I recently wrapped principal photography on my third film, an independent feature entitled A Case Of You. It's a simple, funny and utterly charming story about a boy (Justin Long) and a girl (Evan Rachel Wood) and the huge obstacle (himself) that the boy has to overcome to get the girl. Working alongside my incredible lead actors was a supporting cast populated by such talents as Brendan Fraser, Sienna Miller, Peter Dinklage, Sam Rockwell, Vince Vaughn, Busy Phillips and Keir O'Donnell. Behind the scenes I was blessed with a strong, skillful and accomplished crew.
These combined elements made our twelve to sixteen-hour days not just tolerable but downright joyous. In the middle of the shoot I lost my dog of ten years to a massive cancer. I spent the night cuddling my devastated four-year-old, who had never known life without the dog, and then let her comfort me, before heading to location at the crack of dawn. I arrived at a café in Williamsburg with red-rimmed eyes and a less than bushy tail, thinking that there was no way I'd make it through the day. But, as I sat behind my monitor watching Peter Dinklage -- who plays a surly, queeny and utterly bizarre barista named Gerard -- stroke his Bieber-esque hairdo while putting people on edge, I found myself laughing out loud (yes, I ruined a couple of takes) and marveling at the luck of having a job so entertaining that it could, if only momentarily, distract me from something as solemn as death. At the end of the last day of the shoot, as I walked off the set and into the relative warmth of that post-modern February night, I had the feeling that I had done something new.
Personally, I had. It was the first time I'd ever directed something that I hadn't written. I co-wrote my first film L!fe Happens with my lead actress and longtime friend Krysten Ritter about a subject very close to my heart and then wrote and directed my second film While We Were Here loosely based on a series of tapes I'd made of my late grandmother. So directing something written entirely by other people about their life experiences was a brand new experience. I'd never shot a film in New York before.
L!fe Happens was made in Los Angeles and While We Were Here was shot entirely on location in Ischia, Italy. But, as I walked away from the shooting leg of this particular journey, I knew it wasn't any of these tangible details that my mind was leaping toward. This feeling I was experiencing of having done something new was a larger, deeper, more esoteric sensation, something that existed simultaneously out of reach and on the tip of my tongue. When it comes to art, there is always an element of reinventing the wheel. I think if you step away from any artistic endeavor without the sense that you've accomplished something fresh and touched upon something never touched upon -- then you're in trouble. It's what makes art so appealing, so tantalizing, so thrilling. It's why people are willing to starve to express themselves creatively. There's an electricity to discovering a truth that is rivaled only perhaps by love.
But just like love, to misquote Leonard Cohen, it's all been done before. Just as every couple who is madly in love is a cliché of every other couple who has been madly in love before them, there have been no new plot lines since the Greeks. But if we think like this then we might as well stop loving and stop creating. In order to feed our artistic hunger we have to believe that there are new stones to turn over, new levels of consciousness, new inspirations, new ways of seeing the world. Unlike a piece of music or a painting, I can't walk away from a movie set knowing exactly what I've just made. It will not be a concrete work of art for many months so, in a sense, what I'm analyzing, as I search for what this feeling was, is the process.
The process; the process that I turn over; the process that I explore; the process of making moving pictures is still, after one hundred years, a mysterious one. How can so many films be so terrible? How can you have all the right ingredients and still make a film that doesn't entertain? Perhaps there is more to it than we think. Perhaps the intention of why or how we make a film does have an effect on the picture itself. Wim Wenders writes that "Taking pictures is an act in two directions: forwards and backwards....The camera is an eye capable of looking forward and backward at the same time. Yes, forwards, a camera sees its subject, backwards it sees the wish to capture this particular subject in the first place, thereby showing simultaneously the things and the desire for them."
Are we naïve to think that the camera shooting a film only shoots the actors and the sets? Isn't it possible that, just as each human eye sees things (slightly to radically) differently, a camera captures what's happening on all sides of the mechanism in its own particular way and is influenced by the emotions within that three hundred and sixty degree world? I think the feeling I was having as I left the set that night was one of excitement at the idea that if even a fraction of the love and joy I felt for those characters and that story could leak on to the picture itself; if the fun we had created on the set could ever-so-slightly influence the series of photographs of people pretending to which we'd dedicated the last few weeks of our lives; if alchemy and magic do exist and the process influences the final product then I would have myself a movie, a real movie, in the sense that, if needed, it could help someone forget about death, if only for a little while.