COLLABORATION TED HOPE
Collaboration has never been such an urgent necessity for those who want a more ambitious, diverse, and independent film culture than we currently have. Our art, artists, audiences, and technology have all changed, pointing to a new future, but the industry and market still lag far behind. The economic practices and concepts that the entertainment business was founded on are maintained despite no longer having any foundation in reality. This has a big impact on my evolving understanding of what collaboration is—or should be—both with individuals and within the structures of industry. As an economic proposition, the film industry developed based on the concept that there is a limited supply of content, and that therefore content could be fully controlled at all points of transaction by the owners or licensors of the intellectual property. But we live in a time in which there is a grand abundance of content, and we have access to it at anytime, anyhow, and anywhere—the furthest thing from the film industry’s business principles of scarcity and control. Although some makers recognize the new practices this change demands, few have been able to execute them successfully with any regularity. It requires more work than ever before to fully utilize all aspects of cinema, yet the funds—or even the time—to do so are more limited than they once were. But simultaneously, the benefits of prolific creation have increased tremendously. So, how do we resolve this tension between the new demands and the resources needed to fulfill them? How are we going to get our work noticed when there is so much of it? Is it any wonder that good work is going unseen? Whether it’s immersive story worlds or the artist-controlled, direct-tofan distribution intimacy, the greater the number of nodes of discovery and engagement, the deeper the bond between the creator and the participants—leading the latter more readily into habitual engagement, cutting
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down the static from competing leisure options. The more we generate and the more we encourage others to create around our work—in short, to collaborate with us—the more we can hope to be discovered and appreciated. It may seem paradoxical, but based on my perspective and experience, I propose that the only sane response to a world of too much is to produce even more on a more varied basis. It is not easy for artists raised on the doctrine of Auteur Theory to accept that we have some obligation to use our work to allow others to generate additional work. Collaboration with other creatives can sometimes be seen as anathema to auteurism, so collaboration with audiences may seem even more far-fetched. But, in contrast to the way the printing press locked in definitive versions of our favorite campfire tales, the change from an analogue culture to a digital one reminds us that nothing is ever finished. When we completed our movies on film, they were locked in stone for a hundred years or more. In the digital era, we can produce numerous iterations, customized for different audiences, platforms, and preferences. Further, art in this age of digital reproduction seeks out conversations around itself, becoming the building blocks of subsequent remixes and re-quotes, encouraging appropriations and gaining new relevance at every opportunity—hoping that each new transformation brings new audiences, new discovery nodes, and greater engagement from those that might not have initially appreciated the work itself. Change is hard. Sharing is easy. Few people ever get to use their labor in the service of what they love—but there is no reason why it needs to be that way. The way we build a new independent film industry better is to build it together. The common agenda is the common good. It’s all one big movie; we just need to reach a little higher. Let’s lend a hand whenever we can.
BRIGHT IDEAS WINTER & SPRING
VOLUME 1, ISSUE 1
OUT FOR THE GUSTO What hip-hop can teach independent film by Christopher Robinson
RYAN COOGLER The young man behind Fruitvale Station on inheriting Rocky, visiting the White House, and why a film set is like the fourth quarter of a football game by Rebecca Ruiz
CARY FUKUNAGA The director of True Detective on shooting a 500-page script for HBO, and adapting all 1,138 pages of Stephen King’s It by Aaron Hillis
RUMINATIONS ON COLLABORATION Why the more films we make, the more films we need to make by Ted Hope
TEYONAH PARRIS Mad Men’s Dawn Chambers on hugging Christina Hendricks, and stoking a race riot in Dear White People by Neela Banerjee
TROUBLE IN PORT ARTHUR Kat Candler and the Hellion team on metal, hooliganism, and why Aaron Paul is down for anything by Valentina I. Valentini
A SPACE ODDITY The team behind The Dirties on taking their faux-doc style to the moon by Ben Umstead
MAY GOD HAVE PEACE AND REST ON YOUR FATHER Abdallah Omeish on the story of the first independent satellite channel in Libya, and how he nearly died to tell it by James Kaelan
THE HOTTEST MONTH Twelve O’Clock Boys, Arabbers, and the August heat in The Ballad of Baltimore Photos by M. Holden Warren
IDOL KILLER, presented by Vimeo A nail gun, a hot dog, and a coyote in this exclusive 18-frame film from Meredith Danluck Story and Photos by Meredith Danluck
THE ANTIHERO’S JOURNEY Why Walter White is actually immortal by David Corbett
WHAT ROUGH BEAST How contemporary poetry has finally found an audience—on television by Laura Goode
SEEING PROFIT How the Italian data visualizers, Accurat, see films that sell at Sundance by Michele Graffieti & Giorgia Lupi
SYNOPSIS James Kaelan on BRIGHT IDEAS
EXCERPT The opening scene of David Lowery’s Becky Stark
IN CHARACTER Five looks from the work-in-progress, EEL
ON SET Brent Green’s homemade town from Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then
WILD POSTINGS Adrian Kolarczyk’s new hand-drawn Dr. Strangelove poster on the streets of San Francisco
Cover photo: Ryan Coogler at Mondrian Los Angeles, by Evan Lane Cover design by Blessing Yen
Contributors James Ryang is a photographer based in New York. He worked as a photo assistant for 10 years before going off to make his own pictures. ——— Laura Goode cowrote and produced the feature film Farah Goes Bang, which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine and Indiewire, amongst other publications. ——— Evan Lane is a photographer based in Los Angeles. He is also the pioneer behind Langly camera bags, straps, and accessories. ——— Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter based in Oakland, CA. She has written for Forbes, Al Jazeera America, Slate, The Verge, and TheAtlantic.com. ——— Accurat is an information design agency based in Milan and New York, founded and directed by Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, and Gabriele Rossi. The “Selling at Sundance” data viz was designed and produced by Michele Graffieti and Giorgia Lupi. ——— Meredith Danluck’s work has screened at major art institutions internationally, including MoMA, PS1, Venice Biennale, Liverpool Biennial, and Reina Sofia—as well as various film festivals, including SXSW, TIFF, Doc NYC, Margaret Mead, Hamburg International, and Sundance. ——— David Corbett is the award-winning author of four novels and the writing guide, The Art of Character. ——— David Lowery is a filmmaker from Texas. His work includes the short film “Pioneer,” and the features St. Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. ——— Christopher Robinson’s debut novel, War of the Encyclopedists, co-authored with Gavin Kovite, will be published by Scribner in 2015. He calls the wind home. ——— Aaron Hillis has written for The Village Voice, Time Out NY, and Variety, amongst many others. He is the owner of Video Free Brooklyn, three-time “Best Video Store in NYC.” ——— Adrian Kolarczyk is a graphic artist and hand-illustrated poster designer from Poland. In 2011, he won the SXSW Poster Design Audience Award. ——— Miles Kittredge is a filmmaker and motorcycle builder based in San Francisco. In kindergarten, he broke BRIGHT IDEAS Editor-in-Chief James Kaelan’s leg with a tricycle. ——— Neela Banerjee is a fiction writer and journalist whose work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Times. She also serves as the Managing Editor of the publishing house, Kaya Press. ——— Valentina I. Valentini is a producer and freelance journalist for MovieMaker and Indiewire. Her roots are in Massachusetts, but her dreams are in Hollywood. ——— Ben Umstead is the East Coast Editor at Twitchfilm.com and a contributor to LitReactor.com. He is currently based in Los Angeles. ——— Lauren Logan is a travel, food, and portrait photographer based in Austin. ——— After Peace Corps service in Tonga, M. Holden Warren discovered photography, filmmaking, and then street art. His latest film, The Ballad of Baltimore, begins the festival circuit next year. ——— Marisa Reisel is a painter and maker of weird plastic jewelry that comes in the shape of hot dogs sometimes. She went to Princeton. ——— Louisa Bertman is an illustrator of increasing renown, whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. ——— Brent Green is a self-taught animated filmmaker and artist from Cressona, PA. Factory 25 released his film Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then in January, 2014. ——— Abdallah Omeish is a documentary filmmaker. Born in Tripoli, he intends to return to Libya this year to make the country’s first domestically-produced narrative feature. ——— Ted Hope is the American independent cinema luminary who, along with James Schamus, launched Good Machine in the early 1990s. Recently he stepped down as Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society to return to producing films.
Founding Sponsor Creative District (C2, C4, 1, 2, 3, 5)
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Special Thanks The Weinstein Co, Mondrian Los Angeles, Inner Workings, Vanguard Management, Technicolor, The Hub LA, A2E, Hone, WaraireBoswell.com, MiMoDa Studio, Chango, and Factory 25. Tolley Haycock, Katie Doyle, Shelby Callas, Milan Blagojevic, Thomas Amestoy, Jessica Wasniewski, Alyssa Beinhaker, Micki Krimmel, Al Guerrero, Michael Gollom, Christian Gammill, Sodan Selvaretnam, Eric Shamlin, Julie Lebedev, Ann Le, Angel Lopez, Vannga Nguyen, Shane Martin, Waraire Boswell, Yasha Michelson, Hossein Mardani, Matt Grady, Jeremy Boxer, Bret Heiman, Robin Harper, Liz Ogilvie, Eve Cohen, Amanda Trokan, Erica Anderson, Alexis Finch, and Max Silverman.
Empire Published by Emily Best, Publisher James Kaelan, Founder & Editor Blessing Yen, Creative Director Evan Lane, Staff Photographer James Ryang, Contributing Photographer Nicole Malek, Editorial Assistant Printed in association with
BRIGHT IDEAS is a trademarked subsidiary of Seed&Spark, Inc. and is published twice annually. No portion of this magazine may be reproduced without express written consent from Seed&Spark, Inc. Issue #1 is available exclusively at the Sundance, Slamdance, True/False, SXSW, San Francisco International, and Tribeca f ilm festivals, and is limited to 10,000 units. Individual copies may be available for purchase on seedandspark.com while stock remains. If you’re interested in sponsoring a future issue of BRIGHT IDEAS and would like more information, please contact us at email@example.com Copyright © 2014. Seed&Spark, Inc. All rights reserved
THE FIRST 20 YEARS
FILM FESTIVAL • SLAMDANCE STUDIOS • ON THE ROAD • SCREENPLAY COMPETITION
BY FILMMAKERS FOR FILMMAKERS FIND US
WWW.SLAMDANCE.COM • #SLAMDANCE20
In this digital world, fact is the least valuable commodity we exchange. It is as cheap and accessible as the electrons that carry it to our phones. For there is no art, no percipience—and therefore no effort— required to disgorge trivia. But to tell the truth? That’s fucking hard. — Anastasio Sevilla
For the final third of 2013, with the support of Creative District, Vimeo, Fandor, and countless others, we at Seed&Spark have worked to put together a magazine that feels the opposite of arbitrary, that utilizes the visual medium of print to illuminate—as gold leaf does a sacred manuscript—the radical medium of cinema. The creators we profiled, the essays we commissioned, reflect our belief that film is a vehicle, not for disseminating fact or even beauty, but for truth. That is a grand and dangerous statement, but let it be the first grand, dangerous statement we make. This magazine is called BRIGHT IDE AS because we think the strength of a democracy hinges on the boldness of its culture, and its culture on the intelligence of its press. Not long ago, Richard Brody defamed the anemia of our liberal cinema, saying: “The facts do not speak for themselves, and there’s a remarkable and disheartening correlation between those who film as if they do and those who, imbuing these facts with a built-in point of view, are unwilling to stand in front of those facts and state that point of view.” In all 128 of these pages, not a bowl of cereal gets eaten in bed by a white person quietly considering her middle class plight. The creators in this magazine—from Ryan Coogler to Kat Candler, from Teyonah Parris to Abdallah Omeish—have a point of view. And that’s why we wrote about them. When I resigned as Senior Editor of MovieMaker Magazine last July to start work on BRIGHT IDE AS, I wrote a farewell letter that
began with a quote from Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest. Hartley, a reporter who’d covered the genocides and famines of Africa in the 80s and 90s—from Rwanda to Somalia—tells an anecdote about the journalist Eduardo Flores. One day, while covering the conflict in what was then Yugoslavia, Flores called a press conference of his colleagues and announced that he could “no longer be merely a spectator in the war” that pitted Catholic Croatians again the Orthodox Serbs. “From that day onward,” writes Hartley, “Eduardo Flores would throw away the pen in order to take up the gun.” I read Hartley’s book when I was 19, but this one anecdote has nagged at me for more than a decade because inherent in Flores’ action is the question: Does journalism matter? And his answer is no. Chronicling the revolution, Flores posits, is less effective—and less noble—than taking up arms against the enemy. So if Flores is right, that a man with a gun is worth more than one with a camera, what is the value of a journalist two degrees removed from the action, writing not about the subject, but some intermediary’s interpretation of the subject? An endeavor that abstracted from reality must be frivolous. Well, we don’t think so. Art, to paraphrase Crane, is the bullet of democracy, and the press the powder. One man with a gun is nothing compared to the well-told story of the man he kills. Welcome to BRIGHT IDE AS. We’re taking this shit seriously.
The American Astronaut
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OVER 260 SCREENINGS FROM 51 COUNTRIES OVER 210 FILMMAKERS & INDUSTRY GUESTS
57TH YEAR | APRIL 24 – MAY 8, 2014
D E P T E X C E R P T
Becky Stark An excerpt of a new, unproduced work by David Lowery
INT. KITCHEN - DAWN BECKY STARK, 30, red hair wisping out from under her housemaid’s cap, is sitting on a straw pallet in the corner of the kitchen, darning her stocking when she hears the CRY from upstairs. A sharp, feminine wail. Becky looks up at the slats of the floor above her, and then at the piles of cookware waiting in the basin. And then there’s a second cry, more piercing than the first, wrought through with pain. Becky rouses herself, casting aside the rags with which she’d been scrubbing and drying her hands on her apron and hurries from the kitchen... INT. COUNTRY HOUSE - CONTINUOUS ...and through the COUNTRY HOUSE where she is employed. It’s early yet, and no one’s about. The cool dawn outside has yet to break through the windows, leaving the house cool and dark and blue. Becky hurries up the stairs and down the hall to a certain room, where she knocks... Miss?
...and then gently pushes the door open... INT. BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS ...to see a young lady writhing and moaning in pain in her stately bed. This is MATILDA HAVILLAND, not quite 16. Her stomach swells beneath her nightgown. She’s nine months pregnant and fit to burst. Becky rushes to her side... BECKY Easy, miss, easy.... ...and sees that the girls’s gown and bedsheets are soaked through. Her water has broken, and her face is damp with fever. MATILDA I think it’s coming. BECKY ...I’ll go fetch you mother. MATILDA No—wait. Wait...
Becky waits. Matilda moans as the labor pains come on strong. Becky lays a hand on her forehead, wiping the matted hair back and rubbing her scalp. BECKY Shhh. S’okay. It’s okay. She sits there for a moment, beside the girl, comforting her. A moment of quiet passes. INT. KITCHEN - LATER A KETTLE WHISTLES on the stove. It’s later in the day. Becky is scrubbing pots and pans from breakfast. As the steam spouts and the whistle reaches its peak it is matched by more cries of pain from upstairs. Becky grabs the kettle from the stove, as a MIDWIFE hurries into the kitchen behind her, carrying a large metal basin. She empties the water from it into a drain on the floor... MIDWIFE Give that here now... ...and then pours the water from the kettle into it. How is she?
MIDWIFE She’s all right. She’s all right. She hurries out again with the steaming basin. Becky watches her go. INT. PARLOR - DAY Becky dusts down the woodwork in the parlor, the bookcases full of ancient volumes, the shelves with their tintypes resting upon them. Reflected in the glass of a cabinet she can see the room behind her, and her employers, MR. and MRS. HAVILLAND. Matilda’s parents look nervous and disheveled in spite of their fine dress. They’re speaking in hushed tones to an OLDER MAN in a heavycoat—Becky can’t make out their words, but there’s no mistaking the strained, desperate tones of Mrs. Havilland’s voice.
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Another cry from upstairs. Mrs. Havilland excuses herself and goes to the staircase. INT. UPPER HALLWAY - DAY Becky passes by the upper hallway and catches sight of the nurse and other maids standing outside Matilda’s room. Labor pains resound from within. INT. SCULLERY - DAY Matilda is tending to the laundry, stirring a steaming vat of linen with a paddle. The house cook—a middle-aged woman named MS. LAUGHTON—pokes her head into the room. MS. LAUGHTON How’s that washing, Becky? BECKY I’m nearly done— MS. LAUGHTON I’ll have Hodgkins finish it. I need you to go with Dickerson to market. Me?
MS. LAUGHTON Go straight to Tourney’s and get me an ounce of motherwort for Ms. Havilland. Is that all?
MS. LAUGHTON That’s all you need to worry yourself with. And Becky— Yes, ma’am?
MS. LAUGHTON Don’t speak to anyone. Just hurry there and back.
EXT. COUNTRY HOUSE - DAY Becky rides in the passenger seat of a small, open carriage. Beside her, driving the horses, is DICKERSON, the coachman. Becky looks up at the COUNTRY HOUSE as she passes it, getting a good glimpse of its gables against the gray country sky. EXT. MARKET - DAY Becky makes her way through the market square, carrying a small brown basket. Compared to the tranquil countryside, this place is pure cacophony. The cobblestones are filthy with soot and shit. Smoke and steam hang low, a veil over everything. Livestock is herded, pigs squeal, chickens cawk before the thunk of a cleaver connecting with a butcher board silences them for good. Becky hurries to the door of a small shop, outside of which bulbs of garlic hang in great bunches. It’s an APOTHECARY. INT. APOTHECARY - CONTINUOUS Old TOURNEY, the wizened man who runs this cramped little place, measures a scoop of dried herbs into a small cloth pouch. TOURNEY I take it this ain’t for cooking. Becky remains silent. Here.
He takes a small paper envelope and hands it to Becky with the parsley. TOURNEY (CONT’D) Mix that in when you make the tea. It’ll help ‘em right along. BECKY I’m not supposed to— TOURNEY Just go ahead and take it, with my regards to Mrs. Havilland.
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EXT. MARKET - DAY Becky hurries out of the shop. She spots DICKERSON across the thoroughfare, procuring some produce. As she heads towards him... Becky!
She turns around and sees LEONARD CHILDRESS—28, handsome, dressed in sooty black clothes, a pair of freshly-cobbled shoes in his hand. He gives Becky a friendly smile. She instantly blushes. CHILDRESS (CONT’D) I thought market day was Tuesday. BECKY I’m picking up a few things special. CHILDRESS Those new soles treating you well? BECKY Yes, thank you very much. CHILDRESS I’m heading to Cavill’s. Can you walk with me for a bit? BECKY I—I really have to— CHILDRESS Just five minutes. BECKY I wish I could, I do, but I’ve got to get this medicine back, Miss Matilda is very ill— CHILDRESS What’s wrong with her? I’ve heard people talking... BECKY (pausing, curious) What have they said? Childress looks over his shoulder, as if someone might be listening in...
D E P T I N . C H A R A C T E R
Five looks from the work-in-progress, EEL WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY JAMES KAELAN PRODUCED BY BLESSING YEN CINEMATOGRAPHY BY WILL GORDH AND MILES KITTREDGE
PHOTOS BY EVAN LANE PHOTO ASSIST BY ORSON OBLOWITZ STYLING BY BLESSING YEN HAIR AND MAKEUP BY SAMANTHA WARD SHOT ON LOCATION AT MIMODA STUDIO, LOS ANGELES
“Commentary cannot be separated from what it comments upon. The critics—whose interpretation of my work condemned me to death—are not my executioners; they are my collaborators. The world is our camera.” —Rostam Ghazvani, standing at the gallows in Tehran
BRENNAN KELLEHER as DANIEL
“I make everything I touch my own. If it’s a corruption, it’s an improvement.”
“I’m not vulnerable as an actress. Only as a character.”
SINA J. HENRIE as ANNA
“ You will leave this desert one day and create — without reference!”
TY FOSTER as CHARLES
“I’ve lost all sense of it.”
AARON RAMZI as HAYTHAM
“I became very angry. Her weakness made me angry. I wanted to punish her.”
NATHALIE BIERMANNS as SARA
D E P T O N . S E T
gravity was everywhere
Brent Green builds a town in his back yard IMAGES BY BRENT GREEN
In 2008, in the back yard of his home in Cressona, PA, the artist Brent Green began building a set. Within six months, the structure, which would eventually become the location for his first narrative feature, covered half an acre. And it featured, amongst other edifices, a house, a tower, a 20-foottall crescent moon, and a flying deus ex machina, five meters in length, that glided through the air on a rigging of cable and pulleys. Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, the live-action, stop-animation film Green shot in his homemade town, tells the story of a man, as Green describes it, “who builds a house to heal his wife.” Shot frame-by-frame with actors instead of puppets or models, it is dollar for dollar, and crewmember for crewmember, amongst the most visually unique—and ambitious—films ever undertaken. The most exceptional of the props are now part of MoMA’s permanent collection. This January, Factory 25 released a limited edition Gravity DVD/Bluray/book, so we asked Mr. Green if we could publish a series of photos illustrating how the film was shot. He very kindly obliged.
Left Facing: Four frames of Mary Wood (Donna Kozloskie) eating a f ish, whole. Below: Leonard Wood (Michael McGinley) standing in the window of the house he built for Mary, who sleeps one floor above.
Four frames from Leonardâ€™s death. Later in the sequence, his soul ascends.
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Bottom Left: Leonard and Mary, f ishing as children. Bottom Right: Mary, more than 30 feet tall, in a luminous white dress.
Above Sequence: A wall of the house opens, revealing a room full of handmade furniture. Below: Leonard straddling the roof â€™s peak to nail in a shingle.
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Clockwise, from top left: 1) The moon, temporarily indoors. 2) Leonard and Maryâ€™s piano. 3) A drawing recalling one of Maryâ€™s memories when she was very tall, and the weather was very cold. 4) A halo of hammers.
FAIR TRADE FILMMAKING MANIFESTO
f you add up the cable bills, the video streaming subscriptions, and all the movie tickets sold, American spent $120 Billion—$396 each—on video entertainment in 2012. And somewhere between 80 and 95 percent of that money went to the companies that delivered the content—not the filmmakers who created it. Back when movies were struck on real film and projected at movie theaters, the distributors who made those prints and transported them to cinemas around the world had a major cost to bear. But now that content is distributed digitally—even movie theaters rarely project film—it’s time to revolutionize how the audience’s dollars get allocated. At Seed&Spark, we’re challenging you— the audience—to start thinking differently, to start spending your entertainment dollars in ways that directly benefit creators. After all, without creators, we wouldn’t have anything to watch. On our platform, we give you an opportunity to follow a film from its earliest stages of development. Check out our Studio. It’s full of incubating films you can help hatch. Contribute funds, loan or gift production items, or simply sign up to follow a project as it progresses. You’ll earn Sparks! They’re rewards points you can spend to watch finished films of exceptional quality. Because Seed&Spark is about more than simply making movies. We exist not just to facilitate funding, but to make sure audiences can see those films when they’re done. Watch incredible, truly independent films in our Cinema—knowing the creators keep
80 percent of that streaming revenue. Filmmakers crowdfunded well over $200 million in 2013—which is a really astonishing number—but until money spent consuming that content surpasses the amount raised to produce it, the crowdfunding revolution won’t be televised. And that’s where you, the audience, come in. Do you know the main reason The Avengers grossed $655 million in the U.S.? Because Disney spent more than $100 million marketing it. To create a viable, Fair Trade Filmmaking ecosystem where creators are paid a living wage, we the audience not only need to help fund the content we want to see, but we also need to spread the word to our families, friends, and communities to get other people to see it—on platforms that return more to the creators. We ourselves have to be the $100 million marketing campaigns for truly independent film. But don’t just think of your support as blind patronage. Fair Trade is just that: a trade. Filmmakers get your support, and you get access and creative control, helping make the films that matter to you. Vote with your dollars for what gets made. Help grow the audience for the filmmakers you love by spreading the word about the artists and work you’re supporting. Join us. Let’s build a Fair Trade Filmmaking movement together. Let’s make what matters and make it matter to the people who make it. We will deepen conversations. We will employ people. We will build houses. We will grow communities.
FUKU NAGA The man who once rode the rails of Guatemala and chilled with MS-13 directs an eight-hour f ilm for HBO
n just the pilot of HBO’s richly nuanced, eightepisode anthology True Detective, two Louisiana State Police gumshoes—the boyish, deceptively vanilla Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and his cagily antisocial partner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey)—evaluate the marshy, 1995 crime scene left behind by a ritualistic killer, obsessively hunt clues while their interpersonal tensions build in 2002, and prove their moral codes are elastic when recalling the investigation in 2012. There are no tidy answers or clear-cut heroes in showrunner/writer Nic Pizzolatto’s new series, made all the more cinematic under the riveting, poetic direction of Cary Fukunaga. Fukanaga—the eclectic, 36-year-old talent behind 2011’s Jane Eyre and winner of the 2009 Sundance directing prize for his Mexican gang thriller, Sin Nombre—had his work cut out for him, having executive produced and directed every episode of this dual character study. Though he’s essentially been busy making an eight-hour “film,” Fukanaga took time to speak with BRIGHT IDE AS about his progressive blend of television and cinema, genre rejuvenation, and why his upcoming Stephen King adaptation is not a remake.
WORDS BY AARON HILLIS IMAGES BY JAMES RYANG
STYLING BY MAC HUELSTER GROOMING BY REN NOBUKO PHOTO ASSIST BY RUBY JUN
SPECIAL THANKS TO SHADES OF GREY BY MICAH COHEN
BRIGHT IDE AS: How did True Detective become an anthology? CARY FUKUNAGA: The original idea was that we’d tackle it as
a hybrid. Normally in television, you’d have multiple directors. This is more like cinema, with a singular voice to do the whole season—which is also a way to attract talent who normally wouldn’t do television. A lot of actors don’t want to put themselves out there if they’re going to deal with four different directors over the course of one season. Next season, it’ll be in the same genre, but a completely different story, cast and director, I assume.
BRIGHT: How different is your role within this longer storytelling format? CARY: Normally, you’re constrained to a hundred minutes to get a story out. My last film, for example, was a literary adaption, so I was turning a 700-plus-page novel into a two-hour film. It’s a lot of condensing of really great material, with explorations of what it means to be a human being. But then once getting into it, you end up facing difficult realities. The reason why there are usually multiple directors [in TV] is because doing 500 pages of script is an overwhelming amount of work for one team to tackle. More than anything, you hit the wall of: “Holy crap, what are we trying to do here?” BRIGHT: It must be a challenge, not to mention that audiences don’t sit down and watch a TV series as they would a movie.
“The reason there are usually multiple directors [in TV] is because preparing 500 pages of script is an overwhelming amount of work for one team to tackle.”
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CARY: For a lot of episodic television, structure is built around hooks at the end. But, the way that I consume, most of the shows I’ve watched much later in binge sessions. I had an interesting conversation with Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO. It’s not about who turns on the television that first night, it’s about the people who are going to talk about it and tell friends. Then those late arrivals are going to watch it down the line. I didn’t discover The Sopranos until it was in its fourth season. When you’re watching one episode after another, the hook is the characters and what they’re going through. That’s their most profound effect—at least in shows that are successful. In this one in particular, we were hyper aware that there might be people who aren’t watching once a week, but actually all the episodes in a row. We
make sure the continuity and the feel of it could be watched without breaking for eight hours.
BRIGHT: Right from the f irst episode,
clues are teased out about how this case has affected Rust and Martin over 17 years. Is it safe to say it’s the viewer who is meant to be the true detective?
CARY: The “unreliable narrator” was a big part of that, and that does put a lot of the onus on the audience member to be the omniscient viewer. But over the course of developing the scripts, I think the characters themselves start to write their own way. The sleuthing aspect of the story is the most off-the-side part of the whole thing. It’s an anti-detective story, if you will. In great stories, once you start off the lie, it adds so much subtext to every single interaction a character has. It’s so much more scintillating for the viewer, or the reader of a book, to know the truth when the people around don’t know, and see how people manipulate each other and even lie to themselves. BRIGHT: Detective stories are a wellworn genre. Even though Nic Pizzolatto heads up the writing, did you follow any self-imposed rules in order to bring something fresh to the table? CARY: I have never watched any of those CSI or Law & Order shows, so I’ve never seen procedurals, really. Nic had studied them profusely, knows them very well, likes some, and dislikes other ones. That’s part of the reason I think procedure hasn’t been a big part of this show—because it is such a force in other cop shows. Everything is built around solving something in an hour. For this, it’s the mundane aspects of sleuthing and all the minutiae that goes along with the bulk of your day—which isn’t very cinematic. We try to imply a lot of that without having to drag the audience through it. They can fill in the gaps. BRIGHT: As a f ilmmaker, you’ve told
stories in Mexico, the United Kingdom, True Detective is set in the American South, and your upcoming drama Beasts of No Nation will be in West Africa. Yet, you’ve never tackled any of the places where you’ve lived. What attracts you to surprising locales?
CARY: The wandering observer. I ap-
preciate people like Graham Greene to tell us stories from around the world. There’s a universal truth to being human, but also
anything, I’d do more real-life comedy, if they ever give me a chance.
BRIGHT: Who accused you of not being funny? CARY: Too many people. [laughs]
“In the same way an adrenaline junkie looks for different ways to experience that rush, I’m always looking for a way to experience what I’ve yet to see in the world.” uncanny differences between cultures that always keep interactions interesting. Not to say that I won’t do something about California or New York, but there’s not a story there that’s grabbed me yet. When I’m telling a story, I’m also trying to teach myself something. It’s a challenge on both craft and personal levels. Part of the reason I’m into making films is to have that ability to move around, completely immerse myself in a place, and then be able to pull out of it and learn about somewhere new. You become a specialty in that thing, whether it’s immigration, English literature of the early Victorian era, or now Southern Gothic. In the same way an adrenaline junkie looks for different ways to experience that rush again, for me, I’m always looking for a way to experience the new or what I have yet to see in the world.
BRIGHT: In an interview with James
Franco, you mentioned that, as a kid, like others your age, you wanted to make comedy skits and horror movies. As an adult, are those still interests of yours?
CARY: Definitely. No one thinks I’m funny, though, so no one will give me a comedy. I’ve tried. I’m also writing an adaptation of Stephen King’s It with Chase Palmer, and we want that to be a real hairstanding-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck ride for the audience all the way through. So, hopefully, that will be as scary an experience as I had watching the miniseries as a kid. So, both those things I really want to tackle, but I’ll probably never do broad comedy. If
BRIGHT: If we may circle back to the
monumental task of adapting bulky novels for film, is it true that It will potentially be a twomovie project?
CARY: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of different iterations of the script over the years, and I thought it was the best way. The jumping back and forth in time wasn’t necessarily aiding the plot, and the kids’ plot is so separate from the adults’. Why not just separate it, and not do so much work in one film and allow yourself to learn about the characters? Then, when you come back for the adults’ part of the story, you bring a whole lot of backstory with you. It’s a freebie, basically. BRIGHT: People often bemoan this current glut of horror remakes—as they should—but yours sounds more like a literary adaptation.
CARY: It’s definitely an adaptation in the sense that it’s for a contemporary audience who has seen a lot of horror. There are things that have to be updated because King has obviously been the king of horror for many generations now. We’ve seen a lot of those tropes in his films, even in comedies. What was that horror film Sam Raimi made about five years ago? BRIGHT: Drag Me to Hell. CARY: Yeah, which was a really interesting mix of comedy and horror. It was both frightening and funny at once. The challenge of making a scary film is you have to be earnest to a certain degree. In order to do that, you have to find new, more naturalistic ways to scare people. BRIGHT: That makes sense. Last but not least, who is your favorite screen detective of all time? CARY: Does Indiana Jones count? He’s a history detective. [laughs]
TROUB in Port Arthur
Heavy metal, burning Jeeps, America’s favorite meth head, and the story of how Kat Candler’s six-minute short became Hellion
WORDS BY VALENTINA I. VALENTINI IMAGE BY LAUREN LOGAN
On October 25, 2013, Kat Candler—the writer-director of the new Texas-shot feature, Hellion, starring Aaron Paul—was staring at a monitor in Austin. She and her editor, Alan Canant, were trying to get a coherent cut of the film assembled. On-location rehearsals had begun in spring, the film shot through late summer, and now in early fall, after receiving special permission to submit late, they were trying to get a draft in the mail to the Sundance Film Festival. Because they couldn’t afford the disruption, I wasn’t allowed to talk to the production team until after Halloween. But at the beginning of November, after they’d made their waiver deadline, I sat down with Candler, Paul, producers Kelly Williams and Jonathan Duffy, and director of photography, Brett Pawlak, to talk about (heavy) metal, recording the sound of creaking ships in port, and why the most beloved, meth-addicted murderer in television history makes for an empathic single father.
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LE “After seeing Smashed, I went back and watched all of Breaking Bad and just couldn’t get over what an absolute talent Aaron was. From the very first day of rehearsals I could tell he was down for anything.”
andler, who worked tearing tickets at a movie theater as soon as she was legally allowed, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida with one brother and two loving parents. In Hellion, though, she tells the story of a widower struggling to raise his untamable boys. After their mother’s death, both children act out their grief publicly and destructively—until one gets taken away by Child Protection Services. The inspiration didn’t come from her nuclear family, but she didn’t have to look too far abroad. “I have this uncle Frank who is the youngest of three boys,” explains Candler. “He used to tell this story at holidays and family gatherings, about he and his brothers and how they had set fire to my grandfather’s Jeep, and the aftermath.” In 2009, Candler turned her uncle’s anecdote into a seven-page script, but shelved it to work on other projects. Then in the spring of 2011, Candler dug the draft out. Having learned a lot during her subsequent work on a handful of shorts and her feature, Jumping Off Bridges (which premiered at SXSW), she decided she was emotionally and technically ready to direct a film about kids getting into serious trouble. “I went to town on that script,” Candler says. “I re-wrote it probably eight times.” Producer Kelly Williams, who had known Candler for years and was in the process of leaving a 10-year tenure as programmer at the Austin Film Festival, jumped at the chance to work on the project. A few months later, they started principle photography on “Hellion” outside of Austin. Over lunch one day during production, a crewmember on the shoot said off-handedly that he could picture the story taking place in Port Arthur, TX—a shipping hub and oil refinery town on the Gulf of Mexico. Williams, who had grown up in Port Arthur, felt immediately attracted to the idea. And when production wrapped on the six-minute short, he and Candler drove down to the coast. “We spent several days in Port Arthur soaking up that area,” recalls Candler. “We sat in barbershops, went to little Cajun restaurants, and listened to snippets of conversations. I began to fall in love with that part of Texas. The wheels were spinning in my head, thinking about taking the characters we already had in the short and expanding their world.” Six months later, “Hellion” premiered at Sundance. While it toured around the country—traveling next to SXSW, then San Francisco International Film Festival, and finally the Los Angeles Film Festival— Candler began writing the feature script for Hellion in earnest. In the meantime, during the summer of 2012, she and Williams shot another short film, “Black Metal.” When “Black Metal” made the cut for the Sundance 2013 shorts program, Candler hunkered down to produce a workable draft of Hellion to show around Park City.
Director Kat Candler and director of photography Brett Pawlak probably causing trouble in Port Arthur, TX
he majority of Candler’s films—beginning with Cicadas (2000), and moving on through Jumping Off Bridges (2006), “Hellion” (2012), “Black Metal” (2013), and most recently, Hellion (2014)—concern children and the unstable relationships they have with their parents. When I asked Candler why themes of childhood and parenthood seem to find their way into all of her work, she admits that she keeps writing about the parent-child dynamic, not because she’s processing her own history, but because she doesn’t have kids of her own. “I’ve always wanted them, and family is really important to me,” says Candler, a doting aunt who stays close with her eight nieces and nephews. “Not having children”—the financial and geographical instability of being a working filmmaker makes motherhood fairly unrealistic at this stage of her career—“is such a big reason for me to write about kids. This way I can at least live vicariously through my characters.” “I’m lucky,” says Candler. “I have an amazing set of parents who are both alive and well, still happily married. I had such a fortunate childhood, too. But both with the short and the feature [Hellion], I wanted to explore how children see their parents in a god-like way. To a young child, your parents can do no wrong. But as you get older, you realize their choices aren’t always good ones—that they’re human as well. They make mistakes and poor decisions because life can be very complicated and messy.” During her research for the film, Candler thought a lot about fatherhood, and how work could affect family life. In Hellion, Hollis (Paul) is a refinery worker. But not until Candler spent time talking to men who worked on the drilling platforms and in the refineries did she realize how emotionally and physically absent a single father like Hollis would actually be. “That’s just the nature of the job,” says Candler. “I was learning all these little details about their world that enabled me to take my characters down a different path. It was fascinating.”
ellion is filled with observed details, but one of the leitmotifs she incorporated from her own experience was the metal soundtrack. For Candler, who listened to metal as a teenager but migrated to lighter fair in college, the music is both comforting and abrasive—and in that sense captures the teenage psyche optimally. “For younger people,” says Candler, “metal seems to have this calming effect, soothing in a weird way even while still remaining very hard.” After they got married, Candler’s husband began listening to metal obsessively, bringing stacks of records into the house and playing them constantly. Candler’s re-exposure to the genre wasn’t pleasurable at first.
For Candler, who listened to metal as a teenager but migrated to lighter fair in college, the music is both comforting and abrasive—and in that sense captures the teenage psyche optimally.
“I hated it passionately. But this reintroduction”—she points to the wall on her left, full from floor to ceiling of metal albums—“made me feel a new appreciation for it. I grew very affectionate toward it, in fact.” Throughout Hellion, metal invades both the diagetic and non-diagetic soundscape. In many scenes, metal is playing on the radio, and Curtis Glenn Heath’s score is powered by aggressive, dense, guitar- and drum-driven compositions. Thanks to a $70,000 post-production grant from the San Francisco Film Society, producers Williams and Duffy were able to hire Pete Horner—who started his sound career working on Apocalypse Now. “Pete and I went back to Port Arthur,” says Candler, “to collect sounds after the shoot was over. One day, he wandered off from the park we were hanging out in, just following his ears. He could hear sounds from the shipping yards not far away, and ended up recording the banging and clanging of these massive vessels.” The real sounds of these ships moored in the port became key elements of the soundtrack. “We even created our own virtual drum kit of ship noises for Curtis to work with,” Candler adds.
he tight-knit Austin film scene—of which Candler, Williams, and Duffy are fixtures—has been growing increasingly powerful, and increasingly intertwined, over the last half decade. Williams produced “Hellion,” whose poster was designed by Yen Tan. Tan directed Pit Stop, which Williams and Duffy produced, and which David Lowery wrote. Lowery, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made a major splash in 2013, edited “Hellion.” But Brett Pawlak, the Hellion director of photography who shot both Destin Daniel Cretton’s I Am Not a Hipster and the SXSW-sweeping Short Term 12, was a new addition to the production team. Candler had never worked with him, but had admired his work on the circuit. “We had this weird Skype session where he could see me and I couldn’t see him,” says Candler of her initial meeting with Pawlak after the DP they’d hired was forced to drop out. “One of the producers asked if I’d seen Short Term and suggested that we look at Brett for Hellion. There was something so joyous in his voice during that first conversation. And his spirit, his approach to filmmaking, it seemed like we’d be friends.” Candler watched Pawlak’s oeuvre, including his higher-profile forays into sci-fi (the special effects-driven web series “H+” and “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn”). But it was Pawlak’s experience on Short Term 12—where he lit most of the film’s youth facility location from outside the windows in order to give the actors greater freedom to move—where Candler saw what Pawlak could do with a neorealist film like Hellion. The first time Paul and Juliette Lewis (who plays Paul’s sister in the film) worked together, in May 2013, they rehearsed in the actual location that would serve as Hollis’ house in the film. Pawlak recalls being on set,
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standing off to the side and quietly observing the actors moving around in the space, when Paul turned to him and asked, “‘How are you planning on lighting this scene? Am I OK doing what I’m doing?’ “I told him to just be free and to do what he wanted to do with is body,” continues Pawlak. “And I explained that I’d be lighting through the windows. I knew right then that Aaron was very conscious of how we wanted to shoot and what our plans were. For many of the scenes, I’m following him around and doing a lot of handheld work, and he was great about always being aware of the camera. He’d play towards it or away from it— whatever the story required. He really understood what we were going for.”
he first film Paul made during the production of Breaking Bad was James Ponsoldt’s Smashed, about alcoholism and strained relationships. Hellion, the first film Paul shot after the wildly popular meth epic wrapped in New Mexico in 2013 involves death, drinking, heavy metal, and disintegrating relationships. And Paul’s career trajectory isn’t accidental. “Aaron is just so honest on screen,” says Candler. “After seeing Smashed, I went back and watched all of Breaking Bad and just couldn’t get over what an absolute talent he was. From the very first day of rehearsals I could tell he was down for anything. When questions or concerns came up, we’d talk it out and try several ways of approaching the scene.” “Kat was perfect,” Aaron told me over the phone, taking a break from the set of the not-so-indie Exodus that’s shooting in Spain and the U.K. “Every single day she showed up on set with a giant smile on her face with a head full of ideas. She was inspiring to watch.” Before sending the script to him, Candler asked Ponsoldt if Paul was “a good human being,” to which Ponsoldt responded with a resounding “yes.” It was important to Candler to make sure that Paul could not only bring the personal-historical depth and emotional nuances to the character and the story, but that he’d fit in with the rest of the cast and crew. “Especially the boys,” Candler adds. “When I’m working with kids”— which she almost always is—“I want to create a safe place.” According to Candler and Williams, everyone on set saw immediately the relationship that formed between Paul and the two boys—newcomer Josh Wiggins and Deke Garner, who starred in the “Hellion” short. Wiggins, who began making YouTube comedy sketches from his bedroom with his stepdad’s Canon camcorder in the fourth grade, now at the age of 16, gravitated towards Paul, who served as his unofficial mentor throughout production. “He was a great role model for me,” Wiggins tells me over the phone from the same bedroom he made his skits in. “Working with Aaron, well, he gave a lot to build off of. Emotionally, I mean. And that really helped
me [as a first-time actor]. He also talked to me about how to manage success, if the feature [should bring] that for me.” For his part, relatablility is what drew Paul to the story of Hollis and his boys. Once he read Candler’s script, he felt immediately like he had a deep understanding of the relationships. By the time Paul was on set in character, he went so far as to say he felt a real, paternal love for his fictional family, and wanted desperately to protect his boys—both within and without the context of the story. “It was beautiful,” says Paul about working on the film. “Heartbreaking and honest. It was life.” When I asked him whether or not he feels he’s being typecast in this tortured-soul, always-on-the-verge-of-a-life-changing-decision guy role, Paul says he doesn’t think so. “The majority of the characters I have played are polar opposites of each other,” he corrects me. “I chase after roles that make me feel, movies that make the audience feel deep emotions. I tend to gravitate towards complicated characters, damaged in a way. The reason I do that is because that’s how I see life. I would like to think life is all about butterflies and fairytales. But lets be honest.”
y the middle of October, editor Canant and Candler are sitting hipto-hip, 12 hours a day in a cramped editing suite in Austin. Duffy, Williams’ producing partner, checks in with them periodically through the day, sometimes sitting in the booth watching playback. Duffy has been witness to every phase of the film since its inception. He was working with Candler to finish the script as he was landing in Park City for last year’s Sundance (where he was supporting Tan’s Pit Stop, nominated for the 2014 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award), and he’s been overseeing the cut ever since principal photography wrapped in mid September. “We’ve been sprinting since pre-production,” Duffy says. “As soon as we had the resources to make the film, we went into it. And it’s been a race ever since. So the frenetic pace of trying to get into Sundance was almost like our natural pace,” he laughs. “But for Kat and Allen to go into editing like that right after production—after they’re already emotionally and physically spent—it’s a testament to their devotion to this film.” Duffy says that submitting to Sundance was something they made a commitment to before they even started shooting. And although it was still an unfinished cut they sent for consideration at the end of October, they worked day and night to coax the best possible story out of the footage before the waiver submission window closed. “We’re not just trying to get it made,” explains Duffy. “We’re trying to get it made right; the best film that Kat imagined. That’s how Kelly and I see our job.”
Williams—who met Candler at Sundance in 2001, when she was there “geeking out as a movie watcher,” and he was a volunteer at the shuttle stops—has since produced four of her films, including Hellion, and has been Candler’s go-to notes guy for scripts for more than a decade. But when I asked Williams, whose spent a dozen years on both sides of the film festival circuit (as a programmer and a producer), if he thought that gave Hellion a leg up on premiering in Park City, he discouraged the thought. “Good programmers set aside any personal relationships,” he says. “If they don’t like the movie, they don’t like the movie, and that is completely respectable. I’ve had to make hard decisions like that, too, when I was programming.” Williams also isn’t convinced that being a Lab project—Hellion was workshopped in the Sundance Institute’s five-day intensive Creative Producing Lab—has any bearing on a film getting accepted. “I almost feel less safe,” he tells me. And attending the Labs certainly isn’t a guarantee of premiering at the Eccles Theater in January. Short Term 12—which was developed in the Labs, and whose director, Cretton, had premiered his previous feature, I Am Not a Hipster, in Park City—famously swept the juried and audience categories at SXSW after being rejected by Sundance. “Sometimes you need a film to have its time to percolate,” says Williams. “You don’t know until you get into an editing room how long that editing process is going to be. So we feel like we’re getting really close to the finished product, but we could also keep working on it for months and months if we wanted to.”
ewer than three weeks after submitting Hellion for consideration in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition slate, Candler was still at the editing bay when the same Sundance programmer who’d introduced “Hellion” in 2012 rang her cell. “I thought for sure she was calling to let us down gently.” But the film had gotten in. “It was a wave of joy and relief,” says Duffy, “like that welcome cool breeze on a sweltering Texas day. Then that feeling starts getting suffocated by the internal planner in me. I had to keep reminding myself that all the planning for the fest would get done, and that I should just stop for a few minutes and enjoy the moment. So I sat myself down on the floor. It was the only way I could keep from pacing.”
Shot on location at Mondrian Los Angeles PHOTO ASSIST BY ELI WOODHALL
STYLING BY JEANETTE GETROST
GROOMING BY KIRA VON SUTRA
SPECIAL THANKS TO WARAIRE BOSWELL
Ryan Coogler How the Chemistry major from Oakland took over the Rocky franchise at 27
WORDS BY REBECCA RUIZ IMAGES BY EVAN LANE
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“Ryan has a very strong bullshit meter,” USC Professor John Watson says. “And an unerring instinct for the truth. He susses out false notes and removes them.”
Ryan Coogler is calling my cellphone. Have I eaten yet, he asks, and would I mind joining him just a few blocks away at a local hamburger joint? He wants to move our 3 p.m. meeting from a coffee shop to this Oakland restaurant, where he is finally sitting down to lunch with his mother and fiancée. When I arrive, Coogler, dressed in worn jeans and a blue-gray plaid shirt, rises to shake my hand and clear condiments from the table. I apologize for disrupting the family’s meal; I know how hard it is to find time with Coogler after trying to schedule this conversation for weeks. The writer-director has been at the White House hosting a film workshop for high school students with Michelle Obama, or at the Stockholm Film Festival accepting a Best First Film trophy for his debut feature Fruitvale Station, or sitting down for panel discussions and interviews about filmmaking from Manhattan to San Francisco. It’s the run-up to awards season, after all, and this is what happens when you make a movie like Fruitvale—which portrayed the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young black man who was shot to death by a police officer in Oakland in 2009. In lesser hands, this film could have turned the tragedy into a one-dimensional spectacle. But there is nothing easy about Coogler’s first feature. His protagonist is neither hero nor villain, and when the film ends, we the audience are
overcome with grief—despite having known Grant’s fate from the opening frame. That unsentimental execution would be commendable at any age, but somehow Coogler, 27, expressed this rare artistic and technical mastery barely out of film school, and on a budget of less than a million dollars. And then there’s the film’s commercial and critical success. Fruitvale won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards at Sundance in January, 2013, where it sold to the Weinstein Company for more than $2 million—before going on to gross in excess of $16 million in theaters. Now the challenge for Coogler, having already established his credentials as a director, and survived the yearlong gauntlet of constant promotion on the festival circuit, is to maintain purity of vision on his next project, Creed—a story set in the Rocky universe. Accepting a studio franchise reboot, directly following a successful independent debut, can stifle artistic ambition. (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won an Academy Award for The Lives of Others, accepted a job directing the Johnny Depp vehicle, The Tourist, and hasn’t worked in Hollywood since.) But in Coogler’s case, it was the director himself, not MGM, who spearheaded Creed. After signing with William Morris Endeavor, Coogler approached his agents and shared his deep interest in telling the story of Apollo Creed’s grandson—30 years after his grand-
father’s death at the hands of the Russian boxer, Ivan Drago. Coogler hesitates to discuss specifics about the proposed film he’s co-writing with Aaron Covington, in part because he’d rather finish the movie before revealing anything about it, but also because he’s protective of his privacy. Personal experience inspired Creed, and when it comes to his own history, Coogler won’t say much.
oogler once wrote about the time his father lay bleeding, nearly to death, in his arms. He won’t retell the story to me, now, but he chronicled the experience 10 years ago for Rosemary Graham—his writing instructor at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. After reading the essay, Graham called Coogler to her office, praised the story’s cinematic qualities, and urged him to explore screenwriting. At the time, Coogler didn’t know the first thing about writing a script. But as he sat in Graham’s office, he scanned the stacks of books in her office and felt a twinge of jealousy; at home, all that lined his bedroom walls were Tupac posters. The only movie he owned was Stuart Little, a gift from his younger brother. As a child growing up in Oakland’s rougher neighborhoods, Coogler devoured stories, reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series and Stephen King novels. He fondly remembers seeing Boyz n’ the Hood and Malcolm X in the
theater with his dad as a very young boy. But it was science that captured his attention. He excelled at it, and felt a responsibility to rise above his circumstances and become a doctor. After the meeting with Graham, though, Coogler felt it was his duty to learn more about cinema. On the way home he bought a Pulp Fiction DVD with the screenplay on a companion disc. When he returned to his house, Coogler went to his room. But instead of watching the film, he immediately started reading the script. Three years later, the University of Southern California admitted him—the chemistry and finance student who
acter, the waiter who pours a drink for the protagonist, or the bystander who exchanges a few words with the leading man. He’s not sure if this interest is related to being a young black man in a society that rarely pays attention to the talents of young black men, but he feels compelled to learn about what happens to the people on the periphery—both of the screen, and the culture at large. This, Graham says, is Coogler’s “generosity of spirit.” John Watson, one of Coogler’s mentors at USC, noticed something else about his star student. “He has a very strong bullshit meter,” Watson says. “And an unerring instinct for
“He actually managed the entire crew like it was a football team,” Producer Nina Yang Bongiovi says. That included pep talks laced with sports analogies— “We’re in the fourth quarter, we’re almost there!”—meant to rally exhausted troops. captained his college football team—to its prestigious School of Cinematic Arts. Graham won’t discuss the content of Coogler’s pivotal essay, which began turning his attention from science to filmmaking, but says that it contained such sophisticated themes, authentic dialogue, and stirring visuals that she knew he had a gift. Sitting in her office that day, Graham couldn’t have known that Coogler would go on to direct one of the most accomplished debuts of his generation. But in retrospect she isn’t surprised. Coogler was a live spark. “It was very inchoate,” she says. “There was a story to be told and now he was going to tell it.” In Graham’s class, the students dissected Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s non-fiction masterpiece, Random Family, which presents an unsparing, years-long look at the life of one family in a Bronx ghetto. Coogler’s films have since relied in part on the reportorial technique he observed in LeBlanc’s book. Graham remembers talking to Coogler when he was at USC preparing to direct someone else’s material—a short film called “Fig” about prostitutes in Los Angeles. Before making it, Coogler researched the premise and its characters, visiting women working the street corners to talk to them about their lives. Over lunch, Coogler tells me that he’s always gravitated toward the overlooked char-
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the truth. He susses out false notes and removes them.” Coogler’s facility with the camera, Watson adds, is hard to teach: He has an instinct for how it can observe the scene, coaxing out complex emotions. To capture the intimate, organic feel of Fruitvale Station, his director of photography—the cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who won an Emmy for her contribution to the television documentary, Riker’s High, before earning acclaim photographing narrative features—shot on a handheld, Super 16 film camera. “The camera should always be in service of the story,” Coogler says. While Coogler may be naturally gifted, he believes in exactitude. “Basically, whenever I’m working on something,” he says, “there’s a part of me that’s very scientific. But there’s also a part of me that’s very emotional.” He adds, “I try to let the emotional part of me guide the scientific part.” And then he asks trusted colleagues their opinion of what he’s made. He sent early drafts of Fruitvale to Graham, and shared rough cuts of the film with several professors at USC. Graham suggests that Coogler’s upbringing as an athlete prepared him to surrender ego to criticism without becoming brittle.
aking Fruitvale Station tested Coogler’s vision and leadership from
the beginning. Before gaining the trust of Grant’s family—crucial for achieving the film’s verisimilitude—he first had to convince potential collaborators that he was skilled enough to tell a complicated story about police brutality against a young, black man. Coogler found a champion in Forest Whitaker, who signed on as a producer. But even with Whitaker’s support, Coogler had to fight for his vision. When Whitaker’s producing partner, Nina Yang Bongiovi, suggested Coogler film in Los Angeles with existing sets to save $150,000, Coogler said no. “If you want to shoot this in LA,” Coogler said, “we can’t do it.” The film had to be made in Oakland, where Grant lived and died. Throughout pre-production, Coogler remained nervous. At one point he asked Yang Bongiovi if they could delay shooting for a year so he could attend the Sundance Directors Lab (he’d already gone to the screenwriting workshop). “Are you crazy?” Yang Bongiovi replied. So Coogler scheduled a daily 11 p.m. phone conversation with Whitaker, who was preparing for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. During these calls, Coogler and Whitaker dissected each scene in detail. “I think that was a tremendous process that got him mentally ready,” she says, “so when he was on set, he knew exactly what to do.” In 15 years as a producer, Yang Bongiovi claims she’s never seen a more dedicated crew, or one that fought as hard for its director, than the team that worked on Fruitvale. With just $900,000 and 20 days to shoot, everyone was paid a pittance, and often worked from dusk to dawn. “He actually managed the entire crew like it was a football team,” she says. That included pep talks laced with sports analogies—“We’re in the fourth quarter, we’re almost there!”—meant to rally exhausted troops. Michael B. Jordan, the actor who played Grant, describes Coogler as a “head coach” who won his, and the other actors’, trust immediately. Jordan grew his hair out to play the character. Coogler let his grow long, too. During filming, when Jordan lay down for the first time on the concrete platform where Grant was killed, to act out the same fateful scene, Coogler settled down beside him between takes. Before every emotionally demanding sequence, Coogler called for silence and led the crew in prayer. Yang Bongiovi admired Coogler’s way with actors, talking quietly to them before takes and eliciting incredible performances. Jordan,
for his part, said Coogler listened to his perspective on the character’s motivations and the intention of a scene. He called the experience a fulfilling collaboration: “I’ve never worked with a director where my opinion went so far.” While Coogler won’t comment on which actors might be involved in Creed, Jordan is unabashed. “I’m doing it,” he says, adding that he’s yet to see the script. “That’s trust.” Jordan can’t imagine, yet, who Apollo Creed’s grandson might be, but that is the exciting part. If Coogler could make Fruitvale with only one camera and the Hollywood equivalent of spare change, it thrills Jordan to think of what he could accomplish with resources. “Whatever it is,” Jordan says, “it’s going to be something with heart.”
in San Francisco—the same job his father has held for 20 years.
hen talking about which careers he admires, Coogler’s answers are divergent. There’s Woody Allen, an auteur who always knows exactly where to put the camera. But there’s also Joss Whedon, who churns out popular films, television shows, web series, and comic books. Coogler likes the idea of writing a book or a graphic novel—and not just as an experiment. Rather, he sees these diverse media as ways to tell different, equally original stories. After all, he says, what is art but a means by which to experience a life outside your own? No one who knows Coogler well worries about him. Graham, who shares drafts of her latest novel with
“He’s true talent. True talent will always rise.” When I ask Coogler how he’s going to pull this off— turn a commercial project into an intimate character study, while simultaneously generating studio-sized revenue and living up to the franchise’s legacy—he doesn’t seem fazed. No, really, he says, it’s about the story. “It’s super personal, very intimate.” What about Warrior, I ask—another gritty, personal drama about professional fighting that won critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte, but made only $13 million at the box office on a budget of $25 million. Coogler lights up. “That’s such a good movie!” he says. But doesn’t he feel pressure thinking about the unlucky combination of a critical success that can’t find a wide audience? He just laughs. “For somebody to call a movie like that anything but a success, if you think about it, is kind of crazy.” Coogler is still learning his craft, and admits that he doesn’t have the answers. But, he adds, “Nobody knows the answer on how to make a commercial hit. And nobody has the answer on how to make a critical success, either. What you’ve got to do is make the best movie you can, and always make the right decisions— for the right reasons.” Yes, but you’re in this universe now, I tell him, the one where his films are products, first and foremost, that need to sell. He stops, points to the ground and says, “No, I’m in this universe,” the one where he sees his mother for lunch, lives in an apartment in the nearby oil refinery town of Richmond, and will soon restart his day job as a counselor to youth offenders
him, is confident he’ll work successfully across media. Watson expects Coogler to wrestle with the studio system—which is historically both covetous of, and impatient with, independent filmmakers—but thinks he will make terrific movies regardless. “There aren’t any closed doors for Ryan,” Watson says. Yang Bongiovi occasionally jokes with Coogler, telling him cautionary tales about promising directors who acted foolishly with their time and money. Coogler responds by smiling, shaking his head, and reassuring her: “No, Nina, I won’t ever do those things.” It was Whitaker who offered the highest of praise, telling Yang Bongiovi, “You don’t have to ever worry about Ryan. He’s true talent. True talent will always rise.”
fter our lunch ends, Coogler offers to walk back toward the coffee shop, where he’s scheduled to meet with a local documentary filmmaker. Not a minute later we bump into one of his father’s co-workers. “Aw, nah, not this cat,” Coogler says. Coogler exchanges a few words with his friend, who says, “Congratulations on your stuff, man.” “Thank you, man,” Coogler responds. “I appreciate that.” He looks for a moment at the ground, choosing not to linger on his success. By all measures, Coogler is the leading man in this scene, but he really wants to know what’s happening to the supporting characters.
MAY GOD HAVE PEACE & REST ON YO U R FATH ER
In Ajdabiya, Libya, a revolutionary with an AK-47 walks through the square named for the late Tim Hetheringtonâ€”the British photojournalist killed in Misrata during the uprising.
How Abdallah Omeish helped televise the revolution in Libya WORDS BY JAMES KAELAN IMAGES BY ABDALLAH OMEISH
On the morning of December 17, 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian produce vendor named Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi was pushing a cart of fruits and vegetables through the streets of Tunis. Just after 10:30 a.m., a group of municipal police waylaid him—as they did every week—and demanded a bribe. Bouazizi, who had for more than a decade acquiesced to this extortion, refused that morning to pay. In retaliation, Faida Hamdi, one of the officers, overturned Bouazizi’s cart, slapped him, spit in his face, and confiscated his electronic scales. After the confrontation, enraged and humiliated, Bouazizi entered the governor’s office to file a complaint against Hamdi and reclaim his scales. When his petition was rejected, he left the building, purchased a can of gasoline from a nearby station, and returned to the street in front of the government building. There, standing in the heavy flow of cabs and motorcycles, he doused his clothes in petrol and lit himself on fire. Bouazizi’s self-immolation ignited protests throughout Tunisia, whose citizens for years had suffered under a corrupt, oppressive leadership. After Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on January 4, 2011, demonstrations engulfed the country. On January 14, Zine alAbidine Ben Ali abdicated the Presidency and fled with his family to Jedda, Saudi Arabia. On January 25, hundreds of thousands of Police Day protestors in Cairo, inspired by Tunisia’s revolt, seized Tahrir Square. Less than a month later, on February 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned his post, ceding control to the military. The Arab Spring had begun. “When it happened in Tunisia, and then when it happened in Egypt,” says Abdallah Omeish, the Libyan-American filmmaker and activist, while we’re having tea in his brightly lit apartment overlooking Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles, “I still didn’t think anything was going to happen in Libya. Even compared to Mubarak or al-Abidine, you can’t imagine how oppressive Gaddafi was. So I never in my wildest dreams expected Libyans to go out and do something.” Nevertheless, as early as mid January 2011, on Twitter and Facebook, anti-Gaddafi sentiment was surfacing publicly in a way it never had. “Seeing photos on Facebook at the beginning of the revolt,” says Omeish—anti-Gaddafi graffiti; groups of protestors occupying government housing buildings—“was a surreal, thrilling moment.”
Two of Omeish’s uncles had been arrested during Gaddafi’s reign. One was held and tortured for four years. The other remains missing. “I know a lot of other people,” continues Omeish, “who have had relatives of theirs either killed, or disappeared, or sentenced to prison. So suddenly to be thinking, this might be our chance to get rid of this guy we’ve all suffered under? I had to go.” Of the men and women who emerged as the early faces of the revolution in Libya, the one that most intrigued Omeish was the young citizen journalist and activist Mohammed Nabbous who, within days of the uprising, from a purloined courtroom in Benghazi, founded Libya Alhurra TV: the first independent satellite network in the nation’s history. “He was the only English-speaker,” says Omeish, “talking directly to the Western audience, bringing attention to Libya. I was immediately fascinated by him, but I never really expected to meet him.”
bdallah Omeish has the square build of a rugby player, closecropped hair that he often hides under a newsboy cap, and the forearms of a stonemason. Born in 1974 in Tripoli, he lived in Libya until the age of eight, when his father, Salem—a member of the Libyan Foreign Service—accepted a post in Washington, D.C. and moved his wife and six children to the U.S. on December 27, 1983. “We landed right after Christmas,” says Omeish, “so you can imagine: snow and then lights, and I was coming from a place where neither of those things exist!” On the ride home from the airport, he sat beside the young daughter of one of his father’s diplomatic colleagues. “She was speaking English so fast,” Omeish remembers, “and I was just giggling because it was something I had never heard before.”
Salem’s assignment was only scheduled to last two years, and he didn’t intend to keep his family in America permanently. Omeish, along with his siblings, were educated at a Libyan school housed in the embassy in D.C., where instruction was conducted in Arabic. But at the end of 1985, Salem’s position was renewed. Then in 1987, the job was extended another two years. By 1992, Salem’s return to Libya had been postponed four times. Omeish, now 18, had spent longer in the U.S. than he had in Libya. “My father had not expected to get citizenship,” Omeish tells me. “He felt he was being disloyal. His generation was extremely patriotic, because they were the ones who’d shaken off colonialism.” And for his part, Omeish felt uncertain about his national identity. He had mastered English and graduated from an American high school, and he had a path to citizenship through his two natural-born brothers. But he identified as Libyan. So, in the summer of 1992, he returned to his family home in Tripoli, intending to fly in the Libyan Air Force. “My older brother had gone back to Libya,” says Omeish. “So he introduced me to one of his buddies who was a fighter pilot. This guy had lived in America as a kid, but now he wasn’t allowed to go back. One day he told me, ‘Just between you and me, Abdallah, don’t come back here. If I had your chance, I’d get the hell out.” In Libya, demonstrating exceptional talent—whether as a pilot, a soccer player, or a baker—was a challenge to the presidency. “Nobody could be more popular than Gaddafi,” says Omeish. “Anybody stronger than him—anyone smarter than him—was a threat.” At the end of summer, 1992, Omeish returned to Virginia. “I’d grown up wanting to be a pilot,” says Omeish, “but now that was out the window.” He sat his parents down and asked them to grant him
Left: Between Ajdabiya and Brega, Libya, a man walks over the wreckage of a tank following a NATO airstrike against Gaddaf i’s forces. Right Facing: Mohammed Nabbous’s grave in Benghazi, Libya, marked with a cinder block. His close friend and right-hand man, Amerajah, visits him here every Friday.
time to rediscover his calling in life. “‘Give me a year away from school, away from work, away from everything. Let me figure out what I want to do.’ So American, right?” Salem, and Omeish’s mother, Samira, weren’t receptive to his existential angst. “If I wanted to live at their house,” says Omeish, “I had to get a job or go to college.” For the next three years, Omeish attended community college where he completed his general education without knowing exactly what field he planned to apply it to. In 1995, he enrolled at George Mason University, where he majored in International Affairs and minored in Sociology. “I thought maybe I could go into the FBI or the DEA,” he says. But even that career path felt nebulous. Then in his final year at university, Omeish took a video production class as an elective. “The professor I had told me, ‘You seem like you’re really talented,” Omeish remembers. “‘You’re good at this. Maybe it’s something you want to get into.’” Omeish, who had been diagnosed with ADD in high school, had difficulty focusing on English, math, and science, but had excelled at photography. “In the culture I come from, though,” Omeish tells me, “you don’t pursue film or photography—not as a job. Those are hobbies. Be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer or an accountant.”
hen Omeish graduated from George Mason in 1998, he was by no means certain he wanted to pursue filmmaking. But he felt increasingly drawn toward what he saw as the political and social potential of cinema. “I had started to realize the negative power of film, and I was sick and tired of seeing images of Arabs and Muslims vilified.” Even in the late 1990s, before the War on Terror comprehen-
sively purged complex Arabs from Western media and entertainment, the majority of Middle Eastern characters in film and television were terrorists or tyrants. “These are not my people,” says Omeish. “We don’t do this, we don’t act like that.Terrorists, radicals: they represent such a small portion of the Arab world, and yet they’ve become the primary image in people’s minds.” As this line of thinking crystallized for Omeish—that Arabs were misrepresented in Western narratives, and that film could help rectify their image—he began to feel more and more as if he’d identified his purpose. “I had seen a lot of films that inspired me through the years,” he says, “that gave me a different perspective. So I told my parents, ‘You guys have got to give me a year. I have to figure out what I want to do. I’m going to work for the rest of my life and I don’t want to jump into it. I know what happens: work, marriage, family. So give me one year to figure it out.’” A few weeks later, with his parents’ temporary blessing, Omeish flew to Los Angeles, where a friend from college was living in the Westwood neighborhood near UCLA. For the next few weeks, Omeish slept on a couch and commuted around the city by bus. During his time at George Mason, Omeish had the occasion to hear a talk by Moustapha Akkad, the director of Lion of the Desert—which tells the story of Omar Mukhtar, the Bedouin leader who united the Libyan tribes against their Italian occupiers in the years leading up to World War II. One of the first Hollywood studio films about Arab history directed by an Arab filmmaker, Lion of the Desert was a symbol of great pride in the pan-Arab movement of the 1980s (and would later become a rallying narrative for anti-Gaddafi revolutionaries in 2011). When Akkad spoke at George Mason, Omeish approached the direc-
Left: Abdallah Omeish atop the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, where Mohammed Nabbousâ€™s satellite network Libya Alhurra TV broadcast its online feed of the revolution. Right: The remains of a police station in Benghazi after the officers themselves burned it to the ground. Fearing the revolutionaries would use off icial evidence against police whoâ€™d brutalized the citizenry of Libya, Gaddaf i ordered many stations destroyed.
tor after the talk and got his card—which he carried with him to California. During his trip, without making an appointment, Omeish took the bus to Akkad’s office. To his surprise, Akkad agreed to meet with him. “Honestly, he was very blunt,” remembers Omeish. “Maybe a little too blunt. ‘This is very hard,’ he said. ‘It’s almost impossible. It’s constant rejection. People will be ruthless.’ Looking back now, he was trying to be honest with me. And I think he was testing me out, to see if I had the resolve to make it.” After a month in Los Angeles, and emboldened by Akkad’s challenge, Omeish returned to Virginia determined to prove he could survive as a filmmaker—despite having never made a film. “I sat my parents down again and told them, ‘I think I’m going out to California permanently to pursue film,’” Omeish recounts. “And my parents were like, ‘Are you crazy? Did you get a job?’” Amongst first generation Arabs in the U.S., it isn’t uncommon for a man to live with his parents’ until he’s in his 30s. “They have these very specific ideas,” says Omeish. “You have to get a job, get married, and then you can move out on your own.” Without his parents’ permission, Omeish felt he had no choice but to stay in Virginia and look for work. He wanted a job in film production, but with no experience, and few references, he ended up as a photo coordinator for Time-Life Books, managing and editing archival photo assets for their catalogue of titles. (Books in the Time-Life library include The Art of Sewing, Understanding Computers, and The Time-Life Book of Family Finance.) “I remember,” Omeish says, “being in a cubicle for six months, and I just felt dead. I told myself, ‘If I do this for the rest of my life, I’m going to die. So I need to get the hell away from here and figure something out.’” One day, dismayed by the tedium of the job, Omeish called his brother, Mohammed, who was running a relief NGO providing aid to Kosovo, and on a whim volunteered his services as a documentarian. Omeish told Mohammed, “‘I’ll do everything for free, just buy me the equipment. Just buy me the camera, the ticket, and I will shoot everything you guys are doing over there, and you can have the footage. I just need to get out of here.’” Omeish flew Kosovo a few weeks later, three days after the NATO bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosovic’s army had forced hundreds of thousands of Serbian refugees to flee. When Omeish arrived, the displaced Serbs were pouring back into the country. “I’d say 75 percent of the country was destroyed,” says Omeish. “And it was the first time I’d seen the effects of war.” Equipped with a video camera, Omeish traveled throughout Kosovo, intending to film for a week. But he ended up staying a month. “Random people I met were so kind. They just opened up extra rooms in their houses for me. I made quick friends with the locals, and they took me around the country to interview people about life, about their country, about the effects of war. That was the first time I can honestly tell you that I knew I had to do this for the rest of my life.”
When Omeish returned to Virginia, he sat his parents down for a third time. “‘I came to you about a year ago,’” Omeish says, recounting the conversation, “‘and you guys said I couldn’t leave your home. But I’m going to explain something. I did the job thing, and I hated it. All I’m asking is for your support and blessing. I don’t want a penny from you. Just tell me that I can do it.’ And my parents saw that I was very serious. They were scared because in our culture, it’s very difficult to let your son go out on his own with just a dream to support him. They were scared, and understandably so. But they gave their blessing in the end.”
fter his first foray shooting in Kosovo, Omeish commuted from Los Angeles to the Middle East and North Africa throughout the next decade. When the Izmit earthquake struck Northeastern Turkey in 1999, killing 50,000 people, Omeish filmed at the epicenter. “A year later,” Omeish says, “there was a famine in Ethiopia in the south, and I went there. And then came the Chechen/Russian war, and I went to Georgia—where 7,000 refugees had gone to escape the
“I just wrote a simple will saying, ‘If anything happens, blah-blah-blah. Forgive me, blah-blah-blah.’ Because we both really thought that might be it, that we might never see each other again.” violence—and filmed in the camps.” He began shooting his first feature film, Occupation: 101, about the historical and political roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the early aughts. In 2005 and 2006, it toured the international festival circuit, and remains a curriculum staple at colleges around the world. When the Arab Spring effloresced in early 2011, Omeish was working on a documentary about the 2008 Israeli bombing of Gaza City, told from the perspective of the only western journalists—Aymun Mohyeldin and Sharine Tadros—that didn’t evacuate during the threeweek siege. But after al-Abidine’s ouster, with Mubarak disempowered in Egypt, and protests flourishing in Libya, Omeish knew he couldn’t stay in California. By the time revolution stirred in Tripoli, though, Omeish was married with two young children. “But I told my wife,” says Omeish, “‘I think I need to go. I need to do something. I don’t know what it is, but I need to go and do something and show what’s going on in Libya— to be involved in any way that I can. This is my chance.” Omeish’s wife, whom he asked me not to name, supported her husband despite the consequences. “We made the decision that I was going to go to Libya,” says Omeish, “and that I might not come back. We really
didn’t talk about it much. When I’m in that mindset, I don’t necessarily want to think a lot about it. I just wrote a simple will saying, ‘If anything happens, blah-blah-blah. Forgive me, blah-blah-blah.’ Because we both really thought that might be it, that we might never see each other again.”
n February 22, 2011, Omeish landed in Cairo, which was itself still in the throes of the January 25 uprising. Two hundred thousand people were camped out in Tahrir Square, and Mubarak was only days away from officially ceding power to the military. Both Mohyeldin and Tadros were on assignment for Al Jazeera English in the Egyptian capital (Time magazine would later name Mohyeldin one of the “100 Most Influential People of 2011” for his reporting), and though both were eager to travel to Libya with Omeish, Al Jazeera nixed the trip, claiming that to send correspondents to Benghazi—where Gaddafi had placed $1 million bounties on the heads of Al Jazeera journalists—too dangerous. But Omeish was undeterred, and with the help of Mohyeldin hired a car, first to Mersa Matruh on the Egyptian coast, and then Al Salum on the Libyan border. “On our way to the border,” says Omeish, “we popped three tires. So, I was kind of feeling nervous. Like, ‘Three tires? Am I not supposed to go in?’” But after 20 hours on the road, he reached Al Salum, where a column of vehicles was streaming out of Libya. “There was a mass exodus going on,” says Omeish. “The only cars going in—and there were very few—were carrying aid. I didn’t really know how I’d get through.” Omeish didn’t have a contact at the Al Salum crossing, but his driver asked around, looking for someone ferrying men across the border. In less than an hour they’d located an intermediary, who shuttled Omeish to a running car. “He literally was like, ‘Just go in this car and they’ll take you through,’” Omeish recalls. “And he stuffs me in this car with a bunch of people I’ve never met.” Amongst the passengers were two Egyptian doctors carrying antibiotics and anesthetics. “They were just coming in to help,” says Omeish. “I asked them what they were doing, and they were like, ‘We’re all brothers, and we have to help each other out against these tyrants. We know what it’s like; we just had our revolution. We want to help you guys succeed.’ So there was a lot of brotherly love. It was really amazing.” At the checkpoint, where Omeish had expected to encounter skepticism and bureaucracy, the soldiers weren’t even checking passports. “All there was,” says Omeish, “were men—Egyptian and Libyan—honking their horns, giving the victory sign, and waving the liberation flag. It was completely surreal.” After crossing into Libya, Omeish transferred to a truck. A few weeks earlier, at an anti-Gaddafi protest in Los Angeles, Omeish had met a man whose brothers helped smuggle people and goods in and out of Libya via the coastal city of Tobruk. The man had given Omeish an intersection, a phone number, and a password: “May God have peace and rest on your father.” Now in country, after an hour on the dark road to Tobruk, Omeish reached the designated traffic circle, and stood in the dark by the side of the road. “I call this number I’d been given,” says Omeish, “and the guy doesn’t answer. So, I called him again, and he didn’t answer. I was just standing in this roundabout at night, waiting, thinking, ‘I hope I don’t get shot or killed.’ I call him a third time, and finally this time—this time!—he answers. ‘May God have peace and rest on your father!’ I say. I couldn’t believe it. In five minutes the guy was there to pick me up.”
Issue N o 1
“That was the first time, I’d say, that I totally risked my life for a film. And felt that it had to be done that way, that there was no other way.”
After spending a few days in Tobruk, Omeish hitched a ride to Benghazi. When he arrived, the revolutionaries had just won a battle again Gaddafi’s cadet forces, and the mood in the city was jubilant. “Seeing these guys,” says Omeish, “how they fought all of Gaddafi’s men and beat them—people were very intoxicated.” On Omeish’s second day in town, a man gave him a tour of the makeshift command center of the revolution. “This guy led me into the courthouse where all the main operations were going on. And then he took me upstairs. Lo and behold, I meet the guy that I had seen on the Internet, Mohammed Nabbous, who’d been working to set up an independent satellite channel.” When Omeish entered Libya, he intentionally didn’t know what part of the revolution he planned to document. Over the next few days, he travelled to the frontline, 100 miles outside the city, where a number of other documentarians were stationed. “But I didn’t want to be like the other twenty guys that were shooting at the frontline,” says Omeish. “It was kind of pointless for me to try to reinvent the wheel. I felt that I needed to shoot something that people were not covering, to have something special.” When he’d left Los Angeles, Omeish tells me, “I thought to myself, ‘God, help me find something to do so that I can be useful.’ And the more I hung around Nabbous’ offices, the more I felt that was where I was supposed to be. That was the story I was supposed to tell.”
Mohammed Nabbous had the commitment and energy of ten people,” says Omeish. “And he didn’t want to take anybody’s bullshit. If someone said, ‘I can’t do it,’ Nabbous would be like, ‘Don’t lie to me.’” In Libya, where circumspection and obfuscation were facets of the national character—to trust, and therefore to fulfill commitments, to the wrong person could be treasonous—an honest, outspoken man was almost impossible to find. (Omeish was even taught growing up in America to keep Libyan expats at arm’s distance. “You never got close with them,” says Omeish. “You never talked politics, because you couldn’t be sure where their allegiances lay.”) In the climate of ripening optimism that accompanied the revolution, though, people gravitated toward Nabbous in a way that would’ve been unthinkable even a month earlier. “They recognized a very idealistic man whom they could trust,” says Omeish. By the time Omeish arrived in Libya, Nabbous’ fledgling satellite network, Libya Alhurra TV, had been operating online for less than
a week. Gaddafi’s forces succeeded, largely, in knocking down the Internet throughout the country. But Nabbous managed to engage a two-way satellite connection, by which he was able to broadcast live video around the world—of protests, of Gaddafi’s assaults against civilians, and the rebels’ subsequent counter-attacks—from nine constantly-recording cameras, 24 hours a day, using little more than a DVR receiver and an old PC as servers. This unprecedented profusion of free speech transmitted from Alhurra’s headquarters in Benghazi, seen online and rebroadcast in Western and Middle Eastern media, was amongst the first proof of Gaddafi’s war crimes—indiscriminate shelling, bombing, and executions—and helped galvanize the eventual NATO response.
or nearly a month, between late February and the middle of March, 2011, Omeish worked and filmed around Benghazi and in the Alhurra headquarters, documenting Nabbous as he managed his guerilla network. All the while, Gaddafi’s forces were fighting their way across the desert. On the morning of March 18, rumors began to spread that a battalion of Gaddafi’s army was approaching the city. “It was Friday,” says Omeish, “and none of our cell phones were working.” The word circulating around town was that Gaddafi had managed to block the cellular network to halt any reports about troop movements west of Benghazi. But late that morning, Al Jazeera began broadcasting a stream of unsettling images. “The report came through,” says Omeish, “and we couldn’t believe it.” On the screen was footage of a column of tanks, and other heavy artillery. “They were less than 60 kilometers from the city center.” As word about the Al Jazeera report spread, the citizens of Benghazi went into a panic. “I went out into the street,” says Omeish, “and people were making Molotov cocktails. People were pulling out their guns. I even saw people with swords.” During the melee, Omeish helped barricade the neighborhood around the courthouse. “We started blocking off the streets with cars so the tanks couldn’t roll through. It was terrifying, but everyone was working together.” For the rest of the day, the residents of the city prepared for the siege. As night fell, Omeish retreated to his aunt’s house, where he and his cousins were taking refuge. “That night,” says Omeish, “until about three o’clock, everybody was just waiting. I got so tired that I actually fell asleep for a few hours. But then around five o’clock, I started hearing the glass shake. It was like Godzilla, you know? From far away: boom, boom. And I remember waking up and thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’” The concussions were the first
Top: A truck full of weapons and ammunition headed for the frontline near Ajdabiya. Bottom: Mohammed Nabbous (left) discusses the day’s programming agenda with his team at Libya Alhurra TV.
Outside of the courthouse in Benghazi, a crowd of women gather to protest Gaddaf i after he claimed they were afraid to leave their houses because of the “rats”—his pet term for the revolutionaries.
heavy artillery rounds landing in the city limits. “Before the army arrived,” says Omeish, “they would shell the city and then drive in and shoot everything up. Shell it, scare everybody out, drive through, and spray it. To make sure that no one survived to fight back. And that’s what we were hearing: the first shells landing, fired from 50 kilometers away.” As day broke, the electricity grid in Benghazi was unstable, and satellite and cell phone coverage was intermittent at best. To learn what they could about troop positions, Omeish and his cousin went up onto the roof of the house. They could see smoke in the distance from the shelling, and an old MIG fighter jet patrolling the perimeter of the city. “We weren’t sure,” says Omeish, “if it was a Gaddafi plane or one of the rebels.” As it turned out, though, two defected pilots had commandeered a pair of jets that were mothballed in Benghazi, and with a few rounds of machine gun ammunition, began attacking Gaddafi’s convoy. “Eventually,” says Omeish, “they didn’t have any ammo left and were just flying low, harassing the tanks. A lot of people don’t know this story, but those two men held back the army for maybe a couple of hours. They saved a lot of people’s lives.” In one of the great ironies of that day, one of the rebel planes, returning to Benghazi after an assault on the convoy, took fire from rebels in the city and crashed. “It was friendly fire,” says Omeish. “But people in the city didn’t know. They just saw a plane and got scared. There was panic in the city. So they ended up shooting it down. It was bad.”
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y the afternoon of March 19, as the military convoy bore down on Benghazi, whoever had the means to flee, did. “We were still up on the roof,” says Omeish, “and this missile goes over my head. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh shit, they’re getting close. So we all went down to the street-level.” Omeish’s aunt’s home sits off a rutted dirt road, down which people usually drive at idle speed. “But people were just jetting,” says Omeish, “bouncing over this road at 50 MPH.” In the late morning, the feed from Al Jazeera, which had been disrupted all morning, unscrambled. On the screen was live footage that Nabbous himself was transmitting via his Alhurra feed. In the video, Nabbous was on the street in a neighborhood a few miles from Omeish, filming with a cell phone as Gaddafi’s troops and tanks rolled down the streets, firing indiscriminately into houses. “That’s when we knew they were closing in,” says Omeish. “There were people fighting in the streets, and the military was shelling. At that point, we were really just waiting to die.” The shelling was so close, Omeish remembers, that he felt certain any minute a round would hit the house. “Part of me was like, ‘Shit, we’re going to die,’” he says. “And another part of me was thinking, ‘This is a joke, this can’t be happening,’ and the rest of me was praying, ‘Please God, save us.’” The fighting continued unabated until just before noon, when NATO fighter jets roared in from across the Mediterranean and began firing on the Libyan military, driving them back from the city. Fifteen minutes past noon, after the air assault had overwhelmed his fighters,
Gaddafi, through one of his generals on the frontline, announced a temporary truce. Omeish would later learn that Nabbous was covering the ceasefire with a phone, sitting in the back of a truck, when he was shot in the head by a sniper. “My cousin, who was very well connected in Benghazi, got a phone call,” says Omeish. “‘Listen,’ he told me, ‘Mohammed Nabbous got shot. He got shot earlier today and got killed.’” Omeish called everyone he could think of, trying to confirm the report. “We didn’t want to believe it,” he says, “because in Libya, there are a lot of rumors that Gaddafi puts out. Lies to break your morale.” But a few minutes after 3 p.m., Nabbous’ wife, Perditta, seven months pregnant with their first child, addressed the Libya Alhurra TV audience. “I want to let all of you to know,” Perditta said, fighting off tears, “that Mohammad has passed away for this cause. He died for this cause, and let’s hope that Libya will become free. Please keep the channel going, please post videos. There’s still bombing, there’s still shooting, and more people are going to die. Don’t let what Mo started go for nothing, people. Make it worth it.”
meish stayed in country for another month after Nabbous died. “I got some good footage here and there,” says Omeish, “of Nabbous’ funeral, of the efforts to keep Alhurra running. But I had come to the realization that I needed to get out.” A producer from Al Jazeera—who’d helped Omeish enter the country in the first place— called and pleaded with him to leave. Omeish remembers, “He said to me, ‘Listen, it’s a stalemate right now. The war’s not moving anywhere. Misrata”—where the photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed by mortar fire—“is still under siege; it’s the same day after day. It’s really important that you come out now and tell Nabbous’ story.” Omeish thought and prayed for a few days on the idea of leaving Libya. He was caught between what he felt was his allegiance to the unfledged revolution, and the duty he had to tell Nabbous’ story to the world. “Finally,” says Omeish, “I called the producer up and said, ‘Okay, I’ll come out under one condition: that I stay there for ten days and come back. Because I need to come back.’” Omeish retraced his steps, from Benghazi to Tobruk and back across the Egyptian border to Cairo, where he caught a flight to London. Al Jazeera had commissioned a half-hour documentary on Nabbous, but Omeish had spent more than two months in a war zone, filming and assisting the revolution. “It took me a couple days to get my head straight,” says Omeish, “and when I finally sat down with the producers, they were like, ‘What footage do you have?’ And I said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t had time to watch it. I’ve been just shooting!’” After reviewing the video Omeish had shot, Al Jazeera revised their request and ordered an hour-long documentary. Omeish began editing with the producers immediately. The ten days he’d planned to spend out of Libya and away from the revolution quickly turned into a month. “We started cutting the film; cutting it, cutting it, cutting it. It was so brutal. Television is very cutthroat. ‘Don’t leave the shot for too long, people will change the channel.’ That kind of stuff. I had to adjust really quickly. It was a story that needed to be told. This way. Now. There was no time for perfection.” As Omeish began to work on the documentary, it became increasingly clear that, with the civil war still raging in Libya, he wasn’t simply making a film. “It was something that could affect the hearts and minds of people,” Omeish tells me. “It was a very powerful time. I felt very honored and privileged that I could put out a film against Gaddafi at a time when he was still in power.”
y the time Libya: Through the Fire aired on Al Jazeera the afternoon of May 6, 2011, fewer than two months after Mohammed Nabbous’ death, Omeish had had very little time to reflect on his personal experience. “The whole time I was in Libya after Nabbous died,” says Omeish, “I was very numb. You have to keep going. You can’t feel sorry. We have time later to mourn, but right now we need to work.” It was not until Omeish was sitting alone in his hotel in London, watching the documentary on TV, that he finally broke down. “I actually felt emotional,” says Omeish, “and actually cried for him. Even at his funeral I was behind the camera, working. Not until the film aired— not till then did I finally mourn for him.” Libya: Through the Fire would go on to win, later that year, the 2011 Rory Peck Award—one of the highest honors bestowed to freelance cameramen. (The previous year, for his work with Sebastian Junger on Restrepo, Tim Hetherington had won.) But to Omeish, the greatest triumph was that Libyans, still fighting in the streets against Gaddafi, watched the film and took strength from it. “I remember telling the producer at Al Jazeera,” Omeish recalls, “‘You’ll never know how grateful I am to have the opportunity to get this story out.’ And when we put it out there, the film said a lot of important things about the revolution that when I look back, in the context of the revolution, are pretty incredible.” “For people who don’t know about Libya,” Omeish tells me, “they may never understand how big of a deal that is, to shoot an antiGaddafi film while Gaddafi was still in power. We grew up in a society where you had no right to speak your mind, you had no right to share your thoughts, you had no right to show your disapproval of the regime and their corruption. We were basically cattle. ‘Stay in your place, do as you’re told, and shut up.’ If I had made this film in 2010, when Gaddafi was still in complete power, he would have killed me for it. There’s no doubt about that.” “That’s the type of environment we were in,” continues Omeish. “It’s not like America where you can make whatever you want, whether it’s critical of the government or not. But for us, a film like this was only possible because of the revolution. Still I expected that I might die. And that was the first time, I’d say, that I totally risked my life for a film. And I felt that it had to be done that way, that there was no other way.” ——— After his time in Libya, Abdallah Omeish devoted himself to his documentary about the 2008 siege of Gaza City, The War Around Us, which would go on to win top honors at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2012. Omeish is now working to make Tripoli Street, the first-ever narrative film funded by Libyans, and shot in Libya. Production is scheduled to begin in 2014.
The Hottest Month Dirt bike crews, cowboys, and fresh fruit in Baltimore’s food desert In the middle of summer, 2013, director M. Holden Warren and cinematographer Matthew Yake spent five weeks on the streets of Baltimore with the Arabbers—a group of men who tend inner-city stables on the city’s east side and sell produce from horse-drawn carts. The film they shot, Ballad of Baltimore, will begin the festival circuit next year.
Before “getting nice” on dirt bikes, kids practice their skills on pedal bikes. Boosie rides down an abandoned block with no hands and no front wheel.
IMAGES BY M. HOLDEN WARREN CAPTIONS BY MATTHEW YAKE
An Arabber’s horse and cart rest in the parking lot of an abandoned Super Pride market. The Arabber’s provide produce to neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore —considered “food deserts” due to the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Levar, an Arabber and one of the original Twelve O’clock Boys, shows off his tattoos, many of which memorialize friends lost to gun violence. After serving a seven year prison sentence for second degree murder, Levar now manages the Carlton St. stable and works with Safe Streets—a non-prof it dedicated to getting guns off the corners.
Above: Donte (right), atop Chuck, throws Pop (left) a piece of tack. Below: A child in East Baltimore petting an Arabberâ€™s horse.
An Arabberâ€™s cart carrying a coff in in a funeral procession in South Baltimore.
Fruit washing one of his horses.
Fruit, the boss of the Freemont stable in West Baltimore, buying watermelons from Hoover, an Amish man in New Holland, PA.
Fruitâ€™s truck and horse trailer driving through Amish country in Pennsylvania.
Fruit mounting his new pony.
Sixteen-year-old Chino up at twelve o’clock. One of the few riders to see success beyond girls and street fame, he is now sponsored to ride by Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and Y&R.
Ahmaud, Fruit’s only son, with Shorty. Ahmaud likes horses, but he prefers girls and video games.
The team behind The Dirties lands on the moon
WORDS BY BEN UMSTEAD ART BY MARISA REISEL
Matt Johnson, as portrayed by Matt Johnson, watches a video of himself. On the monitor, a Dirty—one of the high school bullies who’s tormented him since freshman year—slams him into a locker. The off-screen (but still on-screen) Johnson finds the scene hilarious, and turns to the camera, operated by his friend Owen Williams, played by Owen Williams. “It’s like that’s not even me,” he says gleefully. Something very complex has taken place. The Johnson who’s been commenting on his own image in the Final Cut Pro playback window suddenly acknowledges us, the audience, watching him watch himself portray himself. Before our eyes, the teenager who’s spent his youth worshipping Scorsese and Belmondo, the tracking shot in A Touch of Evil and the opening exchange of Pulp Fiction, transforms into the object of his own obsession. At that moment, in a feat of subtle meta-cinematic alchemy, Johnson becomes simultaneously director, star, and critic. The Dirties, the film in which Johnson’s apotheosis occurs, premiered at Slamdance in 2013 to immediate praise, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience awards. A wrenching high school shooting tragedy disguised as a faux-documentary buddy comedy, The Dirties gained strength on the international festival circuit—eventually attracting distribution from Phase 4 and the endorsement of Kevin Smith, who presented the official trailer at Comicon.
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But despite Johnson’s multi-hyphenate role in The Dirties (he both directed and starred in it, and is credited as co-writer, co-producer, and co-editor), the film was the product of a Toronto-based film cooperative— consisting of producers Matthew Miller, Evan Morgan, and Jay McCarrol; cinematographer-producer Jared Raab; and actors Williams and Josh Boles—many of whom have been collaborating for half a decade. “I think it is much easier to make a movie when there’s no central leadership,” says Johnson, “where everybody simply trusts that the idea is good.” Beginning with “Nirvana The Band The Show,” their 2008 web series about two hapless musicians ( Johnson and McCarrol) preparing for what they hope will be their groundbreaking first gig, they’ve worked out of necessity as a fluid, interchangeable platoon. And the loose doc style they developed in “Nirvana”—a handheld camera that disregards eye-lines—matches that philosophy. “I always got the impressions that ‘Nirvana The Band’ was that fuck you to the Hollywood system,” Raab, who was credited as cinematographer and co-producer on The Dirties, says of their first project. “It was so clear that we had a style which allowed us to make things so easily, so quickly. Without over-thinking, without worrying too much. The method is based purely on intuition.” According to Johnson, though The Dirties was considerably more expensive and complicated to make (shot at the high school where Williams teaches, some scenes involved dozens of extras), they kept their process
simple. Rather than writing a conventional screenplay, they outlined the story, discussed each scene in intense detail, and then wrote the day’s dialogue as they conceived it on cue cards. “We’ve got a lot of confidence,” Raab says, “and we have this notion that anything can be good. Although, you kind of have to fake it until you’ve created an environment [defined by] pure enthusiasm and unbridled creativity.” After the unprecedented success of The Dirties (Matthew Miller told BRIGHT IDEAS Editor-in-Chief James Kaelan: “We expected at most our friends might watch it; maybe we’d make it available for sale on our site”), the team is launching into Project Avalanche—a significantly more ambitious second feature. In the new film, Johnson, Williams, and Boles will star again as versions of themselves playing young American CIA agents in the 1960s, tasked with faking the moon landing. “Kubrick looms over the movie as sort of a godfather,” Miller elaborates. “Project Avalanche begins right after the release of Dr. Strangelove, and in the middle of the movie, 2001 comes out.” Especially in the wake of Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s documentary about the cyclone of conspiracy theories surrounding The Shining, a film about fabricating the Apollo 11 mission has a duty to prod at Stanley Kubrick. “Of course we have to address the hand [some people think] he had in faking this thing,” Miller adds.
Like their previous projects, Project Avalanche will be shot in a faux-documentary style. “All I’m trying to do,” Miller says, “is create environments where the vibe is in tune with what these guys are used to, and where we’ve had success in the past.” Nurturing a comprehensive, improvisational environment is so central to the group’s process that they design scenes around their style, rather than adapt their style to their environment. When asked to provide an example, Miller cites a 4th of July barbecue they’re planning for Project Avalanche that they’ll stage as a real 4th of July barbeque. “We’re basically aiming to create a space where we can bring on real people, not extras, and give them little to no direction. They won’t see the cameras, because we’ll be shooting from really far away with long lenses. They won‘t see booms, because Matt and the other actors will be wearing wireless mics.” For Johnson, making a Cold War American comedy is thrilling. “The 1960s is the era of American filmmaking I’m most interested in,” he says. “I’m trying to approach the whole thing exactly the same as I would an episode of ‘Nirvana The Band.’ The only difference is that the references are from the 50s and 60s. But I do a really good JFK impression.” When pressed on how he envisions the team producing a period film on a shoestring budget, Johnson laughs. “In terms of how practically it will come together? I’m depending on the rest of the guys to figure that out.” &
Teyonah Parris Don Draper’s secretary takes a hiatus from Madison Ave. to stoke a race riot in Dear White People WORDS BY NEELA BANJEREE PHOTO ASSIST BY COLE RISE
IMAGES BY EVAN LANE
STYLING BY JENNA ENNS
HAIR BY FELICIA LEATHERWOOD
STYLE ASSIST BY ANNETTE MAURICIO
MAKEUP BY STARLYNN BURDEN
SHOT ON LOCATION AT MONDRIAN LOS ANGELES
t may be one of the most awkward, racially-fraught hugs ever captured on television. In the episode called “The Flood” on season six of Mad Men, Joan Holloway—the office’s buxom ice queen—zeroes in on the company’s first black employee, secretary Dawn Chambers, to offer condolences about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Joan (the masterful Christina Hendricks) clasps her fingers around Dawn’s shoulders and bows her head in a formal display of solidarity, but it is Dawn’s wide-eyed expression of surprise and embarrassment that captures the distance between Joan’s intention and Dawn’s reality. It’s classic Mad Men—a subtle, office-politic moment that tackles the tumult of the 1960s. Actor Teyonah Parris, who plays Dawn, cracks her 200-watt smile when I bring up the moment. “I didn’t know how people would react to that.” But she says fans began tweeting screen shots and GIFS to her before she had even seen the episode. “I was dying,” she laughs. Parris’ earnest and heart-breakingly lonely (did she ever get a date to that wedding?!) portrayal of Dawn on Mad Men made her a crucial cast member of the show’s sixth season for breaking the color barrier at Sterling Draper Price Cooper. And the South Carolina-raised, Julliard-trained actor is poised to generate a lot more buzz. She explores race-relations again in the whip-smart satire Dear White People—which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—about four black students at a prominently white Ivy League school, and the race riot that breaks out around a popular “black-themed” party thrown by white students.
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efore Dawn, we’d seen black characters on Mad Men in various bit parts, from one-scene girlfriends to prostitutes to a verygrandmotherly burglar, to Carla, the Draper’s nanny who Betty fired in a fit of rage. For most of the years of watching the show, there was a sense of racial apologism about it—a reluctant acceptance of the lack of diversity because the writing and art direction were so damned good. Bloggers and TV critics alike have attacked Weiner for not taking the same care with diversity issues that he has with homosexual or women’s issues. When Gayle King asked Matthew Weiner point-blank on Charlie Rose last year if there will be more black characters, Weiner said it straight up: “Black people still do not have representation on Madison Avenue,”—going on to add that the show isn’t about how we wish things were, but the reality of the time. “I think the few times you do get to see what Dawn is going through, it’s in amazing juxtaposition to the lives of the other people in the office,” Parris says. “It’s like our world now, how one situation doesn’t affect one group at all, but is completely traumatic to another.” Parris had been looking to do a period piece when an audition for Mad Men presented itself. The initial audition was just for a day player—due to Weiner’s strict secrecy protocols on set—but Parris was thrilled to keep coming back and to develop Dawn. “She’s just trying to keep her head down and not make a stir,” Parris says about Don Draper’s newest secretary. Parris’ own grandmother was a secretary in an all-white office in the 1960s. When Parris asked for details of what that experience was like, she found that her grandmother echoed Dawn’s sentiment and work ethic. “She was like, ‘Why are you asking me these things? It’s not that serious. I did my job and went home.’ ”
or Parris, acting is a job she’s been preparing for over many years. She got started as a performer through school beauty pageants when she was still in elementary school—winning her first one in third grade—but soon wanted to move past waving and smiling. That led to drama club, and then, for the last two years of high school, she was admitted to the prestigious residential South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, which models itself after Julliard’s conservatory. It wasn’t a huge step, therefore, to move to New York and begin at Julliard after she graduated. Between these two programs, Parris cut her acting teeth playing a diverse array of characters from works by Chekov to Shakespeare to August Wilson. “In school, you do colorblind casting,” Parris says. “I learned that acting is about the human condition. The ultimate goal is to
strip yourself down and fill that space back up with this other person’s life experience—no matter how different that experience is from your own.” At the end of her time at Julliard, Parris starred as Celimene from Moliere’s The Misanthrope—a 17th century French aristocratic debutante. Not someone she had much in common with, but still, Parris says: “I had so much fun with her! She switched her demeanor in an instant—totally manipulative. We did traditional silhouettes with modern accents—a big bouffant dress, but in hot pink plaid and an afro mohawk!” The transition from school to the real world was a harsh one, as the univeralism of acting theory and color-blind casting—the “everybody can be everybody” attitude—dries up quickly. “There are just not a lot of things that you are able to go out for,” Parris says, deadpan, “because they are going... not black.” But Parris says she considers carefully what kind of choices she makes, even at this early point in her career, when there is pressure to be seen and to make a living. It’s not positive images of black people that we need, Parris tells me, but complex ones. “If it is somebody going through some shit and they are a totally jacked up character—that’s okay,” she says emphatically. “I want a human. I want a human story to be told.” Parris doesn’t just limit this to black stories. She says she hears the same complaints from Asian American friends in the business. She’s especially proud of her work with director J.P. Chan, whose 2010 short Empire Corner—about the romantic tension between a black woman and a Chinese food delivery man who gets brutally attacked in her neighborhood—toured festivals. His new feature A Picture of You (2013) features a diverse cast—Asian American, black, and white. “I am really excited about [A Picture of You] because it is people of color, having a life, having real emotions. There was no karate in it, there was no fried chicken—it was people living a life and being human,” Parris says. In Dear White People, Parris plays Colandrea Conners—A.K.A. CoCo—a black girl from Chicago who tries to get ahead at the predominantly white Manchester University by assimilating (meaning blue contacts, a weave, and a dismissal of others students’ black activism). “CoCo is definitely a young lady that knows what she wants in life,” Parris says. “She is smart and savvy. Despite a short temper, blinding ambition, and her need to show everyone just how confident she is—I think CoCo ultimately wants to fit in.” CoCo’s ambition—she has a shot to star in a reality show—leads her to making some unseemly alliances, and ultimately shows a great deal of complexity around race issues. Parris says she is inspired by writer-director Justin Simien, who spent more than seven years bringing Dear White People to the screen,
“The ultimate goal is to strip yourself down and fill that space back up with this other person’s life experience—no matter how different that experience is from your own.”
and his creative vision for the project. “He really has something to say.” “I’ve never lived in an all-black world,” Simien says about the film, “and found I was constantly confronted with others’ almost-instant expectations and assump-
shot. Whether she’s in the background of a scene or in a full close-up, she’s always 100 percent present and in the moment. Working with her was a profound experience,” Simien says. “She effortlessly melted into this character that is so different from who she really is in so many ways.”
“There was no karate in it, there was no fried chicken—it was people living life and being human.” tions about me based on my race. This sort of toggling between white and black worlds, and modulating my ‘blackness’ to fit in, get ahead, make friends, etc., was an experience I felt needed to be commented on in film.” Along with CoCo’s professional and identity struggle, the film features Samantha (Tessa Thompson)—a mixed-race media studies major with radical politics; Troy (Brandon P. Bell), son of the university’s dean with a white girlfriend; and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a nerdy gay kid with an incredibly unruly afro. Simien’s script works as an homage to great black college films of the 1980s and 90s—like School Daze and Higher Learning—with the satire of PCU thrown in. Along with addressing race relations on campus and in America, the film tackles inter-racial romance, homophobia, exceptionalism, and technology obsession—making possibly the sharpest college movie thus far of the new millennium.
n Dear White People’s Indiegogo campaign page, it reads: “Believe it or not there was a time when ‘Black Art-House’ was a thing.” Simien explains: “I think there’s a lot more to the Black experience (and therefore the human experience) than what’s coming down the pike. But artists have to be willing to say something different.” Simien says that Parris is “the real deal.” “One of my favorite things to do in the cutting room is to watch her when she’s not the focus of the
Unlike CoCo, Parris doesn’t rock a weave anymore, and talks passionately about her journey to becoming a “natural girl”—no longer using chemicals to straighten her curls. She realizes now how much it affected her growing up not seeing images of dark-skinned women with untreated hair. “It wasn’t just changing my hairstyle for me. It was letting go of a lot of stigmas that I didn’t even realize I held,” Parris says. “It’s an emotional and spiritual journey, of letting go of these images that you are told are the standard of beauty and starting to accept who we are and how god made us—and standing and living in that beauty.” For Parris, who grew up with Halle Berry and Angela Bassett as her role models, artists—like Simien— who are making films on their own terms are part of the solution to the lack of images of women who look like her in the media. “It’s people like Justin and JP, and Ryan Coogler, Ava Duvernay, Lena Waithe, Ben Jones,” Parris lists, “who are saying: ‘We’re going to do it ourselves.’ ” Meanwhile, Parris is enigmatic about the future for Dawn’s character in Mad Men, since the last season ended with Don Draper on a leave of absence from the company. “Who knows if she’ll even be back,” she says slyly. But the impression she made on audiences is a little too deep for us to forget. It’s unlikely that Dawn or Parris will be disappearing from view anytime soon.
Vimeo loves film in all its beautiful forms, and is proud to present BRIGHT IDE AS’ exclusive DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT No matter the story, every movie is a mystery. Like a series of found photographs, the best films are the ones we have to piece together to make sense of. The best films leave room for imagination. When I was asked to execute a series of “film stills” for an unmade film, I was immediately intrigued. I thought about how the film still, as a medium, has served motion pictures since the days of Clarence Bull— when the major studios employed a handful of photographers, always at the ready to encapsulate in single frames the moments of highest cinematic drama, or the most impenetrable glamour. A man’s spiral into madness. A woman in distress. The victim at his most vulnerable; the villain at her most nefarious; the heroes at their most valiant. As I started work on “Idol Killer,” the idea of the film still as a facet of our collective iconography became the foundation on which I built up the story. I looked at some of my favorite films, but more specifically at the images that have come to represent them. I thought about the process of distillation. How can a single still frame capture a two-hour story? I don’t think it can, but that image can nonetheless be something autonomous, iconic, and lasting. A film still exists to pique your interest. It doesn’t tell the story. It hints at the story you haven’t yet seen. It makes you want more. More fear, more glamour, more magic. Like a detective who stumbles on a drawer full of random photographs, consider these images as individual moments, divorced from chronology. I urge you, as you look at these next 10 pages, to invent your own story.
Sell Your Work, Your Way www.vimeo.com/ondemand
18-frame film from Meredith Danluck,
POWE R E D BY
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STARRING CASEY LEGLER AND ZELIJKO MCMULLEN WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY MEREDITH DANLUCK DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: JAKE BURGHART ART DIRECTION: JOHNNY MISHEFF
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out for the
gusto Putting the swagger back into independent cinema
In the world of hip-hop, the most talented lyricists are, arguably, the most successful. Think Jay-Z, Eminem (“who’s the king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics”). More recently, Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. These are artists of virtuosic talent for rhythm, rhyme, meter, imagery, even pathos—the building blocks of poetry—but they are also masterful self-promoters with carefully crafted personas who’ve managed to conflate art with publicity. And every step of the way they’ve been pushing the boundaries of the form, making hip-hop that would be unrecognizable to their precursors.
WORDS BY CHRISTOPHER ROBINSON ART BY MARISA REISEL
Andrew Bujalski as A$AP Rocky Aaron Katz as A$AP Rellie
Lynn Shelton as A$AP Yams
David Lowery as A$AP Ferg
Greta Gerwig as ODB Joe Swanberg as RZ A
Jay Duplass as Ghostface Killah Mark Duplass as GZ A
In the world of cinema, there are notable directors who have achieved both critical and commercial success while trading in experimental narrative and cinematographic techniques (see: Welles and Godard, whose names gained prestige even as their mid- and late-career works found smaller audiences, or Tarantino, whose 21st Century pastiches and homages lack the urgency of his early work). But they are largely exceptions to what we think of as the dichotomy between the hack conventionality of commercial movies and the supposedly raw innovation of independent cinema. There’s a problem with this dichotomy, though. Hollywood isn’t completely hack; it’s simply put most of its energy (and money) into entertainment and marketing— and in those realms, it’s unmatched. And independent film is not as raw and innovative as it would like us to believe (see: mumblecore’s lack of social and emotional stakes, its meandering plots, its substitution of wit for insight; Girls, its most affluent relative, netted six sharp episodes on HBO before it lost its edge). There’s no point in trying to fix Hollywood from the top down. But independent film can and should be so much more than it is. What follows is an indictment, a call to action, and a list of preliminary (and perhaps fantastically absurd) suggestions for how independent film
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might infuse itself with the artistic swagger, the reckless ambition that has propelled hip-hop’s most talented auteurs from indie obscurity to commercial stardom. ROLL NO LESS THAN THIRTY DEEP Unlike other musical forms, hip-hop is inherently and blatantly collaborative. There are no solo hip-hop artists; there’s always a conversation at the center of the music— often between DJ and emcee (sometimes several emcees). But even when the producer and emcee are one and the same (see: Kanye West), there’s a conversation with historical precursors and contemporaries that happens through lyrical allusion and musical sampling. Hip-hop cannot exist in a vacuum. These qualities are what make hip-hop so vitally analogous to cinema, which may be the ultimate collaborative and referential art form. With an eye to how cinema might usefully evolve, it’s instructive to look at the evolution of collaboration in hip-hop. It began with two turntables and a microphone. That is, one emcee and one DJ. From this, the clique or crew evolved with three- to four-man groups—like Run DMC. Then in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan revolutionized hip-hop by both reimagining the collabora-
tive nature of the art form and structuring it around an innovative business model. Under RZA’s direction, they formed what looked a lot like a corporation consisting of nine board members (emcees). Not only was it unheard of to have nine people rapping on a single track, but their business model involved a systematic takeover of the industry, starting with a smash collaborative album, branching out into solo projects for each member, then eventually expanding into a clothing line, a comic book, a video game. By 2000, RZA had gotten a foot in the film world by doing the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. In 2012, he directed his first feature, The Man with the Iron Fists, starring himself, Russell Crowe, and Lucy Liu. Fast-forward to present day and you see Harlem’s A$AP Mob taking it a step further by, oddly enough, returning to the roots of hip-hop—which, after all, is not just a form of music. It’s a cultural movement that arose from the poverty and violence in the south Bronx of the 1970s, taking distinct form in what are known as the four pillars: DJing (turntablism), Emceeing (rapping), Graffiti, and Breakdancing. Rather than starting with a group of emcees and eventually branching out into other arenas, the A$AP Mob, from its inception, included emcees, DJs, music video directors, and fashion designers. They also have taken
the clan mentality a step further than even Wu-Tang by putting their brand foremost (each member’s name begins with A$AP: A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, A$AP Yams). This mob mentality has its benefits. It allows the success of one member to spill over onto the other members. By dealing in several related art forms, it enriches them all and creates more opportunities for cross-promotion, enabling the artist to reach a broader audience and thus engage in a broader cultural discussion. [Axiom 1: Reaching a broader audience is a good thing. Yes, many things aimed at a broad audience are trash. But this does not logically imply that niche productions are not trash, nor that great works of art cannot also be designed to reach as wide an audience as possible. This was the genius of Shakespeare. And it’s something that hip-hop figured out a long time ago. The most ambitious works of art are not content speaking to a small audience.] Of contemporary independent filmmakers, few have pushed the mob mentality further than Joe Swanberg, who has not only made nearly 20 feature films in eight years (more on that later), but who has done so with an expansive group of collaborators (Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Kate Lyn Sheil, Kris Swanberg, David Lowery, Amy Semeitz) many of whom, like Swanberg, are polymath filmmakers themselves, often photographing, editing, writing, and acting for one another. But even Swanberg isn’t taking full advantage of the artistic and commercial benefits of the mob mentality. It’s not uncommon for hip-hop records to have multiple production credits, as different producers and DJs make the music for different songs. It’s much more common, in fact, than the auteur model. On top of this, it’s hard to find a hip-hop album without guest verses from other rappers. With collaboration so rampant, the difficult task is often getting an album to sound coherent; though Jay-Z’s Black Album credits 15 different producers, his vocal presence is forceful enough to give the album a sense of unity; The Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers features nine wildly different rappers, but is held together by the RZA’s consistently spare, menacing, and gritty production. What would this level of collaboration look like in the world of cinema? Imagine a directorial guest verse: perhaps your film would benefit artistically if a certain scene were
directed by someone else—especially a scene meant to contrast tonally with the rest of the film. (Hitchcock nearly went that far in collaborating with Dalí—who was not technically a director—on the dream sequence in Spellbound. But just imagine Ethan Coen guest-directing a scene in a young filmmaker’s debut!). As Ted Hope suggests in his “Ruminations on Collaboration” (p. 4), why not re-edit a friend’s short film? Add some new scenes of your own. Make it better or, more importantly, different. This creates a dialogue that is both artistically fascinating and designed to draw the interest of an already extant fan base. And as cinema, even more so than hiphop, is an amalgam of related art forms, cross-promotion opportunities are everywhere. Work with a musician for your score, with a fashion designer for your wardrobe. The more agency you give these people to design something that both serves the film and can stand alone, the more free publicity you get as they promote their album or clothing line. This is already happening to some extent. Think Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead scoring P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master; or in reverse order, think Tom Ford, the fashion designer—whom Jay-Z wrote an entire song about on his new record—directing A Single Man (and killing the costume design). The other critical way that hip-hop collectives have tapped into that extant fan base is through the forcefulness of their branding. It’s not enough to have a group of frequent collaborators. Forget “Brought to you by the director of…” or “from the makers of…” It’s so much more effective to simply have a brand (Wu-Tang; A$AP) that introduces each project. Court 13, a self-described “Independent Filmmaking Army” was the collective behind Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. That alone should show that such branding techniques in no way compromise the artistic integrity of the work itself. That said, it is Zeitlin who we popularly connect with Beasts, not Court 13. In other words, they didn’t go far enough with claiming their collective. And yet I suspect that contemporary filmmakers will still be hesitant to embrace such blatant self-promotional tactics, as if it were for some reason uncouth or crass to brand one’s work, whether as part of a collective or not, preferring to wear commercial failure as a badge of pride. That’s because contemporary independent filmmakers, by and large, are too demure, too meek to buck shots at
weak auteurs, to declare themselves directorial deities. And that’s a problem. I G O T M O N E Y S TA C K S B I G G E R T H A N YO U If you’re not trying to be the greatest in hip-hop, you’re not doing it right. You’re either the king, or you’re garbage. Once you’ve accepted that dichotomy, it’s easy to see that your greatness is tied intrinsically to the shittiness of your rivals. Because I’m the king, you are therefore garbage. The aggression of this logical relationship is at the heart of hip-hop, and it’s a large part of why hip-hop has been so commercially successful. [Axiom 2: Aggression is central to all great art. From Caravaggio’s provocative upending of religious iconography, showing the rear ends and dirty feet of beggars in a painting of the Madonna, to Godard’s shocking use of jump cuts in Breathless. Anything sufficiently ambitious necessarily attacks the traditional, the conventional. This is another way of expressing Harold Bloom’s claim in the Anxiety of Influence that a poet’s precursors are barriers to his or her own originality, that they must be overthrown, which itself is a formulation that draws on Romanticism’s contempt for the derivative.]
Imagine a directorial guest verse in which Ethan Coen directed a scene in a young filmmaker’s debut. Because that’s what’s happening in hip-hop.
Many directors have harshly criticized their contemporaries. Welles said he couldn’t take Godard seriously as a thinker, that his message “could be written on the head of a pin.” Kevin Smith called P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia “a constant reminder that a bloated sense of self-importance is the most unattractive quality in a person or their work.” David Gordon Green said Kevin Smith “created a Special Olympics for film.” As for what Lars von Trier, the Kanye West of film,
Deep even claims that the most famous beef in hip-hop history, between 2Pac and Biggie, was started by 2Pac purely for commercial reasons. Whether or not that’s true, the feud made them both rich, and spawned an East Coast/West Coast war that led to murders on both sides. Think about that for a second. Lyrical insults on a record leading to actual (or at least suspected) gangland assassinations. Can you imagine David O’Russell’s crew gunning down Steve McQueen over something he told the Hollywood Reporter? It’s one thing to be aggressive in your ambition, overturning traditional cinematic modes. It’s quite another to be provocative in a way that proclaims your greatness, that highlights your contemporaries’ weaknesses, through and beyond the medium of your art.
Independent filmmakers are too demure, too meek to buck shots at weak auteurs, to declare themselves directorial deities. And that’s a problem.
said about Nazism and his compatriot Suzanne Bier? You can look it up on Indiewire. Jabs given in interviews are fun (the above examples aggregated from Flavorwire), but they lack the artistic, critical, and commercial thrust of the hip-hop dis track. There’s nothing else quite like it in any other art form. It is at once a negative critical review of a piece of art and an example of a superior piece of art. The task of the dissing emcee is to lay out and analyze his enemy’s flaws (in many ways—as a gangster, a lover, a father even—but primarily as a wordsmith) and to do so in a rap verse that demonstrates the disser’s lyrical supremacy. This technique is most effective when orchestrated at the macro level to help construct a narrative that exists beyond the bounds of the individual songs. Narrative is at its most riveting (and thus most commercially successful) when it contains high conflict, high stakes. Both film and hip-hop trade in narrative, but unlike hip-hop, filmmakers have yet to really utilize in their marketing the metanarratives that exist around the creation of the art. Beef sells records. Prodigy of Mobb
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Kendrick Lamar, one of contemporary hip-hop’s top contenders for most skilled emcee, caused a stir last year with a guest verse on Big Sean’s song, “Control.” In his verse, Lamar, who hails from Compton, the epicenter of West Coast hip-hop, calls himself the King of New York. That line alone spawned hundreds of blogs, tweets, YouTube responses, and interviews with other rappers. How the hell can a Compton emcee claim to be King of New York? By having the balls to name names, to show a deep understanding of how aggression operates in hip-hop, and to do it all through masterful lyricism. Later in the verse, after calling out a slew of his contemporaries, including Big Sean and Jay Electronica, who both have verses on the very same song, he says: I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas Trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas Kendrick Lamar understands that in the world of hip-hop, there’s only one goal worth striving for: To make music so damn good that you effectively kill the careers of your friends. Imagine how vital independent cinema could be if it embraced that level of aggressive ambition, making ballsy films that not only strive to outdo their competition, but that critically dissect the competition at the same time. The homage shot can be flipped on its head and used to denigrate one’s hack contemporaries. Characters can even shit-talk someone else’s film in dialogue—as obnoxiously meta as that might seem. Starting this kind of directorial beef forces you to make your film so irreproachably wellcrafted and ambitious that haters can’t say shit. It can only improve the health of independent film. I’M NOT A BUSINESSMAN; I’M A BUSINESS, MAN In the early 2000s, relatively unknown rapper Lil Wayne rose to prominence by releasing a series of mixtapes available for free download. It didn’t matter that these mixtapes were hastily produced, with Wayne often rapping over other artists’ beats. His fanbase expanded rapidly and it built enormous hype for his official releases. After the success of Tha Carter and Tha Carter II, Wayne kicked his tactic into overdrive, not only releasing a near constant stream of new material, but appearing as a guest feature on dozens of popular songs. Anticipation for Tha Carter III reached a fever pitch, and when it finally debuted in 2008, it sold over a million copies in its first week. Many contemporary emcees have been following this model to great success. But the model Wayne made famous was in the era before YouTube. It’s no longer sufficient to put out song after song. No one understands this better than Macklemore, who vaulted to fame in 2012 after uploading three minutes and fifty-three seconds of video to YouTube. The video for “Thrift Shop” now has over 448 million views. The hustle is central to the ethos of hip-hop. Many of the most notable emcees in its 30year history sold drugs before escaping the hood by spitting rhymes (“If I wasn’t in the rap game / I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game”). And whether today’s rappers come from a background of street hustling or not, that image of the hustler has become
mythic, and rappers have become purveyors of the modern day Horatio Alger myth; the attitudes associated with the hustler (ingenuity and ruthless self-promotion) are in the DNA of the art form, whether you’re looking at gangsta rap or socially conscious indie hip-hop. The most successful rappers, though, realize that the music is not the product they are selling. It’s not even the music video. They are the product. The South African rap duo Die Antwoord has taken this to the extreme. Their public personas (tattooed, missing teeth, ghetto accents, clearly uneducated, focused on little more than sex and money) are fabrications. In their prior incarnation, MaxNormal.tv, rapper Ninja wore a suit, spoke with a different accent, and acted like a motivational speaker, rapping over PowerPoint slides. But even outside their official music videos (Die Antwoord, too, rose to fame by releasing an album for free and making a popular YouTube video), they appear “in character” during interviews and backstage tour videos. I put “in character” in quotes because they have committed to their characters so hardcore as to become them. They are not simply rappers; they are performance artists who make hip-hop (a claim they would vehemently deny). Their product is not the music, it’s the people they’ve built themselves into around that music. And the product is astonishing, especially as it appears in Harmony Korine’s short film “Umshini Wam” (starring Die Antwoord), which premiered at SXSW in 2011. Look it up. In independent cinema, there are a few directors who’ve embraced the mixtape model, releasing content quite often. Joe Swanberg, as mentioned earlier, has been releasing nearly two films a year for much of the last decade. He’s been able to do this by keeping his budgets low, making improvisation central to his “scripts,” and collaborating with the same artists over and over. Of course, constant narrative proliferation isn’t all that innovative; one need only look back at the serialization of Dickens’ novels. What we haven’t seen yet, though, is an independent director who combines high volume with the level of self-packaging Die Antwoord has employed in hip-hop. The conflation of art and publicity via ingenious marketing tactics has happened almost exclusively in Hollywood—because it’s expensive. Guy Pearce appeared in a fictional Ted Talk set in the year 2023 to promote Prometheus. Human-shaped remote control
planes flew the skies of New York City to promote the superhero movie Chronicle. After acquiring The Blair Witch Project for $1.1 million, Artisan Entertainment spent $25 million to market it as a documentary, creating a website and posting rumors in online forums. Joaquin Phoenix flirted with the Die Antwoord model, blurring the line between art and publicity, when he announced on Let-
Don’t make a trailer for your film; make an anti-trailer for your rival’s shitty film.
terman that he was retiring from acting to take up hip-hop. People thought he’d lost it, until he revealed a year and a half later that he’d been in character to promote I’m Still Here. Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of appearing publicly as the characters from his films and we find him hilarious—because he’s promoting comedies. Yet Phoenix was renounced as a mad man for appearing in public as a character from a drama. The visceral public reaction to Phoenix’s “performance” shows just how powerful and shocking it can be to break the conventions that separate art from marketing. [Axiom 3: The boundaries of art are artificial; genre distinctions are conveniences that can and should be broken when doing so is artistically (and commercially) profitable. We tend to think of the cover design of a book as a separate art distinct from the writing of the text. But the best covers are seamless extensions of the narrative. The famed cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (a woman’s eyes and mouth floating in a blue night sky) was completed before the book and Fitzgerald loved it so much he incorporated it into the novel. It transcended its marketing origins.] So, what can an independent filmmaker do to blur the line between art and marketing, to
defy the genre constrictions of film, allowing the art to creep beyond the borders of the reel? Build hype by releasing outtakes and screen tests before the movie. Ask your fan base to participate, to vote on which version of a scene to include in the final cut. Offer a small cash reward for a contest to design a movie poster. (Hiring a designer gets you one person spreading word about your film; a contest gets dozens—or hundreds—of people talking.) Get a PA to blog the on-set drama. Invent on-set drama. At the Q&A after your film release, have the actors answer questions in character. Maybe a character in your film is reading my forthcoming novel (and maybe a character in my novel is watching your film— fictional worlds linked through a conduit of real-world publicity). Don’t make a trailer for your film; make an anti-trailer for your rival’s shitty film. Call out a director and start a beef. Or call up a director and orchestrate a beef. Plenty of hip-hop artists have gotten rich making music on their own terms, and they’ve done so by pushing their work—and the marketing of that work—to the edge of reason and ingenuity. They’ve ignored the definitions and distinctions that don’t serve their ascendency. No tactic is off limits. Independent film has a long way to go to catch up.
n any art form, a healthy ecosystem involves a class of artists making avantgarde work that pushes boundaries at the expense of not being very commercially viable, as well as a class of artists who learn from the experimental and find a way to make it digestible to as large an audience as possible. The smaller the audience, the closer art is to masturbation. What we have in the current cinematic landscape is a gulf between the independent, experimental work and the hackneyed commercial work. The corpus callosum has been severed. Hollywood has figured out how to be profitable without needing to learn from the avant-garde. And the avant-garde has decided it doesn’t give a shit about reaching a wide audience. What sorts of films can we expect from filmmakers who lack the ambition to make brilliant, edgy work that also manages to appeal to a wide audience? Man up, independent cinema. Set your goals higher. Stop at nothing until the world knows your name and haters fear throwing rocks at the throne.
SELLING AT SUNDANCE
Since the late 80s, the Sundance Film Festival has been the premiere American market for independently-financed film. Despite a mid-recession lull in sale prices, more than a dozen films fetched seven-figure bids in
seeking visual correlations amongst budget, sale price, box office gross, genre, length, and release dates
2013. One, The Way, Way Back, sold for more than $10 million. But what does a $2 million sale mean for a film that cost $6 million to make? To figure out a way to look at the available data in a new light, we selected a
design by Accurat www.accurat.it 86’
The number of awards a film wins has little correlation to box office performance. Even an Academy Award nomination doesn't guarantee a profit.
$ 1M $ 0,25M $ 0,55M
The Devil's Double $ 19,1M $ 4M $ 1,4M
$ 0,15M $ 1M $ 1,3M
$ 3M $ 0,5M $ 0,78M
Hobo with a Shotgun
Searching for Sugar Man
$ 1M $ 0,6M $ 3,7M
Robot & Frank
Beasts of the Southern Wild
For 10 days every January, the Sundance Film Festival turns Park City, Utah into the most closely-watched independent film market in the US.
$ 1,8M $ 1M $ 12,8M
$ 2,5M $ 2M $ 4,8M
Red Lights Safety Not Guaranteed
$ 22,4M $ 4M $ 13,55M
$ 0,75M $ 1M $ 4,4M
$ 0,9M $ 2M $ 16M
The Way, Way Back $ 4,6M $ 9,75M $ 23M
How to read it?
Each fim is represented by a solid obtained by the unique combination amongst three different values.
Prince Avalanche $ 0,725M $ 1M $ 0,191M
Sale price Budget
Genre Box office gross
handful of films that sold in Park City between 2011 and 2013, and engaged the Italian data visualization firm, Accurat, to re-imagine our spreadsheet as a three-dimensional work of analytical art. Feel free to spend hours staring at this.
On the right This tag cloud shows the first 25 most recurrent keywords used to described the analyzed movies. (Source: IMDB.com)
$ 12M $ 3M $ 36M $ 0,017M $ 0,1M $ 0,168M
new york city diner pistol blood
bare chested male cooking family relationships
hospital father daughter relationship father son relationship
singing in a car
$ 6M $ 2M $ 13,1M
two word title
drunkenness female nudity
character name in title
husband wife relationship
mother son relationship
character repeating someone else's dialogue
16 $ 5,18M $ 1,05M $ 3,4M
Margin Call $ 0,84M $ 2M $ 3M
$ 1,3M $ 3M $ 1,4M
For a Good Time, Call...
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Martha Marcy May Marlene
$ 5M $ 1M $ 3,1M
$ 0,12M $ 1M $ 0,15M
$ 10M $ 3M $ 0,357M
$ 0,5M $ 2M $ 2,9M
Gun Hill Road
Like Crazy $ 0,25M $ 4M $ 3,5M
The Spectacular Now
$ 2,5M $ 1,5M $ 6,8M
Lay the Favorite
$ 6M $ 4M $ 17M
$ 20M $ 2M $ 1,6M
Ain't Them Bodies Saints $ 4M $ 1M $ 0,4M
Adore $ 16M $ 1M $ 0,9M
Austenland $ 7,8M $ 4M $ 1,9M
based on true story
Past Present Altn. Present Future
F M A M
A S O N D
FROM ODYSSEUS TO
WALTER WHITE The A ntihe r o’s
Jour ne y
WORDS BY DAVID CORBETT IMAGE BY BLESSING YEN
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n the final episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White finds himself trapped in a snow-bound car while police hunt for him just outside. Hoping to escape arrest, he prays to whatever God he thinks might listen: “Just let me get home… Just let me get home…” With these words, mild-mannered Walt—A.K.A. the meth lord Heisenberg—reaches back in thematic time, echoing the same sentiment the Greek hero Odysseus embraced in his famous ten-year journey from the ruins of Troy to his palace in Ithaca. But Walt and Odysseus share much more than a desire to get back home. In the psychological complexity and moral tension they exhibit, they stand among a variety of avatars with names like Lazarillo de Tormes, Moll Flanders, Adolph Verloc, Humbert Humbert, Augie March, John Yossarian, Randle Patrick McMurphy. There’s no one set of pat traits that categorically encompasses all these characters, though the epithet “antihero” routinely gets slapped beside their names. But “antihero” defines them by negation, emphasizing what they’re typically not—altruistic, honest, idealistic, courageous—which does nothing to explain their appeal, an appeal that’s not just enduring but, judging from recent trends in TV, inexhaustible. Doubt me? Consider: Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Dexter Morgan, Patty Hewes, Don Draper, Ace Bernstein, Nancy Botwin, Ray Donovan, Red Reddington—and, of course, Walter “Heisenberg” White. What “antihero” does get at, though somewhat indirectly, is the fundamental antagonism at the core of this character’s existence, the wily rebellion, the refusal to bow. And that helps explain the timing of when these characters have often emerged, for they do seem to blossom in times of reaction to cherished ideals that, for one reason or another, have seemed to grow outdated, if not rancid.
First Sightings: The Homeric Antihero
Some sources point to the disfigured, vulgar, dimwitted Greek soldier Thersites as the true progenitor of the antihero. But he plays
such a minor role in the Iliad he seems more a suggestion than a model. Appearing in just one scene, he dares speak “truth to power,” condemning Agamemnon as cowardly and motivated solely by greed (something all the other warriors are thinking but refuse to say out loud). In contrast, the warrior who rebukes Thersites, beating him till he weeps from shame—Odysseus—possesses enough heft and complexity to present something truly unique, even revolutionary. This is especially clear when he’s compared to the other great warriors in the Achaean camp: Achilles and Ajax. The Iliad is a transitional narrative, dramatizing the eclipse of an era championing heroic values to one prizing rhetorical ones. Achilles and Ajax, despite their limitations—volatility of temper and vanity in the first case, a certain beef-wittedness (Shakespeare’s term) in the other— both represent the courage and ambition for glory typical of the great hero. And both die before the walls of Troy—Achilles in battle, Ajax by his own hand—their deaths signalling an end to the heroic age. From that point on, Odysseus commands the stage, and he is not just a great warrior. He is also the consummate deceiver, a descendent of both the Olympian trickster Hermes and the thief Autolycus. Known as much for his cunning as his courage, he performs a great many feats of valor but also feigns lunacy in an attempt to avoid combat, corrupts Achilles’s son Neoptolemus by coaching him to lie, deceives Clytemnestra about the death of her daughter, Iphigenia, and famously enjoys the sexual hospitality of Circe and Calypso while dallying on his return to his devotedly faithful wife, Penelope. It’s this essentially dual nature—a warrior’s warrior on the one hand, a shamelessly amoral opportunist on the other—that keys our fascination. We’re never sure exactly which Odysseus will appear at any given moment, creating a kind of character-driven suspense unrivaled in ancient western literature. The doubt of Moses, the ignorance of Oedipus, the licentiousness of David, they don’t even come close—underscoring the distinction between a heroic flaw and a psyche at war with itself.
He stands exposed, and finally admits the dark ambition that also drove him: “I was good at it.” The Roman Rejection
As it turned out, there would be no hero like Odysseus in Western literature for centuries. His disappearance is largely due to the fact that the Romans despised him; he violated their sense of duty, their belief in the preëminence of honor. This is one reason the Romans traced the founding of Rome to the hero Aeneas, preferring the defeated Trojans to the victorious Greeks, whom they considered immoral and corrupt. Virgil in particular seldom referred to Ulysses, the Roman name for Odysseus, without the adjectives “cruel” or “deceitful.”
Enter the Picaro The chivalric romance of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was largely an aristocratic form, and as the Golden Age of Hapsburg Spain began to curdle into corruption and decline, the fantastic adventures of the intrepid knight errant were losing a bit of their sheen. An entirely new form of novel emerged on the Iberian Peninsula, based in part on the Arabic genre of maqamat and Slavic folktales, such as those featuring Till Eulenspiegel, imported from Germany under Charles V. The first novel of this kind appeared in 1554 and was titled The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of his Fortunes and Adversities. Due to its scandalous subject matter and blasphemous disregard for the Church, it was banned almost everywhere, and the identity of its author remains in debate. And yet it proved not just wildly popular but profoundly influential. Instead of steadfast knights, these novels featured lovable, wandering rogues and thieves, known as picaros, and the stories recounted their morally questionable—but never explicitly wicked—exploits. Principally, the stories concerned the plight of the poor, forced to live by their wits in a patently corrupt and hypocritical society. There was often an element of redemptive conversion near the end, despite the blatant attacks on priests and other clerical officials. In short, we have a return in these tales to something like the dual nature of Odysseus, with both virtue and vice residing in the hero’s heart, enjoying a tricky equilibrium. The appeal of the picaresque novel spread across Europe and took solid root in England, where its popularity survived into the 19th Century in novels featuring rakish heroes such as Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Barry Lyndon and Martin Chuzzlewit.
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None of these protagonists were irredeemably evil or, in the end, completely reformed, though the good in their natures tended to overshadow the bad. Rather, all possessed a duality of character forged by the misfortunes of poverty and birth in a society premised on the crowing of virtue amid the worship of privilege and greed.
Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know
As the popularity of the English picaresque novel was cresting in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, another type of hero was taking shape. Like the picaro and the wanderer, he was a social outsider, but it was temperament rather than class that defined his iconoclasm. A kind of orphan child of Romanticism, he possessed a brooding intelligence that defied the coal-stoked ambition and pompous vulgarity of the Industrial Revolution. With Hamlet as forebear and Lord Byron as mastermind, this hero gave us the Gothic novel, and found himself incarnated in characters as diverse as the Brönte sisters’ Heathcliff and Rochester, Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo, Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, and the original vampire, Lord Ruthven. Byron, describing the pirate hero of his verse tale The Corsair, provided a kind of template: He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d The rest no better than the thing he seem’d; And scorn’d the best as hypocrites
Again, the theme of defining a new morality in a society rotten with falsity found voice in a hero neither evil nor virtuous, but revealing instead an uneasy marriage of both.
A Demon, not a Flaw
As the tradition of the antihero matured, the classical hero evolved from the incorruptible vessel of virtue found in the chivalric romance to a more nuanced, complicated, flawed human being. In truth, this hero had been with us since the time of Greek tragedy, though Aristotle, in his Poetics, emphasized that the hero should err, not through some fault of character, but a mistake in judgment. Even so, his term for this error, hamartia, gradually came to be understood as the hero’s tragic flaw. And as the English novel of self-improvement gained popularity in the early nineteenth century, heroes became capable of positive
change. They were not prisoners of their flaws but were, through insight, capable of overcoming these limitations. In fact, the very definition of hero changed to incorporate this notion of inherent flaw, willful insight, and deliberate self-transformation. But the skepticism that has traditionally given rise to the antihero remained unconvinced that such positive change was always possible—or desirable. Even as Freud’s development of psychoanalysis hinted at the potential for curative insight, his concept of the Unconscious so often resembled a monstrous darkness that it seemed the best even the sanest mind could hope for was an uneasy truce with its demons. And creativity in particular seemed to require a willingness to risk imbalance.
A Hero for the Twentieth Century
The vision of the divided hero, a person equally capable of infamy or greatness, with a moral compass never pointing squarely toward true north, continued to haunt the western tradition, especially amid the feverish patriotism and ideological rigidity that characterized the Twentieth Century—with its seemingly constant warfare and its mastery of the machinery of propaganda. The concept of nobility and the heroes who embody it took a serious hit in the trenches of the First World War, and the carpet-bombed cities of the Second. The Holocaust and Hiroshima redefined our understanding of hell and the kind of soul that might inhabit it. Slaughter and butchery are not ennobling—especially when systematized. A sense of the random, the meaningless, infected the Western psyche. The abyss wasn’t just waiting. The abyss was us. As World War II was drawing to a close, and then for a decade afterward, we saw a flood of B movies and paperbacks characterized as noir—with morally compromised heroes straining to grab that alluring, illusive brass ring. The pushback was both fierce and fun ( Joe McCarthy, Joe Friday, Doris Day, Technicolor, Cinemascope) and so the antihero remained a kind of cultural shadow. But he reëmerged with a vengeance in the 60s as the Vietnam conflict wound down, putting the lie to the jingoistic sloganeering of the Cold War, appearing in such neo-noir classics as Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie & Clyde, King of Marvin Gardens, Klute, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, Catch 22, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Chinatown. But the forces of idealism, conformity, and normalcy struck back again, rising up against the dark tide. We got Jaws and Star Wars and Ronald Reagan. We got Morning in America and the ever-chipper Gipper. It didn’t take long for this largely contrived optimism to grow stale. The 90s arrived, and as novelist Dennis Lehane has remarked, trying to describe the reasons behind yet another resurgence of noir—which he considers working class tragedy—it was clear the so-called prosperity of the Clinton economy and the dot-com boom was a massive house of cards. There seemed to be a lot of money flying around, but it was landing less and less in middle class neighborhoods—never mind the pockets of the poor. And writers, as always, responded to the Great Lie with characters who saw through the hypocrisy and refused to play nice.
Twenty-First Century Man, or the Rewards of Dramatic Complexity
It’s tempting to believe that the proliferation of antiheroes on cable TV since the appearance of The Sopranos is a continuation of the neo-noir
resurgence of the preceding decade. But the housing collapse revealed the Bush economy to be an even worse pump-and-dump scheme than the tech stock disaster that plagued the previous regime. Call it the New American Anxiety, the recognition that something’s gone horribly wrong and won’t get better, especially as long as politics continues its degeneration into what Henry Adams blithely described as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” The antihero seems perfectly suited to the time. Dread smothers all hope while the chattering class indulges in a sanctimonious orgy of blame. The Socratic ideal of the just man, who takes satisfaction solely from his own virtue, seems not just ancient but quaint. But there’s another, far more practical reason for the antihero’s newfound popularity. In an era of long-format storylines, where a show’s narrative arc doesn’t stop at the end of this week’s episode—it continues not just to the end of the season but on to the next and the season after that—the psychological depth and moral complexity of the antihero provide a greater range of dramatic action than a hero constrained by virtue. Just as with Odysseus, we’re never quite sure which half of the divided self will appear in any given scene, which helps sustain suspense. Tony Soprano’s careening between loyalty and cynical narcissism; the clash of Don Draper’s capacity for genuine kindness despite an obsession with his fabricated image; Patty Hewes’s scorched-earth careerism balanced against a scathing ruthless honesty, especially about herself— each exemplifies how a soul at war with itself creates a dramatic engine with limitless possibilities. Which returns us finally to good old Walter White. In the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, Walt learns he has terminal cancer, and wants to provide financial security for his family, something he realizes is impossible given the new economic reality and his meager salary as a high school chemistry teacher. But this awakens in him something deeper, a need in the truest sense of the word to live. That war between familial love and a dying man’s resurgent selfinterest created the defiant Frankenstein we came to know as Heisenberg, with his need to avenge himself against all those who sold him short or stole his promise. He wanted a vengeful, pristine excellence, not mere success. In the final episode Walt reveals this exact same divide, though deepened and deftly articulated through five brilliant seasons. Challenged by his wife, who refuses to hear one more time that his criminality came from nothing more than a desire to care for the family, he stands exposed, and finally admits the dark ambition that also drove him: “I was good at it.” Like the tragic hero, the antihero stands before a vast, impersonal force—not God or fate, but hypocrisy, or the end of an era. Unlike the tragic hero, he avails himself the weapon of amorality, plumbing the darker aspects of his nature. This provides an excellent means to dramatize the seemingly endless struggle between the proud, resourceful individual and the corrupt society that would gladly crush him. And though his turn toward the darkness may help him survive, it also taints whatever victory he manages to secure. It’s a great dramatic trope, with little risk of seeming irrelevant, especially given America’s current trajectory. We may see the antihero recede into the shadows for a while, as he has before, but it’s unlikely he’ll vanish anytime soon.
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W H AT R O U G H
BE A ST WORDS BY LAURA GOODE ART BY LOUISA BERTMAN
Poetry in the age of Antihero Television
“Poetry should be at least as interesting as television,” the poet Charles Bernstein once argued. For most of the 20th Century, these two media seemed hopelessly divorced from one another—poetry the provenance of the educated elite, and TV the layman’s parlor game. Though poetry has hardly made massive strides toward commercial appeal in the 21st Century, TV’s brow has inarguably raised, carrying with it many strokes of that once-isolated elite. However unlikely a pairing, it remains that television has been made more interesting by poetry. Much has been written heralding the rise of what might be called Antihero Television. The hallmarks of the genre, particularly in the genre cornerstones of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, include an amoral or ambiguously moral, usually male protagonist, his honorably anchored but often equally complicated wife, the children whose needs both demand and rebuke his questionable actions, a landscape of iconic Americana, and the empire he seeks to build upon it at all costs. His is a self-made, paradigmatically American, Gatsby-esque life’s arc—if Gatsby had lived to acquire the wife and offspring along with the swimming pool. In attendance to all of these coexisting elements, poetry seems a natural servant. Whose morality has been more conflicted than Yeats’, or whose intent more ambiguous than his sphinx? Who chronicled New York’s midcentury identity crisis more quirkily and quixotically than O’Hara? Who imagined the hubris of empire with more irony and iconoclasm than Shelley? To thrust itself forward, postmodern TV, perhaps atavistically, has reached backward to the roots of its modern, or modernist, language. The antihero is neither highbrow nor lowbrow, or is equally both. In the antihero, television and poetry are twinned: The protagonist is the antihero, and so is the poet. Though the passage comes from a poem that shares a title with a Mad Men episode, “Meditations in An Emergency,” Frank O’Hara’s words could apply to Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White alike: “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.”
M A D M E N : M E D I TAT I O N S IN AN EMERGENCY The evidence suggests that Matthew Weiner has a massive hard-on for verse. Mad Men far outstrips any other contender in terms of sheer number of poetic references. There’s Paul Kinsey stonedly reciting “The Hollow Men,” prompting the totally appropriate rejoinder, “We got it. You’re educated.” There’s a wink and a nod to “Lady Lazarus” in the episode so titled, which graphs female depression and electroshock therapy without the courtesy of actually referencing the poem, acknowledging how the biographical mythology of Sylvia Plath has engulfed her poems. And there’s Don’s midlife crisis allegorized through Dante’s Inferno, opening the sixth season with the juxtaposition of Don voicing over a tour of hell while sitting on the Hawaiian beach: “Midway through my life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” It’s also notable that as Weiner conceptualizes it, poetry is usually a bummer. Most prominently, though, is Mad Men’s second season’s leitmotif of Frank O’Hara’s 1957 collection Meditations in an Emergency. The season’s first episode, “For Those Who Think Young,” introduces the collection both as an emblem of Don’s swelling distance from the hippie-bohemian Pepsi Generation, and as a subtext of the schism in Don’s own persona. We encounter the book first as a physical object being read by a bespectacled youth on the barstool two down from Don’s: Don: How is it? Reader: He wrote some of it here. Some of it on 23rd St., some place they tore down. Don: Makes you feel better about sitting in a bar at lunch. Makes you feel like you’re getting something done. Reader: (scornfully) Yeah. It’s all about getting things done. Don: Is it good? Reader: (more scornfully) I don’t think you’d like it. The rest of the episode only affirms Don’s aging, and consummate defensiveness toward the younger generation. He insists to Roger, “Young people don’t know anything. Especial-
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ly that they’re young”; he reveals to a doctor that both his parents are dead and his blood pressure is too high; and he goes limp during a Valentine’s Day rendezvous with Betty. Indeed, over the hump of his thirties, Don is stalwartly cool, but losing his grip on hip, signaled nowhere more literally than his steamed, starched grey flannel suit. We veritably cringe when we spy him paging through Meditations in his single-breasted Brooks Brothers, in his Madison Avenue office. Stop trying so hard, Don. Finally, the irony of O’Hara’s placement comes full circle when we hear Don’s voiceover reading the poem “Mayakovsky” as he walks the family’s golden retriever on a misty night in Ossining, en route to mail the collection to a recipient later revealed as Anna Draper, the depth charge of his previous life as Dick Whitman:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern. The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny not just darker, not just grey. It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.
Don can wait all he wants for the “catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern”, but that particular newing is loath to arrive again for him. Moreover, in an episode that spends precious little time illuminating the space between Don and Dick, the poem emerges as
our reminder that those identities’ uniting chasm—“the catastrophe of my personality”—still gapes just under the surface, lurking just beneath a tip of Don’s soignée fedora, grinning across a distance easily forded by the U.S. mail. Twelve episodes later, in “Meditations in an Emergency,” we’ve crossed that distance. Don has reunited with Anna, been baptized anew as Dick in the waters of the Pacific, and returned just in time to acknowledge his infidelity to Betty and toe the brink of apocalypse with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Under the specter of nuclear destruction, everyone on the show seems to be suddenly relieved of their superegos and waving their ids around like toy swords. Where we saw her gawking naively at a former roommate turned call girl and flirting like a teenager with a mechanic in the season opener, Betty is now grimly confronting the news of her pregnancy and seducing hot strangers in bars. In a near-total role reversal of Mom and Dad, Don is feeding the kids (albeit room-service) dinner and enduring knock-knock jokes. Roger is selling his life’s work to fund his divorce from Mona so he can marry child-bride Jane. Most poignantly, in the face of Pete’s love confession, Peggy sings her own sad aria to the always diminishing. After advising Pete vis-à-vis the loss of the Clearasil account to “Just tell the truth. Don’t worry about the outcome. People respect that,” she follows her own counsel and tells him that she gave birth to, and gave up, their child. Her articulation of this could easily be Don’s, or O’Hara’s: “Well, one day you’re there, and then all of a sudden, there’s less of you, and you wonder where that part went, if it’s living somewhere outside of you, and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back, and then you realize it’s just gone.” What does she think of that? I mean, what do I? Unexpectedly, it’s BFF-next-door Francine who wrests the show’s—the season’s—subtext to the surface. Listening to Betty panic over her pregnancy in the beauty parlor, Francine first suggests scenic locales for illegal abortions (Rochester, Puerto Rico), then advises Betty, “Sometimes the best thing is just to do nothing and wait.” For the first time, we realize fully that the single most useless thing to do in an emergency is meditate, and that’s what all these characters are doing. Confess-
ing secrets, spending more time with the kids, balling on backroom couches, getting your hair done—none of these are the remotest safeguard against a nuclear warhead 90 miles away. We are all tragically, exaggeratedly ineffectual, even the most beautiful and interesting and modern of us, and there’s nothing funny about it.
THE SOPRANOS: THE SECOND COMING Perhaps appropriately, Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” appears doubly in The Sopranos, referenced first in the fifth season’s “Cold Cuts,” then returning in the series’ sixth season denouement, the eponymous “The Second Coming.” Like Mad Men’s more parenthetical poetic allusions (Kinsey and “The Hollow Men”), The Sopranos’ invocation of the poem immediately serves to highlight a disparity in education between various characters, though its significance eventually extends much more broadly. (It also merits mention that Weiner was a supervising producer on both of the Sopranos episodes discussed below.) Unlike Mad Men’s poetic meditations, which appear non-diagetically via Don’s interior V.O., The Sopranos addresses “The Second Coming” diagetically and explicitly, passing it around its core cast like a shared spread of pro-zhutte. The poem’s first appearance arrives via Dr. Melfi, responding to Tony’s “intolerance for frustration”: Melfi: Depression is rage turned inward. Tell me about the Soprano temper. Tony: It’s just a level of bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Every fucking new idea they come up with is supposed to make things better, it makes things worse. Melfi: Okay, I agree. The centre cannot hold. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Tony: What the fuck are you talking about? Melfi: We live in an era of technological and spiritual crisis. But you feel you’re above all of it. Certainly above any inconvenience or annoyance. And if things don’t go your way, instead of being merely disappointed or inconvenienced, you blow. Recalling the nostalgia for better days that initiated Tony and Melfi’s relationship in the pilot episode, Tony’s narcissistic mourning clashes with Melfi’s hyper-educated analogizing. He yearns for a perhapsmythical past in which his authority looms unchallenged, she cites the paradigmatic poem of the casualties of unchallenged authority, and the parallel flies entirely over his head, angering him further. Ironically, in this configuration Tony himself is the sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi,” the “rough beast” whose arrival heralds the death of a past age: Tony himself is the signifier of the passing of the era—his gangster father’s heyday—that he mourns. The centerpiece of “Cold Cuts,” though, is actually the outwardturned rage of Janice, Tony’s sister. In the Soprano family tree, rage is at the root. After Janice unlooses a can of Soprano whoop-ass on an (admittedly noxious) fellow soccer mom, eliciting entirely unhelpful local news coverage and a threat of divorce by her husband, she reluctantly agrees to enter anger-management treatment. With both Soprano siblings in therapy, Melfi’s point about their “era of technological and spiritual crisis” is manifested, personified. The cultural crisis has bubbled to the surface of both personalities, and surely some revelation is at
The Second Coming Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? hand. Shakily, Janice grasps it, articulating to Tony what he fascistically refuses to acknowledge: “A lot of anger is self-importance.” Vengefully, he goads her about her abandoned son, poking her most tender spot, until she snaps and chases him around a family dinner table brandishing silverware. The eternal Soprano bond, rage-cum-depression, is again cemented. While “Cold Cuts” keeps its grip on “The Second Coming” loose, the sixth season’s eponymous episode embraces it fully, bringing the Soprano temper to its climax in the suicide attempt of Anthony Jr. If Janice provides an oblique, sororal glance at the parental origins of Tony’s rage, A.J. illuminates its direct manifestation. Here is, literally, the Second Coming of all Tony has wrought. The episode opens on an image of a pile of wreckage, and closes on one of father and son viewed through a pane of glass in the psych ward—twice literalizing the family’s collective state of psychological destruction.
A.J.’s depression at this point is both pitifully profound and loathsomely self-pitying. Both bemoaning and reflecting the moral anarchy of his era, he lectures his parents about toxic beef additives, he surfs Iraq war porn, and insists to Meadow that he’s too “ill” to move out. After A.J. refuses Carmela’s offers of steak pizzaiola—with insistence that all beef is contaminated by rat shit—she weakly attempts in his defense, “At least he’s getting an education.” The scene then cuts directly to A.J.’s professor reciting Yeats: The price of this education is their rejection by him. As with Tony and Melfi, the poem underscores an educational disparity, albeit this time, more poignantly, between father and son. When Carmela leaves for an afternoon of dining out and shopping (after making A.J. the most infantilistic lunch ever provided to a 20-year-old: “Lincoln Log sandwiches,” which seem to consist of buttered hot dogs), A.J. straps a plastic bag over his face and a concrete anvil to his ankles and slides off the diving board into the pool. Again, the Soprano pool recurs as one of the richest barometers of the family’s state and status. Ever returning as the site of Tony’s warm, sentimental rendezvous with adorable, allegorical ducklings in the pilot episode, in “Cold Cuts,” it yawns empty after Carmela drains it to save money in the wake of her separation from Tony, and in “The Second Coming” it nearly becomes the site of A.J.’s death. Thus, quite literally, the ceremony of innocence is (nearly) drowned. But A.J. frankly isn’t brave or bright enough to make a successful suicide attempt—the rope on the anvil is too long to hold him underwater, and his hands are free to rip off the plastic bag—and Tony comes home just in time to drag him out of the water, first berating him (“What the fuck did you do?!”) and then, again, infantilizing him (“It’s okay, baby”). Narrowly avoiding his stony sleep, first A.J. is vexed to nightmare, then rocked in his cradle. Conferring with psychologists after he’s is institutionalized, A.J. parrots “The Second Coming,” and Tony angrily retorts, “What kind of poem is that to teach college students?” Not insignificantly, this conversation occurs as Tony finds a bloody tooth, collateral damage from his pummeling of an associate who insulted Meadow, lodged in his pants cuff. With Tony still constantly acting outwardly upon his Soprano temper, and A.J. paralyzed in a feedback loop of rage turned inward, they become the parallel signifiers of the same blood-dimmed tide. A.J. is the best who lacks all conviction, and Tony the worst, full of passionate intensity. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Indeed. As in the entire hagiography of The Sopranos, blood binds all. Tony is the Second Coming of his father, A.J the Second Coming of Tony, and on and on into the series’ famously inconclusive conclusion. In a sense, with The Sopranos as its parent show, Il Padrone of the entire genre, all antihero television is The Sopranos’ second coming, and every antihero his own sphinx.
BREAKING BAD: OZYMANDIAS Oh, Walter White, somewhere in sands of the desert, slouching toward Albuquerque to be born. If The Sopranos sired Breaking Bad, so, inversely, did “Ozymandias” prefigure “The Second Coming.” Where Yeats foreshadows the birth of a new beast, though, Shelley eulogizes his passing. Shelley’s empire is crumbled, past tense, a relic in the barren desert, a cautionary tale.
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Ozymandias I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In a parallel examination of Walter White as a sort of descendant of both Tony Soprano and Don Draper, it bears examination how White is fundamentally different from either Soprano or Draper. First, White is highly educated, not merely streetwise or self-made. Before the dawn of Heisenberg, White passes freely in the ranks of the middle class as himself, eliciting neither the curious whispers that dog Soprano during well-meant golf games, or the fear of being unmasked that haunts Draper amid routine background checks. There is nothing illicit or fraudulent, however unfulfilled, about a high school chemistry teacher. Thus, a life in the shadows is hardly White’s birthright in the manner of Soprano, the gangster’s heir, or Draper, bastard spawn of the whorehouse. White’s class ascendancy starts at the middle and works its way up, motivated by cancer but entirely of his volition. Examined this way, it’s only Soprano who obeys a code of any sort of honor among thieves. Having invented new identities in worlds unknown, Draper and, much more extremely, White, remain morally renegade, making it up as they go along, no family insignia to guide them. “Ozymandias,” in all its hubris and braggadocio, provides a unique cipher for Walter’s final downward spiral. As with “Meditations,” it’s used non-diagetically, outside the action of the plot and characters—though it’s held at an even greater distance, appearing first in a brilliant teaser for the final half-season, then recurring as the antepenultimate episode’s title. The teaser, featuring Bryan Cranston reading “Ozymandias” in full as the camera pans over time-lapse photography of the New Mexico desert, superimposes Ozymandias’ parable over the iconography of the series: the abandoned trailer, the empty house at 308 Negra Arroyo. Ac-
celerating, the montage speeds through the barbed wire, the fumigation tent, the streets of Albuquerque until the poem reaches its climax: “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’” With the denouement of “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck”, we see the final image of the prophetic montage: Heisenberg’s metonymic fedora lone and dusty on the desert floor. The pairing of the poem with the show’s landscape, emptied of people, leaves no doubt as to the fate of Heisenberg. As viewers, we are left only to watch the tragedy unfold, powerless to forestall it. “Ozymandias” is, of course, a sonnet, and itself unique in its pacing: Traditionally, the sonnet pivots on a volta, or turn, between the opening octave and closing sextet, as in the Petrarchan sonnet, or between the three quatrains and concluding couplet, as in the Shakespearean sonnet. “Ozymandias,” however, disobeys both these templates, building its crescendo toward “despair” at the end of the eleventh line, reaching its volta before the final three lines. This stilted eleven-to-three balance lends itself to a sense that Ozymandias, like Heisenberg, has either held on a beat too long, or flamed out prematurely. Either way, the end is messy. Similarly, in the episode titled “Ozymandias,” the beginning of the end is painfully apparent for Heisenberg, sans fedora or empire, neutered back to Walter White. This regression is literalized in the episode’s opening flashback of Walter and Jesse cooking in the trailer, Walter in his ridiculous tighty-whities, Jesse still calling him “Mr. White.” Beginning with an image of a boiling Bunsen burner, White affirms, overarchingly, “The reaction has begun.” Walter then calls Skyler, rehearsing his lie under his breath, to tell her he’ll be home late; in return, she henpecks him into picking up a pizza as she packs up a sad porcelain clown—Walter’s proxy, of course—to be sold. Here, we see the first foreshadowing of Ozymandias’ “shattered visage” image that will recur throughout the episode. Here is the sad clown still intact, ripe for the shattering. Back in the desert where this doomed empire both begins and ends, we are abruptly jolted back to the standoff established in the previous episode: Hank’s partner Gomez already dead in the dust; Hank himself wounded—half sunk—
and prone before Uncle Jack’s merry band of neo-Nazis. Walter begs for Hank’s life, but Hank won’t. In a distinctly Ozymandian flourish, he chooses as his last words, “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself.” Bang. Hank’s visage: shattered. Directly mirroring this, as he witnesses Hank’s death, Walter’s mouth falls open in a silent scream, he crumples to his knees, and tips over in a state of shock, where he will remain in a human replica of the sad clown, or Ozymandias. The rest of the episode is littered with echoes of this image: Jesse half-sunk and near-shattered in his underground containment, enslaved by the Nazis; Skyler collapsing in the wake of Walter taking off with Holly; Marie buckling in agony at the news of Hank’s death. What Heisenberg, or Walter, never accounted for was the human toll of his empire, the colossal wreck to exactly those who it was meant to profit. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
In the contemporary canon, there are many passing references to poetry that signal a TV show as Smart, as Literary. The West Wing tosses off an allusion to Frost’s “good fences make good neighbors” and many a nod to Shakespeare’s kings. House of Cards invokes another fallen king, Lincoln, via the “Solitary, the thrush” snippet of Whitman’s presidential elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.” Nurse Jackie’s opening voice-over sardonically excerpts Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Only a few choice shows, though, have dared to make poetry a centerpiece, to position it as a fulcrum upon which their characters’ fates teeter. Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White no doubt share much as antihero protagonists. Each lives a double life of sorts, each samples pathos and hubris and gravitas in a veritable Greek buffet, and each is his own manifestation, or interrogation, of masculinity. Considering the commonality of these tropes, it’s remarkable that the best shows of this genre—these three—don’t feel more formulaic. Perhaps this is achieved by their relentless complexity: the attention to the quotidian and familial (the ducklings in the
pool); the precision of the world evoked (a wedding set on the date of Kennedy’s assassination); or the infinite poignancy of human connection (the cumulative tragedy of a grieving air-traffic controller). Most pertinently to this inquiry, though, there is an X-factor within each of these antiheroes, and within his constructed world, that cannot be quantified. Like poetry itself, their touch is subtle but their impact deep. We can’t analogize or analyze what’s universal about a father’s love, or a restless ambition, or, indeed, the American dream. These are not counted, but felt; not data, but poetry. In considering them, we are reminded that these men have been constructed by writers, themselves so troubled by self-mythologization, so competitive with God (look on my works…). The author himself is the antihero, and the antihero the author. As such, the mystical purpose of poetry in each of these shows is to telegraph something complex, or ambiguous, or unnameable about the man at its center. One is reminded again of O’Hara’s particularly postmodern sickness, both the author and the antihero of his own chaos. Just before the passage of “Mayakovsky” quoted in Mad Men, he encapsulates this sad tautology, the tragedy of Draper’s, Soprano’s, and White’s visions fulfilled:
I love you. I love you, but I’m turning to my verses and my heart is closing like a fist. Words! be sick as I am sick, swoon, roll back your eyes, a pool,
and I’ll stare down at my wounded beauty which at best is only a talent for poetry. &
D E P T W I L D . P O S T I N G S
THE DOOMSDAY SEMICENTENNIAL A new poster for Dr. Strangelove appears on the streets of San Francisco
When Bosley Crowthers reviewed Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb for the New York Times in 1964, he called it “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across.” Crowthers was put out to pasture four years later for misinterpreting another burgeoning American classic, Bonnie and Clyde, which he deemed “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.” In honor of the 50th anniversary of one of the great American satires (and one of the most acute critical blunders), BRIGHT IDEAS commissioned new, handdrawn Dr. Strangelove key art from the Polish poster designer Adrian Kolarczyk. Not long after Kolarczyk completed his illustration, his posters began to appear on public walls in San Francisco. Our photographer-at-large, Miles Kittredge, rode around the city shooting these wild postings in their native environment. ART BY ADRIAN KOLARCZYK IMAGES BY MILES KITTREDGE
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