I was reminded, while working with Arconic last week (that's a new division of Alcoa), on a safety video - what it was like to work within the non-doc format. It's pretty rare that I storyboard or script anything, but this recent project required a little bit of both. This experience took me back to the only narrative feature film I've made, Four Way Stop (1998, 16mm). It lived a short life at a couple of film festivals, film markets, and on British TV. Wasn't quite what we all had dreamed of when we embarked on the project. You don't ever hear about these projects because I guess we prefer success? stories...ha ha. BUT it was an amazing learning experience and I don't regret anything. I made the best film I could have at the time. I had a great crew and a great cast. And I'm grateful, eternally, for the investors who backed the project.
It was interesting flipping through the script thinking about the neurotic 29 year old I was doing my best to make sense of the film and of the film-making process. It was, to be honest, one of the most wonderful, joyful experiences I've ever had, while at the SAME time, one of the most painful. Strange how some experiences can embody such a range of emotion. There's plenty to say here, as I reflect, but one thing I came away with after it was all over was that perhaps, just perhaps, I didn't need to treat the script as a definitive document for the film. I think I might have gotten something a little more interesting if I'd loosened up my reigns on the word-for-word recitation of the text and thought more about the 'meaning,' maybe had a little more fun with it and improvised just a little. Hard to do though when you're shooting film. Film is EXPENSIVE.
Another lesson I learned was a tough one and it came up during the casting sessions. I had several, a couple in Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, one in Chicago, and another in Detroit. I was looking for a racially diverse cast. There is nothing in the script to indicate race or that deals with black/white/other. That is specifically WHY I wanted a diverse cast. You can do SO much through casting. You can take on a racial divide simply by presenting an unspoken integration amongst your characters. Of the few things I feel actually WORK in Four Way Stop, it is this- We experience the lives of people, it doesn't matter what they LOOK like, it doesn't matter what they are on the SURFACE. They are humans. Isn't this what drives our hearts to feel? Our minds to think? Sometimes race must be taken head-on, there is no doubt, but that wasn't what drove my project. My narrative has a different message, but a subtle but important statement- and I see this so rarely- is a genuine equal treatment within the story of people- be they white, black, brown....some times you have to work to get to this.
The tough lesson came from a conversation with a fantastic actor, Anthony Dixon, who arrived at the casting session in Detroit. At the time Anthony was playing George Washington Carver at Greenfield Village in Dearborn. Anthony is African-American and almost didn't audition. He came along with his (white) friend that day and thought, "ah what the heck, I'm here, might as well." I wasn't present, I just watched video of the reads in my apartment in California. Anthony was fabulous, he was ALIVE, he was FUNNY, he was (and I presume still is) a great actor. He almost didn't audition because the casting call said nothing about wanting BLACK actors. I was horrified when he told me this. But as it sank in I understood. I thought, crap, have I derailed my entire casting process by not being upfront that I WANT A DIVERSE CAST?! I thought writing the description as "male, early 20's" meant everyone who fit that.. but I understand. Anthony was tired of showing up, seeing the look on agents/producers faces, "Ohhhh.... yeah.... well...you're .... not really... um.... what we're looking for...." I get it, but it took a little while to wrap my head around it. Turns out his friend didn't get the part but Anthony did. And he stole the show.
It's been almost twenty years since this project. I think of all the other writers/producers/directors like me who made films that year. Two of them (Bo Mehrad and Amanda Doss) became very good friends, they're still in the business. He's an editor, she's a producer, both in NYC. We came to the film market in New York full of dreams, a giant project in our hands, and a couple more in our pockets. No idea what the future would hold, but sure that we would continue to work. Sure that we had stories to tell. And images that needed to be captured.