Who changes?

One of the questions that’s very standard in American filmmaking is: “How does the character change?” It’s all about the character development, their arc, and how the journey through the film has changed them, made them realize something, etc.

There’s another perspective outside of this rigid definition of what makes a good film. My directing professor at NYU, Jay Anania, used to say, “As long as the audience leaves changed, that is enough.”

Pebbles (Koozhangal in Tamil), by director Vinothraj, is set in a small village in Tamil Nadu, India. The village alcoholic drags his son along on his mission to retrieve his wife and daughter from her childhood village a few miles away.

The film is an observation of that quest.

The director makes three significant choices:

  1. The film is an observation.
  2. The film is hyper-stylized. The world is scantly populated and extremely quiet. Both these choices do not reflect the reality of the world, but serve to elevate the observational element, keep the focus on the protagonists. They also result in an ever-present tension.
  3. The cinematography is stellar. I might go so far as to say this has the boldest cinematography choices I’ve seen in a long time. For example, in one scene where the father and son walk to the village, the boy picks up a broken piece of a mirror. As the boy plays with it, we see the reflection of light on a large rock and the landscape as he walks along.

Through the 75-minute movie, we learn about the protagonists and the world. There is no arc, no inciting incident, none of the characters have a realization or change.

At the end of the film, it is the audience that leaves changed. And that is what makes this film so impressive.

Foreign Film Long List

In December this year, the Oscar Foreign Film Short List will come out, but for now, I’m so thrilled by the Long List.

Singapore’s “Pop Aye”, is directed by Kristen Tan. I remember sitting in my first year of NYU, watching the best silent films made the year before. And Kristen Tan’s short, Cold Noodles, was on the list. Even back then the woman had so much style. And what an accomplishment – to have her first feature be nominated to represent her country!

Italy’s “A Ciambra”, is directed by Jonas Carpignano. And I had the great pleasure of being a classmate of the irrepressible Jonas. So much energy! A project was never a project, it was a way to shine. I loved his work ethic and his storytelling. Jonas’ first film, “A Chjana” premiered at Cannes. So did “A Ciambra”. And now it has been chosen to represent Italy. Incredible.


I don’t care who the favorites are. I know these directors and I know their films. I’m rooting for them.

Manohla Dargis and her fight for female filmmakers

Manohla Dargis is  using her position as a critic of reckoning to write a series of articles on female filmmakers and their fight for equality.

The first one focused on Ava DuVernay and “Selma”. Everything I’ve seen and read about DuVernay says that she is incredibly pragmatic. From her keynote at Film Independent (where she urged filmmakers to focus on their work instead of getting desperate), to the fact that she was aware of set dynamics and managed the crew to ensure the set ran the way she wanted:

Movie sets can be very unfriendly spaces for women, as she knows. Before she started shooting, she recalled, she sat down with “every single person” on the crew and said, “I’m inviting you to work with me, so this is going to run in the way that I want it to run.”

The very fact that she got “Selma” made is credit to her. But as Dargis calls out, to make the leap to the big leagues, she had to make stories where the protagonists were men.

Notably, Ms. DuVernay and Ms. Jolie, having made movies about women, have now made the leap to bigger stakes with stories centered on men. I hope their movies burn up the box office, but I also hope they return to movies about women. We need those stories, and these days, female directors are often the only ones interested in them. Gender equality is an undeniable imperative. But it’s also essential to the future of the movies: This American art became great with stories about men *and* women, not just a superhero and some token chick.

Emphasis on the last sentence is mine.

While the first article focuses on one breakout director, the second article, paints a broader picture. Dargis covers women who’ve “made it” and then fallen off the map as directors as well as women who are producers.

This section about Amy Pascal is telling –

Among the female stories that Ms. Pascal helped shepherd earlier in her career was a lovely adaptation of that classic, “Little Women,” by Gillian Armstrong. Ms. Pascal had her share of critical and commercial successes, but those films were often also singled out for their subjects: women. In 2000, Variety predicted that Ms. Pascal’s forthcoming releases would “go a long way toward restoring some hormonal balance to the femme-heavy offerings marking her reign.” Movies like “The Patriot” and “The Hollow Man,” the article continued, as if to reassure anxious men everywhere, “will all provide a sharp blast of testosterone to the screen — and, it is hoped, a shot of adrenaline to the Sony ledgers.” That year, its biggest hit turned out to be the femme-heavy “Charlie’s Angels.”

Back in July I asked Ms. Pascal if those digs about the movies she made with women had affected her. She said that for a long time she felt “really embarrassed by that, because chick flicks are movies about girls who don’t work. They’re not really movies about girls who do. But then, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s all she can do.’ So, maybe I overcorrected a little bit. Maybe I overcorrected and that’s not really a good thing to do.” She expressed excitement about some of the hits with female protagonists that had come out in the summer, though none were from Sony. “I think that the world has moved on,” she said, “and we’re not acknowledging it.”

As a producer, as a studio head, Pascal felt so much pressure to prove that she’s not “just” a woman, that she can make more than chick flicks, that she “overcorrected”. When was the last time a man appointed in a position of power had to examine whether he was perceived as making movies that are “too masculine” or “too action-packed” and overcorrect and make smaller, more sensitive movies? Pascal is one of the most powerful women in Hollywood and still she feels the pressure. The constant sexism and the repercussions of it are worth contemplating.

A facebook post recently drew my attention to this list of the top 20 cinematographers. #14 was “The women”. That is, all the women cinematographers grouped together. And the author’s explanation was that since no woman would make the list ((a very questionable claim)), he thought he’d make them one homogenous blob that would serve to highlight the problem of the lack of women. Could you imagine doing this to any other demographic? Yeah, this is the world we inhabit.

That is why we need Dargis’ articles. Because if she didn’t, no one else would.


Who is a storyteller?

Stefan Sagmeister takes a very extreme stance in this video, but sometimes extreme stances help spur the conversation.

We all tell stories in our lives. We tell stories to our kids, to our friends and our work colleagues. Every startup entrepreneur who pitches her company (hundreds of times), learns how to tell a compelling story in a pithy way. Should we all call ourselves storytellers?

We all make food to feed ourselves. Whether it’s toast, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, pasta or a more gourmet meal. Should we all call ourselves chefs?

We all doodle and make presentations. Should we all call ourselves creators or artists?

We all hum. Should we all call ourselves musicians?

We all tinker on our computers, fix annoyances and set up our preferences on programs we use. Should we all call ourselves technologists?

Maybe you laughed at the last one, but it’s a valid comparison. Just like it would be silly for people who uses technology as part of their jobs to call themselves technologists, it is silly for people who uses storytelling as part of their jobs to call themselves storytellers.

They are both tools you use to do your job. They are both tools in life, at this point. Everyone tells stories, everyone uses technology.

One of the points in Sagmeister’s video I do agree with is that most novelists or filmmakers don’t actually call themselves storytellers. They call themselves writers/novelists and filmmakers.

The word storyteller has been consumed by pop-culture, by tech culture. While I definitely do not feel as strongly about this as Sagmeister seems to (to each his own, who really cares, etc.), I do think words have value and when they are misused, they lose value. As he says “…it sort of took on the mantle of bullshit.” Yep.

TAR – red carpet and review

Very short two-day trip to Rome for the red carpet and the premiere.

While there were eight of the twelve directors in attendance, suffice it to say that the team that made TAR happen was a lot larger. The DPs, production designers, costumers, G&E team, line producers, sound, location managers and our amazing ADs and their teams, were all incredible. And the magicians who worked on the film in post, pulling 12 different shorts together – the editors, sound designers, composers. So much talent and dedication. My intense gratitude to each of them.

In terms of nerves, all of mine were reserved for the screening itself.

The Hollywood Reporter review can be read here.

Photo Credit/Source: Ernesto Ruscio, Venturelli/Getty Images Europe

The art of going on

A big part of life as a writer/director is handling rejection. Rejections from festivals, prizes, grants, producers, actors… I mean, anyone who can reject you will do so. Perhaps several times. And even someone who appears successful externally is getting crushed with some form of rejection.

Some rejections you can brush off and move on. Others linger. The depth of the wound and the recovery time is directly proportional to the sum of how much you deluded yourself and how much you wanted it.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. So when Peter Bradshaw linked to this article by Rose Tremain, I read it immediately. If you are a filmmaker, you should read the whole article.

The most significant hurdle of all is finding the resources to defeat the almost inevitable 48-hour blues that follow the non-win, and the energy to return to the work in hand, unaffected by what’s just happened to a different book. Every writer I know feels more or less contented or discontented with day-to-day life according to how his or her writing is going. Many, many things will affect this, but I know that the non-win of a prize can seem to infect the ongoing work with a badness-virus and lay the author low. What’s on the page or screen – in which there had been stubborn belief, perhaps even garlanded a bit with excitement – can suddenly appear less than first-rate. Sentences crease and bend. Dialogue sounds wan. Even the ideas which inform the book can buckle at the knees.

The art of surviving this is simply the art of keeping on. Time and hard work will heal the poor ravaged thing. In the work lies the future. In the future may lie other shortlists and other wins or non-wins. And so the whole darn desperate process begins again …

By the time I reached the end, I was tearing up with empathy ((My rejections, to be clear, are on a much smaller, less relevant scale.)). But, taking her advice, I shall get back to work instead.