February 7, 2016
I recently found this essay, written in the fall of 2011 and published in a now shuttered online journal, and thought it was worth preserving. For what it's worth, the screenplay whose inception I detail here was never finished, although its central conceit still flutters around the periphery of my mind, and will surely one day be realized).
The Beginning: it is the most difficult part of a film’s anatomy.
It is also the easiest to write.
As a filmmaker, I’ve written far more beginnings than I have endings. Endings are difficult to write because one must arrive there. With beginnings, at least in my experience, I simply sit down and begin. There’s no predication to consider. I entertain myself. The words and pages accumulate with ease. It’s only later, when I reach page 20 or 30 or 40, or sometimes even 50, that I realize the platform from which I’ve been building is ill-prepared to shoulder the weight of the firmaments rising up atop it. Often I discover a little too late that where I’m winding up is not where I’ve begun.
My screenplays-in-progress are Winchester houses, with chutes and passageways and entire wings shooting off the side of the building. There are ways to avoid this, and these include: outlining, foresight and a strong sense of direction. Of these I have only the latter, and trust it implicitly, but never let it stay me from the rambling that’s become my process.
Here is how it happens: I sit down to compose a screenplay, one that I’ve been thinking about for almost exactly a year. It is in this case the tale of a little girl named Emma who writes a book. I’ll leave the description at that. The idea has stuck around long enough now; has proven its worth. It’s time to write it down. And so I begin. I begin in this case quite literally, with a character speaking about beginnings. This reads well, and sounds good, and is a fine start—but it is too obvious. Who cares? It’s staying in for now. Let’s move on.
A new character presents himself. He’s a publisher, an employment necessary for the plot to proceed as I’ve foreseen. I give him some dialogue, do what I can to give him some color. And in doing so I wonder: But what if, in addition to serving the plot in a professional capacity, he also becomes a de-facto father figure to the protagonist, who heretofore was not missing one but might be enriched by such an absence? Indeed, I was going to off the fellow later anyway, so I’d be getting a jump on things. I make a note in all caps right there in the body of the text: go back later and eradicate all instances of the father.
I digress. This character is a publisher, which must mean that he works at a publishing house. I know nothing of this world, outside of what I’ve seen in the movies. But first drafts are not the time for research. All I need is for this character to have an office in which he can do some busywork while talking to our main character–editing a manuscript, or some such thing. All the same, I wrack my brain for contextual clues and points of reference: giant printing presses with their black rollers and spinning turbines come to mind first—which is not what I need—followed by an image of freshly pressed pages hanging on clothes line to dry. This feels suddenly correct.
This image, I know almost instantly, is from the movie The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham’s novel. It depicts Leonard Woolf at work with his apprentice at the Hogarth Press, the imprint he founded with his wife Virginia and which published her work. I liked The Hours, the book, well enough. But Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors—one who, upon discovery, shook my sense of what literature could be and made me love it in a newly tangible and palpable and sinuous way, and her intrusion, however roundabout, upon this story sends a warm jolt of perspective backwards over what I’ve written and forwards over what’s yet to come. This vision of pages hanging like laundry, the sun shining through the paper’s fiber, itself besmirched by neat and miniature formations of black ink drying in the light—this has something to do with that charge. Perhaps unbeknownst to myself, I’d already been striving for that something, because from page one I’d named this character Leonard.
And so I dive into the black hole that is research. I ferret out all details of the Hogarth Press that I can find online. I order a copy of a memoir entitled A Boy At The Hogarth Press, by Woolf’s apprentice Richard Kennedy. I remind myself that I need to pick up Virginia’s collected journals and letters. I read about how the Woolfs first bought a small letterpress in 1917, and how their hands were made sore divvying the type into typecases. I imagine the type made of wood or pewter or some lesser material, and wonder what the typeface was. Virginia, I learn, had already been skilled in the art of bookbinding before printing became a new passion for her.
I picture her as a teenager, sitting beside a window with an awl and thread, the punch and the pull, binding folios and stitching them into manuscripts.
Here, now, in this instance, I have an inkling: I once researched bookbinding for another project; one long since finished and buried. Come to think of it, I had read up on printing presses for that same project, in which the hero carted a small press across a newly-formed America with the aim to publish poetry. How had I forgotten this? It explains the well-worn-wheelhouse sensation I felt as this new narrative began to drift in that old direction.
This always happens. Themes resurface; props indicative of some latent proclivity are ferried from one project to the next. Were my body of work more substantial, I’m sure it would have grounds to be called termitic. It isn’t substantial, partially due to the amount of time I spend in instances like these poring over antique letterpresses on eBay and considering the possibility of printing and binding books as a hobby of my own (and, if not that, then finding someone who’s already thus employed to make a short documentary about them). In the basement of a building in which I once worked, there was an old-fashioned printing company. I’d pass their churning press on the way to the elevator and imagine panning a camera obliquely across its cantilevered plates.
The press closed before I could ever film it. And I can’t afford to buy a printing press, nor would I likely find the time to operate it. My desire to do so is indicative of something else, some love of text in its most tactile forms. It’s in all of my work: letters, documents, things printed, the texture of paper, the blot of ink, pencil smudges, the folds of envelopes, and text again, on paper, emblazoned and pretend-permanent. This is something I learn that Virginia Woolf grew to love as her skill at the press increased; the way in which the words were printed on the paper, she found, could have as much impact as the words themselves.
She was a formalist, not just in terms of language, but also in the plastic potential of her chosen medium. Like all great formalists, she could push her form to new heights, stretching but never breaking the membrane that made it cogent. This is what I’ve been after in my own work, sometimes explicitly, often subtly, and always conscientiously. I don’t make movies to write novels. Which is another way of saying that, while the medium is not always my message, it’s an intrinsic part of it.
And where my medium has gotten me at this point is fifteen pages into a screenplay that is suddenly no longer just about a little girl named Emma who writes a book. Well, it is—but that vague coal of a concept stoked for a year has, with a few days of writing, turned into a conflagration that I’ve not quite managed to contain. It continues to burn.
I check myself. I make sure this is still the story I want to be telling. There are no clear indicators of this. It is a gut instinct, that aforementioned sense of direction. That and the fire (which will grow fainter as days go by, but won’t likely go out unless the project burns up first) should carry me forward, all the way to the end, at which point I’ll head back to the beginning and retrofit those struts and pylons of form and narrative to support whatever load they need to bear.
That ending will stay the same. Endings are the easy part, because you know them when you get there.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:41 PM
November 20, 2015
Sitting in a hotel room, reflecting on good times once had:
The good folks at the tail of that clip are a team of backpackers who spent six hours hiking to this peak, only to have their afternoon disrupted by the arrival of a film crew.
Featuring one of my favorite pieces of film music of all time, from Carter Burwell's score to Before Night Falls.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:51 AM
May 4, 2015
I'm writing this on an airplane back to the States, which is just about as sentimental a spot as you might ever find me. This comes after two days in Wellington in which we wandered about, ate at our favorite haunts, watched It Follows at the Paramount Theater and packed and repacked six months worth of stuff.
What happened after that last shot on Thursday was: the wrap party, which began almost as soon as we called cut. It went down at our unit base in Tapanui, which I think was a school or at least a school-like building. I never went to my high school prom, but I imagine it was something like this, full of purple lights and music and people sneaking off into the dark. I also skipped my high school graduation, and I think this might just as capably fill in for that non-memory: a celebration of something momentous having passed that no one who wasn't part of it will ever appreciate, with all the commensurate hugs and well-wishings and bittersweet partings that always mark such turned corners. The whole town of Tapanui was invited. In the school auditorium a few speeches were made, first by our wonderful producers Barrie Osborne and Jim Whitaker and then by me, as I fumbled my way through a thank you that couldn't come close to expressing how grateful I really was. To paraphrase a quote that’ll never cease to be applicable, I loved every damn minute with this crew.
We screened a gag reel that was unexpectedly hilarious, although it'll never be as funny to anyone else as it was to us. We also showed that scene that I'd mentioned a week or two ago, the one I was excited to show folks, and I think it had the desired effect. There was a slide-show of behind-the-scenes photos (set, bizarrely, to Air's Sexy Boy). I sat through it all three times and then got ready to leave, as the goodbyes were starting to stack up.
We walked down the street to the Yellow Diner, which was serving coffee and deserts to anyone who stopped in. A few folks were already there, including Barrie. Barrie is a great producer, and also a great storyteller; countless were the lunches and van rides in which he held us enthralled with stories from Apocalypse Now or Sorcerer or The Lord Of The Rings; now he's got one more to tell, and I'm honored to be a part of it. We were both heading back to Wellington before returning to the US, but he was stopping off in Sydney for the weekend for a family reunion and we'd miss each other. We hugged and said our farewells. He asked me what building I'd be editing in when I got back to the Disney lot. I told him and he grinned and said "I'll come find you!"
The next morning we did the best thing I could think of to celebrate wrapping: we went and jumped off the Kawarau Bridge, the birth place of bungee. It was as awesome as I'd hoped. Augustine loved it so much she went twice.
Then we drove to Invercargill and had Indian food with Brooke and Eric, and the first bit of post partum sadness started to hit. The following morning we flew back to Wellington, and that afternoon Augustine and I went on a three-hour hike up to Mr. Victoria in search of the locations we'd filmed at way back in Week 1. We found them, finally, and as expected it was as if we'd never been there. The only trace of our production I could find were these tiny traces of red pigment on a tree. A plot point, mostly faded away.
We’re three hours over the ocean now. Inherent Vice is playing on my little screen and we’re rolling through some heavy ups and downs. I’ve been looking forward to this hermetically sealed respite for a long time, except now I don’t feel like resting. I keep looking for little moments to make a big deal out of. Making movies is so weird! Half the time when you’re in the middle of it you think it’s the stupidest thing in the world (and I don’t mean that facetiously - you literally wonder why in the name of all that is holy anyone would want to do this) and then the moment it’s over you get all mushy. You’ve got this team of people working incredibly hard, together, under incredibly close circumstances - and then it all just stops, as it must, and everyone goes their own ways and that’s that. It’s tempting to try and swallow the sentimentality of it all, to look at it as a necessary step in the long process of trying to make something great; it’s just as easy to luxuriate in the same, to hang on tight to the feelings and hope they won’t diminish before you’re through with them. That tact is all your own; the other will one day be inclusive of everyone else, an everyone else that in full-circle fashion will include all those folks who at this moment you’re having a great deal of trouble getting used to not seeing at breakfast every morning. Moving from this step to the next gets a whole lot easier when I think about making this great for them.
What I said early on remained true: shooting this movie felt just as small and handcrafted as any I’ve ever I’ve ever made. It just went on for a whole lot longer. On indie movies you have to search for financing and on studio movies you have to manage notes from upstairs - both necessary travails which, once set aside, still leaves you sitting in the same pretty okay boat. There was an evening last month, after a particularly grueling week, when I was chatting with Jim about how much it felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants. “I used to think,” I told him, “that on a studio movie you wouldn’t have to worry about being rushed or not having enough time or not being able to get the things you need to make the movie work; but it’s starting to seem like those things have less to do with whether the movie is big or small and more like they're just part of making a movie.”
A momentary pause, and then…
I took a six mile run around the bay, boarded my plane and as of this moment I'm back in Texas, surrounded by cats who seem to actually remember me. Post-production starts in full force on the 18th. Time to catch up on some movies.
Posted by David Lowery at 12:55 AM
Day 74 of 70
April 30, 2015
We wrapped around 8 o'clock tonight, with a shot of two hands clasped tightly together. Endings are hard to get right, but I think we did pretty well.
Posted by David Lowery at 7:07 AM
Day 73 of 70
April 29, 2015
The weather is not going to let us wrap up without a fight. We were beset by arctic winds, sheets of horizontal precipitation, raindrops so big they felt like hail and other inclemency all day long, and by the end of the night I was consolidating coverage and block shooting in an attempt to get the actors and crew (and, selfishly, myself) out of the cold and the wet. I am currently in bed, trying to thaw out. I love cold weather, but even with thermals and heat packs and extra socks I wasn't ready for this.
We've been shooting splits the past two days. Splits are my favorite, as they match my internal clock almost perfectly. Early morning calls are always a struggle, whereas working until one or two in the morning feels like a normal day.
We wrapped a few more actors today. It seems like only yesterday that our magnificent trio of lumberjacks - Phil Grieves, Marcus Henderson and AJ Jackson - were singing amidst the redwoods, but tonight they drove off into the distance, never to be seen again. And Steve Barr, who played Deputy Pat Smalls, wielded his notebook for the final time. It's all coming to an end.
I am still freezing.
Posted by David Lowery at 8:04 AM
Day 72 of 70
April 28, 2015
Here is how I planned tonight's shoot:
Posted by David Lowery at 9:29 AM