Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sorkin Presents NEWSROOM at LA Film Fest

Halfway through the first scene (he writes long scenes) of Sorkin's NEWSROOM I thought, "This show could change the world." I am a Sorkin fan, and an idealist, but that's besides the point. In the same way that THE WEST WING made Americans feel apart of what was happening in Washington, NEWSROOM does too. It takes place in a newsroom in Washington, and not only that but it's set during the real events of the day beginning on April 20, 2010. I feel like this kind of pseudo-inside look on things can only be healthy for people. It's like catharsis or something. When many Americans feel disillusioned, out of touch, and like we have no idea what really goes on in Washington, a well-written, smart dialog that Sorkin himself calls "optimistic and idealistic" of what may or may not have gone down, can inspire us instead of render us apathetic.

 It's quick, smart, passionate, fun, intense, colorful, exciting, and elegant.

Besides making my heart race, the other thing the show did for me is desperately make me want to be a journalist. I know, I kind of am one here, but like a real, newsroom journalist! Inevitably the show will do the same for youngens across the country. With the phrase "journalism is dying" still afloat in our ether it makes me wonder, did Sorkin do this on purpose? Whether or not he meant to Aaron Sorkin wrote a show that makes journalism alive again.

 Funny how great art fuels gratefulness. You can get the same feeling from running really fast and far. That's how I felt while watching this.

A few scenes in I had to know: Mr. Sorkin, WHO ARE YOU? HOW DOES YOUR MIND WORK?

Lucky for me Sorkin came in for a panel with moderator Madeliene Brand, Producer Alan Poul, and Director Greg Mottola.

Here are a few things I learned.

Sorkin has always liked workplace stories, and has thought of live TV as very romantic ever since AMERICAN GRAFFITI. "I like to write a romantic and idealistic style, as opposed to a gritty style," he says.

"It's [NEWSROOM] extremely optimistic and idealistic, and it's meant as more of a painting than a photograph."

Mottola: "One of the things that I really love that Aaron does is he writes long scenes with a lot of shape and change within the scene." Mottola went to film school, and he says they always teach you to "come in late and leave early" in the scene, getting in and out as quick as possible. But that doesn't always allow you to get to the heart of it. "I love the development IN the scene, not just the juxtaposition of scenes" that happens in Sorkin's writing. Sorkin probably writes this way largely because he has a theatre background.

Actors are used to play real people in NEWSROOM. "People don't play themselves because it just jumps out as stunt-casting. There are situations where it works" but not here, says Sorkin.
The show is "incredibly research intensive." "I'm almost always writing about something I don't know about," says Sorkin. Because of that he surrounds himself with experts who can give him crash course tutorials. Sorkin will go to an expert and say, "Tell me what you think." Then he will say, "Tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you thinks." "Then we take that and try to make it entertaining," says Sorkin.

After the script is written and before it's shot the director has 2 weeks to prep the show. "In between, I rely on Alan and Greg and script editors," says Sorkin. But though they help a lot and make changes, they say the show remains Sorkin. Poul: "There's a very specific musicality to what Sorkin writes. We look at it as a score."

"We always have anxiety about the length of the script, but in Aaron's world it's faster, there's an urgency. There are a lot of smart/ really neurotic people (characters) who have a lot to get off their chest."

To act on the show, you have to know your lines WELL. "They have to be in your bloodstream...It's gotta be like your phone number," says Sorkin.

NEWSROOM confronts a lot of controversial current events. Brand challenged Sorkin about whether he has an agenda with this show. "What are you trying to say with this?"

I mean this: "A good time. That's all I'm going for."

It's a 10 hour story, but Sorkin also set it up as a 3 act structure of a movie.

"I'm not buying your 'just entertaining'..." said Brand.

"I grew up loving the sound of smart people arguing with each other. If I have a skill, it's phonetically imitating that sound," says Sorkin. "Entertaining is my only goal. It's very hard, and it's very gratifying...We are a divided country...It's a Don Quixote story. It's meant to be a swashbuckling fantasy set against the real world."

Don Quixote is to Aaron Sorkin as the Bible is to many. He's always reading it, when he's done he picks it up and starts at the beginning again.

Sorkin finally said this. If anything, NEWSROOM honors the idea that 'fairness and balance = good news' is contrary to good news and democracy. The news should not be: "There's 1 bad thing about a republican and 1 bad thing about a democract," but "There's an empirical right and wrong here and it's OK to say that on the news."

Sorkin agrees with the idea that, "There's nothing more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate."

Production note: The acting, and energy of the acting dictate what the camera is doing (Rather than a prepared shot list). "We wanted the sense that you are capturing reality. Everything is set up to be live," says Mottola.

Sorkin snuck in during the LA Film Festival showing and sat in the back. "One of the things I hate about TV is I never get to watch it with you," he says.  

On his creative relationship with HBO, Sorkin says they serve largely as script supervisors. And with HBO, "Numbers are less important than how much the people who ARE watching it like it. You are in business with the audience, not with advertisers."

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE public premiere at LA Film fest

"It’s intimate, it’s elegant, it’s woman-focused and it’s colorful. It’s of rare hue and emotional nuance." MIDDLE OF NOWHERE had its first screening since Sundance at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month. Angela Bassett, guest host for the evening, calls it a gem. The film went fairly under the radar at Sundance, even though director Ava DuVernay won the Sundance award for best directing in drama, but Los Angeles Film Festival director Stephanie Allain knew she wanted to put it in the spotlight here, where it's one of three gala screenings.
“I’m really nervous,” said Duvernay as she introduced the film. “Maybe it’s because this is my hometown. Maybe it’s because there are over 1,000 of us here...But it’s probably the Angela Bassett factor.” Bassett showed up just to support the film. DuVernay is the first African American to win the Sundance award for Best Directing. "Stephanie Allain is a doer," said DuVernay. "She said, 'This is a small story, but it’s an important story, and we're going to put it where it should be, in the spotlight."' MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is a love story, "a difficult love story" of a happily married woman, Ruby, who's husband becomes incarcerated. As his life must go on hold for his 8 year sentence, she visits him often-- and decides her life will go on hold too. "Ruby," played by first time feature actor Emayatzy Corinealdi, is wrapped up deep- in love with "Derek," played by Omari Hardwick (who looks like a young Denzel Washington). Ruby has an inner strength and her eyes only see through the lens of the glossy world of romance--nothing else matters. She is removed, and untouchable beyond that love. When Derek is resistant to the idea of her stopping med school, he urges her to live her own life. "You ARE me," she tells him. “It’s about love and separation, and how separation forces us to find ourselves..." says DuVernay.
Ruby's removal is well displayed through her relationship with her mother, remarkably played by Lorraine Toussaint. The two can't have a real conversation, Ruby's mother can't get a clear word out of her. At one point after Derek's been in a fight in jail, Ruby skips work to stay home and wait for his phone call. "He's going through a tough time," she tells her mother. "Oh he's going through a tough time?" her mother retorts. She is upset to see her daughter sacrifice her life, but her concern doesn't come out the right way, and instead of helping the situation she seems to make it worse. "Relationships between mothers and daughters are complicated," said Toussaint during a Q&A after the show. "I'm a daughter and I'm a mother. I know both sides. There's lots of misguided love, often the love pushes instead of pulls." The film is so deep, so personal, so well acted. DuVernay makes it look easy, and I think that's in part due to how she works with her intuition. This is exemplified by the cast. They hardly rehearsed together much at all, but that didn't hurt anything. "We just accepted that we were a family and we just started working and loving each other," said Toussaint. Because of that intuition and the obviousness that DuVernay knows herself, as a writer/ director she easily delves into personal issues like love, and power. Besides Ruby and her mom, there are many what DuVernay calls, "power shifts" within the movie. "People don't realize the power they have themselves, and with each other" says DuVernay. "That's what disfunction is, not knowing where to put your power, or what it is..." Ruby and Derek are in a disfunctional power play. "Miserly loves company," said Hardwick during Q&A. In his role he had to manipulate Ruby. "What man hasn't tried to take power from a vulnerable woman?" he asked.
Ruby must be in practically ever scene. Because of her solo path of inner strength, the story has a loneliness to it. But it's so well done, we don't feel sad for Ruby's loneliness, we feel lonely too. The power of that loneliness comes from DuVernay, who was able to write this story because she has a similar loneliness inside. Her family is in another state, she explained. “I have a deep loneliness and longing" all the time. It is perhaps that loneliness too that at least in part makes DuVernay such a good director. Hardwick said he feels that she has just the right balance of family and loneliness. Because actors, on a solo quest, are lonely too, and they can relate. Perhaps you have to have a certain amount of loneliness inside to make great art. Because it's from that raw place, that deep sad place, that most basic place, that people truly relate the most. Hardwick let on to how DuVernay directed him. "Make this a lonely boy," she said. And that brought his character to life. Hardwick also believes what makes Duvernay such a great director is her confidence. "Often directors are insecure," he says. "From an actor's perspective, we have to deal with insecure directors who write characters that are really secure. Ava is just as confident as the roles she writes."

Be it loneliness, or intuition, whatever it is, DuVernay did something right. I haven't been this moved by a piece of art since I don't remember when. It's the kind of movie where the filmmaking is so personal and the acting so good that you start to breathe with the protagonist. Every move she makes you make, you feel her anguish. And there is anguish. At one point in the movie Ruby goes to see Derek after not seeing him in two months. What is the first thing you say to your love after not seeing them in months? We hold our breath as we wait to find out. It's the kind of movie you're so wrapped up in that time is warped-- a full minute goes by in a breath. Then you catch yourself and think, how long has it been? Somewhere in the middle of the film I thought to myself, "I don't want this to end."

It's really well shot, the soundtrack is incredible. "Black films have great soundtracks," says DuVernay to a laugh from the audience. "I fell in love with this character on the page. It's not what Ava wrote, it's what she didn't write," says Toussaint. The intution, instinct, trust, and lack of rehearsals let the actors explore their roles themselves.

Q&A moderator Elvis Mitchell asked the cast whether they are worried that since this is an all black cast that it will have limited exposure. Corinealdi says she's not concerned. "I'm concerned," said Duvernay. "But let me worry about that," she said to Corinealdi. DuVernay talked about how statistically it is just the case that white people don't see all black movies. DuVernay asked the audience to identify recent black movies that are popular. "Men in Black," one audience member called out. I think Corinealdi is not concerned because she knows DuVernay, who has a background in distribution, will take this film places. DuVernay says it's all about exposure. She used the term "visual vocabulary." We have to "train the audience to see black people in this environment." She spoke of having to cultivate this, with purpose, and intention, as a movement. "There's a reason we haven't seen these kind of films in distribution yet," says Toussaint. "There's a problem." But the studios aren't going to do the legwork to figure out why not. "We've got to do it ourselves, and I think we will." That's what's so exciting about DuVernay, she's DOing it. "I never thought we'd see a black president," said Toussaint. "But how sad is it that we have a black president but Angela Bassett doesn't have an Oscar on her shelf?" asked Hardwick.

 Sitting in the theater I felt like I was part of something. Watch out world for Ms. Duvernay. MIDDLE OF NOWHERE took 7 years to make. It will be wide - released in theaters this October. Watch the trailer here. This is also posted on my film blog at

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Scorsese and Me

Monday night at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival was my first time on the big screen, and Martin Scorsese was watching!

Okay okay, so it wasn't a "movie" persay, rather a 30 second spot I shot and edited for the offical wine sponsor of the festival, Bridlewood (a lovely relaxing winery in the hills outside Santa Barbara). Still, if Scorsese has seen something I made that means I'm halfway right? At least 1/10th? 1/20th??

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Notes from Film Independent Forum

Some are here to learn, some are here to share. Everyone is here in the name of film. Each have different experiences, backgrounds, and levels of expertise. As I sat in one panel about film financing Saturday I looked back at the packed auditorium and thought to myself, "Damn. Each of these people are here just because they want to make movies." They don't have money to make it happen, but they are here because they believe in what they want to do enough that they believe they can make it happen somehow.

The Directors Guild of America buzzed alive for 2.5 days last weekend, filmmakers sharing challenges, hints, and tips. Events like Film Independent Forum create a space for like-minded filmmakers to gravitate toward one another naturally. Attendees can see works, hear the creators of those works talk, and then afterwards meet them and ask them further questions if they'd like. A sense of: "Collectively, we can do this" filled the building.

Day 1 at lunch I sat with Nick Lewis, who just directed his first documentary: "Rise and Shine: The Jay Demerit Story" and is usually a lawyer for a day job; Eric Kench, a passionate editor my age; Anthony Saludares, an actor / aspiring director, and Peter Belsito, a 30 year independent film business veteran who offered plenty of wisdom to us all.

Lewis' unusual path into film shows the accessibility of the modern film world. Moved by the story of World Cup soccer star Jay Demerit, Lewis saw no one else making a documentary and decided to it himself. "The only way to get it done is to do it on your own," he said. Lewis made a quarter of a million dollars for his movie on Kickstarter, enough to send a cameraman to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and now has his film screening in festivals and even a distribution deal on TV. "God bless the internet," the table agreed.

The internet wasn't around in 1981, when Belsito founded Independent Feature Project. "We wanted a voice," he said. "We were kids of the 60s, we were used to getting organized when there was a problem." Now the organizing can happen online. Or in person, at events like these. Either way, it has to happen somewhere. "Unlike other art, film is always collective," said Belsito. We need each other -- as was exemplified by the forum crowd, who were already deep in new connections by lunchtime.

One interesting panel "Find New Docs: Works in Progress From Film Independent Fellows" featured short versions of works in progress from new filmmakers: Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Director and Producer of "Call me Kuchu," the story of the life and tragic death of Uganda's openly gay man; PJ Raval, the creator of "Untitled Gay Retiree Documentary," and Natalija Vekic with "Strand: A Natural History of Cinema." They gathered on stage after the screenings and spoke to the joys and challenges of indie filmmaking.

One audience member asked how the young filmmakers felt about Herzog's claim the day before that he edits his movies in less than two weeks. "It's a stop and go process when you only have 2 people," said Vekic. "You are raising money, editing, shooting."

One filmmaker saved on money by living with his subject, which ended up working out creatively too. "We lived with our subject, and just hung out with the camera..."

Another interesting panel on Day 2 featured independent film directors who are now working in TV: Alan Poul, producer of "Six Feet Under" as moderator; Nicole Holofcener, director of "Please Give" and "Parks and Recreation"; Patty Jenkins, director of "Monster," and "The Killing,"; Jeremy Podeswa, director of "Boardwalk Empire," and "The Pacific"; and my personal favrotie, Don Roos, director of "Happy Endings," and "Web Therapy."

The panel was built around the trend of successful indie feature directors now directing TV for money, or availability. One major difference between directing TV and film is that writers have way more power on set of TV. Holofcener spoke to the refreshing quality of that. "Working on something that isn't your vision is kind of refreshing." She talked about different levels of insecurity and arrogance that come with being less valued as a director on set of TV. "Sometimes I wonder why I'm even there."

Another topic that came up was quality. Cinema used to be something to be attended to, now people watch movies on their iPads and iPhones. Roos spoke up, "Since it looks bad on TV it forces you to make sure the story works."

During Q & A one audience member asked a question about getting into the industry. There was a dramatic pause.

"The commodity you have is your singular vision," one panel member told the audience.

Jenkins said one thing she has learned from working on TV that will now be helpful to her working in film is to be open-minded to other people's opinions. "TV moves too fast to be all one vision," she said. Now she considers peoples' ideas in a different way.

"You can't be afraid of ‘NO,' you'll get a lot of them. You'll lose the fear eventually."

What are the TV directors watching now? Lots of reality.

In another room Juan Davis of KCET spoke about using transmedia to empower community. Davis is the creator of the "Departure" Series, a web experiment that is capturing and recording stories from people and characters that make up neighborhoods all over LA. "Every neighborhood we are covering are neighborhoods in transition," Davis said. "I notice that people don't feel ownership of the city. In order to take ownership you have to understand where it's coming from." He spoke of the series as "Slow media," like slow food. "Anti-drive-by media." Though they are not produced but rather just talking head stories, you could feel from his talk that this will make sense over time rather than in one sitting, like a film or episode of TV. I think that's what Davis meant by "Slow Media." "It's storytelling tweet by tweet, step by step until eventually there is a narrative arc," he said.

Those are some tidbits from the weekend. It would be interesting to see a visual web starting at the event and branching out to connections made and works in progress.

Onward ho, onto creating. Like Craig Emanuel, who led the film financing today forum said, "Let us take advantage of our beautiful minds."

This is posted over on my film blog as well.

Werner Herzog at Film Independent Forum

Werner Herzog deletes all of his unused footage when he's done making a movie. Why? 1: Storage takes up too much space; and 2) "A carpenter doesn't sit on his shavings either."

This means that he doesn't have the option to go back and re-edit films. "I accept all my errors, and my films have many of them." You have to accept that the "child has a stutter, a squint, a limp."

The great filmmaker delivered many gems and to a packed house of filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers at the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Blvd Saturday morning. He was warm and seemed pleased to be there, almost like a grandfather passing down wisdom to his grand kids. "I hardly ever wear a suit and I do it for you here," he said. "Because we are all colleagues, we are all filmmakers and I want to show you respect." I sat in the front row and hung on his every word.

An editor with a bad habit of dawdling, perhaps the best wisdom I took away from it was about editing. "Editing HAS to be fast." Herzog delivered the final cut for "Bad Lieutenant" just 2 weeks after he was done shooting. "I always look at the footage only once." He puts either 1,2, or 3 in the rarest cases exclamation marks next to timecode and then knows that the footage with 3 exclamation marks will be the movie. Simple enough. "I've always been a quiet, steady, focused worker," he says.

Herzog's idea of efficient shooting and editing comes from his time experience as a producer. He understands the value of time and money. However, this is a riskier way to make movies. "You have to know what you're doing." As we know, Herzog does. While shooting "Bad Lieutenant" he would check in with the line producer every day after set to see how the cash flows we're going. He eliminated "safety thinking" on things like having a custom costume for a background actor who doesn't even appear...and eventually this thinking made made him deliver the film $2.6 million dollars under budget and 2 days under shooting schedule. "You have to take money seriously," he says, but "The more important thing is that you are taken seriously by the producers."

Herzog talked a lot about his new documentary "Into the Abyss," on capital punishment- a subject close to his heart. "I respectfully disagree with capital punishment," he says. He is a believer of life in prison without parole. Herzog says that though he lives in the US with an American wife, he will not become an American citizen because he will not be a citizen of a country that allows capital punishment. Moderator/ Journalist Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter asked Herzog a few times how working on this movie must have affected him emotionally. Herzog spoke steady, and did not appear jolted during his answers.

Other gems from the lecture include:

"Independent cinema doesn't exist. It exists only for your Christmas movie at home. All the rest depends on money." He talked about how he may start his own distribution company and the crowd cheered.

Herzog is a resident of Los Angeles and loves it. "For work, I have to be in the city with the most substance. For finances it's New York, for oil Huston but for everything else, Los Angeles."

"I have a reputation of being insane which is kind of weird because I'm clinically sane."

"Travel on foot that's where you start to understand the world and you start to understand life."

"I am not a journalist, I have conversations. I have to find the right tone right away. I am just the echo of what's going on"

For aspiring filmmakers who can't find a job in film yet, Herzog suggested, "Look for self reliance. Work where there is real intensity of life. Don't work in an office, work as a bouncer in a sex club. As a guard in a maximum security prison, and make your money for your film that way."

At one point while talking about a character in "Into the Abyss" Herzog used the phrase "national treasure." [Though he's not an American citizen] it struck me as odd to hear him use this phrase without referring to himself. It was very clear to me who the national treasure in the room is.

After a Q&A Herzog stayed around a while as fans buzzed around him. And then he was gone.

This is a late re-post of my film blog over at