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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Got a crew, had a rehearsal. Thoughts on filmmaking as a collaborative effort.


After finding all our primary cast members, I wondered how to put together the production crew. Maiko The Producer said that she will recruit help from people of the Tokyo University of the Arts (the place where Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Beat Takeshi are teaching), she then rented a DVD to show me, an omnibus with four segments, each an adaptation of a Kawabata Yasunari short story. I was impressed by the technical skills and production values displayed throughout the film. I agreed, it would be quite wonderful to have such experienced people helping us out.

One day later, Maiko told me that she had recruited their help. Two directors of photography, a gaffer and a sound mixer. Aside from the sound mixer, they were not students, but alumni from the university, some are actually teaching there.

After accompanying us with the location scouting (that's when I ended up taking those fabulous photos at Inokashira Park), they spent the past few days coming to my university lab, testing each and every one of the equipment. They went through the cameras, testing the different shutter speed, the filters, iso speed. the exposure, the frame rates etc. after I said that I intend to have some motion blur in some night scenes. Having done all my previous films in MiniDV, a HD camera was totally new to me, I excited when they then reminded me that the slow-mo looks good on HD compared to MiniDV.

"This production seems to have become much bigger than you imagined." A course mate from Thailand, Kong, observed.

It was. To think that initially I would only be doing some quick guerrilla shoots, and thinking that maybe I myself might have to operate the camera myself if forced by circumstances (I'm horrified by the idea). Yet everything just seemed to fall into place without me having to worry so much.

The idea of filmmaking had always been one of immense challenge and physically taxing. I told Maiko two nights ago that maybe because I've started small, where in my attempts to make films, I was always a one-man crew, and then moving to student films where I knew I was being second-guessed repeatedly by my own teammates, and sometimes having people whose top priority isn't really just to make a great film (not to diss them, just saying that it's fortunate for them that compared to me, they have many things to care about beyond filmmaking), I was forced to pay attention to every single aspect of the filmmaking, from micromanaging the schedule, the budget and actors myself, to negotiating for locations, to thinking and conceiving the production design (after people who said they could help me had other more pressing matters to attend to) and even making the props myself.

I was always prepare for the worst, because shit often happens during a shoot, an important crew member calling in sick, the breaking down of an equipment, or a last minute withdrawal from a cast member, or a sudden rain during a sunny afternoon. Sometimes I survive because of my own improvisational nature ("Aaargh! Why is it raining? FINE! Let's just have the father disappear into the pasar malam during the rain, and let the boy watch! Maybe it'll look more melancholic!"), sometimes I make compromises ("WHAT? The boom mic broke down suddenly! Fine! I'll just replace the entire film with VOICEOVERS!!!"). Although the compromises often yielded accidental results (I was referring to the ending of Chicken Rice Mystery, and also the use of voiceovers in my student film, Vertical Distance).

But I guess ultimately, I was so used to having to do damage control and worrying most things by myself during my early attempts at filmmaking that to see a gradual growth in my production crew in each new production is quite fascinating. Like last year when making CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY and LOVE SUICIDES made me realize what is it like to work with people who share the same passion and goal, I suddenly felt that I didn't have to worry and deal with so many things anymore.

"And because of that, you can just concentrate on the story and the directing." Maiko the Producer said after I voiced out these thoughts to her two nights ago.

How refreshing it is, to see that my belief that filmmaking is a collaborative effort is slowly being reinforced. It's always about people working together, pooling together their expertise and talents, their own worldview and emotions, to create something special. Perhaps many has this romanticized notion that a great filmmaker has to be a hardcore dictator in control of everything, screaming and yelling the whole time at a hierarchical system just so that everyone could conform and create his vision, perform his ideas, recite his words. Examples were often cited to me, how Fritz Lang would set extras on fire because they were mere 'props' to him, or how Fincher (when making ZODIAC) would go through hundreds of takes to get things right, or how David O Russell (when making I HEART HUCKABEES) and Kubrick (when making THE SHINING) would be genuinely nasty to cast members for the sake of maintaining a tensed atmosphere on the set just so that performances could be more authentic and genuine.

Hey, if that's what it takes to perform MY vision, then sure, I don't mind doing that. But my vision and ideas aren't static, sometimes I see people improving upon it, and I would just let it happen. I don't have to feel insecure about them not being entirely faithful to what I had in mind when what I got in instead seemed much better anyway. I like spontaneity.

That was the whole basis of my speech before rehearsal sessions yesterday, where the entire cast and crew were present. "For the next few days we will work together, hopefully we won't end up wanting to kill each other by the time the shoot is about to end. There will much we can learn from each other as we work together. My script is just guidelines, the character exploration is a collaborative effort between me the director and you, the actors, and I won't be surprised if towards the end you know the characters better than I do... etc etc." (I forgot the rest of the stuff I said)

Of course, my speech of profound eloquence was translated by my assistant director, Lia The Artist. Aside from one guy from China, my entire crew's Japanese, I had recently joked that I might suffer through a Lost In Translation in reverse where the director's the sole foreigner instead of the actor. However, most of my cast members are fluent in English, so my lack of Japanese skills isn't a major problem either.

In the past few weeks of pre-production, I cannot help but marvel at how meticulous the Japanese are when it comes to preparations. I even had a schedule for the rehearsals, to know which scene and which actors to rehearse first while another would go and try their outfit with Maiko the producer. And the entire technical crew was there as I rehearsed the actors so that they themselves would take notes and know how to set up their shots, camera positions and the like for the scenes. And for me, the rehearsal became more than just for the actors, but also for the entire crew, as I went through the line-readings and positioning with the actors through their acting, I would also point out where I want the cameras to be, which one will be in slow mo, which one will be in close-ups, which one needs artificial wind for aesthetic purposes.

Conversations that occurred during yesterday's rehearsal session:

Takao the Actor: You sure I have to put a plastic bag of goldfishes on the table? It'll actually roll off.

Me: Uh oh.


Rukino the Actress: Why would she work as an Akihabara Maid for so many years?

Me: She needed the cash.

Actress: When I worked there, I got only 900 yen per hour.

Me: ... Uh oh.


Assistant Director Lia: So, you wanted her to hold the plastic bag of goldfishes, and the colour of the fishes to stand out like this because it represents her emotions?

Me: Er... yes, YES!! That's exactly what I meant!


Amane the Actress: If Kyoko was a teacher, it isn't possible for her to marry Matsumoto at such a young age since it'll take years to become one, based on personal experience as a teacher. So instead of being married for 20 years, 15 years might be more plausible.

Me: Fifteen years, it is! And after fifteen years, their marriage had become one where they both merely went through the motions, and nothing more!

Amane: I see. Then Kyoko's probably a child of civil servants, raised in a happy family, so when she faced marital problems with Matsumoto, she wasn't prepared to react to it.

Me: AHA!

Definitely a fruitful rehearsal. Only one more day left before the shoot. (which begins early tomorrow) I'll be visiting Akihabara again in the evening with the cinematographers to examine the locations.

(Photo by colodio)