Thursday, October 1, 2009

Filmmaking Theory & The Making of GOTHIC/CLAUSTROPHOBIA

I'm most interested in film to tell stories, create drama, atmosphere, suspense - to submerge the audience into the environment of the narrative and the characters.

First comes the story. I was always into stories. Reading. Watching. I realized later that even from the youngest age I was studying stories, analyzing their structure, trying to discover what made them work.

When I was a teenager I got into film. I took up my own course of study. Learned as much as I could. I became known as a walking film encyclopedia. Knew of every important director and most of the minor ones. Also screenwriters, producers, cameramen, actors, editors, composers, production designers, stunt coordinators, etc., etc...

But I was most into how the language of film works - to tell the story. And to get across its emotion. How to use camera movement, composition, editing and music to create passion, desire, determination, suspense, drama - how to put the audience in the characters' shoes.

I realized, however, that the single most important element in getting across intense emotion, suspense and atmosphere is the actors. They are the portal for the audience. If they're not fully involved, nothing else is going to work.

I developed my own cinematic style.

Going after the chance to put it to use became my life's main focus.

I made a few shorts in film school at USC. Did a couple music videos when the opportunity arose. Wrote a few scripts. Edited five shorts by other emerging filmmakers.

But I was aching to do something that fell in line with where my strongest talent lay.
I'm most into science fiction and suspense thrillers, but it's rather difficult to pull one of those off without major backing.

What I'm really into is drama. Whether a piece is futuristic, contemporary, or of the past, big-budget or low-budget, sci-fi or straight-up horror, as long as it has a good dramatic foundation -- hey, it's got potential.

I wanted to do something original. I'd first met some goths on a film set where they were extras and got to know them. I did extensive research on the gothic subculture. The music. The clubs. The scene. The way they look at life.
This way over-simplifies it, but I'd long studied the dark side of human nature - and I too have a strong appreciation for dark, atmospheric music and environments.

I had earlier read of militant Straight Edgers in the L.A. Times. I'd never seen these characters put together in anything before. Goths and Straight Edger-types thrown into conflict in the same room. I knew this idea had promise as soon as I came up with it. It was a new take on the age-old theme of prejudice and intolerance.

I had to have a concept that was doable with little resources. GOTHIC/CLAUSTROPHOBIA was designed with the idea of what could I do for virtually no money - one location - few characters.

I'd long been fascinated by films that were able to achieve a strong impact with superior craftsmanship but little backing. This, of course, is best exemplified by horror films going back to Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And they had a lot more to work with than I did.

Some artists seem to relish restricting themselves by choice. Hitchcock often placed his films in limited settings -- most notably, he put Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window in one contained location for their entire running time.
He knew that if done right, this would make them more claustrophobic and intense - and it would give him an additional creative challenge - how to keep things visually compelling while staying in one place?

I designed a very minimal physical setting: basically four actors in one room, with some make-up effects, blacked-out walls and a few simple props. We had one brief scene out front, with the antagonists approaching the door.

My goal was that the audience never gets the chance to realize how minimal it was. I wanted to take them through an intense emotional experience. They should be drawn in by the film's dramatic set-up and held in suspense through the whole thing. The story, performances and cinematic craftsmanship should work on their own merits.

I started by writing a full-length feature script. But I realized the only way I could get it done was as a short.

I had to boil it down to its core essence.
The full-length screenplay goes into far more with the characters, of course. I had worked in a good amount on the gothic subculture. There's more on how the Edgers targeted these particular goths - there's more characters - more build up - here you're almost just thrown in.

It was a difficult, intense shoot. Compromises were inevitable. But a certain standard had to be met.
The key for me was to keep to the emotional and thematic core of the piece. There would be no compromises there.

I also knew the atmosphere was very important, and that could not be compromised either. One of the most important elements in a piece like this is a strong atmosphere, getting across a strong sense of the environment. This is to make the audience feel they are vicariously in the characters' shoes, that they are right there.
So the lighting and the music were very important - this project may be virtually no-budget, but it had to be done right, or the thing wasn't worth doing. I worked very closely with the cinematographer, and later, the composer. I knew just what I wanted, and even though it was going to take longer, it had to be done.

There's often pressure to shoot with flat lighting, so you can move quickly from shot to shot with little changes or tweaking. The film-noir inspired, low-level lighting I needed meant having to change the lights every time I moved the camera. The rule of thumb is you can shoot at most two pages a day this way (and this almost proved to be true). I had a 10-page script. I scheduled a four-day shoot, and I was determined to stick to it. It was shot mostly in sequential order, as much as possible.

Time is also required for make-up effects. These were done on the last day, which naturally was the longest. The last shot you see in the movie was the last shot we did, well after midnight on the fourth day.
After a few hours rest the cameraman and I came back to shoot the close-up insert shots that did not involve the actors (the gothic icons, objects moving and falling over). So what should have taken at least five full days was done in four, plus a couple hours of inserts.

Looking back on it, the shoot was a great experience. With all the challenges. Everyone was there with a strong sense of purpose, and good work came out of it.

There were problems along the way - I could tell you stories about the trials and tribulations in the weeks leading up to production. Delays. Having to get a new location. More than once. Regrouping. Rescheduling. It seemed endless.

But I was determined to hold it together. And I always had the feeling that once we got to the shoot, it was going to go smoothly. For the most part.

And it did. I'm quite proud of the final result. It does what it was supposed to do.

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