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What I meant was…

how to communicate with the director during the design process?

“…judge by results, not intentions.” – Cicero

Directors, designers, help me out here. I have questions. First I’ll tell some stories.

1) I was cutting footsteps for a film where the main character is kept in the dark, off balance, isn’t sure what’s happening. I “walked” the character tentatively, avoiding heavy, deliberate, determined footfalls, thinking I was serving the character by doing so. The director looked at the scene.

“He sounds like he has really tiny feet.”

Somewhat defensively, I explained why I had cut the feet the way I did, talked about the character, the feel I was going for.

“Yeah. He sounds like he has really tiny feet.”

In retrospect he was right; I’d gotten a little carried away with the thematic approach and went too far. It was an experiment that didn’t work out. We went with heavier footsteps. More realism, less film-student thematics.

If I’d told the director in advance, “I cut the feet this way because blah blah,” would he—having my intention in mind as he watched—have been more likely to let the original, wrong footsteps stay in?

B) I was reading about the sound design for Watchmen, and how the film’s sound guys decided that they’d already mixed two big fight scenes in a row with huge up-front effects, and that for contrast and to give the film some dynamics, they’d favor the music for the third fight sequence, and turn the effects down. Director Zack Snyder saw the cut and his response was: where are the effects? The sound crew explained their intention, and Snyder’s response was, “well, we’ll just have to undo that.”

When I read that I first thought, well, there’s an example of a director not trusting or listening to his sound team, going for the obvious cliché choice to have big thwack-y punch sounds like every other fight sequence in every other action movie.

Then I started to wonder: what would have happened if the Watchmen sound team had set Snyder up for it in advance?

“Here, Zack, we thought we’d do something different in this sequence. We’ve gone ‘big-effects’ on the last 2 fights, why don’t we make this one a little more oh-I-dunno-balletic-or-abstract-or-whatever and favor the music in the mix instead?”

“Huh, interesting idea,” Snyder might say. “Lemme see it.” …roll the scene. Snyder watches.

Now, he can either say, “yeah, you know what? That works; let’s do it that way.” Or he can say, “No, I really wanted the big punch and kick sounds, bring the effects back in.”

Which way would things have gone?

iii) I’m about to start working on a short film where the two main characters fall in love over the course of the movie. I want to draw the audience’s focus tighter on the couple as the story progresses, partly by stripping away the ambient sound over the course of the film: as they get more into each other, the rest of the world falls away. Not in a Bergman-abrupt-dropoff way, not playing scenes with no ambience or diegetic effects, just subtly turning stuff down over time. But I envision playing that mix for the director and hearing “why is the fireplace not louder here?” Should I explain in advance what I intend to do? Will that bias his reaction to my choices in favor of them, when those choices may not be the right ones? Will playing the mix without any explanation cause him to over-react to those choices?

Part of this, of course, is: maybe if the sound designer is making big thematic design decisions, he should discuss them with the director before putting a bunch of time into developing them. In theatre design we talk much of this stuff out in pre-production meetings, and the tech process is such that you really can’t position the director as “first-time audience member” and surprise him/her the way you can with a film mix. But without making the director approve every one of hundreds if not thousands of individual effects…I mean, at a certain point in the process the director has to be able to trust you to go off and do your job for awhile, right?

Is it reasonable to assume that if a particular design choice takes the director out of the film, the audience will react the same way? Or is the director’s perception different because of the nature of the job?

So my questions:

Designers: how do you present your ideas? More specifically, when you have a design element prepared, and are ready to show it…do you set the director up for it or just hit play and see how s/he reacts?
Directors: how do you want design ideas presented to you? Do you want to know up-front what the intention and approach are, or do you want to see the moment as the audience will see it, with no preamble and no explanation? Are you perhaps never in the position to ever see anything as the audience will see it, since you are the director?

And of course, the flip side, the unnerving, insecure question: as the designer, am I prone to be more in favor of a design choice because I thought of it, and I know what my intention was? Will I fight for a bad idea simply because it is mine?

Chime in, please.

Ends and Odds

  • There’s a new car commercial on TV that features a song that I used in a design last year. I’m glad the timing worked out that way. When it works the other way, it’s a bad trip. One of the songs we recorded for The Diviners was a very cool old-timey version of the traditional folk song “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” I thought it was a fantastic performance by the band and fit the mood of the show pretty perfectly. Unfortunately, “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is the melody used in a certain series of television and radio ads, and after two days of tech where all the actors and designers walked around saying “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner” every time the cue played, we were forced to find another piece of music.
  • Promethean Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “Measure For Measure,” sound design and music arrangements by yers truly, closes next weekend. So if you’ve wanted to see it but haven’t yet…the clock is ticking.
  • I’m now hard at work on another Shakespeare show, “As You Like It” at Moraine Valley Community College. “As You Like It” opens July 30.
  • As much as I took issue with the music choices in “Watchmen” I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the use of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” in Star Trek.
  • Update of my post about Star Trek vs. Wolverine:

    According to AdAge, Wolverine is on track to pull in twice as much money in its opening weekend as Paramount’s Star Trek reboot.

    As it turns out: Wolverine edged out Trek in its opening weekend (Wolverine pulled in about $85 million, Trek about $75 milion). But as of May 24, Trek’s gross in the USA was $191 million, and Wolverine had taken in $165 million. And Wolvie had been out a week longer.

    So there you go. I loved the new Trek film and am glad my dire predictions were off base.

  • The ghosts are the least of your worries

    In the mid-90s, Blood and I were hired by a small production company to work on a music video for a thrash-metal band. The band was signed to a medium-sized label and enjoyed some success touring Europe and Japan. We were supposed to provide audio support for the shoot, meaning we would set up a small PA system and play back the band’s CD, and they would mime and lip-sync the song. Our friend Chris was hired to direct. Chris had gotten got the gig because he knew who Lucio Fulci was. The band were big Zombie fans, and that was the ‘look’ that they wanted their video to have.

    Being an occult-themed thrash metal act, the band wanted to shoot their video in a cemetery. Specifically, they wanted to shoot in the Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery near Midlothian, Illinois. This cemetery is supposedly very haunted, and is featured in many of the “Haunted Chicago”-type books you find in the local interest section at Border’s.

    Our line producer described it as “an active cemetery.” What does that mean, I asked—they’re still burying people there?

    “No, the last burial was around 1989. ‘Active’ means there are still people buried there.”

    So, “active cemetery” as opposed to “field,” I guess.

    Bachelors Grove Cemetery

    Bachelor's Grove Cemetery

    Tucked back in a forest preserve, Bachelor’s Grove has become a popular destination for vandals, and authorities have reported finding evidence of black-magic rituals taking place there. There are also reports of ghosts, strange lights, and a phantom farmhouse that appears and disappears.

    On the day of the shoot, I knew none of this stuff. For all I knew we were headed out to shoot in one of those modern, manicured, golf-course-looking cemeteries you see in funeral scenes in movies like Watchmen with “Sounds of Silence” playing in the background. We had asked if the producers had secured permission to shoot at the location. We were assured that all the necessary permits had been taken care of.

    That wasn’t entirely true. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Our first stop of the day was at the band’s rehearsal space, a converted warehouse on Chicago’s west side. This building was like most dedicated band rehearsal facilities in the 1990s, each floor divided into 10×10 rooms with thin walls and lots of black paint, inhabited by thirty or so bands playing as loud as they could to drown out the band in the next space. The walls of this band’s space were plastered with posters of metal bands and photos from hardcore porn magazines. The drumset was perched atop an eight-foot wooden riser, leaving almost no space between the cymbals and the ceiling. The room smelled vaguely of stale beer, cigarettes and pot. The band members were already in full video shoot regalia—leather, chains, studded wristbands. A short guy with a shaved head introduced himself as “Jeff Deth” and said he was going to be doing lights. We helped the band load their gear into their van and headed out to the location.

    This is about where we set up the band

    This is about where we set up the band

    Bachelor’s Grove is a monumentally creepy place. The headstones have been tipped over and dragged around by vandals for forty years, the grass and weeds are chaotically overgrown. It’s easy to understand why a band whose music is occult-related would want to use it as a setting for a video. It’d be a great location for a horror film too.

    Not that I’m suggesting anyone try to shoot one there.

    Because it’s hidden back inside a forest preserve, there’s no accessible road to the cemetery. So we had to park out by the main road and carry the gear in, probably a half-mile to the cemetery. Hiking in, Jeff Deth told us about his dream project: to make a scat porn movie starring real supermodels. He made us swear to not steal the idea. We agreed, wondering what galaxy this guy inhabited wherein someone might rip off that particular setup. It’s really altogether too disgusting and degrading to go into further detail, so his concept remains safe (though I’ve found a more detailed description on someone else’s blog; apparently we’re not the only people to whom Jeff pitched his film).

    The path to Bachelors Grove Cemetery

    The path to Bachelor's Grove Cemetery

    Blood and I had a couple of speakers, a mixer, an amp and a small generator to power it all. We had also been asked to bring any cool props we might have lying around…and by “cool props” the band meant “guns.” So, I had three plastic replica guns in my duffel bag as well. Specifically I had a black water pistol that looked like a Colt 1911 .45 caliber pistol, a cap gun that resembled a Walther PPK, and something that looked vaguely like a Scorpion submachine gun. Additionally, Blood was also going to do makeup and effects. He had a bunch of Zombie green makeup, latex scars and bullet holes, fake blood and even a fake arm with him. Who he was going to apply this makeup to was never very clearly defined by the band. It’s possible they originally planned for groupies to be there to be the Zombs, but on shoot day there was nobody.

    The band set up their gear amidst the scattered headstones and once we got the PA system sorted out, the director called for us to do a take. The music blared, the band gyrated, banged their heads and otherwise commenced looking badass…and out of the corner of my eye I saw two men in brown uniforms standing at the edge of the cemetery looking at us.

    Police officers.

    I got Chris’ attention, and he cut the take. The police approached us. Blood indicated that the director was the guy to talk to, and we hung back. Blood told me later his first thought was, please guys, tell me you left all that pot at the rehearsal space.

    “What’re you guys doing?”

    “We’re filming a music video.”

    “You know you’re not allowed to be back here. This place is not open to the public.”

    “The band told me they’d gotten permission to shoot here.”

    Waitaminit, I thought—the BAND? And the producer didn’t double check? Oh geez.

    Needless to say, no one was able to produce a permit or any other sort of documentation proving that we had permission.

    “Come on, fellas. No one’s gonna give you permission to shoot in a cemetery. Pack up all this stuff and get going.”

    So we started packing up the gear. At one point, I was wrapping cables with my duffel bag open next to me. One cop looked down and saw the prop firearms.

    “Hey, are those real guns?”

    He was looking at what appeared to be two handguns and a submachine gun, sitting in my bag atop a bunch of audio cables. I’m pretty sure his hand was on his own firearm. Not looking up, and especially not making a move toward the bag I said slowly, “No, sir, those are fakes. Feel free to take a look at them.” He didn’t. Though a few minutes later as I was farther away packing the generator I saw that Chris, or maybe Jeff Deth, had taken the guns out to show them to the cop. Okay, maybe he was just curious, but I still stand by my decision to not risk getting shot by a police officer for grabbing a fake gun while being kicked out of a graveyard for inadvertently trespassing. I’m sure that’d at least earn me 100 years in purgatory just for being stupid.

    Under the no-doubt-bemused but nonetheless stern glare of the police we hoofed all the gear back out the half-mile to the vans. The band assured Chris they’d get in touch when they’d actually gotten another location lined up—properly this time. None of us ever heard from them again. And I don’t think Jeff Deth ever made his movie.

    Images of Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery are from and are linked courtesy of Matt Hucke. Thank you, Matt!

    All Along the Watchmentower

    This is not a review of Watchmen. I had a fine time with the movie, and the subject of whether justice was done to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “unfilmable” graphic novel is being discussed at length just about everywhere else.

    The thing that drove me crazy, though, was the use of music in the movie.

    It’s not that “Watchmen” director Zack Snyder (or his music supervisor) picked bad songs to underscore certain scenes in the movie. It’s more that those choices hit the screen with the obviousness of a jackboot to the face. Not wrong choices, but easy choices. Lazy choices.

    Warning: Possible Spoilers!

    –Costumed Hero History montage: “The Times They Are A Changin’.” Yes, they are, we see that. Check.

    –The Comedian’s Funeral? “Sounds of Silence.” hello darkness my old friend…yeah, a sad song from the sixties that’s associated with death. Check. (Side note: I betcha the Comedian wasn’t a Simon and Garfunkel fan)

    –Ozymandias? “Everybody Wants to Rule The World.” Um, check.

    –Long shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl trudging through the snow to confront the bad guy in his lair? two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl… Hendrix’ “All Along the Watchtower,” hey wow, the lyric tells us what’s happening on screen…check.

    To a certain extent it’s what we call “See and Say,” where the music so directly reflects what’s on screen it’s painful. Sort of like the “Literal versions” of 80’s music videos that are floating around.

    One wonders why Snyder didn’t go all the way and stick “Bad To The Bone” under Rorschach’s entrance.

    Now of course, as the astute reader will point out, “All Along the Watchtower” is used in the graphic novel, over the same sequence. Is it possible that in its lyric-only form in the book, stripped of the familiar Hendrix lead guitar and vocal, the reference is considerably less cringe-inducing (more of a hint than a bombardment, as a friend of mine put it)? Or is this just a lazy choice we can pin on Moore and Gibbons rather than Snyder?

    (Though I will admit that, despite my dislike of the song placement, I thought that matching the guitar gliss in the middle of the solo with Archimedes cresting the cliff was a pretty genius move.)

    Here’s another thought about the music. From a certain point of view, many of those songs should not have existed. Snyder seems to want to evoke an era by using music from that era, but that’s not what he ends up doing. Instead, he evokes an era in one universe by using music from the same calendar years in another universe. It’s shorthand for the audience but it’s slightly dishonest.

    The world of Watchmen diverges substantially from our world when the costumed heroes appear, and then becomes almost completely unrecognizable when Dr. Manhattan shows up, and everything in the art direction and dialog reflects that. And the pop music of the 60s, 70s, 80s would too. With a different situation in Viet Nam and a totally different government response to domestic protests, rock would not have been what it was. Look at the scene where the hippy girl puts the flower in the National Guardsman’s rifle…and then he blows her away. Fantastic scene, very powerfully evocative, but do you think in a world where that happens CSNY would have written “Ohio?” Probably not, because if that was the response to protests in 1967 (the Washington Star photo that inspired this sequence was taken on October 21, 1967 at a protest march on the Pentagon), protests would be all done with by 1970, when the Kent State shootings happened. Also, dissident musicians may well have been rounded up and imprisoned in that world. So extrapolate from that, CSNY goes away, Creedence never writes “Fortunate Son,” they lock up or disappear Lennon, the Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Country Joe and the Fish, and on and on, eradicating a healthy chunk of late 60s/early 70s music. And all the people those bands inspired…by the mid-80s you can bet “99 Luftbalons” or Tears For Fears wouldn’t be anywhere to be found; popular music in the world of Watchmen would be substantially different. So, many of the music choices violate the logic of the world that’s been created.

    We talk about this in film and theatre: creating a believable world. Once you’ve created an alternate world or timeline, you shouldn’t break the rules of that world or timeline by introducing things that didn’t happen there. It breaks the contract you’ve made with your audience.

    Or does it? Where’s the line between being bound to the logic of a created universe and giving the audience a signifier by which they can readily identify a setting, regardless of whether that signifier makes sense in context?

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