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Reel School Report, Part I: The Art of Collaboration

Reel School Report, Part I: The Art of Collaboration

by Dave Ratzlow

This fall, the Filmmaker’s Collaborative offered a series of seminars
designed and instructed by independent filmmakers as part of a project
called The Reel School. Founder Jonathan Judge started the series with
the goal of creating unique non-production film classes on various
topics in an intimate environment (no more than 15 participants per

Located in their new Soho headquarters and meeting over five consecutive
Thursday evenings, “The Art of Collaboration: Relationships in
Directing” was designed to explore the relationships directors have with
each of their key collaborators. The territory covered by the directors
was perhaps a bit too esoteric for people with no film experience and
yet all too familiar for anyone who has ever worked on a film.

Brad Anderson (“Next Stop Wonderland,” “The Darien Gap”) brought his
co-writer Lyn Vaus to the first session to discuss their collaboration
on both films. They started things off with the typical chronology of
their relationship and the genesis of their projects — all the while
offering common sense advice such as, “Develop your diplomatic skills
and have them constantly refined,” and “Collaboration is all about
listening. . . and if you’re stubborn, it’ll never work.”

By far the most interesting part of the discussion, however, had nothing
to do with collaboration, but with the mess they went through with
Miramax once “Next Stop” was bought. Anderson was required to re-shoot
several endings (a full year after principle photography) including a
“ridiculous” ending personally suggested by Harvey Weinstein. It was a
hellish process, but in the end, they reached a compromise and the
filmmakers were very happy with the way Miramax eventually handled the
film. Both director and writer agreed that they were smart enough to
know that they couldn’t win all of their battles.

The following week, Lisa Cholodenko brought Jeff Levy-Hinte, one of the
producers of her film “High Art.” The duo also began with the
chronology of their business courtship as well as how “High Art” came to
be. But again, the ways in which they collaborated were the least
interesting to the participants who clearly wanted drama. Levy-Hinte
described the pre-production process as a harrowing attempt to put
together “pieces of a giant puzzle floating on top of a raging river…
made worse because of the waterfall nearby.” Their film was missing two
lead actors only weeks before principle photography was to begin. It
was only out of sheer luck that they found Ally Sheedy when they did.

First time director Julie Lynch was also on hand with her Director of
Photography Enrique Chediak (“Hurricane Streets”) to discuss their
collaboration on the yet-to-be-picked-up “Getting Off.” She began by
admitting, “I was terrified because he knew everything about film and I
knew almost nothing.” Director and D.P. explained how one of the scenes
was scripted as a long tracking shot at night through Central Park on a
bicycle. Chediak knew he couldn’t light such a scene so he convinced
her to shoot it on a well-lit avenue. In communicating with Chediak
about what she wanted, Lynch turned to magazine photos and songs. A
photo of a depressed young woman gave him the sense of character, and a
piece of music offered the sense of tone. In collaborating with
directors, Chediak explained that he constantly readjusts his style.
When working for directors like Lynch who don’t know their jib arm from
their gobo arm, many decisions are left up to him, while other directors
like Robert Rodriguez will operate the camera themselves.

As a successful character actor (“Manhunter,” TV’s “The X-Files”),
filmmaker Tom Noonan (“What Happened Was,” “The Wife”) discussed his
unique relationship with his actors in the following week’s session.
Noonan’s method of working is also unique. He writes each of his movies
as plays first, work-shopping them and performing them for several
months. Shooting begins only when he feels the film is absolutely
ready. Since his money comes from his own gigs on big budget films, he
can afford the leisurely pace.

His most significant advice was that directors should have a very long
rehearsal or none at all. With no rehearsal, the magic of the moment
can create the spontaneity you need. With a long rehearsal the best
choices can slowly emerge. But with a short rehearsal period, it’s just
chaos, and you end up with more problems than solutions. Noonan, who is
always more interested in the person behind the actor, also advised
directors to write scripts in order to help actors find “their” story
and not just hire actors to tell “your” story.

In a final session, Bennett Miller, director and cinematographer of “The
,” brought his editor Michael Levine to discuss their
collaboration. Cutting down approximately a hundred hours of footage of
NYC tourguide Timothy “Speed” Levitch was no easy task for Miller and
Levine. The two took a month to watch and log all the footage together,
discussing everything they saw along the way. As they progressed into
the editing, they developed a color-coded index card system (e.g. green
= rant, purple = double decker bus, orange = philosophical reflection)
where director Miller ended up spending more time at the corkboard
rearranging cards, while Levine hovered over the AVID, fine-tuning the
individual sequences. Miller’s most concise bit of advice, “Follow your
instincts.” Although the two initially disagreed on certain elements
(e.g. whether or not to include biographical information about their
subject), healthy debates forced both to re-evaluate their opinions. “In
a process like ours — not like employer and employee, but as
collaborators — we struggled to make peace with every moment of the
film,” Miller later told indieWIRE.

Though at times interesting, when all was said and done, the Reel School
seminar had little to say about the actual art of collaboration.
Filmmakers were often at a loss to communicate a specific recipe for
success, however, they did afford students the opportunity for intimate
questions and answer sessions each week. Perhaps most valuable was
reminding participants that independent films are not simply autocratic
accomplishments (even “The Cruise”), but a combination of diplomacy,
common sense, hard work, and of course, a little bit of luck.

The Filmmaker’s Collaborative is located at 29 Green Street and can be
reached at 212.966.3030.

[Next week, indieWIRE will publish Part II of our Reel School reports:
Deconstructing the Documentary.]

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