The Look

It had been raining continuously like a moody New York spring. Very unusual for LA, but the gray days and wet streets make me feel “at home.”

On Sunday, I had not slept from the day before and was up prepping some scenes until 10 a.m. and crashed for barely three hours. I tried to cheat my alarm to get in a full round hour, but only got in 2 hours 59 minutes worth of sleep.

I was told that the rain would end by 4:00 pm the exact time of my meeting. I felt this was serendipitous. I’d like to believe that whenever I venture onto something meaningful and new—the Universe reserves its tears for me—it cries with joy; and so it rains. It rains and rains. And then everything is purified and cleared.

We met in West Hollywood and talked for an hour and a half. I’m thinking of hiring a talented music composer for NUNE. I’m more than happy, grateful and excited to work with him. He’s a lighthearted artist with incredible and intelligent scrutiny for film. After the meeting, I was walking on water. I felt like Jesus, in a state of grace. It’s always good when artistic people work together—because they share the same language.

I had been thinking a lot about an actress lately. Alexandra Hellquist. She and I got in touch during the early phases of NUNE’s casting. She was interested in the lead role and I would’ve been happy to meet her—but she was in New York. We instantly bonded over the premise of the story; and she was so cool and captivating in her purity as an artist—very open hearted. She sent me a link to BOBBY’S GIRL and I fell in love with her. Bear in mind that when I talk about “falling in love;” it’s a artistic muse thing—not romantic. I always fall in love with actors that can fit into a character and bring it to life. I wrote to her and told her that I could tell by BOBBY’S GIRL that her acting was exquisite even though she barely spoke a word. I could see her choices in the acting—and it was clear to me that she was emotionally “accessible;” where every pore of her spoke.

It was a crazy time with regards to her scheduling. The long distance thing was difficult although I was surprised that she was opened to travel. I decided that because I’m a very “rehearsal driven” director (I require A LOT of rehearsal time), it would hurt the movie if I didn’t get it. It’s part of the law of economy.

On top of all this, I would have had to re-write NUNE, to make it work. And it would have worked, but NUNE would’ve changed. The character wouldn’t be 15 years old anymore, rather, I’d re-write her to be a more sophisticated 17 or 18. And she also wouldn’t be mixed Armenian—but would compliment Hellquist’s look by blending in some Asian. I felt challenged and was up for it…but a part of me said, “Try to get someone local first.” So I did, and I’m glad, because I never would’ve met Brianna Joy Chomer.

I did tell Alexandra that I’d write a movie for her. I don’t think she believed me. She probably thought I was one of those psychotic actor-obsessed weirdos. I’m not. Sometimes when I look at an actor: I can see a story, a story that I would write. It’s rare for me, but it happens.

A milestone has happened since that discussion with Alexandra. I revisited BOBBY’S GIRL recently to watch it for the tone. I remember early on, I showed the clips to my DP, Ioana, and telling her what I like about the film. I said, “I like this documentary feel here—but more stylized….”

I told her, I wanted, “This or something better.” And Ioana said to me, “I can do something better than that.” And this excited me.

I look back at the pre-production process to make comparisons of “Before and After,” the “Then and Now” to track my progress, my growth, the changes to the film—and to see if I achieved my goals. It’s like a progress report, a self-grading report card. I have no one else to do that for me: so that is what this Diary serves for me, it allows me the ability to take a long-distance view, to savor, value, reflect on the process of filmmaking; and to see what I would like to keep, to cherish and to change or do differently.

And when I reviewed my interaction with Alexandra and the link she shared of BOBBY’S GIRL, I get an instant high because I can see how far I’ve gone with NUNE since that conversation.

I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and it’s TMI—but I don’t do sex. And so, film is my crack. I get high off of my personal achievements; I mark my milestones and tap into that feeling of being on top of Mt. Everest—with all my digits intact despite the journey.

Yesterday, as I prepared the NUNE footage for music scoring, I didn’t really think about what the composer would think about the film, but was confident that the story would hold its own. I forgot about how Ioana told me she could film it better than the clips I’ve shown her of other people’s work.

I remember telling Ioana at a production meeting, “I don’t like point-and-shoot. Non-deliberate filmmaking gets on my nerves. It’s my personal opinion that all high school films look the same, and I don’t like that look.”

She didn’t get and said, “What do you mean?”

“It’s like people just set up the camera and shoot. I don’t want that. I want something more stylized.”

Then I gave her the example of TV shows and TV news. A lot of those camera people are just “Camera Ops.” They are not DPs in a true sense. They do not think about their composition. It’s very mathematical and dry. I need a skew on things, a take, an angle, an opinion the camera has to make.

You can watch a really good TV show that’s well written. But most TV ops are terrible. They just point and shoot. It’s sacrilegious.

I chose Ioana over other DPs that were more qualified from a producing perspective: DPs that were able to promise “getting up and getting out” with masterfulness of being well-lit and technically perfect and done fast to fit into budget very economically. I know people who can film an entire feature film in one week based on their mastery. But those people are often working at very high pay; commercial scale.

I found people who could do it at the right price: but if I don’t like a DP’s “look” and find that it’s too point-and-shoot, I will pass on that. I will go an extra mile to get the right look even if it hurts budget. It’s not worth it to get a DP that doesn’t reflects your eye (your cinematic vision) because in the end, that is what the viewer will see.

I need emotion in my images—not just pretty images. I need emotion and a space where Grace can flow through—and pull you into its arms.

NUNE is the first film that I shot where I’m not holding the camera. I usually film everything myself but I am very bad—technically. I’m an “autofocus” director: I see perfect images but I’m not a technician. I thought about hiring an AC that would do all the technical part for me and I’ll just do the filming. But I decided this time that I wanted to find a DP that I could work with as a partner: someone who matches my vision visually—so that it’s symbiotic and almost telepathic.

I dream of having what Ingmar Bergman has with his DP. I dream of having what Kubrick has with his producer. I want all that. I want that marriage. And that is why I don’t “do sex.” I put all my ideals about marriage into the creative relationship. And I am still “dating” for the right partner for my movie ideas. I long for it more than a family or children. I don’t need those things.

Ioana disagreed with me when I told her all high school films look alike. She said she saw quite a few that looked really good. I told her, “How many times do we see kids standing at a locker and it looks just like every scene in a movie at a locker?” There’s really no distinction. Yet there’s not that much you can do with that—it’s a locker. But to me, you still have to get the actor at the right angle for the nature of the scene. It’s all about the drama—the emotion of the image.

So I showed her a take from BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER, a gay film about a cheerleader who’s in the closet. We looked at a small clip of her at the locker in the opening shot. I said, “That’s what I don’t want.” It looks very generic, very point-and-shoot. The angle doesn’t tell a story. It serves as an establishing (and I hate establishing shots). I’m glad that Ioana forces me to shoot establishing’s because they are very important to orient the viewer. It’s a convention that I detest; so what we agreed to was to always put a twist to it. Then I told her that the TV news style is very point-and-shoot and it’s very banal.

She flat out said to me, “I can’t film like that even if I tried.” And those words were music to my ears. If she didn’t have it in her blood to shoot non-artistically, then I gave her permission to do whatever she wants.

I never tried to control her look. I would only add small inputs such as: “I hate it when a small line on the wall or an edge of a furniture is in barely in the frame. It drives me crazy because it looks like an accident and distracts the viewer. Either we commit and get part of the object in there by one-quarter, extend beyond the line or not—otherwise it looks like an accident.”

There would be times when the DP was opposed to cheesy camera movements like “tilts.” No DP seems to do tilts anymore. They prefer slides (instead of panning) and they like that crane/jib shot kind of feel—like the subject is being followed by eyeline.

But there is a place in time for a tilt. And I’m from the old school of using legs (tripods) and not moving the camera very much. There was a scene where Nune Lusparian had to slide down from the locker to the floor, and Ioana wanted her to leave frame. But to me, if Nune left frame, she would also leave the “emotion” of the story. We have to follow through and commit to what just happened to her. So I wanted a tilt. I kind of had to force her into doing a tilt—and to follow Nune down to the ground by looking “down at her” from a high angle.

My choice was correct. And it remains correct because what I wanted was an “omnipotence” of the audience feeling sympathy for the character, like a God looking over Nune’s shoulder and saying, “Don’t fret, I know what’s happening” and that “you’re not alone.” That’s why the tilt was important to me. If you followed her down by eyeline you’d lose the emotion (because emotionally you’d be “at her level” and that’s not the motive of the story). But these are the things that had to be negotiated.

There was only time when I had to fight for a shot. I fought very hard to make sure that when Briana (the cheerleader) passed by Nune’s locker that it had to be a tracking shot. I rehearsed this with a pocket cam several times with the actors and I knew that a static shot would NEVER achieve the emotional connection for that scene. I discussed this in our production meetings yet when it came down to reality, we didn’t have time to set up tracks.

During production, things were going out of control and we were forced to leave the school by a certain hour. There was no time left. We rushed like a military basecamp under siege. It was hell and I had to be extremely self-controlled. It was one of those things that could give you a heart attack. During that time, the tracking shot I wanted was going to be sacrificed and I started to yell. I had to, to make it happen. And we did it. We got the shot. And it’s beautiful.

We Shall,

Ji Strangeway, We Shall

milestone |ˈmīlˌstōn|
1 a stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place.

Ji Strangeway is a filmmaker, writer, and poet specializing in female-centric LGBTQ. She is also a fierce blogger aiming for a new level of indigoness and bad assery. Find out more: | Follow FB: jistrangeway.official  #jistrangeway

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If you are an actor, you have to be made into a deity. If the director can’t do that, then he is not doing something right.Tweet


Ji Strangeway

Ji Strangeway

Executant of the Ineffable

The Three Gates of Speech stipulates that you ask these questions before putting your foot in your mouth: Is it True? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? Since this doesn't fit the purpose for every occassion, the criteria for my path is: Is it True? Is it Necessary? Is it Indigo?

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