Berlin Film Festival

Go Big or Go Bust: on Steve McQueen. And Me. And The Power of Less.

I have to interrupt this story of making my first 16mm feature (for under $80,000), of traveling with it to the competition at Sundance and to Berlin and thinking that I would then sit back and preside over a bidding war between hot indie distributors.  Please check back for that on Friday.  Today I’m burning to tell you what's going on right this minute.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been practicing a new form of meditation.  Inspired by The Power of Less a book which my friend and collaborator Victoria Trestrail sent (written by the same guy who has the wildly popular blog Zen Habits) I’ve been doing an eating meditation.  Instead of my bad old ways of eating at my desk and chewing as I continue to work, I’ve been sitting at tables with and without other people and keeping the focus on the moment.  I love to eat.  I never make time to meditate.  This is a win win situation.  I’ve been surprised at my ability to stick with this.  It feels like the foundation of a new way of living and I’ve been feeling a calm and a focus and a peace I’ve rarely known … until a few days ago.  Suddenly, I’m eating at my desk again.  I run up and down to the basement throwing in loads of laundry as I chew and then back to the computer.  “I have to!  I’ve got to get this finished!”   And I don’t seem to be able to get my inner bull back into its pen.  

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 15.55.22.png

A few weeks ago, Mr. Green was watching the Saturday night movie on our local PBS station, Channel 13.  He’d missed the opening credits and wasn’t sure what he was watching.  The star looked sort of like Paul Newman, sort of like Steve McQueen but wasn’t as handsome as either of them.  I never sit down to watch television for fear of losing a day but soon found myself sitting next to Mr. Green on the couch.  Even though this star was not all that handsome, he was compellingly, quietly and naturally so intense that I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  

Eventually it became clear that this actor was indeed Steve McQueen.  And later we discovered that it was Steve McQueen in Bullitt.  

I wanted to see the beginning (and it isn’t streaming on Netflix) so headed over to the public library to check out the dvd along with two biographies of Steve McQueen for good measure.  Who was this guy? And how had he learned to channel this intensity, this incredibly rich inner life.  He seems like a genius.  I figured he probably went to Harvard.

Well from the little I read of one of the biographies, I think old Steve was a middle school drop- out.  He may have had the worst childhood of anyone ever.  Abandoned, neglected and abused, he lived with his mother who worked as a prostitute out of the bedroom they shared in Indianapolis, surrounded by the rail yards, open sewers and … hog pens?  The author of the biography was definitely making the case that the source of the rage that powered him and his performances was his childhood.  

Long before fast food, he was known as ‘Big Mac’ because of his larger than life appetite for life and his habit of hoovering down food like an animal.  He’d tear through a meal with a cheeseburger in one hand and a piece of pie in the other.  Shooting a scene with him, Karl Malden (who had famously worked with Brando) was quoted as saying that McQueen scared the daylights out of him, springing at and attacking like an animal.

I think seeing Bullitt and reading about Steve McQueen put me in touch with my own raging, impatient inner animal, an energy which is generally channeled into maniac workaholism.  The frustration of being an artist under the radar makes me mainline work like a crack addict.  NOW

I just wolfed down a bowl of lentil soup as I typed.  More about all this soon.  

 

Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Codependency from Japan to San Francisco (Part 8)

With both Sundance and now Berlin behind me and no big distribution deal in the works, I felt the emotional equivalent of having the tendons behind my knees cut.  There was nothing to do but to accept my situation.  Hey we weren't going to sell off the rights to just anybody. 

I flew from Berlin to Brooklyn to meet Frank and Mr. Green and we headed back for two more months in the suburbs of Osaka, Mr. Green to finish out his guest professorship, me to my exile with Frank. 

Frank learning to walk

Frank learning to walk

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t love Japan.  Visually, gastronomically and culturally, it's one of my favorite places.  The cleanliness alone makes me feel more relaxed and safe than almost anywhere I’ve ever been.  It was the combination of not speaking the language, being in a suburb without a friend and this active one-year old for my constant companion which made the experience a little like being exiled to Mars.

I settled in for the duration, resigned to the fact that my film just might not get distributed.  And I set right to work on a revenge action plan: whenever Frank went to sleep I would work on the script for my second feature.  It would be a comedy about the incredible loneliness of marriage and motherhood, the dashed expectations of my highest hopes and dreams. But this next film would not be made on a shoestring.  At the very least, I’d need a budget for a babysitter, and anyway, to insure distribution, we’d need a star - so we’d have a budget of millions.  When it opened to rave reviews, everyone would be clamoring for my first feature, How To Be Louise.  I’d show them

We toured a little around Japan.

With students of  Kagoshima University  on a boat in front of Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  The towns on either side of the volcano share ash-removal equipment depending on where the prevailing wind is depositing the ash.

With students of Kagoshima University on a boat in front of Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  The towns on either side of the volcano share ash-removal equipment depending on where the prevailing wind is depositing the ash.

In April, we headed back to the States.  The first stop was the San Francisco International Film Festival.

My to die for papier maché earrings were made by an artist in Berlin. 

My to die for papier maché earrings were made by an artist in Berlin. 

I’d been reading about David Lynch’s new hit television show Twin Peaks which hadn’t been available in Japan. We watched an episode in our hotel room, aptly named I thought, the Queen Anne Hotel.  I scoured the San Francisco phone book to see if there were any Flournoys.  It was fun to be back in the US.  

The festival gave an elegant lunch for the indie filmmakers where I met Wayne Wang, whose Chan Is Missing had been a huge inspiration.  Peter Scarlet, the Director of the festival, told me that HTBL had a very high audience rating (I think he said it was the second most popular!!) and that a radio station wanted to interview me.  It was all happening so effortlessly. Things were looking up!  

I’d never done a live interview but figured I’d be all right as I love to talk if I know the subject matter which, in this case, I certainly did.  Mr. Green and Frank and I went over to the radio station in Berkeley. 

Halfway into the interview, the radio show host managed to render me speechless: “You know, I was watching a screener of your film with my girlfriend the other night and she remarked: “This is actually a portrait of codependency!” Panic engulfed me.  Codependency?  I wanted to change the subject immediately but, overwhelmed by fear and then suddenly by anger, was afraid to open my mouth.  And well I didn't:  A portrait of codependency?  My film is a comedy!  You make it sound like a mental health tract!  And why is your girlfriend even qualified to comment?  You know you're probably turning away potential viewers!  ARE YOU SAYING I HAVE ISSUES?

I have no idea what I did say out loud (if anything) after his 'observation'.  

So as we walked away from the radio station, I asked Mr. Green how it went.  He winced.  And then his face froze in the wince:  “Well…”  He made that little twisting motion with his hand like he was unscrewing a candle flame light bulb sticking down from the ceiling.  I'm not exactly sure what he was saying.  And come to think of it, I still don't really want to know.

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Surprises at The Berlin Film Festival (Part 7)

Having a projector bulb burst five minutes into the screening of your first feature film and watching a very influential person get up and leave the room should be high on any filmmaker’s list of Things To Avoid.  I tried to put the recurring image of Richard Pena, Director of The New York Film Festival, out of my mind.  But there he was, in instant replay in my head, over and over, and over, rising from his seat and heading for the exit. Fortunately, we had our big screening still ahead of us, in the Panorama section of The Berlin International Film Festival aka Berlinale.

Official Trailer (2:07)

I’d seen How To Be Louise so many times, I did not need to watch it again.  But the chance to see it anonymously, surrounded by hundreds of film lovers, was too tempting an opportunity to miss.  What if they didn’t get it?  What if they booed?  What if, God forbid, they walked out?  Heck, I'd already weathered that.  It would be instructive.  It would be a once in a lifetime experience.  And it would be important to know if and when they didn't 'get it'.

To my joy (and great relief) none of my dark fantasies came to pass.  They LOVED it.  They laughed everywhere I hoped they would and then some.  Their applause over the final credits sounded like thunder.  I was beaming.  My face hurt from smiling.  The Berlin Festival crowd got our film.  I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Green.  

After spending a good thirty minutes mastering the basics of German pay phones, I rushed to call him with about three pounds of Deutsche Marks.

On the fourth ring he answered: “Oh Annie.  I’m so glad you called.  Where are the long pants?  For Frank.  I can’t find any clean long pants.”   The demands of life with the one-year old I’d left him to take care of were much more pressing than my news and I think Mr. Green listened to only part of my recap before he cut me off with a quick congratulations, signing off to get back to his charge.

Frank, age one

Frank, age one

Berlin

Berlin

I headed for the airport with invitations to more film festivals but again without a distribution deal.  But I left Berlin having connected with a lot more filmmakers.  And the more peers I met, the more I realized that my plan and vision were extremely naive.  Here I figured, I’ve done my part, I made the film.  Come and get it.  A lot of these other filmmakers were taking a different attitude.  They were planning on spending a year on the festival circuit.  My idea of hitting two or three festivals and finding a distributor started to seem laughable.

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - The Berlin Film Festival (Part 6)

After having the ‘World Premiere’ of How To Be Louise at the Sundance Festival (trailer below), I flew from Salt Lake City to Newark to pick up one year-old Frank at my parents in New Jersey. 

(2:07) trailer for How To Be Louise starring Lea Floden as Louise and Bruce McCarty

On arriving at my parents, guess who didn’t recognize me?  Guess who wouldn’t even look at me?  Choking back tears, I wallowed in heartbreak until my mother suggested that I pull myself together.  

Frank and I headed back to Brooklyn to join Mr. Green who had arrived from Japan to meet with students in his lab and to take over with Frank.  Having schooled Mr. Green on what he needed to know, I set off for our European Premiere.  (Premieres are a very big deal in the world of film festivals.)

Having never been to Berlin, I didn’t know what to expect but my hopes were high from what I knew from Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Marlene Dietrich, the Bauhaus and Max Beckmann.  I was not disappointed.

The Departure by Max Beckmann

The Departure by Max Beckmann

In spite of it being a bitterly cold February with the usual icy streets and sidewalks, the mood of the city was jubilant: the Berlin Wall had come down just two months earlier. Lea Floden and I stayed in a small hotel and had schedules packed from morning til night. We went to a festival party in a high-ceilinged room hardly bigger than an over-sized living room.  The draw was neither movie stars or film producers, but rather the Soviet Army marching band in full uniform. They played Swing Era music with lots of brass and I can't find the words to describe how explosive, how loud and incredibly exciting it was.  It was like the music was coming from inside my body.

And then there was Berlin. On one of my forays into the streets around the festival, I came upon a pharmacist who seemed to be trapped in the 14th century. The pharmacy had large windows through which I could see that it was a jewel box of exquisitely functional wood work - shelves, drawers, cabinets and mirrors. But it was the pharmacist himself who made my jaw drop.  He wore a perfect white lab coat and his white hair was cut in an impeccable Prince Valiant bob with a page boy curl.  This vision eventually inspired Everett Quinton’s character Ethelred’s hair in Season 3 of The Louise Log.  

Everett Quinton in the Prince Valiant wig - (We didn't have the budget for the curl of a pageboy.)

Everett Quinton in the Prince Valiant wig - (We didn't have the budget for the curl of a pageboy.)

Lea and I met up with some other filmmakers who were taking a trip over into what had been behind the Iron Curtain ninety days earlier.  The drab and barren-looking architecture and the looks on the faces of the people in East Berlin were in striking contrast with the opulent and free feeling of the western part of the city.  In the guarded way the East Berliners looked around (or didn’t look around} while sitting on a bus or walking past us on the street, it was clear that decades of a repressive regime had affected them.  

I spent most of my time in Berlin at the festival, walking in one direction or the other of a very long hallway in the building which housed The Market.  It was easy to meet new people and find old friends.  Our friend and long-time champion Lynda Hansen who organized American Independents in Berlin was there and we met Josef Wutz, a producer and actor and many others I've lost touch with. 

Like everyone, we had a few screenings set up at The Market.  As you might expect, The Market is where the business happens in modest screening rooms for small groups of people in the industry.  A very nice bonus of Market screenings was the Sign-In List which was handed to the filmmaker after the audience had been seated.  I was thrilled to see that a number of film festival directors were at our first screening, including Richard Pena of the New York Film Festival.  My first short had screened at New York before he was the director and I held my breath imagining that my first feature might be invited too.

Less than ten minutes into the screening, the bulb in the projector burst.  Eventually the lights came up.  Some time later, a technician poked his head in and asked for our patience in several languages.  There was complete silence in the room.  I was in the back row chewing off my nails.  After a few more minutes, Richard Pena got up and left. 

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - It's the Tiny Little Actions (Part 4)

So I’ve dropped all semblance of an attempt to wrest control of the direction of this story and am going with the flow.  

It was the end of February of 1987 when we finished shooting the second half of How To Be Louise.  To my eye, the dailies were stunning.  The performances by Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty were beyond my wildest dreams.  The performances by the circle of friends they’d cast in the other roles were equally top-notch, friends like theatrical legends Maggie Burke and Lisa Emery, Mary Carol Johnson, Hollywood and tv regular Josh Pais, and Michael Patrick King (who went on to write, produce and direct Sex and the City, The Comeback and more). 

Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty in the scene about which  The   New York Post  said: "This is very sexy."

Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty in the scene about which The New York Post said: "This is very sexy."

Lisa Emery, Josh Pais and Steve Simpson

Lisa Emery, Josh Pais and Steve Simpson

Josh Pais (dancing with himself in the mirror), Mary Carol Johnson and Lea Floden

Josh Pais (dancing with himself in the mirror), Mary Carol Johnson and Lea Floden

Michael Patrick King and Alice Spivak on the steps of the WIlliamsburgh Savings Bank on Broadway near Peter Luger's

Michael Patrick King and Alice Spivak on the steps of the WIlliamsburgh Savings Bank on Broadway near Peter Luger's

Maggie Burke

Maggie Burke

Our Director of Photography Vladimir Tukan had shot footage which itself had a power and beauty independent of the story.  Yes it was 16mm, but it was luminously rich black and white: Vladimir had studied cinematography in the classic old school tradition in Russia. He was passionately committed to this film, so much so that there were more than a few unforgettable moments when I had to put my foot down about the complexity of the camera moves.  In pre-production, we’d watched Bunuel’s Viridiana and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz specifically for the long moving shots.  Vladimir was going to the mat to give me what I wanted, so much so that I once had to pull out all the stops and use tears to get him to agree to a simpler shot.

Along with the job he did shooting HTBL and Nadja Yet, I'll always be grateful to Vladimir for a life lesson he taught me as one artist to another.  Sometimes, in the heat of the moment of blocking and framing a shot, I'd lose my confidence and dismiss what I'd sketched out in a storyboard.  Vladimir would turn to me with the full force of his considerable personality:  "No!  Ehnn!"  (That's a phonetic spelling of my name with Vladimir's accent.) "Don't deesmiss your idea.  That comes from unconscious.  That's very valuable.  Let's see if we can do it."

Vladimir is on the left in profile. 

Vladimir is on the left in profile. 

And we did.  And when we finished, it looked so good.  I realized that we weren’t just going to be able to have a babysitter, we’d be on Fifth Avenue with a nanny.  I got pregnant within the month.

While Walis Johnson assembled a rough cut, I wrote every person and grant organization I could get to, asking for money for post-production.  

Flash-forward three months: the production had run aground, out of money.  I painted the apartment and sewed curtains for every window in it.  Our downstairs neighbor Charles came up and commented to Mr. Green that I’d turned the place into a womb.  

One day, getting thick around the middle and out of breath trying to do a little yoga stretch, the full reality hit me: I’ve really done it this time, seriously shot myself in the foot.  I was exhausted and couldn’t even touch my toes.  How was I ever going to finish this film?  A voice in my head I didn’t know answered: “You’re on the right track.”  

And so I went back to taking the tiny little actions I could.  We got a very nice grant from The Jerome FoundationAmy Taubin wrote a profile piece for the Village Voice which a young man in Rockford, Illinois read and then sent us $5000.  And we got other donations including a big one from someone who seemed so cheap that I’d thought twice about wasting a postage stamp on him.  

We screened at what was then called the Independent Feature Project (IFP) in New York in October.  Ulrich Gregor of the Forum at the Berlin Film Festival ran at me after the screening:  “Are you the filmmaker?  I LOVE this film!”  A well-connected entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles told me to call him.  Jim Stark who had produced my favorite indie film Stranger Than Paradise stopped in to one of the screenings and gave a thumbs up:  “You’ve got something there.”  This was happening.

The sardonic and sometimes dark Philip Johnston started composing a score with his band The Happy New Yorkers and Kathleen Killeen worked on locking the picture.    

Ten weeks later, Frank Thurston Green was born.  Someone told me about a documentary filmmaker who gave birth to her first child on Sunday and went back to work on Monday.  The story made me wonder about both my commitment to film and her sanity.  My picture wasn’t locked, the sound was still to be edited, the score had to be recorded and laid in and I didn’t give a damn about any of it.  I was out of my mind with hormones and sleeplessness and falling madly in love with this chubby little baby.  

The next thing I remember was feeling irritated that my attempt to lay in the music (as if it were wall-to-wall carpet) had ruined the film.  Fortunately Mr. Green has a deep intuitive connection to storytelling and somehow knew how to cut in the score so it would amplify instead of flattening out the story.    

Soon after, we scheduled a sound mix with Dominick Tavella at Sound One.  As an assistant film editor, I’d been to many sound mixes, dreaming of the day when I’d be the director working with the mixer.  But as my passion for this baby was growing, so was my irritation at any distraction that could take me away from him.  Self-discipline pure and simple got me on the M train to the F train to midtown and the mix.  And then there was what I thought was ‘the last step’ of my job: submitting to film festivals.  Sundance and Berlin were at the top of our list.  

In the meantime, Mr. Green had been invited to spend six months as a guest professor at Osaka University in Japan.  Of course we would go with him.  But what if the film got into festivals?  Mr. Green and I agreed that we’d “work it out.”

Ulrich Gregor from Berlin’s Forum, who had professed love for our rough cut the year before, was the first to respond.  In a dagger to my heart, he let us know (by telegram, I think) that he wasn’t excited about the final film and had passed on it.  I was packing suitcases and chasing Frank, now an energetic nine-month old, as he crawled around the apartment terrorizing the cat.  Still there was no word from Sundance.  This was 1989, before email and cell phones and I was frantic that, off in a suburb of Osaka, I might never get word from Sundance or any of the other festivals we'd submitted to. 

The night before we left for Japan, I got the phone call from Sundance that they wanted How To Be Louise for the Dramatic Competition.  Soon after, Manfred Salzgeber, curator of the Berlin Festival’s Panorama, sent similarly good news.  

(to be continued)

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