I often wrestle with wholeheartedly applauding the excessive sharing of one’s life these days; for, overall, with the decline of the West in the 21st century, and the overwhelming disappearance of social norms in the modern age through the sometimes ugly pick-axe of social media, and the popularity and irresistible verdicts of the Internet courtroom system, over sharing and under thinking is without question at times damagingly in vogue. This post is long enough that I see it as a journalistic entry; I have been working on it off and on since the day it occurred. It was delayed partly by the pace of my own life; partly due to NDA before the film was out; and partly because I am still processing.
Human social media interaction, while staying faithful to the origins of human interactions in countless ways, has adapted new means of assigning and dismissing mathematical significance and insignificance. Those of us that indulge in it regularly perhaps share more than we probably ever should have with far more people than most of civilization and history has even had the means to encounter; in the meantime consuming our time and devaluing the actual experience and insane pace of life at the cost of an archaeological and narcissistic hunt for passive aggressive, often mostly self-interested, antiseptic, and distant acknowledgment. This regurgitated acknowledgment usually manifests itself with a level of circular and self-referential obsession previously unanticipated. It could be said that this generation looks closer and deeper at itself than any generation in the history of humankind, with less context and opportunity for anything worth looking at to co-exist as a result of the death of objective substance and rationality as a normal commodity for social progress as civilization declines and continues to disappear. We have more flying at us and our brains than any beings in history; the case for the sheer volume of much of it being generally less meaningful than before is immense. It has shocked me at times to see the mere amount of content a single being can generate centered primarily around themselves; it serves as a constant reminder to me that true freedom contains the component most often to escape seekers; the total sacrifice of and death of self.
It’s as if the howling whirlwind of fundamental technological function meant to eliminate the ubiquitous and undeniable lack of fellow identification, loneliness, and isolation we so try to avoid as humans has done the one thing we fear the most; intensify and exacerbate those same very things they are meant to eliminate. The sensory and the immediate and the cheap have made emaciated, bleary-eyed husks of us, shuffling through the doldrums of morally decaying civilizations with appetites that consume far too much of what will rarely slow us down enough to produce an original thought or feeling or draw us closer to reality in an ultimate sense. As one gets older, one perhaps finds an increasing loneliness in personal experience; both a large family deep into its senior years and having no family at all can equally dictate the experience of communication impossibility and isolation. With the age of the Internet, we’ve at times all become an overly large, senior family with all the accusatory and selfish traits often too close to the surface.
Why do I begin a post about my experience on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with comments about communication? Some experiences dictate that certain events and encounters and feelings in one’s life are unable to be truly shared or communicated. I could write volumes about the deepest experiences one can have in life; the relational or spiritual, but they would still just be words on a page apart from the actual experience of the events and encounters, and my experience in life dictates that the reality of some things are still fathoms deeper than the deepest shovels can go. I would view the same with regards to my generation which is woefully anti-rational thought and anti-truth; the experience of actually encountering such things in the reality of one’s life is as revealing as the difference between drinking ice water for the first time after a lifetime of tasting only horrible soda – as a manner of reflection, what is the point of sharing fresh water in a world that worships soda? I cringe at the food analogy, as food itself seems to be one of the only remaining categories of life that my generation thinks actually deserves rationality and discernment; if our age would apply the same attitude towards their diets that they do towards philosophy, religion, and moral thought, they would swiftly eliminate themselves from the survivor pool.
This post is not at all meant as a means of showing off “something super cool and glamorous I did.” If you knew me well, you would realize the sheer odds of me ever ending up on an actual movie set with Daniel Day Lewis and Steven Spielberg are more numerous than all sand, and if you knew me well, you would know it would surpass my own ability to expect outcomes that match overly defined passions and feelings. I know many people in my immediate surroundings who have far more to brag about and have done far more impressive things and would have ample stories to share; nonetheless, on a personal, insular, internal level, it accomplished a level of pattern matching in my life that even I find somewhat ludicrous and droll in the sheer unlikeliness of it; an oddity matching my most powerful inspirations that I still can hardly believe took place. I also share intimately with Daniel Day Lewis’ own manifested ability to hold at a long arm’s length and manifest a clear dislike for the tired and tar-baby world of pretend fame and worthless, ignorant, and fleshly cultural idolatry; the age of “fame that isn’t fame” has absolutely nothing to do with my creative vortexes, and even less to do with how I see my own individual purpose in life.
From a very young age, my immersion in the art world through my intense violin training and music accidentally brought me in contact with the acting of Daniel Day Lewis for the first time; I didn’t realize it at my young age, but I was encountering output from one of the greatest actors who ever lived at an incredibly formative time in my artistic development. My appreciation for this individual’s art has only grown immensely, as my experience and love for other forms of art also grew, my understanding and honest awe of his ability and dedication and total and indiscernible disappearance into his roles only grew. As a matter of fact, at the age of 15, picking up my violin and playing the gaelic reel from “Last Of The Mohicans” before I even saw the film, then experiencing the movie as my first R-rated Michael Mann film after having read the original novel twice through before age 14, colored decades of my life, loves and interests. At the time, I didn’t realize that freight train that was passing me by was closer to an earthquake, given the immense intensity, talent, and gifting behind the individual generating much of it.
As I developed as an artist and primarily as a musician/violinist over the years, I began to more intelligently recognize Daniel’s identity as a true artist and nothing more, and nothing less. I had a handful of encounters with quite rare performers in the classical musical realm; those who were so consumed by their gift and their unending appetite for truly blood-shedding excellence and performance that the very expression and zenith of their form was never anything more than the actual and literal Chase for Perfection; those who could not settle on anything and never would, because the term “settle” was simply extricated from their vocabulary and practice; the context of the audience was simply a blank spot for, they were titans engaged in the gladiatorial arena between self and performance and nothing else; those for whom the fast food meal of fame and recognition were useless, empty, and completely and totally irrelevant apart from the purpose of the art to which they were dedicated.
Those who the word “good work” or “incredible work” would simply ring hollow towards their Ecclesiastical chase towards fighting the only true barrier to further discovery; one’s self. Those who are the best at what they do are constantly aware of the tiny but always inevitable pool of where they are failing; they do not take pride in their current accomplishments, and those past accomplishments only serve as the energy and muscle and fuel to provide for the unending pursuit of what remains, and they are woefully aware of their limits, their identity as creatures, their weaknesses, and that each performance and drawn breath is a gift and an opportunity and not much more. This virtue is so important yet so rare; so valuable, yet so little preached or shared, yet also so all consuming and even borderline destructive to those who may have the chance of being set ablaze by it. Too go thus far with your art is to truly learn how much an immersion factor the self is to performance, yet how much it is also an obstacle, the real and sometimes only true obstacle.
There is a reality, an immensity, and an intensity in true performance and true gifting that becomes a reality of philosophical, psychological, and spiritual impact rather than dry notes or words on a page that received a good “heave-ho” followed by a golf clap generated by half an attention span. There is an actual spiritual energy and spark and a light behind those who are set on fire by performance, who are entirely consumed by it; who are still and eternally in lock-step in the seasonal spring moments of their relationship with performance and perfection – and it is equally true in every art form that has ever existed. The farther we go, the smaller we realize we are, the less in love with ourselves we are and more in love with true performance which I believe to be an ultimate form of giving – when that self simply removes itself from the stage and the equation altogether. I count myself small and privileged to have had some distant experience and dim perception of these things that are as large as eternity. I do not think that for most readers of this post, I would have to try to connect the dots between what I just wrote, and one of the greatest living actors of today.
Fast-forward almost 20 years, when I ended up on the Lincoln set with Daniel Day Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Steven Spielberg, it was my very first official Hollywood film. I am one among millions of people who love the arts, acting, and filmmaking, and even if I was a full time A-Lister, there are still very small odds of ending up within walking distance of him, far less on an actual set as he blazed through one of the landmark characters of his career.
Ending up on that set was like a very well scripted trip or dream based upon my own personal history and psyche; oddly enough there are days where I flash back to it and wonder myself if it really happened. It’s as if a life long sports fan who has every card and stat memorized for all sports ended up going to lunch with Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali, for a single day, on one of the only days those three ever happened to be together.
After a few months of haphazard interactions, my final and unexpected exchange with the casting office was brief – at the time, I lived north of Washington DC, and they said “can you be here in Petersburg, VA at 5 in the morning?” It was 9 pm the night before; Petersburg was 3+ hours away. To be there at 5 in the morning, I’d have to leave around 2 am, which is not too far from when I usually turn the lights out – so, I decided to just stay up all night. My son Dakota Flynn was only a few months old, and I’d had a very busy week and hadn’t slept more than 5 hours or so in the previous 48 hours or so. Dakota Flynn Groveman had been born a month early at a huge 7.5 lbs for a preemie, but the usual restlessness and tremors of a new child arriving was heightened by the trial and testing of his month long stay in the NICU at a hospital over an hour away.
With no script or scene details or delineation of the day’s events, I had absolutely no idea what to expect or whether I would even see or run into Spielberg or the principals. I arrived around 4 am in Petersburg, and most of the old section, downtown area of old Petersburg was part of the set and blocked off. This area of Petersburg is already old enough that not a whole lot had to be done to transform it; though, when I returned to the area about a year later I was surprised to see how much they had altered.
I parked my car in the lot close to the river, realizing I was the first extra there. Due to the infant living in my house, I already felt like I was at the end of being up for two days and knew it was going to be a tough day. I discovered how blessed I was to even be there on set that day as the entire film schedule only had three days of shooting left, and they needed something around 200 new extras in addition to the 300 they already had just for that day.
The room we were in filled; soon there were hundreds of us sitting there, getting our breakfast, meeting each other, trying to grab a few minutes of sleep. Since I and others were new extras without a prior fitting or costuming, we had to wait 3-4 hours to go through. As I sat there and waited my turn in the big log house cafeteria area we were in, people around me would leave in the 21st century and return in the 19th. In the dusky morning light, still hours from sunrise, and the dimness of the old building, it was a bizarre effect. This one a dignified and somber old gentleman in a top hat with a deep white beard; this one a crusty, dirty, sweaty, tired looking soldier; this one a polite and beautiful lady; this one a doctor; this one a blood tattered amputee with a crutch – it began to blur, but slowly, I felt we were going back in time; our individual identities were being dreamily Rip Van Winkled by the surrounding set which already whispered loudly that we were in a different time period, and it was time for each of us to follow the beckon of the quiet, martial and dirt-filled street corners and the presence of a military camp, cannons, an armory, and a hospital, and step into the past. A past that is long ago yet so recent; a past so close behind that we could sit in buildings and furniture used by people from that time with only a bit of wear since the end of the war.
Costume was a funny experience; as we were at the end of the queue, it had largely been sacked, and it was hard to find a right fit; one of the lead costume people was not having a good morning. At receiving a question about a hat fit from an older man, he slapped the hat forcefully back on the guy’s head, delivering a loud and dramatically insulting insult about how he felt like he was teaching beginning algebra. It is funny in retrospect, but at the time, it was quite awkward and rude.
After going through makeup where they carefully and photographically documented each alteration to my person in case of callback, I was placed in a costume as a Union regular; at one point a PA asked me if I wanted to be a wounded soldier; I contemplated it for a second and felt it might make me immobile for a day, and decided against it.
We went to our holding area and waited some more. Finally , we were called forward and assigned our location for the morning’s first shots; myself and about 20 other soldiers were in a Union camp right next to a main street area, and my specific group of people were arranged around a campfire at the streets edge. I placed myself as close to the street as possible.
During downtime in this spot, I gazed out at the set. I was amazed at how much time it took me to find out where the cameras were because of how busy the set was. There was a wide variety of carriages and horse drivers, extras migrating about, props and set alterations being installed or moved about, lighting gear, batteries, scrims, scaffolding – it was as busy and overwhelming as any section of Times Square. I stared out in between the gaps of the seething mass for about 15 minutes before I found the first Panavision camera I could firmly identify.
At this point, Spielberg walked up directly behind our camp and little group of soldiers, wearing a heavy parka, as today’s shoot was mostly outdoors and, being November on the East Coast, it wasn’t warm. He touched base with the assistant directors who were overseeing our camp and was chatting with a Panavision operator on a dolly immediately behind us as well. A bunch of the extras around me were discussing whether it was really him – he was only about 15 feet away, but some were somehow convinced it was a look alike.
One guy said “nah, that’s a guy here on set who looks almost exactly like him.” As every person there did, I wanted to meet him or introduce myself – it would have been easy to walk over and act like I had a reason to; plus there were many reports of him being friendly, but the busyness of the set reminded me that I wouldn’t want to be annoyed by an extra if I was in his shoes, and I didn’t want to be the guy who got the evil eye from assistants by opening the gate for Spielberg or a principal to be hounded. For me, given my age and trajectory in life, a casual or “starstruck” introduction to such people has little import for me; I would like opportunity to meet them in a setting where I can share my own work.
At most, the assistant director in charge of our camp was also functioning as a bit of a props guy, as it was his job to light the propane canister which generated flame behind our fake campfire. Movie sets can be tense locations just from the liability issue alone; any number of riff-raff could be present, especially on a day with hundreds of extras. To underscore the point, this same AD had developed a rivalry with one of the regular Union soldier extras on set who happened to be in my circle around the campfire and pointed at him when he lit the fire, and said “I’m watching.” From other long term extras, I immediately heard all kinds of stories about this guy and his rivalry with the AD, and found out in addition to his fire sins, he was actually somewhat of a Spielberg stalker and had handed Spielberg handwritten personal letters on more than one occasion.
We were told that we had to look busy around the fire, and the AD walked around and nodded quickly at what we had already somewhat randomly chosen as our location. One guy decided he was going to play a soldier asleep in a tent; he stuck his legs out the tent flap opening, leaned back on an actual Civil War blanket, and hilariously actually slept most of the morning. I was sitting facing the fire and the street and directly towards the Panavision camera which I had decided was probably the main camera. The AD walked us through about 2-3 minutes of “action” to see how we would block and move; all very improv, loose, and he simply wanted us to repeat what we were doing each time. He modified a couple things in a slight manner, wanted to make sure someone was stirring the pot, etc. etc. and that was it.
The street traffic had narrowed down to only people in costume, but it was still heavy. Of a sudden, without hearing anyone call action, a carriage rolled down the street in front of us in the early morning light, and it was carrying Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln and Joseph Gordon Levitt as Robert Lincoln.
They sat opposite each other in the open carriage, but on the opposite and far sides of the seats. The relational magnitude between them was immediately obvious and did not begin or end in relation to “action” or takes. It was as if Lincoln had dragged Robert on a trip to the DMV while all his friends were having a party. It immediately reminded me of parent/child tension I am so familiar with from being a child but also having my own. This was all perceived without me knowing anything of the scene being shot. Seeing this scene a year later confirmed what I could draw on immediately even though I didn’t have a single page of script at the time. They were closer to me than even in this shot, I could have shook Lincoln’s hand as they drove by.
I find it somewhat redundant to describe how much DDL appeared and moved and spoke like the real Lincoln – the film has been released and the magnificence of the performance can be viewed in its Oscar-winning power. Though I was only there for a day, I want to emphasize how much of DDL’s performance is NOT on screen – the film merely captures a couple hours of it, like the very surface of the ocean, instead of the whole thing. As much as his performance is breathtaking and magnificent and eerie and spiritual in the film, there were many moments of intensity, nuance, feelings, insight, and depth that will never be on screen – not only because they might be in an alternative take or camera angle, or a longer take than ended up in the film, but because many of them took place when nothing was even being filmed. His entire life and existence and being is the performance; this includes the downtimes on set as well as the action moments. The film world and the world at large have discussed these things for many years and agonized over or tried to peer into his process – as much as one can feel silly in costume as someone from a different age, there was an absolutely electric energy that flowed from Lincoln in spades; it shouted to me as an actor, “I have crossed over entirely.”
In the brief visionary establishments of his persona that have never fully left my mind’s eye, he appeared altogether weary, aged, a Lincoln fighting great burdens and stooping posture; his hat and coattails registered as some sort of ghost or seer; he didn’t move or walk as much as he floated; an Ichabod Crane of American history; yet somehow still undeniably and boldly determined and resolute. One did not envy whatever he was carrying; but little doubt was left that he was meant to carry it and that some result would issue forth.
Seeing his performance after my experience that day galvanized all the preceding events; we were here peering through a dim, dusky portal into a different time, and perhaps all of us collectively mirroring it beyond our own aims. Perhaps the synergy of those little moments in Petersburg awakened events or feelings or realities closer to the real events in not-so-distant history moreso than anything since the actual events themselves. The entire mood of the scene and the principals and the setting seemed to introduce an almost heavy, slightly compulsive air; it felt like we were at war and there was need in the air.
It seemed they ran through the carriage journey down the two streets, past our encampment then in front of what was a Union hospital; then they called action. Lincoln and Robert stopped in front of the hospital and had a short conversation. Back to our campsite; the sleeping soldier with his feet protruding from the tent snored the day away; our group around the fire seemed to have come up with a nice degree of layers of melancholy and creativity. We had our different marks given to us by the AD… we merely created a little variety and had fun with it. It was a wide mix of actors, drifters, and do-no-gooders; it is interesting in and of itself to see what happens in the deep aperture lines of a film set. There was one particular aspect of being in this crowd that disturbed me; some extras were particularly coarse and insensitive to the nature of the day’s challenges; I recall one noticeably coarse and seemingly uneducated individual loudly screaming “method act THIS!” when Lincoln went by, and underneath I burned in chagrin knowing that there’s no way such things couldn’t at least register on the radar of the performers and cause them to despise and keep their distance from the extras even more. Some complained of the scope or length of the scene and said they had been on “big blockbuster sets” and “this is nothing,” all I could do is sort of blink at the sheer lack of comprehension and appreciation.
The way our routine went during this early part of the day – start out on one knee by the fire, stir the pot – another soldier was passing around a pot of imaginary stew which we were all sampling – just before the pot got to me, a fellow extra clapped his hand on my right shoulder and said “it’s good to see you here – where are the rest of your boys?” I would say, “What you see is all that’s left.” A sad nod, and a comforting touch from this soldier – then I would stand and walk towards the edge of the camp near the street, and another soldier would meet me and we’d converse. After about take two or three, I realized the second soldier I was talking to was Mr. Spielberg Stalker. I started to mess with him a bit and during action asked him if had heard Josie Wales was riding with Quantrill’s Raiders down South; the first time I asked him this, the look on his face was priceless.
Every time Lincoln passed our camp in the carriage, I would turn to him and touch my hat in subtle salute till he passed. No one had given any instructions to do so and no one else in my camp was doing so. At one point, word came through our AD’s that Spielberg wanted “more soldiers in the camp to acknowledge Lincoln.”
I also learned by watching Spielberg work; the set was remarkably efficient given the scale of events, and most directing he did were mere touches and subtle, face to face, quiet conversations with the actors or camera operators or directors; no shouting or over obvious feedback; the day unfolded like it had already been rehearsed thousands of times before it actually happened.
At this point, things got interesting; a stranger and his friend came over to our circle of our mostly new initiates around the campfire. He was about 5’3″, looked a bit like a dwarf, had long red ringlets; his friend was only a couple inches taller and was quite rotund with long black curls hanging down around his shoulders, all which framed a grizzled but patchy grey and black beard. Upon observing our routine I just described, Red (I will call him this as I have no other reference) immediately began to mock our “acting,” and our “commitment,” and loudly bragged about how he had been on set for months and we didn’t know the first thing about how things worked, that we were amateurs, he had a musket assigned to him, we did not, these “newbies actually care about what’s going on today, and they are mistaken!” Overall, I found it a bit amusing that someone would care enough to play this sort of game; I will be nice and blame it mostly on extreme boredom.
Long story short, it was one of the most direct attempts at bullying and hazing I have seen in a long time. He had been adjusted by an AD and instructed to cross the street after Lincoln passed and interact with us, then cross back, which was a change from how we had started out the day. Each time he crossed, after his initial assault and volley of verbal abuse, he would shout the word “TITTIES!” at our group, repeatedly, after every word someone in our group said, then he’d cross back. No one in our group really responded to him, most just looked away or stopped their usual routine and gave a kind of glum face. I had had enough; after a couple short retorts in reply and trying to get him to stop, in the middle of his “TITTIES” tirade, again, I stood up, walked over to him and asked him to stop. He merely seemed to feed off the request and upon returning again on the next take, he merely hurled his insults even more. I spoke to him again and said “how come so many short guys are like you?” I of course know many that are not and I don’t use height as a measurement of character or quality, but when dealing with a bully, I have found it best to call them out in ways they are treating others.
With this question, he said “man, you’re uphill!” and then stopped for a bit, but the next time he returned, he began the bullying again, renewed. I had really had enough, so I stood up, walked over to him and got right in his face and said “why don’t you just fucking cross the street?” Sometimes bullies do not respect anything but fists, bats, and sticks in return, and sometimes they must begin as words.
At this treatment from me, his buddy tapped him on the arm and whispered something in his ear, and the jibes ceased. Afterwards, people were sharing the story of the confrontation around the set, I discovered that Red was not popular and was a bully everywhere he went, and I later heard a group of extras slashed his tires on the last day. That last part is unfortunate and I have no idea who was responsible; but you do reap what you sow. Overall, the entire encounter played out in a sort of meta fashion; the soldier ridiculing us led to a situation that could have led to a fight in real life; certainly this may have echoed down the chambers of time, some distant dismal or cheery interaction of real tired soldiers a couple centuries ago.
For a good part of the rest of the day I was off by myself in a distant part of the set as deep background; during this time, in-between several shots, due to infant-induced sleep lag and driving all night, I put my back up against a covered wagon and drifted off for a few minutes. After what couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes, I woke with a start, feeling as if I had slept for hours, knee-jerk invigorated and able to slog through the rest of the day despite my extreme fatigue. It was brief, but I slept the sleep of the incredibly tired, that which often is followed by bewilderment and confusion; I will never forget the moment I first awoke and felt the thick wool Union uniform and clapboard shoes, stared up into the sky with a rough covered wagon at my back filling the frame and the musket lying next to me; my mind did a quick re-arrangement of centuries, but wasn’t sure which one I was supposed to end up in.
As I mentioned earlier, I had no idea what was being shot that day, nor the sequence of character, lines, or anything at all; the actors gave us plenty of clues through their body language and demeanor alone, but of course, I was able to piece things together afterwards. For those who have seen the film, the scene I was in is definitely the pinnacle of emotional tension and acting in the film between Lincoln and Robert; and it immediately precedes very intense scenes between Lincoln and Mary, scenes that were shown at the Oscars and reference some of the best performances in the film.
Ultimately, Robert is having a difficult time because Lincoln won’t let him join the military; this scene lends to the complexity and trial of Lincoln’s life as it comes during the height of the suspense and subterfuge and political plotting required to get the 13th Amendment signed to abolish slavery, while hopefully also ending the war. Brief vignettes in this movie give us only a glance at the real burdens of Lincoln’s life in the few months before his assassination; but they are planned masterfully, and leave one with a quiet appreciation of someone who truly gave all to each area of calling in his life. Being a parent is often a cacophony of conflicting goals, feelings, desires, all wrapped up in the furious glory of a life being lived to the full; to operate this as an American President in the middle of a war is a burden few have probably ever approached. The timing of the familial scenes in the script is masterful, giving us a look at how much Lincoln did while caring very little for himself. His life was an amazing cacophony of impossible challenges happening at once; with outcomes that are still being felt today.
The climactic scene of the day we shot was the emotional face to face argument between Lincoln and Robert. As the scene progresses, Robert is by himself, trying to roll a cigarette after seeing a cart filled with severed limbs, dumped into a pit of rotting body parts, immediately after proudly telling his Dad he was somewhat impervious to the effects of war. Having entered the city together, Lincoln returns after visiting wounded soldiers and finds Robert upset and alone. His inquiry leads to the argument, which ends with Robert yelling at Lincoln that he would be “ashamed all his life.”
During this scene, I watched as Spielberg actually held/ran the camera and focus during the shot of Robert rolling the cigarette; as it was a closeup, we could watch closely and not get in the way. I was fascinated with how the day had unfolded and how the most pivotal moments of the day were inarguably during the most beautiful moments, with soft setting sun and deep shadows highlighting all. At this time, I was in a group of about 40 extras, watching and waiting; an assistant director came by and picked only seven of us to be moved even close to the camera during Lincoln and Robert’s argument. In the film, there is a long boardwalk that Robert walks down before seeing the flotsam of war; Lincoln walked down this boardwalk, noticing Robert long before he calls his name in inquiry; I was placed immediately next to the boardwalk. At call of action, we were instructed not to look to the right or at the actors and proceed on by. Although Lincoln was sitting or standing near us during many moments of filming earlier in the day, this was the closest I was to both principals during an actual action scene for an extended period of time in the entire day of shooting.
The way the film was cut during this scene meant I was cut out of it; instead of the somewhat lengthy walk down the boardwalk as Lincoln processes what is going on with his son, the film cut directly to Lincoln’s feet overshadowing Robert, appearing somewhat out of nowhere, as Robert tries to roll the cigarette.
If they had cut a longer shot, I likely would have been in scene immediately as Lincoln turned the corner off the boardwalk to walk closer to his son. I inserted this photo to show the sidewalk I was walking next to, and this is the place where Lincoln and I passed each other on during each take. Throughout these entire scenes, though I can’t be found in close proximity in the film, I was only a few feet away, moving on by.
This meant I was passing by during some absolutely beautiful and intense acting from Lincoln; as he turned to gaze at his weeping son, there was such a true tiredness, weariness, sadness, that flowed from him in spades; it all blended with this dogged sort of determination that seemed to drive his weary carcass on towards the inevitable; inevitable in the sense that in each complex layer of his life towards the end, he had to do precisely and probably often exclusively what he absolutely must. I say this having witnessed Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln pass me by on the boardwalk only inches away; I will never forget how much his performance quietly shouted in such subtle moments like this that didn’t even end up on film. It was an amazing experience I will never forget. I had to remain in character myself and could not absorb as much as I wished; these things spoke volumes with mere glances.
When children play, and are left alone by adults, their play often mutates into deeper form. Kids may have shorter attention spans, but they also have incredibly deep, powerful, and energetic ones. I have noticed when my kids are busy and left alone for extended periods of time, sneaking a glance or a listen to their play reveals wonderful and incredible development; entire characters and worlds and ideas take root and grow up and pass away and they get lost in their own civilizations and cultures. With more time and dedication, the fantasy grows deeper and the lines between identity and personality and experience blur. I would volunteer unquestionably that similar growth patterns manifest themselves in the performing arts, which really are a complicated form of adult play. With more time and focus, the realities become deeper and something takes place.
Around the time of the final shots of the argument, the sun was setting, and my tiredness had overtaken me to the point where voices and interactions seemed dim and distant. A look to my left down the street as I passed the boarded walk revealed silhouetted figures walking in fog backlit by the setting sun with a deep orange glow; a top-hatted figure with a cane appeared and wafted in and out of the fog bank like a ghost, illusions subtracting clarity as to his actual direction.
As I reflect back on that moment, the synergy and fusion of all of us on set seemed to have reached the bell curve of fantasy play; a quietness settled on everyone, and the actors already so lost in their characters became actual historical representations of their real counterparts. Even the world around us seemed to play along, as the sun seemed to take extra long to set that day, providing its unearthly orange glow in ever deepening but not swallowing shadows. I seemed to no longer hear much conversation not related to the film; I forgot hearing “Action” or “stop,” and time seemed to blur. As Lincoln worked his sad way towards his angry son, he stopped on the boardwalk and stared at him for a few seconds before moving closer; the wind picked up and blew a circular eddy of dead leaves in the street, tossing Lincoln’s gray hair underneath his top hat like ceaseless waves; his coattails extended out behind and beside him, once again projecting visions of the ghostly and pedantic schoolmaster from Sleepy Hollow.
The takes continued on interminably, till all of a sudden in the last take he did, Lincoln stood in the middle of the street muttering to himself as the wind continued; he turned and glanced directly at me and a couple other extras a few feet away, and then walked off set, the last time I ever saw him.
In widely published materials after his performance in Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis said that he felt a deeper love for the character of Lincoln then any other character he had the privilege to be acquainted with; he also said he felt a deep and indescribable sadness upon leaving the character behind, along with an immense burden about the outcome and end of Lincoln’s life. Spielberg and Joseph Gordon Levitt reflected a similar sadness about the experience of making the film, and growing close to Lincoln and watching him fade off into the horizon at the cessation of shooting. Spielberg mentioned he could hardly say goodbye to Daniel on the last day; for him, it was almost unbearable.
On my own personal level, entailing life long battles with intense artistic callings, and the impact someone like Daniel Day-Lewis has had on my personal experiences with art; the sheer impossibility of actually being on set with him in character; there was a much briefer but albeit equally real experience on a personal level of that exchange between impossibly deep appreciation and sadness. It was a day I will never forget, and one that I emerged from a different person than when I entered it. I am not that visible in the film; and I am content with merely being another passing shadow or ghost in the background and being out of the way of the larger film in the same way Daniel Day-Lewis removes himself to make space for his characters.
After the end of primary activity for the day and the sun fully gone, upon waiting around on set as long as I could in hopes for another callback for possible additional scenes, which ended up being postponed, I ran into the aforementioned character of “Red” on my way out. We passed each other with a smirk, both undoubtedly remembering the ridiculous encounter from earlier in the day. “Titties,” he muttered softly, as he passed me by.
Michael Mann is one of my favorite film makers. I have yet to see every film he has made, but every time I see one he has done, I find new things to appreciate. While I am usually hesitant to use terms like “best” or “most favorite” in general, I have a passion for his work that I have a difficult time matching elsewhere.
It’s difficult to know where to start with someone who has such a long body of work and is already so recognized, appreciated, and prolific. Ultimately, I want to try to define a certain synergy that Mann gets in his films that summarizes why I feel the way I do about his work, and why I like it so much. I honestly could spend entire posts on single films of his – analyzing, appreciating, breaking down, studying. You get the idea – I like Michael Mann!
The first Michael Mann movie I ever saw in many ways could be a direct explanation for why I am so hopelessly into film today. When I was 15 years old, my Dad took me to see “The Last Of The Mohicans.” Again, the impact of this film, and my continued appreciation of it is too broad for this post – suffice it to say, I was transfixed. It is something that became sort of a joke with friends of mine, because of the undying obsession. A personal identification and personality fit with the film is no doubt a reality for me on many levels – still, even as I have aged, matured, become a jaded film watcher, and more cynical in general, it’s as if when I go back to this film, I only appreciate the things I love about it all the more.
Michael Mann storytelling contains an incredibly fluid balance of intense, emotional, powerful, sweeping romanticism, coupled with an appropriately dry, organic, minimalistic, non-presumptuous and pragmatic realism. I believe it is this coupling and this actual dichotomy which makes his films as powerful as they are.
From the perspective of direction, there is a distinctive quality to his films that I believe is worth delineating. The way he uses the mix of sound, photography, lighting, acting, and dialogue to weave an intensely romantic and yet realist texture, and somehow enables to do a large degree of this in almost every film of his, explains why I watch his films with bated breath.
For example, the story in Last of the Mohicans is as operatic, over the top, epic, and dramatic as that of any romantic film ever made – yet, what Mann accomplished in the realm of realistically recreating a historical period, has very little since been matched or surpassed. While I have my own musings and reasonings about what “romance means,” and what is true to life and not, some consider the romance in a film like Mohicans silly.
I am of the opinion that real life is most often far more emotional, intense, epic, dramatic, and romantic than any story or film – and equally often far more absurd even in its most realistic moments. I believe this is partially why I love Mohicans so much – it achieves an emotional intensity I rarely see in films, and it does so on a kinetic level that is rarely seen elsewhere.
What matters to me as a creative artist is not so much always the exclusive and individual settings of a story, as much as how far the actors and film makers go to sell the script.
This is what I enjoy about Michael Mann’s films – no matter what the script is, he chases after the emotion and contextual human believability in each piece. He has an inherent simplicity and belief in the emotion and passion inherent in life’s adventures and experiences, and he somehow manages to chase after it full hilt while avoiding the stickiness factor that so easily entraps. I believe it is simply taking the emotional elements of a story very seriously, and keeping them front and central with little pause or attempt to use established cliches to force them into our circumference for acceptance. Life is intensely passionate and emotional, oftentimes even more so than a film. There is a “Just Do It” feeling to his feelings in his films and his approach to romance that I love.
Here’s where I believe he partially is able to do this so effectively – Michael Mann loves atmosphere, and he loves realism, and he loves the mathematical chaos present, relevant, and transient in all reality, and also present in the conflict of all emotion. If one studies Michael Mann lighting, dialogue, work with extras, scene-setting, pacing, and more, he achieves an explosive and engrossing reality that oftentimes is never found in films with far bigger bandwidths and budgets.
Michael-Mann atmosphere also has a general melancholy, restraint, and mellowness that feels more in keeping with reality than many other heavily textured film environments. One of the most difficult things in film making is convincing people they are watching real life and not a film. Oftentimes the things we put the most effort into in our films, including dialogue, lighting, atmosphere, sound, and photography can actually do better than anything else in our film to signal the viewer that they are watching a production, rather than an organic entity. Sometimes our directing simply ends up as a set of organized hooks on a stage that yell “cue” and “cut” to every experienced movie goer. I suppose this is partially where the term “over-directing” comes from.
Sometimes directing must go towards making a scene feeling non-directed. In my estimation, Michael Mann is a genius at this.
One of my favorite quotes with regards to creativity is this:
“A skilled writer mixes in just enough boring, because boring is the dark matter of the reality we emulate.”
Many Michael Mann dialogue scenes have an organic reality and simplicity to them. They have a pacing and a backdrop that don’t feel like the scene began with the first frame we see (audio, cue, Action!), or will necessarily end with the last one we see. Oftentimes conversations are interrupted rhythmically as they are in real life, or are interspersed naturally with the environment they take place in.
Just one classic example of this is the scene in Last of the Mohicans where the party of survivors from the ambushed British column (Hawkeye, Uncas, Chingachgook, Heyward, Alice, and Cora) arrive in Munro’s headquarters room. The conversation within this inner chamber is still followed by the environment of a fort in chaos – and this goes beyond mere sounds and visuals of cannon, war, and fire – aides come and go and often interrupt the conversation of the main characters and protagonists, some interact with those who are maintaining stores and wares in the fort, and a couple times a person on screen responds to a character off screen who is saying nothing of much importance. Overall, we still get the official, gut-wrenching and dramatic thread of the story loud and clear, but we feel we are watching a real event unfolding in real time. Not every piece of dialogue is clear, rhythmical, or paced like a page on a script – again, this reflects real life where we don’t always get what people are saying at first glance. While this may sound like film making 101, if you watch and study Michael Mann’s films, and really pay attention, you will realize he is constantly doing things like this with what seems almost effortless.
The movie HEAT is another brilliant example of this – sometimes the dialogue of the detectives and bank robbers is so nuanced and so full of jargon from their respective fields and perspective and experience on them, again, one feels as if one is watching real events with real characters – one has to really listen to the characters and watch them to discover fully what their words mean. Michael Mann uses atmosphere and sound and restraint to make statements. There are so many moments in Mann’s films – moments that you can see an enormous amount of what is going on between characters, with such minimalistic words and speaking – you often don’t even have to hear what they are saying to know.
The same thing is true with regards to most of Michael Mann’s photography and lighting. He has a beautiful, organic approach that is heavily injected with intensely beautiful composition – if you know movie lighting, you know Michael Mann is fascinated with lighting that is hardly noticeable, almost untraceable, or simply not there at all. His films contain some of the most natural lighting I’ve ever seen – even the scenes that are carefully lit, still tiptoe the borderline between being studio lighting or, mere reflections from light down the hall, or a possible feathered diffusion from an overhead flourescent bank. His lighting is wonderful, but it’s almost not there at all.
His fascination with cutting edge digital technology and natural lighting is a study in and of itself. In Public Enemies, Collateral, and more, he took new steps in using digital technology to use silhouettes in dark buildings and the interruption of a roaring handgun spitting flame on a dark disco floor to not only first time, never seen on screen before effect, but he did it with intense dramatic effect. He harnesses the limitations of reality and finds the mind’s eye drama that is inherent within. The scene at the end of HEAT where Pacino chases De Niro across the airport landing strip and into the alternating lights is another example of using a naturally altering light setting to add tension and beauty to the story.
Not once when watching his films do I find myself guessing where and what angle the strobes are set up and aimed – this is something I do almost without thinking when watching films, but when I’m watching a Michael Mann film, it’s a trick to even imagine how they are lighting a particular scene, if at all.
Last of the Mohicans is also an amazing study in natural photographic frame placement and composition. So many points throughout Last of the Mohicans are framed in such beautiful ways as to look like paintings straight from 18th century America – yet our eyes deceive us once again and we realize we are watching “real” events with “real” characters and they just happened to stand/pause naturally in a certain way in a certain shot that felt like a moment suspended in eternity. Along with this, the staging of the principals often reflects their varied struggles and emotions – the shot of Hawkeye, Cora, and Chingachgook at the end of the film on the cliff is a wonderful example of this. Another phenomenal example is the two opposed parties in the fort, the British superiors, and the colonial militia, as they engage in final confrontation in Munro’s headquarters… if one was to freeze the frame, it looks like a painting from early Revolutionary War political meetings. This all happens without a breath of feeling forced or unnatural – it just organically unfolds in a manner that almost slips past one’s notice.
Oftentimes the intense moments of conflict in his films are so incredibly visceral. The ambush/massacre in the third act of Mohicans has yet to be paralleled in any historical epic I’ve seen – the street gunfight after the bank robbery in HEAT, the same. Intensity is a constant and undeniable character of his film making, and is present in all his work.
The list for examples in each of these things I highlight goes on, and on, and on from his prolific portfolio. As I stated at the beginning of the post, I am barely introducing one to the subject… one I expect to enjoy as long as I am alive.
Michael Mann is the kind of filmmaker and creative artist I aspire to be – epic and intense emotion restrained by lyrical beauty and organic reality, coupled with moments of roaring, visceral ferocity that make time slow down on its own in their frequency.
Much of human culture and thought originates from our imaginations. The more creative, independent, and vivid the imagination of a particular culture, the more nuanced, unique, original, and one could say effective that culture is.
I personally believe that all culture and entertainment are equally enabled as a result of the existence of objective ideas and the chase for meaningful moral thought – to even tell a story is to assume most presumptively that something matters. Why do I beg your attention in story form and wrap it in such care if there is nothing really worth saying?
If there is no morality, then of course nothing at all matters, and you can’t tell a story about something that matters when nothing matters. One could even say that the end of all creativity may be when simply nothing matters at all.
Some people believe story telling is just that – saying, sometimes screaming at the top of one’s lungs, that nothing matters, but as we all know, this goes against the very grain and fiber of human instinct and composition, and our grain is precisely why these sorts of “anti-matter” statements are so intriguing and engaging. We WANT things to matter, very much so, and we want our stories to equally reflect that sense of worth – or at the very least, to achingly express the search for it. We want to experience things that open our minds while engaging us in the reality and beauty of the world around us.
This dual topic of morality and creativity in story telling brings me to the topic of this post – the state of creativity today. Without question there are still movers, inventors and shakers who pour their sweat and their blood into what they create in a manner that should be emulated.
Still, it amazes me sometimes how little thought I observe being put into productions that have millions of dollars burning up every few seconds that tick by. Nowadays, story mechanics, writers mechanics, screenplays, casting ensembles, staging devices, camera work, acting devices and more have largely been reduced to a steaming pile of recycled, tired, worn-at-the-creases mass culture that does little more than tiptoe around already worn and politically correct stereotypes.
Popular culture is so pervasive, it is actually poisonous to creativity itself. One could make the case that a two year old has more freedom of imagination than any adult due to constant over-exposure and over-knowledge of the things I mention. Serious filmmakers who are concerned with the state of the movie business mourn the adaptation of action figures, video games, and board games into film franchises – Hollywood hardly even stirs from its slumbering depths these days unless film proposals contain the terms “3D,” “comic-book,” “universe,” or “franchise.” That which was of true value, or even slight true value, is endlessly claimed, adapted, mimed, referenced, over-quoted, franchised and re-franchised, and over hyped to the point where one begins to wonder what exactly it was about the original that spawned such a blind and feverish following. Intrinsic value is made subjective to the components within, and no one retains the objective ability to dissect something to its abstract, objective principles which made it great. What we are discussing is the death of independent thought and the ultimate death of a culture. What made Scarface or the Godfather or The Wizard of Oz or The Sound Of Music amazing and engaging for so many? How did they get there when they were the first ones in line?
Oftentimes we are so immersed in popular culture and its influence, when we create stories or films or whatever we are making, we simply refer to other already established forms, ones that receive perhaps more unmitigated and non-discerning attention than they deserve. It’s as if all of humanity has forgotten how to think further than the last 100 years, and everything we are in contact with is inside that tiny window.
We too often define new ventures as little bits of patchworks from other successful characters, stories, directors, and shows – we say things like “it’s a little bit like a spy thriller, and there’s a main character kind of rough around the edges like the doctor from HOUSE, and it all has this incredible tension that reminds me of a Spielberg or a Kubrick film.” There, I’ve gone and made a sentence that would confuse the living daylights out of any two year old, Leonardo Da Vinci, alien visitor, or an American pioneer. I’ve restricted my creative depth and creative target details to a mere 100 year window in human history, and refused to boil down my thinking to the raw elements of mathematics, philosophy, and reality and the actual components that make things what they are.
I believe this is largely why so many films these days hit almost all the right buttons in terms of spectacle and special effects, but the story itself often feels incredibly flat, or it feels strangely flat in an unidentifiable and foggy way, or the characters feel like I’d hardly stop and say hello on the street, much less actually care about them, or the characters simply abandon their humanity, the R-E-A-L humanity we all know inside all too quickly.
It is high time we realized we live in a real world and a real universe with real human beings and realize that a justified story is a story that justifiably manifests itself in at least some manner within that same R-E-A-L universe. No matter how fantastical your story is, it still takes place undeniably in the R-E-A-L universe we know and inhabit – and the more you pay attention to the system of rules we are forced to follow as humans as you create, the more enveloping, grand, and convincing your story can be.
No one seems to stop and think about the actual components, understanding, techniques, and thinking that made those successful things the way they were – we are content with merely copying and pasting and shading things a slightly different color, and we think we are done, and have done our job. We are a thinly veiled shadow or a distant half-moon, cloudy day reflection of Shakespeare, or Leo Tolstoy, or Victor Hugo, or Charles Dickens and we have virtually no means of getting back to what exactly it was that made the content they produced great.
I could write volumes in response to the above paragraphs and opening exposition, and try to make my point from every conceivable angle, trying to prove how trite culture actually is, and then go on a tangent as to how imitation and repetition are actually active and healthy parts of a creative community and always have been – but my desire in this post is simply to scream loud enough to remember everyone who makes and creates to pause, and clear one’s mind for just a brief moment, if just that.
Anything that is created as a reduction, increase, change of, or made of parts of anything else, anything that is measured from other measurements, is called a derivative. In mathematics, this same definition applies. Without getting too deep into calculus, since most of it has been forgotten by yours truly anyways, I make this simple point:
“The infinite derivative of a constant is zero.”
Amazingly enough, this is an actual mathematical rule! It is intrinsic to the universe we inhabit. If I take a derivative of the number one, and then keep, keep, keep, keep doing this, I will eventually end up with zero. The more a culture is defined by itself, the more a culture forgets how to think creatively and deeply and truthfully as human beings, the more we are really just a sorry assembly of derivatives, and the closer we get to absolutely nothing at all.
The more derivative a source is, the closer it is to being absolutely nothing at all – to zero. I honestly believe that this increase in derivatives is the fact that we have so little center as human beings any more, and in our pride, we think we live in an unassailable castle of originality – but our inability to connect with truth or the taste of it means that so little of our meaning has any meaning left in it.
Oftentimes, stories consist of mere emotional patchwork bolstered up by music and artistry – for some, this is satisfying enough of a meal, but because there is no truth or moral integrity to the story being told, it doesn’t hold up. We must stop thinking in terms of derivatives and find a way to think in terms of constants. Not just in our mathematics, but in our photography, our filmmaking, our writing, and our thinking about what’s real, valuable, and what ultimately matters in this world. Searching and finding are an essential part of creativity about the world, and we cannot ask any questions when we start with what we have decided are an already assumed list of answers. This is not adherence to the anti-thought that “there are no answers” and life is just a list of questions – merely that there aren’t enough questions being asked. Take any film and its weaknesses, and most of them start with a list of questions that people ask that were clearly not asked by its creators.
I take the historical epic sword-and-sandal series as an example, and merely highlight one or two features of them to expose rampant derivativism (I created that word!). It’s a genre that is tough to be original with, so I am not bashing any one of these sources nor saying it is easy to create them. This is also a very shallow issue that I highlight, but nevertheless, I believe it highlights a pattern.
In Braveheart in 1995, Mel Gibson and William Wallace taught us about fighting for freedom. It was, however accurate or not, a phenomenal story in its own right. In a famous scene from that film, the Scots have to hold a line on foot against charging cavalry in order to wait till the last second to reveal spears that were specifically created to unseat the riders. In that scene, Wallace guides his men by shouting “hold!!” till the last second. He also established a very clear rhetoric in the film about freedom and its causes.
Gladiator came out a few years later, and while it had absolutely wonderful aspects of originality in it, there was a battle scene in the beginning that had a general yelling “Hold!” In this case, he was encouraging his cavalary to hold together as they charged downhill into the melee-ing Picts and Romans. I am not accusing this movie directly of plagiarism, but this is going somewhere.
The movie 300 is a more recent tale in this vein – it did plenty of its own original things, but the language in the film with relation to freedom and its motivation for the Spartans reasons felt a bit underdeveloped, and slightly out of place for the time period. For someone familiar with the genre, these comments about freedom felt like they hardly did more than assemble a few lines that sounded like they were from Braveheart or Gladiator. Most of what was beautiful and original about this film was straight from Frank Miller’s comic book by the same name.
I was able to see some of the new Starz network “Spartacus:Blood and Sand” show, and in a fight in the woods at the beginning of the show, a main character yells “hold the line!” I couldn’t help notice that there was no visible line of soldiers to be held, or rhyme or reason for him yelling this. Again, it feels as if this particular scene was written on a particularly quick lunch break by someone not familiar with all the variables being engaged. The line has become a popular culture item that, if you don’t really care, you put in any production featuring swords, sandals, and blood. The show does its own things well, but too often the entire architecture is not remotely original. Interestingly enough, the show goes to new depths (in some cases way too far in my opinion) in terms of its portrayal of Roman vice, and the main character seems to maintain a Judeo-Christian ethic as a means of obtaining the sympathy of the audience.
Almost every piece of this production is from other parts – in some ways, you could say that they marketed it successfully, because people recognize what they have enjoyed in the past. Perhaps this is the intrinsic problem with so much of our market today – too often everything we do and say is motivated by a desire to succeed and make money. We’d rather make a buck than invent our own economy. We’d rather market a cheap sounding item that reflects the ones that have greater work put into them and get people to buy it.
There are other things that are very derivative about each of these – and as Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” While this is true, and sometimes actually necessary, I believe that while everything is a derivative on some level, it all depends on what you are a derivative of, and to what degree. Without going into all the reasons behind these things and the intrinsic value or lack of value of them or where they came from and why, I simply restate: the derivative of a constant is zero. I by no means claim to be exclusively creatively original – – but I ache to chase after this in all I create.
I’ve been working on a short film for three years, which, by its very nature, is derivative of many other subjects – much of that is due to our limitations as a no-budget filmmaking office, but we have tried at every possible instance to be as non-derivative as possible while still remaining true to style and genre. As a new filmmaker, applying derivatives is an essential part of my learning process – I absolutely must imitate those who know far more than I do – again, I believe the rule of derivatives is a valuable but also a dangerous one.
Composition, as a science of assembly, is something that is very important for all creative activity. In being such an important factor, it can be defined on many different levels. Here, I hope to examine just a bit of the wonderful and timeless techniques of Sergio Leone to inspire us to think outside the box.
You could make the case that many of the problems with film making today are that not enough care is taken when things are being composed. The more variety and nuance you use when assembling the various elements of a film, whether the characters, the music, the photography, or whichever layer, the manner in which you assemble things together determines the final outcome. Everything in a film is composed – it’s all about how you do it.
Leone is one of the masters. It isn’t until you’ve watched hundreds, if not thousands of movies and shows, that you start to see how truly original, and painstakingly passionate, he truly is. Whether or not you think his output is what you would aim for as an artist, he displays a panache and passion for storytelling and feeling in his art that simply bleeds out of his films.
I do not mean for this post to be a review of his entire film career or his technique – it would be hard to cover that in multiple books. I merely want to highlight his skill and encourage people to watch his films with these things in mind.
Leone is famous for his fascination with the human face. If you watch multiple films of his, you will see the panoramic closeup of multiple actor’s faces used many times, and not always to the same effect. It is often suggested that this technique was created for his tense gunfight stand-offs in his Spaghetti Westerns, but if you watch more of his resume, you will see he is interested in this distance from the human eye for more reasons than building tension. I have seen him use the same distance to communicate vast anger, sadness, frustration, fear, apathy, and more. He also did not restrict these shots to only major characters – minor characters who only made momentary appearance in his films also received this shot at times.
His photography was not only obsessed with the vast canyons of the American West, but the vast canyons of the human soul expressed in the infinite variety of the face, and the eyes.
When widening his lens, or shooting at mid range, Leone is equally the master of photographic composition. Each frame of his films is very carefully composed, often with golden means and rules of thirds scattered throughout – I say scattered, because even with his intense ability to compose perfectly, he somehow manages to maintain an organic texture to his photography that doesn’t feel over-directed.
His combination of still life with real life, mid, close, and long range fields, along with a knack for putting something on screen and making one think “what is that?” till it is revealed by gradual or sudden story machinations, all combine to make one of the most visually interesting directors in fillm history.
To watch a Sergio Leone film as a photographer is to experience frame after frame of rapturously glorious photographic composition. In the “making of” documentary for the DVD “Once Upon A Time In The West,” it was mentioned that Leone refused to use a boom mike in assembling his sound. Very often, this mike will limit composition by providing a constant limit to the top of the frame due to distance requirements from the subject. This added freedom is obvious when you watch his films. He goes from close, to wide, to low, to high, with a freedom and joy that feels unusual. Many, many frames in his films could be paused and studied as photographic or painterly art on their own. It’s also interesting to study time as a tool for arriving at such interesting compositions. While some feel his sequences are too long at times, I feel he is studying how interesting moments are fleeting and violent by expanding the amount of gradual drift to arrive at them. If one gives him the benefit of the doubt and follows his sequences, they arrive at the point of violence almost too soon – it can be difficult to discern how we arrived at such violence with such gradual step by step adjustment.
Leone is equally a master of using cinematic sleight of hand to write his characters and add the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the exciting to sequences that have been worn thin.
Although one could say once you’ve seen a Sergio Leone Western gunfight, and the associated tension mounting, you’ve seen them all, when I saw the opening to “Once Upon A Time In The West,” I was really impressed with how he made a very similar encounter feel fresh yet again. This sequence is, in my opinion, one of his best, where the sound of a creaking weather vane, the wind, and a passing train are really all you hear as several gunfighters methodically work their way into position. When the scene exploded into action, the fury of it caused me to rewind the DVD and watch the entire sequence three times in a row, simply because it was such a masterpiece. Not only is it an example of his skill with pacing and photographic composition, the sleight of hand with which the “stranger” appears, and the outcome, at least for someone who has seen hundreds of gunfights, is incredibly creative and exciting.
Another example of his tendency to use sleight of hand and think outside the box – in the film “Duck, You Sucker,” our two protagonists violently blow away almost an entire army of government soldiers. The bloodshed by the two of them using machine guns and explosives is manifold. Since the film is about revolutionaries, Leone was interested in portraying the thoughts and feelings of someone who is partaking in an attempted violent overthrow of a government. Immediately after the aforementioned scene, we see the two protagonists in hideout in a cave, and they seem filled with remorse. One of them slowly states sadness and regret – the viewer is led very clearly down the path of thinking the protagonists are sorry for killing so many soldiers in such a bloodbath. Slowly, slowly, the camera pans down and then around the entire cave in an uncut take that is almost 2 minutes long, and you see he is standing amidst the bodies of his best friends and family members, who were ambushed by a separate group of government soldiers while he was away fighting. The inversion of understanding and emotion is instant for the first time viewer – we suddenly are taught why the revolutionaries don’t look back, and seem ready to rush out and engage the enemy yet again with little thought or consideration, despite the bloody distance they have already come.
Leone is a master of creativity and doing new and interesting things with his films, on all levels. He is virtually solely responsible for the “spaghetti western” film score – and while this type of scoring has a very particular niche in our culture, and is used to evoke a very specific sort of feeling in films of today, I believe the unique quality of his musical scores is evidence of simply more of the same passion and attention to detail.
Leone is a master, and though his films can be long to sit through, and some of them can err slightly on the side of too quirky for their own good, he is a vast source of new thinking, creative application, and excellent storytelling, even within the technological limitations of his day. Like any of the great directors, a creative thinker can learn something almost every time the subject matter is visited. I look forward to learning more from him.
As most people who go to the movies know, there are many times where a trailer for a movie serves as a sort of standard for judging one’s reaction to the final product. Most people who watch movies have probably used the phrase, “it wasn’t as good as the trailer” more than once in their lives. This can be very subjective, of course, since an individual response to a trailer can be as varied as the person who watches it.
There are actually very few films that achieve the feverish pitch of intensity and gradual build that we so often successfully see in well done trailers. As a filmmaker myself, I am well aware of the challenges in doing this. It is not easy. A pitch is always easier than a fully fleshed out concept.
It also must be kept in mind that trailer science, while very similar to film writing and film making, tends to take on its own ground rules, sometimes due to the interference of marketing and studios with how trailers for particular films are compiled, and sometimes merely due to the simple fact that it is much easier to cut a 2-minute exciting film than a 2-hour one.
All that said, I believe there are things that film makers and writers focus on or make important when writing or cutting an exciting trailer that they do not apply when they are building or completing their films, evaluating their primary characters and their motivations, or even editing their final draft of their films. Trailers almost always have excellent pacing, exciting moments, and a gradual build to a crescendo as a general rule – well done trailers cut out the flat or the boring or the stupid and make you believe.
A trailer is to a movie like one date is to actually marrying someone. Everyone knows how to write and behave within a trailer – and everyone knows how to act on a first date – but it is in the long run that we often lose and abandon our focus, and our real weaknesses come out. I am not suggesting that writing or creativity become shallow or glib, or plastic – merely that our dedication to excellence in the bigger and more important parts of life should be as focused as they are in the small moments.
The fact that almost everyone likes to use trailers or first dates as a standard for judgment suggests that this is also an unwritten but assumed law with humanity – “deliver as you promised.”
For me, a very classic recent example is the final trailer for “Terminator: Salvation,” and the final film. Without question, the action scenes in the movie matched the intensity broadcast throughout every frame of the trailer – yet, and most Terminator fans seem to agree with me, the movie itself was a torrid, limp product that did not provide a very strong scaffolding/foundation for the action to take place.
The Terminator franchise is a franchise fraught with difficult things to piece together – there are already three major films in the franchise and a television series with another one coming out in 2015, and this movie happened to be the first official Terminator movie set after Judgment Day. One thing is clear to me when I watch the film – either the script writers, the director, the studio, or whoever else was involved, couldn’t narrow down in just a few sentences what was absolutely most important for an effective entry into the current events in the Terminator universe. All of the reasons why could be reserved for a different post – I mostly want to narrow down a few very essential items I felt were missing that could have been noticed if the writers merely applied some “movie trailer” class thinking as they looked at everything in the film.
When writing for a film, the most important thing you can do for your movie is to evaluate each and every major plot point, each and every item that impacts the viewer, and make absolutely sure that not only you know why these events are happening in your film and to your characters, and that you lend some sense of progression to your viewers – whether or not they are meant to fully grasp it, depending on your approach.
In a trailer, people set aside their long-term expectation for clearly motivated characters and character depth, and with the exciting music and pacing, are often more willing to accept a one-liner as signifying the kind of writing they expect to see when they arrive in the theater.
That is often the problem with modern film making and writing – the motivations and reasonings and personalities of the characters hardly ever go any deeper than the one-liners in the trailers, or someone’s distant memory of some other character in some other film. When we watch trailers, we are willing to suspend disbelief with fewer caveats than when sitting in a two hour film – we are more willing to believe the writing on the packaging, or at least notice it. Without question, the trailer for Terminator Salvation suggests they had some amazing actors, some amazing concepts (that of Salvation as the core concept), and some amazing looking scenery and effects, all in a well-loved, exciting universe – it left very few people doubting whether the film itself would be powerful. It almost suggested that the new Terminator movie not only had effects that surpassed the old ones, but a new seriousness and “believability” factor that had never been seen.
Unfortunately, there were major things written into Terminator Salvation that not only made the most important architectural meeting points of the characters and the places feel weak and hastily written, but the very reason that all the characters did what they were doing, to “save John Connor” didn’t get any mileage within the film. As a Terminator fan, I perfectly understand why this is important – but I also wanted to see more. I wanted to see the actual events and steps John Connor takes that make him absolutely essential to the War against the Machines – which is the most basic plot point in the mix.
Ultimately, this should have been set up with politics and technology and the associated conflicts, but they didn’t do anything more than make him a shallowly written rebel against a horribly trite “nuke ’em all” general, and they did this without showing why it was necessarily important or effective. Yes, they threw in the fact that humans were being harvested at Sky-Net, and “Kyle Reese” was there/ John Connor’s Dad, who of course, went back in time in the first film to father John Connor, so he HAD to be saved, in order to save John Connor’s life – but don’t make everything you tell me about a film merely a minimal summation of what we already know.
Again – this is why the script’s scaffolding was so weak – it is based on circular reasoning that is entirely dependent on things other people have written in other films set in other time periods.
Throughout the Terminator franchise, we have been constantly exposed, almost to the point of silliness, to the importance of John Connor’s life, and protecting him. Unfortunately, the film did almost nothing to make any sort of why behind this absolutely clear, and the framework upon which John Connor was acting, the Resistance, was vague, and thinly written at best. When all we see the Resistance doing within the movie is a few badly-dressed extras sitting around wave radios looking all starry-eyed at John Connor’s voice, unfortunately, it does little to finally show us, now that we have arrived in “the future,” why John Connor is so important. The importance of John Connor was a central plot point that seemed to get little thought or treatment.
Thus, the primary crux of the movie was merely stolen from the other films, and it almost feels like someone said “this is a Terminator movie so we have to save John Connor” without really thinking about connecting each and every thing they showed in the film to “why.” It is certainly possible that this film didn’t HAVE to focus on why Connor is important – the core issue is that the primary events in the movie didn’t hold my interest, because they didn’t establish enough of the most important world in the writing universe: “Why.” I am not one to suggest film making or writing should be overly explanatory or not as sometimes grey and vague as our own world is – I’m merely referring to assembling enough rational elements that people can actually connect with something on screen in a tangible way.
I understand and believe in keeping character motivations simple and not overly complicated – but when you do this to the degree where it actually strips the fat off of why almost all the other elements in your movie are acting the way they are, or even why they are there (like Kyle Reese) you risk a very unfounded and ultimately silly feeling outing into a familiar universe, that, four films in, has already gone a long way towards stretching our daily willingness to “suspend disbelief” for just another two hours.
If only they had sat through the script and the film and written a 2-4 minute summary of each major character and the plot decisions, thought of things rhythmically and sequentially and structurally, and then thought of all the questions and lack of clarity that would come up at each step of the way, and how trite certain characters were, and how much development of motivation was actually lacking in the film – then, perhaps, the movie would have come close to the amazing tension and explosion of energy displayed in its trailers. The plot points I mention are merely very high level – there were plenty of other similar moments and questions in the film. The filmmakers, by following previous films, and setting it in a new time frame, took on a lot in the fourth film, and some of the <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrvMTv_r8sA”>problems on the set</a> suggest that there was more going on than we realize.
I actually encourage film makers to sit down and try to summarize your whole film while listening to music – then use that summary as a somewhat rigid <em>pacing</em> guide as you continue to work your films towards the finish line. It will help you to feel where your characters are headed, where they come from, why they are doing what they are doing, and give you more ideas about nuances and brush strokes to add to the worlds you create, so that when people sit down for your film, they are held breathless as they are swept into it all.
As this Terminator Salvation trailer shows, at least someone knew what makes a great movie – themes of life, death, survival, hope, loss, all presented with a build towards amazing intensity… unfortunately, the film is really hardly more than a confusing puzzle that seems like it couldn’t figure out where/how/why to assemble these elements in an order and manner that would make it truly powerful. I give the movie kudos for recognizing these things – something simply went wrong in the process from A to Z.