Friday, January 13, 2012

Beginners Mind, Beginning Again - or the Great Reboot

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind

After my operation and the frustration of not working while recovering, I was anxious to get back to work, and this time, really put my focus more on film.

My degree was in Dramatic Literature, and I had never studied film, and was starting to feel a little behind the curve on film sets.  I had worked my way up through every job imaginable in theater, and that was what made me so confident.  In film, I was on the production side, and always dependent on people with more technical knowledge.  With this new opportunity, I went back to NYU and took their Six Week Intensive, as well as a screenwriting course. 

Remember what it was like to be a freshman, the excitement of being on campus for the first time?  Being back on the campus of NYU, walking past students in Washington Square Park, but older now, all those feelings came back to me.   Even NYU’s ugly purple logos looked good to me.

I took a number of things from those few short weeks. 

One was our next to final project.  They would choose two scripts, and then split the class up to shoot two versions of each script.  In one night, I wrote a story of a bookie that desperately looks to collect money owed him.  It was, to be kind, homage to David Mamet.  Hey, it was a class project and we had little more than one night to write it.  I love Mamet’s style, the way he invents his own language that is a slang that we think we know but we don’t.

One of my favorite examples of Mamet’s dialogue is from American Buffalo:

"Lookit, sir, if I could get a hold of some of that stuff you were interested in, would you be interested in some of it?"

The other students loved it, and it was picked as one of the projects to shoot.

The catch was that whoever wrote the script could not direct it.  I am thankful for that to this day.  Watching someone else interpret my work gave me insight into the collaborative process of film, and respect for the fact that the written word is only one stage of the process.  One scene brought this clearly into focus.

The scene was one where the bookie goes to a priest who owes him money.  Yes, in my scripts, even the priests were a little shady.  The priest gives him a small part of what he owes.  The bookie is frustrated, but says to the priest “OK, Father, well, if you can’t pay me, at least pray for me.”  I think I wrote the dialogue a little better than that, but I don’t quite remember it verbatim right now.

One of the directors was French, and in his interpretation of the scene, he didn’t change a word of dialogue, but the action of the scene was different.  We open on a close-up of the bookie saying those same words, but, when we go wide, we see that he is holding the priest’s face over a steaming hot pizza.  He lets the scared priest go as he walks out angrily.

I never conceived of the scene this way.  It was my words but it wasn’t my scene.  It was better; much, much better.  I can’t tell you how much this has helped me not only as a writer, but as a producer working with first-time writer/directors .  The auteur in the independent film world is much lauded, but the collaborative process and the ability to bring others’ creativity into your vision makes for a better tapestry and more energy.  One of the great ironies of filmmaking is that it needs to be one person’s clear vision, but it also needs others input to achieve that vision. 

Then there is the issue of taking credit.  We had two German girls in the class, and they could not have been more different.  One was very serious and studious; the other, a model who wanted to be a filmmaker who could not be more flighty.  Stereotypes come from somewhere, and they both represented their own stereotype; the serious, unsmiling German and the ditzy model.  They were friends, and the serious one would sometimes admonish the model to be more serious, to which the model would reply, “Oh, don’t be so German.”  When you’re cute, you can get away with a good deal.

Writing something in English was difficult for them, and the more serious one asked if I would help them write the script they were to submit for the final project.  I forget how many final projects were chosen, but there were few, and if you wrote the project, this time you did get to direct.  I had written my own project – this one better than the last, and had the time to work with them on their project, which was more abstract.

Of course, their project was chosen, and mine was not.  No good deed…

It wasn’t entirely disappointing, though.  Once again, I got to learn a skill I would not have if I had directed, which was editing.  This was old school – you know, where you hung up strips of film?  You’ve heard about it, I’m sure.  I’ve edited on Final Cut, and, no, I wouldn’t go back to cutting film, but it did force you to make harder decisions.   This was the first time I learned a sense of pace and timing.  Overall, I would say it was a very satisfying experience.

There were other good things that came out of that class.  Our teacher, Thierry Pathe, had a very down-to-earth approach to filmmaking, which I always related to better than complex theory.  Sadly, Thierry passed away in 2002.  I also met a few people I would later work with, including someone who would become a great friend, Chris Kelley.  See, I gave his full name, so you know that good things are to come about him, and, indeed, we would work on a number of projects together for more than the next ten years.

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