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.