I don’t have too much that I’m at liberty to share right now, but here are two pictures:
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:
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?
Some 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!
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.
Here is a short film that I wrote in ten minutes and will never make:
EXT. AIRPORT – MORNING – MUSICAL MONTAGE
KEN BIRMINGHAM, a Re/Max agent, carries his suitcase through the automatic doors of a large international airport. LIGHT, PLAYFUL ORCHESTRAL MUSIC plays as he:
— checks in at the ticket counter and hands his suitcase to the TSA screener
— sends his shoes through the x-ray, while walking through the metal detector
— has his bag searched by a TSA screener
— is wanded and frisked by a TSA screener
— hurries to his gate, arriving at the last minute
— finds his seat, crammed in next to HELEN, a slightly-overweight, middle-aged woman.
INT. AIRPLANE – MORNING
The airplane takes off. Although Ken sits in a window seat, he doesn’t watch the scenery. Instead, he stares amiably at Helen.
Helen COUGHS, scratches herself.
Ken clears his throat. Helen ignores him.
My name’s Ken.
Helen ignores him.
Ken. My name is Ken.
Helen looks the other way.
(she disguises her speech as a cough)
…Helen? Nice to meet you, Helen.
Helen turns back to Ken. She smiles a flat, lifeless smile. She stares at him.
I’m a real estate agent. What do you do?
Helen says nothing. She continues to stare. Her creepy smile grows broader.
A flight attendant walks down the aisle. Ken attempts to wave her down.
Excuse me, could I have a glass of…
The flight attendant ignores him and walks past.
Helen still stares at Ken. Her smile is now a full-blown grin. Her eyes are dead and emotionless.
Ken forges ahead, trying to make conversation.
I’ve been all over the country this week…
Ken may be imagining it, but he could swear that the corners of Helen’s mouth have started to split open.
Just the nature of the business… I’m more a… a property manager, really…
The corners of Helen’s mouth have definitely begun to tear open. The splits now run down both cheeks, leaving jagged gashes that make her grin even wider.
(he chuckles nervously)
In fact, this is my third flight this week!
Ken laughs, hoping that Helen will laugh too, but he elicits no reaction at all. Her cheeks continue to split.
Ken looks out the window. Another airplane has pulled up alongside them.
That plane is very close, isn’t it?
Helen says nothing. The splits in her cheeks now reach back to her ears. She makes a quiet rattling sound, like a dying lizard.
Ken peers across Helen and out the window on the other side of the plane. There is another jet there, too. One of its engines is smoking.
There’s… there’s something wrong, isn’t there?
Helen CHUCKLES. Her chuckle sounds like evil itself.
Listen, uh… Helen…? I’m–I’m sorry if I’ve done anything to offend you, but I…
Suddenly, the top of Helen’s head flips open, unhinging her jaw and leaving her tongue lolling at a disturbing angle.
Ken loses his breath in shock.
Helen’s throat GURGLES. She stands up.
All the passengers watch as Helen walks in slow motion to the front of the plane.
She pulls the emergency release handle on the door. There is a powerful gust of air as the door is ripped off. Oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, but the passengers are transfixed by the vision of Helen, the top of her head flopped backwards, as she hops nimbly out of the plane and is sucked into the already-smoking engine of the plane flying next to them.
The engine of the neighboring plane explodes into a fireball momentarily, but then burns out and returns to perfect working order, just like new.
Ken stares, dumbfounded.
The flight attendant offers Ken a glass of orange juice.
INT. MANSION – MIAMI
Ken guides a PROSPECTIVE BUYER through an obscenely ornate mansion in Miami. He speaks absentmindedly, as if he doesn’t understand any of the words he is saying.
…and of course the kitchen comes fully-equipped with the latest in appliance technology. Granite countertops, and–
The prospective buyer interrupts.
It’s a beautiful home.
Ken has to think for a moment before he comes up with the right answer.
Yes. Yes, it is.
You find this work interesting, then? Real estate?
Ken looks out the window and thinks for a long moment. He says nothing.
The prospective buyer grows uncomfortable.
Ken turns back and stares at the prospective buyer, wordlessly. He smiles, with dead eyes.
FADE TO BLACK.
Excerpted from a much longer work that may yet see the light of day:
DECEMBER 2009 – After retrieving my bag and smiling my way uncomprehendingly through customs (I was amused to see that the airport police were sponsored by a cell phone company and all sported large red ‘Claro’ logos on their backs), I boarded a shuttle to Granada, accompanied by an American couple close to my own age. They were typical college kids: blond-haired, ivory-white. The guy wore a giant backpack with a Nalgene bottle peeking out of a side pocket. Leaving Managua they were a such a happy couple, fresh-faced and excited to be in a foreign country. By the time we got to Granada 20 minutes later, their relationship was in ruins.
The argument started when the guy kept calling the Nicaraguan countryside ‘primitive.’ His girlfriend took offense, maybe because that’s an ignorant thing to say about a country when you’ve been there a grand total of half an hour, but the issue ran deeper than that. She wanted him to stop calling her father ‘Crazy Pete.’ He countered that if she wanted him to stop calling her father ‘Crazy Pete,’ she should stop calling his friend Kevin a ‘douche bag.’ She responded that Kevin was a douche bag, and so were most of his other friends.
It was hardly 6PM and the sun was already setting. The pungent smell of woodsmoke was almost overpowering, and the cones of distant volcanoes emerged from the haze, only to disappear again. It was, somehow, not at all what I had expected.
“Be quiet!” the girl whispered at the top of her lungs. “The guy’s going to hear, is that what you want?” I was the only other passenger, so I assume she was talking about me. She could have been referring to the man behind the wheel, but she struck me—perhaps unfairly—as the type who wouldn’t necessarily realize that there was someone driving the van.
It wasn’t long before the silent treatment began. It was mutual, and it was brutal. Whatever love they had once shared was gone forever. And all because of some douche bag named Kevin. That son of a bitch. As for Crazy Pete, he wasn’t crazy so much as eccentric, like the time he tried to barbecue a whole pig and nearly burned the house down. His idiosyncrasies were endearing, not like the deeply disturbing habits of the mentally ill. This girl loved her father, and her boyfriend should be able to see that.
Outside the van, a man sitting with a goat in front of what might loosely be defined as a ‘home’ utterly failed to note the significance of what was happening inside the passing vehicle.
If pressed on who was the victim in this argument, I would have to side with Nicaragua. In days gone by, the Nicaragüenses would have toiled under the thumb of Somoza, or been exploited by the fruit and textile companies. Instead, times being what they are, they’re forced to put up with people like the two sitting beside me—and, of course, me. In a world before the almighty tourism dollar, we would have been confined mostly to large American universities, where we could breed among our own kind without spoiling the world for everyone else.
Granada is a popular destination for gringo expats from Europe and the States, and there are a whole host of them living here. It’s cheaper than Costa Rica and more developed and stable (for now) than Honduras or El Salvador. The gringos are the ones who run the hotels and the restaurants and so, in a cruel twist of globalism, they are the ones who wind up with all the tourism dollars, all the while bemoaning the exploitation that Nicaraguans have suffered in the past at the hands of foreign economic and political interests. They of course do a public service to the impoverished people in the city by hiring them as fry cooks and housekeepers. If they’re really generous, they might donate a portion of their income to an understaffed clinic or an overcrowded school.
This is the real tragedy of a tourism economy. On one level, yes, Granada has all the makings of a tropical paradise with a quaint local charm. On another level, though, the introduction of a tourist-class supplants the very quaint local charm that so many people have come in search of. If things continue as they have, it won’t be long until a sea of impoverished barrios form a ring around a central cluster of hotels and bars and restaurants for the affluent traveler, and people like my friends from the shuttle van will never have to venture beyond the thin ribbon of hostels that form the border dividing “charming Central American travel experience” from “homeless glue-sniffing eight-year-olds.” Private security firms will be hired by the chamber of commerce to keep beggars out of the central plaza. The street vendors will be licensed, and all their wares will be priced in U.S. dollars. It will be marvelous.
I woke up to a siren in my living room last night. It was about 3:00 in the morning, and I stumbled from my bed and down the hall. You know how when you wake up to a loud noise you don’t really know what’s going on, but you know you need to do something?
I tripped and fell at the end of the hallway and wound up sprawled in front of the television set. Static pulsed from the screen and the siren grew louder. It wasn’t like any siren I’d ever heard.
From the glow cast by the TV, I could just barely make out five large, perfectly-formed mounds of dirt arranged around my coffee table. On one was a burning candle, stuck by a lump of soft wax to a severed finger.
Help, I think my house is directed by David Lynch.
I know you think a house fire would be bad, but it’s really changed my life. I don’t doubt myself anymore. I don’t wake up to sirens or strange noises. No starting out of a nightmare only to come face-to-face with a formaldehyde-soaked cat corpse. That cat was the only friend I had. The cat’s dead now, Mr. Lynch. I hope you’re happy.
That night, sitting in front of my television, I found a match on the floor. Odd, as I don’t use many matches. Tentatively at first, I extended the match head into the flame of the candle and it burst to life. I held it in my hand for a long time, watching it burn. When it had almost reached my fingertips, I dropped it on the carpet.
It’s strange how such a small match can do so much. The carpet caught fire instantly, and the flames spread much faster than I expected.
Oops, it worked. My house would soon be gone. I would soon be homeless. What about my important tax documents in the top drawer of my desk? What about the hat rack that my aunt Sadie insisted was a priceless antique? What about Chad, the grad student who rents my basement room?
All that would soon be gone. Soon I would find myself standing on the sidewalk in my pajamas, being examined by a callopigian paramedic—Aphrodite with an ambulance, so caring, so tender, as I watched the flames rising high above my head.
You wouldn’t think a house that size would burn so fast, would you, Mr. Lynch? You wouldn’t think that the smoke would spread so far, that the sirens would wake the neighbors from their own restless dreams.
You bewitched me
And so I thought you were a witch.
The villagers burned you alive
But now I am enchanted by the villagers
Who have begun to accuse me
My birthday is this week, and as my annual gift to myself I’ll be abusing my status as a blogger to post some indulgent and/or ridiculous things I have written and never shared.
Here’s a stream-of-consciousness freewrite that was a warm-up exercise at a Ministry of Playwriting meeting. The first sentence was given to me, and the rest was free association:
The Greeks showed the relationship between square and odd numbers like this: Two squares, two odd numbers. In a ring. It’s a death-match. The Roman Emperor is watching, even though he hasn’t been invented yet. It starts with 5 versus 9. Obviously, nine wins. No contest. Then comes 23 versus 16. 23 wins. We think we’ve got a pretty robust system for predicting the winner worked out and the Emperor is getting bored when the third match comes on. 4 versus 87. Get this: 4 WINS. Everyone cheers. The bloody corpse of 87 is dragged from the arena… or rather, the 7 is. The 8 is so mangled that it has to be cleaned up with a shovel and a bucket.
4 is our new national hero. 4 plies the strings of the drummer’s guitar and dances with beautiful women in the street at a parade in its honor. 4 is everything you wished to be yet failed to attain. 4 is the new God.
Athena is angry. She is being neglected. All she’s got is a product-placement deal with Nike, and nobody’s paying attention. Luckily she’s the god of combat or some shit, so she challenges 4 to a fight to the death.
Not surprisingly, Athena wins, and everything is once again right with the world.
And yet sometimes, when I count 3 plus 1 bandages in the bathroom cupboard, or 2 plus 2 otters at the zoo, or 5 minus 1 moaning coeds on the Betamax™ videocassette, or maybe I’m just dialing 4-1-1 or 214-2404 on the phone to talk to my disemboweled grandson, I think of the power of the number 4.
4 is the square of 2, and the square root of 16. It has a loving family of other numbers who always do their best to keep it clean and healthy. And the number 4 killed my father. It was a hunting accident. It’s all for the best, I suppose. He was a horrible man, and all the stupider for taking a numeral along on a hunting trip. What happened was the gun slipped… and it landed at an odd angle… and 5 shots rang out. 4 of them pierced my father through his heart.
At his funeral, we had the undertaker cut him up into quadrants. We buried him in 4 coffins.
Read this article. IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service report that digital projection will overtake 35mm film projection in movie theaters by the beginning of next year, and that 35mm will account for only 17% of theatrical projection by 2015.
This is good news, hopefully? I’ve always thought film was a great acquisition format but a truly rotten distribution format: projectors jam, prints tear, they have to be broken down into 20-minute reels for shipping, they’re flickery, they get dusty and scratched and their analog optical soundtrack can sound like a dusty record.
From the standpoint of a low-budget independent producer, this is very good news. You need some serious scratch to strike just a single 35mm exhibition print, but 0s and 1s are practically free. It is a dream of mine to have a good digital projector in every cinema in America (Good being the key word).
The question is what effect this shift will have on small, independent cinemas. A high-end DLP system costs a bundle, and a lot of smaller movie houses will have a hard time justifying the cost. So what does that mean for the future of indies?
Here’s my prediction. Best case scenario: in an oddly counterintuitive move, art house films will keep on striking film prints for at least 10 more years in order to accommodate the smaller, lower-overhead venues they play until digital projection technology eventually drops in price enough that indie movie houses can switch over (and do it right).
Worst case scenario: small screens will feel the heat from Technicolor and Deluxe, and will be forced into buying dinky little 1080p home theater systems that alias and oversharpen and have those ugly color wheel artifacts. The independent moviegoing experience will suffer, and the cause of indie cinema will be set back by nearly a decade.
No matter what happens, I’ll be sad to see the bloop go bye-bye. It’s always felt to me like an integral part of the moviegoing process. You know the bloop, right? Whenever you go to a 35mm-projected movie, stick around until after the credits are done. This is the tail; the part that’s all dirty and scratched. Usually you’ll see some pretty colors, you’ll hear a big KA-THUNK as the optical track ends… if you’re lucky, you might even see Digital Marcie.
I’ll miss you, Digital Marcie.