Tuesday, December 30, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - The Final Cut

"I don't try to guess what a million people will like.  It's hard enough to know what I like."
-John Huston

After JR's death, there was a definite mourning period. He was cremated, and we got together on a beach in New Jersey and spread his ashes, joking as we could amid the tears.

Of course, Jack and I were as determined as ever to finish the project, and we collaborated as much as we could with Jack in Chicago, where JR's editing suite was located, and me in New York. Jack did the editing with JR's assistant editor, which added another dynamic to the process. In theory, it was good to have a fresh set of eyes. In reality, since he had only been an assistant editor, it meant Jack did the first cut pretty much the way he wanted to do it.

My first reaction to the first cut was that it was slow, but that's not unusual. I assumed that we could pick up the pace. I knew the problem started at home.

From the first reading of the script, through listening to sides at auditions, it occurred to me that, despite my best efforts, the script was too "talky." I have a great love for dialogue, and ever since Town Diary, I have pushed myself and the filmmakers I produced to pare down the words. Talking is great on stage, but it is hard to sustain it in film.

There are exceptional writers who can get in a great deal of dialogue and keep a story moving; Aaron Sorkin is my hero in this area. The difference is that the dialogue is always active, always moving the plot forward, and he does a great job of having his characters on the move as well.

Our story was about a filmmaker with regrets, battling his own past and that of a town's. Too often, I felt the scenes were telling and not showing. Worse yet, they often were reflective, which works better in novels than it does on screen.

Part of that was Jack's rather straight-forward style of shooting, which made the dialogue too precious, but I have to take responsibility for laying that foundation for him.

One scene in particular bothered me. The main character, Brian, has a strained relationship with his father. At one point, he discusses it with his mother. This is an adult man in his 40s trying to come to terms with his relationship with his parents.

It worked on paper, but when I watched it, I realized that it was not only reiterating something we had already established (his issues with his father), but it was at a point in the film where we were following a mystery, and it stopped it dead in it's tracks.

I asked Charlie, our cameraman and now de facto DP, to take a look, and he agreed, not only with the scene, but with the pacing as a whole.

Jack and I were past the arguments - JR's death made all that seem trite - and we tried to work out the problems. Jack agreed with some changes, but he felt that the mother-son scene was too good to lose. It was odd - a writer protesting to a director that a scene should be cut, and the director responding that the dialogue and performance made it indispensable.

In the end, the biggest change for Jack was that certain scenes just didn't work, and we needed to do a reshoot. I wasn't sure, but Jack  raised the money on his own to do it. 

We did the reshoot the following June, with Charlie as DP. The scenes we reshot certainly were better than what we originally had, including one in a newspaper office which I completely rewrote. We never found a good location for the original newspaper office, and built it in a studio. It looked awful (not the fault of our designer - there were budget and time limitations).* This time, we found a little underground newspaper office that was perfect. We also cast a long-time character actor named John who I knew from, you  guessed it, West Bank Cafe.

An aside on John.

John had one of the more revealing off-screen lines during the shoot. Word spread on set that Jack Lemmon had just died. When John, an older character actor, heard, his droll response was, "It's just as well. His work was going downhill." John wasn't kidding. He really felt that, if an actor didn't have his work, there was not much reason to stick around. Tells you a lot.

Back to the movie.

Shortly afterward, we had a screening at Tribeca (we rented the space). A table was set up with photos to honor JR, and certainly, much of the party afterward was a celebration of stories about working with JR, as it should be.

The screening itself? I sat with my assistant on the film, who knew me and my feelings better than anyone. She was the one who had to listen to all my complaints about how Jack was missing the main points of the film, how our lead was wrong, etc. Bless her, she helped me get through the entire thing.

The final product, in my opinion, is slow. I sat there, proud to see my name in a writing credit for the first time, but disappointed.

The film you screen is never the film you shot, or the script you wrote. It's rare that it is everything you wanted under the best of circumstances (see "Director's Cuts" and the Coppola's endless retelling of Apocalypse Now); and low budget films are never the best of circumstances. There is a line - and each individual has to find it - where the film that you screen is a true expression of the story you were trying to tell, or it is not. For me, it didn't make it across that line.

That experience has propelled me as a producer. I work with a lot of first-time directors, and, on low-budget, there are always compromises. A point I always stress is that you really need to know what things you would like and what are essential, and fight for the latter.As a line producer, it's a hard balance, but I really have fought on every film since not to have another filmmaker have that sinking feeling watching your baby and realizing that she is not as pretty as you thought.

* Here is a lesson I have learned more than once on low budget: when in doubt, go with a real location. It always sounds enticing to build to your needs, but if you don't have the budget, manpower, and time, too often, the result looks cheap.

N.B. This could have easily been three posts - one on the aftermath JR's death, one on the reshoot, and one on the screening. This series has run the better part of this year, with interruptions and I thought it was time to move on, both for myself, and those who are good enough to follow this blog.