New York Film Festival

Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - The Darkness Before the Dawn (Part 3)

Before continuing with this saga, I want to backtrack to explain the difficult beginnings of making my first feature, How To Be Louise, which was eventually invited to be in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance. To this workaholic, the astonishing fact is that it wasn’t effort but rather surrender which made it possible.

Lea Floden as Louise with (l. to r.) Michael Moneagle and William Zimmer

Lea Floden as Louise with (l. to r.) Michael Moneagle and William Zimmer

As a young artist in my twenties, I had a clarity that my life would be devoted to art.  I had no interest in being married and less than no interest in having children.  Anyone can see that children are a huge distraction not to mention expensive, noisy and so demanding that, unless you have a lot of help, you can forget about your own agenda.  Why would any woman with a dream shoot herself in the foot by having a baby, GOD FORBID more than one?  

And then I turned thirty.  Like a rogue wave, the biological desire to have children turned me upside down.  I decided to try to find a man.  And then one day, I surprised myself by flirting with a handsome guy who held the door for me as I walked into the wonderful artist-run restaurant that used to be on the corner of Prince and Wooster in Soho, FOOD.

Fast-forward to the year before we shot How To Be Louise, I was newlywed to Mr. Green, the man I’d met at FOOD.  Yes, I’d wanted this husband so I could have children with him but I dared to believe that if I could get my career going before having a baby, there would be enough money for help so that I could ‘have it all’: I could have a child and continue to pursue my dream of making indie films.

One May afternoon, en route to the post office to mail off a film to a film festival, Sara Driver and Jim Jarmusch crossed my path, their rolling luggage behind them.  They were headed to JFK to go to Cannes with Down By Law.  Not long after, I saw Spike Lee on the nightly news.  He was outside the theatre where his first feature She’s Gotta Have It was playing.  They were developing international reputations.  They were getting paid.  I decided that if I was ever going to turn filmmaking into a career and have children, I’d have to figure out how to make a feature.  

But I didn’t have any obvious source of funding much less the connections or the chutzpah to pitch: the budget for my feature would have to be on a shoestring.  My first two shorts had been inspired by What’s Up Tiger Lily and Rose Hobart: they were made by recutting rejected lab prints in the editing room where I worked.  I’d go back to that idea!  And I’d shoot some new material with an actor or two and intercut that to make sense of the found footage.  All I’d need was a few thousand dollars.

Louise Smells A Rat  (1982) was made by duplicating a few shots from  The Poppy Is Also a Flower  starring Senta Berger and Trevor Howard and intercutting them with newsreel footage and a shot from Phil Silvers'  Sergeant Bilko .  Original subtitles and music by Johnny Ventura made it into a different story.

Louise Smells A Rat (1982) was made by duplicating a few shots from The Poppy Is Also a Flower starring Senta Berger and Trevor Howard and intercutting them with newsreel footage and a shot from Phil Silvers' Sergeant Bilko.  Original subtitles and music by Johnny Ventura made it into a different story.

There was a particularly discouraging afternoon when I took my place in line among scores of others to present my proposal for a measly $300 grant.  I’d brought my own projector, assembled a 16mm sample reel from rejected lab prints and faced what felt like disparaging and hostile questions from this Brooklyn arts organization.  

Soon after, reading in bed on a Sunday night, tears started leaking from my eyes.  I’m not a person who cries easily, but the steepness of the cliff I was trying to scale and the difficulty of the challenge was suddenly clear.  “What is it, Annie?”  I answered Mr. Green with sobs and more and louder sobs, eventually losing all control.  “What am I supposed to do?  Give up this idea of making a feature?  Should I try to get a job at an advertising agency and make a lot of money?  Or have a bunch of kids?  I can’t take it anymore!  I’m getting bitter!  I’m stuck!”  Mr. Green put his arm around me and I cried myself to sleep, confused.  I felt broken.  

And that night I had a dream that changed my life.  I was in a low-ceilinged kitchen right out of the 1950’s.  There was a witch in the kitchen, her hair was wild and she was intense, pointing a long skinny arm and finger off into the distance.  She was forceful: “Don’t stop now!  You’re almost there!”

I woke the next morning with a new confidence.  Suddenly I could take the big and little steps to get going.  And that message from the witch carried me through the next four years it took to make this film.  

As I write this, I’m still scratching my head over the fact that the power came to me after a total breakdown and surrender.  It was only after letting go of all my self-discipline, strength, force, will and control that I had the clarity and felt the confidence to do the job.  That it was in allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the utterly corny and embarrassing fact of ’feelings’ is a lesson I’m still trying to learn today.  (to be continued)  

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Go Big or Go Bust: Day 119 (part 2 - making my first 16mm short)

(Cont'd)  I assumed that the problem was that assistant film editing work wasn't sufficiently engaging.  My solution was that I would learn to edit and become a film editor.

Jim Markovic, a whiz bang editor of trailers for Kung Fu movies, told me he'd seen ads in TV Guide for kits which teach film editing.  I could pay a hundred dollars for unedited takes of Hawaii-Five-O and learn to edit by cutting the takes together.  OR I could save the hundred dollars and practice making cuts on track fill (the rejected lab prints which editors use as filler on reels of sound track).  I opted for the latter and he gave me some from his supply.  Eventually he gave me twenty-four hours worth.  I was going to learn to be a film editor.

My bosses Hilary, Deb and Sarah gave me permission to work on this 'project' over the weekends using the Steenbeck (editing flatbed) in our room at Maysles.  With a grease pencil, I'd mark off any shot that grabbed me.  I took plenty of naps.  It’s exhausting to have no idea of what you’re doing. 

There were a couple of shots of an intelligent-looking and gorgeous young woman (Senta Berger) in a low-cut dress taking photographs.  She was at a nightclub with Trevor Howard and there was a flash attachment on her camera.  After hundreds of attempts at a professional-looking edit, the most smooth and believable cut I succeeded in making was (SHOT #1) Senta Berger taking a picture (cut to)  (SHOT #2) something that ‘she'd taken a picture of’.   Limited as my repertoire was, I went with it. 

Somewhere along the way, due to the incredibly great material in some documentary film in that pile of track fill, it became obvious that my editing exercise could itself become a film.  But it needed subtitles.  And it desperately needed a soundtrack.  

My neighbors on Mott Street played dominoes on card tables on the sidewalk outside my windows and they usually had a boom box playing Dominican music.  When I asked them who their favorite musician was, they all agreed on one man.  Johnny Ventura gave me unqualified permission to use one of his songs.  Unfortunately,  I’ve lost that piece of paper.  In our brief meeting in what felt like a converted garage on Tenth Avenue in the Fifties,  Johnny Ventura radiated some kind of true beauty and smiled the smile of a more evolved being.  He sat with crossed legs, the foot on top jiggling as fast as the rhythm in his fastest songs.  Someone from the record company translated for us.   

Subtitles were expensive but necessary.  Unfortunately, I miscalculated how long they should be on screen and they add an anxiety all their own.  

I named Senta Berger’s character “Louise” as she looked like an incredibly sexy librarian.  
Here’s the film (4:17):

Go Big or Go Bust: Day 118 (on making my first 16mm short film)

In the Fall of 1982, my first short 16mm film was invited to be in the New York Film Festival.  It had taken a year to make on nights and weekends and was, I later discovered, what they called an 'over the transom' submission. This is insider talk for a film which comes from out of the blue.  I was overjoyed. 

a still from my first 16mm film

a still from my first 16mm film

My parents came in from New Jersey for the Saturday night screening and my father didn't applaud so he could hear the audience's reaction.  WIthin hours of the screening, it was picked up for theatrical distribution by Don Krim's Kino International who then blew it up to 35mm.  Within the week, J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice: "... the shorts ...  by Anne Flournoy,  Ernie Gehr, Jean-Luc Godard ... represent roughly the same degree of seriousness and achievement as do the features."  Talk about 'go big or go bust'.  Hey, I figured, I'm on my way

But to start at the beginning, it was the year before, in the Fall of 1981, that circumstances pushed me to make this film.  I'd landed a plum Assistant Editing job on a documentary film with a kind, patient and seriously professional Editor, Sarah Stein.  The Producer Hilary Maddux and Director Deborah Boldt were equally kind and patient.  And I needed their patience because, unbeknownst to me, I was suffering from some kind of crazy allergic reaction to the coffee which was propelling me through the days, a reaction which looked for all the world like narcolepsy.  I couldn't keep my eyes open.  Our editing room at the Maysles' had a nice big couch and there was a communal coffee pot out in the main room where Bruce Sinofsky sat as a very young Office Manager.  I'd help myself to a cup of coffee, drink it as I looked for trims in the bin and then collapse on the couch.  I wasn't being lazy.  I literally couldn't keep my eyes open.  It was a miracle that they let me stay on, at union wages. 

One day when Deborah and Hilary arrived for a screening, I roused myself, determined to turn over a new leaf. I attacked the massive eight-plate editing flatbed with Windex and a dusting cloth only to hear them chuckling at my sudden burst of energy.  Beyond humiliated, I realized that the only person I was fooling was me.  (to be continued)