Telling the truth with movies

I started Fallen Branches as an exercise in generating pages, but as I dug into the plot, I discovered that I was writing what would become the most personal movie I have ever made. I’m fond of saying that every character I write is autobiographical in some way, but that’s especially true of this script. And when I was finished with the first draft, some of the things I saw shocked me. For a long time I had no desire to show the script to anyone. I kept telling myself that when I revised it, I would work harder to be less personal, to obfuscate and invent. I thought I would rewrite the whole movie, but when the time finally came to do a second draft, I found that there was very little I could change about the fundamental story.

Over the course of 125 pages, I had painted an unflattering self-portrait—and yet, I had to grudgingly admit, it was sincere. It was a movie about love and resentment, two emotions that are never far from my mind. It was a movie about the pressure I feel to live up to the expectations of others—and my own expectations, too. It was a movie about doubt, about regret. It was me when I was a bastard and me when I let people take advantage of me. More importantly, it felt like it was other people, too.

I’m a collector of great quotes, particularly about the nature of art. Here is my current favorite:

“The desire to avoid embarrassment is the death of art. To be human is to be embarrassing.”

~Young Jean Lee

So, after fighting with my ego for months, I told myself to let it go. When I released the final draft into the wild to be read by dozens of actors and crewpeople, I had made peace with allowing myself to be vulnerable.

I’ve been surprised at the response the script has received. It’s a little movie, after all, about a family. Grandma has died. They’re losing the farm. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times before. But we have amassed a scarily impressive cast, and it’s in large part by virtue of the script. The word that gets thrown around a lot is “honest.” I don’t say this to brag, my point is that a movie like this doesn’t get made unless the script connects with people. I don’t think that what I have done is particularly remarkable, I just set aside my ego and wrote down what was in my head, but… I guess maybe there aren’t many movies that do that. Maybe that honesty has resonated with others.

It used to be that I was loath to explore love or resentment in my films (or doubt, or regret, or fear, or… anything else, really) in any meaningful way, because I was afraid of what people might think of me. Or sex. Noooo, certainly not sex! Talking about sex was anathema to me! And yet here I was, writing about it in a way that was… honest. Not funny, not freaky, not titillating, just… honest.

I’ve never written a sex scene before. I’ve always let my embarrassment get the better of me. But I knew I needed to write one in this movie, precisely because it made me uncomfortable. Sexuality is too big a part of the human experience to put it out of mind or couch it in euphemism (as Hollywood is so fond of doing). There are a number of independent filmmakers now producing what amounts to art-house porn, and although I find their goals politically admirable, I think that they’re missing the point: sex in movies tends to focus on the ways in which the characters are different from us. In this way, it is a microcosm of a bigger problem: movies often otherize their subjects. That’s not something I have any interest in doing.

This otherizing is a symptom, I think, of our tendency for ironic detachment. Ironic detachment is easy. It lets us say things without meaning them. It lets us rely on cliché without seeming too earnest; to wink at the audience. See as an example every look-how-quirky-this-person-or-situation-is independent film ever made, the message of which is always: these people are not like you.

I recently saw an interview with the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He was talking about how astounding it is to realize that the atoms that make up you and me and everyone else in the world were formed in the crucibles of distant stars—how that one piece of knowledge ties us to the universe (and to each other) like nothing else.

That’s the kind of movies I want to make: movies that are predicated not on the idea that we are different from, but the idea that we are the same as. That’s how I wrote Fallen Branches, and I find that through that process, I have become—possibly for the first time in my life—comfortable in my own skin, and capable of taking these lessons with me to my next movie, and the next one, and the one after that.

I rarely do anything other than make movies, because I don’t like to do things that I’m not good at. Like telling you that I love you. But I vow to do things I’m not good at. I vow to tell stories that are not easy, stories that are honest. Going forward, I will never make a movie unless I believe that it deserves to be made, and that I can stand behind the film as an extention of myself. That is a director’s job. I don’t always know what I mean, but I promise that from now on, I will work hard to figure out what I mean and then say it. No excuses. No detachment.

 

Andrew Gingerich
January 28th, 2012

Our production board

One entire wall of our production office has been sectioned off as a giant February calendar. Each of the strips of paper pinned to the wall represents a different scene that we need to shoot.

Fallen Branches production board

Yikes.

Location Tease

I don’t have too much that I’m at liberty to share right now, but here are two pictures:

Farmhouse front door

Barn location

Cinema Needs Saving

People of Earth, I come to you today with exciting news.

I’ve been keeping mum about this for a long time, mostly out of superstition. They say you shouldn’t tell people you’re pregnant until after the first trimester just in case something should go wrong, and I’ve taken the  same tactic here. But now it’s time for me to let the cat out of the bag:

I’m pregnant.

Wait, why did I say that? No. Definitely not pregnant.

No, I want to tell you about a new cinematic venture that I am proud to be a part of: Region Zero. I’ll be dedicating a week’s worth of posts to discussing the ethos of Region Zero, and how it will work in the real world. Today: a seed germinates.

I spent most of last March in Santa Fe, working with Vvinni Gagnepain on his film Delicious Pound Cake. Most of my off-set activity consisted of pacing back and forth in Vvinni’s dorm room and ranting about the film industry for hours on end. Those rants got me scheming, and one day towards the end of production I sent a long, rambling email to Vvinni and a couple other like-minded maniacs. I excerpt it below:

Before reading this, you must read The Day the Movies Died, by Mark Harris for GQ. It’s long, but you have to read the whole thing. It’s some of the best film-industry commentary I’ve ever encountered.

I was watching an interview with Atom Egoyan the other day, and he was lamenting the death of the medium-sized movie. He says that big-budget ($20 million+) features have a future and that tiny backyard features do as well, but that the market for smaller, intelligent movies aimed at adult audiences—the kind of movies he makes—is drying up, and opportunities are vanishing with them. It’s made me think about the future of movies, and particularly movies made for smart, discerning audiences.

Hollywood makes movies for 14-year-old boys. It seems to work for them, and as they have discovered, this business model means that they never need to develop original properties; they can rely on existing brands (like Battleship or Rubik’s Cube—yes, Rubik’s Cube) to sell their films based on name recognition rather than worrying about the quality of their product. It’s frustrating, because Hollywood used to be my one shining goal in life. Now I don’t think you could make me work for Universal even if you gave me a $90 million development deal. Don’t you feel the same? Because all that money comes with little strings attached to it that pull you in all different directions, and it just seems like more and more, there’s no way to be creative inside these giant money-making institutions that (let’s face it) are going to come crashing down just like the music industry, and sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, film as art (in America, anyway) is married to film as business. I humbly suggest that it’s time for a divorce. I’m talking about production companies as nonprofit organizations, their goal being to make good movies that people like, rather than to turn a profit. Eddie Izzard said once, “I’m a creativist—I don’t make things in order to make money, I make money in order to make things.” Can you think of a business model that, if widely adopted, would terrify Hollywood more than that?

Region ZeroSome nine months later, those first fevered ramblings have come to fruition, and Region Zero is now a bouncing baby corporation. For the time being we’re functioning as a subsidiary of the St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts. They have accepted us into their incubator program, which allows us to use their 501(c)(3) status for our own fundraising—meaning that any donations to us are tax-deductible. It’s like money laundering, but totally legal!

There’s more nuance to the business model that I’ll be covering in an upcoming post, but there’s another equally-exciting piece to this puzzle: our first movie.

All of Region Zero’s board members agreed that as our mission in its simplest form is to make movies, we needed to start work on our first feature film right away. This would be a flagship film, our calling card to the world, and a test case demonstrating that we are capable of achieving our stated goals. I’m excited to announce that the film we selected is a one that I wrote earlier this year and will be directing. Given only a few minor unexpected disasters, production will begin in Minnesota this February. More details on the movie forthcoming this week.

Region Zero is a labor of love, and our first movie doubly so: we’re taking “low-budget” to new lows. I normally feel guilty about not paying cast and crew what they’re worth, but here we’re all on an equal footing. We’re all working on this movie because it’s something that we believe in, and if we should win the lottery in distribution, no one person benefits financially at everyone else’s expense—our nonprofit business model dictates that the revenues from this project be reinvested in Region Zero to help fund the next film.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this movie is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. It’s a small family drama—written specifically for the purpose of being cheap to make, so it’s not exactly breaking any new ground in that respect. Still, it’s a welcome return to form for me, and the production model is truly refreshing to someone like myself who has become jaded with how Hollywood’s sausage gets made. Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of this new venture!

Fallen Branches: prelude to a film

I’ve been a bad blogger.

I’ve got big news—not just big news, relevant news—that I have failed to share here. If you’ve been watching my Twitter you might have noticed that something was up, but I’ve been stingy with the details. But time heals all wounds, the crooked places will be made straight, and I have vowed to blog again.

So here’s the deal: I wrote a feature last April. I called it Fallen Branches, which is a dumb title, but it was a smart story. It’s a movie about a family, and love, and secrets, and how complicated everything can get.

I also cofounded a new production company, based on a nonprofit business model, called Region Zero. The idea was to make a movie, and then another movie, and to keep making them and never stop until we were dead.

Then things got interesting. Region Zero actually took off. It’s got a fiscal sponsor and a board of directors and everything. And when it came time to select a film for production, Region Zero took a look at my script, told me it wasn’t good enough yet but that it could be, and greenlit the project for production.

So I revised and revised, and my producer Matt Kane produced and produced, and everything is still ongoing, but we’ve passed the point of no return. We’re (mostly) funded, we’re (mostly) cast, we’re (mostly) crewed up, and I (mostly) lost my mind driving across the featureless plains of Nebraska last week. I’m now living in Matt’s apartment and will continue to do so until the movie is completed, at the end of February.

There will be more news forthcoming. This blog is going to become my director’s journal, my production notebook, my one tenuous mooring to reality. I’ve got some upcoming posts that more fully explain Region Zero, and of course there will be lots and lots of production news. Right now I’m sitting in the Spyhouse Coffee on Hennepin Avenue, waiting to meet with our costume designer. We will probably be discussing flannel in great detail.

The translation of a story from words on a page to light on a screen never ceases to amaze me.

 

Peace,
Andrew

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