John and I had been locked down for months in my studio shooting our film, rehearsing, building sets, painting scenes, setting up lights. Shooting footage. It was a process that literally became more than some grand idea of a movie.
Actually a movie is a series of small events linked together over a period of time -in our case a period of months. We started off shooting scenes, I wrote and rewrote the script all the while we kept shooting footage, like a boxer training, practicing his footwork, feints. All the extra footage was roadwork for what was to come.
It was much more than I imagined. I had the script, John had to do the scenes, had to design the sound, the lighting, the way each scene looked. How to operate two cameras with only himself. I had to learn to trust that he was going to do all this.
I had my own burden in the middle of all this. Namely I had to get myself out of the way, my ego, my fears, and deliver my lines. We had a criteria for my performances if you want to call them that. If they were believable, we bought into them. We never called it acting, we just wanted something from me that was real. Something that we both believed.
Imagine, John is moving cameras all over, up and down, side to side, adjusting the light, the lights fail, the sound fails, a camera goes on the nod, a fuse, a bulb blows up, we’re in the darkness and somehow he gets it all back together. I’ve been waiting and waiting for the moment, holding onto myself, trying to stay contained, centered, until John calls, “roll it.”
We’ve had over thirty takes for some scenes. Late, cold, tired, we pressed on. Trading quips, jokes, laughing, pushing the envelope. Pushing into the script. I wanted to change the script, just wanted to let the cameras roll, see what came up. John held onto the discipline, forcing us to go step by step inch by inch.
We both designed the sets, the art direction. He would have an idea for three scenes in a row, then I would. Inside the structure of the script, the organization, the schedule, we managed to stay flexible. You’d have to been there to experience it. It’s called film-making.
Arduous, long. Fun.
After 6 months of pre-production: camera tests, trial scenes, script re-writes, readings, set-building and (of course) fund raising – then another 3 months of actual production – we now have all the principal photography completed for the Twilight Angel.
Fittingly enough, some of the last scenes we shot were the rare exterior scenes of the film and they were done in locations that are quite amazing. After weeks of shooing “noir” in our little studio, the expansive dunes in southern New Mexico created the most striking contrast.
The space and the light were perfect for the reverie of the scene we called “AWOL.” I won’t divulge the details of that part of the film, but I’m sure you can get it’s essence.
We had timed the shoot to follow a trip to Tucson for a gallery opening of Linda Leslie’s paintings at Jane Hamilton Fine Art. Our Exec. Producer Julie Schumer’s paintings are also at that gallery, so it was a natural field trip for the core crew.
It felt like a celebration of the completion of this phase of the movie. Day-in and day-out James has done a tremendous job of performing this heart-felt story. We’ve worked hard to capture that narrative in a way that we all feel is visually appealing and does justice to the subject and the art.
Of course, the art is the subject… because it is inseparable from the story of the artist – and vice-versa.
Keeping that in mind, we go into post-production: the editing, animation and sound design that glues it all together. I love this part as much as the photography… maybe even more so. For me editing IS storytelling. It is an artform unto itself.
As I ardently prepare for many hours at the editing workstation assembling and shaping this film, I’ll remember the openness, the space, the light of the dunes and how for me that symbolized the freedom to create this movie, to put something beautifully true into the world, to hope that it touches somebody and that it resonates something in them.
I’m both a word guy and a painter. Both require imagination, yet painting requires no words. In fact it’s better if there aren’t any. They just get in the way. Painting’s vocabulary may come from the same place as words, but they aren’t necessary. I don’t think in words when I’m painting, only in color, images, the application of the paint, using my tools, brushes, and moving. Moving is very important, big movements, small movements joining together in a dance of sorts. Reacting to what is happening on the canvas is important. That red may lead me somewhere. Where?
I’m a writer too. I wrote a play called “Even if the Mountains Burn.” I had so much time to tell so many stories. I had to choose my words carefully. They arrived and then they were rendered. Chosen after a board meeting of the intellect. Its takes a lot longer to choose a word than it does a color, a brush stroke. And the movements are small. Pushing the keys, moving the delete button. I can cover a whole huge painting in the time it takes to write what I just did. Time is different. The computer is clinical. About the only thing the same is you start off with a white page, a white canvas. Blankness starring at you. I wouldn’t call writing a sensual activity. Painting is however a sensual act. Moving the thick buttery paint around. Spreading it. Thick, oozing, it becomes bodily fluids. You decide.
I started the movie with words, a play really, very few of the scenes really had any visuals that were as concrete as the writing. It was a movie without equal visuals to go along the words. Its what I knew at the time. I’d already written my scenes for the soldier character because I’d told the story already as a play. Words were the medium then. I dragged them along, not that they weren’t important, but it was like a person with only one arm.
See it goes back to what I said in the beginning. Painters don’t need words, we don’t use them, they get in the way. So really I had no idea what my character the painter was thinking, because to be honest I’d never thought about it. For a guy who talks a lot and is expressive verbally, the irony is I’d spent almost my entire life working alone speaking to no one. Just simply working. But John always said the movie was about the painter, the soldier stories informed the artist, and the art.
The thing is, I wasn’t painting at all when we first started making the film way back in August. I thought I’d just put it off until the movie was done. Then we had these painting scenes and that’s when everything shifted. I had to paint the last big painting for the movie. I started painting, little paintings before John came in to set up equipment, then larger ones. Some were great, we put them in the film, I had to look at my paintings again. I’d forgotten them. Sorry.
But now that the character of the painter was let loose, ironically I wanted to let go of the words, the last of the stories. All I wanted was to paint on the floor and move and let John film the whole thing. Painting forever, the cameras rolling. Infinity. We’d get to the end of it someday. Painting does that to me. Now I’m explaining it. Better not. Those scenes will have to stand on their own. We’ve got the end of the movie to shoot. I’ll have to find my way to the words again. I wrote them, maybe it won’t be so hard.
Anyway, John will be there yelling, “Action!” and I’ll be bound to them.
Months of ideas, discussions, writing, and planning, building sets, setting up lights, now we’re actually shooting our film.
Immediately it becomes real, we see what we’ve done immediately, the scenes we just shot, right in front of our faces. I’m struck with how much this process feels like painting, or sculpting, or building. It’s immediate and therefore familiar. We’re hauling lights around, climbing around the set, moving tables, lights, art, sculpture. Finding a place for the art in the film.
I’d forgotten old friends, my paintings, now they’re became part of the terrain, becoming references, characters. I see them with fresh eyes, beginners mind, they’re talking to me differently. I gravitate to certain ones. My hands want to touch my plaster heads. I remember building them, the feel of the plaster, wet, the quick setting up time, working quickly. A particular large one becomes a central figure in the next scene. Why not, we’re old friends. My sculpture teacher told me once, real art informs the artist along the way, revealing, teaching, leading the artist into a greater understanding of himself. It has to be, or it looks like, smells like art… but isn’t.
To the greater end John says we are really having confidence in our creativity. I’m trusting John to be the art director on certain sets, he’s found way to link my paintings to these first scenes. If you look at the pieces they’re there for a reason. Like guests we might move them around, some in-laws get along better than others.
The set is moving around too, certain pieces, say my easel, desires to move to another part of the floor. The point is, and it may seem like a cliche, the best way to make a painting is to get yourself out of the way and let it paint itself. In that sense I had the distinct feeling that our little film is taking on a life of its own. Don’t overwork myself on my days off, John says. Save something.
The creative process is a mystery, that’s really the fun of it. Trusting, balancing the fear of whether what you need will be there when you need it. We’ll go with that.
Imagine, I was in a field, the wind spinning me like a top and the more I spun, the more tethered I was to the wind. That’s how I felt about my film. Tethered to an idea, that was too big. I had a feeling for what I wanted but no more, nothing specific. There was in fact no beginning path to take.
I decided to see if my old director Tanya Taylor Rubinstein, with whom I had spent the better part of a year and a half, developing, and rehearsing my play, “Even if the Mountains Burn,” would come on board to help me. She had a cancellation in her schedule for December and said she would. We dug back into old material, back to the play itself. I told new stories, we recorded many of them. Since I hadn’t been on stage or rehearsed for a couple of years, I felt awkward at first and then comfortable with myself. I loosened into it.
The play became the shell, the structure. We choose scenes and restructured them, rehearsing them tightening them up, condensing them, forcing me to control and focus my energies. The big thing, the film became finite, manageable. I had a beginning. We shot some of these scenes with John at night,
While this was a tremendous way of getting the material and myself under control, after two weeks of shooting I began to realize I wanted more.
I was not in fact wanting the whole movie, at least the scenes of most of my dialogue, shot with me sitting in a black box - me in tight close-ups, sitting, controlled and focused.
Once again I was in the field, spun by the wind. And then I had a vision of what I wanted the film to look like, it came to me as a painting… dissolve the black box, set me free inside the painter’s studio. Keep the same tight energy of the static shots but allow me to move, to laugh, cry, find my way to the scene. Due to scheduling conflicts, Tanya became busy with her regular work, Project Life Stories, and we parted company.
I was left at the head winds, bringing all that work we had done along with me. I had the skeleton of my character. I just needed to find a way to flesh him out.
We had a really good shoot last night. We did the first of James’ monologues and he put in a solid, tight performance. Tanya’s skill at preparing everyone for the scene and then directing on-set is invaluable. I am honored to be able to do my part in such a team. Thanks to everyone that is helping make it possible. You should be pleased by what we shot last night.
More to come!
Twilight Angel Teaser at:
Schumer art video at:
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