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Houston We Have A Problem,” Nicole Torre‘s documentary feature that I helped produce, had a good run of film festivals this year (noted here in previous blogs). After the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam we began discussions on final distribution and if the film was a “feature” documentary or one slated for television.

Doculink, a documenatry discussion board (and one of the great resources for any filmmaker) has recently carried many postings on the top documentaries of the decade and some Listers were limiting their choices on “theatrical” releases. I’ve never met Adam Hyman with Los Angeles Filmforum, but I thought he did an amazing job of addressing the issue on Doculink and with his permission, I reprint it below.

American Documentary “Feature” vs. “Television” by Adam Hyman

There is an absurd division (although one with real economic and artistic effects) between “feature” and “television” docs in America, where almost always only the former are taken seriously, although, as with the UK, probably 95% or more
are made for the latter.

A large element of this is that the television docs almost always have pre-ordained styles from the networks, and often have narrators, and both of these factors are considered limitations on being either “true” documentaries or “expressions of the director.” Most often the latter can be true, when one does watch various television doc series (I am for now separating “reality” from “non-fiction” or “documentary” shows, as even the Academy does now), one can see is the issues, particularly in visuals and in structure. I think that despite those limitations (and lack of budgets for high-end CGI or reenactments), many television docs still have a smart and often interesting (in content if not in style) approach to their topics.

In part this is tied to the eternal hierarchy that the film world does its best to instill, with theatrical releases being “better” or at least more worthy of analysis than works made for television. (In part to overcome the vastly greater viewership of television). In part it’s related to the criticism world, still often conducted in terms of auteurs, where theatrical releases are seen as work of a director, and television works are seen as works of a producer and network executives. There is truth in the latter, of course, but the baby is also thrown out with the bath water.

Usually docs with theatrical releases are the only ones that get on people’s radars. Many of the best docs, of course, never get a theatrical release in the US, nor a TV release; if they are from a foreign country or are
unconventional (or even more just “observational”), perhaps they just play a festival or two, and that’s it. It’s also impossible to keep up with even a reasonable percentage of works made for television (or theaters, really).

Another factor is the bias in America for direct cinema docs as “truer” over any with narration or reenactments, also a longer discussion… There are a variety of other reasons as well, which I hope will be raised by others.

But, in the USA, the only documentary director who works for TV whose name is more generally known is Ken Burns, even though many others should be known. But for example, I think the program “102 Minutes That Changed
America
,” which was a History Channel show, was a remarkable documentary – the experience of the World Trade Center collapse assembled entirely from home videos, without narration. I am amazed that the History Channel aired it. And I can’t tell you the name of the director. But it’s a work that is worthy of viewing and discussion. But at the same time the History Channel (I also will never start calling it “History” as they attempt to rebrand it, especially as they reduce the
historical content on it) also still airs in the daytime lots of WWII docs, almost all stylistically the same, etc.

There’s also a strong bias from the Academy against “music” docs, and for “activism” and “war” docs. People (well, Academies) usually evaluate docs based on their subject and not on how good the film actually is…but that’s a whole other discussion. I did note the absence of music docs from Erin’s very good starting list (I would call it 50 Worthy Films, rather than “Best” but whatever) – “Anvil”; “Some Kind of Monster”; “Devil & Daniel Johnston” and “DiG!” I think are also
worthy films from the Aughts. Ah, but look, I also have just listed 4 that had theatrical releases, and I bet there are some fine ones made for TV. Just thought of one – “Musician” in the “Work” series – a portrait of Ken Vandermark, an hour doc, probably shown only on European television and some alternative venues in the US, but made by a Chicago filmmaker, Daniel Kraus. But portraits of musicians are also never considered to be “important” films, like those of other topics, even though they often get theatrical releases if the musicians have suitable public following.

Ah, another discussion of underlying biases – the best result of “Best of” lists… 🙂

In our feature length documentary, “Houston We Have A Problem,” Van Jones, founder of Green for All and author of “Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our two Biggest Problems” states, “We need to honor the people in the oil industry, the coal industry, at this point they’re heroes in a way…stop the name calling, let’s work together. It is possible to go from the oil age to the solar age in a way where the wisdom and the genius of our existing energy sector is tapped and utilized. They know more about energy, better then anybody else. We now need to see that genius for the next stage.” Doesn’t sound like the Van Jones you’ve seen portrayed in the media lately, does it?

Attacks between the Left and Right have gotten this country nowhere, especially when it comes to discussions about energy. This theme resonates loud and clear throughout the documentary, to quote the director/producer Nicole Torre, “this is not a pro ‘Big Oil’ film, nor an anti-oil film, this is a pro domestic energy film.” After viewing “Houston” at the Cambridge Film Festival in England, Chris Peck wrote that “the film bores deep into the western world’s dependence upon oil, unearthing some uncomfortable truths. In particular it questions why political figures have constantly allowed the ‘sleeping dog’ of a global energy crisis to lie… (The Director) Torre approaches the issue with restraint, allowing an array of genuine Texan oil men to tell their own stories with candid honesty and humour and this is to the film’s benefit.” In the program guide at the Wine Country Film Festival, Asalle Tanha writes that “Director Nicole Torre has brilliantly gathered exclusive interviews with an A-list cast of Texas oil barons, Wildcatters, and top executives, including the former president of Shell Oil, the chairman of BP Capital, Sen. Harry Reed, the US Senate Majority Leader, and Middle East adviser Joanne Herring, who married the founder of Enron and was the basis for Julia Roberts’ role in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” You may just be pleasantly surprised to hear what they have to say. ‘Houston We Have a Problem’ is a devastatingly fresh documentary that stands out in the surge of films that address ‘green’ issues. Torre’s boldness in approaching oilmen shows that the energy problem extends far beyond profit, politics, and party lines. The film is nothing short, as David Clifton, the president of Rational Broadcasting puts it of ‘a masterpiece.’”

I’m proud to have been a producer on the film especially after it premiered at AFI-Dallas in March to a mixed crowd of Texas oil supporters and environmentalists and almost all congratulated us because we had made a film seeking solutions, not blame. That’s exactly the response we had hoped for, people to start thinking about solutions, together, as a country. As KERA-PBS wrote in their Art Seek blog review after the screening, “wildcatters got us here, and wildcatters are going to lead us out.” AFI-Dallas posted an interview on Vimeo. The film has also shown at the Maui International Film Festival, the Calgary International Film Festival, the San Diego Film Festival and has upcoming screenings scheduled for Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival, and the San Francisco Documentary Festival. I’m especially excited to be part of “50 documentaries from 50 countries” in a planned worldwide tour as part of the United Nations Association Film Festival under their theme “Energy and the World.”

Van Jones wrote in his book, “the best answer to our ecological crisis also responds to our socio-economic crisis. The surest path to safe streets and peaceful communities are not more police and prisons, but ecologically sound economic development. And that same path can lead us to a new green economy.” As Carl Davidson writes in his review of the book, “Jones is a strategic thinker who gives definite answers to the question, ‘Who are our friends, who are our adversaries?’ He narrows the target to speculative capital with roots in carbon-based energy industries and the militarism needed to secure their supplies. He seeks close allies in the wider working class of all nationalities, especially in the Blue-Green Alliance formed on the core partnership of the United Steelworkers with the Sierra Club. He also looks for allies among faith communities, environmentalists in the suburbs and rural populations suffering at the hands of anti-ecological agribusiness, offering a vision of wind farms and solar arrays for sustainable rural development. He sees the importance of cutting back defense spending and opposing unjust wars abroad.”

This is radical thinking from a self-described “radical, rowdy black nationalist.” But as exemplified in our film, he isn’t the only one thinking this way and most are far from what Glenn Beck could term “Communists.” It’s the kind of thinking to move this country from dependency on foreign energy resources. That’s why I was so excited when I heard that Van Jones had been named “Special Advisor to President Obama on Green Jobs.” Here was a man who was right for the job, a job that required immediate attention. Judith Lewis writes in her LA Times article, “Meet the Real Van Jones,” that for 20 years, Jones worked trying to get Americans to pay attention to the urban poor. “We would call newspapers, television stations, saying kids are dying, we’re going to funerals every weekend. ‘Not interested.’ The deeper he got into it, …the more he realized that the environment was central to the kind of social justice he cared about. For the affluent lefties in the audience, he teased, environmentalism might be about polar bears and other “charismatic megafauna.” But “in the poor part of town, when they say, ‘Oh, the environment is terrible,’ they’re talking about air pollution, asthma, cancer clusters and birth defects.” As Carl Davidson states, “putting young people to work at low-to-medium skill levels retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency seemed like a no-brainer, so the demand for “Green Jobs, Not Jails” was raised.

In the film, Van Jones believes, “we have to have the determination as a people, as a country to continue to move aggressively into alternative energies.” From the blog, ODE, “Van Jones redefines ‘green’ change-makers from the rich or the fringe to everyday people that are looking for ways to be successful in the long term. Instead of distancing himself and others from entrepreneurs by idealizing them, he looks for ways that regular people can become progressive.” There is also a good interview with Jones from a few years back at Poptech.com.

Sadly, those committed to the past, a conservative mindset that would rather attack then seek solutions, quickly portrayed Van Jones as a “Communist.” Another McCarthy-era “Witchhunt” was ignited, first by Cliff Kincaid, of America’s Survival, when he wrote, “it appears that a Communist Party spin-off, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), was instrumental in some way in getting Jones his job.” As Harvey Wasserman writes in his article “Obama has feed his Green Jones to King CONG,” “like millions of Americans he (Jones) signed a petition asking for an investigation into the 9/11 felling of the World Trade Center. He used the dreaded term “asshole” to accurately describe some Republicans, and then used it to describe himself and his friends.” Fox News fueled the attacks with misinformation and as papers like the National Review followed up, it soon became obvious that Van Jones could no longer do a proper job for the President and he resigned.

I really don’t care what Van Jones did in the past as a “radical,” just like I don’t care that T. Boone Pickens (also in our film), formerly with BP Oil, now promoting wind power, helped fund the inaccurate “Swift Boat publicity” that harmed John Kerry’s Presidential run. I don’t believe President George W. Bush’s past drinking and cocaine snorting was a reflection on his presidency. People change, Thank God, and it was all about change for Van Jones. Changing this country for the better. As Lewis writes in her article for the LA Times, “These days, Jones is far from the wild-eyed radical Kerpen described. In fact, he has been moving to the center, where the power is, for years. He has spent his time writing grants, appealing to city councils and working with legislators such as Nancy Pelosi on green-jobs bills. He sat on the board of the Apollo Alliance, a group more-radical environmentalists have criticized as a mainstream sellout for its work linking industry with a greener agenda. And his nonprofit advocacy group, Green For All, recently launched a program to involve the private sector in building an ‘inclusive green economy.'”

“With clarity and verve, Jones finally brought to the mainstream the critical message that what’s good for the environment is also good for the economy… finally injected into the mainstream the message that there will be no prosperity, no full employment, and no survivable planet without the necessary and doable conversion to a green-powered Earth,” writes Wasserman. This is the message that comes from both Big Oil and the Sierra Club in our film, “Houston We Have A Problem.” We can free ourselves of foreign oil, but it’s going to take everything, (solar, wind, geo-thermal, algae, nuclear, clean coal and even new oil fields like the ones recently discovered by Occidental Petroleum in Kern County, California) but most of all it’s going to take brave new thinking, new ideas. We can’t be frightened of the new thinkers because all ideas usually start off radical, look at Darwin. As Lewis writes, “Jones’ departure is a big loss. He should be judged not by a few missteps but by his long history of working toward a highly desirable but elusive goal: an environmental movement that crosses boundaries of place, skin color and class. By working to bring green jobs to ‘the poor part of town’ and involving mainstream environmental leaders in the cause of fighting poverty, Jones has made a huge contribution…one can only hope that this… will have the positive side effect of galvanizing support for his work; that it will call attention to urban poverty, pollution and his ideal of a green economy.”

I agree with Harvey Wasserman, “Van Jones, as imperfect as the rest of us, was Obama’s critical firestarter in a green-powered revolution that is decades overdue… Pushing Van Jones aside is a major coup for the destroyers of the planet, and a big loss for those of us who would re-power and save it.” We need lots more Americans like Van Jones, otherwise the real terrorists win.

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Last Saturday night I had the pleasure of attending a free live performance by Bear McCreary and his team of world class musicians perform his original scores from the Emmy-deserving television show, “Battlestar Galactica.” It was the opening for this summer’s Grand Performances in downtown Los Angeles, a consistently wonderful showcase of world music.  We’ve been going for years.  One of those hidden treasures of LA.

As indicated on these pages in January, I think “Battlestar Galactica” is fracken great.  However, I didn’t really understand how important the series was until I attended a panel last week hosted by Geoff Boucher (LA Times Hero Complex) as part of the LA Times “Envelope” Emmy screening series. Writer/creators Ronald D. Moore and David Eick were there, as well as stars Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, but the surprise was that they were joined by United Nations Senior Human Rights Official, Craig Mohkiber and United Nations Senior Political Affairs Officer, Stephen Siqueria. I guess last March, this same group sat in front of the United Nations (video links here) and discussed issues ranging from human rights accountability to peace and justice in the world. They not only talked about how these issues related to BSG, but what we as nations can learn from the decisions made in the show, both by the military, demonstrated in the series by Admiral William Adama, played by Olmos, and, on the civilian side, by President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell.

If who haven’t seen the show, tens of thousands of human survivors have escaped annihilation from the man-made Cylons by taking refuge aboard a group of spaceships, lead by the aging warship Galactica. They begin a search for a new home planet, the mythical 13th colony, called Earth, chased by the Cylons, many that look human. As President, Laura Roslin sacrifices thousands of innocent civilians, abolishes reproductive choice, executes enemy combatants without trial and nearly steals an election over the course of the series. That was the point of the UN event and the Los Angeles event billed as “TV – making global issues relevant.” After showing clips from the series, the speakers shared how these shameful and violating acts continue for real across our world. As UN official, Craig Mokhiber said, “every nation on this planet has broken the rules of human rights,” and talked about how part of the UN mandate was to safeguard the human rights of everyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and station. This fictional series gave us all an opportunity to think and discuss human rights, justice versus revenge, punishing people who perpetrate crimes against humanity, by watching episodes that take place on a spaceship in the future.

Isn’t that amazing? A fictional television show that carries significant political and world issue relevance. Most important, BSG was entertaining, I never felt like I was being preached too. That is the true genius of Ron Moore and David Eick.  In addition, the contribution of director Michael Rymer, as Moore acknowledged that night as “the third creative force that contributed heavily to our vision.” (It was fun to see the director get credit publicly for their creative input on a television series.  It rarely happens.)

It doesn’t have to be mindless, to be entertaining. That’s why I got into filmmaking.  To tell stories that make us think, react, research, formulate an educated opinion. We understand this to be true with documentaries, but as Basil Tsiokos reminds us in the terrific blog he wrote for indiewire,”8 Documentary Dos and Don’ts,” no one needs another wrongly executed doc film that’s only about message. Basil is a programming associate for the Sundance Film Festival and was Artistic Director for NewFest for twelve years.  He screens a lot of films and knows that a documentary can be important and informative, but it still needs to be entertaining.

That was our goal for the documentary, “Houston We Have a Problem” directed by Nicole Torre. The film explores our dangerous addiction to oil through candid insights from the Barons, Wildcatters, CEO’s and Roughnecks that comprise the world of Big Oil. An inside look into the culture of oil that explores the history of our dependency and how it has led us to the current energy crisis.  I’ve written about this film before here, when it premiered at AFI-Dallas and it continues to play the festivals. The issues the film addresses are important, but I believe we presented them in a fun, sometimes humorous, never boring way.

However, I am no Ron Moore. I’ve tried to write screenplays with significance, usually with them ending up being obvious and heavy.  I look forward to Mr. Moore’s television movie “Virtuality” airing June 26 on Fox about a group of astronauts who pass the time in virtual reality modules as their interactions are beamed back to Earth as a reality TV show. The new BSG series “Caprica” starts in January, about the kind of people, think us, that would create Cylons in the first place.  There is also “The Plan,” the Battlestar Galactica story from the Cylons perspective airing on Sci-Fi in November.  Directed by Edward James Olmos, a trailer was shown at the event and to quote Olmos, “it is breathtaking. It’s fantastic… I couldn’t have imagined this kind of a situation happening at the end of a show, where you would actually start at the beginning. That’s a masterful piece of understanding, Ron is a genius. Because after you see ‘The Plan,’ you’ll want to go back and view the whole series again.”

In these days of Twitter informing the world of election protests in Iran before the news can cover the story, important stories, fact or fiction, WILL FIND an audience. Smart filmmakers are figuring out how to find that audience. BSG is just one of many, many great shows on television, so why go out and spend big bucks on a crappy studio remake. If you want your film seen, it’s about getting it out there, any way possible.  In fact tonight, I’ll be watching the pilot episode of “Caprica” on DVD that was rented from Netflix. I’m sure the hope is that as a fan. I’ll like the new show as much as BSG and so when it airs, I’ll tell my friends and it will become “must see TV.” That’s forward thinking and we need more writers, showrunners and filmmakers to be looking forward and to tell the stories that have important relevance to our lives, yet still are entertaining. And so say we all!

When I was in the eighth grade, my buddies would come over almost every day after school to my parent’s apartment to play the board game, RISK.  It became a ritual and soon the topic of conversation between us, each day at lunch and recess.  In fact, one time three or four female classmates came to the apartment, pleading for us guys to give up the game and spend some time with them.  We said, “no way!”  Ah, the decisions we make!

I’ve always been a fan of games, the more complex the better.  I’ve played board games, cards, Dungeon and Dragons.  I enjoy the social interaction, the elements of fantasy.  After all these years it shouldn’t be a surprise that I would take my filmmaking experience and put it to use in video games, but it wasn’t until last year when my company, Unconventional Media produced the live action portions to the Electronic Arts (EA) video game, “Need for Speed: Undercover” that I really began to understand the tremendous possibilities of video games and interactive storytelling.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo, simply known as E3, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.  Presented by the Electronic Software Association, this is the event where new games and gaming inventions are unveiled each year.  The roll-out was impressive, the technology amazing.  I was in awe of the big LED televisions displaying such realistic, spot on graphics.  However, what really caught my attention this year is the amount of immersive game play devices being released.  Nintendo introduced a device, the Wii Vitality Sensor, that clips to a player’s index finger and reads their pulse into the game.  This is the same company that has been so successful with the Wii Fit, which helps a game player lose weight by bouncing on a board that feeds the movements into game play.  Basically, your movements are the game characters movements, so if the game requires your character to run or jump, then you, the player must do the same.  A hell of a workout.  Ubisoft Entertainment introduced a competitive, more serious fitness title, “Your Shape” that actually customizes the workout based on body type.

However, the Project Natal for the XBox really knocked me over.  You’ve got to watch the YouTube video attached to really understand the interactive possibilities.  You can fully immerse yourself into a virtual world.

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As I wrote in this blog last October, after the “E for all Expo,” the philosophy behind my company, Unconventional Media, is to deliver a fresh angle for new entertainment, incorporating movie storytelling into game play.  This seems to be a growing, exciting trend in the business, although much of it remains tied to feature film releases like “Batman,” “Watchman,” “Harry Potter,” etc..  I do admit it was fun to stand next to the original Ghostbusters Ecto-1 vehicle, parked outside to promote the Ghostbuster Video game. I believe with the immersing technology of virtual game worlds, we can create storylines to form a new kind of entertainment.  It’s like my fictional screenplay, “Press>Play” as reality.  We enter the story, virtually.

Since I’ve always enjoyed the social aspects of game play and find the solo aspects of most video games a little lonely, like playing Solitaire, you’d think I’d be a big fan of online gaming. I’m fearful that getting involved in games like “World of Warcraft” and other multi-player online activities will become such an addiction that I’ll never go outdoors again.  Hell, I won’t even play “Mafia Wars” on Facebook.  However, after viewing the EA and LucasArts upcoming release, “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” a multiplayer, online game based on the franchise, but set in a different time period, I may be hooked.

After a couple of days of the loud noises and visual attacks of E3, I had to make an escape. I sat down with some friends and played “Joan of Arc,” a good old fashioned board game.  The game takes place during the 100 year war between England and the provinces of France.  There are castles, battles, land grabs, even the plaque, but there are also alliances between players, negotiating between teams, the human element.  I miss this part of game play in video games.  Sometimes, it just feels like it’s you against the machine.  I like the social interaction. Maybe, I’m just a board game geek.  Anyone up for a game of RISK.

A few months ago Chase Bank introduced themselves to California by taking over Washington Mutual Bank.  I did not bank with WaMu, but based on my experiences with my WaMu credit card, I certainly feel sorry for those that did. Chase Bank is abusing their power and taking advantage of the small businessman, like myself. Just over a year ago I started Unconventional Media and took advantage of an offer from Washington Mutual for a transfer of funds to my new business account. The APR offer was 1.99%.

A couple of months ago I was informed that Chase Bank was now the proud owner of Washington Mutual. There were lots of cheesy pictures of happy consumers and reward programs, but no mention of interest rate increases, even in small print.

This March, I received a credit card bill reflecting an APR increase of 23.24%. I immediately called Chase customer service and spoke with a very nice lady named Brandi. They will not give you their last names, in fact who knows if these are even their real first names. Brandi informed me there was an increase, but they had made a mistake and some of the finance charge would be credited to my account in 7-10 business days. I received a letter that informed me of the rate increase to 9.99%. This month, I received a statement with no credit and still reflecting a 23.34% APR. I called Customer Service and talked to a very rude women named Wanda from Texas, who basically said that was the corresponding APR now on my account. There was nothing I could do about it and no one I could talk to about lowering it.

Well, there is something I can do about it. There is something we can all do about it. I wrote letters to the President and California Senators Boxer and Feinstein. The banks took billions in taxpayer bailouts, then turned on their own customers – hiking interest rates on credit card balances, changing fixed rates to variable, adding new card fees, reducing good customers’ credit limits. If at all possible, boycott Chase, find another bank, an honest bank.  There are a couple. Several comprehensive credit card reform bills have been introduced in the House and Senate during the 111th Congress. For instance, Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) has introduced the “Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009” (S. 414). This legislation would prevent credit card companies from increasing interest rates on customers in good standing for reasons unrelated to their behavior. Additionally, it would require credit card companies to notify customers 45 days in advance of an interest rate increase and would allow the customer to cancel the card prior to the increase. Support this bill, call your Senators, congressmen, sign the petition at www.Creditcardreform.org

I’ve paid off my Chase credit card account, but I am owed hundreds of dollars in overages. I imagine the same thing is happening to many other people, some who don’t have the luxury of paying off their bill. What the bank is doing is illegal credit card abuse and the industry must be reformed to protect the American consumer.

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Tucker Stilley has always shown an interest in quantum physics, but his “Virtual Artist in Residency” at The Monte Vista Projects Gallery is the first time I’ve seen so much work by one artist dedicated to the scientific theory.  It’s like a visit to SpaceCollective.org with paints and music.  Curated by his fellow Massachusetts College of Art classmate and friend, Sam Durant (who has a great show of his own “This is Freedom” at the Blum and Poe Gallery) this is an LA Times critically acclaimed, must see presentation that has been extended until May 3rd, 2009.

I’ve written about my brother-in-law’s amazing work on this blog before when a showcase of his video art was presented at the REDCAT in 2008.  Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2004, Tucker no longer has control of his limbs, so he uses a reflective bindi-dot on his forehead to control a complex system of computer technology.  The “How We Do It” video explains the method behind the creation of his on-going hyper-signal artwork, “The Permanent Record of NewJack_Rasputin.”

In the program notes for the Monte Vista, Tucker writes, “I feel it is logical, my own nervous system failing, that I would spontaneously generate an alter-ego, tear a hole-in-space and try to escape.  My situation warrants immediate and drastically uncompromising self-metamorphosis. An exquisite new aesthetic unfolds when you are standing on the deck of a burning ship. Being paralyzed amplifies the uneasy link between intent and action and brings into question the true meaning of this place and time that we occupy…and of what our ultimate audience might prove to be.”

If this is a blog about Unconventional Media, then Tucker’s pirate avatar, NewJack Rasputin is leading the charge, wielding a sword.  First stop at the gallery should be a read of the comic book, written and created by Tucker.  It is the backstory of NewJack Rasputin.  It is as cryptic as most of Tucker’s work, requiring close scrutiny.  Each reading I discover new thoughts and true life personal history.  Most of the comic book is available to view online at Tucker’s site, www.TuckerStilley.com.

There is a virtual media experience where gallery visitors and online viewers can interact with Tucker as he works.  The viewer has the experience of being inside the computer, looking at the artist’s “frailty and strength.”  Online, no matter where you live, you can catch Tucker making art – most days around 2 – 9pm, Pacific Time (Note: if you hear “crickets” he’s not at his console).  I’ve never seen the webcam technology put to better use.  As we watch we could become part of his next work.  At the gallery, there is a “keyboard” below the computer screen encasing over 465 used, reflective bindi-dots.  To the left of the computer are his recent brain scans.  Symbolic representations of the time Tucker has used just the turn of his head to create his art.  Above the brain scan are redefined photographs of three talents who also had ALS, Mao Tse-Tung, Leadbelly and Charles Mingus; now all with Mickey Mouse ears.

In one corner of the gallery is a collage of xeroxed photos and 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of printed words stained with red wine and tea.  (I’m in one photo, can you find me?)  Since the disease has made it difficult for Tucker to speak, the sentences, to friends, family and medical staff, read like poetry and haiku, a real understanding to the artists present psyche.  “T.O.E. (Theory of Everything),” a scroll of inkjet print outs and xerox photos overlaps one end of the word collage.  This is an older work, (which I’m proud to say I own a signed reprint copy), from his early days of computer art.  More stuff like this can be found at his website.  It’s a strong piece to have in the exhibit, not only because one image on the scroll shows Tucker drawing with his hand, when he could, but it also evokes the theories of time travel and quantum physics found in much of the recent works, many with “Time Weave” in the title.  One example, “Time Weave 63-11 Roberta” is a great representation of a person being in more then one place at a time.

The color prints of computer generated art, some of it originating from super 8 film footage or old photographs, much of it requiring viewing at different distances to fully understand the scope.  “Gimpcon Auto-collage, Self Portrait” looks to be a collection of patterns and shapes until you step back far enough to realize it is a portrait of Tucker wearing sunglasses.  Same holds true with “Last Wine Stomp at Dressle.”  My favorites of manipulating visual images into color were the “3-D Hawaii” series and “Midnight Nude at Noon.”

The “Ghost Photo” collage series reminded me of some of the first photographs from the last century that we’ve been researching for the New Orleans Paraplex documentary or stills from old silent films.  I also really liked “El Morro,” a freeze frame shot from one of Tucker’s short videos.  In the video, a big tire tube appears on the beach in a seven second circle of life at the edge of the Pacific.  In the still frame, the tire is frozen, peering out to the horizon, like a cast member from “Lost.”  Speaking of “Lost,” a shout out must go to the poster at the entrance to the gallery.  This is from a conceptual art piece Tucker did a few years back covering telephone poles with posters of an Iquana-lizard man lost like a neighborhood dog.

It’s an incredible show.  If you can’t make it to Los Angles, so much of Tucker’s art work can be seen on his website.  And just like his art, there are many “Easter Egg” surprises to explore and lead you to his music, video and other art.  It is a real interactive website.  Also visit “All Hands on Board,” a social networking site of friends and fans of Tucker Stilley’s work.  It is also another portal to his “Hole in Space” webcam.  For me, he is a mentor to the real possibilities that can be achieved with new media, new technology and new ideas.

Monte Vista Gallery
5442 Monte Vista Street
Los Angeles, CA 90042

As a follow up to my previous blog on mentoring, I had the privilege yesterday of attending a director’s retreat sponsored by the DGA.  The subject was the best tools for directing actors in feature films and television.  It was a wealth of information that I’ll only be able to touch on here.

I came into the retreat with more experience then some from my theater directing background (I’m still a directing member with Theatre Neo) and having read Judith Weston‘s wonderful book “Directing Actors” and Sidney Lumet’s important book, “Making Movies.”  Both books were mentioned more then once.  I’ve never taken any of Weston’s workshops but have worked with director’s that have gone through her course and met her a few times at the International Film and Video Workshops (now Maine Media Workshops).  I can’t recommend it enough.

Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games), opened with a keynote address promoting his new book, “I’ll be in My Trailer.”  Badham, now directing episodic television, has been in the business for over 35 years.  He outlined five common mistakes director’s make that the other director’s (Neil LaBute, Kimberly Pierce, Jamie Babbit, David O. Russell, Jeremy Kagan, and Gordon and Helen Hunt) reiterated in the panel discussions.  First mistake, especially common in television is the “anonymous” director.  They all discussed the importance of introducing yourself to the actors, especially the nervous Day players.  Many directors get caught up in the technical and get flustered when the actors appear on the set with their own ideas.  Rehearsal is the most important thing and time with the actors must be scheduled into a production.  Television is harder because of time, but even a read through will help the director and actor’s relationship.  Come in early and go to the trailers while the actor is getting make up, introduce yourself, address their concerns before you go to the set at call time.

All the directors found it better for the production if they had enough rehearsal time.  Neil LaBute discussed respecting the actor’s process, no matter how crazy it seems.  Casting is so important especially with short rehearsal times, but if an actor is forced on you because of financing, you’ve got to research what that actor is capable of doing, rethink how you’ll approach the project.  At least, get a lunch meeting before you meet on the set.  Some actors know the camera, understand lenses.  They can deliver their performance in a few takes, others only really deliver after many takes.  The more you know about the actors personalities and previous work, the better you can plan your schedule, shooting the coverage of the actors based on their strongest ability to deliver.

The second mistake is hiding behind video monitors and yelling out direction or saying “nothing,” which is even worse.  Now, I’ve worked on a few feature films with directors like this and it never fails that the end product suffers.  If nothing else, say “great” after “cut.”  “More energy” is not good direction.  Action verbs that mean the same thing but at different degrees works much better then “Make it bigger” or “Make it smaller.”  Directors need to be by the actors.  Kimberly Pierce wears a small video monitor around her neck, so that she can do both.  Helen Hunt felt a little distance is good for sex scenes, certainly a limited crew around the actors.  All the directors hate the “village of idiots” that gather around a video monitor.

Both David O. Russell and Neil LaBute are doing their next film on digital so that they can just keep rolling, let their actors play, but Helen Hunt has been on a couple of digital features and finds them “too loose, not enough focus.”  Kimberly Pierce likes the ability to do more takes by changing the film lens and asking for the actor to give a different performance.  She sees no use in having the same take over and over again.  All agreed that having a second camera (B camera) will save you in the editing room.

Another big mistake is the director wanting to be the nice guy and never creating his or her authority.  Discipline actors that haven’t done their homework or learned their lines.  Failure is OK, but not reading the script is not.  It’s also useless to explain the scene to the actor, they can read that in the script.  They need to understand what their character wants in the scene and why?  But don’t give them the answer, they need to own the reason, then they can bring it to their performance.  Notes are important to the actor, but give it to them privately, a secret note, not a public shout out.

What if the actor doesn’t do what you want them to do, for the blocking of the scene or the line reading you expect.  It’s a big mistake to just tell the actor where to go, you need to help them find it out on their own.  Another big reason for the rehearsal process.  Gordon Hunt, Helen Hunt’s father and a long time television and theater director, including numerous episodes of “Mad about You,” suggests using the term, “how about” when prompting actors to try a blocking idea.  If the actor states that his character wouldn’t do that, then ask what his character would do, most of the time it isn’t the action, but a word that bothers the actor.  Hunt also revealed his secret to getting a line reading.  On the next take, if you are the director, you yell out to begin the next take at the particular line you want corrected and you give the exact line reading you desire.  It’s worked for him almost every time for close to fifty years.

The fifth mistake is saying “No.”  You need to help the actor get out of their personal polite space.  If an actor has an idea, let them discover it doesn’t work on their own.  I certainly have discovered this technique in many of my theater productions.  Actors have come in with some strange concept or prop and usually discover if it isn’t working.  On the other hand, they sometimes added a richness to the character that I didn’t think about before.  Be open.  “We will do it” is better then “you will do it”.  Also, realize that if an actor has a problem with his or her wardrobe, don’t ignore it because usually it has nothing to do with wardrobe and everything to do with the character they are portraying.  That’s an issue that needs to be resolved immediately.

Helen Hunt added much to the day because of her experiences from both in front and behind the camera.  In her view, all directors should take acting classes to understand the actor’s point of reference.  I agree and certainly find myself falling back on those Emerson College acting courses to guide my directing work.  Neil LaBute started as a student actor and many of his best films have been done working with actors like Aaron Eckhart that he has known since those days.  One of my favorite times directing was when I made the web series, “Unconventional,” because I pulled about fifteen actors that I had worked with in the theater, here in Los Angeles, and we created these characters based on my notes and the actors ideas.  There was no script, it was just me, a camera and the actors.  It was exhilarating and fun.  It’s the reason I got into this business in the first place.  It was nice to be reminded.  To quote director Martha Coolidge, “the most important role of a director is to work with actors.”

820-afidiff09_laurel_cs31This last week I’ve been in the editing bay cutting down the video we shot of the Conscious Entrepreneur Experience workshop presented by Kim Castle and W. Vito Montone of BrandU.  I previously wrote on this blog about the amazing experience, but as I look over the footage something new is resonating.  A discovery that the importance of any business is to give back and mentor the next generation.  That’s how good ideas stay fresh and grow.

I never thought about teaching, other then the occasional workshops that I lead for One on One Film Training or at the Maine Media Workshops (formerly the International Film and Video Workshops), but as I get older I’ve started to realize how much I enjoy the mentoring process.  Maybe it’s because my parents were teachers or that my children are now young adults and no longer require as much guidance, whatever the reason, I enjoy sharing the experiences that I’ve had in over twenty years in the film and television business.  Hell, it’s probably why I’m writing right now.

Lately, I’ve been asked to sit on some media panels and every time I’ve not only enjoyed the experience, I’ve walked away with new contacts and some bit of new information.  Last week, I was asked by the posthouse Secret Headquarters to share my experiences as a producer using the RED camera on “Need for Speed:Undercover” and the Panasonic 900 on the documentary “Houston We Have a Problem.”   Not only was the food great and the folks at Secret HQ terrific, but the other panelists Sandy Collora, Drew Brody and Mary Liz Thomson had so much to offer about their own experiences.

I had the same feeling a few weeks earlier when we premiered our documentary, “Houston We Have a Problem” on March 27th at AFI Dallas.  The film, directed by Nicole Torre of New Angle Media is about the Oil Barons, Wildcatters, and roughnecks and their long struggle to feed America’s ferocious oil appetite.  A real inside look into the energy culture and just how our country became so addicted to oil.  The good news is the city of Houston and many of the oil honchos believe we must go “Green” for a secure domestic energy future.  AFI Dallas posted an interview on Vimeo.  The film played very well with great reviews on KERA (local Dallas PBS station) and even on IMDB.  I was asked to be on a panel about documentaries and the changes with online media, joined by “Rock Prophecies” director John Chester and Pete Schuermann of “Haze;” monitored by online SpoutBlog writer Karina Longworth.  The end discussion grew sticky with what is considered fair use in docs.  Once again, I enjoyed participating and learned some new things, as well as met some great new contacts.

I was extremely disappointed that I couldn’t serve on the panel at NAB when I was asked by PixelHead Network for Promax.  They had interviewed me a few months back at a Cinema Innovators Event about  my company Unconventional Media and our commitment to New Media.  I’m not going to make it to NAB this year because of memorial plans for a recent family loss, but really would have loved to share my production  experiences with a larger crowd.

I know that there are a lot of people exploring a new career for themselves as a “Life Coach.”  I’m not interested in that and don’t see that as a fufilling role.  To be honest, I’m not convinced many of these other people (some friends) should take that role either.  However, if someone wants some guidance, I’m open to help.  Some folks don’t believe they have the time in their business to assist others.  I think they’re wrong.  There is an interview with Joe Sugarman on the upcoming BrandU DVD.  Joe created BluBlocker Sunglasses and ran JS&A (forerunner of  Sharper Image), a highly successful mail-order company in the 1980s, the largest supplier of innovative electronic products in the U.S.  He pioneered many of the sales and marketing techniques widely used today, as well as introduced household products like the calculator, cordless phones, and digital watches to the world.  He declares that the most important thing in a successful business is helping a fellow human being.  It’s not how we usually imagine business people thinking, but as my own production business grows, I’ve come to realize it is the only way to think.  I’ve always been into helping others, I thank cutting this BrandU DVD is helping me understand why.

It’s a lot of time and energy to keep up your profile on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Linkedin, Ning sites and dozens of other social networking sites. However, if you’re trying to make a living in the creative arts, be it an independent filmmaker, musician, artist, then you’ve got to look at it as part of the job.

Here’s just one recent example with my short film “Travelin’ Trains.” A few weeks back I notice Greg Sarni has become a Facebook friend with my sister Lindsay Mofford. Now I remember Greg, not well, but I remember drinking beer and hanging out with him at Emerson College. We reconnect, become online friends. On his Facebook site are photographs and notes about his days running the Boston Blues Festival. I mention “Travelin’ Trains,” my short blues film about a boy in search of his father in the Depression-era South. It’s full of traditional, acoustic blues. He wants to see it, especially because one of the stars is Chicago Bob Nelson.  A few years back, Bob collected the Blues Trust Lifetime Achievement Award. Greg is a fan of his music and makes mention of the prize and film in his online newsletter, Blues Trust. He also adds the Cacchi link where you can see my film for free.  The film gets a jump in views including a recommendation on Twitter by the famous Ash Grove bar in Los Angeles. I see the text and Twitter back that we need to do a documentary on the history of one of the most important folk clubs in the country. Discussions and developments begin. Thanks Greg.

Do you see where I’m going with all this? At Unconventional South in Nashville, we are constantly talking to an incredible roster of talented musicians who know that the old ways of creating an audience no longer apply.  Brian Adams knows this and is developing the network television series “Stone Cold Sober in Music City” with an online home base. You can read more about that venture in a previous blog.  We’ve also been exploring that with Billy Falcon, his daughter Rose Falcon and The Sowing Circle on Ustream.  A wonderful write up at indiemusictech.com covers what a musician has to do these days to get their music heard.  It was also a big issue of discussion at the SXSW music conference as referenced in Wired magazine.

Mashable.com is a wealth of information of guidelines, with success and failure stories of what works for artists and entrepreneurs. The write up about Ning job networks and entrepreneur networks are two of my favorite resources. How do I know when there is a new article? I follow them on Twitter. When a new story is online, they’ll put a link on Twitter. I can access it if I’m interested. This process is exactly the same for all us artists. You release a new song, photograph, film, art show and let people know it is there. The fans decide if they want to access it or not. They hear or see it and your network spreads the word. If they’re not spreading the word then something isn’t grabbing their attention.

Now everyone has their own set of rules of what and how they want to communicate via the web. I use MySpace mostly for listening to new bands and keeping track of gigs via bulletins. I reserve Facebook for my actual friends, mainly because I’ve got some friends on there that I’ve known since Junior High School.  I’d rather not share those old stories with someone I just met at a networking event. In those cases, I stay linked to the business contacts, new and old, via LinkedIn. And for me, Twitter is all about the RSS feed. I’m following you because either I like what you have to say, play, write or communicate. If you’ve got a suggestion, I want the link. I hope those that follow me feel the same way about my “tweets.”

Now I know there are dozens of other social networks including “Ning” sites like my Brother-in-Laws site, All Hands on Board, which can be very specialized. I just don’t feel like I need to be on all of them.  It might look like some sort of desperate need to be noticed. You see, there is a fine line and only you can decide what is needed to get the word out and what is too much.  We each make our own rules and that, my online friend, has got to be one of the greatest things about social networks.

It was reported last week in the trades that Michel Gondry had been hired by Sony Pictures to direct the feature “Green Hornet” starring Seth Rogen.  Between Rogen and Gondry, I’ve got a feeling this won’t be your usual Superhero comic book movie.  I’m interested in what Michel Gondry does with the material, I’ll tell you why.

Many, many years ago, I worked as the 1st AD for Gondry on a Sheryl Crow music video, “A Change Would Do You Good.”  At the time I was doing a lot of big budget music videos, usually for the production company, Propaganda Films.  This was my first with Gondry, although he already had a great reputation for making interesting, artistic videos, especially for Bjork.

The concept for “Change” was that Sheryl Crow was a “Bewitch”-like character, shaking up the lives of people, give them a chance to step into someone else’s shoes before returning to reflect on their own life.  Big concept for a three minute song, especially when you start including an all star cast.  Of course, at they time, most of them, other then Ellen Degeneres, were hardly known.  Heather Matarazzo had just been discovered in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”  Molly Shannon had only a few seasons of Saturday Night Live under her belt.  Jeff Garlin had not yet co-starred with Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  Years later I had the opportunity to work with Mary Lynn Rajskub as Chloe O’Brian on a few seasons of “24” and with Andy Dick on a whole series of comedy shorts for the MTV Movie Awards, but at this time, they were basically “unknowns.”  BTW, most of those short films are up on YouTube.

It was a difficult shoot, coordinating everyone’s schedules around the various stage sets and their other gigs.  Michel, who is originally from Versailles, France (and was still struggling with English), was having a hard time communicating his vision or I was having a hard time understanding, which slowed things down.  I think, for me, the highlight was when Sheryl came to the set and for whatever reason felt I had adjusted the schedule to accommodate her, so she gave me a big, wet kiss, which I’ll never forget.  I liked her instantly!

Now before I get lost in sentimental memories, the reason I’m writing is because of Michel and his desire to direct a feature film.  This was way before “Human Nature” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”  He wanted to direct a feature film and at the time, the one he wanted to direct was “Green Hornet.”  It was a different script, but based on the same comic book.  Any time he wasn’t working on prep for the music video, he was meeting with his assistant, breaking down ideas and storyboarding his vision of the “Green Hornet.”  I wonder how many of those ideas from over ten years ago will find their way to the upcoming production?  I guess things really do come around if you want them bad enough.

I think about these things and relate them to my own life, my own projects.  I believe everyone has their own projects that at different times get put on the back burner.  I have my directing projects like “Press>Play” that I’ve tried to launch for almost as long, or in the case of “Witness Trees” even longer.  I get frustrated when it isn’t moving forward, but just like Michel Gondry, I’ve taken other great projects offered to me to keep the creative juices productive and to bring in some finances.  It’s nice to know that sometimes the pet projects return, even bigger and better then you ever dreamed, even if they now star Seth Rogen.  Either way, a change has done me good, looks like some great stuff is brewing for Unconventional Media, even though it’s not originally mine. At least I’ll always have Sheryl’s kiss.