Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Josh Bernhard's THE LIONSHARE

As always, spoilers.

Features running between an hour and an hour-ten, maybe hour-fifteen, incredible rarities since the B pictures flourished and faded (and by "B" I mean of course the second-half-of-a-double-bill other-side-of-a-record "B", I mean Mexican Spitfire's Elephant coming after Citizen Kane and not, you know, a modestly-budgeted genre picture), are making a sort of comeback-- if not exactly as a part of the mainstream filmgoer's experience, at least not yet, then as a part of the cinephile's. Digital video, the great democratizer, has allowed non-traditional people to make non-traditional films with non-traditional running times.

Having seen (and made) a few films that run skinny, I can say that the shorter running time isn't exactly automatically a cause for excitement. I've seen (and, uh, made) a lot of films that are still far too long at seventy minutes. The filmmaker, wanting to chase the "legitimacy" of feature film, extends a premise that would have been more at home at, say, twenty minutes, maybe thirty, forty at the most, far past the breaking point (I should note, in the spirit of "please buy one of our DVDs", that we're not trying to sell any of the over-extended films Tom made before he met his Mary). Some filmmakers even go as far as to lie about the running time, with the disc face itself proclaiming that it's 80 minutes when we know full well that it's only (yet, strangely, excruciatingly) 65.

But every once in a while, there's a film that packs its 65 minutes with ideas, explored fully yet obliquely-- a film that makes you wish there was another half-hour to look forward to, yet leaves you feeling satisfied. One such film, peering a few decades back, was 1967's The Firemen's Ball, the delightful sociological comedy that is still one of Milos Forman's best films. Another is Josh Bernhard's The Lionshare.

I do not make this comparison lightly; to my mind, the two films have more in common than the slim running time. Both films are comedies that explore sociological phenomenon with a light but occasionally biting touch; both come at their respective subjects a little sideways, making points in such an oblique and organic way that they don't feel like points at all, that they only register on a subconscious level-- which ensures that the films will last beyond the current sociological climate, that they have things to say about life when their subjects have been regaled to relics.

Granted, those subjects aren't exactly equal: Forman made a film about communism and Bernhard about file-sharing. Forman's film is "banned forever" in his native Czechoslovakia, and he was nearly imprisoned for doing "economic damage to the state". Bernhard's film will never be quite so contentious. And so we'll bid that particular comparison adieu.

Bernhard's treatment of his subject is more complex and subtle than it first appears. The film's first scene follows a first date that quickly becomes a search for a copy of the film Ghostbusters. The male half of this heterosexual pairing, young filmmaker Nick (Mike Pantozzi), has seen it but the distaff half, Eva (Jessi Kneeland) has not. Blockbuster's copy is in use; Nick says that he'd buy another copy for this occasion, but where would they find a copy to buy?; Eva suggests using the titular (and fictional) file-sharing network, the Lionshare, to download it. And so, they head back to her place and, as they wait for the film to download, they drink, they kiss, and then they do some file-sharing of their own, if you know what I mean.

At this first glance, the film seemed decidedly pro-file-sharing; after all, it got the guy laid. Moreover, it seemed to go to some lengths to excuse its characters from any culpability for their piracy; after all, they went to Blockbuster like law-abiding citizens, and they were thwarted! He had intended to buy another copy-- another copy, so he already owned it!-- but may have been thwarted as well! File-sharing was a last resort, and if the film had been available when and where they wanted it in the first place, there wouldn't have been any problem. Of course they wanted to do it legally, but they were really left with no choice.

Does this line of reasoning sound familiar? It should. It's behind the obnoxiously stupid argument that all art should be free, and that for an artist to seek some kind of monetary compensation is some form of gaucherie, if not a crime. It's the justification I used to seek out and download ROMs of old Nintendo games. The justification you used, perhaps, to burn a copy of a friend's DVD. A justification that, frankly, doesn't hold water, but that we use to make ourselves feel okay about our theft.

And so, ten or fifteen minutes in, I was more than a little worried about where this was going, a worry that was in some ways deepened by the knowledge that this film was being distributed through a Creative Commons license. That is, a film that is meant to be freely distributed. Not that that in particular bothers me-- as someone who makes freeware games, and as someone who got a free copy of this film from the filmmaker, I have nothing against such a spirit of generosity-- I just got the feeling, that's all, that because this film is being put out there for free, that the film was also advocating putting everything out there for free.

But that's not true; as I said, the film's attitude towards its subject is actually fairly complex. It's neither pro-piracy or anti-piracy, pro-free or anti-free. Shortly after Nick starts using the file-sharing network, he discovers that he has to maintain a certain uploading-downloading ratio; that is, he needs to put some files on the network before he can take any more. He grabs the music of his friend Bracey (Bracey Smith) and puts it online.

Bracey discovers this and is less-than-pleased; that music wasn't finished, in his opinion, and he didn't want it getting out there for anyone to download. But before you can say, "Aha, now Nick knows how it feels" or otherwise impose some sort of morality on this little photo-play, Bracey is signed to a record deal... because of someone who downloaded those files.

But that doesn't mean the film is "ultimately" coming out in favor of file-sharing, nor does it mean that the film is simply and stupidly reporting "both sides" like a spineless nightly newscaster or a "teach the controversy" idgit. I would say, in fact, that the film's concerns go beyond something as small as file-sharing; it provides, instead, a nuanced look of the notions of ownership in general, whether we're talking about art, friendship, love, or schtick, and how networking-- whether by computer or face-to-face-- changes those concepts.

A couple of examples, to better explain what I mean by all that arty-farty gobbledygook.

The girl, Eva, introduces Nick both to the file-sharing network and a band called Apple Curry, and through the former he listens to the latter. Later in the film, he comes across one of the band's songs on the radio, and this upsets him: the band has sold out, the radio chose the worst song from the album, et cetera. But what's really irking him is that the band doesn't "belong" to him anymore. He's no longer the cool insider, privy to some obscure piece of musical magic.

And note the double standard here: when Nick's friend Bracey is brought to the attention of a record company, Nick is of course very happy for him, even feeling a bit proud, if not vindicated, about his role in bringing that about. Bracey hasn't sold out; if Bracey's songs dominate the airwaves, if the stations pick the "worst" song, Nick likely wouldn't be irked. That's because Bracey still "belongs" to Nick exclusively as a friend. Others might have access to the music, but Nick is still part of that special in-crowd.

And if it sounds like Bernhard is simply scoring points about this particular psychological mechanism, one that's in no short supply among film buffs and music aficionados, then I've done him and his film a disservice; more than simply making points about ownership and exclusivity, he registers the emotions, the sense of loss, that accompanies the growth of any meme. Nick and his friends have an in-joke of sorts, a pet phrase: "Bear Fact." What starts as facts about bears morphs into something completely different, something that has nothing to do with bears.

This is something that happens with any group of friends. For example, at my place of employment, whenever somebody drops something, we say "Paris Hilton". There was a reason for this-- trust me, it did, at one time, make sense-- but we don't have way of explaining it to new coworkers or onlookers in a way that sounds reasonable. My wife and I have a number of phrases and rituals, but I'm not going to share them; they're ours.

The fact that they're ours and only ours makes them special; it deepens the bond between us, and their regular usage, these pet phrases and rituals, are expressions of love and affection. If someone else were to spy on them, we would feel violated; if someone else were to use them, it would be crushing.

And this is what it feels like for Nick when Eva, the girl who started it all, having been transformed (in the movie's cruelest and yet gentlest, most absurdist, joke) into Bracey's girl, uses "Bear Fact." In fact, she uses it incorrectly ("polar bear fact"), and Nick's rage is sudden and chilling. Both "his" girl and the pet phrase he "co-owned" have been "stolen". Sharing, whether it be of physical things, of art, of moments, or of people, can create both opportunities and sadness, sometimes in the same click of the mouse.

Why not click here and see what happens?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Crazy People

Every once in a while, our filmmaking escapades bring us into contact with crazy people. What do I mean by "crazy people"?

Well, I don't mean people who have a mental illness or neurological disorder. I've worked in the past providing care for people with various mental disorders and would not be dishing about them in this space.

Nor do I mean people who are "odd". I mean, we're a bit odd ourselves. Most creative people are. Neal Adams, one of the finest artists to ever put pencil to bristol, thinks that the Earth is flat. That's a bit weird, a bit eccentric, but I wouldn't call him crazy.

And I'm not talking about people who are flaky. Believe me, working as independent/DIY/whatever-you-want-to-label-it filmmakers, we get plenty of those. One reason why our cast members reappear from film-to-film, and one reason why we're so cautious when enlarging our little group, is because we only work with people we can trust.

So, what am I talking about when I'm talking about crazy people? I suppose it'll be easier to explain by way of example. And so, some anecdotal encounters follow, offered to entertain and enlighten you, and to give you some sense of what filmmakers working at our level often have to deal with.

The Comatose Actress

So, we were short an actress for one of our films and, having exhausted our pool of actors, we put an ad up on a few billboards, mostly at some of the local schools. We got precisely two responses.

The first was from a man. Well, we told him, we were really looking for a woman.

"I know," said the actor, his voice slightly muffled by the poor reception on our cell phone. "But can you rework it for a man if he's right for the part?"

We considered it briefly (very briefly). "No."

"Are there any parts for men still open?"

"I don't think so." Always in need of actors, we didn't want to brush him off right off the bat. "Maybe we can work something in. What kind of roles have you done in the past?"

"Oh, I've done a lot of acting on the stage."

"Well, what plays were you in?"

"I don't see how that's any of your business."

"What kinds of parts did you play?"

"That's really a very personal question."

"Can we meet you somewhere and, I dunno, have you read for something?" (We have copies of Shakespeare, Sturges, Schrader, and Chayefsky on hand for just such an occasion.)




"Can we meet with you at all, try and get an impression of you and what you can do?"

"I've done a lot."

"Okay. But can we meet with you?"

"No. Just give me a part."

"We can't really do that, just give you a part without any knowledge of who you are or what you can do."

He seemed genuinely confused about this, if not outright offended, and that was the end of that conversation.

But then came the second response. The phone rang at, oh, one o'clock in the morning, waking both of us.

"I'm calling about your ad," said the woman. Somewhat sourly, we informed her that it was one o'clock in the morning.

"I didn't notice the time. Did you want me to call back?"

"No, it's fine. So you're an actress?"

No, she wasn't; she was calling on behalf of her friend. Her friend could not call on her own not because she was shy, but because she was comatose.

We weren't sure if we heard that correctly. "She's in a coma?"

Yes; it had happened over the weekend. But she had always wanted to be an actress in a movie, and when/if she came out of the coma, would it be possible for her to have that part?

"I don't know. We're kinda hoping to get that stuff shot pretty quickly; we have the rest of the film almost done and we're just waiting on those couple of scenes and our leading man is going back upstate at the end of the summer. So probably not."

"But this was her dream!"

"Well, if she comes out of it, have her give us a call."

That was weird, we thought. But it got weirder.

At four that morning, we got another call from the same woman. She wanted to know if her friend (the comatose one) had called us before she went into her coma. She had found a copy of the ad among the friend's things and was trying to piece together what had happened before the coma.

No, we said, you're only the second person to contact us and the first was a man. Perhaps even more irritable now (we had not gotten back to sleep since the one o'clock phone call awoke us), we bid her a good night and hung up.

A day later, we got another phone call from the same number; this one, we ignored. The woman left a message, asking us to call her, unless we want the police to get involved. We did not call.

A week later, we received an e-mail. She said she didn't mean to scare us:

Calling me was not going to land you in court or jail. I sincerely wanted to talk to you again. Though I doubt that you would ever risk revealing your true identity, and I guess that is what I really am hoping for. Because if you really are an independent local filmmaker then I guess this conclusion means that I am delusional. But if you are a certain mathematician that I think you might be, relax, I don't believe you "rigged" my grade and I don't mean any harm.

She closed her e-mail with a few line from William Blake.

It was around this time that we called the police. The police said that it was likely some kind of phishing scheme, and that we shouldn't contact the woman any further. And so we didn't.

About five or six months later, there was one final phone call; the woman was convinced that our film, our website, and the websites of our friends that linked to us were part of an elaborate ruse concocted, for some reason, by her math teacher. I assured her that it was not and told her not to call again.

The next day, she came into Tom's place of work. How she knew where he worked, we still haven't quite figured out. But she saw that Tom wasn't her math teacher, she was told that Tom was not related to her math teacher, she was assured that, yes, we are filmmakers and the films we made actually happened. She was asked to leave the building and we never heard from her again.

And that was the last time we ever put an ad up looking for an actor, and the last time we ever tried to work with someone who we didn't already know and trust intimately.

The Movie Buff

It was not, however, the last time we ever came into contact with someone as the result of an ad. Be it known that filmmaking does not, at this time, pay the bills, and that, what with bills that need paying, we are both actively seeking work in a variety of industries, including The Michigan Economic Miracle of 2008-2009-- Film.

We came across an ad recently that was looking for a producer and, to make a long story short, we applied. A business dinner was arranged between us, the self-proclaimed "Movie Buff", and his family.

This being our first ever business dinner, we snazzed it up a bit; Tom put on his green vest but could not locate his clip-on bow-tie. Shortly after we arrived, the man of the hour came sauntering in with several copies of his script.

As we opened the binders and peered at the pages before us, the Movie Buff cautioned us that he has never read his screenplay but had worked on it, a bit at a time, over the last ten years or so. A few things about this screenplay:

One, it wasn't properly formatted. And I'm not exactly the sort to get hung up on unusual formatting for the sake of getting hung up on it-- Schrader's strangely poetic but eminently readable scripts for Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper, with their chapter headings, asides, and footnotes come to mind-- but this screenplay was extremely hard to read. All stage directions were included in the dialogue blocks, within parentheses. It didn't matter if the direction was related to the speaker or not-- it was still there. Montages and inter-cut action, all in the same hard-to-read block of text, with spoken dialogue peering out in the middle of this line or that. There were no slug-lines to differentiate one scene from another; all such transitions were covered in someone's dialogue block.

Two, it was 106 pages, double-spaced,

with size 18 font. When we mentioned

that we weren't sure if the "one page,

one minute" rule of thumb could be

applied to a double-spaced, size-18

script that read as one pages-long

paragraph after another, he took

quite a bit of umbrage. Apparently,

during a lot of the writing process,

he had been going blind in one eye.

We were sympathetic but suggested he

might try a smaller font. He took

umbrage again and we dropped it.

Three, it wasn't a particularly good script. It was, or rather aspired to be, a standard sort of action-fantasy-comedy film. "There's no deep meaning to it," said the Movie Buff. "The characters are all archetypes. It's like the first Star Wars. It didn't get deep until the second one. The first one set everything up." We mentioned that Star Wars did go a bit deeper, that it broached themes of loyalty and honour, of coming-of-age and manhood.

It was also expertly structured, which couldn't be said for the Movie Buff's script. I don't want to harp on his script-- that's not the point of me recounting this-- but I think the best way to explain some of its problems is to use his self-made comparison to Star Wars. Imagine if, at the end of the sneak-into-the-Death-Star and save-the-Princess sequence, after Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan Kenobi, that Luke Skywalker kills Darth Vader. And then the movie ends.

No escape or retreat, no final attack on the Death Star, no Han Solo showing up at the last minute to save the day. No character arcs, nothing learned; the movie just ends there with Luke finding some kind of clever-but-convoluted way to defeat Vader. That, in a nutshell, explains the Movie Buff's opus.

He figured that, conservatively, it would cost between 3 to 5 million, and that, if we took the job, we would have four or five months to raise the funds, because he wanted to shoot in the spring. "I don't think we can cut it, but like I said, I haven't read my script," said the Movie Buff, laying down the law. "Because either you want it done cheap, or you want it done right, and I want it done right." He mentioned Star Wars again, this time in the context of its special effects work.

Now, Tom is the sort who carries around in his head certain pieces of trivia, and given the opportunity, he will share it. And so, whenever someone mentions all the effects in Star Wars, he throws out the little fun-fact that the film that held the record for most special effects before Star Wars was Citizen Kane.

"Never seen it," said the Movie Buff.

"You've never seen Citizen Kane?"

"Nope." The Movie Buff had never seen Citizen Kane.

The actors he had in mind for his film, he said, were Morgan Freeman or Robin Williams for a kooky but lovable paternal figure. Grace Jones would be ideal for the villainess. He thought that Enya could do the music for the film's Medieval-set prologue.

We mentioned that this particular cast might cost quite a bit of money. "Well, they'll take a pay-cut for it," he said. "Morgan Freeman's taken pay-cuts for the right roles."

"Usually those roles are in character pieces, independent sort of films," we ventured.

"Well, we'll never know until we try," he said.

"Very true." But would he take someone else who was right for the part?

"If someone exists," he said.

Knowing full well that she was just as unlikely, we proffered the immortal and divine Pam Grier as a second choice for the Grace Jones part.


We rattled off some films: Coffy, Foxy Brown, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and, of course, Jackie Brown, "you know, the Tarantino film."

The Movie Buff had never heard of Tarantino.

"You know," said the Buff, "I know this sounds really bizarre, but I don't care what someone looks like. I only care that they can act." Preaching to the converted, he was. But then: "I mean, Brad Pitt?-- not an actor. He just looks pretty. What he does isn't called acting."

His list of "real" actors included, besides the above-mentioned Morgan Freeman-- "he was so terrific in the Bucket List, what a great movie"-- Judd Hirsch, Chuck Norris, and Eddie Murphy, "who is really quite good. He understands the power of a stare. Like Karloff or Lugosi."

Much as Star Wars gets Tom talking about Citizen Kane, mentioning Eddie Murphy will cause him to mention the original Doctor Dolittle, a film for which he has an awful lot of (perhaps misplaced) affection.

"That's what I'm talking about!" said the Movie Buff excitedly. "There used to be such a thing as directors, acting, writing! But now there's nothing!"

Wow. He's right. The last ten or fifteen years of film has just been an absolute cultural wasteland.

The other thing the Movie Buff wanted to know was how much we should set aside for marketing and distribution. To get the trailer into theaters, it must cost some kind of money, right?

"That's probably something you'd want to let the distributor take care of."

The Movie Buff seemed confused by this.

Said we, "We assume you're planning on making the movie, sending it to festivals, and trying to sell it to a major distributor?"

He had no idea what we were talking about. He was under the impression that the theaters would just have to play his film after he made it.

"No, that's not quite the way it works."

"How do you do it?"

"Well, we do it a little bit differently than most. At the moment, we're distributing our own films, straight to DVD, and because our overhead is reasonable low, we keep our expenses down, we can afford to do that.

"But if you're going to be spending 3 to 5 million on a film, and you want it to play theaters, you'll have to sell it to another company. Or, conversely, you could four-wall the theaters like Tom Laughlin did with Billy Jack." He didn't know what any of those-- four-walling, Laughlin, or Billy Jack-- was.

"Four-walling is where you rent out the theater. But that would cost a lot of money. An awful lot."

But the bigger companies didn't four-wall the theaters.

"This is true. But they have a deal with the theater chains. And if you wanted to try to do that, again, it's going to cost a lot of money upfront and so for your kind of film, the only feasible route is trying to sell it."

He didn't like this one bit. "Well, it could all work out. Look at Stallone and his first movie, Rocky. He wrote it, directed it, and starred in it, raised all the money himself, and it won all the Academy Awards."

"Actually, Stallone didn't direct Rocky. And he didn't pay for it or release it. That was MGM."

"No, I think you're wrong there," said the Movie Buff. Other things we were wrong about: the length of the Governator CGI-cameo in Terminator 4 ("It wasn't that impressive," quoth the Movie Buff, "it was just one shot") and how the universe started.

By way of refusing the producer job, we tried to explain, again, that we didn't think this was the sort of film that Morgan Freeman would take a pay-cut for, that the film he was making was really trapped between two distribution models: he could make a big-budget star-studded action film or a scrappy no-star indie action film, but he couldn't really do both, let alone distribute it on his lonesome. We weren't trying to be negative; rather, we were trying to be realistic.

But our oblique refusal didn't seem to sate the Movie Buff. "So, where do we go from here?"

"Well," we said, drawing it out, "we're going to have to think about this and see if it's something we want to take on." We had yet to read the script all the way through. "And we need to see if it's something we can do. 3 to 5 million dollars in five months is a pretty tall order and it's a bit higher than anything we've done in the past."

"How high have you done?"

"Three figures."


"Yeah, our last film cost 4 or 500 dollars."

At that moment, he wanted us less than we wanted him. But he didn't seem to want to cut us off, either. And we, in our own way, tried to get him to be the one to say no. It was a stand-off of passivity, and I'm sure he thought we were as crazy as we thought he was.

That non-confrontational stand-off extended to the matter of the check; we were unsure if he was going to pick it up or split it. He split it, and in fact asked for more than what our two meals had cost. We gave it to him anyway; we were glad to be out of there.

A couple of days later, we dropped by his place of work-- he is a chiropractor, operating out of a flea market booth on weekends only-- to drop off his copy of the script and deliver a final and concrete "no".

In the spirit of being helpful, we brought along a few pages of a script in the proper format, along with a couple of screenplay and structure-oriented websites. He dismissed them out of hand, and claimed that his script was actually pretty close to the format we presented, and that the font size was not all that different. He asked for "brutal" feedback on his script now that we had read it all the way through, and when we started to offer it, he became angry. He had an answer for every charge.

We wished him well and then he stopped us; he had another idea for a reality show and would we like to get involved?

The reality show was, in short, of the Battle Royale variety, and we were uncertain if it was to be simulated or real. He mentioned using blanks and pieces of armor with sensors on them, but also mentioned running 50,000 volts of electricity through the "shot" contestants and the necessity of stripping/hiding the bodies. Also something about shooting it without knowledge of the authorities, and betting pools as to who would be the next to be "killed".

"I've surveyed a lot of people, and, before 9/11, ninety-seven percent said that they'd watch it. After 9/11 it was ninety percent. Another seventy percent said they would love to be in it. Esp. wives who want to pay me for the opportunity to kill their ex-husbands."

"Well, we're in the three to ten percent where it's just not our thing."

"It's not my thing either," said the Movie Buff, as if it was obvious.

"We find it morally repugnant, actually," we said. And we meant this regardless of whether it was staged or not.

"So do I!" said the Movie Buff. "That doesn't mean I'm above making money off of it."

"Well, the thing is, working at the budget level we do, we can choose what we want to do and when we want to do it. We have the autonomy to spend our creative time on projects we're passionate about."

"But if you do something morally repugnant and make a lot of money, you can do whatever you want."

We considered explaining that we could already do that without doing anything we objected to since we worked at such a low budgetary level, as that was what we had just said, but thought better of it.

In Conclusion

And so that's what we mean by crazy.

This is what we, as low-budget filmmakers, have to deal with, far, far, far, far more often than we'd like. We're unsure if we're just extraordinarily unlucky or if this is par for the course for most filmmakers, cottage-industry or otherwise.

So if we're aloof or hesitant towards new people, it's not because we're unfriendly people on principle. Quite the opposite. We're just cautious, that's all. And after reading the above, we hope you understand why.