Shooting With John: A Performance Behind The Lens
It was a hazy Saturday afternoon in Berne, New York, and a motley crew of filmmakers holding shotguns, aimed at the sky, surrounded me. My mouth was dry and I felt the mind’s eye going black while gripping my barrel. “What the hell am I doing here and who are these strangers?”
Well, I was asked to join a small group of filmmakers to shoot skeet and talk shop (and sadly, not form a militia). This past year was a whirlwind tour with my first feature art/documentary, Convento, which premiered at SXSW, played a bunch of fests and was picked up by Factory 25. (It is currently on a small theatrical run hitting cities like Dallas, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles). You can read about the film in detail here, but to sum up, this was a project that blurred the lines of non-fiction and fantasy; the story is about the kinetic artist and skeletal re-animator Christiaan Zwanikken and his family, whom are living in a former 400-year-old monastery in Portugal.
In this fog of buckshot mist, I offer a personal discussion about the subtle “performance” of filmmaking: When the elements behind-the-scenes collide with the picture and when the picture itself collides with the venue it is presented in. Besides my own work, there have been films on the mind lately that also blur the boundaries of process and performance.
Most recently I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through the slow-burning arc of Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, outdoors at BAM Cinefest, presented by Rooftop Films. According to Rooftop programmer Dan Nuxoll, “This was the highest turn-out of males for any (Rooftop) screening, even more than Gayby.” The film’s entitled, apathetic and bloated male characters intertwined with a plot-less story have already been the subjects of a lot of debate since its Sundance premiere. (I am not a film critic, so I’ll spare you my opinion of whether this indie-potion works or not). Instead I want to focus on what I know worked: the screening itself.
As I sat in the back row and soaked up the awkward silence of a crowd of mostly young men, the projection became a mirror and an audience of Brooklynites became the performers (or punchline). The film until this screening had only been presented traditionally in cool dark theaters, where audience members can hide their facial expressions and physical reactions to scenes like hipsters berating an immigrant cab driver.
Outside on this hot summer night, the uncomfortable and sometimes downright disgusting frame, transcends onto the viewer. Most outdoor screenings suggest a sense of community — family-friendly films like Ghostbusters on the beach of Coney Island or a Rocky Horror-esque screening of The Warriors in Tompkins Square Park. But on this night, there was only a sense of communal punishment, which paved the way for a truly bizarre Q&A.
In Jay Ruby’s book Exposing Yourself, he writes “the hallmark of reflexive narratives is that their creators are trying to raise the critical consciousness of their audiences by being publicly, explicitly, and openly self-aware or reflexive.”
I’m not sure this hip crowd was immediately self aware of watching a critique of their own hipster generation, but the choice of presenting this film in an open arena, transformed it into an art installation and public performance. In a cool, dark movie theater it’s easy to hide your emotions and sink into your seat, but outside the streetlights provided enough ambient light to feel self-conscious.
The sleight of hand by casting comedians in a film called The Comedy was also bate and lure for this Adult Swim crowd to take part in this outdoors experiment. And in my opinion, the setting truly heightened the intention of Rick Alverson’s written characters and their improvised dialogue.
For the New York premiere of Convento, Rooftop Films hosted an outdoor screening that included a pop-up exhibit of the kinetic sculptures featured in the film. The screening became an outdoor event — after watching the film you were able to interact with the art. It was a successful experiment, which later paved the way for other pop-up exhibits, including an invitation to The Museum of Natural History. But after watching The Comedy, I realized you could make a film that considers its venue in the pre-production phase of the project, bringing the two worlds of filmmaking and film presentation closer together.
Of course way before any film is presented there is the labor-of-love process of making a film. For me, the film set is and always has been a performance shared by cast and crew. Big budget studio pictures and microbudget indie films share in common the strange, insane and beautiful process of transforming a stage (whether it’s a studio or corn field) into a movie set. Cameras tracking, actors exploring and directors directing are still very arresting images to witness. You can be crossing the street in New York City or quietly witnessing a skeleton crew in the countryside and the process is no different than a performance.
I have worked with the filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas for over 10 years as a director of photography. Charles Atlas collaborated with the artist Mika Tajima and New Humans on two film-set art installations — one for SFMOMA (Today Is Not A Dress Rehearsal) and another for South London Gallery (The Pedestrians).
At both art institutions, the audience walks into a room and watches a camera floating around a set (designed by Tajima) on a dolly track filming everything, including the viewer. Lights are slowly dimmed and moved. A performer takes direction from a director (Mika Tajima) and live projections, mixed and manipulated by an engineer (Charles Atlas) surround the space. You may see yourself on a screen or hear your whispers to a friend, amplified by speakers.
The end result is actually the process. People were looking for a reason or answer to the madness that surrounds them: “Is this for a film? Are they rehearsing?” Some thought they arrived too early for a performance and left the museum. This experimental production explored our perceptions of process and performance and the experience was inspiring to me as a filmmaker.
A narrative filmmaker, who inspired a generation of filmmakers to change their perception of how a film set functions, and a big influence on me, is Terrence Malick. Christopher Plummer, in New York Magazine, recalled his experience of working on The New World with Malick: According to Plummer, while filming, “Malick would often be intrigued by rare birds up in the trees.” He would politely stop the famous actor mid dialogue and send his cameraman to capture the creature perched on a limb. Plummer describes this event as a horrible affront to the process of acting, but I think it’s hilarious.
Malick’s signature transcendental and meditative style in his editing is a reflection of his film set. His decisions as a director are as poetic as the lines delivered by his actors. Anyone who stops the trajectory of a dialogue-driven scene to capture a rare bird (or desires only to shoot in magic hour) is a true believer in the beauty of filmmaking, and a showman. I have been told working with him is a performance in itself: a dance between director, camera, actor and sunlight. And a performance that will never be shown on DVD bonus material, considering Malick’s strict guidelines of no documentary cameras on set. But perhaps this ideology is also a reflection of his desire to live in the moment. (It’s painful to accept as a documentary filmmaker obsessed with process, but in some ways it’s painfully precious).
Malick’s approach to his performance-infused process was a big influence on my strategy behind Convento. I wanted the filmmaking to be experiential, not just observational. For the first week of filming, Evan Meszaros (my co-producer and sound man extraordinaire) and I shared experiences with our subjects mostly without recording devices. We shared every home cooked meal together: morning coffee through late-night drinking and stargazing. We were inseparable. And after the four weeks of filming, it was difficult to distinguish between what we filmed or experienced.
For most of the film, I operated the camera on a hybrid dolly track using a camtram system on an old, weathered extension ladder. Imagine a quiet, expansive garden, surrounded by exotic birds and animals. But now, this oasis shares the stage with this clunky, strange contraption — it could not be ignored. There is a scene where Christiaan’s mother, Geraldine, maintains a frog pond, by clearing away the over grown grass in order for the frogs to swim with ease. This is a process she has done many times over many years. But on this day, she approached her routine as a choreographed dance, as a camtram floated high above her through the trees. We filmed at magic hour (you were right, Mr. Malick) and all three of us felt the connection between what was in front of the lens and behind it. It also didn’t hurt that Geraldine is a former ballet dancer and choreographer, so it was easy for her to imagine her murky pond as a dance floor.
As a filmmaker, I am self aware of the film set out of necessity — when you make films on a fixed budget, how you use your time reflects your productivity.
But as I further develop my craft, I want to be self-aware of the creative process, to bring the two worlds of observer and participant, or process and performance closer together. I am currently deep in the edit of my next project, a short film I am co-creating with Paul Sturtz (co-conspirator of the True/False Film Festival), entitled Dear Valued Guests, a portrait of the late-lamented Regency Hotel in Columbia, Missouri.
In the last couple of weeks of the hotel, Rabid Hands Artist Collective, based in Brooklyn and Detroit, took over the fifth floor by destroying concrete walls, tearing down ceilings and created a temporary installation/performance space. On its last night, local musicians and the collective hosted an epic farewell attended by a dumbstruck public. Then the Regency closed forever and was soon demolished.
I decided to live at the Regency during its final week. And let me tell you — living on the set you are filming is definitely a performance of life imitating art. As I tried to sleep in the frigid hotel at night, sounds of banging, drilling and partying reverberated through the walls. When I awoke in my long johns, I slowly ventured out into the halls with my camera. I inhaled concrete dust but no one could be found. I was chasing ghosts in a self-inflicted nightmare.
On the final night, a series of performances by musicians and artists carried through into the early morning. From the street level, on the fifth floor you could see moving cameras, pulsing lights or a wild bunch of weirdos taking part in a New Orleans-style voodoo memorial. A once run-down concrete hotel in the middle of town was transformed into a stage and theater for one night only.
In the edit room with Paul, an idea came to us: what if we were to mirror our film about a hotel being deconstructed, by deconstructing our story into components, creating a multi-channel installation? Could we allow our characters to break free of a linear trajectory and physically build a world around an audience? What would the sensation be like to then have these walls torn down by wrecking ball? We have decided to simultaneously cut both short and installation, to fully immerse ourselves in the project.
As filmmakers, we recognize this choice to explore new ways of storytelling, but we are also aware of the limitations of the traditional format. In an age where people stay more at home and watch films over the Internet, why not create an event for the audience? This is a way to get them in the door, but it’s also essential to the survival of this film among its societal distractions.
After we finish shooting skeet, the sunlight fades and we all sit around drinking beer. We know what’s going on before it even happened: we are playing pretend soldiers in front of a journalist and his cameraman. The documentary team backed up for a wide shot, capturing the camaraderie of a group of film-misfits, taking a break from the battlefield. I pretended too, self aware of the manipulated frame, loving every second of it.
– Jarred Alterman
Jarred Alterman’s first doc/art film, Mott Music, the story of a piano factory in the Bronx, premiered at SXSW 2005 and was later distributed on Sundance Channel.
Over the past ten years, he has collaborated with the artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas (Hail The New Puritan, the Legend of Leigh Bowery) on several films for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Merce Cunningham’s avant-garde approach with “chance” choreography in collaboration with John Cage’s revolutionary concept of music and soundscapes, created masterpieces like, Views, Split-Sides, and Ocean. He was taught how to film three-dimensional dance (choreographed for the live stage) with a two-dimensional medium. His appreciation for both simplicity and complexity of camera movement in relation to dance, is an important influence on the visual story telling of Convento.
He is currently a cinematographer for the television series, ART:21 (Artists in twenty first century, PBS) and lives in New York City.
“Shooting with John” is a new column and web-series by the folks who brought you “The Microbudget Conversation.” We are in production right now on a new feature film; White Creek. Please feel free to contact us with ideas, suggestions, and possible guests: firstname.lastname@example.org