With Bernard Died picture-locked, there isn’t much more that I, as the director, need to do––aside from taking a look at everything to make sure it’s going okay. At the time of writing this, the premiere is still a week and a half away, so a lot of the final touches are still ongoing.
Music: Early on, since the inception of the project, Tony has had a composer in mind for our film. His name is Tim, and he is now a graduate of Peabody. Tony met him through their Sound on Film class a year ago, and I had worked with Tim through my job at Undergraduate Admissions. We’ve both really admired his work, and he’s really easygoing and talented.
Will and I sent Tim a rough cut, and he came up with some ideas (namely, this song). We loved where he was going with it. We rode down to Peabody in early April to meet with him, and talk about the themes and major emotional shifts in the work. Form there, Tim’s been hard at work composing. Yesterday, we just received his first draft, and it’s almost perfect. It’s entirely composed of piano, and with a little tweaking, it will hit all of the right emotional notes in the film.
I never realized how important music could be to this piece. I almost feel as if I’m looking at the film on a new level. The music helps the pacing a ton and gives a lot of depth to it. I’m excited to finally get it where we want it.
Sound Mix: I can’t speak to this too much, since I haven’t heard it yet, but we sent over an .omf file to our sound mixer, Eddie, who also recorded sound on-location. He’s working on cleaning up the dialogue, adding room tone, adjusting levels and more. A really detailed sound mix can help make the space of the film more believable, and I hope that when we hear Eddie’s final mix, the film will sound more polished and professional.
Coloring: Our DP, Corey, has been tasked with the job of coloring the film––and that is mostly because he is the only person who has the coloring program we need, DaVinci Resolve.
Coloring the film is really crucial. The raw footage rarely comes out of the camera as you’d like it to. With a really complicated program like DaVinci, you can fine-tune every highlight and hue in the frame. It’s essential, and you need a person with a very skilled and trained eye. So naturally, our DP would be perfect for the job. He hasn’t started on the color correction yet, but here is why we need it:
Design: I have definitely overlooked this in the past, but I started thinking about it on my last film, when we had a great graphic designer do the title. Typeface and title design can really tie up the film nicely. You get one shot to showcase your title in the film, and it has to look good. A striking title can stick in your mind visually.
Will and I wrestled with where to put the title, and we ultimately decided to place it over black at the end of the film. My friend Alayna, a graphic design major at MICA, offered to do the design for us. She is currently thinking over some ideas, but will eventually come up with a concept for the title and typeface that we can use for the credits.
Premiere: This is all in preparation for our premiere, which will be held on Saturday, May 9th at 6:30pm in Shriver Hall on campus. I’ve been told it’s a fancy event, semiformal attire, with food and a reception to follow. Studio North has organized it, and we’ve sent out invites to our cast, crew, extras, locations, friends and more.
In a way, I don’t want the premiere to come. It’s admitting that this film that I’ve worked on for over a year is finally over; that my time at Hopkins has finally come to a close. Even writing this blog post means that I’m near the end, as this will be my last one. Goldfishes and funerals and shampoo bottles have been on my mind for so long, have been so integral to my senior year here, that it will be hard to let go.
So as excited as I am for everyone to see this film––see where it has come from and where it will go––I am sad. I want to take the time here to thank everyone who has helped this film come to life. I’ve never made art this difficult in my life, but I am happy I did, because I have been challenged and pushed to the limit. And if nothing else, that’s what this experience has been for: mistakes, learning, and goldfish.
I subscribe to the philosophy that everyone needs a good cry once in a while. My subscription to this philosophy puts me at odds with many of cinema’s most iconic men. Historically, figures like James Bond, Indiana Jones, all superheroes, or any John Wayne character (take your pick) have managed to make it through their 120 minute running time without shedding a tear--they have low points, sure--but they never feel their sadness so intensely that it triggers a physical reaction in the form of waterworks. Rather, most leading men make it through the brunt of their dramatic arcs with little more than the furrowing of a displeased brow.
Rather than tears, the traditional masculine response to sadness seems to manifest in physical or sexual violence (a.k.a. some form of physicality directed outwards at an external force): Jake Gittes slaps Evelyn Mulray then throws her onto a couch when he suspects she’s manipulated him; Hud nearly rapes Alma after being virtually disowned by his father; nearly every iteration of Bond just destroys whatever angers him, man, woman, animal, machine--if it hurts, a man in classic cinema gets angry about it.
Interestingly, however, throughout the past decade men in movies seem...well, more sensitive. As gender roles are increasingly challenged and the country’s sociopolitical turmoils grow ever grimmer and more complex, everyone’s favorite male heroes suddenly find themselves incapable of wearing their adversity as coolly as they’ve been able to in the past, and without an easily-identifiable emotional outlet to punch; instead, their emotions are now contained within them by the brooding close-up, or worse, released suddenly and unwillingly via a fantastic denaturalization into snot and tears. Arguably James Bond was the first to get in touch with his sensitive side in the 2006 “reimagining” of the franchise Casino Royale, a film that not only raised the bar for the entire Bond film series in terms of quality, but that focused on developing Bond’s internal life in ways that formed the sharpest of contrasts with the one-note pun of a Bond that immediately preceded him in Die Another Day. Even more convincingly, Bond actually tears up while holding the quickly-fading body of M in 2012’s Skyfall. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne spends a distinct period mourning after the death of his love in The Dark Knight, and indeed recedes into himself completely for the first half of The Dark Knight Rises. Increasingly, seeing tough men in a state of genuine distress is appealing to audiences, perhaps because it makes each individual viewer feel safer with their own sadness--if James Bond gets sad, why can’t I?
Additionally, part of the increased focus on masculine sensitivity is, perhaps, that male actors are more willing to portray it. Here again we can thank the contemporary push against gender norms, as actors can now run the gambit of “sad” emotions that are traditionally labeled “feminine” without having to sacrifice their appeal to men or their ability to star in action films. Michael Fassbender, chosen to play the villainous Magneto in the new X-Men franchise and involved in the testerone stuffed 300 movies, reveals internal vulnerability in startling frankness when playing the tormented bachelor Brandon in 2011’s Shame. The performance requires Fassbender convey Brandon’s internal sadness via a consistent and intensive examination of his expressive face, yet it also challenges how the on-screen male has long externalized his troubles. Rather than expressing his inner torment in anger or violence towards another, Brandon’s externalization of his sadness, while still fundamentally destructive in nature, is directed at himself, as his various intimate encounters combined with his sexual addiction slowly kill him--and result in plenty of honest-to-goodness tears. The performance also requires Fassbender to literally strip away any boundary between his body and the viewer’s gaze, as he spends a great deal of his time on-screen stark naked, meaning the film displays his emotional instabilities both on internal and external levels and makes him vulnerable physically to the audience’s own judgements. While the character of Brandon stands as an extreme example, he points to the legitimate trend of on-screen men bearing their emotional wounds in their purest forms, undisguised by anger, and uninhibited by the machismo that so permeates characters like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.
Overall then, there is something amiss with today’s male heroes, and it’s usually that they know something is wrong, yet are no longer afraid to show it. Every tear that falls from a man’s eye in a film is another piece of evidence that the definition of masculinity is loosening in America--even if slowly--and likely for the better.
I’m writing this at the very end of the editing process, which has been, in one word: slow.
I am one of those directors who prefers to shoot the film and then not look at it at least for a month or so. Once we wrapped in early February, we didn’t start the edit until later in the month. During that time, our assistant editor Josh synched the sound and audio for us, and put together a rough assembly of a couple of the scenes. We got it back from him in late February, and then began to slowly assemble the film.
This was largely a process that involved our editor, Will, staring at everything and changing things for hours on end, while I looked over his shoulder and offered some advice or voiced my preference for a take or performance, occasionally. We also took a trip down to our sound designer’s recording studio with Zach and recorded his voice-overs. We were often re-writing the script with him in the studio, determining what was easy enough or realistic for him to say.
When we cut the film from start to finish, according to the script, it was thirteen minutes long. And it was a slow thirteen minutes, but we still felt pretty good about it. However, when we showed it to our professor John Mann, he criticized it pretty heavily. It was not a good film. It was long, with too many characters, plots, and confusing scenes. The script, as we had feared, was not working on-screen. However, as he assured us, it was “fixable,” and we could have something good if we worked hard on it.
Cut to Will and me spending hours and hours in the DMC, editing and desperately trying to save our film. We were pessimistic that it would turn out to be anything worth showing. Our first decision was to create a new cut with the flashbacks in the film reduced to the absolute minimum. At eleven minutes, it still dragged, and we feared that it was no better than before. After showing the film to some friends, we decided it was best to get it down even further.
One afternoon, we reduced the monologues in the chapel scene to silence. Voice-overs, all of the flashbacks (save the fish store), beloved tracking shots, entire character arcs: cut. At around seven and a half minutes, it was the strongest cut that we had. We also made a radical decision: the flashback to the fish store was no longer a flashback, but started the entire film. It was a good choice; the scene was beautiful to open with, and it followed chronologically in Ray’s timeline.
The problem? A majority of our actors and characters ended up on the cutting room floor. Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, and Uncle Phil were no longer characters––just featured extras with one line each, at the most. I still haven’t resolved how to tell them that they won’t be the characters they once were, and we feel incredibly guilty about it. However, I long ago resolved that for the sake of the art, we would have to do what was best for the film.
And here we are, today, April 17: our deadline for picture-locking the film. We’ve gotten it down to around five minutes and thirty seconds, with the help of our professors John Mann, Matt Porterfield, Roberto Busó-García, and many more students and friends. We have cut and recut the film so many times, and the only scene mainly left untouched is the last one, Scene 18. I’ll watch it one more time to make sure it works, but then it’s done; we can’t change anything anymore. And it’s up to everyone else to judge what it is like.
It is not the same film that it was one month ago. It is far from the film that it was when we shot it, unrecognizable from the script that we submitted to Studio North now a year ago. But it has gone from something that scared me to something that I can be proud of, after lots of hours and hard work (and Will’s editing talent, of course).
Next up: we send it to the sound designer, composer and colorist, with less than a month until Studio North’s premiere.
It’s okay to fix it in post,
A good mom is hard to find in film. I probably don’t need to tell you that the majority of films that feature mothers feature heterosexual white women. But even these on-screen mothers are two-dimensional at best (pick one: loving and anguished or evil and manipulative). So, in honor of my mother’s birthday (and Mother’s Day!) next month, I’ve decided to dedicate my last blog post to moms on the big screen, focusing on mother's who make sacrifices for their children.
The mothers I’ve chosen to examine are: Hana in Wolf Children (dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2012), Jules and Nic in The Kids are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1974), and Precious’s mother and Precious herself in Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (dir. Lee Daniels, 2009). I tried to choose films that celebrate mothers who are both diverse and complex, films that challenge ideas of motherhood, and hopefully make us appreciate and understand our mothers a little bit more.
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Hana in Wolf Children is probably the most traditional mother character of all the ones I’ve decided to discuss today, despite the strange premise of the film. Following the death of her werewolf husband, Hana must raise her two werewolf children in the countryside. The story is about her unconditional love for her children, and her relentlessness in trying to make ends meet in order to provide for them. Though some may say that the movie is too idealistic, I think the unconditional kind of love that the film proposes is exactly what makes it so emotionally punching.
This is Hosoda’s ode to motherhood, he wants to show the viewers (through absolutely stunning animation, I might add) the sacrifices that mothers make to raise their children. In the end, we get so emotionally invested in these characters, but there’s no pay off. There is no fanfare, no celebration of her success in raising two very demanding and unusual children, not even a thank you. Instead, it’s just Hana, alone in the mountainside house she worked so hard to build into a home.
On the other side of the spectrum, Jules and Nic in The Kids are All Right are far from being traditional mothers, but they are equally willing to sacrifice for the sake of their family. The film follows a lesbian couple raising two kids they each had from the same sperm donor. The kids find their biological father, Paul, and chaos ensues between the couple when Jules has an affair with him. Moreover, the film does a good job of denying heteronormativity; Paul does not end up connecting with either of his children, and the couple resolves their differences. These mothers too, sacrifice, acting in ways that they do not necessarily want to act, because it is in the best interest of their families.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, complicates this idea that being a good mother means sacrifice. Alice follows Alice Hyatt a recent widow who searches across the southwest U.S. to find a better life for both herself and her eleven-year-old son. She gets a temporary job as a waitress in a diner, telling herself that this is a temporary stop in her plan to move to Monterey and pursue her life-long dream of singing. Although she never reaches in Monterey, she ends up pursuing her dreams while staying in Tuscon, where her son has found his niche.
In researching movies for this post, I had difficulty finding films that portrayed black mothers in a positive light. In fact, I had difficult finding films about black motherhood period. It seems ridiculous that there are no films that come to mind with a black mother who isn’t some combination of abusive, poverty-stricken, uneducated, and addicted to drugs. While I think that Precious is revolutionary in the way that it tackles issues of body image, Precious’s relationship with her mother, Mary, isn’t particularly radical (Though Mary’s hatred of her daughter is later revealed to be complex and deeply psychological).
What is refreshing about this film is Precious’s relationship with her own children. Precious really tries to be a good mother, but she doesn’t give up her education to do so. All of Precious’s moments of great motherhood are supplementary (maybe even secondary) to her individual journey in finding a place where she can get the love she knows she deserves. She continues her education and decides to raise all her children by herself. Unlike Hana, Precious is both a mother and a real person; her motherhood is not all that she is, but it is still an important part of her.
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Good mothers are always underappreciated, both in film and in real life. So this mother’s day, I encourage you to sit down with your mother and watch one of these films. More than just entertainment, I think they all propose more complex and nuanced portraits of motherhood than what we’re used to seeing at the movies. Most importantly, I think these films show us the ways in which mothers can be defined and imagined as real people both through and outside of the sacrifices that they make for their children.
As some of you may know, April is National Poetry Month (and according to T.S Eliot, the cruelest month, but that's besides the point.) In honor of the occasion, I thought I would dedicate this blog post to a few films that deal with poetry and great poets, ranging from a broadly appealing romance about John Keats and Fanny Brawne, to an examination of an old South Korean grandmother suffering from dementia. With this post, I am trying to understand how we (the 'we' represented by a filmmaker creating movies for an audience) understand poetry, what examining poetry allows a filmmaker to do, and how this literary art translates onto the big screen.
On the list for today are Poetry (2010), directed by Lee Chang-dong; Slam (1998), directed by Marc Levin; Howl (2010), directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffry Friedman; and Bright Star (2009), directed by Jane Campion. I've tried to compile a diverse group of films; films that look at the same subject in different ways, and that might enrich my own conception of poetry and what it should do.
I think all of these films, different as they are, are asking the same question: what is poetry? They ask it in a few ways: some, like Poetry or Bright Star, have protagonists who want to learn how to write it; Howl shows us the 1957 obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who published Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl) where witnesses are asked to define literature and literary merit; Slam considers whether poetry can act as a form of non-violent protest, or as a means of rehabilitation. There is something opaque about poetry, something that keeps an audience removed; a film must necessarily overcome that barrier between content and viewer if it is to be well received, and one way of doing so is to try to answer that one fundamental question: what is poetry?
The answer, though, is never simple. In Poetry, Mija’s daughter defines a poet as “[someone] who loves flowers and always says odd things”; another woman says, “If you have feeling, you can write poetry.” In Bright Star, John Keats, trying to teach his next door neighbor how to read and write verse, explains, “Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” In some films, poetry is defined by its inability to be explained; an astute witness in Howl explains to the prosecutor, “Sir, you can’t transpose poetry into prose—that’s why it’s poetry.”
Even as our protagonists read it, write it, recite it to us, they are unable to pin it down. We are, instead, ushered into a sort of understanding through the use of unconventional film techniques. Howl is half animated: as James Franco reads Ginsberg’s famous piece in voiceover, we are shown cartoon scenes of “angel headed hipsters” crawling through the streets, jumping off buildings, copulating. The film switches from black and white shots of Ginsberg reading his poem in 1955, to colored scenes of an interview Ginsberg is giving, and the obscenity trial in 1957, then to these odd, bright hued cartoons playing over frenzied jazz music. It is something of a jarring switch: the literal man to the drawing, the clean lines of a black and white café to the uncanny CGI version of a world ruled by a bullheaded monster, Moloch. It doesn’t make sense; but then, that departure from literal sense is an attempt to capture what poetry is, what it means.
Even when the rupturing of reality is not quite so extreme, it is there: in Slam, in between narrative scenes, blurry, overlapped clips play, depicting things we have already seen in the film—a man getting shot, Ray running from the cops—blurring into the future, with Ray in cuffs, and into scenes that have no temporal signature at all: frames of graffiti, sad-eyed boys, crowded sidewalks. Poetry, too, makes some unusual choices. There is no soundtrack except for birdsong; we see frames filled only with glimmering water; we spend stretches of time watching an apple turning in the sunlight or an apricot fallen to the ground; in the last scene, we hear a girl who we saw in the opening drowned in the river recite a poem, we see her face the camera with a half smile before the screen goes dark; we do not know what happens to the protagonist, Mija—she leaves the film before the last five minutes, and we are never given closure. These are odd decisions, things that feel unusual, but that also fit into the landscape of the film, make sense in the artistic context.
These breaks with expectation are the filmmakers’ way of explaining to a viewer what poetry is; if it cannot be stated verbally, if Mija’s teacher cannot explain when one will find poetic inspiration, if Keats cannot tell Fanny Brawne how to become a poet (“if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree, then it had better not come at all”, he says during their first lesson), then it can be communicated visually. The business of poetry is breaking expectation, making the familiar seem unfamiliar—how better to do that than to disrupt the narrative flow of a film, to use the camera as a poet uses words, featuring images that might otherwise go unseen, forcing the viewer to look, to be confused, to feel something that cannot be identified even as it is familiar.
This focus that poetry allows is a wonderful tool to look at people on the margins of society; people who, like Allen Ginsberg, are gay, like Ray Joshua are black, are prisoners, like Mija are old, suffer from Alzheimer’s, like John Keats are poor, or dealing with depression. This vehicle allows us to look closely at people who might otherwise be ignored. Arm them with images, with a pen, and they speak: poetry becomes a very real force for social change as it allows the stories of marginalized writers to be shared. Poetry is a place, a cultural location that exists through change; unlike many other traditional social spaces, poetry is meant to evolve, to be altered, to tell many stories and take on many forms. It is the ideal vehicle for the ignored, as it is so amenable to change, so easy to take with you. As Ray says when offered a place in a prison gang, “No. All I need is some paper and a pen, then I can figure this out.”
Poetry also allows us to look at subjects that are otherwise uncomfortable, or ignored; sex, in particular, is addressed in surprising ways in these films about poetry. In Slam we see a woman receiving oral sex; in Poetry we watch an old woman have sex with a stroke victim; in Howl we are faced with a forest of (it makes me cringe to write this) playful penises waving in a cartoon wind. All of this is out of the ordinary: women are seldom the recipients of sexual pleasure in film; old people are portrayed as asexual; male genitalia are hidden at all costs. But in these films, the directors use poetry as a vehicle to confront these things, to look unflinchingly, even goofily, at those parts of our sexuality that make us so uncomfortable.
Mental illness too, is examined: we are familiar with the artist as a depressed figure, yet are often more comfortable ignoring mental health problems. These movies shine a spotlight on the depressed, the people who “have been half in love with easeful Death” like Keats, been forced into insane asylums and given shock therapy, like Ginsberg’s friend Solomon, have started forgetting nouns, who have become overwhelmed and confused like Mija. When looking at the biographies of poets, the presence of mental illness cannot be ignored; when looking at poets through the unflinching lens of art, mental illness cannot be left unaddressed or unexploited.
Poetry, then, can do a lot for the marginalized, the outsiders; it may be confusing, may even seem inaccessible, but film allows us to understand visually what we might not be able to on the page. Film, too, allows us to hear poetry rather than read it; we are immersed in it, experience it unfiltered by sight, by the blankness of page margins. As we hear it we cannot look away, we can only let it wash over us. The act of hearing a poem is immersive and complete, allows us to experience a poem in a different way than we do when we see it on the page. Poetry, then, shares a special relationship with film: as it is interpreted visually, it is also delivered orally, presenting the viewer unique access to pieces that may seem alien in a book.
I’m afraid I’ve run out of space, so I will conclude with this: I have heard, as I think most people have, that poetry is dead or dying at best, that maybe a long time ago people got fired up about sonnets, but you'd be lucky if you met someone today who even knew what the word 'sonnet' meant. It was in the hope that what I've heard is wrong that I pursued films about poetry, and why I wrote about them today: poetry, if it can be a part of films like this, reaching audiences who most comfortably navigate culture through screen, is still very much alive and kicking. As poetry is adapted to film it maintains a place in our cultural landscape, and evolves to target an audience who, though they may no longer have Shakespeare or Keats or Ginsberg, have, as all humans do, a basic need for creative expression.
And so, production continued…
Day 4: Saturday, January 24
Location: JHU Levering Conference Room
Scenes: 7, 8
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil, Uncle Elliott, Grandma
Crew Call: 10am; Cast Call: 11am
This day of production was easier from the start with two quick scenes. First, an argument between Aunt Lis and Grandma about her veil, and second, the actual wedding––a quick, thrown-together affair in a conference room during Lis’s lunch break. Production Designers Lauren and Danielle knew that they had to create an authentic wedding that looked at once hasty and rushed, but not lazy from a production standpoint. They bought Dollar Store supplies to dress the table and walls and used the whiteboard in the room to write “Just Married!”
This was also the first time that we had a real, live fish in the film. Tony picked up Bernard and five “stunt doubles” at Petco. As production wore on, we realized each fish had a different personality, and unfortunately the one that we used this day wasn’t lively enough. Getting any close-ups of the fish was near impossible; he would only lie down at the bottom of the bowl. We switched to a different Bernard (by accident) the next day and stuck with him for rest of the shoot. Zach even took him home on the last day of production.
The best part of this scene, for me, was the costumes. Lis got to wear a white pantsuit, which we picked up at Marshall’s and kept the tags on to return later. Todd showed up with a fish-patterned tie, which fit the theme perfectly. Zach was dressed in an orange shirt and blue pants, which accidentally complemented Bernard’s own colors. Martha’s outfit, a lavender dress, became a motif in the film; we tried to put some lavender in each scene to hint that there was a little bit of Grandma everywhere.
We had lots of time to relax, and took this day at a slow pace. We shot lots of b-roll and tried the wedding scene two ways, one with a comedic argument between Lis and Phil, and then a more silent take.
Day 5: Sunday, January 25
Location: JHU Center for Social Concern / Hamlyn Apartments
Scenes: 4, 1, 2
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Secretary + background
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
We knew going into this day that it was going to be another tough one. We scheduled a company move halfway through the day from the Center for Social Concern to an apartment north of campus. The office we were using was empty, and the apartment room was a mess. The production designers first had to set up the bare office to look like a real one, then run over to the apartment to begin clearing it out. I think I’m most proud of their work on the apartment––the pictures, trinkets and drawings in Ray’s “room” transformed it from a messy college student’s to a believable child’s.
The morning passed without much incident. Scene 4 was a flashback to Uncle Diego’s office, where Ray plays a game and overhears a conversation between his uncles. We had hired a young actress, Hannah, who had auditioned for Lis. She seemed nervous and jumpy when talking to me, but lost that when the camera was on her.
Our problems started in the afternoon. I sent our grips, Josh and Victor, home from set, thinking that the apartment was too small to fit them and we had a good handle on lighting. But the room was a little trickier than I had thought––there was only one window in the corner, and the area near the bed where we wanted to shoot was too dark. Kristen (2nd AD) and Brandon (AC) had to use LEDs and flags to brighten up the room, but getting it perfect took almost an hour after we got to the location, which was maddening.
This was also when Zach reached his peak of disagreeability. It was a long day, and he would constantly run offset or play games on his phone. When I would ask him to perform an action or sit up or get into place, he would completely ignore me. Will and Corey eventually had to start directing him too. At the end of the day, Zach wasn’t only just tired, but he was frustrated, messing up his lines so we would have to run take after take. When I thanked Zach after we wrapped, he brushed past me and slammed the door on the way of out the apartment. I don’t blame him for being tired, but I think that he was realizing that maybe set life wasn’t for him––or maybe I wasn’t the right director for him.
Day 6: Saturday, January 31
Location: Car / Tropical Fish
Characters: Ray, Grandma
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
This was the last day of shooting, but when we pulled up to our first location, Tropical Fish, the door was locked and there was a sign: “Family emergency, sorry. Be back later.” We repeatedly called, knocked––nothing. Once our cast arrived, we knew that we had to do something; we couldn’t sit on the streets of East Baltimore without a plan. We drove back to my apartment on a whim, trying to figure out what to do on the way.
We were filming Grandma’s flashback today, and the sequence was originally split into two scenes: one in the fish store and another in a car. As soon as we got to my apartment, Will and Tony started rewriting the script to cover the entire sequence in the car. We had also planned to get a plastic bag to hold Bernard from the pet store, but since that didn’t work out, we had to send Tony back out to Petco. And so, with some creative scheduling, we shot Martha’s lines first without Zach, waited for the plastic bag, then shot Zach’s lines. In the car, there was only room for Corey (DP) and Adriana (Sound Op), along with Martha as the driver, so I had to let Corey direct this one.
After the last shot around 1pm, we managed to reach Tropical Fish on the phone. They were open again, so we drove over immediately. We made the decision to shoot the scene silent, in only two shots, because of time and also because the dialogue previously written for the fish store was covered in the car scene already. Shooting this scene silent was the best snap decision we made all day. The bubbles made great sound, and the scene worked better with a silent Grandma.
We took a group photo in Tropical Fish, after we completely wrapped for the entire production:
Production for Bernard Died was exhausting, and seemed at times like it was impossible. But that all went away when we would see the footage at the end of each day. No matter the hardships we encountered, we always managed to make it look and sound and feel all right. The little-script-that-could was now a film.
(Also, a huge shout-out to our amazing set photographer Gillian, who took all of the photos in these last two blog posts. You can see more of them on our page, facebook.com/bernarddied.)
All the luck in production,
Members of the millennial (Y) generation (myself included) have garnered divisive opinions from our predecessors, receiving epithets ranging from “the go-getter generation” to “generation Me,” and I think the contrast works well to capture the nuances of today’s young adults. Meanwhile, growing in tangent with my generation is the popular perception of film as academia, as a medium that can host rich meaning and invite formalistic study. Here, I’ll be dabbling a bit in both film as academia and anthropological study, turning to three different movies I feel best capture what it “is” to be a millennial.
1. The Social Network (2010), David Fincher
Fincher’s 2010 dramatic masterpiece The Social Network perhaps most neatly captures the growing horrors of generation Y’s transition into adulthood--that is, the compulsive need to stand out from the crowd on an increasingly impossible scale. Specifically, Social highlights the trendy mentality wherein if you don’t create something that changes everyone’s lives forever, then you somehow have failed to live up to your potential. Not only does this mentality apply immense pressure to its subscribers, it also exposes the sad reality of generation Y’s entitlement problem, with every member of the generation believing themselves capable of changing the world.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of online obsession and social networking, a defining trait unique to generation Y. Facebook dominates the lives of Social’s characters as much as it does my own, and those around me. The film’s concluding moments--in which the now friendless Mark Zuckerberg sits glued to his laptop, refreshing his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook profile, desperately hoping she’ll accept his friend request--are perhaps some of the most gently pathetic moments in recent cinema, and an allusion to how social media is increasing feelings of loneliness and depression across the world.
True, the film doesn’t portray every aspect of this generation’s college life accurately--I don’t go to Harvard, but “supermodel hot, over-sexed student body” is not a descriptor I typically associate with the place--but sex isn’t the main point of the film, so the misrepresentation doesn’t feel like a deal-breaker. In the end, The Social Network nails its true message: that the software designed to bring our generation closer together has in fact separated us like never before.
2. The Bling Ring (2013), Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola’s examination of LA youth bacchanalia defies narrative convention at every turn, which is perhaps why the film received such a middling, lukewarm reception upon its initial release. Perhaps audiences expected Coppola to tell her tale of kid robbers ripping off celebrities with the constant high energy and tension of a proper crime thriller, not unlike Fincher does in Social. Instead, while the film maintains an energy throughout, it’s of a more contemplative nature, one that sits back and observes its subjects with cool detachment. While the critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes interpreted this detachment as a “failure to delve beneath the surface of its shallow protagonists’ real-life crimes," I’d argue that Coppola’s emphasis on her characters’ shallow materialism is her way of telling us she did delve beneath the surface, only there was nothing “deeper” to find.
The structure of the film supports this idea of an absence of depth. The repetition of robberies makes them become so flaccid that the audience becomes desensitized to them, to the point where theft of others’ possessions is the norm. Moreover, it is dizzying to hear the kids speak, but in an entirely different way than in The Social Network; whereas Social’s college extraordinaires spout line after polished line of acerbic wisdom or tragic naivete (sometimes both at once), the kid members of The Bling Ring struggle to articulate the silliest of non-ideas in phrases that almost always include the words “energy,” “universe,” “bitch,” and “like.” In short, Coppola’s film doesn’t simply portray the kids’ apathy towards their own alarming greed, it embodies it.
I have no idea what Paris Hilton hoped to achieve by allowing Coppola to use her actual house to re-enact some of the burglaries, but boy does the setting effortlessly drive Coppola’s point home. Paris apparently lives in a veritable shrine to herself, the walls decked with framed pictures of her own magazine covers, her furniture embellished with throw pillows wearing her face. In the world of The Bling Ring the deepest one ever looks is at themselves, never within themselves.
Celebrity obsession, materialism, superficiality, jealousy, a sociopathic lack of respect for others; I’ll be damned if these traits aren’t all symptomatic of the Y generation, and Coppola displays them all with haunting accuracy.
3. Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Stephen Chbosky
I felt compelled to include Perks of Being a Wallflower more out of a sense of obligation than personal desire, with my hesitation stemming from my belief that its representation of youth culture feels more manufactured than other films here. Specifically, Social and Bling seem to work from the ground up, in that they observe the world around them, digest their findings, and then produce opinionated films that have something important to say with honest voices. Meanwhile, Perks seems, in typical box-office/best-selling-novel fashion, to work more top-down, in that it caters to how its target demographic wants to perceive itself, rather than how it actually is. The protagonists are all wounded but dignified, disdainful of athletes, cerebral, and artsy--in a word, hipsters (although they’d never accept the label). The film (and novel) fancies itself a modern day Catcher in the Rye, and hopes to attract anyone interested in exiting “the mainstream”, well aware that being “in the mainstream” is becoming increasingly unpopular. Admittedly, it did its job--the film is inspiring and enjoyable to watch despite its penchant for manipulation. More importantly, it’s an important text to consider when defining generation Y because it shows what the generation aspires to be.
Ultimately, the films that best capture what I see and hear from my peers around me, as well as what I think and produce on a daily basis, are quite bleak. The Social Network, The Bling Ring, and Perks of Being a Wallflower highlight, both in content and in structure, generation Y’s narcissism, self-indulgence, detachment from reality, and increasing attachment to living online. The good news is, although grim, the films manage to highlight some of the generation’s strongest qualities, as well: the limitless ambition and creativity portrayed in The Social Network, or the high esteem placed on introspection, literature, and art as desirable traits in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even The Bling Ring, which undoubtedly presents the generation at its worst, is at least able isolate some of the essential problems of today’s youth culture, showing that our downfalls are not too numerous and severe so as to overwhelm. As screwed up as kids these days are, we just might make it out okay.
It’s time to talk about the real stuff: the production. I think that the easiest way is to break it down by days. And so…
Day 1: Saturday, January 17
Location: Lassahn Funeral Home
Scenes: 6, 3, 5
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil + background
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
For the first day of production, I wanted to pick scenes that were low key to shoot for a couple reasons. The first was that it was Zach’s first day on a film set… ever. I was worried that if I worked him too hard, he may quit and not come back to finish the film. Also, second, my directing philosophy is to start off with the easy stuff and build up to the hard, more emotional scenes. Scene 6 was mostly a lot of blocking. During the scene, the family has an argument by their car as Ray buries his fish outside. The scene would be shot so that the focus was on Ray, with the family blurred in the background Scenes 3 and 5 were also fairly easy since they both were in the lobby of the funeral home, and the dialogue was short and quick.
Tony, Will and I drove to set in the morning, picking up all of our crew at 7:30am for the ride out to Kingsville, a half an hour away from Hopkins. As soon as I walked in the door, I faced my first crisis. Eddie, our sound mixer, had forgot a crucial XLR cable, and he lived an hour and a half away from Lassahn. He immediately took off to wait outside a nearby music store until it opened at 10am so he could buy a new one, which cost us money and time.
When he got back, we shot Scene 6 smoothly. It was cold outside around 40 degrees, but this was our only exterior shot of the entire shoot. We only had to freeze for just a few hours and reminded everyone that this was the only outdoor scene, to boost morale. During this scene, Zach was surprisingly easy to work with and took my direction well. He was beginning to understand that sometimes we needed him to perform his actions and dialogue more than once when something was wrong with the camera, which we were learning he didn’t have the patience for.
The rest of the family (Nick, Diego, Lis, Phil and Mom) was acting out an argument in the background of Zach’s action. This was by far the most complicated scene we blocked. Dave had to get out of a car, come around and hit his mark in time to say his lines. Jose and Salwa also needed to exit the funeral home and join the family in time for their lines too––all while staying visible to the camera. This also needed to be framed behind Zach, who was in-focus and took up a majority of the frame. Motion for the camera is different than in real life, since everything needs to look good for the frame. Thankfully, our actors were professionals and understood the importance of hitting their marks and cheating towards the camera, but it was something that I was still learning as I went through the scene.
After we shot Scene 6, the lens adapter on our camera (the Digital Bolex D16) broke. We had to use pliers to rip it off so we could continue using the camera. This meant that we were restricted to only two lenses for the rest of the weekend, until Corey (DP) could order a new adapter over the week. It wasn’t awful, but it did limit the range of shots that we could shoot––factoring in the focus and depth of field.
We took a lunch break (lasagna and salad from Giovanna’s) and started on Scenes 3 and 5 in the afternoon. At this time, Tony had brought us the Film & Media Studies dolly: a large, cumbersome, orange nightmare that weighed a ton, but gave us some of the smoothest (and most cinematic) shots in the film. Corey (DP) and I both really wanted a slow push in on Zach to start Scene 3, which meant running the scene over and over again and coordinating blocking and performance all at once. This is when I began to notice that Zach was more antsy in the afternoon, after all of the food from lunch. He wouldn’t sit still and became difficult to work with.
Scene 5 was the first time I had seen Fatima (Mariana) act, which was a huge risk. I hadn’t had the chance to work with her on her lines at all until we got to set, but she ended up performing them naturally.
One of the biggest mistakes we made on this day was our open call for extras. We called for them at 9am and 1pm, thinking we wouldn’t get any––as what typically happens when you try to get people to act all day unpaid in the background. But we didn’t expect for ten of them to show up, ready to be placed, when we only needed about four for the entire day. Thankfully, Will (1st AD) was great at keeping them happy throughout the day, with the promise of free food.
We wrapped Day 1 feeling really optimistic about the footage, the cast and the crew.
Day 2: Sunday, January 18
Location: Lassahn Funeral Home
Scenes: 15/16/17, 9/13
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil, Uncle Elliott + background
Crew Call & Cast Call: …it got messed up.
Yes. We were driving to Lassahn around 8am that morning in the rain. About two minutes away from the funeral home, a police car blocked Belair Road. Cars were detouring around, and we pulled over to the side of the road. Will, who had made it to Lasshan before us, called and said that there was black ice on the road, and he had seen a couple accidents. The police seemed to have decided to close off the road in the few minutes between our cars, and Tony and I, along with Eddie and his car of crew, couldn’t get to the funeral home.
With Corey directing me, we tried to take every possible detour, but police blocked them all off. On one road, we watched a car slide backwards downhill, completely out of control. We stopped off at a Starbucks around 9am, and I started calling all of our cast and crew, pushing the call time by two hours so that cast wouldn’t arrive until 11am. When Tony called me to tell me he had found a way to the funeral home, we got back in our car and followed a new detour, finally arriving at 10am to lots of applause.
The pushed call time presented us with a challenge: how to make up 2 hours of work and shooting. We had initially scheduled a pretty light day, overall; Scene 15/16/17 only had four shots, and Scenes 9 and 13 were the same setup as the bookends of a flashback. But Will, as the 1st AD, was stressed since his job was to keep us on time, and that meant the pressure was on Corey and me to make up the time. It would’ve been impossible to call off the day and reschedule, seeing as our actors were busy immediately after our scheduled shoot days. There was no room for flexibility, and we had no choice but to make up the lost time.
Scenes 15/16/17 were condensed into one and consisted of two long tracking shots: one forwards––chasing Ray as he runs down the hallway––and one backwards––as he leaves the wake with Mom. The shot had to coordinate background action, dolly movement, and Ray’s speed. We must have done dozens of takes of each because something was wrong each time; either Zach looked at the camera, the dolly’s movement went out of control, or the focus was off. Of course, this also meant we were even more behind schedule, and also when Zach learned that when I told him we had to run the take “one more time,” it was a lie. We didn’t end up eating lunch until 3pm, and only had until 5pm when we lost daylight to make up the time.
As if the day could get worse after lunch, I also had my own problems to deal with: I’d been having chronic chest pains for a while, and they got so bad that I had to take a step back on directing. Scenes 9 and 13 passed in a blur for me, giving direction only when absolutely necessary and letting Corey and Will take the lead. We combined the two scenes––a simple conversation between Ray and Uncle Elliott––and shot them in one take, allowing for a short pause between the scenes as the camera rolled. This was our first scene with Jason, someone else I’d never worked with before that day, but he was a natural talent. The scene looked beautiful overall.
With Day 2 wrapped, we felt good, but a little shaken by the panic that morning. So we were prepared for anything that Day 3 threw at us.
Day 3: Monday, January 19
Location: Lassahn Funeral Home
Scene: 14, 18
Characters: Ray, Mom, Uncle Nick, Uncle Diego, Mariana, Aunt Lis, Uncle Phil, Uncle Elliott, Grandma + background
Crew Call: 8am; Cast Call: 9am
On this day, we were already behind schedule before we even got there. That was because Scenes 14 and 18 were going to be ambitious to do in one day.
Scene 14 was scheduled to shoot first. For one, this was the scene for the monologues of Nick and Lis––aka the most emotional moments of the script––and it was going to take some time to get the performances right. Secondly, Scene 14 had a lot of background action, with a ton of actors placed in the chapel that had to act and move correctly every take. And thirdly, something we were majorly concerned about: around noon, there was going to be a viewing in the opposite side of the funeral home, and we were warned that music would be playing, which would interfere with our sound recording. We would need to record all major dialogue before that happened.
Basically, we were set up to lose Scene 14 from the start. But I really owe it to Will, Corey, and our grips, Josh and Victor, for making the day run so efficiently. They were always one step ahead. The next shot would be composed and lit immediately after the previous broke down, and Will was always anticipating where background would be, directing their actions immediately and smoothly. This meant that all I had to worry about were the performances.
At the beginning of the day, for Scene 14, Corey suggested that we shoot it handheld to reflect the shaky nature of the emotional content and also compensate for our lost wider lenses––even though I only initially wanted tripod throughout the entire film. I was hesitant, but then opened up to the idea. The mobility of Corey’s shoulder-mount gave us wider options of shots for the intensely complicated motion and composition of Scene 14, which was also the longest.
By far the most difficult aspect of this day was directing the actors. As I mentioned, these were the toughest performances for the actors, and the most intense scene for the characters, as they all take turns saying goodbye to their mother. I didn’t want this goodbye to Grandma to be sentimental. This meant taming back the emotions to a realistic level, enough so that it wasn’t sappy. Because we were behind schedule, and almost every scene had Ray in it, this was a very long, very tiring day for Zach. He was sugared out (from the Coke that Tony gave him at lunch), exhausted, and not willing to work after half of the day. It was a struggle to even get him to stand in place, let alone act. Ironically, this is also when Zach gave one of his best performances of the film later on in Scene 18.
Scene 14 was also when I realized that the background actors could be more of a hindrance than a help sometimes. One of the ladies, positioned behind Zach in one of our shots, kept looking at the camera and ruining our takes. Another young man, an “aspiring filmmaker,” kept bothering the crew and giving Will advice on how to run set. Another man approached me on my lunch break to snap about how much longer he was going to be on-set. One woman wanted travel reimbursement for the three hours she drove to our set. Again, this all could have been avoided by not using an open call for actors, but in total we had around twenty background for the day and filled the chapel entirely, for which I’m very grateful.
Scene 18 was spent playing catch-up and bargaining with Zach to get him to run more takes. Martha, who played Grandma, was perfectly content to lie in the coffin as long as it was necessary. Jason kept checking in on her and talking to her between takes to make sure she was okay, so my time and energy could be focused on persuading Zach to act. At some point in the day, Will took over coaxing him into acting since he had stopped listening to me. Three days straight of shooting for nine hours was getting to him, but thankfully we’d have a long break after this.
We finished the day feeling euphoric and thanking the owners of Lasshan, who had gratefully turned off the music for the viewing so we could shoot undisturbed. I am not exaggerating a bit when I say this film would not have happened if not for their generosity.
Even though it was exhausting, the feeling of wrapping the three toughest days of production was amazing. This was the first time that the scenes I’d been thinking about for the past nine months were real, tangible things––things that had once only been abstract concepts, pictures in my head. It was thrilling to actually see them––see the tracking shots, Zach’s performances, the production design, the forty plus people making it happen, and even the fish in the shampoo bottle. This was what it felt like to see something in your head manifest itself in reality, almost magically.
Stay tuned for Days 4-6.
Sound, camera, slate, action,
The first time I encountered Richard Ayoade was Christmas of 2010. I was watching a British comedy panel show, an embarrassing guilty pleasure of mine, and he was one of the guests. When the host asked him about his upcoming directorial debut Submarine (2010), I was a little shocked; his dry on-screen personality and quirky aesthetic (reminiscent of a high school history teacher) did not at all line up with what I thought a film director was “supposed to” be. Case in point, after discussing that the film, despite its title, has no actual submarines in it, one of the other guests asked “are you worried people will go hoping to see a submarine and go home disappointed?” to which Richard Ayoade rather impassively replied, “I’m worried that no one will go…regardless of their interest in naval policy.”
It is precisely this kind of dry and self-deprecating humor that made Ayoade an unlikely director in my mind. But after being thoroughly charmed by Submarine and his second feature, The Double (2014), released just last year, I think it’s safe to say that Ayoade is not just a serious young filmmaker, but also a solid one. There are some clear influences present—Wes Anderson and David Lynch to name just two—but the films really come to their own. Ayoade’s directing style feels distinctive, and the surreal tones and almost effortless deadpan offer a fresh and engaging take on familiar narratives.
* * *
Submarine is visually stunning and offers a good balance of dark comedy and drama. The bare bones of the narrative itself are not unheard of; a socially alienated young teen is put to the test against certain obstacles: having his first girlfriend and his parent’s troubled marriage. But the perspective of the main character, Oliver Tate, who sees himself as the star of his own biopic, allows for some wonderful visuals and comically self-aware camerawork. Yes, the clichés of an indie romance are present: running around a deserted urban landscape, setting bottle rockets on fire. But these montages of non-romantic romance are intentionally presented to us as Oliver’s distorted perspective of reality on grainy home film. Moreover, the use of color is fantastic, and Oliver’s inclinations to spy on people paired with the stark suburban setting make for some very beautiful shots. The highly stylized character’s perspective evokes a feeling of nostalgia, and we can’t help but want to buy into Oliver’s version of reality.
Oliver’s personality and his cringe-worthy adolescent egocentricity, which justify those moments of humorous self-awareness, drive the plot forward while avoiding being annoyingly angsty or quirky just for the sake of being so. Like the home movies that Oliver makes in his head, everyone in Submarine is charmingly imperfect. Oliver is by no means a hero, he constantly makes bad decisions out of fear: choosing to bully an overweight classmate for the sake of impressing Jordana Bevans, the mischievous girl he has a crush on, spying on his mother when he suspects she might be cheating on his father with their neighbor, and (spolier ahead!) deciding not to visit Jordana in the hospital after her mother has a dangerous operation. Oliver is complex, he’s a kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. We as viewers are rooting for Oliver because we can identify with his problems, we were all once teenagers before; but something I personally found even more satisfying and engaging than Oliver’s imperfection is the complexity of the female characters.
Submarine not only avoids tropes like the manic pixie dream girl, but in fact denies them. Jordana is quirky, but she is not the energetic and “high on life” object of desire that brings meaning to the brooding male hero’s existence. Though Oliver frames her to be at first, he soon discovers that she is her own person; she has her own goals, her own problems independent of him. That is to say, that there are parts of Jordana that are not particularly desirable and she has just as much trouble as Oliver does in navigating the rough winds of adolescence.
A vital part of this feeling of awkward youth is the soundtrack. Crafted specifically for this movie by Alex Turner, lead singer of the Artic Monkeys (Ayoade directed a number of their music videos), the lyrics are wistful and beautifully sung, appropriately reminiscent of the haze of youthful love and the melancholy of the break-up that follows.
Submarine is a quality coming-of-age movie. The characters are intriguingly unique but not completely unrelatable. The visuals are surreal and beautiful. The film’s occasional heavy-handedness is well balanced by wry humor. Ayoade keeps things fresh, a difficult achievement in a widely explored genre that lends itself to many clichés and tropes.
* * *
His second film, The Double,is equally as captivating as the first. It is more thematically complex and showcases the darker side of Ayoade’s aesthetic. The grimy urban environment and main character’s invisibility and surreal descent into madness call to mind Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. An adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella of the same title, The Double is the story of socially anxious clerk Simon James, whose life spirals out of control when he meets his confident and more popular doppelganger, James Simon.
Both played by Jesse Eisenberg, the characters are exact opposites in personality, and even more frustrating to the protagonist is that no one else around him seems to acknowledge that they even remotely look alike. The premise, tackles the idea that we oftentimes imagine a better version of ourselves. Simon James—shy, awkward, unable to make any impression on Hannah his workplace crush is a representation of how we are in reality; while James Simon—cool, confident, and irresistible to all women—is everything we wish to be. Eisenberg does a wonderful job portraying both characters, the meek and the aggressive, to the point where it’s not difficult to tell which character is on screen even though they look the same.
The absurdity of the situation is balanced out by the darkness of the world it is set in (the movie is shot almost entirely without natural light), we travel through the bleak landscape of Simon’s home, underground commute, and workplace without once seeing the sun. The alienating dark visuals and jarring cuts have a way of beating up the psyche of the viewer, which makes sense in light of the social alienation and disturbed psyche of the character. The environment seems to mirror Simon’s psychological state not just visually, but also sonically.
The sound in this film is carefully thought out. The sounds of the environment—the click-clack of typewriters, the rickety train tracks and subsequent screech of the brakes, the shrill ding of the elevator—adds an eerie aspect to the grimy feel one gets from the setting alone.
An industrial drone in addition to the visual play with light and shadows creates a truly immersing experience when watching the film. And despite the carefully crafted visuals and sounds, The Double is, for the most part, subtle in pursuing its themes. The comical darkness in the midst of absurdity is equally effortless.
* * *
The worlds of Ayoade’s films have a kind of dark ambience that can at times become suffocating for some (I, personally, really enjoy this ambience). But if you’re feeling a little melancholy and want to create an atmosphere for brooding thoughts, I cannot recommend these films enough. The dead-pan humor balances out the hard-hitting emotional moments, and the characters are fascinating; most importantly, the visual and aural landscapes that Ayoade creates are surreal and captivating, and I, for one, cannot wait to see what comes next from this up-and-coming director.
Growing up, I lived ten minutes away from my Pop-pop, an Italian chef who built his career in Philadelphia, working in restaurants and hospital kitchens. He wore newsboy caps and had a hatred of undercooked pasta, microwave dinners, sauce from a jar… and, well, anything he hadn’t made himself. Every Sunday, my mother, father, brother, and I would go to Pop-pop’s house for dinner; or, at least, what we called dinner, although it usually started around 3 in the afternoon. I can still remember the way his house always smelled of cooking oil, bacon fat, tomato sauce: his beige carpet had turned black after years of spills and the footsteps of dinner guests and family.
I shudder to think what Pop-pop would have said had he seen me eating lukewarm ravioli out of a can as I watched the films I want to discuss today. I’ve chosen five films that place a focus on food and cooking, ranging from light-hearted comedies to magical realist dramas, to answer the questions that brought me to this project: why do people want to watch movies about food? Why do people make them? What is so attractive about watching someone prepare a meal that you will never taste, and what is it that makes film an effective instrument with which to examine food?
The following are the films I salivated through in preparation for this post: Like Water for Chocolate (1992), directed by Alfonso Arau; Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), directed by Ang Lee; Julie and Julia (2009), directed by Nora Ephron; Romantics Anonymous (2010), directed by Jean-Pierre Améris; and The Lunchbox (2013), directed by Ritesh Batra. Each of these films is in a different language, and each (with the partial exception of Julie and Julia and Romantics Anonymous, which are both concerned with French cuisine, though the former has as much to do with American cooks as it does French) are concerned with different styles of food and take place in different cultural contexts. By discussing an international sampling of films (although it is by no means exhaustive) I am hoping to demonstrate the universality of what food signifies; although the meals and the tables at which they are eaten may change, people from all over the world want to watch films about food for similar reasons.
So, let’s start where most great meals do: in the kitchen. A great deal of the appeal of these films is watching chefs at work: in Julie and Julia, a film about a woman making every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,we see raspberry jam being folded into white cream, red beef patted down in paper towels and seared in an orange frying pan, a chicken perfectly browned and emerging from the oven; here we are reminded of how beautiful food is, the truly engaging and surprising ways in which food resembles art, resembles painting, how delicately and artfully each ingredient is paired to another, and the visual play between parts of a meal.
In The Lunchbox—a film set in Mumbai about a man who accidentally receives another man’s lunch, and strikes up a relationship with his wife, Ila—we hear the sizzle of dough fried in oil, the clicking of a stove as it’s being turned on; we are invited aurally into a woman’s kitchen, hearing sounds that are familiar even to those of us who don’t cook (who, like me, don't even have an oven). Our senses are engaged in more than just a visual way; we hear the food as music and we think of how it would smell, the frying oil, the gas from the stove, the aromatic sauces and spices. We recall how food engages the entire body as we see Ila slowly stuffing peppers with rice, when we watch her eat with her hands or dip her palm into a sauce to test it. Sound serves to more fully immerse us in the musical, corporeal pursuit of cooking, reminds us that a film about food is more than a picture on a screen, it should be an experience that stimulates all of our senses.
In Eat Drink Man Woman—a film set in Taipei, about an aging master chef living with his three adult daughters, all of whom are struggling to figure out what they want—we watch Mr. Chu carve warriors onto the skin of a watermelon, or break a fish’s neck and debone it so carefully that a perfect skeleton emerges, and we see the care it takes to prepare food, the precision that great cooking requires. There is something oddly life-affirming about watching a man slice tofu into millimeter thin strips, or chop a root vegetable into perfectly even segments; the kitchen is a place of control, detail, exactitude. It is beautiful to see a person work so carefully at a pursuit that is entirely nutritive, that will be shared with others, and that, although it will be eaten and digested and entirely gone soon, for the moment deserves complete attention.
In Romantics Anonymous Anglique, a woman with crippling social anxiety, spreads melted chocolate across a cool metal counter, and her colleague whittles a perfect Eiffel Tower out of a block of chocolate, and we understand more than just texture (another means of engaging the viewer’s bodies with a filmic experience), we understand how cooking is therapeutic, how precision in the kitchen is more than just carefulness: to Anglique, who is typically a nervous wreck, the care and exactness of her profession allow her to heal, to exert power and demonstrate competency. Cooking is more than just ‘feeding work’, more than supplying fuel for a body; its intentional nature also does the ‘emotion work’ of improving the chef’s internal condition.
In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita, a young woman from a conservative Mexian family, in love with her sister’s husband, kneels on the floor she grinds corn for a tortilla, and we see her bare shoulders, a flash of her breast, the sweat on her neck: the film is deeply erotic, and we see how cooking becomes a means for Tita to express her sensuality in a socially acceptable way. Although she lacks power and agency in her life, controlled as she is by her mother, when she cooks she is free to use her body, to be passionate; she engages with her body erotically, and cooking becomes a way to end not only literal, but also sexual hunger.
In all five films, among these other images and sounds, there is the perpetual billowing of steam from pots, an ethereal presence in the kitchen that reminds the viewer how ascendant the process of making a meal is. Steam is the closest any visual can get to the otherworldly: it is a literal, visual means of communicating the mystical, of indicating that something if not divine, then at least fantastic is happening.
And food does allow fantastic things to happen: in The Lunchbox, two strangers pass notes along with bowls of paneer and rice, and start to fall in love; as the man eats Ila’s food, his life and hers become more aligned. She swats a fly away from her face at the same moment he swats one from his; as he reads her description of a fan slowing down and stopping, the fan whirring above his head slows and stops.
Even in Julie and Julia, a fairly down-to-earth film, two women who are separated by a span of sixty years are brought together by Julie Powell’s project to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes: in the film, scenes of Julie’s modern life are woven in between scenes of Julia’s in late 1950s Paris (in one scene, a room Julie is looking at in a museum literally becomes a scene from Julia’s life, as the camera zooms in and the light changes, and Julia Child bustles into the kitchen with her husband), and Julie constantly talks about feeling Julia’s presence in the kitchen as she cooks. Although this is not precisely ghostly, there is something magical about one woman being so connected to another (who she will never meet) through her recipes.
Another important and related thread connecting these films is the idea that cooking is a way for women to claim power, to reassert control over their lives and become meaningful, contented people: and, although there is a part of me that wishes cooking was not the only way women in these films could prove themselves (after all, who isn’t tired of the phrase “get back in the kitchen!”), there is something empowering about them. Although cooking is seen as a feminine pursuit domestically, the professional world of food is still male-dominated: seeing women enter that space is actually quite radical and feminist.
Still, it should be noted that even when women aren’t entering cooking in a professional sphere, food allows them to connect to others, to express things that they are forbidden to in regular life: through the lunches Ila prepares in The Lunchbox, she connects to a man who appreciates her, and eventually gains such a feeling of self-worth that she leaves her unfaithful husband (and not for another man, but for herself!—she remains single at the end of the film); in Like Water for Chocolate Tita pours her emotions into her food, causing those who eat it to weep if she is sad, to kiss if she is feeling sexy, to throw up if she is angry: she becomes powerful in a very literal way.
Food, too, creates a network between women: Julie learns to cook from Julia Child, Tita learns from her nanny Nacha and cooks with her friend Chencha, Ila borrows ingredients and gets advice from her “Auntie” in the upstairs apartment: cooking connects people, connects women, in a way that empowers them, draws them together and gives them strength.
Food is such a meaningful part of our lives, whether our parents made us dinner, or our babysitters, or our Pop-pops did, whether we eat out every night or make mac and cheese in a microwave. It is important both as something we experience every day out of necessity, and as something we use to mark special occasions, to pass on cultural values, and to bridge distances (both personal and temporal) that might otherwise be insurmountable. Food is a lens through which to view female agency, sexual politics, romantic and filial love, and internationalism; and, most basically, it’s fun. People (or, most people I know) enjoy eating, especially when the food is good, just as people (at least, all the best people) enjoy good films. So, I invite you all to make yourself some popcorn (with extra butter!), and dig in to all of the movies in this post; I promise you, you’re in for a real treat.