Sabbatical (Brandon Colvin, 2014)

April 21st, 2014

Paul here.

While I’ve been traveling for the first series of Something, Anything film festival screenings, I’ve caught up with a few films, though not nearly as many as I would like to have seen. Of all of them, I was inspired to write a few words about Brandon Colvin’s Sabbatical, which I saw in Wisconsin at its World Premiere.

I rarely make time to write out-and-out reviews, but I wanted to put my thoughts down on this one for three reasons: First, I’ve thought about a good deal in the three weeks since I’ve seen it. Second, it is a “difficult” film, and because of that I fear it will face some (unfair) challenges on the festival circuit. And third, I have seen few other people writing about the film. My words certainly aren’t going to convince a curator to program the film, but I believe the film merits a serious look and this is my way of sharing that.

xxx

Sabbatical (Brandon Colvin, 2014)

Brandon Colvin’s Sabbatical, which had its World Premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival, was described in the fest catalog as an “unapologetically rigorous work.” It does not fail to deliver on that promise.

The film’s story concerns Ben (Robert Longstreet), a religious studies professor who returns to care for his ailing mother. During his time back home he reconnects with people from his past — an estranged friend (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Sarah (Rhoda Griffis), a former lover. Describing the film in this way, however, is misleading because the film’s characters and dramatic arc are secondary to the film’s austere formalist concerns.

Sabbatical consists of some 60-odd shots over the course of its 72 minutes with most of the scenes existing as single, static long takes. (At least two of these last over 5 minutes.) In the entire film I can only recall two instances of camera movement. There are many, many shots (or “scenes” — as I said, there’s hardly any distinction between the two) in which we see characters only from behind. And the actors, truly performing in the mode of Bressonian models, speak in virtual monotone. Throughout, the film steadfastly denies us the things we typically expect to see or hear in more mainstream cinema.

While Bresson obviously looms large as an inspiration here, because of its single-shot-per-scene approach I was also reminded of Jon Jost’s work and, though it’s a bit of a stretch, even Hollis Frampton’s classic of structural filmmaking, [nostalgia]. Regardless of who one thinks of, audiences that have some cinematic references to draw upon will undoubtedly find themselves more engaged with the film than those who read a logline and expect to see a sensitive family drama. Within two or three scenes/shots you understand how Colvin will tell the tale, and I suspect at that point you’re either with it or you’re against it. The woman sitting next to me at the world premiere was, it’s probably fair to say, against it. Me? I was with it. (So, too, were the many people who stayed afterward for the Q&A.)

One can’t expect complete success with any film, and you certainly can’t with a film that feels like such an experiment for its creator and cast. There are a few moments one feels the actors struggling to perform in the same, flattened register, for instance. Sometimes, too, the images feel more mannered than rigorous. Still, in moments like the film’s final scene, or a scene where Ben discovers his mother is unconscious the starkness and purity of the film’s approach works in harmony with its themes of separation and loss. Best of all was what I consider the film’s centerpiece, an indelible scene of loneliness and tenderness between Ben and Sarah at a kitchen table. It’s a sequence that, three weeks after seeing it, continues to haunt me.

Beyond its literal reference to the main character’s break from work, Sabbatical‘s title has a deeper meaning. The origin of the word literally means “a ceasing”, and denial is at the heart of this film — the affection people deny to each other, the denial of death, and above all, perhaps, the denial of the typical pleasures of narrative cinema for something else. In Sabbatical Brandon Colvin challenges his viewers to look deeper, and I found the investment of time, of attention, rewarding.


Something, Anything – World Premieres

March 14th, 2014

Something, Anything
Ashley Maynor and I spent a lot of time — a lot of sweat, a lot of love, a lot of pain — making SOMETHING, ANYTHING. More than either of us have ever put into a movie. Years. Friends of ours have raised infants to preschoolers in the time it’s taken us to make this film. This film has been our baby.

Not surprisingly, as we finished the film we did a lot of thinking about where we would want to premiere it. We knew wanted it to be a festival with a lot of integrity, both in the films they select, and the way they treat their filmmakers. Path

So we asked a lot of filmmaker friends, and we researched. What festivals were taking risks on premiering and screening films that we admired in the last few years? (Films like The Unspeakable ActThis is Martin Bonner, and The Color Wheel, among many, many others.)

And two festivals kept coming up again and again: the Sarasota Film Festival and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

So we shared SOMETHING, ANYTHING with programmers Tom Hall (Sarasota) and Jim Healy (Wisconsin). And we crossed our fingers. These guys look at thousands of films a year. I don’t know how they do it, honestly. For the sections that we’d be eligible for, they maybe take a dozen films.

The fact that both of these programmers — who we admire so much, and whose festivals are beacons of daring programming — separately selected SOMETHING, ANYTHING for their respective festivals… well, to call it gratifying would be an understatement.

We’re calling our screenings at both Wisconsin and Sarasota our “World Premiere” — a co- or dual- World Premiere, if you will. The festivals happen over the same dates, and its a way for us to signify how honored we are to have all of our hard work — and the work of so many others — to be recognized by both festivals.

Thanks for following us on the journey so far.

Something, Anything


Advice to Young Filmmakers

January 15th, 2014

I recently received a request for some advice from a young filmmaker in Kansas City who’s conducting informal interviews with people in the industry. As I wrote my reply, I thought I’d publicly share her questions and my answers:

-What advice would you give to young filmmakers, fresh out of school, who are looking to start in the industry?

Don’t wait for permission—from funders, programmers, production companies, etc.—to make your movie. All the tools you need are within your reach. Great stories have been told with Fisher Price cameras. You can make a moving film with nothing more than clear film leader. It’s not about the camera. Or the actors. Or the budget.

Make something people want to watch. Try to tell uncommon stories. Don’t imitate other filmmakers—try to make something the world needs, a story only you can and must tell. As Rainer Maria Rilke told a young writer who looked to him for advice, if you don’t wake up in the middle of the night yearning to make your work, then you should probably consider another vocation.

-Is it difficult to build contacts/connections when you are just starting out?

If you have lots of money or went to a fancy film school, it might not be. But generally speaking, building a network requires a lot of work, a lot of sweat, and a lot of rejection. Ten years into the business, I feel I’m just now getting a foothold on a network of my own. It’s very possible, but roll up your sleeves.

-How do you begin to make connections?

Start in your own backyard—meet people with common geography, interests, ideas…Go to as many film festivals as you can afford. Meet other filmmakers who are doing work you respect and admire. Better yet, meet other artists—musicians, writers, visual artists, and so on. They can help to inspire you and, sometimes, help you with your film in a more direct way.

Be good, gracious, and kind to the people who find their way into your life. One of the best connections that has helped me to date was with my college study abroad advisor. I sent him postcards from all the countries I visited in college. Years later, he was repping a musician whose work I wanted to license for my first documentary.

Get a producer—they are excellent network builders. Consider following really great blogs. Try starting here or here or here. Read. A lot. The internet provides opportunities for learning and developing a network well beyond where you might live or be able to travel.

-How important/vital do you think these connections are in the industry?

Filmmaking is a collaborative venture, so by the very nature of the art and business, you need other people. Particularly, filmmakers rely on programmers to lend a stamp of legitimacy to their work and to get it in front of bigger audiences than one can get without them.  I believe the most influential network a filmmaker can have is among programmers and critics.

-What are some common mistakes you see young/new filmmakers making?

Derivative work. Work without soul. Pretty but vapid pictures. Unabashedly and unnecessarily violent films. Films that only make us more asleep, less in touch with the world and people and concerns around us.

Doing it for the money. If you’re in it for the money, there are much better, faster, and more reliable ways of getting rich. So don’t do it for the money. In fact, you’re probably going to need a day job.

I make films to wake people up, to change lives—that is where I set the bar for whether or not a film should be made.

-What are some of the most difficult challenges you face when working on a film?

Every film is a tiny miracle. It is harder to do than you will probably ever be able to explain to anyone who wasn’t there. We all have our war stories for every film we make. I think it’s actually better to not know what those challenges will be or just how damn hard it’s going to be, otherwise you might not do it. So, this is one area of life where naiveté is actually a blessing. Hang onto it for as long as you can.

I once heard Jonathan Demme say, it doesn’t matter if you’re 19 or 91, with each film you’re a first-time filmmaker. So, with each film, let yourself be a newborn.


Announcing our first feature: “Something, Anything”

June 11th, 2013

Among my friends and collaborators, I have something of a reputation for being tight-lipped about films that I’m actively working on. This is one of the reasons things sometimes get very, very quiet on this blog.

Though the path to completing and premiering it is still long, Ashley and I are happy to announce that our first feature, Something, Anything, is in post-production. In fact, the Independent Feature Project announced yesterday that Something, Anything has been selected as one of ten projects from around the country for IFP’s esteemed Narrative Lab.

You can read more about Something, Anything, the other projects, and the Lab in the official press release and the Filmmaker Magazine article. The projects are impressive and we’re honored to be in such good company.

Friends of ours have taken their first features (The New Year ParadeSt. Nick) through the Lab, and knowing how much they valued the Lab makes us especially excited to have this opportunity.

We’ll try to do a blog post or two about our experiences at the Lab. Stay tuned. Until then, here’s an image from the film — one of the last shots of the movie, but one of the first we filmed.

Something, Anything

 


Should I Get An MFA? : Pros & Cons from Someone Who Did

April 29th, 2013

I recently got a request from a filmmaker for advice on whether or not he should go back to school to get a master’s degree. As someone who did get an MFA and has both teaching and non-teaching work experience (that is, life making a living as a full-time maker) under my belt, I  thought I’d reply to the blog-o-sphere for others who are pondering the same decision:

I think the first question to ask yourself is this: why do you want a degree? If you just want to learn more about filmmaking or film studies, you could do yourself much better with a library card, a Netflix subscription, some free classes on iTunesU, and slaving away as a PA on a few productions. Better yet, take the amount you’d spend on tuition and spend that time in NYC and LA working–as a PA or in an agency mailroom–cultivating your network…or buy your own DSLR and make mistakes for free in your own proverbial backyard.

To my mind, there are two strong justifications to pursue a higher degree in Film:

1) It’s already paid for (i.e. you’ve gotten a fellowship or assistantship) and you can learn with the wonderful safety net that graduate school provides. (I do *not* recommend anyone go into debt more than the cost of an old, used car–no matter what the reputation of the school–for a film degree.)

2) It allows you to teach, which is a respectable way to support yourself as an artist, especially as someone who wants to make independent films, experimental work, or films with less-than-great commercial prospects.

If it’s the latter, then you must also consider that there are beaucoups of people out there who are unemployed holders of MFAs in film. Film teaching jobs are few and far between–just take a look at the listings on the Chronicle of Higher Education or the University Film and Video Association website to get sense of the scarcity. But, if you’re willing to live somewhere fairly off the grid (i.e. not in a big or even medium size city, relatively isolated from the industry and other filmmakers), then there are more positions that may have less competition. This can be a workable situation for the self-reliant or DIY type, especially if you make sure to travel several times a year to keep your inspiration levels up and industry ties strong. But, it can also be, well, depressing and frustrating. My requirements are that a job is too far off the grid if there’s not a post-production or equipment rental house within a 3-hour radius. For each person, that threshold is different.

More importantly, I think the best teachers are those who also make–people who are really doing it and have a lot to offer their students in terms of work experience, connections to your industry/field, and a real-world perspective. Anything less poses an ethical dilemma for me: if you can’t provide the above, why should students pay tuition to learn from you?

Another consideration for any would-be teacher is that teaching is more than a clock-in/clock-out commitment. While teaching, I more often than not put in above and beyond the 40 hours/week in terms of committee meetings, university and community service, advising, endless emails, etc., on top of my course teaching load. It’s work that follows you home, unlike, say, a kind of survival job where you can punch your time card. On the other hand, summers are free for making your own work and the flexible schedule is tough to beat!

Teaching at a research-oriented institution is the ideal job, as it carries the smallest teaching load and encourages (expects, actually!) a high degree of research productivity, which for you translates into filmmaking. And some of your best students may actually be people you want to have collaborate with you on your work. These full-time positions, however, are also the rarest and most competitive. It will be expected that you have made one or more films with a certain level of success (e.g. strong festival run, distribution, critical praise, etc.), have a positive reputation in the industry (e.g. demonstrated by awards, grants, professional organizations, or other acknowledgement), and previous teaching experience. Of course, there are all kinds of schools: liberal arts colleges, typically with a strong emphasis on teaching and student relationships; community colleges, who usually emphasis both teaching and community service; for-profit schools and film programs (which I don’t have any first-hand experience with); and part-time teaching positions.

Adjuncting is fairly common for new MFAs, but the pay is rarely great and usually does not carry any fringe benefits, such as health care. That said, I know many a freelance film producer and writer/director who use adjunct classes and part-time lecturing as a way to have some sort of stable income while spending the bulk of their time as makers.

It’s also worth saying that there are folks who do teach without an MFA. Guest lectureships, artist visits, workshops both at universities and community organizations often pay successful filmmakers to share their knowledge in short or long-term capacities. I’ve had a few of these gigs and they are usually a lot of fun but were never enough to sustain me in and of themselves. After a certain level of success, though, it’s not unheard of for a filmmaker to become a professor without an MFA at all…but we all can imagine those odds.

So, to sum up:

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Good Idea: 

  • Stable income without selling your soul.
  • Great schedule.
  • Intellectual and creative freedom for the kind of work you make without as much commercial pressure as full-time filmmaking or freelancing.
  • Helping shape the future of the industry.

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Not-So-Good Idea: 

  • Highly competitive, especially for desirable cities/schools.
  • Lots of responsibilities beyond teaching for full-time positions.
  • You need to be a maker before you become a teacher. And teaching will take time away from making.

If after all this, you want to take the back-to-school plunge, then I recommend you check out these previous posts from the blog. They will give you a good start on the advice we’d give about looking for a film program:

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part I 

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part II