Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Filmmaker Brandon Colvin

Many of you will know Brandon Colvin as one of the creative minds behind the terrific film site Out 1, and some of you might even remember the excellent piece he submitted here on Magnolia for my Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon a couple of years back. I know Brandon as a great friend, and valued peer, and I am so happy to present this new Q&A with him to discuss his first feature-length film, Frames.
I had the great opportunity to view a cut of Frames and it is an excellent work by an artist really worth watching. Thanks to Brandon for stopping by and participating in this and, after you read, take some time to "Like' Frames at its Facebook page for more information.

Hey Brandon, thanks so much for stopping by Moon in the Gutter again to share some information about your first feature-length film Frames! I think the film is really terrific and I am excited to see it at the festival we are going to discuss here in bit. To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from originally?

Thanks so much for having me, Jeremy! To begin at the beginning, I’m originally from eastern Kentucky and lived in the Bluegrass State for the first 22 years of my life, including the four years I spent attending Western Kentucky University. I moved to Wisconsin a little under two years ago to begin my graduate work in film studies at UW-Madison. Currently, I work as a full-time student and film production instructor – a pretty great gig.

I always ask about early influences as I think it’s an important thing to know about every artist, so can you tell us about some of your yours?

My interest in film really began when I was about 14. A couple of older kids at my high school introduced me to Eraserhead, Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights within the span of a few days. I remember seeing those films and feeling aesthetic emotions I had never felt before. My best estimation is that this was primarily a result of the films’ relatively long takes and bold camera movement. Seeing these films marked the first time I was ever critically conscious of film style and technique – perhaps because these films all demonstrated styles which were decidedly not invisible, or “seamless,” as is the case with the majority of commercial Hollywood cinema.

David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson became huge figures for me, as did Stanley Kubrick. Soon after, I began exploring foreign cinema and latched onto the major icons of the art cinema golden age: Fellini, Bergman, Buñuel and Godard, primarily. Taxi Driver was also totally formative for me, especially in its depiction of isolation.

I know you are extremely passionate about writing on film. Tell us a bit about how you became interested in cinema-studies and what you see as the importance of discussing and writing on film.

As I did my best to learn about the great directors and great films in high school, I relied on the writings and recommendations of various critics and accessible scholars. Roger Ebert, Manohla Dargis, The Village Voice, authors of essays in Criterion Collection DVD booklets – they all provided context, guidance, and carefully considered evaluations. All of this was absolutely indispensable to a teenager in eastern Kentucky with limited access to “high” art (praise be to the Internet). These writers introduced me to artworks which enriched my life. They provided the first models of film culture I ever experienced. Without them, I would have been stranded, in a way.

In college, scholars began to take precedence over critics as my interests shifted from evaluative writing to theoretical, historical and analytical work. Though I was heavily into historically influential critics like André Bazin and Jonas Mekas, I found a deeper level of understanding in the academic work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, among others. I still learn something new every day from film critics and scholars – something I hope never changes. Criticism and scholarship are incredibly useful for anyone with genuine curiosity about cinematic art, for anyone willing to acknowledge the following: there are many things worth knowing which I do not know, and which my uninstructed intuition will never fully grasp. Filmmakers and film enthusiasts of all types need instruction from real experts, as in any field of knowledge.

Before we move onto Frames, had you had much experience behind the camera and if so what did that entail?

Very little experience behind the camera, actually. I wrote, directed and edited a one-minute short when I was 17 and helped out on a few students productions in college; that’s basically it. My real experience came in screenwriting. I had written a couple of feature length scripts before Frames, none of which I attempted to produce, but which were great practice.

Okay, let’s talk about Frames! First-off can you give us a brief description of what the film is about and your many roles in making it?

Sure. Plot-wise, Frames is about Peter Farkas, a young filmmaker making a documentary about his hometown of White River. His filmmaking partner is a young woman named Vera, the daughter of a prominent pillar of the community – Larry Kanan. Romantic tension threatens to arise between Peter and Vera, a situation which is exacerbated when Peter becomes obsessed with a bit of surreptitiously-recorded erotic footage of Vera. Shortly after this development, Vera vanishes, prompting Peter to investigate her disappearance while mourning her absence. Thematically, the film is about how we create narratives out of images, the way cinema encourages us to “frame” reality, the way editing and juxtaposition allow us to rearrange fragments of reality into stories, stories which may be misleading, or enlightening. Along with this, the film is about aestheticization, how the art of cinema transforms elements of reality into art objects or aesthetic experiences – a central question of the film being: does making cinematic art constitute a dilution of the world or a purification/concentration of the world? To what extent are any of those transformations truthful, useful or reliable for people attempting to understand their lives? The film is also very much about itself. There are a number of parallels between Peter’s experience with his footage and his filming process and Frames as a film. Those are very important, but I’d rather leave it to viewers to uncover them.

As for my roles on the film, I wrote the script, directed the film, and co-produced/casted/location scouted/art directed and production managed with Aaron Granat. I was wearing many hats at all times, which was quite exhausting, but definitely thrilling.

I know one of the biggest obstacles in getting a film made is funding. Take us through the early planning stages for Frames and how difficult it was for a young filmmaker like yourself to get together the money and then the cast.

On a small production like this, funding amounts to sacrifice. There is no guarantee that this film will ever make money, so everyone involved in funding the film is more like a donor than an investor – which is tough. Most of the production was funded through loans, while we also gathered sizable donations from friends and family. Everyone around Aaron and I knew that we had both been wanting to make a film for years, and, when the time came, there were a number of people willing to help. We also received a ton of support from UW-Madison Instructional Media Center – where Aaron and I both work – as it provided quite a bit of equipment for us to borrow free of charge. I think most of the people involved in funding the production see their donation as an investment in everyone’s future as filmmakers, rather than an investment in a single project.

That being said, we learned a lot about how much making a film really costs – experience which will undoubtedly help us in the future, hopefully making our efforts to secure funding more efficient. This film went from “Hey, let’s make this” to shooting in about three months, during which we were casting, rehearsing, location scouting, assembling a crew, etc., all the while I was writing term papers in an highly challenging graduate program. With more pre-production time and more know-how, I think funding might be much easier.

Speaking of your cast, one of the main things that impressed me about Frames was the terrific performances given by Holland Noel and Maria Travis as the young couple. Can you tell us a bit about both of them and what it was like working with actors on a project like this for the first-time?

All of our actors were Wisconsin locals, with minimal, if any, screen acting experience. We found Holland via Craigslist, and I had met Maria in a class on Russian Cinema. Both of them, as well as the other actors, had to undergo a very particular type of casting process (which I will describe below). Before I get into the process and their reactions to it, I’d like to explain, in theoretical terms, how I intended the acting to work in the film.

Performance style, in my conception of cinema, is absolutely crucial for creating an aesthetically unified film (and, aesthetic unity is a quality I value). What I want to emphasize here is the importance of the word “style.” Naturalistic acting is a stylistic choice, not an absolute. Too often, it is a default setting for filmmakers, regardless of their other formal commitments. Indeed, many critical criteria used for determining a film’s quality are based on how naturalistic or realistic a performance is, or how accurately and legibly a character’s psychology is rendered “three-dimensionally” by a performance. This is only one option among many, however, an option rooted in a type of cinema explicitly concerned with character psychology.

My style is not so much interested in rendering psychology legibly and naturalistically, because that would be incredibly inconsistent with the formal design, at the level of images and sounds, of my work. I am most interested in surfaces and appearances, which is not to say I want to make superficial films. Rather, I find film a very perceptual medium rather than a psychological medium. It’s difficult to separate the two, and I’m not suggesting that Frames does, but it does differ in its emphasis from most films. Much of the film is about the relationship between perceiving and psychological understanding. Indeed, Peter’s crisis in the film is a result of his inability to understand what he perceives. This is directly related to how people apprehend aesthetic experiences, and, particularly, how they make sense out of cinematic stimuli. I want to give the viewer a series of chosen surfaces, which he or she will perceive and make a story out of, just as Peter does with Vera’s disappearance. The performances of the actors, then, must be carefully chosen surfaces, like everything else in the film. One might ask then, where does the psychological understanding occur? I would say, in the viewer, not in the film, just as the rationale for Vera’s disappearance lies in Peter’s mind, not in the fragments he combines to make that story.

The consequence this has for performers is that they must be able to render themselves as surfaces, which is a considerable challenge considering how explicit most human behavior is in terms of psychological communication. I wanted the actors to restrict and control every communicative tool they had. In order to do this, they had to be trained. Most people think of acting as inherently expressive, rather than depictive, as I mentioned earlier. And, of course, Holland and Maria came to our casting sessions with the assumption that they should represent the characters with emotion and psychology. The tough part was teaching them how to represent the characters with gesture, movement, and superficiality. What we were trying to do is not to communicate the idea that someone feels a certain way, but to dissect the surface elements of that emotional/psychological state (eye movement, bodily contortion, facial modulation, pace), abstract them, and then represent those isolated details apart from any sort of underlying intentionality.

After hours of rehearsal, take after take, motion after motion, inflection after inflection, both of them really got this down. They understood the idea of psychological “blankness.” We explored that concept by asking them to read their lines without moving or inflecting anything. Over and over and over again. We wanted them to start from nothing: no assumptions, no ideas of intentionality, no conceptions of psychological states which might inform their performances. Then, slowly and methodically, we added details: a facial modulation here, an altered vocal inflection there. The performances were built in this way, both in rehearsal and on set. It required a great deal of calm and focus throughout, an atmosphere which was difficult to maintain, but which worked, in no small part thanks to Holland and Maria. I’m very proud of all of the hard work and genuine openness they brought to the roles. Without them, the film would be a total failure.

I don’t want to delve into the film thematically at this point, due to the fact that it is just now starting to be seen by people, but there was an aspect that I loved about it that I did want to mention. There’s a terrific little repeating motif in the film about the main character’s inability to finish Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which is ironic considering he is a young filmmaker and due to the fact that his own real life is in some ways mirroring Hitchcock’s work. Talk a bit about what you see as perhaps the responsibility of young students of film, and filmmakers, to know their film history and, perhaps, the importance at times of rejecting accepted ‘great’ films (which I don’t mean as a swipe against Rear Window at all, as it is a film I personally love).

I’m happy that you latched onto that. Peter’s inability to finish Rear Window, as well as its general presence in Frames, serve several purposes. First, I’ll address the mirroring. I definitely want to encourage viewers to make comparisons between what happens in the two films and to pay particular attention to the differences between them. What happens to the investigative protagonists, each attempting to create a story out of what they see, each paranoid and emotionally volatile? How correct are their conclusions? What are the dangers they face? We know L.B. Jeffries’s hunch in Rear Window ends up being confirmed. Is Peter’s? What actually happens at the end of the film?

As for the second part of your question, I wanted to point out some things about Peter by using Rear Window. On one hand, I wanted to demonstrate that Peter might not be the best, most trustworthy viewer. On the other hand, I wanted to demonstrate that when he does watch, he seems to trust images too naively as representations of reality. To some extent, Peter’s investigative spirit is inspired by Rear Window, because he sees it at a time when it could spur him to look for secrets, perhaps to manufacture them in order to uncover assumed hidden meanings. In that way, Frames is encouraging viewers to consider the application value of the “classics” – particularly regarding happy, resolved endings – and to reject some of the ideological material in those films, if not the films themselves.

Speaking of personal canons and favorite filmmakers…who were some of the main people who inspired Frames and who are some of your favorite filmmakers in general?

The primary cinematic inspirations for Frames are Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni. Those two filmmakers are a sort of sacred duo, for me. Watching their movies over and over is really what has shaped my taste and my desire to create. Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer is my filmmaking textbook. It’s a constant reminder of the value of a film which is constructed with efficiency, concentration, and obliqueness. Seeing his films in college really shook up everything I thought I knew about cinema. His discussions of cinematic rhythm and restrained performances were absolutely formative for Frames. Antonioni is the ultimate model of a filmmaker concerned with surfaces, as well as a filmmaker who I feel does an excellent job of blending narrative tension and durational digressions – something I really worked on with Frames. His oblique thrillers – including Blow-Up and The Passenger – were models of how to stretch the conventions of the genre.

As for contemporary filmmakers, I’d say Michael Haneke and Gus Van Sant (in his more formalist works) are the most important for me. Frames is certainly in a sort of dialogue with a number of their films – Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and Caché; Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Elephant – perhaps because those filmmakers have the same, or similar basic influences, but do very different things.

I know February is going to be a big-month for you and Frames. Let’s talk about the upcoming festival appearances!

Right! The film will be premiering at the Derby City Film Festival in Louisville, KY on February 18. I’m really happy about this screening, as it provides an opportunity for a number of friends and family to see the film in a theater. In late April, the film will also be playing at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, which means a lot of folks related to the cast and crew will have a similar opportunity to see the film in an optimal environment. We’re still waiting on responses from a number of fests, so, hopefully, this list of screenings will grow in the coming months.

Take us through the process of how a young director gets his (or her) work into a festival.

I’m actually still learning about that process, and it’s been pretty enlightening. Festival submissions require a lot of work, research, and money. The main thing I’ve learned is that it’s important for a truly independent, upstart filmmaker – no industry connections, stars, etc. – to strategically target which festivals he or she applies to. The biggest festivals are often the biggest rackets, with limited slots, tons of submissions, and exorbitant entry fees ($75-$100 per fest, which really adds up). What this means is that experienced filmmakers, or those with marketable actors, often have a leg up on first-timers. Zeroing in on small and mid-range festivals – places where your film will be seen, but where you won’t be competing with productions with much higher budgets and profiles – is important. It’s also crucial to target festivals specifically interested in first-time filmmakers, or which might have a particular interest in your film’s general style or subject matter.

Are you more nervous or excited about having Frames seen by more and more people and how much does a positive reception mean to you?

Definitively excited, but guarded. I’m fully aware that the film is a bit “challenging,” to use a popular euphemism. The acting is muted. The narrative is deliberately elliptical. The visual style is patient and restrained. A great deal of the thematic content is buried below the surface, or might only become clear upon repeat viewings and careful attention to structure. It’s a bit of a hard sell, especially for viewers who might not be accustomed to the work of the filmmakers I’ve discussed above. However, it’s a film I feel good about. It’s not perfect, and there are a number of things I would do differently, if given the opportunity. It’s my kind of movie, though. I’d love to receive a positive response, and it’s always encouraging to hear praise and appreciation. Seeing a feature length film through from start to finish is tough, and knowing that what you’re doing will matter to other people is fuel for the fire. And, when another person “gets” the movie and likes it, the pleasure I feel is similar to the pleasure of feeling genuinely understood in a conversation, though on a much grander scale. To me, that’s very powerful and motivating.

Finally, what’s next for you after Frames?

Glad you asked. I’m currently working on a new script, tentatively titled Yield. It’s about a Kierkegaard scholar who goes back home to take care of his ill mother while on sabbatical. My dream is to shoot it in Kentucky. I hope to finish the script this summer and initiate fundraising efforts shortly thereafter. It’s shaping up to be a bit of a scandalous narrative, which is exciting.

Thanks so much Brandon. I always love when you stop by and we are looking forward to seeing you (and your film again) in a few weeks! All the best of luck with it and your future-projects.

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