Friday, March 03, 2006

Why I Won't Be Nominated for an Oscar This Year

When I was in college, I made a film. It wasn’t the kind of film you might be thinking of, but it is equally embarrassing. Called "Beginnings," it was a mercifully short "relationship" film. I have a video copy of it, presented to me by the director/producer/screenwriter. It sits on a shelf with my other videos, including one of my own short films. All are collecting dust.

I really don't remember how I came to meet filmmaker David ______. I think he may have placed an ad looking for actors. I don't know that you could honestly call him a filmmaker then; he was a guy with big dreams, a couple lights, some rented equipment, and a really awful script.

I didn't have to audition. A quick summary of my acting credits over the phone seemed to suffice. The first time that I met David on campus at Virginia Commonwealth University, he gave me a copy of the script. At our second meeting I told him it was awful. After that, we began meeting regularly in a lounge area on the second floor of the library, where I would give him my “notes.” I had scribbled all over the manuscript and rewritten many of the lines. One whole scene, I told him, simply had to go.

"It just doesn't make sense," I said. "I've reread it a couple times and I can't make heads or tails out of their gibberish."

"They have their own code, their own shorthand, their own language," he replied somewhat shyly.

"Their own language?" I asked.

"It is something an old girlfriend and I used to do," he said. "We would talk in code so no one else could follow our conversation."

"Hmmm. Well, the audience isn't going to be able to follow it either," I said. "If I can't pick up the code when reading it, how is an audience going to catch it in a scene that runs a minute and a half?"

See, I was already becoming a prima donna. There is just something about the whole genre that makes people act strangely. But David willingly made the changes, including adding some scenes that I suggested to replace the ones I found unworkable. One thing that remained was the stuffed animal that is prominent in several scenes. If the animal was meant to be some kind of metaphor for the relationship, its message was lost on me. David was never able to clearly explain to me the significance of the brown bear.

Even then, years before my MFA in fiction, I understood that if you were going to place something before the viewer--and call attention to it--it should contribute to the story. These subtleties were lost on David. We went through several more revisions before the script was something I was willing to say aloud and give up my weekends to shoot.

In my pre-production meetings with David, I found out a great deal about him, definitely more than I needed, or wanted, to know. At least 10 years my senior, he had studied engineering at UVA before graduating and discovering that he wasn't an engineer. Deep down inside, he was actually…well, Francis Ford Coppola. Or so he hoped. He had black hair and a full beard that was only starting to become salted. He always wore a navy Greek fisherman's cap and a jean jacket.

I believe that I met him relatively early in his cinematic journey. His lack of knowledge about certain films in particular and the genre in general startled and often annoyed me.

"The film will have piano music in the background," he told me at one of our meetings. "Something soft and random. Like the music in Ordinary People."

"That's a classical piece," I said.

"What is?"

"The music in Ordinary People. It is a classical piece called Canon in D."

"Oh. Well, this is going to be original," he said. "My brother is going to write it. He plays the keyboards."

We had many conversations that went just this way. I found a number of them exasperating. Although I was only a college sophomore, I had already spent years watching and analyzing plays and movies. I had written major college papers on Elia Kazan and Paul Schrader. I could even tell you who won Best Picture in 1965.

I always wanted to go to film school, but didn't have the guts or the resources. Filmmaking costs a lot of money. The one 8mm film that sits on my shelf collecting dust cost more than $75 to produce and is only about 10 minutes long.

To be a journalism major, you just needed a typewriter and some paper. So journalism is what I majored in. But I was careful when choosing a college to find one that also had an art school offering filmmaking so that I could take classes.

David wasn't technically in film school either. He was "dabbling," taking the classes he thought he needed--a film class here, a directing class there. He was getting credit for the movie we were making as an independent study.

My leading man in "Beginnings" was a guy named Wade who was pursuing graduate studies in theater. Like David he was also already experiencing a "career" change. Having majored in something else as an undergraduate, he was, at the time I knew him, giving acting his very best shot. He had an agent and would do just about anything to add line to his resume, including print advertising and dancing the polka in the beer garden at Busch Gardens. I am fairly certain he was never embarrassed by "Beginnings."

We shot most of the film in Wade's apartment, and I was shocked by how much time it took to accomplish so little. I had learned in high school that I really wasn't cut out for stage work. After weeks of rehearsals, I was pretty much sick of the play I was in by the time we made it through opening night. I thought acting in a film would be more creative. It actually requires an enormous amount of patience. There is lighting to contend with, problems with setting the camera's depth of field, and actors who can't seem to remember their lines.

This is why Hollywood uses stand-ins. These stand-ins are the people who are tortured for minutes, sometimes hours, on end while the million dollar stars relax their trailers. Walk here. Now stop, mark the floor. Go back, and walk it again. It is mind-numbingly tedious.

Because of David's inexperience--and the fact that we were the cast and the crew--it probably took longer than it normally should have. As for Wade's inability to learn his lines, let's just say that graduate acting classes at VCU must've been pretty time consuming. There are places in the film where I have far more camera time than I should have simply because Wade is reading from his script off camera. By the fourth or fifth take, he would've mastered some of the lines simply out of repetition and David was able to finally reset the lights to get him on camera "acting" the lines.

By the time we finally “wrapped” filming, David was already talking about another collaboration. This time he wanted me to write the script, which was to be based on some of my fiction. I can still remember a disagreement we had about the content.

"It is a little bit Saturday Night Fever, a little bit Diner," I told him.

"What?" he said. "Saturday Night Fever is a movie about disco music."

"No, it's not. Have you ever seen it?" I'm sure my facial expression conveyed my disgust.

Despite our creative differences, David had big plans for the film--he was working on a budget and looking for a full-time job so that he could pull together the funds to shoot the film. He expected me to spend the summer hashing out a script. We would have monthly critiques, but this time it would be me making the revisions.

It was spring, the end of the semester, and I was feeling a lot of pressure to plan the rest of my year around this yet unnamed, unwritten project. I was also very eager to see Beginnings. So I attended the screening that David set up for his instructor. I even took along my boyfriend, figuring he deserved to see how I'd spent all those Saturdays.

I'm not sure what I was expecting. I know that I wasn't expecting it to be brilliant. The script was weak at best. I guess I was hoping to see that David did indeed have a gift--maybe a way with lighting, a unique visual perspective.

The instructor, who I had also taken a film class with, gave a running commentary in the dark, which didn't help matters. "Oh, that's a nice shot…. I like the angle of that…. Oh, now that shot, that was really awful."

When it was over, his instructor was confused. She turned to David. "I don't understand who the other woman was. How does she tie in?"

"There's only one woman in the film," said David.

She pondered this for a second. "Just one woman," she repeated.

I needed to get out of there and fast. "Beginnings" was truly the right name for it. It was a beginner film, a practice film. Have people walk and talk, set up lights, pan left, zoom in--there you go, a movie. It was probably good practice for all of us. But I knew that I couldn't do another film with him. I couldn't invest myself and devote more time to a project than I had with this one, and risk a similar outcome.

David sensed my disappointment. He tried to assure me that the next one would be different, but even he didn't seem convinced. Ultimately it was fairly easy to extricate myself from the new project.

I ran into him on campus that fall and he told me he had just received great news: "Beginnings" had been accepted into a film festival in Ann Arbor. That's great, I told him, and wished him well. Then I went to the pay phone across the street and called my mother long distance with my calling card.

"There are people laughing at me in Ann Arbor," I cried.

"They're not laughing at you," she said, but that's her job.

I guess I had hoped the film would disappear. And it did, just not as quickly as I had hoped. In the last 20 years, I have only watched "Beginnings" a handful of times. The last time was because my husband wanted to see it. I told him he could, if he could handle the rules:

Rule #1--No sound. I can't bear to hear it, especially not my own voice.

Rule #2--I hold the remote and get to forward through any scenes that are unbearable to me (about three).

Rule #3--Viewers must endure my running commentary: "Look at how thin I was, and blonde…. I still have that coat…and that stuffed animal."

In 1993 David won a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival for a film called Lillian. In 1999, Roger Ebert was so taken by his film Thirteen at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville that he devoted an entire column to David. This attention led to David winning the fifth annual Movado Someone to Watch Award, which comes with a $20,000 prize, also in 1999. He is known for using non-actors.

When I began writing this piece, I got online to find the last name of the film teacher I only remembered as Joan. I found it and she is still teaching at VCU. Much to my surprise, so is David who after years of dabbling earned his M.F.A. in film at VCU.

In the intervening years, I've been a newspaper reporter, an advertising manager, a magazine editor, and a fiction writer. David is still making films, one at a time, doing the best he can. For the film that so dazzled Ebert, David is listed as director, writer, and cinematographer. Oh, yeah, and his brother is still writing his musical scores.