Archive: 2007

NYC does a flip-flop

In late May everyone got a touch excited when the City settled its lawsuit with filmmaker Rakesh Sharma. The lawsuit occurred because Rakesh was detained after police officers saw him photographing buildings and held him for several hours.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Film and Television for being very filmmaker friendly and the settlement news made people think that it would be easier for filmmakers on New York streets –

In a settlement released today New York City has agreed to create, for the first time, written rules governing the issuance of permits for film makers and photographers. Under the new rules, which are to be published Friday in the City Record, filmmakers and photographers using hand-held equipment no longer will be required to obtain city permits or have $1 million of insurance.

Sounded so hopeful, but… they’ve finally come out with the rules and while many of them are fine, some of the rules are totally headed in the wrong direction – primarily because the rules are arbitrary and therefore, there is going to be a lot of room for abuse and “interpretation”. How wonderful.

From the New York Times:

New rules being considered by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting would require any group of two or more people who want to use a camera in a single public location for more than a half hour to get a city permit and insurance.

The same requirements would apply to any group of five or more people who plan to use a tripod in a public location for more than 10 minutes, including the time it takes to set up the equipment.

Julianne Cho, assistant commissioner of the film office, said the rules were not intended to apply to families on vacation or amateur filmmakers or photographers.

So… the whole handheld exemption rule is true only if I am alone. If I am with someone else, then I need a permit and $1 million in insurance.

And by leaving the language so broad, the police are the ones with the discretion. So while Ms. Cho kindly informs us that it is not “intended” to apply to families on vacation, hey, if you happen to be a brown family and the police happen to be suspicious for any reason, you just violated this rule baby!

The whole point of written guidelines should be to provide clarity and therefore reduce the chances for abuse and these guidelines do nothing in that regard.

Mr. Dunn said the proposed rules would potentially apply to tourists in places like Times Square, Rockefeller Center or ground zero, “where people routinely congregate for more than half an hour and photograph or film.”

The rule could also apply to people waiting in line to enter the Empire State Building or other tourist attractions.

The rules define a “single site” as any area within 100 feet of where filming begins. Under the rules, the two or more people would not actually have to be filming, but could simply be holding an ordinary camera and talking to each other.

The issue is that most people would not even be aware of these rules and would be in violation. That’s really sad. I understand their desire to get professional filmmakers to get permits and get the required insurance – especially because getting the permits is relatively easy (if you have the insurance in place) and the insurance is important since NYC is a busy city and accidents can happen on film sets. But leaving the net so broad so that amateur filmmakers and anyone deemed suspicious by the police can be trapped is not cool at all.

It could severely hamper amateur, guerrilla filmmakers who definitely won’t be able to qualify for the insurance. I remember when some friends and I would quickly sketch out a story, and take a handheld onto the street, shoot something and edit it later in the day. It was a blast and it kept us working and learning. And now, I could be detained for that. If I trust Ms. Cho, I shouldn’t be, but the guidelines do not provide the clarity for me to be sure.

If you want to voice your opinion and tell the Mayor’s office to change this rule and clarify the language, please do so here.


Blueberry Nights

I am a huge Wong Kar Wai fan. I love his style. I love his patience with the shot. He holds it for way longer than most would have the courage to and that is what makes it visually compelling.

So I was disappointed to hear that Blueberry Nights, his latest and greatest is not so great after all. I will still watch it – especially for the quivering kiss.

Looking back at “My Blueberry Nights” with some remove, though, the film doesn’t seem such a crushing disappointment as much as just Wong Kar Wai on an off day. He was certainly due. The run of “Happy Together,” “In the Mood for Love,” “2046” and his “Eros” segment “The Hand” makes it easy to forget that there have been other times his signature fixations, his heady visual style and his narrative aimlessness haven’t congealed into a great film. That it should happen with his highest profile film to date is a shame, but “My Blueberry Nights” isn’t a complete write-off — it’s just not, with the exception of one silent, quivery kiss, shot through with that particular cinematic felicity that suffuses his successes.

Understanding why a master messes up can be as important as understanding why they succeed (not that I profess to understand either at this point).


Loins Of Punjab Presents

Manish Acharya’s Loins of Punjab Presents is freaking hilarious! After I missed the first screening at NYU’s First Run Film Festival (where the film won the award for Best Feature), I hounded Manish to show me his film. It just so happened that NYU held a marketplace for their graduating students. And that is where, at 2pm in the afternoon on a weekday, I finally watched this film, in a screening room of the basement of Tisch.

Loins of Punjab Presents (let’s just call it Loins for fun) is about a bunch of random characters who are thrown together over a weekend in New Jersey as they compete for the title of Desi Idol.

Who are these people? Well, there is the rich-bitch socialite, Mrs. Rrita Kapoor (Shabana Azmi) who is desperate to win, but even more desperate to show up her socialite competitor, Bubbles Sabharwal.

Ajay Naidu is Turbanotorious BDG, a quintessential angry young man who also happens to be a gay bhangra rapper. Oh and his partner in his act is also his life partner – an African-American-bhangra-rapping sidekick.

Josh Cohen (Michael Raimondi) is the token white guy in the competition (hey, Hollywood has token black guys and token international guys! We have truly arrived when Indian films have token white guys 😉 ) who loves all things Indian, including his girlfriend Opama Menon (Ayesha Dharker), who loves the fact that he loves all things Indian.

There’s sugary-sweet Preeti Patel (Ishitta Sharma), who’s been ruled by her parents her whole life. The poor kid is surrounded not just by the overly controlling parents, but the entire clan of Patels, at least one of whom is constantly attached to Preeti. The true talent of the competition, she seems fated to win.

Sania Rahman (Seema Rahmani) is the good-looking ABCD wannabe-Bollywood-actress who can’t speak a word of Hindi. Ah well, she’s convinced she can just fake it.

And finally, the director takes on the role of Vikram Tejwani, the stats-addicted geek who’s job has been outsourced. The competition is his last chance to make enough money to give him some financial freedom.

Confused? Not at all. Manish manages to introduce the audience to a whole host of characters very effectively, each in his or her own element. For example, Turbanotorious BDG is introduced in a club as he does his own version of gansta rap as his family looks on, aghast at the cursing. Mrs. Rrita Kapoor is learning music from her guruji when she receives a call about how her rival Bubbles is one-upping her. Reaction? A severely-arched eyebrow and a furiously-churning brain. Preeti Patel and her parents are introduced in her counselor’s office as her parents plot her life for her. Despite the plethora of characters, I never really had to struggle to remember them since each one was introduced in a way that imprinted their key attributes in my mind.1
bokadeTake these characters, a slew of others including judges and random family members, put them in a confined space two days, shake vigorously and you get a cocktail of humor that is Loins. Oh wait! I forgot to mention one of the funniest characters, the event manager for the competition, the I’m-laughing-at-you-not-with-you Bokade (Jameel Khan). I mean look at him – an over-the-top choice that is perfect for the character who will have you rolling on the floor laughing!

There was so much to like about the film, but before I make this a dedicated rah-rah review, let me quickly hit a couple of things that I didn’t love. Sometimes it felt like there were snippets that were thrown in there just because – Preeti’s overweight, porn-watching kid-brother was “eh, whatever”, almost a been there done that, “haven’t we seen that character before?” moment. And some of the Idol contestants were a touch over the top and not that believable. However, these and a few other small cinematic things are minor quibbles in an otherwise really enjoyable film.

One of the things I loved about the movie was the instant association. You feel you know some of these people. You start laughing from minute one because you know what they are going to say and it is just the perfect thing for them to say! Part of feeling you know some of these people is the casting – it was close to ideal. And the acting was excellent – Shabana shines with her nuanced gestures, Ayesha Dharker nails her role as the tougher half of the in-love and idealistic couple, Seema Rahmani is sexy and touchingly sweet when she needs to be and Jameel Khan is… brilliant!

The first part of the film introduces you to all the characters and gets them into the hotel for the competition. The second half of the film is where things come together really nicely as the true characters are revealed. In the intro, Manish sets up each character in the way in which he wants you to see them. But is that who the person really is? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The “Ahh, ice runs through her veins!” realization makes the characters much fuller, much more real.

This is a film that has stayed with me since I’ve seen it. Yes, there are some underlying messages of what it means to belong, but that’s not why it stayed with me. It stayed with me because the characters were so funny, so real and so endearing (slimy Bokade is now a favorite!) that any time I think of the movie, I smile.

Want more Loins lovin’? Watch the teaser!

  1. Apparently this film may be used to teach NYU grad students about how best to introduce multiple characters to the audience. 


Acting for directors

When I was doing my 12-week Film Intensive at NYU SCPS, one of the things I heard a few times was that to be a good director, you should take an acting class. As I made UNTITLED, I realized that understanding what an actor goes through, how he/she prepares, can help a director in ensuring she gets the best performance from her cast.

Now, I have acted as a child but as I grew into my teens, I veered more towards debate than acting. Primarily because I started to become extremely self-conscious – the surefire way to be unable to act (clearly this was just my issue – both my siblings acted into their teens and both were freaking fabulous at it). So despite the high will, the self-consciousness meant low skill and the nervousness prevented me from really doing what I used to love.

Anyway, back to the present – or rather, back to early 2006. I signed up for another class at NYU’s SCPS, Beginning Acting: The ABCs1, taught by Kathryn Rossetter – three hours on a weekday evening that I hoped would cure me of my mental block and help me learn more about how “real” actors do their thing.

I still remember the first class so vividly – she asked us each to share an experience that had an impact on us. It could be positive or negative, but it had to have had a big impact on you. I remember sitting in front of the semi-circle of fellow students and sharing my story. And as I did, I started to look inwards, seeing the events happen again. And I started to cry. As the tears welled up, I stopped briefly, held back, got control of myself and kept telling the story.

Each student told his or her story – some happy, some sad, some creepy. Then Kathryn gave us feedback. She pointed out how I had held back, not let the emotions flow. While it had been great that I could reach into my past and find emotion like that, I needed to learn how to go with the flow of that emotion and let it come out – even in front of a group full of complete strangers.

We are all conditioned in our lives to pretend, to not show our emotions. But acting is just the opposite – it is about reaching in and being able to bare your emotions for all to see. Yes, within the constructs of the character, but to bare all. To help lose the inhibitions, Kathryn gave me a little exercise to do – as I walked home, I was to skip, shout and otherwise act like a five year old. In the middle of Manhattan. With people all around me. Er… say what? She insisted that no one would look at me and if they did, they wouldn’t do so for more than a second. To prove her point, she started skipping down the street we were on, singing loudly. No one looked at her. And so, that day, I skipped home. I astounded myself – it was quite liberating.

That was the first class. We progressed from there. I learned how to relax my body – the vehicle that allowed me to act, to recognize where I stored stress and held my body stiff, and to loosen up with out embarrassment in front of my classmates. I learned how to react to words, translating them into images and reactions. She’d say “You’re under a warm shower” and then suddenly switch to “it’s scalding” or “it’s freezing” and we would react to the words as if there were events, all while seated in our chairs. There were a whole host of other exercises we practiced – each geared to loosen us up and just react.

We did impromptu skits and role play exercises. We enacted scenes where one person knows what is going on, but the other person, who was asked to leave the classroom, walks into the situation cold and has to adapt. I learned to make up conversation on the fly based on the character traits I was given. I happily flailed about as a lunatic, entangled myself with a classmate in a simulated make-out session (never fear, he was/is a friend, we were/are both married and we were/are patently disinterested in one another), and learned to draw on my life experiences to enable me to emote.

I loved it. Really loved it. From time to time, I would still hold back, but I was improving every class (even if I do say so myself!). We finished off the course with groups of two enacting scenes from David Auburn’s Proof – a great play that was made into a sub-par movie. Memorizing just a scene was harder than I would have thought, but it was worth it and it was so much fun!

To be clear, I have no illusions that I am an actor. I took a very, very basic course. A tiny baby step compared to what so many aspiring actors go through. Could I be an actor? Possibly, but a lot more training awaits me before I could even think of that. And honestly, that is not my dream.

But this class did help me move towards my goal of losing some of my inhibitions. I am sure I could easily slip into bit, fill-in roles if required. More importantly though, it brought back the fun I had a child – when I didn’t care who was looking.

My dream is to direct and in that regard, this class gave me a better understanding of actors and acting – the immense amounts of training they subject themselves to, the preparation required for any shoot, and the effort involved in doing an emotional scene (if you are drawing on real emotion from your personal life – a scene can wreck you for days).

I will definitely look to take more acting classes in my life – each will be a baby step compared to what a real actor will go through, but I am sure I will enjoy each one and that each one will make me a better director.

I would love your opinion – if you are an actor, do you see a difference in directors who have spent the time to learn more about acting? And if you are a director and you have taken an acting class – how has it helped you?

  1. This class was not specifically tailored for aspiring directors. It was a beginners acting class and I thought it would serve the purpose quite nicely. 


Like no other

Making a advertisement these days is becoming more and more complex as companies and filmmakers try to make unique ads that stand out and capture the imagination.

Of the latest crop of ads, Sony’s Bravia ads are fabulous in this regard. They are brilliantly executed, the music is perfect and you want to keep watching them over and over. My favorite is the one of the colored balls bouncing their way down the steep streets of my old home town, San Francisco. As one of the ad guys says “This is much more about connecting the people emotionally” – to Sony and tying Sony and color together in our minds. The tag line – Color. Like no other.

What I find even more intriguing is how they made this commercial. If you are like me, and are curious as to what went into the making of this ad, watch the behind the scenes stuff – fascinating and so cool! 23 cameras? Nice! Here’s more from the team:

In an age when CGI is commonplace, this makes the commercial all the more extraordinary. Every single frame was shot over two days – with the main sequence involving a 23-man camera crew and only one chance to get it right.

An entire block was closed off and special compressed-air cannons shot the balls into the air, while earth moving equipment poured thousands down the street. Not that you’d know it from the finished product, but these balls can do some damage, so all the cars were props and crew members went so far as to having protective shields and crash helmets.

But when you get it right, you get it right. The goal at the beginning was to deliver a “really simple, visual celebration of colour”. We think you’ll agree the results speak for themselves.

And if you want to watch their other ad in the series – where they explode paint onto and from a housing complex in Scotland, you can see that here.

Found the ads through VSL

Final cut tussles

The New York Times had a very interesting article on what could happen when a director doesn’t get final cut rights. The final cut of a film refers to the cut/version of the film that is shown to the public.

It is a rare privilege when a studio will give a director final cut because the final cut can determine the economics of a film. A few directors do get/have gotten final cut rights. It is usually the really big name directors who could make their film with any studio. But for most directors this option is just not on the table.

Despite the fact that no one can actually predict which films will do well and which ones won’t, producers and studios spend tons of money on market research. They make a cut of the film and test it on the target audience (ever been recruited at a mall to watch a pre-release movie? That’s the testing). They do a few of these and based on audience reaction and the excruciatingly detailed feedback cards that the viewers fill out, they decide if the movie is funny – does it get laughs at the right places, if it is too long, too short, not enough drama or too much drama. On and on, the lists go. The firms that moderate these focus screenings then crunch the data and give the studio input.

I have two problems with this kind of testing:

1. Is there any proof out there that there is any sort of predictive accuracy? From what I hear, the testing agencies don’t release data on how their test compared to market actuals. I don’t know if anyone is measuring them and holding their feet to the fire to be accountable for their recommendations.

2. New products, especially stunningly new ones that break out of the mold, may not do well. Sometimes you have to assume you know what the consumer wants better than he/she does. Case in point in the technology world – Apple and the iPod.

According to the NY Times piece, the final cut tussle has gotten ugly for director Julie Taymor on the film Across The Universe:

After Ms. Taymor delivered the movie to Joe Roth, the film executive whose production company, Revolution Studios, based at Sony, is making the Beatles musical, he created his own version without her agreement. And last week Mr. Roth tested his cut of the film, which is about a half-hour shorter than Ms. Taymor’s 2-hour-8-minute version.

As a director, you feel the film is your baby. You are the visionary, you make it happen. You sweat over it. You did all the pre-production, worked night and day, dealt with all the on-set issues, managed a large crew and made a great film! Wow. Of course you are going to feel protective. (I felt that way for my tiny little short done on three intense days of shooting – just imagine the intensity of a feature!) Someone else making a cut of your film, disregarding your own cut, has got to hurt badly.

While I completely empathize with the director, find the way that studios and marketers test films very odd and don’t necessarily agree with that process, I also feel that the passion of being a director can cause you to be too attached to certain scenes. And very passionate directors, who have made wrong calls can scar producers forever:

Mr. Roth, who vowed never again to allow a director final cut after the disastrous 2003 Martin Brest movie “Gigli,” said that the various versions were testing well, but that he had a responsibility to find the most successful incarnation. “It’s ‘show’ and it’s ‘business,’ ” he said.

Despite my wanting to be fully on the side of the director, Roth has a point – of course films need to be commercially successful. That’s what allows the director to make the next one.

Since I am not emotionally embroiled in such a fight, it is easier for me to see both sides and I am quite torn on this issue. In the ideal world, the director will try to detach themselves a little and the producer would never go behind his director’s back. And it always seems like it is a good idea to put a project away and come back to it in a while, but that is rarely possible when you need a return on investment as soon as possible.

At the end of the day, everyone probably compromises to make the film a reality. And Roth and Taymor (who also directed Titus and Frida) will likely compromise too, despite the fact that it is going to be harder after all the public words and Taymor’s consideration of removing her name from the film (the most drastic step a director has in her arsenal) :

Mr. Roth said he believed that the current tensions would be worked out, and that Ms. Taymor would find the best, final version of the film somewhere between his own and her last cut.


Ms. Taymor herself struck a more conciliatory note in her statement: “I only hope that we will be able to complete the film we set out to make.”

This is such a tough part of the film-making process – this is the reason you see all the director’s cuts of movies where the director has his/her say many years after the official release.

I am not sure if there is any blanket way to solve this – it probably all comes down to the relationship you have with your director or producer. So, be very, very careful who you get into bed with – even if they flash a lot of money in your face!


In honor of Scorsese

Well, Martin Scorsese finally won his Oscar. Should have been for The Departed? Maybe not, but he damned well deserved it.

In honor of his win, I read a brilliant review in the New York Times for the most un-Scorsese of Scorsese’s movies, Age of Innocence. But maybe it wasn’t so far from his realm. After all, Scorsese called it his “most violent film”…

Passion, especially repressed passion, has often been Mr. Scorsese’s subject. And the organized suppression of unruly desire is the villain blighting “The Age of Innocence.” Its hero, Newland Archer (played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis), is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), the angelic blank slate of a girl his society wants him to marry. Inconveniently, Newland falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an interesting, independent woman with a complicated romantic past and a shaky position in Newland’s rigidly codified tribe — a tribe that smoothly closes ranks to keep the lovers apart. (What first draws Newland to the Countess is her irreverent honesty about the local and imported aristocracy — an irreverence that, as Ms. Pfeiffer points out, “comes out of innocence on her part. Ellen has no idea how provocative she’s being.”)

What attracted Martin Scorsese to the novel, which he was first given by the film critic and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks, was, he said, “that element of repressed emotion, forced restraint and obsession.”

“I was most interested in how people in a situation like that would be happy just to be together in the same room at a dinner party. Just one look would keep them alive for another year. It’s very different from today, when rational adults can talk things over and try to change their lives. For Newland to have changed his life would have destroyed part of a culture.”

It is such a sad and depressing film. A story of “what could have been” and “if only”… I still remember the last scene of the film with Daniel Day-Lewis on the street in Paris… loss, resignation, and a feeling of helplessness. Based on a book by Edith Wharton (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921), the film won an Oscar for Costume Design and Winona Ryder was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film was clearly overlooked and under-appreciated. It deserved much more – maybe it was just too different from what one had come to expect from Scorsese?

I’ll leave you with the closing paragraph of the review, which so aptly captures why the book and the film are classics –

One measure of Edith Wharton’s greatness is that — as in all great fiction — so little of her work seems dated. But the more accurate gauge is our discovery that “The Age of Innocence” has changed our sense of the world. Putting down the novel, leaving the film, we’re newly sensitized to the tribal rituals beneath the social forms we’d taken for granted. And our vision of people and of the roles they play has been permanently altered. We look around a dinner party and just for a moment glimpse them — May Welland, Ellen Olenska, the unfortunate Newland Archer — hauntedly staring out at us from the flushed, happy faces of our friends.

Fandango – wasting the opportunity

I love Fandango’s core service. Buying tickets is simple, elegant and most importantly it works.

But Fandango probably realized recently that it has all this wonderful data that it could use. For example, it shows me all the films I’ve ever watched. Great — that plus Netflix would be a good encapsulation of most everything I watch.

More recently though, Fandango has discovered “community”. Why shouldn’t Fandango have ratings and reviews? It’s all the rage and everyone is doing it. No reason at all. Except they have no clue how to do it.

Recently I watched Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday. I bought the tickets on Fandango and watched the movie on February 12th. I got this email on the 13th from Fandango asking me to review the film.

Great, I thought. How prompt. Let me go review it. I click on the link and log in. This is what I get:
Error page

Hmm. Fine then, I won’t review it, but why waste my time guys? Oh, but it gets worse.

I get another email on February 15th telling me it is my “Last Chance”. I ignore it. Last chance? I wish. I get yet another email on February 17th with a different title (asking me to tell the community about myself), but with the same request to review Black Friday. Okay, I will give it one last try. Alas, I get the same message again.

Don’t you think if you send me THREE emails asking me to do something that I should be able to actually perform the action? Getting the basics right is important if you want to build community. Either fix the issue or stop emailing me. I’d have been equally fine with either option.

Fandango, please get the basics right.


Fair use and documentary films

I am very interested in how culture evolves, how technology and art are inspired, and how prevailing laws enable or choke that innovation. I read Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture when it came out and was fascinated with the history of innovation and his hypotheses on where we were headed.

I’ve been meaning to find Lessig’s blog and today, someone emailed me a link to his blog that talks about an exciting new development in the documentary film world. The Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices outlines all the ways documentary filmmakers can follow the rules on Fair use and protect themselves. Those filmmakers who are certified to have followed those guidelines be able to get insured and therefore, their films will be able to get released. Earlier, the risk of getting sued was so high that some of these films never saw the light of day.

What a great step. Setting out the rules of Fair Use, easing the process of getting clearances, reducing the risk of being sued and therefore, increasing the capability to innovate. Excellent. (Thanks for the email, Evan!)

On a similar vein, watch this informative video on Net Neutrality which will have a big impact on how we innovate, communicate and create (although the video gets a little preachy/angry towards the end).

Video via: Lessig’s blog