Monday, December 28, 2009

Everything is not interesting

To the Buddhist, I guess, everything is interesting.  And to a filmmaker, I think maybe that's true too.  You can look at footage of a handyman and his watering can, and before long you're William Carlos Williams in your mind, making poetry out of the tiny.  The watering can is the endless source of life, the water is God's blood, and the man -- hell, the man is me, the man is you.

But let's get real: as terrific as that attitude can be, in school especially, it can lead to a heck of a lot of problems.  And sometimes I wish I'd been born with a little less of that "wonderful, childlike capacity" to find entertainment and fascination in the smallest, most mundane of human interactions.

Because guess what?  When we're making things for an actual paying audience, we better put on that 'easily bored' hat, or two things happen:

1) We don't get our projects off the ground, because they bore the people with the ability to fund them;


2) We take forever to make our things.

I was stuck for most of the day doing a dangerous dance with #2 -- at work on a potentially solid commercial project about which I really can't say much other than it's an observational documentary series with an amazing setting and some terrific characters. 

It's the kind of project where if I had thirty-five minutes of material to work with, I would make a two minute reel in a day and be thrilled with the end result.  Instead, I have about twelve hours of material with which to work.  The challenge is to watch it with ruthless eyes.

But it's hard.  Because everything seems interesting.

Except it isn't.

Decisions, decisions...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

They're All Greek to Me

This blog has been silent for a while, flummoxed in some ways by its having outlived its original intent: ie, to make sure Barack Obama got elected President.

The Greek word for Idiot, John F. Kennedy was fond of reminding us, is someone not interested in politics. But I have to admit that after the sturm und Durang of last year's election, my lifelong distaste for politics got the better of me, and I decided, really, to stop paying attention to the goings-on in our National political discourse for awhile. I became, in a word, an idiot.

I was dimly aware of the back and forth on issues like the pirates, gay marriage, the economy, the health care crisis, and even this absurd education speech scandal. But I didn't take any of it too seriously -- it would all work out, I assumed - Obama and his band of best and brightest would find a way to make it all work --

But then, this morning on facebook, I found myself innocently commenting on someone's reposting of a rather vile Hitler=Obama video on YouTube. The friend who'd posted it had written "Where do you think this hatred ends? I am afraid to guess." And in response, instinctively, I wrote:

Let's just say it: if Obama leaves office alive, it'll be a miracle, almost as miraculous as this country electing him in the first place.

And then I looked at what I'd written. And I thought, what am I trying to do, just cover my ass if someone does take a shot at the guy? Be able to say, "see, I warned you all"?

Not good enough.

It's time to get my head out of the goddamn sand again. I don't want to, God knows, but frankly if the unthinkable does happen, it will have been my fault (at least partially) if I've just been hiding out and letting other people fight all the battles. And yes, I'm busy with actual life and work and being a Dad and all that, but I am also, I hate to say it, a member of society. And I don't like the way this one is headed, not at all.

See you Wednesday night.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Where's P.T. Barnum when you need him?

Here is a trailer for the Sundance documentary we did on a year in the life of Slipstream, a cycling team devoted to trying to prove you can ride clean and succeed at the highest levels of the sport...

The film premieres on the Sundance Channel at 10:30 PM on Monday, June 29. More airtimes are planned throughout the month of July, to coincide with this year's Tour de France.

Produced + Directed by Nick Davis
Edited by Erik Dugger + Penelope Falk
Co-Producers: Nigel Dick, Matthew Sausmer + Minor Strachan
Production Coordinator: Lauren Dascher
Music by Joel Goodman, Music Box
Executive in Charge of Production: Sloane Cooper

And Starring:
David Millar
Christian VandeVelde
Mike Friedman
Magnus Backstedt
+ Jonathan Vaughters

Hope you can watch!

(there. was that so hard?)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Throw The Hat Over The Wall; or, "I'm Wearing a Cardboard Belt!"

A surprising number of people have asked me in the last few months, "Hey, man, what's up with the blog?"

There was nothing up with it. No new posts. And I would remind my interlocutor that the blog was started as a political act -- to write about my feelings about the campaign of 2008 -- and with the Election of Barack Obama as President, the blog had done its job and could now go quietly...

And after all, I didn't really have much more to say about Obama. (Though of course I do, and could, go on about how truly remarkable he is. For all the bitching and moaning he's getting from the left - and vitriol from the right - I remain as astonished as ever by his even-handed and frankly brilliant way of looking at problems, and taking, always, the long view.)

So - given that I have nothing to add to the general discourse about Obama, gay marriage, the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanastan - where does that leave me, as a blogger, if not, truly, de-blogged?

The answer came from one of you, my trusty (and I gather rather patient) readers. "But what about your subtitle?" one of you asked, in an email I would describe as more plantiff than an Akita's wail... (10 points for the reference)...

Ah, the subtitle: A Producer's Two Cents, Because He Can.

The key word there is Producer. "What can you tell us about being a Producer?" the email went on. Is it harder these days, with the economy in, you know, whatever the hell it's in that doesn't have a good name yet?

Short answer: Yes.

In a hit driven business, buyers don't want to buy things unless they think they will turn into hits. And how do they know what will be a hit? They don't. But if it looks like something that's a hit, or been a hit, they will get more excited. Problem: then the show is too similar to something else, a retread, and they don't want retreads. It's a pretty narrow pathway between these two positions....

But as a Producer, we carry on -- we have to. Otherwise we wouldn't be producers.

John F. Kennedy was the one who best described the mentality you have to have as a producer. (It was probably while Kennedy was producing Mr. Ed in Hollywood....) He said you have to imagine that you are walking through the jungle, on the trail of a lost city of Gold that you are sure is just fifty miles away. Suddenly, you come to a high wall. There's no way around it. You can't dig under it. You can't get over it. Your destination is on the other side of the wall. The question is: what do you do? Turn back? Admit failure? Cut your losses and live to fight another day?

No. The way to get to the city of gold is to throw your hat over the wall. After all, it's your favorite hat, and you can't just leave it out here in the jungle. If only to retrieve your hat, you now have to find a way to get over the wall.

It's not necessarily the most sensible way to be, but if you feel that way, you're probably in the right business.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The best title for this film is...

Ah, titles.

Is 'The Sound of Music' a better title than 'Ishtar'? What about 'Gone with the Wind' vs. 'Heaven's Gate'? Is 'Tootsie' any better than 'Mrs. Doubtfire,' really?

And yet... and yet...

When you have a good one, a selling one, you tend to know it. For instance, I think we have three really great titles on board at my company now, three 'yep, I get it, and I want to watch it' titles:

* Goldtown

* Mother Knows Sex

* The World Without...

With all of those, the title pretty much says it all, or at least says enough to intrigue the viewer a little bit. Those three titles sell. Those three titles work.

And then there's the cycling film.

Here's the deal: it's a two hour documentary, which will air on the Sundance Channel this June, about a year in the life of an underdog American cycling team that is determined to clean up its scandal-ridden sport and ride to glory in the Tour de France. (First of all, that in itself is not exactly the pithiest description, which could be part of the problem - the film might be trying to do too much... Anyway....)

We want the film to appeal to cycling fans and non-fans alike (I myself knew nothing about the sport when I started this), and of course, in a perfect world, there would be a cycling term that would fit the bill -- a cycling term that somehow had already entered the lexicon -- something to embody the indomitable spirit exemplified by the riders, or their courage or bravery, or redemption, or the pain all cyclists go through, or something the film speaks to...

You know, something like BREAKING AWAY...

But we don't really have one. There was, initially, a great cycling term called 'Blast the Zone,' which meant something like: you're in that 'athletic zone,' riding as well as you ever have, but now you're spent, you've ridden your all, but your team still needs you, and though you have very little strength left -- from nowhere, like a miracle -- you find strength you didn't know you had -- and you blast the zone and ride to glory.

The problem with that one is, I made it up.

It didn't feel exactly kosher to go with a made-up cycling term in a documentary, especially in one about a bunch of guys who are so committed to, you know, not cheating.

We've cycled through a lot of puns about the sport, believe me, but now that we're nearing the finish line, we've really got to put pedal to the medal and come up with something.

I mean it. The Sundance Channel has rejected several of our offerings, and I can't say I blame them. But a few of our favorites do have some merit, and now we even have a few more.

So I put it to you -- please cut and paste this link and take this poll and help us figure out what to call this film. We're really proud of it. We just don't know what to call it.

(And rest assured, any and all of these films can have a subtitle like 'A Year in the life of an American Cycling Team' or 'A Year in the life of the clean team' - eg, "Breaking the Wind: A Year in the Life of an American Cycling team"...)

Thanks so much for your help. Choose wisely.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


January 20, 2009

On one of my first jobs, working as a PA and part time sound man on a cinema verite documentary about a theater company traveling across America, I was struck, on my first day on location, by the action - or inaction - of the director. I was 26 and quite full of myself, full of ideas, full of imagined brilliance waiting to be unleashed upon the world...

I met the theater company in Northern Virginia late one morning, and I arrived as they prepared for an outdoor rehearsal, at a high school. The film's director, a really nice man and my employer after all, was walking around with the camera, shooting a conversation between a couple of the characters, but after a few moments, he sighed somewhat disgustedly, turned the camera off, and took the heavy thing off his shoulder. He stretched his arms up, his back clearly aching, obviously frustrated by what he had just been filming.

I looked out at the field, the 30 or so actors and technicians preparing for their day, in the midst of a grand summer-long adventure. I spotted two of them carrying on an intense conversation while moving scenery across the football field. I poked the Director and pointed them out to him - let's go film that. He took a quick, dismissive look, shrugged and shook his head, and said, "Boring."

To say that I was astonished would not capture the depth of my horror, or my immediate loathing for this block-headed man. (I cared not at all that it was hot, that the camera was probably thirty pounds, that none of the five characters he had chosen to be the focus of the film were in the conversation I was pointing to...) All I could see was his idiocy, his stubborn close-mindedness. Wasn't the point of a cinema verite documentary to stay open to whatever happened, to follow the story wherever it took you? What about all that crap he, The Director himself, had told me in hiring me about the film being a 'voyage of discovery?' How can you discover something if you don't even set out to find it? Get the camera off the ground, you lazy shit!

A few years later, I landed prematurely in a position of responsibility on another documentary, this one about John F. Kennedy. It was a two hour biographical film portrait, and, determined to make a well-trod subject fresh, we'd chosen to tell the story using strictly voice over interviews with archival footage. On the project, we had an Associate Producer who had been brought in to help find archival footage from the various archival houses around the country. She was bright and sharp and clearly knew her stuff. But what she did, invariably, maybe three or four times a day, was to say, "The way we did it at X was..." and then proceed to tell us all how they had done some similar task in her previous job. I resisted the urge to say to her, "Oh, really, they did it that way the last time you were doing a 2 hour voice-over-only documentary biography of John F. Kennedy?"

But finally, I'd had enough. I went into my office, took out an index card and wrote in big block capital letters a motto, to remind everyone, and really myself, that when we make something, part of the reason we are making it is, in fact, that we want that sense of newness; we want an audience to feel and think in ways they haven't before. I hung the motto in the editing room where I knew she, and everyone, would see it, and proudly, somewhat haughtily, went on with the business of making the film.

Over the years, I actually hung the motto again in a few other editing rooms, and even after opening my own company eight years back, I would remind various editors and producers of it from time to time -- but I think that age and a certain embarrassment caused me to drop it from my repertoire.

The fact is, it is extremely helpful when making things to know the formats, the structures, and the rules by which other things have been made before. And as much as we might all wish to be the great avant garde artistes of our day, a certain maturation process had better kick in at some point, an ability to reconcile the demands of Commerce and Art, especially if one wishes, for example, to live in Manhattan, have children, and send them to private school. (Just as a for instance.)

But why not balance the two? Retain the reminder that we are here for inspiration, for the madness and illogic of the never-before-expressed -- while also remembering that we work in a Society, after all, and that it is Society which will dictate whether and how much bread we get to eat? Surely these are not irreconcilable views, and in fact when they synthesize, we can have a life of beauty and power....

Because when you see someone dare to live this way, to speak this way, to act so incredibly sanely and soberly, while at the same time embodying, with every ounce of his intelligent fiber, the greatest, most revolutionary political act in decades -- and you see this man's effort succeed and inspire...

Today, the motto returns to the bulletin board.