Granik, Barry Jenkins, Tamara Jenkins, Boots Riley and Paul Schrader. The six highlight the modern world of moviemaking and how it is transforming for the next generation of directors. 

The panel began by discussing the image and color of the film. All six directors mastered color and style in their films  into something unique for each of them. Paul Schrader discussed how technology has improved so much to allow for a colorful, crisp, modern look of cinema with tablets and apps allowing cinematographers more opportunities in the light set up than ever before. Barry Jenkins shared just how many options filmmakers have now with modern cameras. He discussed how in Moonlight they reprogrammed the way the cameras processed color, in order to better reflect darker skin. Debra Granik discussed how modern cameras’ ability to read green color better allowed her to capture the forest beautifully in her film, Leave No Trace. Schrader also shared a story from the making of Star War:s Episode 1, where Liam Neeson and George Lucas disagreed on how a role should be played. When Neeson refused to do what Lucas wanted, Lucas simply changed Neeson’s face in post!

Boots Riley and Paul Schrader both discussed their experiences in taking inspiration from other films, with one example of Riley using inspiration from one of Shrader’s films. This fact demonstrates an important key aspect in cinema. It is collaborative, not competitive. Filmmakers can take from each other’s ideas and build their own unique strategies. 

The panel also debated heavily on the concept of rehearsals before filming. Paul Schrader was adamant about the cruciality of rehearsals stating, “It is for the director, not the actor.” Schrader discussed how it allows for the story to be rewritten, dialogue tested, interactions perfected and more. He believes that a director should not test things or figure things out on the day of shooting. Burnham disagreed. In his directorial debut, 8th Grade, he only rehearsed the daughter and father and left the rest to be done fully and openly. This strategy, coined the “Bo Burnham approach,” was supported by Barry Jenkins as well. While Jenkins did table reads that led to changes in the script, he, like Burnham, likes letting the actors explore the role in front of the camera. Tamara Jenkins had a different take on rehearsals. In her film Private Life, Tamara’s story revolves around a couple and, in order to get the actors to get along as a couple might, she simply made them do chores that a married couple would typically do, in order to get them to bond. In 8th Grade, Burnham had the challenge of portraying kids realistically and he discussed how it often isn’t the child actor’s fault for an unrealistic representation, but simply poorly written dialogue. All panelists agreed that each actor has requirements and strategies unique to themselves.

One of the most interesting parts of this panel was when each member delved into the philosophical side of their films and filmmaking as a whole. Barry Jenkins described how literature and film differ. Literature forces the brain to imagine all the senses, while film only connects to the visual and auditory. So, when trying to make powerful emotional scenes, Jenkins had to carefully structure the elements of his scenes to evoke emotions. Burnham discussed the connection we have to the Internet and how it is developing as years go by. He shared how he wished to capture our relationship we share with the Internet behemoth in his film, 8th Grade, as Bo felt that no film had truly captured the Internet and how we interact with it. One of the most powerful things he discussed was the times we use the Internet in the late evening before going to sleep. We always have a choice. We can close our eyelids, or we can open up our phone to the totality of human knowledge. “It is infinity or oblivion,” he explained. Panels like these show just how filmmaking has changed and adapted to new technology and artistic styles. Film, like all other arts, goes through a constant transformation and these six panelists are only one of the thousands of filmmakers all around the world finding new and innovative ways to express themselves and tell stories. Paul Schrader said it best, “a script is not literature – it is an oral tradition.” 

Director’s Close-Up: Another Type of Narrative: The Truth of Docs

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

This has been a stellar year for documentary film. From fresh new voices telling compelling personal stories to veterans who continue to push the boundaries of storytelling, the form continues to evolve and grow into an exciting canvas for filmmakers to represent the world we live in. Join us as we discuss many of the questions and challenges inherent to nonfiction films, with the directors behind some of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year. They’ll explore how they go beyond letting reality unspool on screen to carefully crafting narratives that bring us closer to the truth.

Director’s Close-Up: Another Type of Narrative: The Truth of Docs
By Gerry Orz, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16

In the world of cinema, there is a division between jobs, between mediums and between genres. Yet, no bigger division exists than that between the world of fictional films and the world of documentaries. The third week of Director’s Close Up examined the documentary world by creating a panel of some of the most premier documentarians of the last year. It featured Alexandria Bombach (director; On Her ShouldersFrame By Frame); Talal Derki (director; Of Fathers and SonsThe Return to Homs); Bing Liu  (director, Minding the Gap); Morgan Neville (director; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?20 Feet from Stardom); Sandi Tan (writer/director, Shirkers) and was moderated by Lisa Leeman (director; One Lucky ElephantOut of Faith)

Each documentary had its own unique challenges. Alexandria’s documentary is about Nadia Murad, a victim of sexual violence that was abducted by ISIS. The story had to carefully tell her story and discuss her career without victimizing the heroine and making her relive the nightmarish experiences that she suffered. Talal perhaps had the most dangerous experience where he gained the trust to follow a radical Islamic family for two years. Bing’s journey to make his documentary was brave and complex as he examines three friends living in volatile families in a small rust-belt town. Morgan, a highly seasoned and Oscar award-winning documentarian took up the challenge of telling the story of Fred Rogers and revealing the depth of what everyone assumed was a simple two-dimensional TV personality. Lastly, Sandi chronicles the discovery of  16mm tapes for a film she made over two decades ago, that were stolen by the film’s director and her journey of reconnecting with old friends.

Talal told many stories of his experiences portraying the level of dedication he had to his project. He talked about how he had to delete photos from social media and go on pro-jihadist syndicates in order to seem supportive of radical Islam. This sacrificed many friends, but he succeeded. His troubles did not end there though. He explained that he could never have too much cash on him out of fear of being kidnapped, and had to cut his stay in dangerous territory after he learned that bloodthirsty leaders began hearing about him and his filmmaking. During the entire project, it was simply him alone in very dangerous zones with a camera. He had no crew, no backup and no friends in the foreign land. His journey is a prime example of the levels of danger and dedication a documentarian needs to have in order to get the access to material needed to make the film.

Many of the panelists discussed changes they made in the process of creating their films. Neither Bing nor Sandi planned on being in their own films, until very late in the production process, with Sandi having to use every second of footage of her available. Bing’s film features skateboarding often and he discussed his style of filming skateboarders, where he keeps the camera at eye-level, causing the focus to be on the skaters and their emotions instead of on the footwork and the skateboard. Morgan stated the importance of sound in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, due to how meaningful music was to Fred Rogers. He also discussed the editing process and how to establish a certain mood, flow and style. He explained that “The Instructions for the film you are making are in the film you’re making.” Morgan also discussed how he wished to show the concept of nature leading to harmony and, at first wished to include many nature shots, but ended up deciding on one simple shot of a bird at the beginning to communicate his message. Their stories demonstrate so clearly just how much a documentary can change and how many elements must be considered in the filmmaking and editing process.

These five creators opened the eyes of the audience to the remarkable art form of the documentary. By bringing together such a varied group of filmmakers, Film Independent was able to show that, not only is each documentarian unique in their craft and the story they choose to tell, but also how unique their challenges are. Talal, in the Middle East had very different challenges from Sandi or Alexandria. It also shows how any scale of a story can be eye-opening. Alexandria’s story about Nadia should be listened to by all equally to Morgan’s story on Fred Rogers. The most captivating films are not ones of mass proportion, but – just as this panel demonstrated – are ones that are real, emotional, relatable and natural. 

Director’s Close Up: The Storytellers: Writers and Directors

Monday, February 11th, 2019

By Gerry Orz, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16

While the first week of Director’s Close Up featured the beautiful web of relationships between actor and director, the second week takes a look at much earlier process in a film’s production: the writer and director. The event included Jane Anderson (writer, The Wife, Olive Kitteridge) and Billy Ray (writer, Captain Philips, co-writer, The Hunger Games) as well as moderation by Robin Swicord (writer/director, Wakefield, writer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).  All three have both directing and writing experience and shared with the audience on how to best form a strong partnership between two of the most conflicted roles in the film industry.

Most known is the tension that exists between the writer and the director. Billy compared it to a track race. He related the writer to be the first on the track. You write your script and you finish the lap around the track and then hand it off to the next runner. The next runner starts running their lap and the success of the game falls in their hands instead of yours. A film shares many similarities – the writer runs first, the director runs second. This act of trusting another with a developed piece of art such as a script can lead to great conflict and tension or a great success.

Billy and Jane also shared strategies they use such as encouraging the director they’re working with to help them with parts of the script in order to build a solid foundation of trust. They also explained that, at the end of it though, the writer must give the reins of control over to the director and let them fly with the film themselves.

Both Billy and Jane shared their experiences with this. On Captain Philips, director Paul Greengrass and Billy had many different arguments and fights. Billy explained that he originally wished for the Captain’s wife to be part of the story. Paul disagreed and also wished for the Pentagon to have a side story, as they attempt to organize a rescue, much to Billy’s protest. Billy explained that it was Tom Hanks (Captain Philips) who told them both that the story should never leave the ship that Philips was on. This led to the Captain Philips we know today. 

Jane had her own experiences with writing and directing. Her script for The Wife took fourteen years for her to make and involved many rewrites and defeats. The film failed again and again in being produced, due to the simple fact that it has a female protagonist and the male characters of the story are secondary to her. Finally in 2018, we are able to see this incredible story. She said there were many troubles along the way, with many directors wanting her to change it to be more masculine with a male lead, but she was able to persevere. Robin shared her own stories and tips. She recommended to the audience to go outside their comfort zones and attempt to write something they would be fearful to direct.

Jane Anderson, Billy Ray, Robin Swicord  

The art of writing holds many challenges and all three shared tips in the craft. Billy related writing to marble. His analogy was that writing is like a block of granite. You start with the entire world in your screenplay, that is the granite, and chip away everything that is not the story. You are left with a beautiful statue that is your film. They also explained the challenges of an ending. Jane, Billy and Robin all discussed how, at times, the ending must be so perfect that it is sometimes necessary to go back and change earlier parts of the film to make the ending flow just right. Jane explained how the climax scene for The Wife took many rewrites and redesigns to get right, while Billy explained how the climax scenes in Captain Philips were one of the rare cases where both him and the director had no arguments, fights or disagreements. Jane also shared an important note to those who write and direct their own films. She said that many director/writers will write their scripts as directors, where they get immersed into the shot design, set design, actors and the many details a director has to deal with. She recommended that you write a script as a writer only, and you direct a script as a director only. Then, the story is completed preserved in the writing process and is held to the highest importance. 

The art of writing has many challenges and is one of the most under-looked places in the film industry. For every incredible motion picture ever made, there is a 120 page script that took weeks to years to write and polish. All three shared how the creator of this blueprint and the director who develops the blueprint are at times in conflict, but their goal never differs –  to tell an incredible story. Billy, at the beginning of the panel, said it best, “It’s okay to disagree about the how, as long as you’re not disagreeing about the what.”

Images courtesy of Getty Images and Film Independent

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